Sunday, January 6, 2013

Cold War RPG Musings

"O fish, are you constant to the old covenant?"

"Return, and we return. Keep faith, and so will we."

- From Tim Powers' Declare, quoting A Thousand and One Nights

Over the Christmas holidays I spent some time reading the first three of John Le Carré's novels: Call for the Dead, A Murder of Quality, and The Spy Who Came In From the Cold. In the first two the protagonist is George Smiley, a spy about as far from James Bond as one can imagine. He's not a combat master, he's someone who thinks and knows an awful lot.

I've heard this style of writing referred to as "stale beer" espionage novels. It is a world of blackmail, betrayal, and morally questionable actions. The Spy Who Came In From the Cold involves a series of betrayals and deceptions such that it is impossible to find a "hero".

 While such fiction is typically "mundane", it need not be so. For example, Tim Powers' Declare is a WW2/Cold War spy novel with a strong occult element.

D&D and other RPGs were born in the Cold War period. That said, there aren't many RPGs that are dedicated to a Cold War simulation. TSR's Top Secret was one such game - though it is worth noting that it was written when the Cold War was most definitely still going on - just like an espionage game written (and taking place) today would have to deal with the US War on Terror an espionage game back then would of course deal with the Cold War.

As a Generation X-er, I'm probably among the last gamers who grew up during the Cold War. By the time I graduated high school Glasnost was in full swing and in my first semester at college I watched the Berlin Wall open up. I don't think people much younger than me can appreciate what an event that was. My wife's mother was born in Germany and as a child my wife visited Berlin and had the experience of passing through various checkpoints from West Germany to East Germany and into West Berlin. Her descriptions are, to say the least, frightening.

Though it is now history, the Cold War is an interesting period for RPGs and one that is largely untapped. One notable exception is Contested Ground Studios' Cold City, taking place in Berlin of 1950, with teams being made up of representatives of the various occupying nations as they deal with the legacy of the "twisted technologies" of the Third Reich. While this is a dangerous enough threat by itself, you also must deal with the fact that you can't fully trust members of your own team.

As I think about it, trust would be one of the big components of a Cold War game. You really don't know who you can trust. You can usually trust your regular associates. But every once in a while there is a betrayal. Someone is turned by the enemy. Someone has a change of loyalty. Or just breaks down. Or is duped. Sometimes you can't trust your employer or patron. You are a chess piece. And sacrificing chess pieces is par for the course. And sometimes your immediate superiors get turned. Nothing like reporting to a Kim Philby. (A large part of Powers' Declare involved Philby's defection.)

Le Carré and Powers provide a nice axis showing how one can stay in the "gritty" side of spy fiction with varying degrees of the supernatural, from Le Carré 's fully mundane world to dealing with djinn in Declare. Pagan Publishing's Delta Green Call of Cthulhu supplement provides a post-Cold War occult conspiracy but it also provided tons of history for the Delta Green organization, providing some interesting ideas for games set at various stages of the Cold War. Not only do you need to defeat the Mi-Go, but you must also stop the Soviets from gaining access to their technology.


The Cold War also provides a nice level of technology. Computers do exist but they are the machines that fill up rooms, not fit in your pocket. No internet as we know it. A paper copy of a document becomes a valuable thing. No cell phone to call for backup. No answering machines until the end of the Cold War.

It does also present some interesting challenges. I remember being scared of the Soviet boogeyman. I remember being shown those scary maps showing the spread of communism. There was a real fear of the Soviet Union and us all getting nuked to kingdom come. That may be hard to relate to. "You were really scared of them?" Similarly, any game set in a past period may get caught up on details like technological and societal details. However, there is a ton of source material out there, both in fiction and non-fiction. It can make for some rather enjoyable research.

6 comments:

  1. I graduated high school the same year as Able Archer and the shoot-down of Korean Air Lines 007 by the Soviets. I know exactly what that fear was like.

    I still have a Top Secret campaign I'd love to run someday.

    Have you read the Queen & Country graphic novels? More contemporary than Cold War, they's still full of great tradecraft for espionage campaigns.

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  2. I never have read Queen & Country but I'll have to add them to my reading list.

    I remember when Reagan sent aircraft carriers to Libya my classmates and I getting freaked out as the Soviets sent their own ships to "observe". I can't imagine what it must have been like for our parents to have lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis.

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  3. btw I suspect I'm in a minority - I actually preferred the original Top Secret to Top Secret S/I. The original had a feel I far preferred.

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  4. TSR's Top Secret sounds like an interesting game.

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  5. I definitely prefer the original Top Secret to the SI version - although the interpersonal interaction rules need a serious makeover.

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  6. Cold City is an excellent game and possibly the most atmospheric that I've run as a GM. My local group are due to start their third scenario over the next few weeks.

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