Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Let's Talk About Bond, Part II: Live And Let Dice

So, I realized that I missed an opportunity with the name of this post series. It should have been "What About Bond?" I figure as long as I'm naming my posts after movies, why not go all in? Well, it's too late now.

So now that you know a thing or two about James Bond 007: Role Playing In Her Majesty's Secret Service, let's talk a bit about using Bond-like idioms (which tend toward a solo experience) in modern RPG environments (which tend strongly toward group play, duh).

Some Men With Golden Guns

One of the neatest things about the 007 RPG is that there's a built in sense of scalability. Ostensibly, each adventure (since they're based on the 007 movies) could be played through by a single 00-level (that's the highest of the three echelons of PC skill; it goes rookie, agent and 00 agent); as such, most modules will include solo play options. However, that's not how most of us play RPGs. Most of us get a group of friends (not just one other dude) together to play our games with. By the same token, if you're playing the 007 RPG with a bunch of folks, chances are, you're not all playing 00 agents. In fact, if any of you are playing 00 agents, then that one character will probably end up being the central figure of the campaign which is fun if you're that player, but can be crazy boring if you're anyone else in the party. And so, if you have a few friends around ye olde gaming table, then you'll be playing agents, but if you have a bunch of folks, then you're likely to be running rookies.

Somehow, this book isn't
completely and totally awesome
So, if you're writing adventures based on movies you have two challenges: (1) how to you make the adventure sufficiently different from the movie it's based on that players who've seen it won't "spoil the ending" but keep it thematically linked enough to the source material that it can still said to be the same story and (2) how do you tell a story intended for a cast of one with a cast of up to six? The answer to both questions is to change the basic assumptions of the adventures. If we, say, watch the movie of For Your Eyes Only and then read the adventure, we see that the same story is handled drastically differently in either work, yet it's still the same story. Instead of Bond sneaking onto Gonzales's Spanish estate to find out who hired the assassin (in the movie), the agents track Gonzales to a lavish party being thrown by Kristatos in Italy (where each agent has an opportunity to engage in his or her specialization) where they must then solve the mystery of who crossbowed him in the throat. Further, the module doesn't try to tell you "this happens, then this happens" but rather give the GM a potential series of events more like a flow chart which is merely a suggestion. It becomes less "this then this" and more "if you players do this, think about adding this other thing... or not." Very DIY, but a guided DIY that does a really good job of giving you the reasons why it's guided. Where it could very easily fall into what I'd consider the Dragonlance trap, the 007 RPG does a great job of instead emphasizing player decisions and giving the GM ammunition for different ways that the PCs can accomplish the same thing based on how they decide to do it.

In My Eyes Only

So, given what I've said this (and last) time about the strengths of the 007 RPG and what I said last time about the weaknesses of it (curse you, ridiculously convoluted percentile dice systems!), and how much I've been thinking about James Bond lately, I'll obviously have more than a few opinions about how I'd want to run a James Bond-esque game today. The biggest strength of the system, using solo plots for multiple characters by stripping out any and all forced plot points, isn't even a mechanical one, so I think we're in great shape to be able to adapt 007 to new and exciting (and non-table-based) modern RPG systems. In my eyes (perhaps only), the top contenders are FATE Core and GUMSHOE.

Unless you've been living under an RPG rock for the last six months, you've heard of FATE Core. I, like thousands of other gamers out there, backed its recent Kickstarter and now hungrily await the launch of the game proper. I think that FATE is a great candidate for a new 007 RPG because of its exceptionally simple method of taking brief descriptions of things and turning them into direct game effects (FATE calls these Aspects, which can be good or bad, but most float somewhere between and can even pull double duty). For the 007 version of FATE, you might have to introduce some new traits (maybe a new type of strain for action hero-y things, another for seduction-y things, etc.) and new systems (you'd really need a detailed look at narrating a chase scene since there's one in every fucking Bond movie) and probably a slew of new extras (Q branch, old chap), but FATE could quickly and easily adapt to 007 and you could probably do it on the fly based on everyone's shared knowledge of (a) the world and (b) the genre. The fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants nature of FATE and creating a FATE game (which seems largely to work on a consensus basis) fit the idea of the 007 world as I see it, and so, for me, FATE is a strong front-runner for "best game system to use to approximate the world of 007." But wait, there is another contender.

If you haven't heard of the GUMSHOE system, then you just haven't lived. Which is nothing like true. It does, however, mean that you haven't read Trail of Cthulhu and that, my friends, is a crying shame. The system is a great, story and choice driven engine that assumes that, say, your players are just going to find the clue that gets them from point A to point B, they just have to tell you how they go about getting there, whereas other systems might leavoe that sort of thing up to chance (like a perception skill check or something). Similarly, GUMSHOE doesn't require nearly as many task resolution rolls as other games, instead using a bidding system where you "buy" automatic successes by simply (temporarily) "spending" a point from a relevant skill. Nice and simple and straightforward. Dice rolls do become important, of course, when something you try becomes resisted by someone (or something, as is often the case in Cthulhu scenarios) else. I like the concept behind this system and it seems to work exceptionally well for working with some of the original 007 RPG's more old school concepts, particularly those relating to modules and such. It seems a little more "hard game-y" than FATE despite it's distinctly new school story game cred. Further, it seems to me that the Night's Black Agents version of the GUMSHOE system (in which the PCs are spies, black ops teams and other secret agents and not supernatural investigators) might just need minor tweaking (such as taking out all the vampires) to handle 007 stuff more accurately. I'd use GUMSHOE if I were looking at the game as more of a conversion of 007 and less of a rewrite, even if Pelgrane Press's logo creeps me out. It looks too much like the female reproductive system (not that there's anything wrong with the female reproductive system, which is kind of essential) to put on the cover of a book that isn't about the female reproductive system.

