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Sunday, 15 May 2022

Smoke, Shadow, and Subterfuge

The Spy Game: A Roleplaying Game of Action & Espionage
takes the mechanics of Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition into the very modern world of international espionage and intrigue, of stealth and superscience, and of maladjusted masterminds and doomsday devices in which spies, hackers, assassins, femme fatales, and suave secret agents set out to save the world in the name of freedom and democracy! Published by Black Cats Gaming 
following a successful Kickstarter campaignThe Spy Game casts the Player Characters as Agents, members of a spy agency, whether a real-world agency like the USA’s CIA, the United Kingdom’s MI6, or India’s RAW, or a fictional one included in its pages or of the Game Master’s own creation, and undertake assassination, capture, obtain, sabotage, or surveillance missions—or a combination of any five of them. They will attend briefings, gather intelligence, and conduct fieldwork, all before attending mission debriefings. The rules in The Spy Game allows the players to create interesting characters from a diverse range of backgrounds who engage in a range of espionage activities including infiltration and hacking, equipped with a wide array of equipment, and the Game Master to create agencies, missions, enemies and threats. In bringing espionage and modern action to Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition’s mechanics, The Spy Game notes that anyone who comes from that roleplaying game will find a lot of familiarity, but also that it adds Infiltration to combat to expand upon the element of surprise and detection, gadgets which replace magic items—and which have to requisitioned, and hacking which works like magic, but only on computer technology.

Like any good, modern roleplaying game, The Spy Game includes advice on the use of safety tools. Not just on the use of the X-card and lines and veils, but also advice appropriate to The Spy Game and its genre. This includes advice on taking care when involving real world events and politics in the game, and be careful when involving torture as a means of acquiring information. Ideally, if it is used, it would only be a grittier type of game and even then a veil be drawn over it. The Spy Game also notes that whilst sex and seduction have always played a role in espionage, whether fact or fiction, there is no Seduction skill in the roleplaying game and again, all of the players will need to agree to its inclusion in a game.

The Spy Game: A Roleplaying Game of Action & Espionage is a Class and Level game. It has eight Classes—Face, Hacker, Infiltrator, Martial Artist, Medic, Ranger, Soldier, and Technician, each one of which has its own three archetypes, Proficiencies, abilities, and more. Backgrounds such as Academic, Athlete, Civil Servant, Con Artist, Criminal, Diplomat, Motorist, Outdoorsman, and Scientist, all add bonuses in terms of attributes, languages, and equipment, as well as special advantages, proficiencies, and a Feature. Each also gives options for an Agent’s Double Life, Secret—which is initially kept just between the player and the Game Master , Ideal, and Bond, all of which can be used in play to gain Inspiration as per the roleplaying mechanic introduced in Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition. For example, the Motorist increases an Agent’s Dexterity and Wisdom by one, grants Mechanics as a skill proficiency, grants him Advantage on Dexterity Saving Throws when driving or piloting a vehicle, gives special proficiency on motorcycles, cars, heavy goods vehicles, and mechanic’s tools, and provides the ‘Home Behind the Wheel’ Feature, which lets him regain control of a vehicle if he loses control of it as a Bonus Action. This can only be done once before requiring a short or long rest to use again.

To create a character, a player selects a Class and a Background, generates his character attributes—either by rolling or using the point buy option, and adds all of the finishing details you would expect. Multiple dice rolling options are given, but The Spy Game suggests that a player choose his character’s Class and Background first before rolling, or preferably, using the point-buy option. This varies from the ten points of a Gritty campaign to the twenty-five of one involving Super-Spies, but the standard is fifteen.

