Cracking Cell Phones

Written by Glenn Davisson

Generic rules for incorporating the cracking of cell phones into your missions.

Note: This was originally written for Covert Ops. It has been genericized to work with any percentage based game. For a d20 based game, divide everything by 5. It does assume the game system in use has some kind of critical success/critical failure mechanism.

Download Cracking Cell Phones

The Making of a Spy

Written by Glenn Davisson

Joining the CIA

The typical recruit for the CIA’s Clandestine Service must be between 26 and 36 years old (though some exceptions are allowed, especially if they bring useful real world experience to the Agency), has a four year college degree (or be within a year of completing one – because of this, very few recruits are under the age of 21, though technically the minimum age to apply is 18) with a GPA of at least 3.0. He (or she) has strong interpersonal and communications skills, and has demonstrated an ability to think on his feet while working independently or as part of a team. Typically, he speaks at least two languages fluently, and he often has served in the military, or has traveled or lived in foreign countries on his own. He is loyal to his country, even patriotic, and is willing to follow orders he does not understand. He is physically and mentally fit, well trained in the tradecraft of espionage, and well equipped for his job. Most are volunteers, but likely candidates will be discretely approached by recruiters.

Those who wish to apply choose what position they are interested in (and may apply for up to four at a time). There will be an extensive background check (including polygraphs), and thorough physical, mental and psychological tests. Any evidence of illicit drug use in the last 12 months is automatic disqualification, as is most criminal history. (A traffic ticket or two isn’t a problem. Several dozen probably will be. Actual criminal convictions, especially for a felony, is pretty much automatic disqualification.) There are several in-person interviews, to ensure that both the Agency and the potential recruit have a clear understanding of what to expect, and to examine the recruit’s motives in wanting to join. A genuine desire to serve one’s country is far preferable to an adrenaline junkie who wants to play with guns and bombs. The psych screening can tell the difference.

There are no specific requirements for the college degree (and technically, the degree isn’t strictly required, but one has to be really exceptional to get in without it), but the degree should be related to the type of work one is applying for. Degrees in any sort of international politics, business or finance, and law enforcement/criminology are desirable for Operations and Collection Management Officers (the guys who sneak around in the dark doing naughty things), as is military service. Fluency is one or more foreign languages, especially Arabic, Chinese, Dari, Korean, Pashto, Persian/Farsi, Russian, or Somali is also desirable. Advanced degrees are also more desirable than undergraduate degrees.

There are four Directorates to the CIA: Intelligence, Support, Science and Technology, and the Directorate of Operations (which used to be called National Clandestine Service). Of primary interest to Covert Ops players is the last directorate, Clandestine Service, and this article will focus there.

Many recruits join the CIA shortly after graduating from college. Since they lack the sort of real world experience of military service or other non-academic endeavors (a job), any recruit under the age of 26 starts with the Professional Trainee Program (or PT Program) at CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia, which gives them “the opportunity to gain experience through a series of responsible Headquarters-based assignments that expose them to core aspects of the mission of the National Clandestine Service prior to joining the Clandestine Service Training (CST) Program.” 1 In short, they assist the headquarters staff in Langley in running the Clandestine Service, to give them a thorough understanding of what the field officers (and others) do. This program typically lasts two years. This includes managing field operations, from planning to clean up, as well as working with analysts and Targeting Officers to determine the objectives of field ops, and, frankly, getting coffee and donuts for the working stiffs.

The CST Program is CIA boot camp, mainly at Camp Peary (“The Farm”) outside Williamsburg, Virginia. Recruits with military service, or other “substantive work experience” start here. The program lasts at least 18 months, and teaches the recruits the fundamentals of their tradecraft. This includes martial skills, such as hand to hand combat, weapons training, and defensive (and offensive) driving, as well as language lessons and technical skills (and how to use the high tech toys the CIA is so fond of). But mainly it focuses on people – how to find those who are vulnerable to compromise, how to recruit, bribe, blackmail or seduce them, and how to manage them afterwards. Initially, this is classroom training, but as the program progresses, it changes to more and more field exercises, which can take place anywhere in the world, including foreign countries. These exercises can include making or picking up information packets from dead drops, meeting with long term agents, and investigating suspected leaks. Sometimes, these exercises are real missions, whether the trainee knows it or not.

Graduates of The Farm then go on to advanced training, tailored to their chosen specialty. There are six specialties open to new recruits (who are now known as “core collectors”):

  • Collection Management Officer (mostly an analyst)
  • Directorate of Operations Language Officer (mostly a translator)
  • Operations Officer (a field officer – a spy, but also case officers – the line between them can be fuzzy.)
  • Paramilitary Operations Officer (another field officer, but on a far more violent career path) (Another variation of this is the Specialized Skills Officer, who tend to be technical specialists in some field, such as aviation, maritime, military psychological warfare and/or information operations. They might be pilots, computer hackers, SCUBA specialists, psy ops specialists, etc.)
  • Staff Operations Officer (office support – often people who are not well suited for field work, but are worth keeping around.)
  • Targeting Officer (mostly a desk jockey who interprets the analysts’ work and
    recommends missions)

The duties vary, but all these positions are considered interchangeable to some degree; all have received the same core training, and all are certified for field work (though not all are certified to carry firearms). Nearly all officers spend some time as a Staff Operations Officer immediately after graduating from The Farm, even if that is not their specialty. Collections Management Officers and Operations Officers typically spend up to three years at a time on assignment in foreign countries. The other positions are usually based in Washington, DC, with stiff competition for the few overseas jobs that are available. (The Paramilitary Operations Officer is usually based in DC, with short overseas assignments being fairly common. They are the (para)military trouble shooters, for jobs that are intended to be violent. They have similar duties to military special forces units, such as Seal teams, and often work with Special Forces on particularly important assignments.)

Note: Graduates of the CST Program can become Specialized Skills Officers and Staff Operations Officers, but not all SSOs and SOOs are certified core collectors. Those who are not certified for field work spend their careers at a desk. All other positions are virtually always CST Program graduates, and have at least some chance of spending some time in the field.

Even once the recruit is fully certified and in the field, the CIA strongly encourages (and pays for) ongoing education throughout the officer’s career. The Agency runs several specialized schools that teach various aspects of tradecraft, such as breaking and entering, advanced hand to hand combat techniques, electronic intrusion (hacking), and so forth. The CIA also sponsors officers in classes at universities all over the world. While there is a preference for studies that apply to the officer’s job (especially language and cultural studies related to trouble spots), they are very open to almost any field of study, and will grant long leaves of absence to pursue advanced degrees or specialized education. The more diverse an officer’s skill set and knowledge base, the more capable he will be.


Further reading:

Agent vs Officer

A CIA agent is a local asset, usually a foreign national, who has been bribed, blackmailed or seduced in to working for the CIA. They are, essentially, a contractor. They may or may not know whom they work for. They may think they work for someone else entirely. A CIA officer is a full time employee, a US citizen, fully vetted with background checks and polygraphs and such, almost always college educated, and well trained at The Farm in Langley (and the CIA is big on continuing education throughout one’s career). This is the classic professional spy of fiction. Robert DeNiro’s character in Ronin is a good example.

