Saturday, September 24, 2016

Monocultural Dying Earth vs Anti-Medieval D&D (Thought Eater)

Here are some entires for ROUND THREE of the Thought Eater Writin' About Games Tournament.

These are not by me, they are by two anonymous contestants, vote for which you like better.

The theme for this round is to describe the significance of something that's missing from an RPG text.

Here is the first essay, if you like it best, send an email to zakzsmith AT hawtmayle with the subject line YEK and nothing else. It's about D&D-influencing author Jack Vance:

Jack Vance’s Dying Earth is basically a monoculture. Everywhere you go you get the same wildlife, the same wizards, the same measurements and money, the same aloof princesses and sociopathic adventurers, the same religious pedants and small-time conmen, the same backward villagers with stupid and dangerous traditions, the same card games, the same petty lords, the same conversations in the same bars. Even when someone goes a million years back in time there’s no sense that anything they see would be out of place on the earth they came from. Unlike Lyonesse, or every other fantasy epic, the Dying Earth doesn’t come with a map. It only has physical geography insofar as this is necessary to structure people’s adventures, and the same is true for cultural geography. It’s important for us to know that, in order to get the Silver Desert, Cugel has to cross the Mountains of Magnatz. And it’s important we know that in this little bullshit village they make you judge beauty contests and in that one they eat people’s fingers. But Vance is less interested in building up a coherent, inhabitable world than he is with leading us through a paratactic sequence of weird and memorable encounters. So it’s hard to lay down everything that happens on a chart in the same way that you can lay down everything that happens in Lyonesse, or its spiritual successor Game of Thrones. You can’t say that the guys who eat fingers are here and because of the placement of the river they would naturally come into conflict with the guys who regulate the sun. And these people all think the same way, anyway: they’re all literal, pedantic, hyper-rational and hateful small-minded pricks, like participants in the world’s worst internet argument. They all speak the same affected faux-courtly dialect and have the same basic approach to problem-solving. Even the monsters are like this. So what we lose is not a sense of place but rather a sense of distinction between places. It’s easy to visualise the Dying Earth, but it’s hard to think about how any one part of the Dying Earth is substantially different from any other part. Place-names abound, because Vance loves proper nouns, but wherever possible he avoids giving us a sense of context for them. He’s not interested in the relationships between them, or in fitting them into any kind of bigger picture, except insofar as it can be used to propel the story.

Here is a bit from Thomas Pynchon’s short story Entropy that explains what is going on here:

"Nevertheless," continued Callisto, "he found in entropy or the measure of disorganization for a closed system an adequate metaphor to apply to a certain phenomena in his own world… [he] envisioned a heat-death for his culture in which ideas, like heat-energy, would no longer be transferred, since each point in it would ultimately have the same quantity of energy; and intellectual motion would, accordingly, cease."

The Dying Earth is a closed thermodynamic system that has simmered down to equilibrium. Everything is the same because the world is ending and the energy it takes to differentiate things has run out.

This is also why it’s so hard for the characters in the Dying Earth to ever get anything done. It’s why The Eyes of The Overworld ends with Cugel returned to where he began, stranded on a frozen beach and condemned to repeat the exact same journey again in the sequel. It’s why the only people on the Dying Earth with anything resembling ambition are either wizards or eccentrics like Guyal of Sfere, all of whom ultimately aspire to escape the world on which they were born and on which the laws of physics themselves conspire against accomplishment. The beginning and end of a story are two distinct points, like two cities on a plain, and it takes energy to keep them separate. So Dying Earth stories inevitably tend to gravitate towards the picaresque, the kind of episodic narrative where nothing ever changes and the status quo is never seriously disturbed. A lot of people have written picaresques over the years and you’ll find many of them listed in Zak’s essay on the subject here, which I assume you have all read a bunch of times on account of how it’s foundational to the genre of games blogging. But what Vance does that, e.g., Jack Kerouac or the writers of superhero comics don’t do is make the story not just a picaresque but a commentary on the nature of picaresques, and write characters that are struggling against the limitations of the picaresque form. Pynchon is his buddy here. Entropy in Pynchon is an active force of destruction, waging tireless war against his characters’ motivations and memories, eroding their sense of self and making it impossible for them to remember what they’re supposed to be doing. Vance shows us a world in which this kind of entropy has almost totally won. The future does not exist, all human potential has been dramatically curtailed and the only remaining options are to flee to the stars or become a wandering hate machine like Cugel, with no real emotional register and no ability to care about anything beyond immediate survival.

This is not as obvious a choice as it might seem. Cugel is the archetypal murderhobo, and not having to worry about the future is the whole point of the murderhobo. We don’t necessarily want to see ourselves as the heroes of some grand narrative. We’re just as likely to see ourselves as people who have a few adventures and then get eaten by a grue. It’s funnier and there’s less pressure. Vance maintains the same kind of ironic distance from Cugel, never quite endorsing him but never quite condemning him, as we often do with the characters in our own games. On the one hand, he says, it would be depressing to actually be this guy. On the other hand, at least you wouldn’t have to go to work in the morning. And even the idea of the sun going out holds its own macabre charm. The Pynchon story ends with his heroes shattering the barrier between them and the rest of the world in order to embrace thermodynamic equilibrium, “a tonic of darkness and the final absence of all motion”. The perverse appeal entropy holds for them, half alienating and half welcoming, is the same kind of appeal the Dying Earth holds for us.

Here is the second essay, if you like it best, send an email to zakzsmith AT hawtmayle with the subject line LUA and nothing else. It's not about D&D-influencing author Jack Vance:

D&D is anti-medieval

You can be forgiven for thinking that OD&D is a medieval European fantasy game. After all, Gary Gygax himself says so. He describes the original D&D books as "Rules for Fantastic Medieval War Games" (on the cover) and "rules [for] designing your own fantastic-medieval campaign" (in the introduction). However, in the game itself, there's precious little to suggest feudalism, Europe, chivalry, a post-imperial dark age, or even the existence of a monarchy at all. Apart from the technology suggested by the weapon list, it could just as well be a simulation of the professional meritocracy of Byzantium, or the city-state sovereignty of Barsoomian Mars. (There's more explicit textual support in OD&D for Mars than there is for fantasy medieval Europe.) But neither of these strike the mark. OD&D's cultural details suggest a society original to Gygax - nonsensical as a medieval fantasy, but coherent and striking as an American fantasy of empowerment and upward mobility. It's an armor-clad repudiation of medieval feudalism, like Twain's Connecticut Yankee.

It's not feudal

The way you advance in a feudal society is to win glory in battle for your overlord. Then he grants you land, which is the main form of wealth. Unless you're a peasant. Then you can never advance at all.

