Cracking Cell Phones

Written by Glenn Davisson

Generic rules for incorporating the cracking of cell phones into your missions.

Note: This was originally written for Covert Ops. It has been genericized to work with any percentage based game. For a d20 based game, divide everything by 5. It does assume the game system in use has some kind of critical success/critical failure mechanism.

Download Cracking Cell Phones

The Making of a Spy

Written by Glenn Davisson

Joining the CIA

The typical recruit for the CIA’s Clandestine Service must be between 26 and 36 years old (though some exceptions are allowed, especially if they bring useful real world experience to the Agency), has a four year college degree (or be within a year of completing one – because of this, very few recruits are under the age of 21, though technically the minimum age to apply is 18) with a GPA of at least 3.0. He (or she) has strong interpersonal and communications skills, and has demonstrated an ability to think on his feet while working independently or as part of a team. Typically, he speaks at least two languages fluently, and he often has served in the military, or has traveled or lived in foreign countries on his own. He is loyal to his country, even patriotic, and is willing to follow orders he does not understand. He is physically and mentally fit, well trained in the tradecraft of espionage, and well equipped for his job. Most are volunteers, but likely candidates will be discretely approached by recruiters.

Those who wish to apply choose what position they are interested in (and may apply for up to four at a time). There will be an extensive background check (including polygraphs), and thorough physical, mental and psychological tests. Any evidence of illicit drug use in the last 12 months is automatic disqualification, as is most criminal history. (A traffic ticket or two isn’t a problem. Several dozen probably will be. Actual criminal convictions, especially for a felony, is pretty much automatic disqualification.) There are several in-person interviews, to ensure that both the Agency and the potential recruit have a clear understanding of what to expect, and to examine the recruit’s motives in wanting to join. A genuine desire to serve one’s country is far preferable to an adrenaline junkie who wants to play with guns and bombs. The psych screening can tell the difference.

There are no specific requirements for the college degree (and technically, the degree isn’t strictly required, but one has to be really exceptional to get in without it), but the degree should be related to the type of work one is applying for. Degrees in any sort of international politics, business or finance, and law enforcement/criminology are desirable for Operations and Collection Management Officers (the guys who sneak around in the dark doing naughty things), as is military service. Fluency is one or more foreign languages, especially Arabic, Chinese, Dari, Korean, Pashto, Persian/Farsi, Russian, or Somali is also desirable. Advanced degrees are also more desirable than undergraduate degrees.

There are four Directorates to the CIA: Intelligence, Support, Science and Technology, and the Directorate of Operations (which used to be called National Clandestine Service). Of primary interest to Covert Ops players is the last directorate, Clandestine Service, and this article will focus there.

Many recruits join the CIA shortly after graduating from college. Since they lack the sort of real world experience of military service or other non-academic endeavors (a job), any recruit under the age of 26 starts with the Professional Trainee Program (or PT Program) at CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia, which gives them “the opportunity to gain experience through a series of responsible Headquarters-based assignments that expose them to core aspects of the mission of the National Clandestine Service prior to joining the Clandestine Service Training (CST) Program.” 1 In short, they assist the headquarters staff in Langley in running the Clandestine Service, to give them a thorough understanding of what the field officers (and others) do. This program typically lasts two years. This includes managing field operations, from planning to clean up, as well as working with analysts and Targeting Officers to determine the objectives of field ops, and, frankly, getting coffee and donuts for the working stiffs.

The CST Program is CIA boot camp, mainly at Camp Peary (“The Farm”) outside Williamsburg, Virginia. Recruits with military service, or other “substantive work experience” start here. The program lasts at least 18 months, and teaches the recruits the fundamentals of their tradecraft. This includes martial skills, such as hand to hand combat, weapons training, and defensive (and offensive) driving, as well as language lessons and technical skills (and how to use the high tech toys the CIA is so fond of). But mainly it focuses on people – how to find those who are vulnerable to compromise, how to recruit, bribe, blackmail or seduce them, and how to manage them afterwards. Initially, this is classroom training, but as the program progresses, it changes to more and more field exercises, which can take place anywhere in the world, including foreign countries. These exercises can include making or picking up information packets from dead drops, meeting with long term agents, and investigating suspected leaks. Sometimes, these exercises are real missions, whether the trainee knows it or not.

Graduates of The Farm then go on to advanced training, tailored to their chosen specialty. There are six specialties open to new recruits (who are now known as “core collectors”):

  • Collection Management Officer (mostly an analyst)
  • Directorate of Operations Language Officer (mostly a translator)
  • Operations Officer (a field officer – a spy, but also case officers – the line between them can be fuzzy.)
  • Paramilitary Operations Officer (another field officer, but on a far more violent career path) (Another variation of this is the Specialized Skills Officer, who tend to be technical specialists in some field, such as aviation, maritime, military psychological warfare and/or information operations. They might be pilots, computer hackers, SCUBA specialists, psy ops specialists, etc.)
  • Staff Operations Officer (office support – often people who are not well suited for field work, but are worth keeping around.)
  • Targeting Officer (mostly a desk jockey who interprets the analysts’ work and
    recommends missions)

The duties vary, but all these positions are considered interchangeable to some degree; all have received the same core training, and all are certified for field work (though not all are certified to carry firearms). Nearly all officers spend some time as a Staff Operations Officer immediately after graduating from The Farm, even if that is not their specialty. Collections Management Officers and Operations Officers typically spend up to three years at a time on assignment in foreign countries. The other positions are usually based in Washington, DC, with stiff competition for the few overseas jobs that are available. (The Paramilitary Operations Officer is usually based in DC, with short overseas assignments being fairly common. They are the (para)military trouble shooters, for jobs that are intended to be violent. They have similar duties to military special forces units, such as Seal teams, and often work with Special Forces on particularly important assignments.)

