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View Full Version : DM Help Hints for Running a Game involving Espionage



Sredni Vashtar
2015-10-10, 08:14 PM
I've been kicking around an idea for a game setting (likely for D&D 5e) based around the Cold War. With that, a fair amount of espionage should be built in, but I'm at a bit of a loss on how to implement this into the game aside from the obvious stealth-based missions and social encounters.

Any and all comments are welcome. Thanks in advance. :smallsmile:

Demidos
2015-10-10, 08:58 PM
Perhaps involve the secret police?

Also, make sure you include the Cambridge Five (http://www.spymuseum.org/education-programs/news-books-briefings/background-briefings/the-cambridge-five/). XD

Kelb_Panthera
2015-10-10, 09:33 PM
The essence of espionage is the control of information; getting at the opposition's secrets and making sure they don't get yours. There's also the occasional exchange of information and/or captured agents.

The first thing you have to decide is who the PC's are working for and whose secrets they're after. Then you have to decide what each sides secrets are. In the cold war it was mostly military secrets being sought by the CIA and KGB. Things like, what's the enemy's newest weapon system, where are their troops stationed and what are their movements and standing orders, what is the situation with their arms production and distribution, who are their spies, where are those spies and what secrets are they after, etc. Ultimately the cold war remained cold because of a strong emphasis on those last few, as I understand it.

Another consideration is allies and enemies to both sides. Are their contacts with other organizations that can be used to gather information indirectly or to acquire supplies or assets? Are their enemies of your enemy who are not your allies you can work with or frame?

Then there's the secrecy factor itself. How well known is your organization to the enemy? The reverse? How well is either known to the general public? How important is it that these factors remain where they are and is greater secrecy more beneficial or does it create more vulnerability?

That should be some good food for thought.

Edit:

Can't believe I forgot to mention disinformation and the importance of verification.

If you successfully identify an enemy agent or asset, you can intentionally feed them bad information through a number of means. You can then make an educated guess about how they'll react to this information and use that to suss out information that would've otherwise remained hidden or to drain enemy resources by getting them to expend those resources to no effect or on pitting them against other organizations that you're not currently in conflict or alliance with.

However, the enemy can do the same to you, so it's important to try to verify information. This is done by acquiring corroborative information from multiple sources within the enemy organization. Acting on unverified or unverifiable information should be always a calculated risk.

Sredni Vashtar
2015-10-11, 07:33 PM
Well, you've certainly given me a lot to think about, but I'm relishing the opportunity to step outside my box. (I'm usually a hack-and-slash-plus sort of GM.)

Currently, I've got the following to figure out completely:

The "good guys"/whoever the PCs will be working for
The "bad guys"/enemy group
The "good" nation
The "bad" nation
The reason for the conflict
The secrets the PCs are after
The secrets being kept from the PCs from their own side
Allies for the "good" nation
Other enemies for the "good" nation
Allies of the "bad" nation
Other enemies of the "bad" nation
Potential false information from both sides (known and unknown to the PCs)
Rogue elements (at-home incursions, non-affiliated agents, plagues, etc.)


Anything I may have missed? I'm not sure who I'll be running this for (it's mostly a mental exercise at this point), but I don't want to disappoint anyone by not being adequately prepared.

Kelb_Panthera
2015-10-11, 09:17 PM
Well, you've certainly given me a lot to think about, but I'm relishing the opportunity to step outside my box. (I'm usually a hack-and-slash-plus sort of GM.)

Currently, I've got the following to figure out completely:

-snip-

Anything I may have missed? I'm not sure who I'll be running this for (it's mostly a mental exercise at this point), but I don't want to disappoint anyone by not being adequately prepared.

Seems like you've got the idea. One thing to note, however, is that it's always difficult for agents in the field to be certain who is a good guy and who is a bad guy, including themselves all too often. Trust is difficult to earn and even more difficult to keep.

Most interactions between agents and their contacts and assets are tit-for-tat arrangements. Unless you're balckmailing the asset you'll often be asked to do something for them in return for them doing something for you. Even contacts from your own organization must sometimes risk their cover to assist another agent and won't do so for loyalty alone. Everyone is looking to leverage what they have to offer for as much advantage as possible.

Which brings us to double agents and flipping assets.

There is nothing so dangerous in the intelligence game as a double agent. An agent with reliable information feeds from both sides of a conflict can play a major role in deciding how things will play out by manipulating what information he passes along. There are, essentially, two types of double agent; known and hidden. A known double agent holds his true loyalty to one side or the other, typically, and it is known to that side that he has infiltrated the enemy's intelligence force as an agent. This is one of the most powerful tools an organization can have. An unknown double agent hides his loyalties, if he has any, and uses his sole discretion in determining how events play out surrounding his information. In either case, only the agent himself can be certain of the truth of his loyalties and is someone that can be difficult to trust because of either the knowledge that he works directly with the enemy or the secrecy necessary to hide that fact.