That's not at all what happens in D&D. There is no overlord to grant you land. Land, instead of being a form of wealth, is completely free! ("At any time a player/character wishes he may select a portion of land (or a city lot) upon which to build his castle, tower, or whatever. The following illustrations are noted with the appropriate cost in Gold Pieces.") The cost of building a structure is merely the a la carte cost of all its architectural elements. It costs nothing at all to acquire the land to build on, even inside a city. 

Wealth in D&D is primarily in the form of coinage and jewels, not land and cattle, making the D&D economy more modern than medieval. Some have suggested that D&D takes place in a time of exploration and renaissance when coinage, and the middle class, is eclipsing the power of the nobility. I'll go further. There is no sign that there is any nobility to eclipse, even a waning one. 

If you build a castle in the "wilderness", you have to clear the area of monsters for 20 miles around. You then gain control of a handful of villages within this area. You don't have to compete against any other ruler or pay taxes to any overlord for these villages! This omission seems significant, since Gygax will always gleefully mention any relevant obstacle if it exists.

The people who live in villages are called either "villagers" or "inhabitants", not "peasants," "commoners" or "serfs." They pay you taxes. If you piss off the villagers, the DM is encouraged to annoy you with "angry villagers", "city watch", "militia", or "a Conan type." Notable in its absence is any local form of knighthood, gentry, nobility, or ruling class to oppose you.

There are no knights

The word knight doesn't even appear in OD&D. But there is one group of people who act distinctly knight-like. The wilderness contains castles, ruled by fighters, magic-users, or clerics. The fighters will challenge players to a joust (using Chainmail rules), taking the loser's armor and offering hospitality to the winner. This has a sort of Arthurian chivalry to it, but Pendragon it is not. Gygax carefully avoids calling these folks "knights." They're fighting-men, with retainers (monstrous and human) and armies, looking very like the ones players can acquire. Furthermore, castle-owning fighting men are just as rare as castle-owning magic-users and clerics. The Outdoor Survival game board, which forms the default OD&D map, has a land area of 25,000 miles, half the size of England. There are about six castle-owning fighting-men in that area. In other words, castles of the wilderness aren't dominated by an analogue of a knightly order, leavened by a few fantastic spellcasters. It looks, rather, as if they were built by a small handful of adventurers, appearing in roughly the class proportions of a typical adventuring party. (Fighters are, if anything, under-represented.)

There are no vassals

Let's talk about how you gain followers. Gary says, "It is likely that players will be desirous of acquiring a regular entourage of various character types, monsters, and an army of some form." In a truly medieval game, there's a model for that: people swear themselves to your service in exchange for your protection. You raise an army by requiring service from peasants who live on your land. In other words, you gain vassals. D&D ignores this model, replacing it with one in which you pay retainers and specialists by the month. Loyalty is bought with a mixture of cash and charisma. You can hire armies, too, from Light Foot to Heavy Horsemen. (No knights.)

There are no kings 

There's no evidence of a monarchy. You never have to declare fealty to anyone. While you can create a barony, there is no way to level up and become a duke or King. There are no rules for controlling territory more than a day's ride from your castle. In the hostile emptiness of OD&D's wilderness, power doesn't travel well. 

The only mention of kings in the little brown books is in the descriptions of humanoid monsters, e.g. in a goblin lair "the 'goblin king'" will be found. (Gygax quotes the term "goblin king".) It seems unlikely that the term implies a crown, a system of divine right, inheritance laws, etc. Since a goblin king leads a single lair of 40-400 goblins, he's probably just the local boss, just like the less evocatively named "leader/protector type" who rules every 30-300 orcs. 

There is no lost empire

There certainly seems to be a power vacuum in the world of OD&D, ready for the player/characters to exploit. What used to fill that vacuum?

There's no evidence for (or against) the idea that OD&D takes place in a dark age after a fallen Roman Empire analogue or during the death throes of a feudal kingdom. Sure, someone built those "huge ruined piles" under which lie the dungeons. But based on the treasures to be found there, the dungeon builders were part of a coinage economy just like the current one. There hasn't even been significant inflation or deflation since the dungeons were built. The richest dungeon treasure hoard, on level 13 and deeper, averages out to about 10,000 GP in coin. That's as much as a baron can earn from a year's worth of taxes: not an insignificant sum to sock away in a dungeon, but not kingly or imperial either. This doesn't suggest that dungeons are relics of a far richer past. It seems rather that things used to be like they are right now. 

There are few European details

The monster descriptions of "men", "elves", and "dwarves" don't suggest that the game is set in a European culture. The types of "men" are Bandits, Berserkers, Brigands, Dervishes, Nomads, Buccaneers, Pirates, Cave Men, and (perhaps) Mermen. Berserkers are a little Nordic in flavor, but are balanced out by Dervishes and Nomads from the "desert or steppes". 

The government suggested by the player's "barony" is almost completely a-cultural. A player builds a stronghold, and then they can extort money from the surrounding people. This is the structure of every non-nomadic human society. The only European element is the technology level of your stronghold: it has merlons, barbicans, etc.

The D&D weapon list has a medieval feel to it, but partly that's just because that's what we're expecting to find. In fact, it's a sort of survey of (mostly) pre-gunpowder weapons. Most of the weapons and armor appear in ancient Europe and in Asia as well as in medieval Europe. Partial exceptions:  Composite bows are mostly non-European, while longbows are associated with Europe. The halberd is basically a Renaissance weapon, and the two-handed sword appears in medieval Europe, India, and Japan, but not the ancient world. No one knows what "plate mail" is supposed to be. 

If not medieval, what?

All over, the D&D rules seem to be explicitly eschewing a medieval, feudal model in favor of a cash-based economy, a nonexistent or powerless government, and a social-classless society in a sparsely inhabited, unforgiving world. 

If the OD&D rules suggest any government at all, it is a meritocracy, or more precisely, a levelocracy. Creatures with more XP and hit dice rule lower-level ones, from settled barons and goblin kings to wandering bandits and nomads. This is not only non-medieval, it is anti-feudalistic and anti-aristocratic. Level requirements for baronies are at odds with the hereditary gloss added to D&D in nearly every subsequent setting. 

OD&D also exhibits an obsession with money-gathering for its own sake that is suggestive of mercantilism or capitalism. 

D&D is not "fantastic-medieval." It's not even "fantastic renaissance" or "fantastic-post-apocalyptic." It's "fantastic American history." 

How did Gygax set out to write a fantastic-medieval game and end up writing an American one?

OD&D is meant to be setting-free. The game's referee is to create his or her own campaign, ranging in milieu from the "prehistoric to the imagined future" (with emphasis on the medieval, especially for beginners). In the later 1e Dungeon Masters Guide, Gygax further explains, "There are dozens of possible government forms, each of which will have varying social classes, ranks, or castes. Which sort you choose for your milieu is strictly your own prerogative. While this game is loosely based on Feudal European technology, history and myth, it also contains elements from the Ancient Period, parts of more modern myth, and the mythos of many authors as well. Within its boundaries all sorts of societies and cultures can exist, and there is nothing to dictate that their needs be Feudal European."