Note: Graduates of the CST Program can become Specialized Skills Officers and Staff Operations Officers, but not all SSOs and SOOs are certified core collectors. Those who are not certified for field work spend their careers at a desk. All other positions are virtually always CST Program graduates, and have at least some chance of spending some time in the field.

Even once the recruit is fully certified and in the field, the CIA strongly encourages (and pays for) ongoing education throughout the officer’s career. The Agency runs several specialized schools that teach various aspects of tradecraft, such as breaking and entering, advanced hand to hand combat techniques, electronic intrusion (hacking), and so forth. The CIA also sponsors officers in classes at universities all over the world. While there is a preference for studies that apply to the officer’s job (especially language and cultural studies related to trouble spots), they are very open to almost any field of study, and will grant long leaves of absence to pursue advanced degrees or specialized education. The more diverse an officer’s skill set and knowledge base, the more capable he will be.


Further reading:

Agent vs Officer

A CIA agent is a local asset, usually a foreign national, who has been bribed, blackmailed or seduced in to working for the CIA. They are, essentially, a contractor. They may or may not know whom they work for. They may think they work for someone else entirely. A CIA officer is a full time employee, a US citizen, fully vetted with background checks and polygraphs and such, almost always college educated, and well trained at The Farm in Langley (and the CIA is big on continuing education throughout one’s career). This is the classic professional spy of fiction. Robert DeNiro’s character in Ronin is a good example.

The agent has a lot more discretion, being expendable and deniable. The officer has access to far more resources and backing, but at the cost of freedom of action. If an officer is caught by the enemy, a considerable effort will be made to get them back, up to and including a prisoner exchange. If they are caught by friendly local authorities, diplomatic means will be applied to smooth over the international incident, almost an unofficial form of diplomatic immunity. If an agent is caught, the extent to which the Agency will care is based on how much damage can be done by the compromise. At least some consideration will be given to whether or not the best way to contain the damage is to assassinate the agent themselves.

Diplomatic Immunity

Written by Glenn Davisson

If you’re looking for a real life-ish way to keep your favorite villain out of prison, give them diplomatic immunity.

This is a very brief (and over-simplified) summary of the US State Department’s manual for law enforcement in dealing with diplomatic immunity, available in full at

You know how you’re watching a movie or TV show, and the bad guy has diplomatic immunity, and he does something violently criminal and the cops can’t do anything about it, and you think, “Well, they’re exaggerating that. It’d never happen like that in real life!” Turns out, actually, it can, pretty much exactly like that. Sometimes.

Broadly speaking, there are three classes of people with different levels of immunity:

  1. Diplomatic agents – Ambassadors, mostly, and their immediate families.
  2. Diplomatic level staff – people who do diplomatic work, but aren’t ambassadors, usually with titles like “trade attaché,” or “undersecretary of importing toilet paper” – and their immediate families.
  3. Support staff – janitors, maids, cooks, chauffeurs, etc.

Diplomatic agents have very nearly absolute immunity to local laws. They cannot be arrested for any reason, they cannot be detained, they cannot be questioned without their consent, they cannot be handcuffed, no matter what they’ve done, even if they did it front of the cops. Their homes cannot be searched even with a warrant, nor can their official vehicles. They cannot be subpoenaed and compelled to testify in a civil case. If an ambassador is pulled over driving drunk in his official vehicle (with its diplomatic plates), he cannot be arrested, he cannot be detained, and his car cannot be impounded. The most that can be done is to offer to call him a cab, or drive him back to his residence in the squad car. All of this applies to their immediate families, as well.

The only exceptions are for self defense, matters of public safety, or to prevent serious crimes. (In other words, the “Your immunity is revoked” scene at the end of the Lethal Weapon movie is actually entirely realistic. Wave a gun at a cop and threaten to shoot someone, and it’s entirely legal for him to put a round between your eyes.)

As a side note, all classes of embassy personnel can be issued traffic (and parking) tickets. There’s just no mechanism for

  • Making them pay the fine, or
  • Making them even show up in court.
  • Impounding their car

And their vehicle registration (and plates) are issued by the State Department, who don’t care about traffic (or parking) tickets.

Where Hollywood gets it wrong is in what happens afterwards. While a diplomat can’t be arrested once he presents his credentials (they are issued ID cards by the State Department, and there are 24 hour hotlines to verify claims), the State Department strongly encourages the police and prosecutors to investigate and develop the case just like any other, and when they can honestly say “We would prosecute this were it not for the immunity,” they say that to the State Department, and State will ask the sending government to waive the immunity, with a real expectation that they will. (Interesting note: the immunity does not belong to the diplomat, it belongs to their government. The diplomat cannot waive their immunity.) If the waiver isn’t forthcoming, the diplomat being expelled from the country is pretty much automatic, and arrest warrants will be entered into NCIC, in case they ever come back without immunity (and they’ll never be granted immunity again).

Protection for diplomatic level staff is basically the same, only with a rather higher chance of a waiver being granted if they get caught committing a crime.

Support staff has rather less protection. They have no immunity from arrest for criminal acts, but cannot be prosecuted for acts committed as part of their official duties. (Whether or not something is part of their official duties, BTW, is decided by the court that has jurisdiction over the crime, not the State department or the government that sent them. Most judges are smart enough to not push their luck into international incidents, though, if the sending government claims them. This is useful in a gaming context in that spies are often listed as embassy staff at some level, and few state judges are eager to start an international incident.)

That sums up embassy staff. Interestingly, consulates are treated entirely differently (and governed by a separate treaty), because consulates serve and entirely different purpose. A consulate is there to issue travel visas to tourists, provide assistance to their countrymen who have problems, and keep an eye on trade and commerce issues.