The agent has a lot more discretion, being expendable and deniable. The officer has access to far more resources and backing, but at the cost of freedom of action. If an officer is caught by the enemy, a considerable effort will be made to get them back, up to and including a prisoner exchange. If they are caught by friendly local authorities, diplomatic means will be applied to smooth over the international incident, almost an unofficial form of diplomatic immunity. If an agent is caught, the extent to which the Agency will care is based on how much damage can be done by the compromise. At least some consideration will be given to whether or not the best way to contain the damage is to assassinate the agent themselves.

Diplomatic Immunity

Written by Glenn Davisson

If you’re looking for a real life-ish way to keep your favorite villain out of prison, give them diplomatic immunity.

This is a very brief (and over-simplified) summary of the US State Department’s manual for law enforcement in dealing with diplomatic immunity, available in full at

You know how you’re watching a movie or TV show, and the bad guy has diplomatic immunity, and he does something violently criminal and the cops can’t do anything about it, and you think, “Well, they’re exaggerating that. It’d never happen like that in real life!” Turns out, actually, it can, pretty much exactly like that. Sometimes.

Broadly speaking, there are three classes of people with different levels of immunity:

  1. Diplomatic agents – Ambassadors, mostly, and their immediate families.
  2. Diplomatic level staff – people who do diplomatic work, but aren’t ambassadors, usually with titles like “trade attaché,” or “undersecretary of importing toilet paper” – and their immediate families.
  3. Support staff – janitors, maids, cooks, chauffeurs, etc.

Diplomatic agents have very nearly absolute immunity to local laws. They cannot be arrested for any reason, they cannot be detained, they cannot be questioned without their consent, they cannot be handcuffed, no matter what they’ve done, even if they did it front of the cops. Their homes cannot be searched even with a warrant, nor can their official vehicles. They cannot be subpoenaed and compelled to testify in a civil case. If an ambassador is pulled over driving drunk in his official vehicle (with its diplomatic plates), he cannot be arrested, he cannot be detained, and his car cannot be impounded. The most that can be done is to offer to call him a cab, or drive him back to his residence in the squad car. All of this applies to their immediate families, as well.

The only exceptions are for self defense, matters of public safety, or to prevent serious crimes. (In other words, the “Your immunity is revoked” scene at the end of the Lethal Weapon movie is actually entirely realistic. Wave a gun at a cop and threaten to shoot someone, and it’s entirely legal for him to put a round between your eyes.)

As a side note, all classes of embassy personnel can be issued traffic (and parking) tickets. There’s just no mechanism for

  • Making them pay the fine, or
  • Making them even show up in court.
  • Impounding their car

And their vehicle registration (and plates) are issued by the State Department, who don’t care about traffic (or parking) tickets.

Where Hollywood gets it wrong is in what happens afterwards. While a diplomat can’t be arrested once he presents his credentials (they are issued ID cards by the State Department, and there are 24 hour hotlines to verify claims), the State Department strongly encourages the police and prosecutors to investigate and develop the case just like any other, and when they can honestly say “We would prosecute this were it not for the immunity,” they say that to the State Department, and State will ask the sending government to waive the immunity, with a real expectation that they will. (Interesting note: the immunity does not belong to the diplomat, it belongs to their government. The diplomat cannot waive their immunity.) If the waiver isn’t forthcoming, the diplomat being expelled from the country is pretty much automatic, and arrest warrants will be entered into NCIC, in case they ever come back without immunity (and they’ll never be granted immunity again).

Protection for diplomatic level staff is basically the same, only with a rather higher chance of a waiver being granted if they get caught committing a crime.

Support staff has rather less protection. They have no immunity from arrest for criminal acts, but cannot be prosecuted for acts committed as part of their official duties. (Whether or not something is part of their official duties, BTW, is decided by the court that has jurisdiction over the crime, not the State department or the government that sent them. Most judges are smart enough to not push their luck into international incidents, though, if the sending government claims them. This is useful in a gaming context in that spies are often listed as embassy staff at some level, and few state judges are eager to start an international incident.)

That sums up embassy staff. Interestingly, consulates are treated entirely differently (and governed by a separate treaty), because consulates serve and entirely different purpose. A consulate is there to issue travel visas to tourists, provide assistance to their countrymen who have problems, and keep an eye on trade and commerce issues.

An embassy’s purpose is to facilitate communications between the two governments. All else is secondary to that.

So “Career Consular Officers” (both the Consul and the senior staff, basically the top two categories of duties for an Consulate staff) can be arrested, but only on a felony, and only after a warrant has been issued by a court with jurisdiction over the crime. Their residences can be searched using normal warrants, etc., but not their offices or official vehicles. They have immunity in criminal cases only for official acts, and while they can be subpoenaed in civil cases, they cannot be compelled to testify. Support staff has only very limited immunity for official acts. Family members have zero immunity.

Also note that these are general guidelines, and exceptions abound, usually in the form of increased immunity for specific individuals, negotiated on a case by case basis with specific countries. The general rule is “Don’t accept anything as face value. Call the State Department’s hotline and we’ll tell you what you can and can’t get away with.”

Is that confusing enough? Imagine how your players will react when they have the bad guy dead to rights on an espionage charge, with all the evidence needed to lock them up forever, and the cops… just let them go… straight to the airport to go home.

DM Props

by Dru Pagliassotti

In the corner of my living room is an innocuous-looking cedar chest that I snagged from my parents when I moved out of the house. During the week it sits there quietly gathering dust, holding up a snarling gargoyle and a vase of dead roses. But during the weekend the gargoyle and roses are banished to the corner, and the lid comes up to reveal my array of gaming props.

The chest is crammed to the top with six brown plastic cases of painted miniatures (some are my own, some belong to a friend who’s taken to storing his miniatures at “gaming central”—my house) and two small grey plastic cases of miniatures (belonging to yet a third friend); three large rolled-up battle mats (two hex, one square) and one smaller mat (square); several handmade balsa-wood houses; a stack of six “dice boxes”; a basket filled with water-soluble markers and a variety of dice bags; a shoe box filled with painted plaster “boulders,” several pewter monsters, and an oversized lead dragon; a straw basket filled with small square plastic chits, a bag of cut-out green paper “trees,” an egg timer, and two oversized six-sided dice; and a third straw basket filled with little rubber animals. There’s no room in the chest for our small dry-erase whiteboard and pens, which are crammed in the den closet, or my sack of children’s wooden blocks, which is under my bed….

I was taught to play AD&D as a paper-and-pencil game. In high school I never used miniatures, never used battlemats, never used anything but occasionally a picture cut from a magazine to illustrate my characters. Not until college was I indoctrinated into the idea of using DM props. Since then, my collection of props has grown. Now I don’t know how I ever played without battlemats and miniatures, at least. The ability to draw the room, to place the characters and NPCs, seems indispensible to the game. Not only does it provide a center for players’ attention, but it brings a trace of objectivity to the game—no longer do I, as DM, arbitrate whether a person is in range of a spell or not. Now the players can count the squares and decide for themselves. This never mattered in my high-school games, but since then I’ve met plenty of “games lawyers” who will challenge my every ruling. I’ve come to love using props and items that make the scene easier to visualize, but the plastic “room sets” sold at some gaming stores are just too expensive! As a result, my players and I have cobbled together quite an array of handmade odds and ends….