Assets are non-agent persons that an agent uses to acquire information or resources that he cannot access directly. They are acquired by determining their motivations and secrets and then usimg one, the other, or both to persuade them to aid you at their own personal risk. Civilian assets, personnel belonging to neither your organization nor the enemy's, are sometimes in a position where they have access to resources or info important to both sides of a conflict and will be acquired by one or the other side first. If the enemy acquires them first and you discover this fact, you're left with a couple of options; flip them or eliminate them. In the former case, you use the leverage you have on them to convince them it's in their own best interest to betray your enemy. In the latter you reveal them as a traitor to their own employer or, if necessary, simply kill them. Deciding which is more appropriate is simply a risk/reward calculation since revealing yourself to be an agent puts you at risk for them giving that info to your enemies. The most valuable assets are enemy contacts, so be wary that your own contacts aren't enemy assets. Contacts being those persons who know who you are (but not necessarily who you work for) and work with you to mutual benefit rather than those that work for you as assets and only know they have something you want.

Playing this sort of cloak and dagger game can be lots of fun but it takes a lot more mental effort than a more traditional, kick-in-the-door sort of game. I hope this helps and I'll be happy to answer any more questions you may have.

Knaight
2015-10-11, 11:40 PM
Seems like you've got the idea. One thing to note, however, is that it's always difficult for agents in the field to be certain who is a good guy and who is a bad guy, including themselves all too often. Trust is difficult to earn and even more difficult to keep.

More than that, every side will have a mix of people working for it. There will be generally decent people working for "the enemy", and some of the people on the same side are just about guaranteed to be terrible, terrible people who are left to be terrible because they are also useful. Even ignoring the people who are just terrible in general, it's not uncommon for the potential solutions to problems to involve doing trying to organize some pretty terrible things, that still might seem like the best option.

Kelb_Panthera
2015-10-11, 11:56 PM
More than that, every side will have a mix of people working for it. There will be generally decent people working for "the enemy", and some of the people on the same side are just about guaranteed to be terrible, terrible people who are left to be terrible because they are also useful. Even ignoring the people who are just terrible in general, it's not uncommon for the potential solutions to problems to involve doing trying to organize some pretty terrible things, that still might seem like the best option.

The stresses of never being able to really trust anyone, having to constantly lie to and manipulate everyone, and being betrayed far more often than a normal member of society tends to make this, unfortunately, all too true for those who stay in the game for any length of time and generally bad people find those stresses easier to deal with or ignore to begin with. This is, however, far more true of agents than assets or contacts who may live a generally more honest life than a typical intelligence field-agent.

This is fiction though. This is an aspect of reality that can be downplayed quite deeply without it hurting anything but a degree of authenticity that only a real spy would notice instantly. Tune this carefully to try and keep your players from feeling like they need a shower after each session.

Knaight
2015-10-12, 12:04 AM
The stresses of never being able to really trust anyone, having to constantly lie to and manipulate everyone, and being betrayed far more often than a normal member of society tends to make this, unfortunately, all too true for those who stay in the game for any length of time and generally bad people find those stresses easier to deal with or ignore to begin with. This is, however, far more true of agents than assets or contacts who may live a generally more honest life than a typical intelligence field-agent.

Even outside of agents, it comes up. Intelligence agencies often have ties to militaries, and while some militaries try to weed out people who are basically murderous psychopaths trying to find a way to indulge their murderous psychopathy, some will slip through the cracks. Then there's the cases where no effort is even made. Still, if they're useful enough, they might well stick around, even in "good" militaries. Field work within intelligence agencies can potentially be a similar case. Other law enforcement deals with the same problem, and can potentially come up. So on and so forth.

Kelb_Panthera
2015-10-12, 12:36 AM
Even outside of agents, it comes up. Intelligence agencies often have ties to militaries, and while some militaries try to weed out people who are basically murderous psychopaths trying to find a way to indulge their murderous psychopathy, some will slip through the cracks. Then there's the cases where no effort is even made. Still, if they're useful enough, they might well stick around, even in "good" militaries. Field work within intelligence agencies can potentially be a similar case. Other law enforcement deals with the same problem, and can potentially come up. So on and so forth.

Not necessarily. That's certainly an issue for agents of government intelligence agencies and certainly for military intelligence but independent intelligence agencies are a thing.

In the real world such agencies work with smaller nations, on operations that a government absolutely cannot be tied to but still needs done, and corporate entities that need info on rivals and governments to better plan their business moves. They even, occasionally work with criminal organizations in service of larger goals for the agency or its clients.

The only one of those that doesn't usually work in a fantasy setting is corporate which is handily replaced by churches of various gods and can be analogous to trading unions.

