Random Thoughts on Stale Beer Espionage Gaming
“Intelligence work has one moral law - it is justified by results.”
― John le Carré, The Spy Who Came In from the Cold
With John le Carré's A Legacy of Spies coming out this week I've been rereading his George Smiley novels. Doing so has been getting me thinking about espionage RPGs.
I don't have a ton of experience running or playing in espionage RPGs. I've been involved in a number of one-offs using Top Secret, Top Secret S/I, and James Bond. Back in my middle school and high school days of the 1980s such games tended to emulate the James Bond movies - some investigation/information gathering, with a lot of thrilling chases.
A lot of Call of Cthulhu gaming over the past several years has taught me that gaming can be quite exciting with a high degree of tension with minimal combat. In Call of Cthulhu combat is dangerous. If you need to fight someone, your best bet is to ambush. A fair fight is dangerous, even for someone with a high degree of military training.
I'd love to see an espionage game which gives very mortal characters. With characters of questionable moral character. With difficult decisions, abandoned agents, dead drops, double agents, betrayals, blackmail, etc. This has been referred to as the "Stale Beer" sub-genre. Examples of this include include Ian Fleming's James Bond novels as well as the first two Connery movies, Doctor No and From Russia with Love. John le Carré's novels fall into this. Tvtropes points out that Stephen Maturin of the Aubrey/Maturin Napoleonic Wars-era novels fits into this as well. So does FX's The Americans. If you are comfortable with a dose of the supernatural, Delta Green and Tim Powers would seem to fit in here as well.
How would I run such a game? I'm curious how the new Top Secret game will handle such gaming - my impression is it's a bit more action-oriented, but the original Top Secret was rather flexible. I think Chaosium's BRP engine is very well suited for such a game. The passions and traits from Pendragon would adapt well to such a game - they'd be a great way to see what would motivate a PC or NPC to betray their agency/country/allies/etc. PCs could use them on enemy agents to flip them and on foreign national to recruit them. Delta Green, which shares a ton of design pedigree with BRP and Call of Cthulhu would work incredibly well for this as well - the mechanics have ways for agents to fall apart as they get caught in a web of lies and betrayals, all for the "greater good".
My own inclination would be to do such a game before the fall of the Soviet Union. The historical aspect lessens the chances of real world politics causing trouble in a group. And I find the technology level of that period works better for maintaining suspense - no instant communication, no finding the answers on the internet...
When I began writing this my inclination was to say I'd stay clear of the supernatural. Giving it some more thought, I don't think I'd be totally against it actually. It would really depend on what the group is looking for. If I did use the supernatural, I'd probably stay clear of the idea that Nyarlathotep is responsible for the rise of the Nazis, the Soviet Union, the Viet Cong, and everything else that goes wrong. I don't think the Old Ones would care one bit about our politics...