A balsa-wood house with a removable roof often works well as our party’s Leomund’s Secure Shelter when it comes under attack, or as a house when the group is laying siege to a place. I’ve also created balsa-wood tombstones for graveyard adventures and use big wooden buttons as tables for bar fights. Wooden blocks work well as makeshift houses for fights in city streets, providing both an outline of the streets and something to put the miniatures on when the characters are lurking on the roofs. Gauze rags wrapped with quick-drying plaster bandages, and then painted with stone-colored fleck spraypaint, make great boulders for outdoor terrain. Cut-out green paper circles in varying sizes work well as trees or bushes—because they’re flat, it’s easy to place a miniature on top of one to indicate that the character is hiding within the tree branches. Using these paper trees also makes it easy to show the existence of cover … or of what’s going to start burning when the mage starts throwing fireballs around. Little rubber animals are much cheaper than lead miniatures, and I often pull out the rubber snakes, ants, or crocodiles for monsters in my Al Qadim game.

Educational stores provide a wealth of useful knicknacks for gamers. My favorite are the clear plastic squares used to illustrate counting problems on overhead projectors. I found a great set of clear squares numbered 1 to 99 that I use for mass combat situations (watch my players wince when I empty the plastic bag of these chits over the battlefield!). We use the colored squares to indicate the presence of spells, placing them beneath the miniature. A red square under a miniature means the character has a Stoneskin spell up. Clear means Invisibility, blue means Fly, green means Polymorph … and as the spells come down, we pull the squares out and toss them back into the basket. Some of my friends use poker chips for this, which stack nicely but come in a more limited selection of colors and are considerably thicker. For our high-level campaign, we’ve discarded the use of chips and resorted to using a whiteboard to write our defensive spell array on … a couple of thirteenth-level mages can have quite a bit of magic up before entering battle. One player is typically in charge of erasing spells as their durations end or they’re lost in combat.

In addition—and I can’t recommend this for AD&D players under 18—I once found a set of “adult” dice in a shop. I purchased them and now hand them to players who declare that their characters are going to go visit a brothel. “Roll them until you’re happy,” I tell them, and let them amuse themselves while I turn to deal with the other players’ after-adventure intentions. Hey—it’s that or let them have a copy of the Netbook of Sex to read, and dice are a staple of the game….

Props can be used for metagaming purposes, as well. After losing too many dice under the couch or behind shelves, a friend and I decided to create “dice boxes” to roll our dice in. We went to a crafts supply store and bought flat, stackable plastic plant pots and covered the bottom with a layer of felt to quiet the clatter a bit. The boxes work extremely well, and now I pass them to each player before every game. I also use an egg timer when I feel the players are slowing down too much in a situation where time matters; they have three minutes to act or they lose their turn. (Having the other players all hum the “Jeopardy” tune also works.)

The two last props I’ll mention here are music and weapons. My husband and I have slowly collected an array of classical and ethnic CDs that we use as background music for our games—Arabian music for Al Qadim, Japanese for my husband’s Oriental campaign, and so forth. One of my friends collects movie soundtracks, and when he runs Birthright we’re in for a day of Conan, Xena, and Hercules. Music works well if it’s primarily instrumental and played low enough to provide background but not drown out the players. I also collect weapons—daggers, swords, tomahawks, crossbows, etc.—and every once in a while I’ll tell a player to grab one and show me what she’s talking about. Pick a lock with a dagger? Okay, grab that one over there and show me how the tip’s going to fit into a keyhole. Open a door with your sword while you stand back? Here’s a rapier—go over to the front door and show me where you’re going to be standing. More often than not, actually hoisting a real sword or dagger will make the player consider how difficult a manuever would really be, and the idea is abandoned for something more realistic.

Quick Car Chase Rules

by Chris Johnson


These rules allow quick, efficient, and accurate means to incorporate car chase scenarios into gaming sessions. The rules lean more toward simplicity than technicality. They are designed specifically to be used without the need for miniatures or counters on a map, although such items can easily be used if desired. The entire chase can be kept up with on paper, and can most likely be done without any paper and writing if need be. The level of realism by use of miniatures and other game-aids is entirely up to the GM and players. Since such events often occur unplanned in gaming session (i.e. the character suddenly jumps in his car and has to run down a escaping villain) the system was designed to be quickly accessible requiring no prior set-up.

These rules can be used for pretty much any car chase scenario, whether they be a basic police chase in the middle of an adventure, or an elaborate Indy 500-style car race. They are also extremely portable and therefore not limited to any one gaming system.

In short, if you are looking for a quick, yet fun means to handle car chases, then this is the system for you. If you are looking for a system that allows for car design, car accessories, possibilities for any maneuver imaginable, and an elaborate counter-based mapping system, then these rules are not for you.

If you are looking for a way to do car chases on an even simpler basis, check out the One-Brain Cell Car Chase Rules.


This system is turn-based . In short, each player is allowed 1 maneuver per turn. There are nine possible maneuvers the player can choose from.

  • Maneuvers
  • Left Turn
  • Right Turn
  • Sharp Left Turn
  • Sharp Right Turn
  • Bootleg Reverse
  • Hard Accelerate
  • Hard Brake
  • Soft Side Swipe*
  • Hard Side Swipe*
  • Quick Lane Shift
  • Sideswipe Hold*

* Can only be performed when in close proximity to another car.

The Game Turn

Usually a car chase will begin with one car ahead of the other(s). Initially the GM needs to decide how far apart the cars are, in units. (A unit does not necessarily represent a given term of measurement in the real world; it is simply a means to keep up with distance between vehicles.) It is also necessary to decide initial speeds for each vehicles. Each participant must start each turn deciding whether he or she wants to accelerate, decelerate, or maintain speed. For the sake of simplicity, unless one or more cars use a maneuver Hard Accelerate or Hard Brake, this initial acceleration/deceleration is the same speed rate among all the vehicles. In other words, if a black car is chasing a red car, and the red car decides to accelerate, his rate of acceleration is the same as the other car. (This is for simplicity purposes.) Therefore, if both cars decide to accelerate on their turn, no progress is made between the cars and the distance stays the same. If one car accelerates and the other maintains, then the distance between them is bridged 1 unit per turn. If one accelerates and one decelerates, the distance is bridged 2 units per turn. Note: if one player wishes to catch up with another car, he should probably also do a Hard Accelerate for his or her maneuver that turn. i.e. if a driver puts the pedal to the floor to catch up with a car, this action would not be an initial acceleration (although he might have done that too), but the maneuver called Hard Accelerate.

Once the initial speed decision is made that turn, each driver decides on a maneuver. Any maneuver can be performed, except the Side Swipe Hold, which attempts to hold position against a side-swiping car.

Order, or initiative, is determined in one of two ways. If the chase is used in a roleplaying game scenario, then find the character trait most akin to speed or dexterity in that game system (GM’s discretion) and compare all scores. The one with the highest trait score goes first.

