Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Lover, Fighter, Thief: a simple spying ruleset

So I accidentally started writing a James Bond-y, Zorro-y, Scarlet Pimpernel-y sort of game and I thought I'd inflict it on you. I'm now struggling to remember how it happened.

I was definitely inspired by an episode of Improvised Radio Theatre with Dice - specifically episode 26, at around 48 minutes in. There's a brief discussion of using flavour and quirks to distinguish characters.

I think that I very much like... the idea that you have things that define your character that are not just about how good you are at adventurey stuff. They are about, you're greedy, or you're fond of a drink, or you're particularly smooth with the ladies or whatever. Okay, in some games that's going to be especially relevant...

From what I remember, it brought to mind the idea of a game where characters aren't mechanically differentiated by combat skill, because they're all combat characters (not so different from Parkour Murder Simulator) who are equally competent at fighting. What's important is what else they do and what they're like. This isn't too far from some other ideas I've played with, like Fight Roll (where fights modelled with a single die roll) and even Friendly Neighbourhood Necromancers (where everyone is a powerful necromancer). It makes a lot of sense for many settings, and for example, it's basically how Deathwatch works. But for me this would be more of a game where the combat side was de-prioritised, and other things took precedence.

This somehow ("smooth with the ladies" is probably responsible) reminded me of the quote "I'm a lover, not a fighter". Which made me think of a Lasers & Feelings-style game based on those facets, which sort of makes sense for certain genres, except that those are generally two complimentary skillsets rather than a dichotomy. You can't often pick which one to use to resolve a problem.

From here, I spiralled into the idea of a James Bond-style game, where you all play charismatic spies. And this is where we finally get a bit more solid, because although deciding whether you're a fighter or a lover probably isn't going to work, I think you could do some interesting things with prioritisation.

Specifically, as you've probably worked out from the title of the post, I thought you could do a simple game where you choose to prioritise the following three character facets: Lover, Fighter, and Thief. These are essentially three ways of getting around obstacles.

All of which is probably far more than you needed to know about my erratic thought processes.

How they work

I'd hope this is pretty transparent, but those three facets are as follows:

Lover represents your charm, suaveness, je ne sais quois, charisma and sex appeal, as well as all associated skills. If you want to flirt, seduce somebody, flatter them into talking too much, get yourself invited to a country house, persuade them you're too hot to kill, charm them into covering your tracks, kiss like a rockstar, be a tiger in bed, remember everything about someone so they're flattered you cared, buy them exactly the right gift, be distractingly shirtless, pretend to be married to your co-spy, wink so effectively that someone immediately backs up your cover story, or impress parents, this is the facet for you. It isn't just about sex appeal; being appealing in general is usually going to come off this facet.

Fighter represents brawn, athleticism, marksmanship, combat training and all associated skills. If you want to beat someone up, mow down a horde of hapless security guards, fend off a group of swordsmen, swing from a chandelier into an opponent, break down a door, threaten someone with violence, use a hard-mounted missile launcher to bring down a helicopter, lay explosives to bring down a wall, find cover from machine-gun fire, scatter volleys of arrows with your cloak, or otherwise engage in physical confrontation, this is your facet.

Thief represents stealth, cunning, observation, quickness of hand and glibness of tongue. If you want to pick a lock, slip past a guard, worm through a fence, steal, pretend you aren't gatecrashing a party, impersonate somebody, tell barefaced lies, escape manacles, conceal items on your person, overhear passwords, chloroform guards, spike drinks, sabotage machinery, worm your way into confidences, remain unnoticed, apply camouflage, conceal your tracks or crack a safe, this is the facet you need.

The mechanical side of character creation consists simply of choosing in which order to place those three facets. And that's it. Everything else is fluff, flavour and characterisation.


Yeah, I know, I probably tend towards over-simplified rulesets because I'm more interested in playing with ideas than actually writing full-blown games.

So this is how this would probably work, approximately.

When you attempt a task, you roll a d6 and compare that to a target number. If you equal or beat it, you win.

This will vary by genre. If you're playing 00-Agents, swashbuckling heroes or agents of the House of Flying Daggers, target numbers will tend to be low, because the characters are assumed to be very competent; defeating a guard may only require a 2. If you're playing members of a struggling, underfunded agency with a weird portfolio, they'll be a little higher to represent your lower skill. If you're playing comedy-subterfuge, they'll be higher again and you might need a 4 just to get past the receptionist.

