Wednesday, November 17, 2010


Man, the Cold War game is kicking my ass. The mechanics have been working just fine[1], but man it is making me bump up against most of my real weaknesses as a GM. Some of it is no doubt that any night, any time, might not go well. I’m ok with that. Everyone has an off night. But some of it is that I think espionage may be my Achilles heel.

See, the heart of the matter is information. A spy game revolves around information, and as I had no desire to just infodump at the players, I needed to put information into play in a way that actually put it into mind through experience. In the abstract, that’s fine, but in an information-centric game, that’s a lot of data to push down the pipe, and it impacts the play experience.

This last session kind of came to a head. At the culmination of 3 sessions, the players busted up an underground auction of Marktech (technology related to supers), saw a number of players in action, had numerous reveals and move the plot forward, and at the end of the night, I felt like crap. That session felt much more about me revealing plot than about the players than about them, and that’s no way to run a circus, but at the same time I'd be hard pressed to say how to do it differently and still stay within the genre we're shooting for.

Part of the frustration is that I dislike having to say no to players based on something I know about the setting and they don’t, especially when it’s about genre expectations. In a more fast and loose game (my preference) it is easier to roll with player ideas, but when there are hard limiters on tone (such as, specifically, guns are dangerous and your opponents are dangerous because they're smart, not because they're strong) it gets harder. Worse, when I throw up a barrier to something on that basis, I feel like I'm just being that asshole GM saying no because it's not the way I want things to go.

It gets exacerbated by having thematic barriers but no real thematic core. The spy (and crime) stories I enjoy revolve around some sort of actual moral core, usually loyalty (Bond) or some sort of moral limits (Burn Notice)[2] but I shot that in the foot a little bit in the premise - things are sufficiently gray and muddy that there's not a lot of purchase there. The players have brought some core to the table on their own, but it is sometimes better suited to a different kind of game. On some level, I wonder if I would just be better off flipping the lever from espionage to thriller. Thrillers require much less beyond the immediate situation to be engaging, and lord knows that would be easier to run.

Anyway, sorry for the down note, but chewing over this stuff is how I improve.

1 - With one exception - I may need a tweak to make a guy with a drawn gun more dangerous.

2 - This applies to other morally gray games too. Amber, for example, is full of villains, but at least they're a Family


  1. Rob,

    Are the players also concerned about these problems? Do they seem frustrated by your having to say "no"? I know that as a player, especially if I've bought into a game where I know that part of the fun is discovering how things work, a "no" can be as exciting as a "yes" because it gives me another dot to connect to, another piece of the whole puzzle. I guess what I'm asking is, is this a problem you're having with your fun as a GM, or is it impacting everyone's fun? Or am I asking the wrong questions?!

  2. @buddha I dunno yet. I did have a related issue brought to me by one player which I believe I addressed, but more broadly, TBD. It's a conversation I intend to have (and may not need to as 2/3 of the game may actually read this first) but I needed to finish chewing on it myself first. I _hope_ it's just me fretting, but if it's not, I'll address it.

  3. You know, seeing you post about having issues with your GM style and/or process is like having Indiana Jones tell his class that he's not really all that sure about this archaeology thing.

  4. I'm a little concerned about these problems, but not a LOT concerned. I feel like the Cold War game is an investment: I'm willing to put in some time being (as my character) bewildered about the bigger picture, because I know (and trust) that the bigger picture will come out down the road.

    As to the (implicit) concerns here about our ability to author details into the setting of the game, I think those are at least a bit bunk. When it comes down to it, we're members of a super secret government agency and given a ton of latitude and resources to call on whenever we feel like it. Even though we can't see the big picture, that doesn't mean we can't, say, show up on foreign soil with a hell of an arsenal and a strike team of Navy seals at our disposal. So I think that on the balance we're doing fine. We have a lot of immediate power even though we're smallcakes, for now, in the bigger picture.

    I absolutely think you should switch into thriller gears as often as not, because that's where we end up with some propulsive action scenes in the game and I like those, but I'd be sad if the espionage thing didn't get equal airtime.

  5. (That said, there may be a little bit of something to be said for giving us a better sense of what a Good Plan looks like vs. a Bad Plan. I am no more an expert in the espionage genre than you are, and at times I feel like I'm doing a lot of chewing-gum-and-bailing-wire guesswork about what the good idea is. To cover for this, I pursue my plans as though I'm confident in them, but as a player, I'm often not.)

  6. Rob,

    I'm not sure if there is an easy solution to the problems you see, but I am a big fan of research. I think, of course, that given time limitations, research has to be doable, but I think there are some really easily accessible materials that I would suggest. Of course, it is my complete personal bias in suggesting these, but I think they would help broaden your view of the espionage genre (of course, just give me the heave ho if you have already explored these). Greg Rucka's comic book series, Queen & Country has lots of ideas, a real devotion to verisimilitude, and a recognition that intelligence work is a combination of information gathering and analysis, use of operation assets, and dual antagonists. The spy faces not only his target/mission, but the forces in his or her own agency and government who have their own goals that will work against the success of the mission. The complete run of comics are now all collected in a four volume definative set. You could easily read them over the course of a week or two. There are also three novels (the third just came out) which would also be good, but would be more investment. These are almost all post-Cold War tales, but I think you would find some inspiration. Hopefully I am not misreading your needs. I do think that while Bond and Burn Notice offer some great ideas (and I am a fan of both) they are too narrow to provide you with the kind of imaginative space you need to get to sustain your game.

  7. What Cam said.

    Also, because I like to talk: I've run into problems, perhaps not coincidentally, in the 100,000 Bullets game I ran, which was basically about meta-humans who are part of a vast conspiracy and discover a bunch of other conspiracies within and outside it.

    Infodumps were, or so I am told, interesting, but simultaneously boring, and they tended to be lengthy, because I thought it was more "realistic" if one or two people knew the bulk of the secrets and were keeping them from others. Heck, I build some of the world and the mechanics around the premise.

    That said, at the end of the day I think the biggest problem I had as a GM was that I had given myself too much to keep track of. The second biggest problem was some stranger inter-player dynamics. And the third biggest was related to combat, which is often difficult with this player group.

    I may go back to it for chapter 2, but not til I can figure out how to run a game where the PCs are steering a conspiracy.


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