But it is very difficult to write a document with no cultural assumptions at all. Gygax consciously excluded the trappings of a medieval society, and filled that vacuum with "real life" American details. Gygax wrote D&D in a country where, 100 years before, frontier land was considered free for the taking. (19th century propaganda depicted the land's original Native American inhabitants as inimical savages, like orcs). At the same period, the success of America's industrialist "robber barons" taught the country that birth and family weren't the keys to American power; the American keys were self-reliance, ability, and the ruthless accumulation of money. 

While it's possible that D&D's modern details slipped into the game unobserved,
Gygax may have been quite aware of his game's implicit setting. After all, his original pre-publication Greyhawk campaign drew heavily from his own American experience. It took place on a United States map with Greyhawk at Chicago, and Dyvers at Milwaukee. His buddy Don Kaye's Greyhawk character, Murlynd, was a gunslinger from Boot Hill. I think it's quite likely that Gygax intentionally gave his game a New World spin. 

Intentional or not, OD&D represents a milestone in American fantasy - and maybe the last un-muddled example of the genre it inspired. Most of D&D's thousands of imitators, in game and fiction, preserve the game's democratic bones (cash economy, guns for hire, rags to riches stories) while overlaying a medieval-European skin. The combination is not fortunate. Gygaxian levelocracy, where a villager can rise to become a baron or a "Conan type", is fundamentally incompatible with the European fantasy typified by Lord of the Rings, in which no fellowship can alter the fact that Sam is by birth a servant, Frodo a gentleman, Strider a king, and Gandalf a wizard. 

OD&D's American strain of fantasy didn't even last within TSR. In 1980, Gygax himself reworked the World of Greyhawk into what looks, from its cover, like a supplement about Arthurian Knights:

But it's worth taking a step back from the medieval-fantasy cliches that overran later D&D publications, and playing the original, more coherent setting: A swords-and-sorcery world, empty of government, where anyone can pick up a sword, become a hero, and live the American dream.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Die Eisen Hexe and The Twisted Man

Die Eisen Hexe and The Twisted Man are members of the Stadt's General Enforcement Squadron Anti-Malefactor Technical Key Unit: Nonlicensed Superhuman Terrorist Watch Elite Reich Kommandos (GESA-MTKU:NSTWERK). 

They were defeated when attempting to prevent a bank robbery by the gang of mutant terrorists known as The Electric Gang but rescued by members of The Frightful, who battled the rebels to a standstill.

(The target numbers are if you're playing where you just roll 3d20 instead of using the Marvel Superheroes chart. 1 success=Green, 2=Yellow, 3=Red.)
DIE EISEN HEXE (the Iron Witch)

F Ty (6) --(target: 17)
A Gd (10)--16
S Pr (4)--18
E Ex (20)--15
R Rm(30)--14
I Am (50)--12
P In(40)--13

Health 40
Karma 120

Sorcery--Amazing. Mostly transmutation and curses. There's always a way to break the curse, she'll brag about it.



F Ex (20)--15
A Am(50)--12
S Rm(30)--14
E In(40)--13
R Ty (6)--17
I Gd (10)--16
P Fe (2)--19

Health 140
Karma 18

Twisting space--you can't escape from him or where he is without an In (40) Reason FEAT and an Ex (20) Agility Feat. He can drop people into these spaces if they're grappled. Anything that distorts his body distorts the space round him--make an Agility FEAT to avoid it.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Earn More Sessions By Sleeving

So Eclipse Phase has this cool transhuman idea that you switch bodies ("re-sleeving"), unfortunately almost everything else about it sucks--the system, the art, the graphic design--so me and Kirin invented a new more Old School game of transhuman post-scarcity hard sci-fi star horror that we're gonna play on Thursdays. It's based on Gigacrawler.

an old school game of transhuman post-scarcity hard sci-fi star horror
copyright Zak and Kirin today but you can play it

Character generation: Brain

First you'll want a brain, here are your choices:

Human brain, starting sanity points: 20
AI, starting sanity: 22
Psionic human, starting sanity: 17
Uplifted Animal brain, starting sanity: 18
You can obviously invent more kinds of brains like alien species and stuff but we're starting with these.

In addition to sanity points, your brain has some other stats. These 3 are familiar and self-explanatory:


You get to rank one of these at +2, one of them at +1 and one of them at +0. Pick! If you have an AI brain you can rank Intelligence at +3 and the others at +0 if you want, if you have an Uplifted Animal brain you can rank Perception at +3 and the others at +0 if you want.

You also get some traits which describe both your personality and your resistance to losing sanity for different reasons. These are paired:

Biostubborn vs bioflexible-- Biostubborn means you're very comfortable in your body. Getting hurt doesn't freak you out but switching bodies does. Bioflexible means you're totally a cool anarchist about sprouting extra limbs and shit but you have a hard time handling damage to your body.

Biostubborn and Bioflexible are each rated on a scale of +0 through +10 and together must add up to +10. So you can have each at +5 or have +3 Biostubborn, +7 Bioflexible, or +10 Biostubborn, +0 Bioflexible, etc.

Psychostubborn vs Psychoflexible-- Psychostubborn means you're clear in your sense of self. It's hard for you to go insane from having your (biological or electronic) brain messed with but it's also hard for you to adapt to new information. Psychoflexible means it's easy to download new information but your sense of self is weak, so you have a hard time handling intrusion into your mind.

Psychostubborn and Psychoflexible are each rated on a scale of +0 through +10 and together must add up to +10. So you can have each at +5 or have +3 Psychostubborn, +7 Psychoflexible, or +10 Psychostubborn, +0 Psychoflexible, etc.**

You also get 4 points to spend on the last two things: Knowledges and your Familiar. If you are psionic you can use them on psionic abilities instead.

Knowledges are packages of information skills you can buy to start with for your brain. These start out broad and are technical things (ie only cover things that not all people can try, like there's no swimming or dodging skill because anyone can try to swim or dodge). Each Knowledge costs one point, they are:

Alien cultures
Animal handling
Astronomy & Astrophysics
Biology & Genetics
Craft/Hobby (specify)
Geology & Earth sciences
Hacking & Computers
Human cultures
Language (specify)
Mechanics & engineering
Thief (Analog intrusion, like lock picking)

Psionics only:
Calm (advantage to San checks for someone near by) (Cha roll)
Counter (block other psionics) (Int roll)
Danger sense (Per roll)
Influence (like Charm Person) (Cha roll)
Read surface thoughts (Per roll)
Suggestion (basically as D&D spell) (Cha roll)
Hey Kirin, invent more psionic powers -Z

You also have a Familiar (like what is called in E Phase, a Muse) which is a personal AI that hangs out with you, it is full of software designed to help you not be murdered. It has two stats:

Knowledgebank--This is how big and well-designed the AI's program of downloadable skills and information is. The better this trait, the better the chance your AI can get you information and abilities compatible with your neural net. Downloading knowledge isn't instantaneous and requires a mental flexibility check or results in lost sanity (see rules below for details).

