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Spy Game

As I mentioned, last night, I was sitting with friends who want to play a spy game. They dig spies. I mean they really dig spies. I've listened to them trying to "fix" d20 ("polishing a turd" is what I say) and how they've even resorted to pulling out old editions of Top Secret to get their James Bond/Jason Bourne fix.

"Boys," I finally said, standing up from my computer, "what you need to do is design your own game. Until you do that, you're just tweaking something you don't like."

"That's too much work," they told me.

"Bullshit," I told them. "Here, let's make a Spy Game."

I did it in ten minutes.


Areas of Expertise
First, we have stats. When talking to my buddies, they all said the same thing: "I wanna be Jason Bourne. I wanna be James Bond." Well, those guys have top scores in every friggin' stat. If we were playing d20, there's no way Jason Friggin Bourne has got anything less than an 18 in every stat. In fact, he's probably got twenties.

So, instead of having a system that punishes players for their choices, I decided to have a system that rewards players for their choices. Also, if you want to be Jason Bourne, you can be. You just have to work a little harder in areas that aren't your expertise.

So, instead of stats, we've got AOEs: Areas of Expertise.

This is the guy who kills to get what he needs.

This is the guy who organizes other people to get what he needs.

This is the guy who lies to get what he needs.

This is the guy who uses technology to get what he needs.

This is the guy who stays in the dark and steals what he needs.

Each agent has a 1 in each of these Areas of Expertise. He then gets ten points to allocate. Here's the trick: getting the first dot is REALLY EXPENSIVE. Getting more dots is cheaper. This means it's easy to specialize in one AOE, but it's really hard to be good at everything.

Now, we're going to talk about how you use your Expertise in a second. But first, let's talk about Planning.

My favorite part of any spy novel or heist movie is the planning. So, how do you use planning? Specifically, how do you make Planning an important and vital part of the game? Easy! You make a mechanic out of it!

During the Planning Stage of the game, the agents are presented with a goal. This could be to extract an important hostage, eliminate a mole, or even seize the assets of a terrorist org overseas. Operations (that's the GM) presents the scenario... and then the players make up the details.

That's right. I tell you, "Get the UN Ambassador out of Saudi Arabia," and you guys tell me how you're going to do it, right down to the last detail. You tell me about the building he's kept in. You tell me about the terrorist org that's holding him. You tell me about the men in that org. You detail all the problems, all the entry points, all the exit points... you tell me everything.

All the details you give me are worth points. The more details you give, the more points you get. When all the planning is done, you tally up your points. The Team Leader (whoever that is) allocates the points out to the agents depending on their Expertise. For some missions, the wetman (Mars) is gonna need a lot of dice. For some missions, the talker (Mercury) will most of the dice. It's up to the Team Leader to decide.

Now here's where Expertise comes into play.

When you spend a point on an action, you multiply it by your Area of Expertise for the number of dice you roll. For example, if you want to shoot someone, you use your Mars Expertise. Let's say your Mars Expertise is 3. That means every point you spend gets you three dice to roll. The more dice you roll, the more narrative control you have over action.

This encourages players to utilize their Agents' strengths rather than their weaknesses, but still does not cripple them. If you are the shooter and you need to talk, you can still roll a ton of dice, but it costs you more to do it. This way, everybody has a 20 in all their stats, but it's just a little tougher for some guys to do things they aren't used to.

Another important element of spy literature is trust. In movies like La Femme Nikita (and the oft-times brilliant TV show) and TV shows like Alias, the protagonists have no clue in whom they can place their trust. This, for me, is one of the pivotal elements of the spy genre and something no spy-themed game has ever addressed in a real way. So, I did.

In the La Femme Nikita TV show (everybody should see the first season), agents died left and right, but not because the missions were dangerous (and they were dangerous), but because Operations (the guy in charge) deliberately kills them. As an Agent in Section One, you never know when you may be put on "Obeyance." When an agent was put on Obeyance, it meant he was disposable. You never knew.

So, let's pretend Operations (that's me) has put one of the Agents on Obeyance. I don't tell the Agent, but I do tell his Team Leader. And I tell the Team Leader not to tell the Agent. See, the Obeyance Agent has been double-dipping: he's informing the Enemy about missions. So, what we're going to do is this: we're giving him a bomb to set, but the bomb doesn't have a five minute timer, it has a twenty second timer. The Obeyance Agent does not know this. When the bomb goes off, it's the team leader's job to make sure the rest of the team is out of the way. It's up to him to plan a mission that gets the Obeyance Operative killed.

