Tome Banner

Shadowy Cloaks and Silent Daggers, continued

Becoming a Spy

"Working in the shadows...never knowing who's your friend and who's out to get gets to you after a while, kid. There's a constant pressure to perform; you're only as good as your last mission, and if you screw up, well...let's just say that, as a spy, you only ever make a mistake once. It takes a special kind of person to be able to handle all that, someone who can literally look in the face of death and not turn away, because often something worse is coming in the other direction!"


As implied by all of this, it takes a special type of person to become a spy, given the inherent dangers of the profession. In the first instance, being an accomplished spy requires a great deal of training, something which the average person is not likely to obtain on their own. Such training also takes a considerably long time to complete; thus, it is highly unlikely that there are a great deal of exceedingly young spies running around. As DMs, most of you will not have to bother with the fine details of the average spy's training regime, or of the requirements to become one, but this section will provide some basic concepts and ideas that might be worth considering should you wish to run a campaign that centres around spies - if only as added filler for the PCs' backgrounds.


The life of a spy can be a lonely one; it also tends to be highly dangerous. Not everyone, not even those people who might be ideally suited to such a profession, will be enthralled by the prospect of risking one's life on a regular basis for employers who may or may not betray them. As such, it could be very useful for the player (or the DM in the case of NPCs) to come up with some motivations concerning why the character is a spy. Motivations can range from the general (the character wants to fight evil) to the specific (the organisation is holding a family member hostage, and is forcing the character to do its dirty work), but all of them should be logical. As always, the DM should have the final say regarding the acceptability of a motivation, and it is always a good idea to tie it in to the campaign itself. Perhaps, if we consider the hostage motivation above, the organisation allows the character to see his or her relative from time to time, as proof that they are still alive; or perhaps the hostage escapes, and the character must prevent the organisation from recapturing him or her. In such a case, the character could find him- or herself "self-employed," enjoying both the freedom and the dangers accompanying that situation.

Motivations can also change over time. Where once the spy was loyal to his or her organisation, they could turn against it due to internal politicking, or the promise of more power from another source. Likewise, if we are considering the hostage example above, the escape or liberation of the captured relative or loved one will change the spy's relationship to the captor, from one of loyalty under duress to open opposition. Or, perhaps the spy started her career with the ambition to fight evil, only to become, years later, an embittered, cynical agent-for-hire who cares only for how much money the job at hand will offer. In short, whether the spy's motivation arises internally or externally, it should never be set in stone, but should still provide the fundamental reason as to why the person is a spy.


An equally important consideration in the development of the spy's career is that of background. What sort of training has the spy obtained? Did he or she attend a formal training academy, or was the craft learned from a lone master? Also relevant is the spy's personal background, such as their upbringing, events in their formative years that might have influenced them to become a spy, or simply personal quirks that lend themselves to such a profession. In some cases, a spy's personal background might be linked closely with his or her motivations, as discussed above, but in such cases the trait or event in question should only be considered all the stronger. For example, if a person was motivated to become a spy out of a desire to fight evil, their background might reveal that their family had been killed by thugs in the employ of a local warlord. Thus, such a motivation may be borne out of a desire for revenge, which could in turn strengthen the spy's desire to fight evil, through the foiling of plots made by similar people.

A spy's background can also provide the DM with ideas for possible campaign scenarios. The question of how the spy received his or her training, for example, could be turned into an adventure in which he or she is called upon by a former instructor to perform a mission of utmost importance - as a favour, or as a "final test" of some sort. Likewise, the contacts made during the spy's training (with instructors, fellow spies, and so on) could provide an information network which could aid the DM in constructing a web of intrigue involving people the spy might know intimately. At its most basic level, however, a spy's background should aid the DM or the player in portraying the character realistically, as well as rounding them out more thoroughly.


