Spying and the Craft thereof

Gatac 2015-04-09 04:45:12
I hope it doesn't blow anyone's mind that Shinobi is entering the home stretch - there's still plenty to go, but the shape of the endgame is growing clearer and it's been my goal to give the game a definitive ending instead of making it a continuous thing. That said, Spycraft 3rd Edition will be releasing in the near future, and while few concrete details are as of yet known, what I've heard is very exciting to me. So I'm considering running a game with it when it comes out, which should be around the time Shinobi ends. The details aren't set in stone yet, but considering that Third Ed is trying to go "back to the roots" instead of presenting a super-comprehensive system for every possible "modern" genre like 2.0 did, it'll likely look a lot like a Mission Impossible set up where you guys are a team of secret agents going around the world stopping bad guys.

Now, I've tortured you guys plenty with 2.0 and FantasyCraft, so of course when I first heard there'd be a new edition of Spycraft, I was wary - I mean, I love all that crunch bullshit, but I've seen first-hand that it just got too complex for many players to handle, and while I can do the bookkeeping behind the scenes, I feel like lacking mechanics buy-in from the players also leads to lower engagement in general - it's hard to get excited when you don't really know what all those numbers actually mean in terms of what you can do in the game. So if Spycraft Third was gonna be a system I'd expose you guys to, I needed to make sure it would be something you guys would actually want to get into. So I checked out some talks the designers gave about it and compiled what I know so far into this post.

Character building is supposed to be much more flexible. The central conceit will be your overall concept - where did you come from, what do you do now, where are you going? - that lets you build characters from all walks of life who all ended up as covert operatives - whether it's West Point Graduate, Criminal or an Analyst who gets a promotion to field agent. The game will have six classes to build with, but they will be more archetypical and less specialised builds. Characters will be much more defined by their overall concept and player choices rather than the specific class build (and order). The bad old days, if you'll recall, had stuff like being a Soldier 3 / Wheelman 2 / Armorer 3 / Inventor 10 bookkeeping nightmare where it becomes all about lining up arcane prerequisites to get into classes that have some specialised class ability that fits the concept of your character. Instead, every character class will have only a small amount of "fixed" abilities that amount to basically niche protection for their specialist role, but the much larger pool is flexible and can be freely chosen. The specific example mentioned was being a top-tier linguist who also happens to be a Krav Maga black belt. Under the old systems, that would have been a nightmare to build, because the brainy classes got shitty attack bonus and defense and also didn't get the right kinds of bonus feats, but now every character can pick up these specialties that round out their primary ability set.

So, what are the new classes like? There are, as mentioned, six, and my understanding is roughly this:
  • Commando: Primary combatant with a covert secondary, the Commando is the team's muscle, but the important distinction against the old Soldier/Fighter classes is that he's not dumb muscle. Instead, the class was compared to Navy SEALs, Jack Bauer, Jason Bourne and such, and potentially also a "ninja", so I'm seeing some Sam Fisher-type characters covered here, too. So these guys are the premier asskickers, but they're not shaved apes with body armor and machine guns, so they contribute outside of combat, too. Think of how Reese and Shaw on PoI work on Team Machine even when the guns aren't out yet.
  • Intruder: Infiltration specialist, these guys are more focused on breaking and entering, covering both thieves and hackers - they give the team access. The designer said specifically that ninjas are more likely Commandos, but Intruders can play that role, too, they're just more focused on stealth and intrusion. So, early-games Sam Fisher, not the karambit-wielding chainkilling predator type.
  • Faceman: The primary social combat guys. The discussion turned around them for quite a bit, they're the masters of disguise, the liars and grifters. The exact language was that their primary skill set is people, with a secondary skill set in covert. I'm seeing guys like Neal Caffrey from White Collar in this class,
  • Sleuth: The main investigator/solver of the group, with a strong focus on human intelligence. The designer mentioned, of course, Sherlock Holmes as archetype here, but in the same breath also brought up Benji from the Mission Impossible movies - the guy who collates information, makes leaps of logic and points the team in the right direction. This is supposed to revolve around a Hint/Clue system that is already in the current games, but further enhanced and made more central. I will admit that this is something I never really used in my adventures, but I'm willing to change my ways.
  • Spook: The archetypical capital-S Spy. The designer mentioned George Smiley for this, and just in general guys in wrinkly trenchcoats who were never there. Masters of subterfuge, interrogation and surveillance tactics. They sound a lot like a mission control/"guy in the van" type to me, but the designers mentioned that every class is now a field agent and can contribute out in the field - there are no more non-combatant classes stuck in the van. The designers mentioned that this also covers Cleaner-type characters. Probably also similar to the kind of Mastermind role Nate plays on Leverage, leading from the front and keeping the mission running smoothly.
  • Troubleshooter: Spycraft has frequently struggled with the question "What class is James Bond?" and so far the answers have come up a little short. In the same vein, the Pointman class was supposed to be the flexible one, but also kind of a leader? The designers basically tried to kill two birds with one stone and came up with the Troubleshooter, a class that is supposed to be pretty good at everything and beyond that just pretty fucking lucky. This is James Bond, Ethan Hunt or even Nikita, the take-charge daredevil type who could probably muddle through a mission on his own but works far better as part of a more balanced team.