Rachel Rosen
Nationality: British
First Level Hacker

Str 10 (+0) Dex 12 (+1) 1 Con 10 (+0)
Int 15 (+2) Wis 10 (+0) Chr 16 (+3)

Hit Points: 6
Hit Dice: 1
Armour Class: 13

Class Abilities: Hacking, Personal OS
Skills: Acrobatics (+1), Athletics (+0), Deception (+5), Espionage (+4), Infiltration (+2), Infotech (+4), Insight (+0), Intimidation (+3), Mechanics (+2), Medicine (+0), Perception (+0), Persuasion (+5), Slight of Hand (+4), Stealth (+1), Survival (+0), Tactics (+2)

Proficiency Bonus: +2
Proficiencies: Charisma Saving Throws, Deception, Espionage, Hacking Tools, Infiltration, Infotech, Intelligence Saving Throws, Languages—Spanish and Russian, Light Armour, Motorcycles, Persuasion, Simple Melee Weapons, Simple Ranged Weapons, Sleight of Hand, Thieves’ Tools

Advantage: Dexterity Saving Throws
Feature: Escape Notice
Laptop, taser, padded armour, investigation pack

Background: Criminal
I steal as a form of activism, targeting the ruling classes and the corporate machine (Double Life); My plans for a heist could bring down all the major banks (Secret); I only steal to help the poor, with 50% of the world’s wealth in the hands of the top 3% of people – it’s time to there was some redistribution (ideal); I have a unique relationship with the detective who wants to take me down (Bond)

Mechanically, The Spy Game uses the same ones as Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, although there are changes. The first major addition is that of infiltration to combat. This expands upon the rules for surprise and detection, accounting for the Agents’ actions round by round whilst they remain hidden from the view of any enemy NPCs. This adds a degree of tension to play prior to combat itself breaking out. The rules for vehicles also cover chases—treated as contests, but complete with manoeuvres like ramming or weaving, and combat, including targeting parts of a vehicle.

One of the major additions to The Spy Game consist of rules for Hacking. Primarily the purview of the Hacker Class who can Bypass protected operating systems or password protected software, Modify software, or Attack. The Hacker can use hacking tools which he can install as executable slots in his operating system, which like physical tools and gadgets have a Calibre rating. Operating Systems have their own Calibre rating, Armour Class, and Hit Points, and thus their own executable slots, and when a Hacker attempts to infiltrate an operating system, his aim is reduce its Hit Points to zero and so corrupt its programming and security features. Although the rules for hacking do feel like another combat subsystem, they are not intrusive in the sense that they do not impede play in the way that they do in other roleplaying games which have rules for them at their core, plus not all of the hacking tools are designed to just do damage. Others map or copy a network, deny access, and so on.

A fifth of The Spy Game is dedicated to equipment. It includes just about every item, device, or gadget that the players and their characters can imagine—and probably more beside. If not given , then the Technician Class can actually build more as gadgets as well as boosting those already in the Agents’ possession. The equipment list also includes Equipment Packs, like a Diplomatic Pack, Investigation Pack, and Wetwork Pack, as well as individual items. Unlike some of the source fiction, The Spy Game does not use brand names, makes, marks, and manufacturers in its descriptions, for example, genericising its weapons. It avoids the designers and the roleplaying game getting bogged down in real world detail, but on the other hand, it does mean that the game loses a degree of verisimilitude.

The list of equipment also encompasses the gadgets beloved of the genre. So it includes Exploding Gum, Palm Flamethrower, Bladed Boots, Garotte Watch, and more, all the way up to close air support! Vehicles are added too, such as drones and buses, all the way up to tanks and ground attack aircraft. Gadgets themselves have a Calibre rating, from one to five, and do need to be requisitioned. The maximum Calibre of the gadgets available is determined by the Mission Calibre, a factor itself based on the average Level of the NPCs the Agents will face and the number an Agent can carry is determined by his Level.

