An agent is born
Playing in an espionage RPG can be either agonizing or ecstatic. The result depends to a surprising degree on the quality of play rather than the quality of GMing. My advice to players is quite simple: Develop a good character concept, don’t sweat being captured, and don’t pressure the GM too heavily. Players who take this advice will find espionage RPGs fun and surprisingly easy to play well.
Picking personalities: The first step in playing in an espionage RPG is to create an easily played, entertaining PC. Many of the players who have difficulties role-playing are not bad role-players, but they simply have PCs that are hard to role-play. Espionage RPGs, no matter what the system, are very long on role-playing. Easily played PCs are a necessity.
The great secret of PC generation is what I call the “shtick method” PC personalities are built up of a few salient traits, called shticks, and minor traits, called quirks. These shticks and quirks are then played up for effect during the course of the game. The shtick method is method acting applied to RPGs.
A good PC should have 2-6 shticks in order to provide adequate depth of personality while retaining ease of play. Some of the shticks I have found useful are:
Ethnic — The PC can be a Scotsman, Russian, Italian, Texan, etc. “Ethnics” speak with accents and are always extolling the virtues of their native cultures and their products (e.g., a Scotsman always drinks Scotch and wears a kilt whenever appropriate, and a Texan always wears cowboy boots). These people should be played like stereotypes, not the real thing. If you, the player, can master the accent, these work beautifully.
Fashion plate — This is the killer fop, featured in Miami Vice and The Scarlet Pimpernel. Fashion plates are always overdressed and never like being shot at because bullet holes ruin suits.
Beautiful but deceptive blonde (BDB) — The BDB succeeds by convincing everyone around him or her, either accidentally or deliberately, that he or she is attractive but brainless. Unfortunately for the opposition, the BDB is a genius, a skilled fighting machine, or both. The opportunities for role-playing while trying to convince NPCs that the character is or is not a gorgeous moron are enormous.
Mr. Perfect — Mr. Perfect is a perfect gentleman at all times, no matter what the circumstances. He will always say “Please” and “Thank you”, acting in a chivalrous manner toward his opponents and gallantly toward members of the opposite sex. This may be hazardous at times but is extremely entertaining.
Sailor — The sailor is actually a variation on the ethnic shtick, except that he uses nautical terms instead of an accent. Sailors also are continually trying to upstage the army — any army.
Devoted spouse — The devoted spouse is hopelessly in love with his or her mate and will not react in the least to the blandishments of the hordes of attractive members of the opposite sex with which espionage adventures are stuffed. This is especially funny if the ihspousely is an NPC who is extremely jealous and always seems to walk in on the character at the most embarrassing moments.
Gourmet — The gourmet is an expert on food and drink, and will not pass up an opportunity to eat exotic cuisine. Gourmets drag the rest of the party to places where they can eat delicacies such as chilled monkey brains, and they are offended when the rest of the party lacks enthusiasm. Players who use this shtick should have at least a smattering of culinary knowledge.
Collector — The collector is an expert in certain items and is always on the lookout for unusual items in his field of expertise. A car collector, for example, might try to drive as many different cars as possible. Collectors can be annoying in their pursuit of their hobby, if the players so desire. Players who want to use this shtick should have a fair knowledge of the subject area.
Bad punster — This PC makes bad puns. No more need be said.
Stiff-upper-lip — The stiff-upper-lip PC is completely unflappable, no matter what the danger. Bombs go off, and she merely sighs and comments that the PCs may have to miss dinner this evening.
This is not a complete list of shticks, but it illustrates the idea. The bolder and more eccentric a PC’s personality, the easier the PC will be to play. Real-life spies may seem bland by comparison, but it must also be admitted that real espionage can be very dull, and the whole purpose of playing RPGs is entertainment.