Now our unlucky Team Leader knows the Agent in question is no traitor, but he does not trust Operations, either. So now he has to figure out a way to keep the Agent alive and clear his name without getting himself on the Bad Kid List.

Ah, conflict. How I love thy ways...

When the Team Leader gives the Obeyance Operative the bomb, I give the Team Leader three dice. These are called "Trust Dice." (The name is ironic.) I give a player Trust Dice whenever he does something that actively sabotages another player. This does two things. First, it rewards players for betraying each other. Second, it informs the other players that the Betrayer is up to something.

I seed mistrust and doubt. Excellent.

Remember: the Team Leader allocates all the Planning Dice to the other players. The only way to get more dice is to actively plot against your fellow Agents.

Finally, when it's time to pull the caper, we come down to the issue of time.

Time is always an important element in spy literature, but it's never really addressed in games. This is my solution.

For every twenty minutes of real time that passes, the Target Numbers for all actions increase by one. The longer the Agents take on a mission, the more difficult the mission becomes.

Alterately, trekhead suggested this Time Mechanic: for every twenty minutes of time that passes, every player loses one Planning Point. This also represents the fact that as the mission goes on, complications make even simple things difficult.

"... and the rest!"
The rest is just gravy. This is the key to a fucking great Spy Game. At least, a Spy Game I'd be willing to play. As far as "hit points" and all bullshit, it's just fitting it around the bare bones you've seen above.

Anyway, that's my spy game. Hope you enjoyed it. Expect a finished copy soon from The Brewery.


( 30 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 21st, 2006 11:47 pm (UTC)
Awesome. Not sure about the Time Mechanic, but the rest... Awesome.
Mar. 22nd, 2006 12:09 am (UTC)
Wow. Actually a pretty solid workup for something I'd be interested in playing. I for one like the time mechanic -- I played/ran Shadowrun games for ages and it always seemed like no matter how much (or little) planning there had been, there was never a sense of all the little complications building into a catastrophe (or adding to the suspense) unless I hit them over the head with it (granted, I had a pretty dense group).

Keep working on it -- it sounds like you may have a winner.
Mar. 22nd, 2006 01:01 am (UTC)
That's what I was thinking -- the next time my group gets together to run Shadowrun, I'm going to use a bit from the planning bit above.
Mar. 22nd, 2006 12:45 am (UTC)
I like it, although my one objection is thus: Having players design the map.

Players are going to want to design something that they can easily achieve. They aren't going to want something overly challenging, because then they might fail or get stuck. It would be very hard for me not to throw in a secret tunnel or escape hatch just to make the mission easier. Also, if the GM decides the players have come up with something too easy and decides to throw a monkey wrench into the plan ("Unfortunately, the Prime Minister's son has appropriated the elevator shaft for the time being as he indulges in a quickie with his mistress. Gee, who saw that coming?" "Oh, darn, it appears the ventilation shafts have been shut down for repairs."), you run the risk of players whining ("But that wasn't in the plaaaaan! You're cheeaaatinggg!!!").

Have, instead, the GM plan out what the buildings and traps and pitfalls and habits of targets are - in the Planning phase, it is now up to the PCs to find out these facts for themselves. The more information they are able to discover without themselves being discovered (and thereby either aborting the mission or being fed false information), the easier the mission becomes.
Mar. 22nd, 2006 12:51 am (UTC)
The players get rewarded for making it harder on themselves. If they make it too easy, they obviously don't need my Precious Planning Points.

On the other hand, if they introduce Complications (something I'm toying with in the draft I'm writing now), they get Points.

I'm drifting further and further away from the traditional role of GM as "the boss" and more toward the idea of the GM as "just another player with a very different role."
(no subject) - thelastmehina - Mar. 22nd, 2006 12:59 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - wickedthought - Mar. 22nd, 2006 07:51 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - thelastmehina - Mar. 22nd, 2006 09:53 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - wickedthought - Mar. 22nd, 2006 11:58 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - thelastmehina - Mar. 23rd, 2006 05:53 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - wickedthought - Mar. 23rd, 2006 05:59 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - thelastmehina - Mar. 24th, 2006 08:49 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - tempralisis - Apr. 1st, 2006 12:31 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - elfwreck - Mar. 22nd, 2006 01:37 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - wickedthought - Mar. 22nd, 2006 07:49 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - talentlessclod - Mar. 22nd, 2006 01:37 pm (UTC) - Expand
Mar. 22nd, 2006 01:16 am (UTC)
I like the setup actually.
I've got my hands on SpyCraft 2.0 and haven't had a chance to try it yet. I've got a copy of Top Secret SI sitting on my shelf, since I just adored that game.