If the chase is being done independent of a roleplaying game, each player simply rolls a die; the highest roller goes first. Any ties are rerolled. Then the maneuvers are executed in the order of initiative.


As mentioned above, maneuvers are either movement, aggressive or defensive. Movement and defensive maneuvers can be done any time, no matter what distance lies between vehicles. However, aggressive maneuvers can only be done when another car is in close proximity. Only when a car has closed the gap between it and another by accelerating or Hard Accelerating (from the Maneuver Table) can aggressive maneuvers be done.

When a maneuver is executed, a 10-sided die will be rolled. Depending on vehicle speed, the attempt may or may not be easy. Consult the table below to determine what to roll, or less, to achieve success.

Maneuver 1-20mph 31-50 51-70 71-90 91-110 111-130 131-140 151-160 161+
L/R Turn 10 10 9 9 8 8 7 7 6
Sharp L/R Turn 9 9 8 8 7 6 5 4 3
Hard Accelerate 9 9 10 10 10 10 10 10 10
Hard Brake 9 8 8 7 6 5 4 3 2
Soft Side Swipe 8 8 7 7 6 6 5 4 3
Hard Side Swipe 8 7 8 6 6 5 4 3 2
Quick Lane Shift 9 8 8 7 6 5 4 3 2
Side Swipe Block 10 9 8 8 7 7 6 6 5

If the roll is failed, then the car has, to some degree, lost control. This may or may not be something major. Roll on the table below to determine what has happened.

Roll Results
1-5 Minor skid; only insignificant loss of control
6 Car tires hit a slick area and the car has to maintain speed and direction for 1 turn
7 Minor fishtail; there is an 80% chance that control can be regained, otherwise the car will fishtail for 1-5 turns in the direction it was going until it stops
8 Car careens on two wheels. Temporary complete loss of control for 2 turns_ Car sustains light damage
9 Major fishtail; there is a 50% chance that control can be regained; otherwise the car will fishtail for 1-10 turns in the direction it was going until it stops
10* Tires catch on something and the car flips. Car sustains heavy damage. Driver may be injured (GM’s discretion)

* Cannot happen below 40mph. Under such circumstances, reroll.

Any player using Hard Accelerate increases speed by 5 mph per second. This is added to acceleration also gained by the turn’s initial accelerate decision, if that decision was made. So a player who decided to accelerate on a given turn, then chooses a Hard Accelerate that turn would get an acceleration of 10 mph. A player doing a Hard Accelerate after having decided an initial decelerate would cancel out and maintain current speed. As mentioned earlier, distance between cars is also a factor. One Hard Accelerate allows for bridging 2 units. One Hard Brake causes a loss of 2 units. This is along with (not included in) the units gained or lost from the initial speed decision at the beginning of the turn. So, if a black car, having initially decided to accelerate does a Hard Accelerate, and the red car he is chasing does a hard brake after choosing an initial decelerate, then the distance between the cars is bridged by 6 units. Remember, units are not a measurement of distance covered, but of distance between cars.

If cars speeds are exactly matched on a given turn, then each player must roll a die. The player who rolls the highest gains one more unit of distance, and the other does not.

Note: if players wish not to use maps, then they can keep up with the distance between cars by keeping the number handy on paper, until the cars are in close proximity of 1 unit from each other.


If the distance in units determined at the beginning of the chase has been bridged to where the cars are 1 unit from each other, then a collision may occur between them. At 1 unit’s distance, a Side Swipe maneuver may be attempted. If successful, refer to the collision table below. Any turn toward, accelerating into, or decelerating into another car also causes a collision.

Also, if an object (another car or anything else) is in the way of a car, a collision occurs. (There may be instances where the GM may place obstacles in the path.) In the case of any collision, the severity is determined by a die roll on the table below:

Roll Results
1-5 Light collision; minor damage to the car; there is a 10% chance the car is rendered inoperable
6-8 Moderate collision; there is a 50% chance the car is inoperable; 25% chance of some driver injury (GM’s discretion on severity); and 10% chance of fire
9-10 Heavy collision; extensive damage to car; there is a 90% chance the car is inoperable; 50% chance of driver injury; 25% chance of fire; 5% chance of explosion

Note: If the collision involves two (or more) cars colliding, then this roll must be made for both cars.

When Only The Best Will Do

by Kevin Marzahl

In 1945, the Germans lost the Second World War, and for the second time since the turn of the century, they were forced to disarm. When West Germany was allowed to rearm itself in the mid-1950s, the remains of the Mauser factory in Obenhorf were given to a new firm for weapons manufacturing Heckler & Koch. Because it had no traditional designs and methods behind it, H&K was open to new ideas and advanced manufacturing techniques. The result was impressive. Since its first contract the G3 assault rifle for the West German government, H&K has turned out a range of excellent pistols, a versatile submachine gun, assorted rifles and machine guns, and even a combat shotgun. In the last three decades, H&K has become, arguably, the finest and most respected small-arms manufacturer in the world.

It is not surprising, therefore, that H&K weapons would find their way into espionage and related activities. One of the preferred weapons of the British Special Air Service is the HK MP5, an accurate, reliable, and compact submachine gun available in many forms. Even James Bond has had occasion to use the HK VP70 (see John Gardner’s For Special Services) and HK P7 (Gardener’s Icebreaker). Here are the gaming statistics for the H&K line of weaponry, as well as notes on each weapon.

Weapon Notes

HK4: This is the smallest of the H&K pistols. It is unique in that it may be chambered for .22, .25, 7.65mm,or 9mm short ammunition in a matter of minutes, simply by changing the barrel, magazine and recoil spring. This operation can be carried out in the field, provided that the user has the proper tools.

P9S: Although designed as a military sidearm (which accounts for its greater weight than the other H&K pistols0, it is an ideal police and security weapon. It has its own double-action lock, which allows it to be carried with a bullet carried in the chamber and the hammer forward. In game terms, this gives a shooter a +3 modifier to his net speed during the first shot determination.

PT (PSP): The “Polizei Selbstadepistole” was specifically designed for police forces. Two different magazines are available, an 8-round and a 13-round. It is a common weapon among the West German border guards and other security forces.

VP70M: The only H&K pistol capable of true automatic fire, the VP70M is an excellent weapon. Its holster doubles as a stock. With the holster stock attached, the pistol is capable of firing 3-round bursts. A civilian model, the VP70Z, is available, but without the the 3-round burst mechanism. It can, however, be fitted with a sock, as can all of these pistols.

PSG-1: As a precision, semi-automatic sniping rifle, this weapon is almost unequalled. It is normally made for single-shot firing, with a special silent bolt closing mechanism. However a 15 or 20 round magazine feed is optional. Fitted with a telescopic sight, it is deadly.

MP5: When H&K decided to add a submachine gun to its line of weapons, it used the G3 as the basis for their design. Its trigger mechanism is fitted for 2-, 3-, or 4-round bursts. No less than four magazines (for 10, 15, 20, or 30 rounds0 are available. In addition, it has many variants. The model A2 has a telescoping metal butt, and many others are arranged with varying combinations of sights, silencers/suppressors, and stocks. I chose to include the MP5K as a separate weapon, as it is completely buttless, has a shortened barrel, a fore-grip, and a higher rate of fire (3-, 4-, or 5-round bursts) having been designed specifically for anti-terrorist use.