An embassy’s purpose is to facilitate communications between the two governments. All else is secondary to that.

So “Career Consular Officers” (both the Consul and the senior staff, basically the top two categories of duties for an Consulate staff) can be arrested, but only on a felony, and only after a warrant has been issued by a court with jurisdiction over the crime. Their residences can be searched using normal warrants, etc., but not their offices or official vehicles. They have immunity in criminal cases only for official acts, and while they can be subpoenaed in civil cases, they cannot be compelled to testify. Support staff has only very limited immunity for official acts. Family members have zero immunity.

Also note that these are general guidelines, and exceptions abound, usually in the form of increased immunity for specific individuals, negotiated on a case by case basis with specific countries. The general rule is “Don’t accept anything as face value. Call the State Department’s hotline and we’ll tell you what you can and can’t get away with.”

Is that confusing enough? Imagine how your players will react when they have the bad guy dead to rights on an espionage charge, with all the evidence needed to lock them up forever, and the cops… just let them go… straight to the airport to go home.

DM Props

by Dru Pagliassotti

In the corner of my living room is an innocuous-looking cedar chest that I snagged from my parents when I moved out of the house. During the week it sits there quietly gathering dust, holding up a snarling gargoyle and a vase of dead roses. But during the weekend the gargoyle and roses are banished to the corner, and the lid comes up to reveal my array of gaming props.

The chest is crammed to the top with six brown plastic cases of painted miniatures (some are my own, some belong to a friend who’s taken to storing his miniatures at “gaming central”—my house) and two small grey plastic cases of miniatures (belonging to yet a third friend); three large rolled-up battle mats (two hex, one square) and one smaller mat (square); several handmade balsa-wood houses; a stack of six “dice boxes”; a basket filled with water-soluble markers and a variety of dice bags; a shoe box filled with painted plaster “boulders,” several pewter monsters, and an oversized lead dragon; a straw basket filled with small square plastic chits, a bag of cut-out green paper “trees,” an egg timer, and two oversized six-sided dice; and a third straw basket filled with little rubber animals. There’s no room in the chest for our small dry-erase whiteboard and pens, which are crammed in the den closet, or my sack of children’s wooden blocks, which is under my bed….

I was taught to play AD&D as a paper-and-pencil game. In high school I never used miniatures, never used battlemats, never used anything but occasionally a picture cut from a magazine to illustrate my characters. Not until college was I indoctrinated into the idea of using DM props. Since then, my collection of props has grown. Now I don’t know how I ever played without battlemats and miniatures, at least. The ability to draw the room, to place the characters and NPCs, seems indispensible to the game. Not only does it provide a center for players’ attention, but it brings a trace of objectivity to the game—no longer do I, as DM, arbitrate whether a person is in range of a spell or not. Now the players can count the squares and decide for themselves. This never mattered in my high-school games, but since then I’ve met plenty of “games lawyers” who will challenge my every ruling. I’ve come to love using props and items that make the scene easier to visualize, but the plastic “room sets” sold at some gaming stores are just too expensive! As a result, my players and I have cobbled together quite an array of handmade odds and ends….

A balsa-wood house with a removable roof often works well as our party’s Leomund’s Secure Shelter when it comes under attack, or as a house when the group is laying siege to a place. I’ve also created balsa-wood tombstones for graveyard adventures and use big wooden buttons as tables for bar fights. Wooden blocks work well as makeshift houses for fights in city streets, providing both an outline of the streets and something to put the miniatures on when the characters are lurking on the roofs. Gauze rags wrapped with quick-drying plaster bandages, and then painted with stone-colored fleck spraypaint, make great boulders for outdoor terrain. Cut-out green paper circles in varying sizes work well as trees or bushes—because they’re flat, it’s easy to place a miniature on top of one to indicate that the character is hiding within the tree branches. Using these paper trees also makes it easy to show the existence of cover … or of what’s going to start burning when the mage starts throwing fireballs around. Little rubber animals are much cheaper than lead miniatures, and I often pull out the rubber snakes, ants, or crocodiles for monsters in my Al Qadim game.

Educational stores provide a wealth of useful knicknacks for gamers. My favorite are the clear plastic squares used to illustrate counting problems on overhead projectors. I found a great set of clear squares numbered 1 to 99 that I use for mass combat situations (watch my players wince when I empty the plastic bag of these chits over the battlefield!). We use the colored squares to indicate the presence of spells, placing them beneath the miniature. A red square under a miniature means the character has a Stoneskin spell up. Clear means Invisibility, blue means Fly, green means Polymorph … and as the spells come down, we pull the squares out and toss them back into the basket. Some of my friends use poker chips for this, which stack nicely but come in a more limited selection of colors and are considerably thicker. For our high-level campaign, we’ve discarded the use of chips and resorted to using a whiteboard to write our defensive spell array on … a couple of thirteenth-level mages can have quite a bit of magic up before entering battle. One player is typically in charge of erasing spells as their durations end or they’re lost in combat.

In addition—and I can’t recommend this for AD&D players under 18—I once found a set of “adult” dice in a shop. I purchased them and now hand them to players who declare that their characters are going to go visit a brothel. “Roll them until you’re happy,” I tell them, and let them amuse themselves while I turn to deal with the other players’ after-adventure intentions. Hey—it’s that or let them have a copy of the Netbook of Sex to read, and dice are a staple of the game….