This... sounds interesting.
Mar. 22nd, 2006 03:38 am (UTC)
Trust dice sounds like a hippie term. Call 'em Ops dice. And allow Operations to give them to any player at any time for any action. This camouflages the real betrayer from the players.
(no subject) - wickedthought - Mar. 22nd, 2006 07:47 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - talentlessclod - Mar. 22nd, 2006 01:45 pm (UTC) - Expand
Mar. 22nd, 2006 04:25 am (UTC)
Interesting design. I see something of a logical or stylistic hole here:

"Each agent has a 1 in each of these Areas of Expertise. He then gets ten points to allocate. Here's the trick: getting the first dot is REALLY EXPENSIVE. Getting more dots is cheaper. This means it's easy to specialize in one AOE, but it's really hard to be good at everything."

The expense of the first dot seems moot if everyone already has it in each AoE. Recommend you specify a cost for the second dot, perhaps three points, and for other dots, perhaps one point. Thus being twice as good as something new is "worth" being five times as good at something you're allready twice as good at.

Mar. 22nd, 2006 07:46 am (UTC)
Ah, I see.

Re-read the quoted paragraph as: "... getting the second dot is REALLY EXPENSIVE."

That's where the misunderstanding lies.
Mar. 23rd, 2006 01:54 pm (UTC)
This would make a good caper game, too, like Ocean's Eleven or The Italian Job.
Mar. 27th, 2006 12:54 am (UTC)
I second this motion.
Mar. 26th, 2006 11:25 pm (UTC)
Awesome. You should definitely incorporate the "in REAL TIME" thing into the slogan or subtitle. Like "Wicked Spies: Elite Espionage Roleplaying in REAL TIME."
Mar. 28th, 2006 05:15 pm (UTC)
McLean, Fairfax County, Virginia
Hierogylphic Monad of the Circus

The Myth of the OSS, the Dream of the Confederate
Gray gravy! Virginia Farmboys hopping, Cajun disinfogumbo, Texan mithraists sacrificing bulls... Those Wartime Dioynsian Architects have their own occult secret service:
Mercury - Corax the Raven
Venus - Nymphus the Bride
Mars - Miles the Soldier
Jupiter - Leontocephalus the Aeon
Luna - Perses the Persian
Sol - Heliodromus the Sunrunner
Saturn - Pater the Kronos

According to Kenneth Grant and the Nu Isis Lodge, James Bond encounters a UFO. There's no coming back from that Singularity.

Okay with the USS Leifr Eiríksson (type 23), who were always prepared for that slim eventuality.
Jan. 12th, 2009 01:06 am (UTC)
Did it work as advertised?
> "Here, let's make a Spy Game."
> I did it in ten minutes.

You made this game in specific response to your friends and what they said they wanted out of a spy game.

Did those friends get what they wanted, after ten minutes of design? Did they play it? Did they enjoy it?

Are they now happily tweaking what you designed with them?
Jan. 12th, 2009 01:08 pm (UTC)
Re: Did it work as advertised?
Yes, they got what they wanted.

Yes, they played it.

Yes, they enjoyed it.

And I published it.

And it's one of my best-sellers on IPR.
Re: Did it work as advertised? - bignose.whitetree.org - Jan. 12th, 2009 01:24 pm (UTC) - Expand
Feb. 7th, 2009 05:29 am (UTC)
Actually, the basic outline you describe as the "spy movie/novel" pretty much describes the majority of rpgs out there. This same system could be used to play Shadowrun, DnD, Cyberpunk 2020, Rifts. Most of these games, and many others besides, are essentially "mission games". Also, it makes it possible to play incredibly powerful characters without much trouble, and I've only seen the threads discussing the game. I've no doubt that the full PDF copy is just as flexible.
( 30 comments — Leave a comment )

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