Not too long ago, I had wondered how to do a spy-genre roleplaying game. There’s been a few out there, such as Top Secret by TSR (and the sequel, Top Secret S.I.), as well as SpyCraft, first released by Alderac Entertainment Group, which used a variation of the d20 Modern rules released by Wizards of the Coast. There’s been a James Bond RPG as well, though I never had the chance to see it.
So, it’s been done, right? Well, yes and no. While these games have most of what you need for a spy-based game – it also limits the characters in a significant way. You have your skill lists, and you have your gear lists, and the players are expected to pick the right skills for their job, and pick the right gear, and hope for the best.
Making Cloak and Dagger, I felt that this wasn’t going to work for the spy genre. The number of skills needed to be a spy can be pretty significant, and if you include the life skills that a person picks up over time, the skill list gets even bigger. Then of course, with gear, nobody knows what they’re going to need at any given point during a mission, so having a fixed gear list is a hindrance, not a benefit.
What I wound up doing was removing the skill list entirely. Characters don’t have skills, they have their attributes. They have an archetype – a template which the player decides on, which explains who the character is. Skills? Well, the game presumes that the character has whatever skills would make sense for the background and archetype. The player knows who the character is, and has an idea of what the character can do, so if something comes up, the player can say ‘yeah, I can do this’. If the game master doesn’t agree, he has every right to veto. If the game master thinks that everything’s fine, then he can decide whether or not to grant a test to see if the character fails. Otherwise, the player states what he’s doing, everyone lets it slide, and the story moves on.
Equipment works the same way. A character has a few signature pieces, which help define who he is, and that’s all that’s needed. Anything else can either be picked up at the start of the mission, or it can be presumed the character has what he needs to do his job. No real equipment lists necessary. Your character’s a mechanic? Sure, you might have a small screwdriver on you. Your want a gun in your jacket? Sure, why not? A spy watch? That’s fine too. If the player can justify it to the game master, the character has it. No ‘oh crap, I forget to buy this!’ sort of things.
One thing I’d often wondered about Top Secret – why did your gear have a price tag attached to it? Wouldn’t the agency cover that kind of thing for you?
The thing that slowed me down the most was building the agency. I wanted a system in place where the game master could build spy organizations of any size, and I got tripped up on the rules. That’s why I put the game down for a bit – I wanted a chance to reflect on this and come back fresh. Well, it worked. Agencies are now designed by the players and the game master (though the game master can prebuild if he wants), and the players get to choose what assets the agency provides, while the game master plugs in secrets for the players to discover and eventually eliminate. It’s simple, elegant, and fits the spy genre perfectly.
I’m looking forward to getting this finished, and I’d love to hear your thoughts.