The game begins
Playing techniques can be divided into two broad areas: roll-playing and role-playing. Roll-playing deals with using game mechanics to one’s best advantage. Role-playing deals with developing a character and making the adventure more enjoyable for the players and GM. Both techniques are critical; roll-playing because it leads to a successful mission, and role-playing because it leads to an enjoyable game session. However, role-playing must take priority over roll-playing. The purpose of playing any game is to have fun. RPGs, by definition, deal with role-playing, allowing the players to become actors in a GM-directed movie. If a player dislikes role-playing, he should consider playing board games instead of RPGs.
Fortunately, roll-playing and role-playing are usually complementary. Good strategy and tactics are part of any competent PC, and it can be taken for granted that no player would deliberately play an incompetent PC. Good roll-playing is thus part of good role-playing. Also, both the JAMES BOND 007 and TOP SECRET/S.I. games reward the seizure of role-playing opportunities by players with opportunities to make skill rolls, earning hero points or luck points that can be used to influence die rolls. Finally, good GMs permit PCs to do the near-impossible if it’s dramatic enough, and these GMs help PCs survive the near-fatal if the PC has been entertaining. Roll-playing and role-playing do not conflict — they combine.
Movie spies and soldiers: Strategy and tactics for an espionage RPG depend largely on the specific campaign and the tastes of the GM. However, campaigns fall into two categories, about which some generalizations can be made. These are the movie-spy and soldier categories.
The movie-spy category deals with the classic spies of fiction. It is fast paced, dramatic, and not especially realistic. The JAMES BOND 007 game is designed especially for this type of campaign. As a rule, PCs in these campaigns tend to stumble across evidence of an evil conspiracy planning to perpetrate some heinous crime in the near future. The PCs may have a preliminary encounter with the main villain, but this is not certain. The PCs’ strategy should be to maintain only moderate secrecy as they chase clues. Eventually, the PCs will locate the base of the enemy. If possible, they should attempt to sneak in unnoticed, then gather information on the plans of the villains and foil them. However, the GM will often arrange to have the PCs captured for dramatic reasons. This is often a blessing in disguise, since the PCs can expect to be taken through the impregnable defenses of the base, be told the villain’s plans, and be placed in a deathtrap from which they can eventually escape to wreak havoc. When confronted with overwhelming force, the PCs should not hesitate to surrender. Caution should be used, though, since the GM may decide to kill PCs who surrender too easily. When one PC surrenders to a dozen thugs armed with AK-47s, it’s good strategy. When a dozen PCs surrender to one thug armed with a BB gun, it’s poor play and will arouse the wrath of the GM.
As a rule, the movie-spy genre is long on role-playing opportunities. Whenever possible, the players should try to get skill rolls in circumstances under which failure will not be devastating, in order to accumulate hero or luck points. However, the players should not push too far. Requesting a roll when a PC orders dinner is fine. Demanding a roll each for the dinner, the wine, and the coffee is a good way to get the GM mad.
The soldier genre deals with military and paramilitary operations, and sometimes with realistic espionage. Usually, the PCs’ missions will be assigned to them, with few instances of the PCs stumbling across evidence of a larger conspiracy that they must then eliminate. Secrecy and security are critical in this genre, as the PCs are usually reliant on surprise for the success of their operation and for their lives. Planning and preparation are also important for the same reason. Plans should be simple to reduce the chance of failure. Contingency plans should be made. Players should try to get all the information they can about the enemy in the time available.
However, the players should also realize that the more time they spend planning, the more time their opponents have to possibly prepare, and the more bored the GM will become. Sometimes, especially when pursuing an opponent, a quick offensive will take the foe by surprise and deny him time to set up a defense.
When attacking an opponent, soldiers should try to strike as quickly as possible. The ideal, of course, is for the foe to find out that the PCs have struck long after the fact. However, this is often not an option, making speed essential to survival. The more time that the opposition has, the more it can do to stop the PCs. Time should be spent generously in creating plans, and spent willingly to set up the operation by getting into a good attack position or arranging to delay pursuit, but spent sparingly in executing the assault. Speed is life.
Players of both genres, but especially the soldier genre, must be wary of double-crosses. Trust no one. Keep your full capabilities and strength concealed. Try to figure out why the NPCs are doing whatever they are doing, and how they would benefit by double-crossing you.
Above all, players in both the movie-spy and soldier genres must never fear to be bold. Timid players and plans are bound to fail. Bold players and plans usually succeed, both because they take the opposition by surprise and because they entertain the GM. In the real world, success often attends the bold. RPGs work the same way.
Role-playing strategies: Good role-playing has the same basic principle just noted: Be bold! GMs favor bold characters and allow them to succeed where a less flamboyant PC would be doomed by a roll of the dice. A good role-player is strong in playing his own character and interacting with NPCs, stronger in interacting with other PCs, and strongest in helping the GM create a dramatic adventure. Remember that espionage RPGs are like movies, and that the most successful movies are those that feature interesting characters.
Good role-playing starts with playing your own character. Whenever possible, do everything in the PC’s persona, speaking as he speaks and acting as he would act. If the persona requires an accent, use the accent at all times during the game. Use props, if possible, to get into the spirit of things. A chase scene is much more fun when the player whose PC is driving pretends to hold a steering wheel and the other players, who are fighting off the pursuers, fire their deadly .45-caliber fingers. Good players put playing first and personal dignity second.
Interacting with NPCs is another of the stock methods of role-playing. Doing it properly takes practice. Players must take the initiative, remembering that the GM is heavily burdened with running the adventure and probably has not had the time to detail every encounter. Players should also act as much in their PC personas as they possibly can. A player who says, “My character will order something to eat” is not role-playing. A player who says, “Good evening. I’d like to order some Argentinean quiche and a bottle of ’59 Tattingers” is doing his part. The GM can easily assume the role of the waiter, inquiring whether or not the PC really wants the Argentinean quiche, which is extremely hot, or the wine, which is not appropriate. (As an aside, when I, as a GM, had some players order the Argentinean quiche, I gave them Connoisseur rolls to order, and Willpower rolls to keep from grabbing a glass of water after eating.) Good role-playing is a nice, safe way to get hero or luck points.
Ultimately, though, interaction with the other PCs is more rewarding than interacting with the NPCs. For one thing, the other PCs receive the undivided attention of a player, as opposed to the NPCs that are played on a part-time basis by the GM. For another, the PCs have highly developed personalities. PCs can compete for the attentions of NPCs of the opposite sex, for numbers of enemies killed, or in finding restaurants that serve outrageous foods. PCs can be friendly toward each other, or can have rivalries. Players may wish to create PC personalities with rivalries in mind to enhance playability. Players should never pass up opportunities to play off each other.
Finally, the player should help the GM create a dramatic, enjoyable adventure. Part of this involves playing your own character well. Another part involves interacting well with other PCs and the NPCs. But there is more. The GM writes the general plot for the adventure, but the players write the script. Never pass up an opportunity to make a dramatic pronouncement or a good one-liner. And never pass up an opportunity to do something dramatic or entertaining, unless it would be wildly out of character or possibly fatal. If you need to steal a car to escape from a villain’s base, steal the mastermind’s Mercedes or a minor thug’s Yugo; leave the station wagon alone! Always keep in mind that the players and GM are playing RPGs for fun, and that it is everybody’s job to keep everyone else entertained.
As a parting note, the players should be willing to take on the burden of GMing, too. The GM bears a heavy load, and a group that leaves all the work to one person will find itself without a GM very quickly. There is no such thing as a competent player who does not also GM.