Written by James Swallow
(James Swallow is a writer who has covered 007 for a number of magazines, including work on the official Tomorrow Never Dies magazine. This article was originally printed in issue #20 of the British gaming magazine Arcane, in June 1997; this is a slightly edited version.)
Something of a poor relation in the roleplaying games field, the espionage RPG has had only a handful of titles to fill out the genre; Steve Jackson Games’ GURPS Espionage, with its supplemental scenario book, GURPS Espionage Adventures, TSR’s editions of Top Secret/S.I. with several scenarios and sourcebooks, Palladium’s Ninjas & Superspies and to an extent, Chameleon Eclectic’s Millennium’s End. But by far the game with the best name cachet is Victory Games’ late, but well-supported James Bond 007 system. Now long since consigned to the category of ‘rare and out of print’, the James Bond RPG still provides a steady base from which to launch spy adventures; but without new releases to keep the game fresh, gamesmasters must look elsewhere for inspiration and ideas.
“The Name is Bond, James Bond”
Given their popularity, high player familiarity with the 007 movies is almost a foregone conclusion, so borrowing plot ideas from them is a bit of a non-starter; while Victory Games made a bold attempt to adapt the films into scenarios by altering NPC motivations and story elements, in the end linearity prevails and the thrill is lessened when you know how things will end – conversely, Victory’s all-original scenarios like ‘The Man With The Midas Touch’ and ‘Back Of Beyond’ (sequels to ‘Goldfinger’ and ‘You Only Live Twice’) are more engaging when the outcome is fresh and new.
For GMs on the search for good ideas, there are a string of James Bond stories that are rather less well-known than the blockbuster movies; some years after the death of 007’s creator Ian Fleming in 1964, author Kingsley Amis (writing under the pseudonym of Robert Markham) penned ‘Colonel Sun’, followed much later in the early ’80’s by spy writer John Gardner, whose fifteen-book run was then taken over by Bond expert Raymond Benson (Benson also wrote the ‘Back of Beyond’ scenario for the 007 RPG). Gardner took the Sixties-era secret agent and brought him into the Eighties and later the Nineties, intact and still as suave as ever. As well as being a fine read and a worthy companion to Ian Fleming’s works, the ‘next generation’ of James Bond stories can provide much inspiration for referees to bring the espionage genre in gaming into the 21st century.
People and Places
One major element present in the Bond stories is their use of contemporary “props” – that is, story elements, locations and characters taken from the world at large. For example, the later Gardner books included ‘SeaFire’, whose villain is a media tycoon perhaps modelled on Rupert Murdoch or Robert Maxwell (a theme later echoed in ‘Tomorrow Never Dies’) and ‘Cold’, where the foe is an American right-wing extremist militia group. Both are bad guys with their inspiration pulled from the news headlines of the day; Compare them with the villains from the 1960’s stories, which were either Chinese or Russian Communists, or else your typical megalomaniac. Back then the Red Peril was paramount and the Cold War was at full strength – it’s only as you come closer to the present day that the foes change to become more contemporary enemies, like renegade corporations (Zorin Enterprises in ‘A View To A Kill’), the Russian Mafia (The Janus Syndicate in ‘Goldeneye’) or drug lords (Franz Sanchez in ‘Licence To Kill’).
Of course, if you still have a fondness for the Cold War you can always ape Tom Clancy’s ‘The Hunt for Red October’ and set your scenario a few years in the past. The post-Fleming Bond also finds himself up against terrorist groups and Neo-nazis, both unique adversaries that are products of the Seventies and Eighties. Consider the nature of world geopolitics and think about the classic ‘Dr. No’ baddie…would he really have been able to hide a secret base like he did? Perhaps the answer would be yes in 1962, but with today’s surveillance technologies and satellite imaging, there’s no way. A forward-thinking villain would be more like a terrorist, hidden (often in plain sight), swift, highly mobile and an altogether different kind of foe. In ‘Cold’, the eponymous Children Of the Last Days are spread across the USA in tiny cells, and it’s only at a summit meeting for it’s leaders that 007 is capable of getting a shot at them; in ‘Scorpius’, ruthless arms merchant Vladimir Scorpius masquerades as the leader of a wholesome religious sect, and in ‘SeaFire’ Sir Maxwell Tarn protects himself with a massive international corporate empire. Different times mean different enemies, and with a world picture changing daily, threats are arising from all corners of the globe. Modern-day espionage roleplaying games have the best kind of source material – the news; just watch TV or read the papers.
Another important kind of thematic “prop” is the backdrop, the location for your story. While some places will work no matter when your scenario is set (the Pyramids are still as impressive now as they were in 1977’s ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’), modern locales lend a kind of immediacy to scenarios – part of ‘Death Is Forever’ takes place on the French TGV supertrain (rail trips having always been an adventure staple!), the climax of ‘Never Send Flowers’ occurs in the Disneyland Paris theme park, and ‘Zero Minus Ten’ is set in Hong Kong on the eve of the colony’s return to Chinese rule. Another interesting spin on locale is used in ‘High Time to Kill’, which is largely set on a mountain peak.
It’s not that the traditional madman with his fiendish plans for world domination has gone away, it’s just that his motivations and his modes of operation have altered, as have those of the agents sent to stop him. But no matter where or who the mission concerns, it’s important to maintain the mood, balancing the pace of the story between classic Ian Fleming and the best of the feature films; lessons worth learning for the potential 007 GM.