Props can be used for metagaming purposes, as well. After losing too many dice under the couch or behind shelves, a friend and I decided to create “dice boxes” to roll our dice in. We went to a crafts supply store and bought flat, stackable plastic plant pots and covered the bottom with a layer of felt to quiet the clatter a bit. The boxes work extremely well, and now I pass them to each player before every game. I also use an egg timer when I feel the players are slowing down too much in a situation where time matters; they have three minutes to act or they lose their turn. (Having the other players all hum the “Jeopardy” tune also works.)

The two last props I’ll mention here are music and weapons. My husband and I have slowly collected an array of classical and ethnic CDs that we use as background music for our games—Arabian music for Al Qadim, Japanese for my husband’s Oriental campaign, and so forth. One of my friends collects movie soundtracks, and when he runs Birthright we’re in for a day of Conan, Xena, and Hercules. Music works well if it’s primarily instrumental and played low enough to provide background but not drown out the players. I also collect weapons—daggers, swords, tomahawks, crossbows, etc.—and every once in a while I’ll tell a player to grab one and show me what she’s talking about. Pick a lock with a dagger? Okay, grab that one over there and show me how the tip’s going to fit into a keyhole. Open a door with your sword while you stand back? Here’s a rapier—go over to the front door and show me where you’re going to be standing. More often than not, actually hoisting a real sword or dagger will make the player consider how difficult a manuever would really be, and the idea is abandoned for something more realistic.

Guidelines for Villains

by Dru Pagliassotti

There’s one golden rule that every villain should keep in mind: “Don’t piss off the adventurer.” If villains could just keep this in mind, they’d probably get away with a lot more. But in the movies, in books, in comics, and in roleplaying games, the villains just keep forgetting this one fundamental guideline. There they are, almost at the peak of their power, and they go out and do something really stupid that … yes … pisses off the adventurer. And then the adventurer has to pull his or her swords or guns out of the closet, blow off the dust, strap them on, and go out villain huntin’ again. And you know who wins in that fight. Well, OK, in cyberpunk the bad guys might win, but in most genres, the villain just doesn’t have a prayer.

Machiavelli’s “The Prince” covered this issue pretty carefully hundreds of years ago, back in 1515, but cinematic and RPG villains keep making the same mistakes over and over. Maybe the stilted 16th-century language is a little too complex? Let’s review Machiavelli’s rules one more time, translated into 21st-century English.

  1. Don’t spend more than you can afford, because you’ll piss people off when you have to stop spending to conserve funds. Folks get used to being spoiled and get cranky when it stops.
  2. Don’t kill a person’s family without making it look good first (with trials, appeals to justice, all that). And don’t mess around with people’s stuff, like their car and house, either. That’s personal.
  3. Behave like you’re religious, even if you aren’t. Don’t say things that will ruin your reputation as a “nice” boy or girl, no matter what you’re thinking or doing.
  4. Let others do your dirty work for you. Keep your own hands clean and always preserve plausible deniability.
  5. Keep your word to your allies, or else you’ll just have two sides mad at you. Keep your underlings happy and entertained so they’ll think you’re great.
  6. Show respect to your underlings but keep them dependent on you so they don’t get cocky.
  7. Avoid flatterers. Yeah, it’s fun to be flattered, but they’re worthless and they’ll turn on you at the drop of a hat.

Pay a lot of attention to the second rule there. That’s Machiavelli’s ordering—I’d make it the No. 1 rule, myself. How do you piss off an adventurer the most? Hurt a member of his family or trash his house or lands. Just rewatch almost any action-adventure movie if you doubt me. “The Patriot” is a vivid example. Ol’ Mel woulda just kept minding his own business if his son hadn’t been shot down and his house burned, all right before his eyes. Talk about your stupid villain tricks….

Now, Machiavelli’s rules are basic outlines for successful villainous behavior. Actually, they were originally meant for “princes”—kings, queens, popes, emperors, presidents, Congresspeople, etc. But they’re broadly applicable to any villain. For their use in corporate life, check out the book “What Would Machiavelli Do?”.

Still, the devil’s in the details. Once that adventurer has been pissed off, what do you do then? Others since Machiavelli have helpfully developed a set of rules for the Evil Overlord. Much more detail-oriented, this is a good guide to behavior after one’s villainous cover has been blown and the adventurer is on your tail. (Villains should check out the evil henchman’s guide, too, to make sure one’s henchmen aren’t getting too uppity. Remember Machiavelli’s rule six, above.)

A villain might also benefit from checking out Sun Tzu on the Art of War. Especially glance over his comments on Weak Points and Strong—every adventurer has a weakness. But don’t get stupid and assume that weakness is the adventurer’s family or beloved belongings. Uh-uh. Those are actally strength drains on the adventurer—added burdens that the adventurer must deal with before being able to strap on the weapons and take off in pursuit of bad guys. Take these burdens away and the adventurer gets stronger … ’cause s/he gets mad. So don’t mess with the family and furniture.

How can a GM use this advice? If you want your villain to remain safe for a long time, pay attention to these guidelines. Your adventurers may know the individual is a certifiable bad guy, but they’ll have a heck of a time proving it (“Oh, but he’s such a sweet man—goes to church every Sunday and even paid for the Junior League’s fireworks display!”) … and they won’t have much personal motivation to go after the villain. On the other hand, if you want your villain to immediately become adventurer-bait, break these rules and watch the adventurers come running!

Planning for the Unexpected

by Dru Pagliassotti

Every gamemaster has faced it—that moment where the players suddenly come up with plan that s/he had never dreamed they’d consider … and for which s/he has absolutely no preparation.

One of the hallmarks of an experienced GM is that s/he doesn’t panic and doesn’t say “No, you can’t do that.” But how do those master GMs manage to not panic when all of the sudden they have to run an airplane hijacking when they’d expected a hotel break-in?

