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Saturday 1 April 2023

Solitaire: Numb3r Stations

Throughout the Cold War and even today, secret messages were broadcast across international borders and around the world, enabling instructions to be passed from handlers to their agents in the field. The means were Number Stations, shortwave radio stations which broadcast formatted numbers, often vocalised, but also broadcast as music or in Morse Code. Perhaps one of the most famous is the ‘LincolnshirePoacher’, which broadcast bars from the English folk song ‘The Lincolnshire Poacher’. These Number Stations and the messages they broadcast form the basis for Numb3r Stations – A Solo RPG. Published by LunarShadow Designs and available in print here, the reader and player takes on the role of a spy posted to a foreign country where he will undertake an important mission. Tuning in to regular broadcasts, he will receive instructions and updates and in turn pass back news of the mission’s progress and what he has learned so far. However, successfully or spectacularly completing each stage of the mission has a price—it brings the activities of our patriotic spy to the attention of counter-intelligence operations in the country he is spying upon. Ultimately, if the spy is too successful, counter-intelligence will identify him as a spy and arrest him. This is espionage in the style of John le Carré and George Smiley rather than Ian Fleming and James Bond.

Solo roleplaying games and journalling games are built around prompts, typically generated in random fashion either through rolling dice or drawing cards from a standard deck of playing cards. Using those prompts, the player typically creates and resolves a scene or encounter, and then writes it down in his journal. Numb3r Stations also uses prompts, but instead of using neutral mechanical means of generating them, it uses prompts that are both random and highly thematic. In other words, it uses the Number Stations and their broadcasts as prompts. During the Cold War, an agent would listen to the designated number station for the code being broadcast and use it to decode a message on a one-time-pad. In Numb3r Stations, the player is doing exactly the same, if not to commit acts of espionage himself, then to tell the story of the agent and his mission.
Nevertheless, there is a sense of vicarious subterfuge to Numb3r Stations, as the player listens in, knowing that someone else once did the same on some secret mission far away from his home, or even could be on a secret mission right now, depending upon which number station the player decides to listen to and use for the source of his prompts.

To play Numb3r Stations, the player requires pen and paper and ideally, access to Priyom.org. This site provide numerous number stations to listen to and all the player has to do is select one to generate a random three-digit code. This is his prompt. Alternative methods of generating this number are also suggested, but for real immersion, the authors suggest using the same number station, such as E11, even if that means listening in at the same time of day to hear its broadcast. Numb3r Stations is played out over five stages—Infiltration, Mission: Objective, Mission: Recon, Mission: Execution, and Exfiltration. At each stage, the player uses a three-digit code to select a one-time-pad from the ten in the back of Numb3r Stations and from this a combination of a letter and a number. The entry on that one-time-pad is then crossed out. The letter indicates the prompt for that stage of the mission and the number the Success Rating. There are five prompts per stage, from A to E and the Success Rating ranges from ‘1’ and “You have failed this stage of your mission so poorly, adversary counterintelligence don’t even know something happened” to ‘5’ and “Outstanding work, among the best your organization has seen. All eyes are on you now, mostly unwelcome.”.
Using both Prompt and Success Rating, the player writes a report to his handler. This report must include a code. There are ten given in Numb3r Stations, such as “Your report must contain a secret message that is composed of every 5th word in the message.” or “Include a list within the text, of exactly five items, listed in alphabetical order.”

Lastly, the player determines his Exposure Level based on the Success Rating. If it is too high, his messages have been Intercepted by Counter-Intelligence and his progress is easier to tracked. If he is Intercepted twice, or if a three-digit code indicates an entry on a one-time-pad that has already been used and crossed out, player is captured by counter-intelligence. This is alternative to the fifth and last challenge and gives the player a chance to write one last two-hundred-and-forty-character message to his loved ones. (In other words, a tweet!) If the player or agent completes his mission, his final Exposure Level determines handler’s or even history’s verdict on the mission.

Physically, Numb3r Stations – A Solo RPG is a rather grey, dreary little book. However, that actually feels thematically appropriate, matching the often-drab nature of espionage during the Cold War. The cover is decent though, depicting a man in fedora hat and trench coat and carrying a briefcase. Wholly unremarkable, he could be a travelling salesman, a businessman, or even a spy! The book is otherwise decently written, but in places a close study is required to understand what a player is required to do.

Numb3r Stations – A Solo RPG is at its heart, a writing exercise in five stages. At each stage, the player will be given a prompt as a subject matter, and both a degree of success and a code which will influence and complicate what the player has to write. Even overcomplicate what a player has to write if he is intercepted! Numb3r Stations – A Solo RPG is a delightfully drab espionage roleplaying game, capturing the fraught, grey no-man’s land feel of the Cold War, beginning in thematic fashion by listening into messages from a bygone age before being prompted to draft dreary report after dreary report!

1 comment:

  1. If as espionage illuminati we are going to discuss the history of intelligence in the Cold War let's not overlook that which even espionage connoisseurs have little idea about. Namely, the extent the Soviets cooperated with the West in the Cold War. The KGB and Western agencies frequently collaborated when combatting global crime syndicates involved in certain heinous crimes such as smuggling body parts under the cover of normal human trafficking. An interesting take on this oft forgotten aspect of the Cold War is still visible in the preserved website of a niche global intelligence agency, FaireSansDire.org, based in the UK from 1978 and now supposedly shut or dormant: see The History of Faire Sans Dire in "About Us" on The Burlington Files website.

    A series of novels based on the activities of FaireSansDire's founders are also worth a peep if you were unaware that MI6 and the CIA combined with the KGB to combat criminals in these extreme law enforcement areas. For legal reasons only one novel (Beyond Enkription) has been published in that series called The Burlington Files. It makes for a compelling read and their website claims most read it two or more times which I believe and did!

    The larger than life characters who met in MI6 in the early seventies and later established FaireSansDire were Bill Fairclough (a not so boring accountant, MI6 codename JJ), Colonel Alan Brooke Pemberton CVO MBE and Barrie Parkes BEM all of whose fascinating backgrounds are easily accessed on the web. Interestingly, Pemberton knew Oleg Gordievsky and Kim Philby. Pemberton’s People in MI6 even included Roy Astley Richards OBE (Winston Churchill’s bodyguard) and an eccentric British Brigadier (Peter 'Scrubber' Stewart-Richardson) who was once refused permission to join the Afghan Mujahideen.

    For more beguiling anecdotes best read a brief and intriguing News Article about Pemberton’s People in MI6 dated 31 October 2022 in TheBurlingtonFiles website and then read Beyond Enkription.