Breaking the Mould
The traditional spy story comes in the ‘mission’ format, with the agents briefed on a task which starts the chain of events that lead to main plot, and the 007 movies have largely followed that style. Only ‘Licence To Kill’, where Bond takes revenge on a drug baron who attacked his friends, falls outside it. The novels chose this off-base approach on several occasions, with ‘Cold’, ‘Brokenclaw’ and ‘Nobody Lives Forever’ each featuring a beginning outside of the usual formula. With a campaign well under way, the referee can take a similar tack to break up the flow of repetitive plotlines by tagging events to specific characters – for example, ‘Cold’ opens with Bond receiving news of an old flame dying in a plane crash, an event which leads into the deepening plot. Having players take a holiday only to spot a known KGB agent in the company of an MI6 officer at their hotel is a great way to put them off-balance and pique their interest.
The later books also expand the horizons of the traditional spy story tool kit by introducing agents and espionage “players” from other quarters. The novel ‘Icebreaker’ features agents from the UK’s SIS & MI6, Israel’s Mossad, America’s CIA and Russia’s KGB as well as the little-known Finnish SUPO. And what of groups like the BIR or NSA? Shin Beth? BfV? Syrian AFI? It’s a safe bet that any country with a military also has a spy contingent, so referees can consider having agents meeting up with their opposite numbers from other parts of the world. There’s also the idea of corporate spying and industrial espionage, something that’s a permanent fixture of most cyberpunk RPGs. In Japan, it’s rumoured that the larger corporate conglomerates have a better intelligence network than the government – so why shouldn’t big business be ready to cheat, lie and kill to protect its secrets and gather those of others? As well as the idea of espionage agencies, there are those groups and organisations that operate on the fringes, like the Scales Of Justice, a group of Nazi war-criminal hunters from the novel ‘The Man From Barbarossa’, the ruthless Decada introduced in ‘The Facts of Death’ and the CABAL group from ‘Death Is Forever’, a network of double- and triple-agents each blind to the other member’s identities. Both are examples of agencies that have little or no loyalty to any one nation, pushing them one step closer to being classed as mercenaries, fanatics or terrorists.
Licence to Steal
As mentioned above, the Gardner-Markham-Benson James Bond stories are not as well known as the celluloid adventures and original Ian Fleming novels, so consequently there’s a fair opportunity to pillage them for scenario ideas. We’ve already covered some of the essential elements of these books above, but beyond this there are still more than a dozen novels worth of storylines ready to be pilfered – just make sure that your players haven’t read them beforehand! And not to forget, there are also the Dark Horse comicbook miniseries’ such as ‘A Silent Armageddon’,’The Quasimodo Gambit’, ‘Shattered Helix’, ‘Permission to Die’ and more.
Some of the plots can be placed into an ongoing campaign by swopping out key elements or NPCs; ‘For Special Services’ features the “return from the dead” of Blofeld, the leader of 007’s old nemesis SPECTRE…Replace Blofeld with your villain of choice and it can be Karl Ferenc Skorpius of TAROT or General Orlov behind the dirty deeds. Other ideas like the “hunter becomes hunted” plotlines of ‘Nobody Lives Forever’ and ‘No Deals, Mr Bond’ are classic scenario leads, turning the tables on agent PCs who might have become complacent in their missions. ‘Icebreaker’, ‘SeaFire’ and ‘Win, Lose Or Die’ are all good mixes of action set-pieces backed up with lots of scenic racing and chasing, while ‘Role Of Honour’, ‘Scorpius’ and ‘Zero Minus Ten’ have plenty of pacey intrigue and ‘legwork’ for players of a detective bent. While the James Bond novels might lack the gritty realism of John LeCarre’ or the technothriller aspects of Tom Clancy, they are nevertheless pitched to provide an action-adventure for the reader; and for roleplaying referees it may be just what your game needs.
- Colonel Sun by Robert Markham. Bond encounters Red Chinese agents in Greece after M is kidnapped.
- Licence Renewed by John Gardner. 007 is brought back into service, up against a nuclear terrorist.
- For Special Services by John Gardner. SPECTRE’s master Blofeld returns to cause trouble.
- Icebreaker by John Gardner. M16, CIA & Mossad team up to find a terror group hidden in Arctic Russia.
- Role of Honour by John Gardner. A computer wizard plots to destroy the Geneva peace talks.
- Nobody Lives Forever by John Gardner. Bond’s foes compete in a deadly game to capture him alive.
- No Deals Mr Bond by John Gardner. Double agent murders lead to Kowloon and a hunt by assassins.
- Scorpius by John Gardner. Bond discovers a connection between a religious sect and an arms dealer.
- Win, Lose or Die by John Gardner. Terrorists plan to capture an aircraft carrier.
- Brokenclaw by John Gardner. The villainous Brokenclaw Lee kidnaps scientists for his evil ends.
- The Man from Barbarossa by John Gardner. Working for the KGB, Bond squares off against a group of Nazi hunters.
- Death is Forever by John Gardner. Members of the CABAL spy network are dying in a dangerous conspiracy.
- Never Send Flowers by John Gardner. Bond faces off against a psychotic assassin intent on killing members of the Royal family.
- Seafire by John Gardner. A corrupt media mogul uses neo-nazis to further his mad plans.
- Cold by John Gardner. A fanatical militia group plans to take over America’s government.
- Zero Minus Ten by Raymond Benson. Bond uncovers a terrorist plot amid the 1997 hand-over of Hong Kong to China.
- The Facts of Death by Raymond Benson. The poisonous Decada plan to spark war between Greece and Cyprus.
- High Time to Kill by Raymond Benson. Bond joins a mountaineering expedition while investigating the nefarious Union.
- Doubleshot by Raymond Benson. The Union sets out to destroy Bond’s sanity in a deadly plan.
- Never Dream of Dying by Raymond Benson.
Also recommended: The Bond Files by Andy Lane & Paul Simpson and The Bluffer’s Guide to Espionage, published by Ravette Books.