Quirks are similar to shticks but are not as broadly applied. Quirks are minor preferences or dislikes that do not dramatically affect the performance of the PC in the game. A shtick dealing with firearms would be a refusal to use them; a quirk dealing with firearms would be a disdain for pistols. Other quirks would be:
— A preference or disdain for certain makes of automobiles, wristwatches, liquor, etc. The PC still uses items he does not prefer, but would rather have the “better” item.
— A preference or disdain for opposite-sex companions with certain physical characteristics, such as hair color.
— A preference or disdain for certain weapons. The PC might regard using a rifle as assassination, while using a pistol gives his opponent a fighting chance.
To enhance entertainment value, it is often advisable for players to coordinate shticks and quirks. PCs who don’t like each other provide excellent opportunities for role-playing, as do PCs who share interests. Picking shticks that maximize role-playing opportunities is a smart way to get good mileage out of limited role-playing skills.
Players who are new to role-playing are advised to start by playing themselves — not as they really are, but as they fare in their daydreams. Take your personality, inflate it, and play. For example, I am an aerospace engineer by trade, a collector and shooter of muzzle-loading firearms, a fencer, and a student of military history. I’m also good at fake accents. A character based on my personality would be Stuart Lee, an agent of MI-6. Stuart Lee is a Scotsman (ethnic shtick), who became a pilot in the Royal Navy in 1976 (sailor shtick). After the decommissioning of the H.M.S. Ark Royal in 1978, Stuart was faced with having to join the RAF or find work elsewhere. He joined MI-6. Stuart Lee is an expert on aviation (collector shtick for types of aircraft flown) and collects muzzle-loading firearms (collector shtick again). His expertise in muzzle-loaders has led him to be disdainful of repeating rifles, and he prefers revolvers (quirk). Stuart Lee is proud of his Scottish heritage and is even prouder of being a sailor. Needless to say, he bears a grudge against the RAF.
Voila: A character!
Skills: After creating the basic PC personality, the player needs to select skills. As a general rule, the character’s personality should guide skill selection. However, it should be kept in mind that both the JAMES BOND 007 and TOP SECRET/S.I. systems impose heavy penalties on attempts to perform any action without the appropriate skill. It therefore behooves the players to coordinate their character-creation efforts to ensure that each skill is covered by at least one PC.
If you are playing the TOP SECRET/S.I. game, it may be desirable to ask the GM for more skill points. While the JAMES BOND 007 game has provisions for creating PCs at three distinct levels of skill to accommodate variations in party size, the TOP SECRET/S.I. game does not.
Equipment: As with skills, the PCs’ shticks and quirks should guide equipment selection. PCs who like a given make of car will own that car. PCs who are Texans will arm themselves with revolvers, because they are more in keeping with the history of Texas. However, it is necessary to keep a certain degree of realism. A Texan might carry a revolver, but he probably would not carry a Colt Peacemaker unless he is a real fanatic about the Old West. A Colt Python would be more appropriate. A PC who collects firearms might try a different weapon for each adventure.
Some equipment, of course, is assigned by the GM. Such equipment should be accepted with a grain of salt. Assuming that the equipment issued has anything to do with the mission can be a bad mistake, leading the PCs on a wild goose chase for more such “needed equipment”. If the GM gives a PC a geiger counter, it is by no means certain that the adventure involves radioactive materials. Equally so, the fact that the PCs weren’t supplied with a geiger counter is no guarantee that they won’t wind up chasing radioactive materials. The equipment issued by the GM often has no relation whatsoever to the mission!
Sometimes the GM might issue the PCs useful items that do not appear to be useful. Players should take careful note of any side effects when they are issued items, since these effects may themselves be of use. Also, players should keep in mind that some items can be broken down for parts, allowing the PCs to make other needed items.
Finally, the PCs should not be above running down to the local hardware store to buy equipment or parts. If the PCs really need a geiger counter, it is not too hard to make one. While some items like vehicles and firearms cannot be easily bought or built due to expense, rarity, local laws, or complexity, many small items can be quickly located by a PC who thinks to look.