The Spy Game’s ‘World of Spies’ focuses on spying in the early twenty-first century and how espionage has changed from the late twentieth century. Several real-world agencies are detailed, but it really gives space to new and fictional agencies, including their primary locations, agents and activities, and signature devices. These are the Operations Executive, a ‘deep state’ international organisation committed to global co-operation, co-ordination, and contentment; Taga Bunot, a Philippines-based agency which specialises in date recovery and prevention of blackmail, extortion, and smear activities; Streetworks, an agency whose agents consist of those who have been fired or forced into early retirement from other agencies due to injury, incompetence, or office politics, and operate on a lower budget; the Caledonian Spy Group or CSG, the spy agency established in Scotland following a successful bid for Scottish independence; Zodiac, an agency which responds to threats detected by data sifting by artificial intelligence; and the Hive, an organisation of highly distributed digital mercenaries. Some of these agencies do wear their influences on their sleeves, almost literally in the case of the Operations Executive, a very Kingsman-like organisation, whilst Streetworks feels like Mick Herron’s Slow Horses series of novels. My favourite though is the Caledonian Spy Group, a delightfully parochial agency whose creation feels all prescient.

For the Game Master there is solid advice on creating missions and mission types, and running not just the game, but also portraying and roleplaying the Handler, the Agents’ case handler or control. Campaign themes—technology, cyber warfare, and the effects of globalised economies—are discussed and options are given for running The Spy Game during earlier periods, from the Great War and World War II to the Cold War and the War on Terror. However, the roleplaying game does not go into too much detail about those here. Safety tools are again discussed, but backed up here with examples, which are useful inclusions, but a favourite section is ‘The Moscow Rules of Game Mastery’ inspired by The Moscow Rules said to be followed by spies in the Moscow of the Cold War. These are very nicely done and would apply to almost any roleplaying game. There is good advice too on designing traps and encounters, especially to highlight the particular roles of the different Classes, so the Hacker, Medic, and Technician will want to face technical challenges, combat Classes like the Soldier and the Martial Artists combative challenges, and so on. This also gives them time in the spotlight. When it comes to traps, the advice is also to build in vulnerabilities.

Along with really big vehicles like aircraft carriers and space shuttles, The Spy Game includes rules for creating villains and masterminds. These are backed up with both standard NPCs, including stats for the Head of State(!) and Survivalists along with their bunker, and fully detailed villains and masterminds. These include a pair of sisterly assassin, each of whom uses different methods; ‘The Con’, an incredibly lucky conman who fomented war between Andorra and Lichtenstein for profit, though thankfully no shots were fired; and ‘The Count’, a classic European supervillain! Both ‘The Con’ and ‘The Count’ have their own Legendary Actions with which they are likely to thwart any Agents’ attempts to stop them.

Physically, The Spy Game is for the most part, cleanly and tidily laid out, and the artwork excellent. If there is an issue with the layout it is that the section on equipment and gadgets is simply in the wrong place. It comes after the descriptions of the roleplaying game’s eight Classes and how to create a Player Character, but before the roleplaying game’s rules. So there are sixty pages of gear between an explanation of the ability scores and their modifiers, the Proficiency Bonus, skill explanations, and more. Which impedes Player Character creation. And surely the rules for vehicle combat should be in the combat section?

The Spy Game is very much an espionage roleplaying game which focuses on the here and now as well the tomorrow of the spying world in which its Agents are really designed to be capable or super cable. Although it can do campaigns set in the past or ones which are gritty in tone and mechanics, these are really asides and switches which the Game Master will have to make and research and develop on her own. Perhaps for either option, gadgets and equipment could have been listed along with indications as which type of campaign they would be suitable for. Similarly, a bibliography could have included for reference and inspiration—the equivalent of The Spy Game’s Appendix N. That said, the rules of The Spy Game could easily be used to run a game in the style of Leverage or Hustle.

The Spy Game: A Roleplaying Game of Action & Espionage takes the mechanics of Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition and adeptly adapts to an entirely different genre, successfully providing new character types and Classes and unobtrusive genre mechanics. The result is a pleasing slick and modern approach to the high action, Spy-Fi genre.

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