G3: As the main rifle of the Bundeswehr since the 1960s (to eventually be replaced by the G11), the second most popular rifle in NATO, and H&K’s principal product, the G3 is obviously a fine assault rifle. It is actually a derivation of the Spanish CETME assault rifle. Its variation, the HK33, is for all practical purposes, identical to the G3, save for the fact that it is chambered for 5.56mm ammunition, and thus was not included as a separate weapon. A civilian model, the HK91, is also available, but with a rate of 2.

G11: NATO began new weapon trials in 1977, and H&K, not surprisingly, was given a contract. It chose to produce something completely different – 4.3mm assault rifle using caseless ammunition. After encountering some problems, the round was changed to 4.7mm caseless. The weapon itself resembles a carrying case with a trigger more than a rifle but, nonetheless, it is an effective weapon and ahead of its time. Most importantly, the G11 does not receive any modifiers from the Automatic Weapons table (Hit determination Chart, page 24 of the TOP SECRET rule book). the reasons for this deal with the weapon’s firing mechanisms are quite detailed; basically, the rifle was designed to counter the muzzle rise inherent in all automatic weapons. Thus, it fires three rounds at the incredible rate of 2,200 rpm and can place them within a 3(FM) circle at 500 yards, or a 6′ circle at 1,000 yards (a variation of about 1.5 mils, for those familiar with the system).

21A1 GPMG and 13 LMG: H&K’s general purpose machine gun is the 21A1, which can be fitted with a bipod (near the front of the barrel) or a tripod. It generally takes metal link 50 round (7.62mm NATO) ammunition belts, although a feed system can be taken out and replaced with a magazine housing that will take the G3 magazine. This change must be carried out by a professional in a proper work shop. The 21A1’s little brother is the HK13 light machine gun. It fires 5.56mm NATO ammunition from 25-round magazines, not belts.

CAWS: There is a growing interest in automatic combat shotguns in the police and military circles. the Close Assault Weapons System was developed by H&K and Olin/Winchester primarily for the military. It fires 12 gauge ammunition (which cannot be fired from any other shotgun), loaded with shot, flechettes, or slug. It is incredibly lethal at close ranges and is still under development. It bears resemblance to the G11, both weapons having smooth, snag free bodies (resembling a carrying case, as the barrel is not visible) with a carrying handle over the grip.

Table I: Heckler & Koch weapon weights

ah 7.39 4.25 br 5.4 2.45
bm 1.06 .48 bs 4.4 2
bn 1.94 .88 bt 7.93 3.6
bo 1.73 .79 bu 18.28 8.3
bp* 1.81 .83 bv 11.89 5.4
bq 15.86 7.2 bw 9.5 4.31

QRC – Quick reference code; see Table II for details.
WP – Weight in pounds
WK – Weight in kilograms
* These models come with a holster stock: WP-2.81, WK-1.28

Table II: Heckler & Koch Weapons

QRC Weapons PWV PB S M L WS Rate Ammo Cost Decp A C F P R HWV
bm HK4 Pistol multi-calibre
.22, .25 46 0 -41 -141 X VF 1 10 400 -8 3 2 5 4 6 4
7.65mm, 9mm* 48 0 -39 -139 X VF 1 8 5 2 5 4 6
bn 9mm P9S 47 0 -37 -140 X VF 1 9 375 -10 6 1 5 4 6 5
bo 9mm P7 Pistol (PSP) 43 0 -40 -143 X VF 1 8, 13 350 -10 6 1 5 4 6 4
bp 9mm VP70M 53 0 -41 -141 X VF 3 18 450 -11 6 1 6 4 6 5
with stock 60 1 -25 -97 X F 3 NC 6 1 6 4 6 8
bq 7.62 mm** High Precision Marksman 88 +6 0 -39 -91 S 1 **** 600 NC 26 0 5 3 6 16
Submachine Guns
br 9mm MP5A2 68 +4 -24 -92 -242 A **** **** 475 NC 14 0 6 4 6 12
bs 9mm MP5K 60 +4 -21 -84 -240 A **** **** 425 -13 7 1 6 4 6 8
Assault Rifles
ah 7.62mm G3 70 +5 -7 -53 -153 S 5 20 300 NC 20 0 5 3 5 14
bt G11 (4.7mm caseless) 80 +6 -9 -50 -100 S 3 50 1000 NC 23 0 6 2 6 18
Machine Guns
bu 7.62mm 21a1 GPMG 93 +9 -1 -33 -93 VS 9 50 925 NC 20 0 6 3 6 21
bv 5.56mm 13 LMG 85 +6 -6 -37 -97 S 7 25 850 NC 20 0 6 3 6 19
bw CAWS 93 +9 -5 -64 X S 3 10 1000 NC 20 0 6 6 6 18

* Short, all other 9mm weapons use standard ammunition.
** NATO: all 7.62mm and 5.56mm weapons use NATO ammunition.
*** At medium range, shotgun range modifiers are as follows: 51′ – 150′ – Halve the listed modifier, 10′ – 300′ – As shown. Shotguns have no effect beyond 300′
**** Special, see weapons notes

Final Words

First, fine weapons, especially those which are automatic, should be easily attainable by agents. This should be especially true of the G11 and CAWS, as they are experimental and very new. A system for equipment acquisition is found in the TOP SECRET Companion, and I highly recommend that Administrators use it, particularly in the area of weaponry.

Second, some readers may be aware that in the module TS 008 Seventh Seal, statistics are given for for the VP70 which are differ from those presented here. The difference are intentional, as I do not agree with those statistics. I believe that the version presented here is more realistic, but readers may choose which they prefer.

Third, some of you may notice that the ACFPR ratings do not tally to match some of the PWVs of certain weapons. This primarily because I used the guidelines given in Weapons Statistics. This was done to provide a more varied and balanced set of weapons.

Fourth, machine guns are potent weapons. If they are used in your campaign, Administrators should use the guidelines given in Now That’s Firepower!. For those using those guidelines, the penetration Factors for the HK21A1 and HK13 are 20 and 17, respectively.

Last, weapon design and conversion into gaming format is difficult. In research, differing (sometimes conflicting) information is found. The stats given here, I feel, are accurate. But sometimes weapons (namely the G11, CAWS, and to a lesser extent, the VP70) are very new with little use behind them; the only way to be completely accurate on them would be to fire them myself, and automatic weapons are not easy to come by. Readers may modify these statistics if, because of experience or knowledge, they believe that their versions would be more accurate. In any case, when you don’t want to take chances, break out the H&Ks.

Weapons Statistics

For Administrators and Agents


TO: Administrators desiring clarification of inconsistencies between the statistics found on the Weapons Chart and statistics as generated using the optional Gun Design rules.

BY AUTHORITY OF: Merle M. Rasmussen, designer, and Allen Hammack, editor.

PURPOSE: Because of the bulk of correspondence we receive concerning weapon-statistic incongruities and gun-design problems, we have conspired to issue a statement in hopes of alleviating rule misunderstandings. We also hope to explain our reasonings behind particular rules and statistics within the current TOP SECRET® Espionage Game rules system.

