Friday, December 20, 2013

How I Plot

Douglas Cole commented on an earlier post, asking how I went about planning complex spy stories, so I might as well discuss it a little. My thanks to Doug for handing me a topic to write about, and I hope the verbosity displayed here doesn't irk anyone.

 It starts with my background when it comes to consuming media related to the portrayal of Covert Ops, particularly television. I prefer serialized television shows with plenty of intrigue with strong mythological arcs. Episodic television doesn't really do much for me.
  • Burn Notice: I was a big Burn Notice fan when the series first began (and quickly lost interest after a few seasons as I found the intrigue surrounding the entire premise of the series lacking)
  • 24: I caught the middle of 24, which was always about high-octane action at almost every possible moment. The pacing was arguably the best aspect of the show.
  • The Unit: One of the few television shows out there trying to show how such operations might be carried out by a purely military group.
  • Covert Affairs: Big focus on HUMINT and the use of Assets
  • Person of Interest: Possibly the best show for intrigue that I've seen in a very long time. The mythology of that show is large and treacherous (and completely awesome).
  • Alias: Without Alias I probably wouldn't be so set on deceiving my players like a manipulative bastard. That said, the science fiction/prophetic elements sucked.
  • Chuck: My guilty pleasure show.
  • It's hard to understate just how much Sean Punch's The Company campaign has helped push me to run my own Covert Operations game. His templates and specialties have been invaluable character creation aids.
The premise of the entire campaign is the starting point of everything. Some playing groups delve dungeons, some attempt to defy Cthulhu, yet others Shadowrun.

My players are playing secret agents working for an elite organization of bad guys. The players don't know that their organization is evil.

What work do these organizations have their agents do? What methods do they use? What goals do they hope to accomplish? How do they pay the bills? What kind of people pay them to do things? What kind of people end up working for such an organization?

Setting up Agency 17 is still a work in progress, a luxury that I have that many authors don't. I can create as I go, just as long as I pay attention to continuity very carefully. In fact, planning and on the fly improvisation go hand in hand running a game like this.

More often than not, some of my best executed twists have been the thought that came to mind when I had nothing planned and needed something awesome to happen.

Planning sessions and plots involves looking at things on various levels. A building floor plan exists on a separate level from how the man living in said building reacts to violence, creepy dudes in cars peering at him through his windows or blackmail. I spend a lot of time deep in the GURPS sourcebooks, reading Wikipedia, checking google maps, researching specific topics and attempting to learn about the stuff that's relevant to what I want to run.

A17 is a largely mission based game. My players will generally have an objective, a goal. Above all else, there is one thing that must be completed or done, even if all else fails. Thankfully most entertainment media revolving around this genre makes it painfully clear that without good reason, ignoring such objectives and duffing off is a bad idea. It helps players buy into the rigid aspects of this campaign. While they have great freedom with how they wish to accomplish missions, finishing missions is still the driving motivation for the campaign.

Motivation established by the campaign setting and genre, it turns to the specific goal or objective set by their employers. This will almost always entail deceiving the players- Agency 17 isn't very likely to tell them exactly what it is that is going on, or what the Agency really wants to accomplish.

Being set in the real world, finding a location to set missions is easy- pull up Wikipedia and Google Maps, and get to work. Artistic license is very helpful here, especially when players point out inconvenient real world facts that you got wrong, like that time that Virgil's player let me know that where I staged the Los Zetas convoy's starting location was actually Sinaloa Cartel territory.

Having these real-world resources allows for a little less crappy geography, something that always causes me issues when working with homebrew settings.

There are other advantages to a modern setting- no magic, no aliens, no time travel. Quibbles of whether technology exists or actually work that way are mostly trivial, and are always subject to GM fiat for the good of the game and plot.

The overall narrative is important. It's initially one of betrayal, then the hunt for revenge. And that hunt for revenge will likely span until the end of the campaign. During this time, hopefully a history of game events can be built on as a base for future ideas and plots.

The complexity in this campaign is built into hiding information from my players, and in making sure that this works to enhance the sense of betrayal upon the final reveal. Planning for it takes a lot of thought, reading, and dutifully recording good ideas so that they aren't forgotten later. It also helps that I have a close friend to bounce ideas off of.

Coming up with plots is a deep topic that covers a range of various elements, elements that I've only really been able to briefly touch upon here. I might go more in-depth with some future facets of plotting and planning, as I encounter them attempting to run this game.


  1. Have you read Night's Black Agents? It's a Ken Hite Vampire Spy Thriller RPG, and it sounds like it'd be right up your alley as far as what you're trying to do. Specifically, every game is supposed to start "you were working in the shadow markets of covert ops/espionage/etc, and it turns out for vampires. Now you have to take them down before they take you down." One of the things he suggests is building a conspiracy pyramid and using that to shape your campaign as the players follow connections between the various levels of the "conspiramid."

    1. I haven't read Night's Black Agents, but I definitely will be fleshing out Agency 17 in such a way that once they realize that the organization has betrayed them, they will have to connect the dots to begin to take down their old employers- Burn Notice style.