Speaking of adventures…
Adventure creation is where the really imaginative GMs shine. Creating an adventure for any game system requires effort, and espionage RPGs are arguably the worst games to create adventures for. Many GMs have come to grief by producing weak plots, using dull NPCs, or placing too much reliance on gadgetry. But a canny GM, wary of the pitfalls of adventure design, can crank out a good spy adventure without much difficulty.
Plots: Plotting starts with a basic concept. The PCs in most spy adventures must usually find, protect, acquire, or harm a person or item, or else investigate a crime. Sticking strictly to these basic concepts leaves the GM with very few adventures, but variations on the basic themes will keep the GM in business. Changes in locales, methods, and equipment let a GM retread a basic concept dozens of times. GMs can also combine concepts. Perhaps the PCs must accomplish two or more missions at once.
After figuring out a basic concept, the GM must flesh out the plot. As an example, let us build an adventure around recovering a stolen item — to be specific, an atomic bomb. This basic concept turns up fairly frequently in modern spy stories because of the horrible effects of failure. The GM must ask himself: Who has the bomb? How was the bomb stolen? Where is the bomb? How is it hidden? What do the villains intend to do with the bomb? How do they intend to do it? And, most importantly: How do the characters fit into all of this? The difficulty is that the GM must answer these questions without plagiarizing. It would be easy enough to say that a criminal conspiracy has the bomb, that it got the bomb by having a double agent on the crew of a bomber, that the bomb is hidden underwater, that the organization plans to extort money for the bomb’s return, and that the characters get involved because they are sent to find the bomb. However, Ian Fleming did it first, and the players have probably seen or read Thunderball. The GM must vary the plot enough to keep the players from guessing what will happen next.
In this example, let us lose not just a bomb but a complete cruise missile, stolen by killing the crew of an airplane carrying cruise missiles and warheads that were to be destroyed under the terms of the INF treaty. The airplane crashed near Bermuda, but when a team of salvage divers arrived three hours later, the missiles and their warheads were gone. The villainous thieves have hidden the missiles underwater and plan to load them onto a short-range oceanographic sub to smuggle them through the inspections that any ship or aircraft leaving the island will soon be put through. Moving the missiles is necessary because the thieves cannot attack Europe or America from Bermuda. After the group escapes, it will try to extort $1 billion from NATO. The characters get involved because they were sent to Bermuda to help a Soviet defector escape and were escorting the defector to an airplane when they got word to stay in Bermuda and help with the search. This plot is tight and will not allow players to guess what is happening ahead of time.
With a fully formed concept, the GM is ready to create a plot. The plot should explain how the PCs get involved, how they can find out what is happening, and how they can stop it. The plot should detail the major options open to the characters at each point and describe the results of each option. It should also explain why the characters do not make a beeline for the major villain and why the characters cannot call in an air strike to demolish the villain’s base. Plotting is, in my opinion, the hardest part of writing an espionage adventure. It is also the most critical GMs must leave an evidence trail a mile wide for the players and never assume that the characters will interpret orders or evidence in the way the GM expects.
Returning to the example adventure, a plot might run as follows:
Event 1: The agents are sent to Bermuda to help a Soviet oceanographer defect to the West.
Event 2: The agents meet the Soviet oceanographer at a lecture and make arrangements for his escape. They also meet the criminal mastermind who will steal the bombs, who is at the conference working undercover as an oceanographer. The agents will be invited (as part of a larger group of researchers) aboard the mastermind’s research ship.
Event 3: The agents help the Soviet oceanographer escape his KGB guards, and they are allowed to stay in Bermuda for a few days.
Event 4: The agents go on a tour of the masterminds ship and are allowed to see the revolutionary new long-endurance research sub that the mastermind has developed. They also go on an underwater shark-hunting expedition with the master-mind (and almost get killed).
Event 5: The agents are informed that an aircraft carrying two nuclear-armed cruise missiles crashed into the sea 10 miles offshore, and they are ordered to stay in Bermuda as a routine precaution.
