by Michael L McDaniel

In the last few years, the game market has seen a plethora of espionage role-playing games. However, the same cannot be said for advice on how to referee and play these games. In this field, selecting a game system, setting up a campaign, writing adventures, creating characters, and playing all require techniques other than those used in fantasy RPGs. I would like to offer some advice to those who are considering starting an espionage RPG campaign, and some tidbits I have found useful for experienced GMs and players.

The novice spymaster

Being the game master for an espionage RPG can be a lot of fun, if approached properly. To many GMs try to use classical “dungeon crawl” hack-and-slash techniques, with the emphasis on combat over thinking, that are inappropriate for espionage RPGs. The espionage genre more properly emphasizes problem solving and role-playing, with combat as seasoning.

The secret to being a successful GM is not to be a GM. In an espionage RPG, the GM’s job is that of a movie writer and director. The writer/director (GM) creates a backdrop for his movie (sets up a campaign), writes a logical plot and script (creates a logical adventure), hires supporting actors and extras (creates non-player characters), and directs the movie toward a climax (runs the adventure).

Game tone: A novice GM setting up an espionage campaign must first set a tone for the game. Real-life espionage is a contest of stealth, wits, and patience, while movie espionage consists of gunplay, seduction, and breakneck speed. The GM determines how exotic the plots will be, how unusual the villains will be, and how deadly combat will be. Making these decisions is largely a matter of the GM’s personal tastes and those of his group. Do the PCs want to be spies or military men? Are they operating in the present, past, or future? Do they want to adhere strictly to reality, deviate slightly, or be extremely exotic? How unusual do they want their PCs to be? How exotic are the gadgets? All these questions should be answered before the campaign can be set up.

As a matter of personal preference, my own campaign is at a “moderate” reality level, operating in today’s world. The PCs are spies working for or with the British Secret Service. Their opponents are usually highly eccentric but have workable plots to accomplish their nefarious aims. Gadgets are used sparingly and are never a necessity. Attractive members of the opposite sex are likewise used sparingly. The overall tone of my campaign is that of an early James Bond movie, which I have found offers enough realism to permit the players to use their wits and enough flexibility to permit full-bore role-playing.

Selecting a system: Setting the tone for your campaign is important because the two most popular systems (the JAMES BOND 007 game, by Victory Games, and the TOP SECRET/S.I. game, by TSR, Inc.) are geared to different reality levels. Because of their popularity, a new GM would be well advised to pick one of these two systems. This selection hinges on the flavor of the campaign the GM wishes to run. The JAMES BOND 007 game is fast moving, simple, and deals with the necessities of a not-too-realistic “pure Bond” campaign quite well. The TOP SECRET/S.I. game is more realistic and detailed, and it also permits the characters the options of being something other than spies (with the TSAC5 Commando supplement) and of operating in different time periods (using the TSAC2 AGENT 13 Sourcebook, TSAC4 F.R.E.E.Lancers, or TSAC7 FR.E.E.America supplements), although at a cost in complexity. For a swashbuckling campaign out of the later James Bond movies, the JAMES BOND 007 game has a definite edge. For a paramilitary or realistic game, the TOP SECRET/S.I. game is superior. At the moderate reality level of a spy novel, both systems are workable, and the decision should be made based on which system the GM is most comfortable with. If a GM already has a spy campaign set up, it is usually not worth changing systems.

Organizing things: With a game tone and system selected, the GM needs to spend a few minutes on organization. Who do the characters work for? What are the characters trying to do? What resources do the characters have at their disposal? Who are the major continuing NPCs? The GM needs to take a few minutes and figure out what the world looks like in his campaign. Characters can be employed by a government agency (the CIA), by a private organization (the RPGA Network), or by themselves (a la Doc Savage). Characters can have vast resources available (the CIA) or very little (the CIA after severe budget cuts).

GMs should be careful to not expend too much effort on organizations. The life story of the deputy assistant’s second secretary may be entertaining but has very little bearing on the game. Keep things at a general level. The GM should know whom the PCs work for and against, have a general idea of the available resources, and have statistics and personalities for the briefing officer, equipment officer, and a secretary or two. Save your effort for creating good adventure plots.