Espionage is an instantly recognisable genre. Due to its very clearly defined tropes, everyone can remake a spy movie – just think about it now, you can already see the grand opening action sequence in your mind. But when we get down to particulars, lots of spy media are very different. Goldfinger is not the Bourne Identity, The Man From Uncle is not Spooks. What keeps the genre fresh but still recognisable? I think one agent in particular had a lot to do with it. Let’s grab our mission dossiers and dive in.
License To Evolve
While the Spy genre began with Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, arguably the most important genre milestone is Spies by Fritz Lang. This early movie defined the tropes of the spy film so completely that it still holds up today as an example. While this created a strong fundamental message that was later echoed by Hitchcock, World War II changes the focus of spy films. Suddenly they become ‘spies during war time’ or spycatching films. As the genre begins to reinvent itself it starts to merge with the War film genre and the unique elements of the spy genre start to melt away. As we see with many genres though, the Cold War brings new voices to the field. In place of soldiers at war, we now have national operatives. Battles are no longer fought over land, but over information. In the battle of East vs West, skirmishes in closed rooms are as likely as military stand offs. And then in 1953, Ian Fleming invented James Bond.
By 1954, Bond was offered adaptation, with CBS wanting to create a TV special. The popularity of the character continued to grow. Fleming’s combination of no-nonsense modern hero and reaffirmation of tropes as recreated in the twenties, made Bond the modern face of the spy. In 1962, only nine years after his inception (but only two years before Flemings death) the Bond franchise had a film. This became such a smash hit that the character has continued to this day, through 26 films, seven actors and eight authors, bond has embodied the genre. And arguably saved it on numerous occasions.
The Bond films work as a unit because they move with the times. Connery’s run on the character became more and more superhero-esq and Moore’s run embraced whatever trend was big that year (martial arts, space, blaxploitation), then the films picked up some eighties action film, nineties meta and late noughties Grit. Each reinvention not only absorbed stylistic trappings of more inventive espionage films but it legitimised those trappings as a recognised part of the genre. It’s most noticeable in the recent Daniel Craig run. In Bond changing to become more like Jason Bourne, we say something about the worth of the Bourne films while returning Bond to a modern audience. The whole genre is elevated.
This long run means that the genre has an ever evolving icon on which to hang itself and create works that either are homage, reaction or stand opposition. This allowed other writers and creators like Le Carre to have a bedrock of very mainstream tropes with which to create sprawling, complex, cerebral espionage works without ever losing the audience. Whether you like your modern spy fiction as a ‘Dirty Martini’ or ‘Bathtub Gin’, we all have a cultural starting block.
Examples in RPG
There are a lot of great Spy RPG’s because the spy genre is so vast and ultimately, playable. I’ve tried to pare it down but have put an extra above my normal three this week. Assume it got in their because it’s that good at stealth missions:
Top Secret: One of the earliest Espionaige genre games. This TSR game caused the FBI to actually stormed their offices after stationery used in the playtesting of an assassination mission fell into government hands. The misunderstanding was cleared up and TSR went on to release a game that is fondly remembered by many to this day. Recently re-released as Top Secret: New World Order, it is set to capture the adventures of a new generation.
Night’s Black Agents: Want to add some horror to your genre? Big Fan of Dracula? This Ken Hite’s game takes the Spy genre and adds vampires to mix, making the bloodsuckers more real and relevant than they’ve been to the hobby in years. Pick it up if you like the genre but feel the need for a little darker content.
Cold Shadows: A very narrative driven game that allows a bit more player control in the initial stages, Cold Shadows sets itself up as a character study with the people in the job drawn into focus. It also gives the players input into the organisation they are part of, allowing them to feel like part of the process.
Operators: Like your Tom Clancy over your Fleming? Want to re-enact combat scenes like those in Taken? The operators is a tour de force of brutal, close up fighting and missions more like a special ops deployment than a slow burn mystery. Still strongly in genre though. Just bear in mind when buying that you’ll need the rulebooks and cards to get the whole package of bone-crunching action.
Here’s our the mission parameters for making the game take an espionage flavour.
Not before each session but before each mission have a very short (no more than two minute) cut scene to start the action and introduce a few NPCs. This is a piece of action or mystery being revealed. It’s the pre-credit scene in a crime drama where someone discovers the body; set up the tension, then hand it over to the players.
Mission and Team Focused
Any game that takes place in a espionage universe will revolve around a series of missions. This means the structure of the campaign is easily breakable into a series of storylines that resolve themselves. This isn’t to say elements and characters can’t carry over from one mission but often there’s a pause in the action. The powerful continuity here is in the concept of the team and how they relate to each other. Create a series of questions to define the relationships between the characters before play starts Who used to date? Who got tortured together? Who left who stranded behind enemy lines? These should create great relationship to start the game off and give you a place to go next when you create the stories.
Clear Ideologies, Complex People
Opposing sides in the Espionage genre have clear idealogical differences, that’s why their factions are at war. But the people on both sides of that conflict often fall short of those ideals or change their beliefs. You need to have some clearly defined sides so that when characters choose to betray teammates or act counter to their side’s beliefs, you can showcase them as people making decisions for realistic reasons. If motivations are too murky, the game might descend into conspiracy or gothpunk morality tale really quickly. So define the sides, then test the belief systems with each adventure.
You want a bunch of fantastic locations and odd set piece fights/chases. It is not enough to be having a gunfight. It must be taking place somewhere and that must have an effect of some sort. Make sure each chase has a different feel. If this game is set in the real world, bring photos of locations to the game. Make the players feel the jet-set lifestyle of the international agent.
Try to add a twist or reprisal to at least half the stories you tell. Don’t do it every time, but this last minute twist is something that happens so often, people expect it. Keep a list somewhere of possible twists so that you can keep them different.
My twist is, that’s the end for now! In the next instalment, we’re going to scale down from international spies to a more local flavour of government employee.