Event 6: The agents are informed that the airplane crashed in about 150′ of water, and that the missiles are missing. Autopsies of the crewmen show that they were murdered. The agents are assigned to help track down the missiles and warheads. They are also told that the missiles do not have sufficient range to attack any populated mainland area from Bermuda. The agents should be able to figure out for themselves that this will require that the missiles be moved, and they can suggest that investigations concentrate on this aspect. The character who suggests this should receive an experience-point bonus (or its equivalent). If none of the agents makes the suggestion, an NPC does. The agents are told that normal customs agents are capable of inspecting airliners and cargo ships, and they are directed to check unusual modes of transportation. They are issued compact geiger counters and instructions on the care and defusing of the nuclear warheads. Last, the agents are informed that the public is not being told about the warheads at this moment.
Event 7: The agents are accosted by a young, attractive reporter who is suspicious about the crash and is trying to get more information. The agents may try to brush the reporter off, but she follows the agents wherever they go. The reporter is introduced as a romantic interest and to keep the agents off balance.
Event 8: By this time, the agents should be suspicious of the mastermind, who has a submarine capable of transporting the missiles several hundred miles. Agents who get close to the sub find that it is radioactive. Anyone who asks questions about this is taken prisoner.
Event 9: Since the PCs do not know where the warheads are, they must stow away on the mastermind’s research ship, which houses the sub. The PCs must sneak aboard and remain undetected until the warheads are found, and must then foil the masterminds plan. Their job is complicated by the fact that the reporter who has been hounding the PCs was captured while trying to sneak aboard and will soon be killed by the mastermind.
Event 10: A firefight breaks out aboard the ship, with the agents assumedly trashing the ship and sub in a spectacular manner (while rescuing the reporter).
It should be remembered that this is only a rough plot. The details of what to do take time to develop. What if the PCs don’t go on the masterminds ship? Can an encounter in a casino be squeezed between the lecture with the Soviet oceanographer and his defection? Plotting is a game of “What If?”; the homework that the GM puts in will show when the adventure is run.
Non-player characters: Espionage games are longer on character interplay and shorter on combat than many other games, placing a premium on good NPC creation and role-playing. Unfortunately, many GMs have not mastered the art of creating and running NPCs — an art that is surprisingly easy to learn if approached properly. Too many GMs create legions of highly detailed but dull NPCs for each adventure; they spend hours creating these NPCs and sweat blood playing them, but the GMs still come out of game sessions with bad reputations.
Creative laziness is the secret to a good NPC. The GM should treat his campaigning roles up into supporting actors and setting and adventures like a movie, breaking roles up into supporting actors and extras. And, like a movie, the GM should minimize the number of supporting actors to save effort. A good example are the James Bond movies. James Bond works for MI-6, a relatively large organization, How many people from MI-6 regularly show up? Usually about three (M, Q, and Miss Moneypenny).
After deciding which supporting actor NPCs he must have, the GM should develop their personalities. Remember that you, as a GM, are going to be extremely busy. Simple, eccentric personalities with big role-playing handles are best, not subtle personalities that take hours to develop. Again, using the James Bond movies as an example, let’s look at the three people in MI-6 with whom James Bond usually works. M is a former sailor who is very serious; Q thinks Bond shouldn’t be trusted with anything more complex than a pocketknife; and Moneypenny is in love with Bond. These are simple personalities that the movie audience can easily understand with only a few seconds exposure. A GM should try for the same ease of understanding.
Villains and major romantic interests should receive the same treatment. These NPCs, because the PCs deal with them so often, require more detail than others, but the principles of simplicity and eccentricity still hold true. Three or four personality characteristics each (and the reasons why each NPC has them) are sufficient.
Naturally, it is a waste to throw away good supporting-actor NPCs after one adventure. GMs should retain NPCs by having the PCs always deal with the same few people in their own organization and by having the master villains escape whenever possible. This lends continuity to a campaign and adds to the satisfaction of the players when their agents finally catch the villains who have dogged them for the last four missions.
The principle of creative laziness also extends to extras. Extras run the car-rental counters, act as waiters, and perform countless other jobs. Smart GMs spend as little time as possible on extras, preferring to concentrate on the supporting actors. However, some characterization is required. A good idea is to take a phone book and piece together a list of first and last names, using this list for extras. For an extra, a name is half his personality. The rest can be handled by notes on the NPC’s appearance and, perhaps, a stereotyped personality.
