Saturday, May 14, 2011

Genre Mining: Solos and Super-Spies

One of the earliest RPGs I ever
owned.

When I first began thinking about tackling this genre, what struck me was the wide variety of inspirations available for it -- all of which add to and muddle up the understanding of it. Furthermore, there are related genres that sometimes cross over (plausibly) into the same space as the espionage genre, confusing things further.

Before we go on, therefore, I'd like to take some time to explore my understanding and classification of some of these sub-genres, meta-genres, uber-genres, etc. But instead of arguing genre, I'd like to tackle them as distinct campaign premises, and explore them from the point of view of creating an RPG campaign around that campaign premise.

So here's the first one:

The Lone Spy / Super Spy

James Bond is naturally the first character one thinks of when talking about the espionage genre. Suave, debonair, and deadly, Mr. Bond has enjoyed numerous novels, a slew of movies, and a ton of imitators. He is also -- appropriately -- a good example of the lone spy that becomes a super spy.

A lone spy is surprisingly close to real life espionage, but different enough to be enjoyable in play. Does anyone really want to play the role of a deep cover mole, spending years of life in obscurity waiting to be activated? Well you could, in a one-shot adventure. But it's not much of a campaign.

Instead, you get to play the operative sent into the field with a prepared cover story and fake IDs. You're out to gather intelligence, to meet up with assets, to counter the agendas of enemy agents, to secure valuable prototypes or to sabotage the plans of your enemies. You don't get to carry weapons unless they fit in with your cover story. You don't get a neat gadget from your Tech division each mission you go out on.

This is exactly what we see of Bond in the movie Dr. No: he isn't an expert in all things yet; he doesn't get multiple super-spy gadgets yet; and he comes across as M's classic "blunt instrument".

Subsequent films, including the respectable run of the Roger Moore era, he truly becomes the quintessential super-spy: a polymath capable of correcting the so-called experts; a martial savant displaying impressive training in a variety of combat disciplines and equipment (how many vehicles is he qualified to drive or pilot in combat anyway?). And he seems to have a ridiculous budget for his gadgets. God only knows why he keeps dropping his name -- the entire espionage community knows it!

Ridiculousness aside, he's not superhuman. He has his frailties, not the least of which is the tendency to die if he's shot in the head or dropped from a great height. He actually comes across like an RPG character who's been played for years and has garnered so much experience that he doesn't quite now where to spend it.

Of course, a lone spy doesn't have to become a super spy. Patrick McGoohan's Dangerman / Secret Agent Man character John Drake remained solidly in the lone spy genre throughout the series. Not only that, every episode was nail-bitingly tense -- certainly not the escapist, wish-fulfillment stuff of Bond. But it was just as entertaining a different way, though marathoning it might lead to stress.

And based on the difficulties that he encountered during those missions -- difficulties brought on by his opponents and his employers -- it's no wonder he resigned and became The Prisoner. (Not official but it's clear it was meant to be the same character.)

Anyway, as a campaign premise it can be pretty limited. It's a two player campaign (GM and Player), possibly more, but all other Players get to be supporting characters who don't necessarily continue into the next mission. What if they want their own chance in the limelight?

Well, that leads us into the next campaign premise: the Differentiated Duo.

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That's my side of things. Let me know what you think, my friend.

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