In any case, while the agencies themselves likely have military ties that doesn't mean the PC's have to be agents that work in that area. They can just as easily be agents working with more civilian sectors of government, churches, and trading organizations.

That said, you're right. Ultimately espionage is an underworld affair that exists in the gray between upholding an idea and doing what's necessary, between the good guys and badguys. You will likely run into some truly horrific people that need to be left in place because they're too useful to eliminate on principle. Like I said though, you don't have to use those people in a -game- if doing so will be an issue for any of the players, at least not often.

Mark Hall
2015-10-12, 12:42 PM
Keeping with Kelb's "secrets" theme, remember that sometimes the secrets will be kept from the people who are responsible for discovering secrets. You may wind up running operations that are designed to kinda sorta fail so another operation can go on more quietly. Or breaking into places with little clear goal in mind. Or each given one variation on a secret to see who the leak is.

Sredni Vashtar
2015-10-12, 07:36 PM
I only used "good" and "bad" to represent "us" or "them" in regards to the PCs. Just to clarify because there seemed to be some confusion.

Also, the two opposing intelligence organizations will be tied closely to the military, and I'm probably going to pepper in a few double agents and complete wackjobs among the NPCs that will be important. Assets were something I'd thought of, but not quite in that context. I appreciate the mention, as it helps categorize a few NPCs I've been unable to.

As for the secrets, I've been ranking the ones I've come up with. One star secrets are the things that the PCs and their organization know, but the general public doesn't. Four star secrets are things that only one person knows (usually the person the secret involves). Two and three are in-between.

Kelb_Panthera
2015-10-12, 08:24 PM
Secrets known to only one person are rarely valuable with two exceptions; the person in question is a person of significant interest and the secret can be used as leverage or the secret is a new development that just occurred and the person responsible hasn't shared it with his superiors yet. In any case, such secrets are incredibly rare as well. If only one person knows what happened and telling someone would be bad for that person, that secret's as good as dead.

A secret known by more than one person will eventually get out. A secret known to only one person may as well have never happened.

Remember that for a secret to have any impact on the game, the PC's have to have a way to find it and it has to be about something that matters; enemy movements and tech developments, dirt you can use for leverage, the names and operations of enemy agents, etc.

As for how the PC's might learn these things, documentation on military doings is pretty much guaranteed to exist and there's no better source of dirt than the rumor mill. Both can be used as leads toward finding proof of what's what and once proof is had these things become actionable. There's also the old fashioned stake-out for determining a persons movements and secrets. People are creatures of habit and will typically repeat their normal patterns of behavior if they don't know they're being observed.

Speaking of documents, there's nothing more damaging in espionage than false documentation that yields bad intel. Turning it over to a superior damages an agent's credibility and causes command to make bad moves; redirecting troops, resources, and agents where they're less useful and distracting them from important events that are really happening. When opposed agents are aware of each other, such disinformation is -the- weapon to use if it's at all feasible.

As a GM you should use such a technique sparingly. Make sure you have a reasonable means by which the enemy might've discerned that there are agents poking around for the information being falsified. It's not much fun for the players if the info they're gathering is constantly wrong and it shakes suspension of disbelief if they're regularly getting bad info and still employed. If the party is being tailed, be sure to give them appropriate checks to become aware of it.

JeenLeen
2015-10-13, 08:27 AM
My group's usual GM told me once that he tries to only have 2 or at most 3 levels of misinformation/deception from a given character, lest it become too confusing for him to remember who is doing what and why. I imagine it also helps the GM to manage the character's actions, so that they don't do an action that contradicts what they would actually do because of who they really are/are pretending to be. Have double agents and the rare triple agent, but not more than that -- at least, unless you think you really can handle it.

I'd recommend that for folk who are double agents or otherwise spreading misinformation. It simplifies your work, and it helps make it easier and less convoluted for the players to figure out when it's finally time that they should figure out.

Also, be confident in your ability to, as an NPC, lie. I would be bad at GMing a game like this because of a bad 'poker face'; I'd smile too much or let on when the PCs are being deceived or tricked or finding misinformation.

goto124
2015-10-13, 08:44 AM
have 2 or at most 3 levels of misinformation/deception from a given character,

What makes a 'level' of misinformation?

Knaight
2015-10-13, 09:03 AM
The only one of those that doesn't usually work in a fantasy setting is corporate which is handily replaced by churches of various gods and can be analogous to trading unions.

I think that could work, honestly. There were some big banks, guilds, merchant associations, and all that sort of stuff, and a more espionage based game is more likely to have a lot of sessions be in places where these things are everywhere.

Mark Hall
2015-10-13, 09:55 AM
What makes a 'level' of misinformation?

I am lying (level 1) to cover another lie (level 2) that conceals a secret (level 3).

