In 1837, British Captain Arthur Conolly coined the term’ The Great Game,’ but it was Rudyard Kipling, a British author, who would bring the term to the popular conscious in his novel Kim. Originally about the British/Russian espionage in their struggle to control Central Asia, ‘The Great Game’ has become synonymous with the ever turning world of espionage. By emulating that sense of shadow politics—and staying one step ahead of the other side—we can form the foundation of a great spy campaign.
If you want to set up a spy game for your friends, there’s a few things to keep in mind when sussing out your logistics.
Tone and Theme
I think of tone as something that effects how dark a game will be. One of the old live-action role-playing groups I belonged to had a player survey in which people marked their preference for “how dark” they wanted the game to be. Ranging from “the World of Dim Lighting” to “ink black” darkness, it helped determined how hopeless, gritty, and outright brutal the game could get. Sometimes I want to play in an entire game that’s on the ink black end of the scale, but usually I want it to vary. I’m not afraid to go dark places, but doing it every single session is a lot like Battlestar Gallactica was for me: something I’d end up skipping large parts of because it went beyond my capacity of enjoyment. The tone of a spy game, be it light, dark, middle or variable, is important because it impacts how the themes manifest.
If I ask people for spies in media, the top answers I get are
- James Bond (Bond movie franchise)
- Jason Bourne (Bourne movies)
- Michael Weston (Burn Notice television series)
These are all entertainment franchises that center on male spies, but their tone and themes are wildly different. The Bond movies have been campy, gritty, glamorous and even sexist, but they’re where the spy in the tuxedo trope comes from. Bond (outside the Daniel Craig installments) typically avoided gritty as a tone. It was fluff, with a side of hold your breath moments as you waited for Bond to escape whatever trap he’d come across this time. It’s overall been a fairly light series with moments of dark, as tone goes. Bond’s themes are (among others) espionage, sexual tension/relationships, patriotism/nationalism, his relationship with the British government, and Britain’s relationship with the world.
Jason Bourne is a franchise that tends to run middle to dark in tone, with themes of selfhood, control, conspiracy, and humanity. Jason wants to know why he is, why he’s done things, what he’s done, and to find the people responsible for the man he’s become. Burn Notice’s Michael Weston shares a number of Bourne’s themes, though Burn Notice is highly variable in tone, which I think is something that ports well to tabletop games.
Be it books, video games or film, pacing is often influenced by technical restraints. For video games and film (movie or television), there’s only so many hours before the story’s done, and budget often serves as an additional technical restraint. Books don’t have that same budget restraint, but they do have a finite quality. Time does run out. The story’s done. Pacing is one of the things I have the hardest times with when I run games. There’s pacing a given scene, each session, and the overall length. I grew up playing in games that never purposefully set an end point. We weren’t running on a timer. The older I get and the more we all have very specific time restraints, setting the timer has become important—and it’s helped drive the game forward better than any ‘rails’ our GM could put us on. We knew we had personal end points in mind, and that our last scenes were coming. It cuts down on a lot of table BSing and is capable of creating an extra sense of emotional investment.
For a game designed to have that sense of a narrative countdown clock, you can check out Orpheus from White Wolf. The game’s plot unfolds book by book, and when you hit the final book, your story ends with its last page. A lot of indie story games have that similar feature of endgame pacing (Fiasco, Mythender, Monsterhearts, Grey Ranks) but Orpheus was my first introduction to that pacing for a tabletop game. Consider your pacing needs when you set up a spy game.
In fiction, as in real life, a spy only has so long in The Great Game before they leave it—dead or alive. A countdown clock driving pacing can be a theme for the game as well, as a singular or group host of objectives may drive the narrative. Find the dirty bomb, unmask a mole, get out a vital transmission to the other side.
The game system you use may provide you with miles of inspiration (Eberron is one of my favorite settings for spy games), but history, literature, comic books, movies and television shows are all good places to look for a little bit of spark. I’m pretty fond of casting my net on history, because spies and secret ops of all kinds that have been declassified (or come to light) have a rich amount of material written or published about them. If you want to capture a sense of historical precedence, non-fiction is going to be your friend. Above all, listen to your players, go with your gut, and make sure you look over your shoulder.
Have favorite systems, settings or inspirations for spy games? Leave a note in the comments!