It's at this point that I'd like to say that I have not forgotten about or ignored Agents of SWING. I am not one of those folks who hates on James Desborough, believing he eats babies or molests goats or any of that other crap that he gets accused of on No, I just don't own Agents of SWING yet. Look folks, there are only so many RPGs in the budget right now, okay? I'm not made out of money and can't afford to buy every RPG that crosses my path. I'm really interested in this one, but it's going to have to be on the back burner for awhile since there's lots of other games vying for my attention. Agents of SWING just might be ideal for running 007 games, but my judgment will have to wait until the funds can support the purchase.

From Corellia With Love

During all of my thinking about James Bond and what I'd want in an ideal espionage game and how I love the old 007 RPG just not its cumbersome rules, I thought back to a conversation I'd had with +Brian Takle a few months back where he said that he'd spent some time sorting out a rules set for a spy game, had come up with some stuff that he really liked, but then realized that it was a game he had no interest in running. This memory made me ask myself "do I have any interest in running a 007 game?" The answer I had, much like Brian, ends up being "no." I just don't feel like I can keep up my own interest level or that of my players, were I to attempt to run a James Bond-like game in a James Bond-like universe with James Bond-like characters. Rather than stop there (because I have no brakes on this thought train), I proceeded to ask myself "in what universe and in what game and with what characters would I be interested in running a James Bond-like story?"

In other words, what setting do I know well enough to be able to use the strengths of Victory Games's "spy stories for groups" innovations, allowing player choice and agency to take the front seat and allowing me to adapt instantly to any of the OFF DA RAILZ crap that players will invariably invent? What characters interest me (and most of my players and potential players) enough that they'd have their interest held while cycling through different characters getting spotlight time to tell a cooperative story about subtlety and subterfuge? My immediate answer for both of these questions is the same: fucking Star Wars.

I'm not going to bore you with some lame story that you've probably heard before (and maybe even given) about how special Star Wars is to me, about how I was born the year it came out, about how it was the first movie that I saw and that I "saw" it the weekend it was released despite being an embryo at the time (maybe a fetus, I don't know the stages of fetal development that well; perhaps I need that book that Pelgrane Press's logo looks like the cover of after all), and all that crap that is true but you're sick of reading. I'll also ignore the irony of the last sentence and hope that you do, too.

So, I've been spending a lot of time lately not just with Commander Bond, but also with the new Edge of the Empire Star Wars RPG from Fantasy Flight Games. My copy of the basic box finally showed up about two weeks ago and I've torn that damn thing apart (which is easy because the box itself SUCKS, but that's a discussion of materials not the game itself). I'm always critical of Star Wars games because I feel very much like West End Games set the bar really high back in the 80's & 90's and that it's very hard to meet up to the standard that they set. I tend to think that Wizard of the Coast largely dropped the ball on their early versions of the d20 Star Wars system but came close to the mark with the Saga Edition; I largely think that "class & level" is absolute shit for the Star Wars universe, but Saga was the least intrusive (and most logical) of the d20 "class & level" systems that WotC tried to bolt on to Star Wars, so while I'm not really excited by it, at least it wasn't completely offensive (I'm looking at you, RCR!).

Back to EotE. I really dig the system, but that's for another time. I'll probably do a Stupid Dice Tricks post about the dice involved because, well, that's sort of my thing. In short, I think that EotE could handle the espionage mechanics required by a 007 game in an inspired fashion, it doesn't get bogged down (or at least apparently doesn't; I haven't test driven the rules yet) by wonky rules and happens in a universe (and era of that universe) with which I'm intimately familiar and inspired by. As I've said before, I spent the bulk of the 90's running WEG's d6 Star Wars (well, that and WoD stuff; sorry, Self-Respect, but I can't deny the truth) and back then I developed an abiding aptitude for just making Star Wars related shit up like mad and particularly cleaving closely to what I felt (and still feel) was the aesthetic of the original trilogy. And really, to make Bond-like stuff work in the Star Wars universe, not too many changes need to be made. Instead of the Soviet Union, you use the Empire. Instead of SPECTRE, you use Black Sun or the Hutt cartels. Instead of Neo Nazi megalomaniacs (View to a Kill), you use hold overs from the Clone Wars or even rogue Inquisitors or some such nonsense. Instead of the gambling houses of Macau, Monaco or Las Vegas, you use those of Cloud City, Nar Shaddaa and Mos Eisley. Chase scenes happen on speeder bikes instead of motorcycles, a YT-1300 instead of an Aston-Martin and cloud cars instead of speed boats. Shadowy secret agents might work for the Hutts, the Vigos or Prophets of the Dark Side, the Empire proper or even the Rebel Alliance. And then you've got corporate espionage on top of all that... so much for an enterprising fringer to do, so little time. Gadgets? We've got gadgets! And stranger stuff than even Q branch could come up with, rolling off the assembly lines of the Roche Asteroid Belt and Sluis Van. Your basic "scum and villainy" campaign in Star Wars is halfway to 007 already, so why not push it that extra mile?

There's nothing wrong with running a 007 game, even just running it for the sake of running a 007 game. For me, I don't know if I could ever dig deep into Victory Games's dense rules and make the thing work as written; I'd have to use another system like FATE Core or GUMSHOE and bolt the Bond-ness onto it. However, I'm afraid that the game I'd end up with isn't one I'd want to play or run. In the end, I think it makes far more sense for me to take the things I love from VG's classic RPG and import those into a game and game world that I have a personal investment in and in which I can tell 007 stories naturally and with impunity. For me, 007 belongs firmly fixed in the stars, long ago in a galaxy far, far away.