Printer--This is how good at creating and locating useful equipment out of local materials your familiar is when it's hooked up to the proper equipment. If you need a shotgun or a grappling hook or something and haven't already explicitly collected one, you roll on this trait to see if your 3d printer has prepared one for you. Downloading knowledge isn't instantaneous (see rules below for details).***

The bank and printer are rated +0, +1, or +2--your choice, but come out of the same pool from which you buy starting Knowledge. So you can choose to have +2 in Knowledgebank and +2 in Printer but have 0 Knowledges to start or you can have, say, Medicine and Piloting and +0 in Knowledgebank and +2 to Printer.

If you choose a body that does not match your brain, you get 5 additional points to add to this pool because you're presumably experienced and on at least your second body.

Speaking of choosing bodies....

Character generation: Body

You choose a body from a GM-provided list of available bodies. Different planets have different bodies available at different moments.

Each body has some familiar stats again, they usually start out rated +0, +1, or +2:

Attack (covers shooting and close combat)

Armor is almost always +2. With humans and most other organics this represents some removable armor, with robots this is something built in.

There is another stat called Defense which is just Dex+Armor.

Each body also has saving throws, based on what it's made of, ranked +0 thru +10, these are:

Exposure save (drowning, in a vacuum, etc--organics are especially vulnerable)
Corrosive save (always = armor x 3)
Electromagnetic save (machines are especially vulnerable)

Each body also has special abilities called Advances.
-The first time you move into a new body you get to choose one advance.
-Each time you finish a mission or otherwise "get XP" you get to buy one advance from your body's list. (Also see "Leveling up" below).
-If you start the game with a brain and body that match, you get all the Advances for that body--it's your body.****

Advances are typically either things that offer a situational +2 to ability rolls (like you are extra good with knives: +2 to knife combat or piloting in-atmosphere craft: +2 to Dex rolls doing that), a +1 to an ability, or powers/aptitudes that allow you to do things nobody without the aptitude can do (like climb walls like a fly).

Some Advances are Permanent--that is, they stay with you even after you switch bodies.

Sample Bodies:

Genetically optimized human

Strength +1
Attack +2
Dexterity +1
Armor +2 (while wearing armor)
Defense +3

Exposure save +4
Corrosive save +6
Electromagnetic save +8

+1 to Int (Permanent)
+1 to Per (Permanent)
+1 to Cha (Permanent)
+1 to Dex (Permanent)
+2 to Exposure save (Permanent for any organic body)

Caul-V-series warmech

Strength +2
Attack +2
Dexterity +0
Armor +3
Defense +3

Exposure save +8
Corrosive save +6
Electromagnetic save +2

+1 to Attack (Permanent)
+2 to Attack with rifles (Permanent)
+1 to Printer (Permanent)
+1 to Armor
+2 to Psychoflexible (Permanent) (results in a -2 to Psychostubborn)

Crawler (Stealth-Optimized, Uplifted Langur Monkey)

Strength +0
Attack +1
Dexterity +2
Armor +2 (while wearing armor)
Defense +5

Exposure save +2
Corrosive save +6
Electromagnetic save +8

+1 to Dex (Permanent)
+2 to Dex in stealth situations (non-Permanent)
+1 to Attack, Defense and Dex in zero-G (Permanent)
+1 more to Attack, Defense and Dex in zero-G (non-permanent)
+2 to Mechanics and engineering if used for sabotage (Permanent)
Observation droid

Strength +0
Attack +0
Dexterity +2
Armor +1
Defense +3

Exposure save +8
Corrosive save +6
Electromagnetic save +2

+1 to Per (Permanent)
+2 to Dex rolls for stealth
+1 to Dex rolls for stealth (Permanent)
+3 to Bioflexible (Permanent) (results in a -3 to Biostubborn)

Chameleoid (Humanoid with chameleon DNA)

Strength +0
Attack +0
Dexterity +1
Armor +2 (while wearing armor)
Defense +3

Exposure save +2
Corrosive save +6
Electromagnetic save +8

+4 to Dex in stealth situations due to changing skin color
+2 to Dex for climbing
+1 to Dex (Permanent)
Chameleoid dermographic language (Understanding is permanent, but being able to "speak" the language requires a body with an appropriate skin)
Pilot Chameleonoid vessel (Permanent)--Chameleonoid vessels have a unique color-coded control system layout. This is essential a specialist Knowledge.

In our games, the GM will make some more bodies available depending on the mission, but if you want to play right now, feel free to make your own. Remember if you start with a brain native to your body you get all the advances, so don't give any one body too many. Though some bodies are just better than others, period.

Task Resolution

Generally you roll a d12+modifiers to do anything where failing might have interesting consequences.

Most rolls are opposed, like you roll d12+Int to hack something and the GM rolls d12+however good they think the countermeasures are to resist you. High roll wins. However, the GM can also assign a static target number in situations where the thing isn't fighting back, depending how hard it is. If a character has some issue that makes things especially hard or easy for it specifically (ie swimming this lake of goo is normally a difficulty of 8 but it's especially hard if you're a dog) then the GM may use 5e-D&D style "advamtage" or "disadvantage".

Use of Knowledges and most Psi powers are an ability check that is simply enabled by having the Knowledge. So a "Chemistry check" is an Int check that you get to make because you have Chemistry. It's possible to have a Knowledge enable more than one kind of ability score check: a GM could rule that diagnosing a disease is a Int check (enabled by Medicine) but performing surgery is Dex (enabled by Medicine).

Again: Knowledges are specialist things--you can't even try piloting most craft if you don't have the pilot Knowledge.

Urgent Task Resolution and Combat

Since this is horror, combat in this game more follows the Call of Cthulhu "figure out something big before you die" model than the "ranges and damage spreads matter a lot" model of like D&D and wargames.  In any situation where you need to do this before someone else does that (usually combat) there is no initiative, rather there's a "clash" system.

Think of a clash like a panel in a comic book. Each clash involves opposed rolls. It takes about 6 seconds.

Basically everyone says what they want to do. Then they roll a d12, high roll gets to do what they want. In complex combats with multiple participants, if you don't roll high but your task wouldn't be interrupted by anyone rolling higher than you, you can do it, you do your thing.

Typical combat involves an attack (Attack score + d12) vs either another attack (Attack vs d12) or dodging, running away, etc (Defense + d12). You could also have like an attack (Attack score + d12) vs an attempt the hack the weapon making the attack (Int + d12, only possible if the combatant has Hacking).