The Tricks

  1. Be Prepared: Every GM should have a file of miscellaneous maps and prewritten generic NPCs that can be yanked out at a moment’s notice. Many GMs buy modules and game accessories even if they usually create their own, precisely to have a library of emergency resources. For example, I mostly run AD&D, but I collect maps and modules from many other fantasy gaming companies and systems. A castle map is a castle map, and a description is a description—the mechanics are easy enough to replace from one system to another. I also buy modules I don’t plan to run if they have interesting maps or NPCs. Gaming companies will love this, but it’s true—a GM can’t have too many modules and accessories at hand.

    The prepared GM should develop a Master File that lists where each resource can be found. (For example: “large walled manor, Dungeon 31, p. 63”)

    GMs who run with computers by their sides may want to have a few key websites bookmarked—sites with NPCs, maps, monsters, or other resources they might need to toss in at the last moment.

  2. Listen to the Players: Most players don’t develop a plan out of the blue; they discuss it for some time before agreeing to a strategy. The GM should be listening to the players and noting which ideas are being tossed about. If an idea comes up that the GM hasn’t planned for, s/he should immediately jot it down and start scribbling ideas, pros and cons, and NPC names that can be used should that plan be the one the players choose. An attentive GM will seldom be taken completely by surprise.

    GMs should also pay attention to players when they say things like, “We should explore that asteroid someday” or “You know, it’s time to go to town for some R&R.” Someday the group will sit down to a game and the players will say, “We’ve decided to go into town for a few days.” The prepared GM will simply nod, set the planned adventure aside, and pick up the alternate adventure s/he wrote after hearing the players’ offhand comments last week.

  3. Evaluate the Plan Fairly: A GM shouldn’t nix a plan just because s/he hadn’t thought of it first. Instead, s/he should consider whether or not the plan should work within the logic of the game universe. Have the villains taken any precautious against such a strategy? Will the villains have any warning? Is there a simple way to foil the players to get them back on track, or would it require such a ridiculous sequence of events that the players would know they were being railroaded? If the plan seems reasonable and there’s no immediate way to foil it, then the GM should go ahead and accept it as a gamemastering challenge.
  4. Call a Time-Out: If the scenario is going to require a bit of preparation, the GM should call a 30- or 60-minute time-out. S/he might send the players out on a snack or meal run or tell them to spend the time perfecting their strategy so they can present it when the game begins again. Then the GM should begin rifling through his or her stockpile of maps and jotting down notes. Most players won’t mind the break—they’ll probably be amused and pleased that they caught the GM by surprise. The break shouldn’t last longer than an hour, however; otherwise, the players will get bored and the game’s momentum will be lost.

The key to not panicking when players decide to take the adventure into their own hands is to be flexible and well-prepared. GMs should remember that many minds are better than one—players will come up with plans the GM didn’t think of simply because there are more of them. When it happens—and it will—the GM should just smile, grab a map out of his or her stockpile, and enjoy the chance to run impromptu for a change.

You Win Some, You Lose Some

by Dru Pagliassotti

The last guest is out the door, the gaming paraphernalia has been swept away, the trash bin is overflowing, the sink is piled high with dishes, and the VCR clock is showing 2 a.m. Another gaming session over. And, invariably, whichever one of us was DM—my husband or I—will turn to the other and say, “Do you think the game went OK?”

Sometimes game sessions don’t go OK. The players or characters—or both—get into arguments, the day devolves into endless planning at the expense of action, the characters fail miserably, or the plot gets derailed and the DM does a poor job of recovery. Bad sessions leave everyone feeling frustrated and depressed, especially in the wee hours of the morning when sheer weariness is already putting a damper on spirits. The players are angry at themselves, each other, or the DM; and the DM is angry at him/herself or the players.

The trick to getting past a bad session is to remember Sturgeon’s Law. Nobody, player or DM, is perfect, and the occasional bad session is part of the gaming experience. Then take a deep breath and evaluate what went wrong and how to avoid it in the future. Both the players and the DM should do this either the same night (post-game reprises are common while driving home or cleaning up), the next day, or later in the week—whenever the session can be analyzed calmly. Most bad sessions can be grouped under the following categories.

Bad Plot

Sometimes the dungeon doesn’t provide the characters with enough motivation and they’re just half-heartedly going along “because that’s the adventure,” or decide not to go along at all; sometimes the characters don’t catch a vital clue and end up chasing a red herring for the whole session; sometimes the dungeon poses a difficulty that the characters simply don’t have the resources to surmount and that the DM, for one reason or another, can’t alter. The characters and the DM get frustrated and the session stalls in foot-dragging, endless planning, or bitter argumentation.

When a plot goes bad, it’s up to the DM to fix it. Enhance the motivation by making it personal (perhaps they didn’t care about the highwaymen until one of their NPC friends gets taken for ransom) or political (perhaps their refusal to take the mission irritates the local guildmaster, mayor, or noble, and the group is called on the carpet for it). Throw in another clue that will give the characters another chance to figure out what’s going on, or, if the game is running “on a clock,” at least try to put the characters in the right area when the theft, murder, or ritual occurs, so they have one last chance to stop it. Offer some way to get around the obstacle—maybe that magical barrier is lowered to bring in a delivery of food, or an acid-proof monster attacks the group at the edge of the unpassable lake of acid (so that when they kill it, they can use its skin to cover a raft), or an NPC is willing to sell or trade an item that the party needs. Problem plots can usually be recouped, especially if the DM is willing to put in some work between the bad session and the next game.

Bad Luck

Sometimes the party’s luck just goes bad, and there’s nothing the DM can do about it. The villain’s Sword of Sharpness lops off the cleric’s head and the rest of the group has no way to heal its wounds, falling quickly to the monsters; a Stinking Cloud engulfs the party and against all odds every member fails the saving throw; or the red dragon makes its perception roll and succeeds in killing or disorganizing the attackers who were trying to sneak up on it.