So, I, the ruler of Kasnia, don't want you to know about a secret raid that is going to happen in Kahndaq (level 3 secret). In order to conceal this, arrange with Bialya to have a "Joint Military Training Exercise", where Kasnian and Bialyian forces will stage wargames (the level 1). Now, this is not actually just a military training exercise. It is also cover for some negotiations, that will happen when a certain general is taken "captive" in those wargames by Bialyian forces. So, the wargames are a lie, and pretty much everyone knows that they're a cover for something. Dedicated digging MIGHT uncover that a general was taken captive by the unit of a conveniently influential Bialyian colonel, but it likely will NOT uncover that a team of mercenaries in my employ used the opportunity caused by Kahndaq "observing the wargames" (i.e. keeping watch to make sure the wargames aren't pretext to invasion) to stage a raid on a Kahndaq research facility. Now, I obviously didn't PAY those mercenaries. No, they were hired by a company with research interests that would be served by that raid, but a shell company I control through several levels of intermediaries recently invested a modest amount of money in that research corporation, which covered the costs.

As the ruler of Kasnia, there's a lot going on here. I have to sacrifice a little bit of national pride by letting our general by captured in the wargames, and probably had to make some sort of payment (either in treasure or favors) to Bialya to get them to go along with this in the first place. I probably also have to sacrifice a bit to the general who, despite being tapped for an important diplomatic mission, still had to undergo the indignity of being captured in the wargames. But if I think the data from Kahndaq is worth it, then I might do this. Heck, I might have gone an even further level, and not told Bialya about the purpose of the wargames. It was supposed to be so we could negotiate in relative obscurity, but my general has orders to simply stall negotiations a bit (without looking at it), so nothing is actually achieved, and I don't wind up paying Bialya anything. Or maybe we use the opportunity caused by these negotiations to stage another raid in Bialya, or have a false flag operation where "Kahndaq terrorists" attack the negotiations, sacrificing the general to gain the support of Bialya in an attack on Kahndaq, which also carries with it some favorable trade conditions for Kasnian imports into Bialya, that will persist long after the brief war with Kahndaq dies down.

At the same time Kasnia is doing this? Kahndaq and Bialya are trying to leverage these situations to their own advantage, and starting their own operations, which is where my counter-intelligence service comes in handy.

snowman87
2015-10-13, 10:14 AM
Remember about political favors. To get something done you'll need help from someone somewhere and it won't be free. They'll want payment, not always money. But ask, is it a payment I can afford to give? If I give it to them, will it upset the balance too much in their favor? Will they be able to use it against me?

If they try to pay you for something, is it a genuine payment or a double-cross? Will they blackmail you with it? Does helping them put you in a bad way with someone else you'd rather not be?

INTRIGUE!!!

Storm_Of_Snow
2015-10-13, 11:15 AM
There's false flag operations as well - be it a third party (your ally, your enemies ally or a neutral), making out there's an enemy operation in your own state, or faking an attempted coup in their state. Even industrial espionage may count.

There could also be third parties involved to allow plausible deniability.

JeenLeen
2015-10-13, 04:12 PM
What makes a 'level' of misinformation?

Mark Hall answered well, but I'll give some examples of what I mean. I suppose I picture each level as a lie that the PCs can uncover, but uncovering it doesn't necessarily mean they discover the actual truth.

Here's one extrapolating from a Mage game I was in. Level 1 was the actual case in the game.
Level 0 (what is shown to everyone): Emma was kidnapped by evil mages (Nephandi), then saved by the PCs.
Level 1 (secret): Emma is actually an evil mage herself, and the entire kidnapping was a farce to get her under the PCs' protection so she could keep tabs on them.
Level 2 (deeper secret): Emma is actually an independent agent, letting the Nephandi think she is being used so she can use the PCs for her own personal ends
Level 3 (getting harder to comprehend but possible): Emma is actually blood-bound to a vampire, who is having her do the above in order to trick the PCs and Nephandi into fighting each other so it can make a play for a McGuffin
Level 4 (???): the vampire actually works for the Nephandi, and is just a backup plan should Emma betray the Nephandi

Some actual examples from the game:
Level 0: Tom is a depressed mage due to his wife dying, comforted by Jimmy
Level 1: Jimmy is a Nephandi, corrupting Tom after having killed his wife

Level 0: the PCs need to attack a Nephandi base to steal a McGuffin
Level 1: the PCs need to attack a misguided but innocent guy because they are blackmailed into stealing a McGuffin
Level 2: the PCs rewrite their memories so they think the guy is actually Nephandi, to avoid lying and decrease changes for being executed for the assault

mikeejimbo
2015-10-13, 04:54 PM
If you have any really good, mischievous players, have them play a double agent. Work with them such that it becomes apparent that there is a double agent in the org, but every NPC seems suspicious.