Gadgets: Gadgets, or the lack of them, are an integral part of any espionage RPG, whether in a straight espionage setup or a paramilitary campaign. The GM must set a “gadget level” when he starts his campaign, deciding how much equipment the agents are allowed to have. Do the characters get tons of deadly laser watches and explosive pens, or merely a short lecture about the limited budget of the agency? It’s all up to the GM.
In any case, the GM should not overuse gadgets and should never place the PCs in a situation where they must have a certain gadget to succeed or survive. A gadget should be a luxury, not a necessity. In my opinion, the primary use of gadgets is for flavor. Picking up gadgets from their none-too-sane designers can be a major event in itself and should be exploited. The choice of gadgets can be used to send the players on a wild goose chase, if they assume the gadgets have something to do with the adventure. The GM should also consider that a widget whose primary function is useless in an adventure may have a useful side effect. Gadgets are props for atmosphere, not crutches for the PCs.
Resources: Writing adventures requires a wide variety of resources, covering everything from plot ideas to geography. Just as a good movie writer and director must ensure that a movie is technically accurate, a good GM should take the same care with adventures. In my experience, GMs usually need help with plot ideas, equipment, and geography. The following are good resources in these areas:
Plot ideas — Any spy novels will help here, including the James Bond series, by Ian Fleming and John Gardner; the Matt Helm series, by Donald Hamilton; and any other spy or mystery novels. You can also use some TV shows (most notably The Avengers and The Wild, Wild West) and spy movies, including the James Bond movies (often available on video).
A warning: Under no circumstances whatsoever should the GM copy these plots verbatim! Not only is this a form of plagiarism, but the players may have seen the same show or read the same book. Furthermore, the plots may not be adaptable to your group. Instead, swipe plot elements and ideas from several sources (carefully filing off the serial numbers) and splice them together into a new plot. One of the best examples of this is in Victory Games’ Dr. No adventure for the JAMES BOND 007 game. This is a mishmash of ideas from the book and the movie, with some creative twists thrown in by Victory Games. The result is an adventure that is new, with only a passing resemblance to either of its parents. A GM who can match those standards cannot go far wrong.
Equipment — The JAMES BOND 007 Q Manual, by Victory Games, is a good overview, with detailed drawings, descriptions, and statistics for a wide variety of weapons, vehicles, and equipment. Back issues of Car and Driver, Road and Track, and Motor Trend magazines are great for finding the latest information on cars. Popular Mechanics and Popular Science are always full of interesting goodies. Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft is the definitive reference on aircraft. Small Arms of the World, by Ed Ezell, is the definitive Spy movies are good guides to indicate how outlandish the exotic gadgets can get.
When selecting equipment, it is imperative that the GM try for believability. Even the most outrageous gadgets should have a rational explanation. Above all, avoid glaring blunders. Having the master villain’s base be aboard an airship is fine. Having this airship be only 100′ long is bad since the Goodyear blimps are each just under 200′ long, and those are considered tiny. A length of 800′-900′ would be about right. I mention the airship base because precisely that sort of mistake was made in Victory Games’ View to a Kill adventure.
When locating most of these reference books, try a good library. I would recommend buying the Q Manual no matter which game system you use, but the other books are expensive and are not worth the investment when a library has them. A library may also have books on espionage and military equipment that can be of use. Finally, a good encyclopedia is an invaluable reference, and every GM should have access to one.
Geography — An encyclopedia is necessary for accurate information on exotic locales, and atlases are mandatory for their maps. The JAMES BOND 007 supplement For Your Information supplies game information and places of interest for a wide variety of cities. The TOP SECRET/S.I. boxed game contains a set of generic building-interior maps, invaluable when the GM needs a generic office layout. The real-estate supplement of any major newspaper has floor plans for large houses that can sometimes be adapted into mansions for a master villain. A globe or world map is handy for determining distances and travel times on trips, as well as to simply locate foreign places.
Since PCs in espionage RPGs invariably travel all over the world, it behooves the GM to have some information concerning the world in which the PCs operate. This information need not be detailed but should be sufficient for the GM to let the players know when their PCs aren’t in Kansas any more.