When either the dice or the plans go awry and multiple characters are critically injured or killed, the DM is stuck with the results (although see last week’s essay on dealing with die rolls). About the best that can happen is that the DM gives the surviving characters a chance to grab the bodies of their deceased companions and flee to a safe hiding place. This is often a good time to end the day’s session. Even though the players and the DM may be depressed by ending on a low note, it gives both a chance to come back to the scenario later with fresh plans and ideas.

Bad Dynamics

Sometimes the players or the characters, or both, start to argue, and the game devolves into bad feelings. If the argument is completely in character, the resolution should be in character—players who don’t want to spend the day arguing should try to work out a compromise, or the DM can have NPCs in the group do the same. In one game, the DM (through an NPC) called all the squabbling characters together and gave each of them 3 minutes each (using a real egg timer) to state one thing they liked and one thing they disliked about each of the other characters. Nobody was allowed to argue until everyone had aired their point of view. It was a fascinating experience, it aired out a lot of interparty conflict, and all of the players agreed that it worked well. The DM might also decide, after the party has been arguing, that it’s a good time to call a break for lunch or dinner. This lets everybody think about the problem as they go shopping, prepare their food, or simply sit around and eat; by the time the game starts again, chances are the players are ready to work the problem out.

When two characters just can’t seem to get along no matter what, and the arguments seem to carry over from game to game, then the DM should set some time aside to discuss the problem privately with each player. S/he should find out what the problem is and how the players think it can be resolved. Often in-character arguments turn out to have deeper root causes, such as one player thinking that the other gets all the DM’s attention. These issues can come out in private conversation, and the DM can then take steps to fix the problem.

Sometimes the problems are simply in character, in which case the DM must ask the players to please tone down the intercharacter rivalry because it’s disrupting the game. Good players will try to do so, and the DM can then work to put the two characters into a situation where they can become friends (the old TV cliche of putting two rivals in a dangerous situation where they must rely on each other to survive is a good way to do this).

If the argument is partially or completely between the players, then the DM must step in as an authority figure. Sometimes the argument can be settled with a simple rule: “No, that spell won’t have that effect, end of argument, if you want to argue later, talk to me after the game.” Other times the DM will actually need to call a time-out and discuss the problem with the players individually, pulling them into a separate room and asking what’s going on, or discuss the problem with the playing group as a whole. How to handle an interplayer argument is up to the DM and will vary from situation to situation (for example, a DM is likely to treat two arguing high-school students differently from two arguing spouses). However, the players need to be told that their behavior is affecting the game and given a chance to either work it out together or leave the session until they can come back to it with a clear head.

Once the problem has been pinpointed and steps taken to resolve it, the DM (and the players) should try to avoid a recurrence. Discussing the problem is a good way to get input from other players and to sensitize them to the fact that there was a problem in the first place. It’s not wrong to admit that a session went poorly—often just emailing or calling the players to say, “well, the last game wasn’t so hot, but I think I know what the problem was and how to avoid it in the future” will get them analyzing the game, suggesting improvements, and looking forward to the next session again.

Introducing Characters

by Dru Pagliassotti

One of a DM’s hardest tasks is bringing characters together as an adventuring team. Will a group of strangers forge the bonds of trust and friendship needed to adventure together successfully? Do the characters share enough life goals to work well together, or will the team eventually dissolve in a series of quarrels and misunderstandings?

No DM can completely control group dynamics, but a few steps can be taken before the campaign begins that will help avoid the most common group problems.

The first thing the DM should do is tell the players what kind of campaign to expect. Most DMs have some idea of where they intend to take a new campaign. Will it be high-magic or low-magic? Filled with mighty heroics or gritty day-to-day struggles? Combat-oriented or relationship-oriented? City-centered or filled with travel? Should the characters be evil or good? Lawful or chaotic? Should they have strong ties to a certain area of the realm, or be footloose and fancy-free? Will certain races or classes face more prejudice than others? The more players know about an upcoming campaign, the better they can tailor their characters to meet that campaign’s expectations and goals. Of course, the DM should always be willing to work with a player on a particular character concept—if a player is determined to play a bold professional dragonslayer in a campaign intended to be a gritty, city-based political mystery, then the DM should try to come up with ways to integrate the character. Maybe the character is a retired dragonslaying veteran now moving into politics, or maybe one of the chief political villains will turn out to be a shapechanged dragon in disguise! But if the concept simply won’t work, the DM should be firm about rejecting it. In the long run, both the DM and the player will be happier if the player’s character fits smoothly into the campaign’s story line.

The next thing the DM should do is encourage the players to link their characters together. Are the characters related? Did they know each other in childhood? Attend the same schools? Fight in the same platoon? Do they circulate in the same social circles? Go to the same bar? Having players work with each other when developing their character backgrounds can make introductions considerably easier. I find shared histories especially useful when introducing new characters to an established game. If the DM can say, “You recognize the other guy in the room as your old childhood buddy Randulfo. He was the one who dared you to climb the tallest tree in the village—you fell off and sprained your ankle, and he had to half-carry you all the way home,” chances are the two players will pick up the story from there and the DM can sit back and relax, satisfied that the established character will invite the new character along on the next adventure.

Of course, sometimes players won’t want to create shared backgrounds, or the DM will be starting a game in which each player brings in a character previously created for a different campaign. In these cases, the introductions are more difficult. One option is for the DM to throw the characters together in the face of shared peril right from the start. Most players enjoy hearing, “Okay, the campaign is starting now—roll initiative.” Starting the campaign with combat makes it memorable and forces the characters to work together from the very start.