There's no variable damage--this is a harsh post-scarcity future and if you are using a weapon strong enough to get through the enemy's armor (or lack thereof) the enemy is gonna get fucked up. If you aren't, nothing happens.

You go straight to the crit table at the bottom of this entry every time you get hit. (It's basically an adapted version of this.)

Example: If a regular person punches another person in (22nd century nanospace-)armor, nothing happens--they have crazy future armor and the armor is preposterously out of scale to the attack. If they punch a regular person in no armor successfully, that is doing damage and you roll a crit. Combat is fast and deadly.

If you roll less than a 50 on that table, you need to also make a Psychostubborn check (difficulty 10) to avoid losing d4 sanity points.

The winner of a clash gets to decide the range at the beginning of the next clash. So if you successfully shoot someone you can decide the next round starts with you far away (you are hit, I can make my getaway) or close up (you are hit! I can now come over and finish you off). The max distance you can move away is 60 feet unassisted.

If the goal of the combat action was not to do damage--like you wanted to knock someone down or take something or whatever--then, again, winner does that.

If the situation is such that one side would naturally have an advantage (you're fighting in a tiny broom closet and one person has a knife and the other has a sword, so the knife is a better weapon) then the GM can grant 5e-style Advantage (roll twice, pick the highest).

Note that because Defense involves adding Armor to Dex, maneuvers where armor wouldn't matter (grappling, pickpocketing) are just against Dex.

Area-effect weapons and environmental conditions can trigger body saving throws--failing one of these save does one of three things:

-Kills you
-Inflicts a specific kind of damage unique to that kind of effect (ie exposure to this radiation makes your eyes melt shut)
-Causes a roll on the Crit table

The GM is encouraged to design bizarre puzzle-monster postLovecraftian boss foes that require more than physical force to put them down.

Weapons and Equipment

This isn't a Spidergoat Economy, your Printer provides you with weapons capable of dealing with ordinary threats provided you make your Printer roll and they fit the tech level/aesthetic of the game (kinda hard science fi, except some people are psychic?). You need a grenade? Make a Printer roll to see if you managed to download specs from the Aether and get one properly made. You need a neutron grenade specifically, to kill the organics but leave the ship intact? The GM might make that a higher difficulty number check, maybe an 11.

This isn't always a check to see if you can print it--printing takes at least a number of minutes equal to the difficulty of the check times 2 in minutes. It's a check to see if you were prepared enough to have the thing already.

Downloading New Knowledges

This takes one minute and a successful Knowledgebank check, difficulty 8. A successful download requires the PC to make a difficulty 8 Psychoflexible check or lose d4 San, if it's a new language it's only difficulty 6.


This will mostly be dealt with on the crit chart, but mechanical repair or medicine can be used to fix crits but it takes time and can't be done in a tactical situation.


Dying happens if you take a bad crit. Then you get re-sleeved as your brain is emailed somewhere and downloaded into a new body in the nearest friendly cache. You have to make a Bioflexible check or you lose d6 Sanity in the process. The difficulty number depends on the new body:

Body matches brain: 6
Previously-experienced type of body: 8
First time humanoid, first time non-humanoid, first time organic: 10
First time machine: 12
First time machine and first time humanoid/non-humanoid simultaneously: 14
Other: 9


You'll roll lots of Sanity checks--this is a horror game. GM decides how bad the San loss is--d4, d6, d8, etc.

Losing more than 3 sanity on one roll or in one hour results in a temporary insanity from the table at the back of most editions of Call of Cthulhu. It lasts until things quiet down and someone either administers Psychotherapy (with a difficulty number = 20 minus current San score) or the victim makes a successful Craft/Hobby roll or you level up and choose the option to fix your sanity. This recovers d4 San and cures the condition.

You lose all your sanity points and you're permanently insane and an NPC.

Leveling up

Every time you've completed a mission (GM decides what that means) you can do one of three things:

-Take an Advance from your body's list of advances. You may only take each once, though some are listed in alternate forms, permanent and nonpermanent and/or with different numbers--you can take each form once.
-Gain d4 San
-Take a new Knowledge
-Take a specialty Knowledge (that is, any custom Knowledge narrower than you already have) at +1. So, like, if you already have Hacking. you could take Neural Net Hacking +1. And if you already have Neural Net hacking you could take Neural Net hacking of Military AIs at +1. These stack and apply to the rolls you make with them.

You don't have to roll a Psychoflexible check to gain these knowledges or specialties, they're learned the old fashioned way.

Max on anything in any situation is +10.


Crit table

Losing a body part your body used to have but don't now means instant death (so the more mutilated you become the more dangerous combat is). Losing a body party (or equivalent) your body never had means instant death if you're larger than human sized or you've evaded the crit if you're smaller and if you're human size, roll a dex check (8), failure means death, success means you've avoided damage.

1-Adrenaline surge, or auxiliary program activates, you are +1 to Comabt then collapse for d6 clashes when the fight ends plus awesome scar, +1 Cha.
2-Adrenaline surge or auxiliary program activates, you are +1 to Combat then collapse for d6 clashes when the fight ends.
3-Awesome scar, +1 Cha
5-Ugly scar -1 Cha
6 Lose a tooth,  or equivalent
7 Lose some teeth or equivalent in an unbecoming place -1 Cha
8 Str check vs 10 or be knocked down, conscious

9 Successful medicine check (8) next clash or lose right eye or equivalent
10 Successful medicine check (8) next clash or lose left eye or equivalent
11 Successful medicine check (8) next clash or lose right ear or equivalent
12 Successful medicine check (8) next clash or lose left ear or equivalent
13 Successful medicine check (8) next clash or lose tongue or equivalent

14 Lose right eye or equivalent
15 Lose left eye or equivalent
16 Lose right ear  or equivalent
17 Lose left ear or equivalent
18 Lose tongue or equivalent

19 Lose d6 fingers on left hand (6= just thumb) or equivalent
20 Lose d6 fingers on right hand (6= just thumb) or equivalent
21 Embarassing injury (permanent) (player's choice)
22 Lose your nose or equivalent unless the player decides this makes the pc unplayable in which case be a softie and let them pick a facial feature.

22 Biostubborn check (10) or be stunned only able to defend) for 5 clashes (or until proper full-on medical care) then conscious.
23 Biostubborn check (10) or be stunned...
24 Biostubborn check (10) or be stunned...
25 Biostubborn check (10) or be stunned…
26 Biostubborn check (10) or be stunned...

27 Biostubborn check (10) or go unconscious for 1clash (or until proper full-on medical care) then conscious.
28 Biostubborn check (10) or go unconscious for 2…
29 Biostubborn check (10) or go unconscious for 3…
30 Biostubborn check (10) or go unconscious for 4…
31 Biostubborn check (10) or go unconscious for 5...