The facets grant you additional dice. Specifically, you get three for your highest priority, two for the next, and one for the last. You roll all applicable dice, and choose one.

If doing an opposed roll, you'll compare chosen dice rather than static target numbers. Highest wins. If the highest dice match, they cancel out; compare the next pair instead. This means being better at something grants an extra slight edge, as you can win by default if the opponent has no dice left.

If I could think of a more elegant way to do this (ideally something where 1st translated into some kind of "one") that would be nice, and I'm prepared to revise the entire dice mechanic if anyone has an idea.

Although there are no more mechanical choices to make, you'll also have a cinematic injury mechanic. Essentially, you progress by stages from "unhurt" to "unconscious and captured", via a number of injury states that affect your dice rolls. They stack. This isn't just for combat; you can use it for falling, sticking your hand in machinery, and even illness. Generally losing a combat roll will incur one level of injury.

  • Unhurt
  • Minor injury - you are mildly inconvenienced
  • Visible injury - draws attention but doesn't impair you. Sometimes impedes social interactions, but can have its uses.
  • Battered - you move more slowly than normal. Physical feats are +1 more difficult.
  • Wounded - you lose ties
  • Badly wounded - reroll your highest die, and keep the lower result
  • Unconscious

You can shake off one injury state per Tick of time. A Tick is an arbitrary unit of time that represents something significant happening, which might be a scene or a bit of downtime. Overnight rest generally heals all wounds for no clear reason.

Again, this is a genre-variable thing. You could have each level of injury take a day to shake off if you want a gritty feel.

Most opponents won't have injuries, but are defeated by a single successful attack. More potent opponents get injury states.

NPCs can have varying skill level. Many will just get a single die, and may have one facet that defines a particular skill set. In some cases, especially where PC competence and NPC incompetence is assumed, weaker NPCs may take the lower of two d6 rolls. This is particularly true if civilian NPCs engage in combat, or more generally if NPCs act outside their area of training. Our PCs, of course, are assumed to be able to have a stab at just about anything.

What's it for?

I thought it might work as a lightweight espionage-and-adventure game where players want to romp around charming NPCs, sneaking into places and fending off hordes of mooks. That's to say, broadly speaking, I think you could use it for anything from James Bond to musketeers to Conan-esque adventure to space opera. However, it's for a fairly specific niche where it's assumed that combat isn't inherently interesting, and that the romping is probably the priority.


  1. I think I see what you're getting at, but it doesn't speak to me. (This isn't to say you're wrong.) I really like a system like GURPS that lets you split things down into details, that lays out what a character can do before the situation arises. The simpler the system, the more I find it's prone to turn into a contest of who can be most inventive about finding a way to turn the very broad notes on his character sheet into something advantageous. (What little I've seen of FATE seems prone to this.)

    This also reminds me of the Deux Ex video games, where generally there were three ways past any problem: shoot your way through, sneak around it, or get technical (with "hacking" minigames etc.).

    I really like the injury ladder, the way different states are clearly distinguished from each other in terms of what the character can do in that state.

    1. I don't disagree. I think it works in some settings - like Lasers & Feelings, which is basically a Star Trek improvisation engine. But as you say, I think it could start to feel unsatisfying if you were trying to run a more game-like experience and especially one with a more serious slant.

      I am no fan of FATE, even though I talk about it sometimes. It was too mechanics-on-mechanics for me, and felt like it obliged the player to spend all their time thinking about the meta. Players seem to need not only to have a good handle on the rules, but also to think about their actions in terms of the mechanics - that runs against my own preferences and instincts.

      For something like this, I think it might work as a pick-up-and-play James Bond improvisation engine for short one-shots. Perhaps more a party game feel. A more substantial experience would need a richer ruleset, although I'd still aim to hang it on those same three facets. What I'd probably want is to essentially use those three as stats and then build other abilities linked into them.

      But I don't especially want to get distracted writing that game right now...

    2. I'm glad you liked the injury model. I was quite pleased with it as a compromise between specific injuries and a more cinematic approach.