MESSAGE: Why aren’t the PWVs of certain guns from the Weapons Chart the same as PWVs calculated from their A, F, P, R ratings using the optional Gun Design rules?

1) Five of the weapons (a, c, j, k, p) have PWVs left over from the original TOP SECRET manuscript and were never modified during editing.

2) One of the weapons (j) is the victim of a typographical error found under Gun Design in the section on Accuracy. A Rating of 4 should have a PWV of -4, not -2.

3) Variations between similar weapons are based on specific performance data and subjective reports from users of various gun types.

4) Different weapons with statistically identical A, C, F, P, and R ratings had their values slightly modified to make the weapons different from one another for game purposes.

5) For game balance, PWVs were varied independently of the weapon’s A, F, P, and R ratings with a tolerance of plus or minus 0 to 19.

6) All PWVs on the Weapons Chart were assigned and are “official.” Weapons denoted a, b, c, g, h, i, j, k, p, and u-ee are inconsistent, but will not be officially modified at this time.

Why are designed guns using the Gun Design 20 or less trait rating total such poor renditions?

1) Unlike weapons produced by professional manufacturers who spend a great deal of time and money on research and development, “homemade” weapons are pitiful reproductions. Few espionage agencies can afford a private armorer or an in-house gunsmith, and are more likely to contract the work out or buy standard weaponry commercially produced.

2) We strongly suggest modifying the given weaponry to suit your needs, as opposed to designing new weapons from scratch. Homemade weaponry would be easier to trace than mass-produced guns because of the distinctive rifling marks, unique calibers, and ballistics behavior of these relatively primitive firearms.

3) Many Administrators disregard the 20 or less trait rating total and convert real-life guns to TOP SECRET statistics directly. Overall average PWVs for weapon types are offered here to indicate design standard guidelines. The proposed values are: Pistols 35, Carbines 65. Rifles 75, Submachine Guns 80, Assault Rifles 70, and Machine Pistols 30.

4) These average PWVs can be modified plus or minus 0 to 19. For random modification, roll a 20-sided die and subtract one from the roll. To alter the average PWVs subjectively, simply adjust the figure (within the 0-19 range) by an amount you deem appropriate. The widest possible variances are found in pistols. One-handed machine pistols are deemed inaccurate in combat and are given low PWVs. Their lack of accuracy is compensated for by their increased rate of fire.

5) The data in this document is suggestive only and does not comprise official rule changes.

6) Shotguns are a class of weapons unto themselves. Their design, suggested PWVs, and Range Modifier statistics will not be addressed at this time.

How are Range modifiers defined for weapons being designed?

1) See reason 3 under the first question above.

2) Different weapons with statistically identical A, C, F, P, R ratings had their Range Modifiers slightly changed to differentiate them.

3) Based on statistical comparison of compiled weapon data for TOP SECRET guns, we would like to propose the following overall averages for Range Modifiers:

  PB S M L
Pistols 0 -45 -145 X
Carbines +3 -10 -75 -195
Rifles +5 -5 -45 -115
Submachine Guns +4 -25 -95 -245
Assault Rifles +5 -10 -60 -170
Machine Pistols +1 -25 -80 -220

4) These average Range Modifiers can be subjectively altered within the following parameters:

  • PB: + (0-5), but PB can never be less than 0
  • S: + or – (0-9); randomly, equivalent to d10-1
  • M: + or – (0-19); randomly, equivalent to d20-1
  • L: + or – (0-49); randomly, equivalent to ½d%-1

5) In all cases, if the actual gun cannot shoot further than medium range (600ft.), its long-range modifier should be X (not possible).

How were the weapons chosen for inclusion in the TOP SECRET rules, and why were those weapons chosen?

1) During the research phase, some weapon descriptions were determined to be so sketchy and vague they weren’t even passed on from the designer to the editor.

2) Certain obscure notes made during research were not deciphered, and hence there was a question as to whether such weapons actually existed. These questionable weapons were never submitted to the editor: the .38 S&W (5 shot) small-frame side swing revolver, the .38 Llama and the 9mm Double col. mag. self load.

3) Three weapons had identical weapon statistics, but the descriptions were so sketchy none were included. These weapons are the .41 mag., .44 special, and .44 mag.

4) All of these weapons were pistols, and we had a dozen others with fuller descriptions. We also wanted to include carbines, rifles, submachine guns, assault rifles, shotguns and other weapon types.

5) We wanted to include common weapons used in popular espionage stories or used in real espionage and/or police work, not necessarily military weaponry.

The chart below lists statistics for some of the weapons which were eliminated from the original TOP SECRET manuscript for the reasons given earlier. Please keep in mind that the statistics are not necessarily accurate or complete. Note that each of the five gun traits range from 1 to 6. When comparing these trait values using the Gun Design tables, note that the phrase “equivalent to” means that the weapon acts like or fires the same as what is listed corresponding to the rating. The weapon may not actually be or appear as it is rated. For example: The Accuracy rating of “3” for the .44 mag does not mean that the gun has a 2½-inch barrel, but rather that in comparison to other weapons and in combination with the other four ratings the .44 mag fires as if it had a 2½-inch barrel. These weapon statistics are offered in the hope of further expanding the selections of pistols available to agents — and to their opposition.

Happy hunting!

vv .25 self-load 31 0 -54 -154 X F 1 6? 360 0 2 6 5 3 2 3
ww .32 self-load 43 0 -50 -150 X VF 1 6? 370 -2 2 5 5 4 4 4
xx 9mm Double col. mag. self-load 47 0 -46 -148 X VF 1 8? 365 -4 3 4 5 4 6 4
yy .357 Mag. 6-shot small-frame rev. 33 0 -40 -140 X F 1 6 325 -4 3 4 4 4 6 4
zz .380 self-load 45 0 -41 -141 X VF 1 8? 380 -2 3 5 5 4 4 4
aaa .38 S&W 5-shot small-frame rev. 34 0 -41 -141 X VF 1 5? 375 -2 4 5 3 4 6 4
bbb .38 Standard wt. 6-shot revolver 35 0 -41 -141 X VF 1 6 370 -4 4 4 4 4 6 4
ccc .38 Llama 47 0 -39 -139 X VF 1 8? 380 -6 3 3 5 4 6 4
ddd .41 mag. 43 0 -38 -138 X F 1 6? 320 -8 3 2 4 5 6 4
eee .44 special 43 0 -37 -137 X F 1 6 260 -8 3 2 4 5 6 4
fff .44 mag. 43 0 -36 -136. X F 1 6 280 -8 3 2 4 5 6 4


In reference to the article in DRAGON™ issue #49, concerning ammunition, the following clarification is necessary:

Gyrojet and microjet ammunition may not be fired from conventional firearms (ones containing firing pins). Such specialized ammunition is fired from cast aluminum launchers possessing electrical igniters. These miniature, solid-propellant rockets produce a visible burning tail and are not particularly accurate. The bonus to hit with such a weapon should be applied for targets at long range due to the acceleration of the projectile after launching.