32 Unconscious 1 clash (or until proper full-on medical care) then conscious.
33 Unconscious 2 clashes (or…
34  Unconscious 3 clashes (or…
35 Unconscious 4 clashes (or…
36 Unconscious 5 clashes (or...

37 Unconscious 1 clash (or until proper full-on medical care), then conscious and disadvantage until successful Medicine check at 6
38 Unconscious 2 clashes (or...
39  Unconscious 3 clashes (or...
40 Unconscious 4 clashes (or…
41 Unconscious 5 clashes (or ...

42-51 Unconscious until Medicine check (8) is made.

52  Neck damage Biostubborn check vs 6 or go unconscious for d4 clashes (or until proper full-on medical care), then back to conscious and disadvantage on all physical checks.  d4 days to recover without proper full-on medical attention.…
53 Head fracture Biostubborn check...
54-55 Broken something in pelvis Biostubborn check...
56-59 Broken something in ribs Biostubborn check...
60 Broken something in left hand Biostubborn check...
61 Broken something in rt hand Biostubborn check...
62-63 Broken something in in left leg Biostubborn check...
64 Broken something in in rt leg Biostubborn check...
65 Broken something in in left foot Biostubborn check...
67 Broken something in in rt foot Biostubborn check...

68 lost use of right hand Biostubborn check vs 6 each clash to keep conscious until successful Medicine check vs 6 (-1 Dex when moving for missing appendage). d4 days to recover without proper full-on medical care but even then you're still maimed.
69 lost use of left hand Biostubborn check...
70 lost use of right foot Biostubborn check…
71 lost use of left foot. Biostubborn check...

72 lost use of left arm past elbow die in 30 minutes unless Medicine check (difficulty 8). Medicine check keeps you conscious with a Biostubborn check vs 8 each clash to keep conscious (-1 Dex for mangled limb). Week to recover without proper full-on medical care but even then you're maimed.
73 lost use of right arm past elbow die in 30 minutes unless...
74 lost use of right leg below knee die in 30 minutes unless…
75 lost use of left leg below knee die in 30 minutes unless…

76 lost use of right arm die in d4 minutes unless Medicine check (difficulty 8). Medicine check keeps you conscious with a Biostubborn check vs 8 each clash to keep conscious (-1 Dex for lost limb). Two weeks to recover without without proper full-on medical care but even then yr still missing a limb.
77 lost use of left arm die in d4 minutes unless...
78 lost use of right leg die in d4 minutes unless…
79 Lost use of left leg. Die in d4 minutes unless…

80 Internal injuries. Die in 30 minutes unless Medicine check (difficulty 8). Medicine check leaves you conscious with a Biostubborn check vs 8 each clash to keep conscious (with disadvantage on physical checks)--a month to recover without proper full-on medical care.
81 Die in 25 minutes unless Medicine etc...
82 Die in 20 minutes unless Medicine etc…
83-84 Die in 15 minutes unless…

85 Internal injuries, unconscious. Die in 30 minutes unless successful Medicine (difficulty 10) (with disadvantage on physical checks). A month to recover without proper full-on medical care.
86 Die in 25 minutes unless…
87 Die in 20 minutes unless…
88 Die in 15 minutes unless…
89  Die in 10 minutes unless ...

90-97 Internal injuries, unconscious.  Die in d12 clashes unless Successful Medicine (difficulty 10) check this clash against and even then you're at disadvantage on everything physical. A month to recover without proper full-on medical care.

98 Instant death
00 Instant and demoralizing death. Allies roll Bioflexible vs 8 or be stunned for one clash.

Character sheet:

(Working title)
**The ides of paired mental traits is stolen from Pendragon
***This post-scarcity equipment solution stolen from the "Preparedness" skill in Night's Black Agents
****The concept of bodies as things you serially buy advances from is derived from the Warhammer Fantasy career system. Which might itself be derived from Traveller?

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

On Spidergoat Economics (or Weird Scarcity)

Spidergoat Economics is a phrase Jeff Rients coined for something that has been around in games for ages: the idea that due to prevailing setting or personal conditions, your character must make do with gear that is not only suboptimal, but eccentrically so. This may be true for the whole game--and may determine in-game goals.

We could call it simply Weird Scarcity--but Jeff introduced me to the concept with his Mutant Future equipment tables and I never looked back, so I'm letting him name it.

Spidergoat Economics isn't really just about gear--it's about how advancement and abilities are tied to developments in game (ie, finding "treasure" or looting dead enemies) rather than players designing and then getting to play the exact character with the exact katana they imagine in their head. It is not a player empowerment device-it is the other thing: It empowers either the GM or the dice to set up gear itself as a challenging starting condition with which the challenge-oriented player must contend. It is not escapist.

Most games do not give themselves over completely to Spidergoat Economics and are mostly a hybrid of the reliable and the Spidergoat.

Other examples:

In the old D&D systems where your spells are acquired randomly ("Chance to know each spell") and so you have to kill a boss monster with Mending, spells are Spidergoat. They are even more Spidergoat if they have horrible downsides or inconvenient durations, areas of effect, etc.

Jeff designed a whole starfleet battle game around Spidergoat Economics--you have to win although each of your ships sucks in a certain way.

Originally (and in most OSR and DIY D&D games) magic items are distributed according to Spidergoat Economics. You can't just buy them, so you do what you can with your +2 Longsword of Volcanic Activity rather than just buying a +5 sword off the rack.

My D&D starting equipment list here is a very lite version of Spidergoat Economics--it's all normal equiment, but it isn't presumed that your character can just start session 1 with exactly what they want. In terms of armor and standard weapons, it ceases to be Spidergoat as soon as the players get to a big city.

On the other hand, my TMNT/Mutant Future Cannonball Run Post-Apoc Restaurant Reviewer game was 100% Spidergoat Economics as the character sheet shows.

Scrap Princess looked at my Shadowrun post from yesterday and provided one of the most divine examples of Spidergoat Economics yet--imagining a world of cyberpunk magic where nothing works the way you think it does because you're just a scrabbling schmuck between weird juggernauts.

"Hi-tech = reliable is a fucking techo-utopian scam . That gun with the target seeking bullets needs a wi-fi connection and the latest app download or it ain't doing shit. And if it gets knock around you sure ain't fixing it because it's planned obsolesces in the hyper markets of super capitalism chummer . Also see guns that you don't legally own but just pay a monthly licence fee for and it keeps trying to sell you micro-transactions."

...and gives lots of reasons the setting could and should be de-rationalized to explain how you ended up with such weird tech. Don't forget to read the comments!