Here are a few of my favorite ways to bring new characters together:


The characters are related. Maybe they’re identical twins, fraternal twins, or regular siblings. Maybe they’re in-laws or cousins. Maybe they’re married—or divorced. Are they friends or enemies? Do they quarrel with each other but band together when somebody else tries to take sides? If your players are willing to make up shared experiences as they go along, all the better!

Friends or rivals

The characters already know each other. Maybe they grew up next door to each other or in the same village. Maybe they went to the same school, had the same mentor, or belonged to the same guild or military group. Maybe they dated each other. They might have been best friends or rivals. Be cautious about allowing two players to play rivals, however; this only works if they are friendly or respectful rivals (probably of good alignment), each striving to outdo the other but still putting the success of the group first. The rivalry concept can work well, especially if the two characters must finally overcome their rivalry to succeed in a mission or to save each other’s lives, but it can also break a team apart if the rivalry grows bitter.

Hired as a team

This is the standard AD&D introduction. The characters are hired by the same person—maybe by somebody who knows each of them separately or maybe by a complete stranger. Maybe the characters all belong to the same guild and are hired by their guildmaster. Maybe they all belong to, or were just drafted into, the military and are put together as a special-ops team. Maybe they gather around the deathbed of somebody they all know separately, and with her last dying breath the NPC asks all of the characters to work together to complete some task. The DM simply hopes that the characters will end up agreeing to stick together as a team after the mission is completed. In the military version of this scenario, the team may be forced to work together until the war is over.

Shared mystery

The characters all hold a piece to a puzzle. Maybe they are all part owners in a mysterious shared inheritance. Maybe they have each been given part of a riddle, matching keys, segments of a magic item, or a section of a map. Maybe they were ordered to go someplace by their mentor “to seek your destiny,” and when they arrive, they find each other. The DM sets up some sort of overarching mystery that the characters must work together to solve—possibly over the course of a single adventure, possibly over the course of an entire campaign. New characters can be introduced to this scenario by giving them some new part of the puzzle that will help the established characters.

Shared disaster

The characters all wake up suffering amnesia and find themselves in the same prison camp or cell, or on the slave block together. The characters are sitting in a bar when a fight breaks out between two rival gangs, and each of the gangs assumes that the characters belong to the other one. The characters are all in the wrong place at the wrong time and are accused of some terrible crime. The characters look exactly like an infamous band of highwaymen and, when they find themselves in the same tavern, are suddenly confronted by a squad of city guards hot for their arrest. The characters are all in the same shop when an earthquake hits and topples the building—or a great fire breaks out and begins to ravage the city—or a tsunami hits—or a dragon flies into town and begins munching on the townsfolk. In each case the characters must work together to save themselves or innocent bystanders or to figure out what’s going on.

The most important thing to remember is that all a DM can do is set the stage; it’s up to the players to work together to get the campaign off the ground. However, by giving the players a good idea of what kind of characters will work best in the campaign, encouraging them to develop shared character histories, and putting them in situations that demand their cooperation from the start, the DM can do quite a bit to ease character introductions and interactions from the very first moment of the new campaign.

How to Run a Good Bad Guy

by Dru Pagliassotti

Sometimes we DMs get so busy counting turns, rolling dice, and keeping track of our monsters’ hit points and spells that we forget to act, which is a pity, because acting’s a big part of the fun of being DM. Some of my favorite times as a DM are when I get to play the obstructive secretary, the blustering father-in-law, the arrogant aristocrat, or—my favorite—the shifty villain. I love villains. I’m the kind who tends to cheer for the bad guys to win. And I think that a good, er, well-played archvillain can make or break an AD&D campaign.

Darth Vader or Moff Tarkin?

The first thing you have to decide is whether your villain is major or minor. A major villain—an archvillain—is one you’re hoping to keep around for a while. A minor villain is just a cameo role, a one-adventure baddie. Major villains deserve to have some work put into them, to be given personality and depth. Minor villains don’t need to have much attention paid to them—you’ll have plenty of fun just using an instantly recognizable cliche (e.g., the dumb thug, the sleazy weasel, the bragging windbag, the grim killer, the knock’em’dead vamp, the psycho loon). They’re relatively simple to roleplay. But the archvillain—now, that’s a challenge. This essay will address how to create major villains—the kind your characters will swiftly learn to swear at and blame for all of their misfortunes, regardless of whether the villain was actually involved.

Nemesis or Hidden Mastermind?

Your major villain is either somebody who will (you hope) plague the characters for levels and levels until The Final Showdown, or somebody who has been operating behind the scenes throughout the campaign and has just been unmasked.


The Nemesis is hard to run, because this villain must escape justice every time s/he has a run-in with the adventurers. This is a comic-book cliche that can be very frustrating for the players if handled poorly but a lot of fun if engineered to seem natural. A good DM should be willing to sacrifice the Nemesis if there’s no way to weasel out of it, but should try hard to keep the Nemesis one step ahead of the characters whenever possible. Moreover, there should be only one Nemesis in a given campaign, although it’s OK to create a new Nemesis if, despite all your planning, the previous Nemesis is killed (in this case, it’s a time-honored tradition that the new Nemesis be a lover, spouse, friend, or relation of the slain Nemesis, and that s/he now specifically seek revenge against the player characters).

If the Nemesis is captured, do your best to convince the characters to “do the right thing” and send the villain to jail. That gives the villain a number of opportunities to escape—on the way to trial, in the middle of the courtroom, on the way back from trial, out of jail, or right before the execution. You’ll only get a chance to do this once—after that, the characters will be likely to kill the villain the next time they get a chance—but it’s always fun that one time, and it’s guaranteed to elicit a round of groans and thrown dice from your players.