Launchers may be used in a vacuum or underwater, since the projectiles carry their own oxygen supply to support combustion. If a launcher is used underwater, reduce all ranges by 75%; however, the damage from striking the target remains unchanged. Firing-pin ammunition may not be used in a gyrojet or microjet launcher. If they are the correct caliber, both microjets and gyrojets may be launched from the same device.

Residue buildup within the weapon barrel may cause the launcher to misfire after the tenth shot unless the weapon is cleaned properly. The chance of a misfire after the tenth shot is 5%, added cumulatively for each succeeding shot. Hence, if the gyrojet hasn’t misfired by the fifteenth shot there is a 25% chance it will misfire on that shot.

Gyrojet/microjet launchers operate off a simple nine-volt battery which is good for 30-90 [10x(1-6)+20] launchings. Cost of the battery is $1. Launchers cost $150, are pistol-sized, and may be smuggled past most metal detectors and some searches if they are disassembled. Launchers generally act as other pistols, duplicating their PWVs, Range Modifiers, WSs, Rates, ammo supplies, and other characteristics.



Guidelines for Villains

by Dru Pagliassotti

There’s one golden rule that every villain should keep in mind: “Don’t piss off the adventurer.” If villains could just keep this in mind, they’d probably get away with a lot more. But in the movies, in books, in comics, and in roleplaying games, the villains just keep forgetting this one fundamental guideline. There they are, almost at the peak of their power, and they go out and do something really stupid that … yes … pisses off the adventurer. And then the adventurer has to pull his or her swords or guns out of the closet, blow off the dust, strap them on, and go out villain huntin’ again. And you know who wins in that fight. Well, OK, in cyberpunk the bad guys might win, but in most genres, the villain just doesn’t have a prayer.

Machiavelli’s “The Prince” covered this issue pretty carefully hundreds of years ago, back in 1515, but cinematic and RPG villains keep making the same mistakes over and over. Maybe the stilted 16th-century language is a little too complex? Let’s review Machiavelli’s rules one more time, translated into 21st-century English.

  1. Don’t spend more than you can afford, because you’ll piss people off when you have to stop spending to conserve funds. Folks get used to being spoiled and get cranky when it stops.
  2. Don’t kill a person’s family without making it look good first (with trials, appeals to justice, all that). And don’t mess around with people’s stuff, like their car and house, either. That’s personal.
  3. Behave like you’re religious, even if you aren’t. Don’t say things that will ruin your reputation as a “nice” boy or girl, no matter what you’re thinking or doing.
  4. Let others do your dirty work for you. Keep your own hands clean and always preserve plausible deniability.
  5. Keep your word to your allies, or else you’ll just have two sides mad at you. Keep your underlings happy and entertained so they’ll think you’re great.
  6. Show respect to your underlings but keep them dependent on you so they don’t get cocky.
  7. Avoid flatterers. Yeah, it’s fun to be flattered, but they’re worthless and they’ll turn on you at the drop of a hat.

Pay a lot of attention to the second rule there. That’s Machiavelli’s ordering—I’d make it the No. 1 rule, myself. How do you piss off an adventurer the most? Hurt a member of his family or trash his house or lands. Just rewatch almost any action-adventure movie if you doubt me. “The Patriot” is a vivid example. Ol’ Mel woulda just kept minding his own business if his son hadn’t been shot down and his house burned, all right before his eyes. Talk about your stupid villain tricks….

Now, Machiavelli’s rules are basic outlines for successful villainous behavior. Actually, they were originally meant for “princes”—kings, queens, popes, emperors, presidents, Congresspeople, etc. But they’re broadly applicable to any villain. For their use in corporate life, check out the book “What Would Machiavelli Do?”.

Still, the devil’s in the details. Once that adventurer has been pissed off, what do you do then? Others since Machiavelli have helpfully developed a set of rules for the Evil Overlord. Much more detail-oriented, this is a good guide to behavior after one’s villainous cover has been blown and the adventurer is on your tail. (Villains should check out the evil henchman’s guide, too, to make sure one’s henchmen aren’t getting too uppity. Remember Machiavelli’s rule six, above.)

A villain might also benefit from checking out Sun Tzu on the Art of War. Especially glance over his comments on Weak Points and Strong—every adventurer has a weakness. But don’t get stupid and assume that weakness is the adventurer’s family or beloved belongings. Uh-uh. Those are actally strength drains on the adventurer—added burdens that the adventurer must deal with before being able to strap on the weapons and take off in pursuit of bad guys. Take these burdens away and the adventurer gets stronger … ’cause s/he gets mad. So don’t mess with the family and furniture.

How can a GM use this advice? If you want your villain to remain safe for a long time, pay attention to these guidelines. Your adventurers may know the individual is a certifiable bad guy, but they’ll have a heck of a time proving it (“Oh, but he’s such a sweet man—goes to church every Sunday and even paid for the Junior League’s fireworks display!”) … and they won’t have much personal motivation to go after the villain. On the other hand, if you want your villain to immediately become adventurer-bait, break these rules and watch the adventurers come running!

Planning for the Unexpected

by Dru Pagliassotti

Every gamemaster has faced it—that moment where the players suddenly come up with plan that s/he had never dreamed they’d consider … and for which s/he has absolutely no preparation.

One of the hallmarks of an experienced GM is that s/he doesn’t panic and doesn’t say “No, you can’t do that.” But how do those master GMs manage to not panic when all of the sudden they have to run an airplane hijacking when they’d expected a hotel break-in?

The Tricks

  1. Be Prepared: Every GM should have a file of miscellaneous maps and prewritten generic NPCs that can be yanked out at a moment’s notice. Many GMs buy modules and game accessories even if they usually create their own, precisely to have a library of emergency resources. For example, I mostly run AD&D, but I collect maps and modules from many other fantasy gaming companies and systems. A castle map is a castle map, and a description is a description—the mechanics are easy enough to replace from one system to another. I also buy modules I don’t plan to run if they have interesting maps or NPCs. Gaming companies will love this, but it’s true—a GM can’t have too many modules and accessories at hand.

    The prepared GM should develop a Master File that lists where each resource can be found. (For example: “large walled manor, Dungeon 31, p. 63”)

    GMs who run with computers by their sides may want to have a few key websites bookmarked—sites with NPCs, maps, monsters, or other resources they might need to toss in at the last moment.

  2. Listen to the Players: Most players don’t develop a plan out of the blue; they discuss it for some time before agreeing to a strategy. The GM should be listening to the players and noting which ideas are being tossed about. If an idea comes up that the GM hasn’t planned for, s/he should immediately jot it down and start scribbling ideas, pros and cons, and NPC names that can be used should that plan be the one the players choose. An attentive GM will seldom be taken completely by surprise.

    GMs should also pay attention to players when they say things like, “We should explore that asteroid someday” or “You know, it’s time to go to town for some R&R.” Someday the group will sit down to a game and the players will say, “We’ve decided to go into town for a few days.” The prepared GM will simply nod, set the planned adventure aside, and pick up the alternate adventure s/he wrote after hearing the players’ offhand comments last week.