Like all economic systems, Spidergoat Economics has implications that reach far beyond what you buy and how. It is related to randomness and to the rationing of options, and a game style devised around finding clever ways to play the hand you're dealt: Noisms recent post about how Shadowrunners could be victims of not just The New but The Weird New extends thoughts along the same tracks.

Spidergoat equipment systems are, ironically, very newbie-friendly as you never have to go "Here's a list of a jillion things, what do you want brand new person?" there are no trap options because everything is a trap. You don't buy stuff, you are assigned stuff and then decide who to target to get more stuff.


5e D&D as written--where you have enough to buy whatever armor you like and can get an "adventurer's pack" is not Spidergoat (thought the d100 chart of trinkets is kind a feint in that direction--and lovely, we at DIY D&D get what you were going for with that, whoever wrote it).

The assumption in 3.5 and 4e that you would just eventually buy magic items is very ungoat, cabron.

Post-scarcity futures are obviously not Spidergoat. (But post-post-scarcity is: this power armor was designed to work in a world of infinite solar energy but you crashed near a dying dwarf so you can use it for 3 rounds a day...)

Superhero character gen is mostly not Spidergoat as the challenge of making a coherent character out of collaged elements often results in PCs too silly to play in a genre where suspension-of-disbelief is already pretty high. These games need design and players need mostly to get what they want or it won't hold together as a character--though figuring out what parts of a hero pc you could goatify (personality flaws, npc support system, interparty relationships) is an interesting challenge. Maybe Wolverine spent so many points on badass he had nothing left over for Height or Working Well With Others.

Abstractness is fundamentally un-Spidergoat: the kinds of games or subsystems where you get a pool of points and spend them to create a thing of xxxx level effectiveness and you flavor it to taste (ie "You can call it whatever you want as long as it does 3d6 damage").

Apocalypse World is an interesting case: The setting elements describe a Spidergoat Economics scavenged and kit-bashed future but the system distributes these things in a way that sometimes allows for the players themselves to design them, which makes the character have to undergo Weird Scarcity, but the player gets, in practice, a gun that works like other guns. Usually. So like: the setting is pretty Spidergoat but the system is less so. The setting describes a scarcity the player does not have to tactically account for.

Spidergoat Economics is an easy way to make any sci-fi setting interesting, assuming you aren't attached to "I get to make the character I want to make with the stuff I want them to have" or abstraction or unfettered player-invention (though fettered player-invention is Spidergoat compatible: "it works but..."). Spidergoat is to setting what d100 is to plot. Like:

-Yes, you have the fastest ship in the galaxy but...your hyperdrive doesn't always work and it maybe isn't yours?

-RIFTS is solved instantly with Spidergoat Economics. Nice Glitter Boy armor there. Shame if the coolant tank got a leak... Reflex missiles huh? I think I saw one of those 3 years ago in a church full of mutant bats.

-Voyager is essentially Spidergoat Star Trek. Even the fucking crew is scavenged.


Tuesday, September 20, 2016

So Shadowrun

-Biggest problem with cyberpunk is: The same way the gravity of superhero games pulls toward in-jokey parody and it takes a lot of set-up to resist, the gravity of cyberpunk games pulls toward dumb escapist "real life just cooler". Since I live in downtown LA (literally where Blade Runner was set, blocks from the Bradbury Building) in 2016 and everyone here is in porn or something and my girlfriend has so many essential tubes in her she technically is a cyborg, this is a very serious problem for both overall setting, character gen, and improvising details.

-Ok, I recognize the gear and brand porn is actually an important setting element: when your characters can casually throw around shared ideas like "oh that Fairlight Excalibur used to be hot shit back when people thought AIs were spinning pyramids made of grey cubes" it really does help make a future of disturbed hypercapitalism come to life. And also, it is interesting as a planning challenge to have a "right tools for the job" approach to weapons. On the other hand, I don't want a simulation of the experience of actually shopping. There are, just like in real capitalism, more weapons than there are proper niches for them. A sci fi game should have each niche:

Long range, light damage, narrow area of effect, slow rate of fire, hard to get (like a sniper rifle)
Short range, heavy damage, wide area of effect, slow rate of fire, easy to get (like a shotgun)
Medium range, heavy damage, narrow area of effect, high rate of fire, hard to get (like a machine gun)

...and every other possible variation on those categories super-clearly laid out. Plus nonlethal weapons like a net gun and weird ones like the one that sends you to dimension 3 or sprays mutagen everywhere or whatever. And if you want to add a shopping-simulating mechanic (like some are cheaper but less reliable, etc) then ok. But actually having to have system mastery in order to get the non-trap weapon should not be a thing.

The reason I don't think this has ever happened is very few game writers are simultaneously old school enough to realize the legitimate world=building and tactical planning purpose of gear porn while also being innovative enough to cut away the parts of gear porn that exist because of sheer inertia. Any game mechanic which rewards having read the manual more carefully is evil.

-Like sex, hacking is more exciting in real life than it is in a game, even when you dress it up so it looks better and involves more robots.

Moreover, computers are kind of boring in general.

-It is definitely fun--and genuinely a challenge of invention--to make up dystopic, satirical versions of places in the actual world. That's fun. That is the tempting part.

-All the hippie shit has to go and you have to somehow make Shadowrun elves feel like elves without it. Which probably means many of them have to be immediately accepted very high into the power structure and establish their specialness right away.

-Do they have cyberware for critters yet? Because if you can't have a half-chrome cockatrice with Judas Priest cover claws what even is the point?

-Cyberpunk miniatures are terrrrrrrible by and large. The sheer volume of people trying to do it has resulted in sculptors able to produce medieval fantasy minis at a fairly high level of quality and the amount of money and talent Games Workshop aimed at them from the beginning has meant the 40k line has developed an idiom for their version of the future that looks pretty good but--as in life--reality is one of the hardest things to romanticize and generations of Cthulhu and Western and Shadowrun sculptors have fell flat on their faces churning out endless series' of grimacing big-headed knob-fisted humunculi that nobody wants a piece of.

-The current state of cyberpunk art in general is far advanced over the state of the art in actual Shadowrun books--which is only a problem as far as showing players the Shadowrun-specific stuff is supposed to look like, that is: the cyberelves and cybertrolls. But: that is a genuine hurdle. If you're gonna have orks, you want people playing them.

Monday, September 19, 2016

6 Games You Don't Have To Play Before You Die

So saying something is 'must-read' or 'must-play' is dumb, and, at-root, a creepy arrogant steamrolling over the ineluctable modality of being. I remember that list of 100 games to play before you die that went around--and I'm sure there were some lovely games on it--but seriously play 100 RPGs? Ever heard of Sturgeon's Law? Games exist to serve you, not the other way around.

That said, here's a list that's RPGs that are Essential to play if you want to experience and learn some things I thought were worth learning and experiencing. Bonus: in order for newbies.