There may be more classes coming in the future ("The Sleuth is not the only investigator class"), but these are the six that'll be in the core and what I would want to stick with in any event. A notable omission from the classic Spycraft setup is the Wheelman, but his shtick was always kinda narrow, so I have a feeling that's all specialties now. The designer mentioned that all characters should be able to drive cars and shoot guns - they're field operatives after all - and though I am already thinking of counterpoints ("What about the guy from Drive? Or the Transporter?") I can't really come up with a spy character whose big deal is that he's a vehicle specialist. In any event, it's a cut I mostly agree with - just as it isn't much fun to sit around while a specialist hacker does his computer magic, it's also not much fun to have someone so good at driving and chases that it's all they do while everyone else is in the passenger seat.

Every class now has ten levels. A lot of "fat" was trimmed, and every high-level character is therefore multiclassed, gently enforcing yet more general utility instead of specialising on one narrow thing. Odd levels get class-specific bennies (though many abilities are still "choose from a pool" flexible), while even levels get the specialties like Krav Maga or whatever that every character can pick. Those work kind of like a mix between the current Feats and Paths, where you can both say "Okay, I'll train in five different styles and grab the basics from each of them" or go "I'll go down this road and specialize in this specific aspect". Oh, and the "Core Ability" you now get from your first class level? That used to cause a lot of heartache where you'd pick out your first class by the Core you wanted and then immediately switch classes to get the progression you wanted for your character development. The designers basically said "Fuck that". Now you can just pick the Core Ability that goes with your concept. The intent is to reduce, as much as possible, instances of "But I want my character to be able to do X, so I have to choose Y even though that means I need Z as prerequisite...". Instead, the system gets out of your way and lets you pick. The "niche protection" way of class design is less about limiting stuff to one class and more about keeping that class the basic first choice for it - one example mentioned a shooty-type character who would get the ability to "take back" a failed shot. Bam, didn't happen, never seen that Nat 1 in my life, officer. This doesn't mean a rewind, though, like similar, already existing abilities I suppose it'll still take up the time the action would have taken anyway. So if your window of action is limited, you might still need a Plan B, but at least this way you don't blow hours of setup just so a single "1" results in you blowing away a desk lamp instead of an enemy mastermind.

And getting away from the prebuilt stuff, characters now have strengths and weaknesses that (as I understand it) are essentially freeform like Fate Aspects. So you can (and this was again a specific example mentioned) have a strength like "Dead-eyed shooter", and what that does is that when you make a roll where that strength applies to, it increases your threat range (making it easier to get critical successes), and when you boost it with an Awesome Die (the renamed Action Die), you roll a larger die. If you make a roll with multiple strengths applying, you're gonna have a big threat range and be able to roll a big damn Awesome Die. Conversely, it's possible to have a weakness that increases your error range. Also, there is now a mechanic that allows you to spend an Awesome Die to "take back" any roll, but not if a weakness applies to that roll. So a weakness is a real achilles heel of your character that you decide on, not some hole that emerges out of some abstract optimization imbalance of your stats. And weaknesses can now be compelled by the GM in exchange for an Awesome Die. Further, Awesome Die spending by players and the GM leads to narrative shifts, so once a certain number of total AD have been played, Stuff Happens - and if there are more "good" AD on the table than bad "AD", then it's good for the players - but the "bribe" AD the GM can give you for compels is a "bad" AD, and if there are more of those on the table, then Bad Stuff. And when that narrative shift happens, Awesome Dice refresh for everyone so they can now deal with the changed situation. At least that's how I understand it so far, but frankly that sounds rad as hell to me.