  3. Evaluate the Plan Fairly: A GM shouldn’t nix a plan just because s/he hadn’t thought of it first. Instead, s/he should consider whether or not the plan should work within the logic of the game universe. Have the villains taken any precautious against such a strategy? Will the villains have any warning? Is there a simple way to foil the players to get them back on track, or would it require such a ridiculous sequence of events that the players would know they were being railroaded? If the plan seems reasonable and there’s no immediate way to foil it, then the GM should go ahead and accept it as a gamemastering challenge.
  4. Call a Time-Out: If the scenario is going to require a bit of preparation, the GM should call a 30- or 60-minute time-out. S/he might send the players out on a snack or meal run or tell them to spend the time perfecting their strategy so they can present it when the game begins again. Then the GM should begin rifling through his or her stockpile of maps and jotting down notes. Most players won’t mind the break—they’ll probably be amused and pleased that they caught the GM by surprise. The break shouldn’t last longer than an hour, however; otherwise, the players will get bored and the game’s momentum will be lost.

The key to not panicking when players decide to take the adventure into their own hands is to be flexible and well-prepared. GMs should remember that many minds are better than one—players will come up with plans the GM didn’t think of simply because there are more of them. When it happens—and it will—the GM should just smile, grab a map out of his or her stockpile, and enjoy the chance to run impromptu for a change.

You Win Some, You Lose Some

by Dru Pagliassotti

The last guest is out the door, the gaming paraphernalia has been swept away, the trash bin is overflowing, the sink is piled high with dishes, and the VCR clock is showing 2 a.m. Another gaming session over. And, invariably, whichever one of us was DM—my husband or I—will turn to the other and say, “Do you think the game went OK?”

Sometimes game sessions don’t go OK. The players or characters—or both—get into arguments, the day devolves into endless planning at the expense of action, the characters fail miserably, or the plot gets derailed and the DM does a poor job of recovery. Bad sessions leave everyone feeling frustrated and depressed, especially in the wee hours of the morning when sheer weariness is already putting a damper on spirits. The players are angry at themselves, each other, or the DM; and the DM is angry at him/herself or the players.

The trick to getting past a bad session is to remember Sturgeon’s Law. Nobody, player or DM, is perfect, and the occasional bad session is part of the gaming experience. Then take a deep breath and evaluate what went wrong and how to avoid it in the future. Both the players and the DM should do this either the same night (post-game reprises are common while driving home or cleaning up), the next day, or later in the week—whenever the session can be analyzed calmly. Most bad sessions can be grouped under the following categories.

Bad Plot

Sometimes the dungeon doesn’t provide the characters with enough motivation and they’re just half-heartedly going along “because that’s the adventure,” or decide not to go along at all; sometimes the characters don’t catch a vital clue and end up chasing a red herring for the whole session; sometimes the dungeon poses a difficulty that the characters simply don’t have the resources to surmount and that the DM, for one reason or another, can’t alter. The characters and the DM get frustrated and the session stalls in foot-dragging, endless planning, or bitter argumentation.

When a plot goes bad, it’s up to the DM to fix it. Enhance the motivation by making it personal (perhaps they didn’t care about the highwaymen until one of their NPC friends gets taken for ransom) or political (perhaps their refusal to take the mission irritates the local guildmaster, mayor, or noble, and the group is called on the carpet for it). Throw in another clue that will give the characters another chance to figure out what’s going on, or, if the game is running “on a clock,” at least try to put the characters in the right area when the theft, murder, or ritual occurs, so they have one last chance to stop it. Offer some way to get around the obstacle—maybe that magical barrier is lowered to bring in a delivery of food, or an acid-proof monster attacks the group at the edge of the unpassable lake of acid (so that when they kill it, they can use its skin to cover a raft), or an NPC is willing to sell or trade an item that the party needs. Problem plots can usually be recouped, especially if the DM is willing to put in some work between the bad session and the next game.

Bad Luck

Sometimes the party’s luck just goes bad, and there’s nothing the DM can do about it. The villain’s Sword of Sharpness lops off the cleric’s head and the rest of the group has no way to heal its wounds, falling quickly to the monsters; a Stinking Cloud engulfs the party and against all odds every member fails the saving throw; or the red dragon makes its perception roll and succeeds in killing or disorganizing the attackers who were trying to sneak up on it.

When either the dice or the plans go awry and multiple characters are critically injured or killed, the DM is stuck with the results (although see last week’s essay on dealing with die rolls). About the best that can happen is that the DM gives the surviving characters a chance to grab the bodies of their deceased companions and flee to a safe hiding place. This is often a good time to end the day’s session. Even though the players and the DM may be depressed by ending on a low note, it gives both a chance to come back to the scenario later with fresh plans and ideas.

Bad Dynamics

Sometimes the players or the characters, or both, start to argue, and the game devolves into bad feelings. If the argument is completely in character, the resolution should be in character—players who don’t want to spend the day arguing should try to work out a compromise, or the DM can have NPCs in the group do the same. In one game, the DM (through an NPC) called all the squabbling characters together and gave each of them 3 minutes each (using a real egg timer) to state one thing they liked and one thing they disliked about each of the other characters. Nobody was allowed to argue until everyone had aired their point of view. It was a fascinating experience, it aired out a lot of interparty conflict, and all of the players agreed that it worked well. The DM might also decide, after the party has been arguing, that it’s a good time to call a break for lunch or dinner. This lets everybody think about the problem as they go shopping, prepare their food, or simply sit around and eat; by the time the game starts again, chances are the players are ready to work the problem out.

When two characters just can’t seem to get along no matter what, and the arguments seem to carry over from game to game, then the DM should set some time aside to discuss the problem privately with each player. S/he should find out what the problem is and how the players think it can be resolved. Often in-character arguments turn out to have deeper root causes, such as one player thinking that the other gets all the DM’s attention. These issues can come out in private conversation, and the DM can then take steps to fix the problem.

Sometimes the problems are simply in character, in which case the DM must ask the players to please tone down the intercharacter rivalry because it’s disrupting the game. Good players will try to do so, and the DM can then work to put the two characters into a situation where they can become friends (the old TV cliche of putting two rivals in a dangerous situation where they must rely on each other to survive is a good way to do this).

If the argument is partially or completely between the players, then the DM must step in as an authority figure. Sometimes the argument can be settled with a simple rule: “No, that spell won’t have that effect, end of argument, if you want to argue later, talk to me after the game.” Other times the DM will actually need to call a time-out and discuss the problem with the players individually, pulling them into a separate room and asking what’s going on, or discuss the problem with the playing group as a whole. How to handle an interplayer argument is up to the DM and will vary from situation to situation (for example, a DM is likely to treat two arguing high-school students differently from two arguing spouses). However, the players need to be told that their behavior is affecting the game and given a chance to either work it out together or leave the session until they can come back to it with a clear head.

Once the problem has been pinpointed and steps taken to resolve it, the DM (and the players) should try to avoid a recurrence. Discussing the problem is a good way to get input from other players and to sensitize them to the fact that there was a problem in the first place. It’s not wrong to admit that a session went poorly—often just emailing or calling the players to say, “well, the last game wasn’t so hot, but I think I know what the problem was and how to avoid it in the future” will get them analyzing the game, suggesting improvements, and looking forward to the next session again.