1. D&D--Basic, 5e, or simplified AD&D

Not only will you then know what everybody is talking about, it's a game with a culturally broad enough premise (everybody knows what an elf is) and an open enough structure that you'll probably find a way to slot yourself into that universe. Obviously if you hate fake-medieval magic settings don't play, but seriously duh--if you don't like the genre don't play the game that is in that genre, I won't point that out again.

2. Call of Cthulhu

I haven't seen the latest edition, which I hear is worse, but every ed until then was good. You learn two things:
-A system which is basically D&D but with a whole other % and Sanity system bolted on works fine
-Hey you could probably use this system for, like, almost anything if you just changed the skills....

You could also play Pendragon here instead, which has a trait system instead of a Sanity system but is based on the same system and teaches many of the same lessons.

3. Rolemaster

Have someone else make your character, though. Then experience the rich anticipation of finding out how horrible your fumble is, or the unique and gory detail of your new crit. See die results you will never see again--plan the fuck out of your combat or die trying. Also realize character generation that is too complex to do yourself is...not really a big hurdle if there are pay-offs.

4. Dread

You already played Call of Cthulhu, now you can compare. This is the Indie way of doing things: Movie-inspired rather than literature inspired, open-ended, relies on you (the player) to invent details, requires you to maintain tone, ultralight, best in one-shots. Plus, as one of the few postForge-RPGs where the author isn't either a chronic online psychopath or in a close business relationship with one, it's one of the few Indie games where your money spent won't go to fund online harassment.

5.  Marvel Superheroes FASERIP

Have fights that comfortably last a whole session, see what it's like when the girl who wants to act like Spider-Gwen and the girl who wants to solve the problems that Spider-Gwen has to solve are both equally effective due to the karma system. See the genius of the Make A Commitment rule.

6. RIFTS or something else Palladium

This will be your first experience with a genuinely wall-to-wall fucked-up system. It will probably also be fun anyway--which is an important lesson to learn, plus we need a sci-fi game here.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Tips For Running A Spy Game

Currently running one and somebody asked so I figured I'd do my best to throw together some simple but concrete things:

-Choose a place and a time you know as well or better than your players

I once got to say "Actually, I've been to Pollock's Toy Museum and it's fucking tiny and the coat check is right next to the entrance" instead of looking stupid when running Night's Black Agents for Ken Hite. Though I did pretty much rip the system into shreds accidentally kind of constantly but whatever that's another story.

-Figure out how much spy stuff you want the players to have and how hard you want it to be for the players to get it

One of the nice thing about Night's Black Agents for one-shots is you spend no time shopping, and even though I run my own games using a modified Call of Cthulhu (basically using the NBA skill list) the point is you want to have a clear handle on how the parent government or patron's largesse is going to shape the adventure. Technically the CIA could always call in an airstrike, and that could be boring. You need to carefully calibrate how you want to use the system and scenario to decide how much recourse the players have to crazy tech that can solve their problems before they come up.

-Get comfortable with how spy pacing is distinctive

Ok, in a super-hero game, you can run a 2-hour session of which an hour and a half is one fight with one villain and not only is everybody happy but that pretty much can be an average session. A little drama--biiiiiiig fight, lots of powers, done. Satisfying. That's why superhero games are pretty easy to run. Similarly, D&D games can typically be paced out to like a series of 5-10 moments of opening doors or entering hexes or encountering NPCs and then dealing with some unexpected consequence.

In a spy game, the unit of "something happened" is basically each time the players get concretely closer to their goal or some other major confrontation. That is a "beat" in a spy story. I roll successfully to see if I can detect a pattern in Worthington's tax returns over the years--beat. I talk to the bartender and he makes me as IRA and waves me off. Beat. Get comfortable with that--let the players enjoy the little world you're creating with these details. Make that as fun as the rooftop gunfight you know is coming.

-The spy equivalent of the dungeon is the heist

And I don't mean in structure, I mean in terms of reliably providing a session's-worth of reliably spyish activity. You name a target, a time, a place, and tell the players they need to steal, assassinate, kidnap, rescue or neutralize it. The rest is up to them.

It sounds preposterously simple but trust me, it works. Here's a freebie. They'll spend a half hour or more planning, they'll get in, they'll fail one crucial roll and the consequences will provide the fuel for the rest of the night.

-Hunter/Hunted is a good one to have in your pocket

"What if there's a crucial clue the players miss?"
"Oh just use GUMSHOE! Or the three clue rule! They'll never miss a clue again!"
Screw that, let your players deal with the consequences of their appalling incompetence. It's good clean fun and a plot structure so tight it's hard to think of a spy story that doesn't use it. Here.

-Red herrings

In yesterday's game I told False Patrick that the cell data he Traffic Analyzed revealed:

-One number that gets called all the time
-One number that calls the target, only after they've consulted that first number
-One number that gets called the same time every week for 20-30 minutes

Patrick looked at the 3rd number and went "That's probably just his mom". And I was so happy--not because I'd fooled him, but because he had guessed exactly right. In the years he played in my games he'd gotten used to the idea that just because there's a detail doesn't mean it's important. Only hack GMs only give players details that turn out to be meaningful later.

-Enemies are whatever

Opposed NPC stats can be just average people 90% of the time with like one good stat and 1 skill. You don't even have to write them up ahead of time if you have a good handle on who they are. In most spy (and horror) systems, PCs are fragile enough that regular people with guns are quite enough to make a genuinely frightening combat.

The final boss can have stats, but even just an interestingly exotic place to fight and a lot of hit points or a bullet-proof vest results in a memorable encounter.

-You don't have to invent plot twists right up front

In making a D&D setting I recommend running that first adventure, then extrapolating the setting from what happens there. It worked for Tolkien (you got a....ring? Ok, let's see where the ring came from...). Run the first adventure, figure out what kind of PCs the players made and what kind of stuff you had to pull out of the hat that day to make the game happen. Then develop the plot twists out of that between sessions. As more and more elements come into play (one player is CIA one is MI5, you can do inter-agency rivalry, none of the players speak any other languages--give them an unreliable translator, etc). The twists will come organically once you get your feet on the ground in the world. Just character creation for 4 people alone will generate enough question marks to build plot out of for weeks.

-In other words, relax

I am making this sound easy, but it some ways, it kind of is. You don't have to genuinely scare people, like in horror, you don't have to invent some new exotic traps or weirdness, like in D&D, you don't have to make your villains seem as vivid as real comic book villains like in a superhero game, you just have to make this slightly alternate take on reality feel real. The spy genre is about how mystery and danger are hidden in banal objects--the bomb in the apple, the elevator with the frayed cable, the Man Who Goes Through The Blue Door--luxuriate in these details and other lives. Rushing toward set pieces isn't necessary--these players want to spy on things, let them.

And if that doesn't work, like Chandler said, just have some dickhead show up with a gun.