Review: Spycraft Espionage Handbook
Written by Si Brodie
AEG’s Spycraft is a welcome breath of fresh air to the somewhat stale d20 products floating around ‘out there’. In the game you play the part of a secret agent defending the world (or at least your country) from the nefarious plans of a horde of super-villains.
Unlike many d20 games, characters take options from two areas, Department and Class. An agent’s department (background) decides where their physical and mental areas of strength lie (modifying certain stats) and also provides them with certain bonuses and abilities (similar to the stat bonuses and abilities provided by certain races in 3.5e D&D). The character’s class then defines what type of individual the character is. The main rule book (SHE, from Spycraft Espionage Handbook) offers the following characters: Faceman (a diplomatic master of disguise and bluffing), Fixer (the team’s B&E specialist and the ‘guy who knows a guy’), Pointman (a jack-of-all-trades), Snoop (the team’s information gatherer/hacker), Soldier (‘nuf said), or Wheelman (the team’s vehicle operator, mechanic and second line soldier).
Like most d20 games, Feats are a significant part of Spycraft and, including the ones in the 3.5e D&D Player’s Handbook, there are over 130 available (and this increases significantly if you pick up the plethora of supporting Spycraft books too). They are pretty well laid out and it is easy to see what feats you need to take a lower levels in order to get the feats you want at higher level, don’t expect to be a competent Martial Artist or Sniper until you are VERY high level in this game! In addition to the normal list of ability enhancing Feats you may be used to from 3.5e, there are also feats which provide resources, additional kit, improves your style/cash reserves etc – everything the modern spy needs.
This level of excellence is also seen in the ‘Gear’ section. The SEH contains a pretty broad (if somewhat basic) introduction of everything a new (and developing spy) might need and, when combined with the equipment available in the accessory books, you would be hard pressed not to find exactly what you are looking for. The only drawback (and, to some people, a strength in the system) is the fact that a certain amount of GM interpretation is required as to exactly what you can do with a significant amount of kit and how they interact with other bits of kit.
Spycraft, like many of the d20 adaptations, does not use hit points (HP) but has a ‘Wound’ and ‘Vitality’ point system similar to d20 Star Wars. Vitality points represent the characters ability to avoid real damage, such as diving out of the way of a barrage of bullets (and only taking minor grazes) or just narrowly avoiding the falling safe and just twisting your ankle instead of being crushed to a pulp. If you get damaged/wounded, it is taken from the vitality points, representing the fact you are getting worn down, tired, covering in minor cuts and grazes etc. Wound points, on the other hand, represent how much ‘serious’ damage you can take before you die! When Vitality Points are exhausted, any further/additional damage comes off Wound points. Also, certain damage in the game, critical hits etc, bypass Vitality Points entirely and go straight to Wound Points. This system makes for a much more lethal game than most. If someone puts a gun to your head and shoots you, you are likely to die in this game – as it should be I suppose. However, it should be stressed that this game isn’t (or shouldn’t be) about combat. It is about information gathering, problem solving, planning and maybe just a teensy little bit of gun bunny-ing.
Spycraft also takes the concept of ‘Force Points’ from the various star Wars RPGs, only in Spycraft they are known as Action Dice. Each player gets a certain number (and dice type) at the start of the game based on their level (with certain feats/abilities modifying this). In addition, extra action dice can be ‘earned’ as rewards throughout the game (for a great idea, for doing something totally heroic, and sometimes just for making the other players laugh). Action Dice can be used in lots of different (and very useful) ways – they can heal you if you are wounded, they can be used to increase certain dice rolls etc. They are also used to use to confirm a ‘critical’ hit (rather than rerolling to hit like in D&D). If you roll within your character’s critical threat range, you can spend an action dice to have the critical take place. Also, action dice are used to activate an opponent’s critical fumbles. Anyone who is potentially effected by the opponent, can spend action dice to activate the critical – the more Action Dice spent, the more spectacular the failure. However, if Action Dice seem too good to be true, it is worth noting that the GC starts with considerable more action dice to use ‘against’ the party and their dice are d12s. Not to mention that every time the GC awards a player another Action Dice, they get another one themselves for them the ‘bad guys’.
In order to simulate the thrills of the Bond films and the chase scenes of numerous movies, Spycraft has an excellent system of having a ‘predator’ and ‘prey’ in a chase (this system works for people chasing each other on foot, motorbikes, speedboats, roller-blades, you name it). The predator and prey chose actions (the higher you skills, the wider the choice of actions open to you). Actions are declared and, depending upon what was chosen, the predator/prey roll off against each other, the relevant rolls being modified by any effects from the chosen chase options. The winner gets to implement the outcome of their chosen action. Action cover things such as ‘closing the gap’, ‘ram’, ‘dodge’, ‘sideswipe’ etc.
In conclusion, Spycraft is an outstanding game system which is well supported with a wide and varied product base and a very loyal fan-base. If you fancy branching out into a different genre, this should be top of your list! Everyone should have a copy of this outstanding game and, with version 2.0 about to hit the streets in July/August ’05, there are no excuses. The revised version will provide a better selection of base classes and prestige classes, have loads more kit, updated feats (to create a more balanced playing field) and generally take an exceptional product and make it better. To top this all off, it will be fully backwards compatible with existing supplements (albeit some minor work may be required).
If you are one of those people who dislikes d20 games for nothing more than the fact that they are d20 (nothing like a bit of senseless prejudice eh?), then this system will make you rethink your viewpoint. If you only buy 1 RPG system in 2005, buy Spycraft – it rocks!