Otherwise, a lot of the bookkeeping has been simplified. The designers were just as annoyed as we are with the current systems where raising a core attribute to a new even score raises a bonus that can apply to well over a dozen derived numbers, leading to a bookkeeping nightmare. Instead, they've said that a level-up now leads to maybe four or five things changing on your char sheet, which will be much easier to keep track of. Attributes themselves have changed greatly, there's no longer D20 style Str/Dex/Con/Int/Wis/Cha. Instead, there are things like Awareness, Physical Prowess (forgot the proper name), Wounds, Endurance (the renamed Vitality), Resolve (your general "people are trying to convice/browbeat/distract you" resistance) and Defense. All of these now act as a kind of basic difficulty for things other characters want to do to you. The example went like this: say you're trying to sneak past a guard. An unalerted guard uses only his Awareness score as the difficulty of your roll, which represents his basic, always-on situational awareness, kinda like the Notice skill is supposed to work now. You roll your Sneaking or whatever only against their Awareness. Now if they're actively looking for you, they add their Search skill bonus on top, so you need to beat their Awareness+Search to stay unnoticed. This is a massive, massive simplification of how many numbers you need to keep track of, and in the process also gets rid of the passive/active skill divide I was never a big fan of anyway. Now, when you level up, you can raise attributes of your choice, which means you can - or so I understand it - directly boost your Defense when you level up instead of looking up a class bonus to all your derived stats in a big book of tables. Again, massively simpler. Also, skill bonuses top out at +10, flat-out, which counteracts the hyper-specialisation seen in the current games and encourages characters to spread the love around while also keeping most difficulties in reach of the randomization provided by a d20. This in turn makes Awesome Dice much more valuable as a way both to boost your die rolls and to cancel out your failures. Basically, what I'm hearing here is that they want less "I can never hit that difficulty anyway, let's get the specialist" and more "Hmm...with a good roll and an Awesome Die, I could make that..." which is more seat-of-your-pants and interesting narratively. The designer said that it's possible to keep investing in a skill with a +10 to buy specific tricks or whatever, but basically the extreme skill bonus inflation of current systems will no longer happen.

Whew! Okay, I think that's basically it, compiled from about an hour of recorded talks with one of the designers. If after this massive wall of text you're still interested, drop me a line. I'll try to stay on top of further info to gauge whether Spycraft Third Ed. really is what it's shaping up to be from this limited amount of information - I'll buy it when it comes out in any event. If it turns out it's not suitable for us after all, we can still use Fate or Buskit or whatever, but I'd really like to give this a shot. What say you?
Admiral Duck Sauce 2015-04-09 09:26:19
I am totally down for this. The system changes sound great, and it seems like they're getting back to "we're playing spying spies who spy".
MikeS 2015-04-09 17:56:36
I'm in, but then again you could have talked me into a 2nd Ed game without trouble, too. I'm a little bit less optimistic on the release date/time frame *cough*Spellbound*cough*.
Gatac 2016-05-22 14:40:25
Quick update on this, pertinent points are:
  • Game is definitely gonna happen, but I'd like to wrap up Shinobi first.
  • Preliminary name is "Wildcard".
  • Game is not contingent on Spycraft 3rd Ed actually releasing in time, however. Alternative systems are under consideration, depending on...
  • ...what flavor of spy-fi we want to go for - martini, stale beer or anything in between. (Refer to here for explanation.) I should add that unscientific polling so far tends to lean in the martini/dirty martini direction, but I'm not dead set against alternatives.
  • Different flavors would lead to different alternative systems - some candidates right now are Night's Black Agents (general high-powered spy-fi, though we should probably strip out the vampire conspiracy parts), Leverage (more team of hustlers/classic TV Mission Impossible stuff), Black Seven (Stealth Action, think Metal Gear Solid / Deus Ex / Splinter Cell), The Company (Deniable Military Ops) and Blowback (Burn Notice/Bourne Identity style rogue operatives + civilians vs. the Agency hunting them).
  • Feel free to start thinking about the kind of character you'd like to play. The only limit I'm gonna place on it right now is that your character should be someone who could plausibly work for or with a US intelligence agency. (Unless you guys collectively want to be MI6 or Mossad or whatevs, but I think "US intelligence community" is a pretty big pool to choose from.) Don't worry about any mechanical aspects at this early stage, I'm more interested in concept and tone.
  • That said, please refrain from discussing specific character beats out in the open here. I'm not looking for manufactured team drama but I'd like to start the game with you guys being brought together and getting to know each other over the course of the game. I'd be happy to discuss ideas 1:1, of course.
Gatac 2016-08-06 02:15:28
Whee, out of patience! Barring unforeseen extinction-level events, Wildcard will launch September (after Kasey and I return from Japan). System still tbd, but we can do the introduction as freeform and we'll see how it goes from there.

NINJA EDIT, LITERALLY: Shinobi will of course still continue and be played out to the finish line.
MikeS 2016-08-07 18:19:34
Huh, looks like I completely missed the May post.

Dirty Martini sounds like a good choice.

Blowback and Night's Black Agents sound best to me. Stealth Action and Military Ops sounds like fun for a session or two, but I'm not sure they'll be interesting in the long run. Of course, I could be wrong.

I want to play Jean Reno!
Gatac 2016-09-06 02:20:20
In case anyone missed it, Wildcard is now live and waiting for you guys to jump in.