Other ways to keep the Nemesis alive is to give the players the option of either capturing the villain or saving an innocent (preferably one of the character’s family members or friends); of capturing the villain or capturing an even worse threat (or at least one who poses a more immediate danger to society); of letting the villain bargain free by offering to swap vital information for his liberty; or resorting to less satisfactory methods, such as having the slain villain melt away into a puddle of icewater (“Argh! A simulacrum!”) or having a Contingency Teleport activate just as the sword blade touches the villain’s neck.

The Nemesis should start at a slightly higher level than the characters—no more than two or three levels higher, though—and should keep going up in level as the characters go up. Ideally, the Nemesis should be seen or alluded to about every fourth or fifth adventure. Remember, the Nemesis doesn’t always need to make a personal appearance. Just a note with the villain’s name mentioned in it, a familiar seal on a discarded envelope, a whiff of the villain’s favorite perfume or cologne, a business record mentioning that the shop is partially owned by the villain, or a trademark mutilation on a dead body should be enough to make the characters gnash their teeth and swear undying revenge.

Hidden Mastermind

The Mastermind is the one who’s been behind all the minor villains in the course of the campaign, the evil genius who has been manipulating the players as though they were pawns on a chess board. (The Mastermind can be behind the Nemesis if you really want to make your campaign complex, but this may be too much of a good thing.) The Mastermind is a much easier villain to throw into a campaign, but does require a bit of preparation. You should plan on introducing the Mastermind toward the end of your campaign, if it’s naturally winding down, or when the characters are beginning to reach a point where dungeon-bashing for gold is starting to bore them. It’s best if you make up your mind to include a Mastermind when you first start your campaign, because it’s easier to weave plots together if you’re doing it from the git-go, but it’s not too hard to bring the Mastermind in later if you’re willing to take some time to set up the scene.

First, you’ll need to look at all of your previous adventures and decide how many you can possibly link together. Maybe this unrelated kidnapping really had to do with that robbery and the presence of that monster in that mountain range yonder … but how and why? That’s what you have to decide—and then let the players figure out. I often sketch out a sloppy diagram with arrows pointing from NPC to NPC and notes jotted on the margin when I’m at this stage. Don’t be afraid to get a little crazy with your initial ideas—you can always go back and smooth out the rough edges and add a little more logic later. Any NPCs, including intelligent monsters, who have escaped in previous adventures should be placed into future adventures, creating definite links between the events (as hirelings of the Mastermind, they are naturally involved in the Mastermind’s other plots and criminal activities). Some of these can become mini-Nemeses, if they keep surviving from one adventure to the next!

The second step is to start building this information into your campaign. Slowly but surely the characters should realize that there are links between what they’re currently doing and what they’ve done in the past. If you can show how their past actions actually helped a criminal in some way, all the better (“The ‘innocent little orphan’ you saved from the kidnappers and placed with a fine, upstanding aristocratic family just revealed herself to be a polymorphed archmage who kidnapped the family’s only heir!”). Make the characters angry—make them feel like they’ve been manipulated. Make them paranoid. And then listen carefully. Once the players realize there’s some kind of master plan in the air, they’ll start trying to second-guess you, and at that point their combined imaginations will begin to spin webs of paranoid delusion that will leave your ideas in the dust. Take notes. If they come up with some twist that you like, use it. They’ll never know that you hadn’t planned it that way all along, and when they find out they were right, they’ll be that much more satisfied with themselves and the game.

The third step is figuring out how to finesse the inevitable Unmasking. Who is the Mastermind? In some campaigns the characters may already know who the Mastermind is—for example, if they live in Ravenloft, they won’t be surprised to find out that the Lord of their Domain is behind all the evil in the area. But I think that’s too easy. Your players deserve more of a challenge. Make the Mastermind somebody the characters know and trust. Is it a family member? A trusted mentor? Their most valued NPC friend? The king or queen they’ve served faithfully for years? The DM has two options at this point—make the characters suspect their best friend and find out they’re wrong—or find out they’re right. A truly nasty Mastermind might frame somebody else, who will only be proven innocent at the last minute in front of a Detect Truth spell in court….

Making the Mastermind somebody the characters love and trust provides the maximum of angst and roleplaying opportunity. However, I suggest you don’t make it somebody too important to the characters—for example, probably not a husband or wife. The goal of the game is for the players to have fun, and completely devastating their characters’ chances at a “happily ever after” ending is unlikely to be much fun for them. But you know your players best. Choose a Mastermind who will provide the most emotional impact without souring the game. And remember, the Mastermind is an evil genius. Just because the characters finally realize who it is doesn’t mean the Mastermind won’t have long since vanished to a secret hideout in preparation for The Final Showdown.

1990s – Coup in Iraq


Saddam Hussein
Saddam Hussein
The fall of the Iron Curtain held the promise of an end to espionage – at least on the scale it had previously operated at. However, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and the subsequent Gulf War merely changed the protagonists. In the months leading up to the 1996 US elections, it is alleged that Bill Clinton was under pressure to do “something about Iraq”. From there, the CIA, again allegedly, attempted a coup to depose Saddam Hussein. The coup was unsuccessful (or never actually happened) and Hussein remained in power until his capture following the Second Gulf War in 2003.

Plot Hook

An operative, codenamed BETRAYER, has been embedded within Hussein’s personal staff ahead of the coup attempt. However, they have failed to report in for the last 3 days. The agents are sent into Iraq to determine his whereabouts and current condition.

Note: I ran a mission based on this idea via PBeM many years ago called Who Betrayed BETRAYER?.


CIA Coup Effort in Iraq Foiled
The CIA’s Secret War in Iraq
The Iraqi Coup of June 1996