A third factor that should be considered by DMs and players alike is the campaign environment. Although more information will be provided to the DM in a later section, it should be stated here that one's surroundings will dictate to a large extent whether or not a person might become a spy. If, for example, the spy grew up in a nation divided along political lines, where competing agendas almost bring about civil war on a regular basis, there might be plenty of incentive to become a spy - either to profit from the internal divisions within society, or to advance the agendas of one or more factions in the hope that this might bring greater stability. This might be especially poignant for the character in question if they suffered a loss at the hand of one of the political factions. Alternatively, the character might belong to an ethnic group that is marginalised within a country, where overt resistance is crushed brutally. Eager to fight the oppression faced by her people, the character might become a spy for a resistance movement, using her skills to obtain information about enemy troop movements or to liberate prisoners. One can see in this case how motivation and background can mix with and reinforce environmental factors, to create a compelling backdrop for a campaign.

As a general rule, environmental factors are quite mutable; a spy can always leave his or her country to find work elsewhere, where different political and economic conditions might prevail. The character might also succeed in his or her desire to change the political landscape (if such was indeed a goal), thus changing the environment at home, and possibly necessitating a change in motivation. For example, if a spy's mission against a corrupt noble succeeds, and the offending person is removed from power (through assassination or otherwise), an important motivation no longer exists; new adversaries must be found. In most cases, however, there should be something in the spy's surroundings that either compels him or her into action, or which plays a role in doing so.

Setting the Tone

"The world of a professional spy is ever a shifting one. Those who are your friends today may become tomorrow's enemies, and those to whom you would look for assistance may not be there when you really need them. Assume nothing, for yours is the world of shadows where nothing is forever. The only certainty, is uncertainty."


Just as it is important to consider the role of motivation, background, and environment in the development of a spy, the DM should pay close attention to the tone of the campaign itself. This is more than the environment in which the spy operates; it involves the underlying agendas, the people behind the scenes, the interactions among those people, and above all the "mood" or "tone" of the world. The DM should try to develop a setting in which the players will be able to "feel" the underlying tension present in the life of the spy - the uncertainty of not knowing who can be trusted, the edginess associated with meetings in dark alleyways, and the fear of being discovered by one's enemies, to name but a few aspects. Such attributes of an espionage-based setting are vitally important, in order to distinguish the campaign from that undertaken by more "mundane" characters. The life of a spy, as discussed in earlier sections, is quite unlike that of an adventurer; a spy can seldom trust his or her companions (if any) to back them up, and the environment in which they work is necessarily far from the public eye. Thus, the dominant feeling is one of "being on one's own."

As mentioned above, the environment to be presented in the campaign is very important. This is the spy's world - the source of external stimuli as well as the setting in which his or her actions have their impacts. As such, it is vitally important that the DM ensure it is consistent, and that it reinforces the appropriate "mood" of an espionage-based campaign. This is not to say that there is any one "campaign for spies," but there are general principles and guidelines which ought to be followed, regardless of the type of espionage-based scenario that you, the DM, are running. The various characteristics of an espionage campaign's tone will now be discussed.


The environment presented in an espionage campaign should be one of danger. The spy's profession is an inherently perilous one - and not just due to the hazards posed by members of opposing organisations or governments. Rivalries might exist within the spy's own group or cell, or his or her supervisors could be pursuing their own private agendas, which might entail the demise of the spy in question, if such is deemed necessary. Due to the nature of the work involved, spies will seldom know a great deal about their employers (if they know them at all), and are likely to be unaware of the dangers posed to them as a result. In order to survive such a treacherous environment, most spies must be on their guard at all times. DMs can convey this in numerous ways, from vivid character or room descriptions which leave unspoken the exact peril that might face the spy, to ambiguity in terms of NPC actions, or in the "real purpose" of a mission. Thus, players might be perplexed by an NPC's position on a certain political matter: beforehand they agreed with the PC, but now they appear to have moderated their stance - could it be possible that the NPC has switched sides? Likewise, the PC spy might receive an order to retrieve seemingly meaningless information from a known source - what is the true reason for this mission? Is this information valuable for an unknown client, or is it a set-up (and if so, by whom)? In this way, espionage campaigns can be conducted in such a way that players will never be totally "at ease" with their surroundings, and always questioning whether the next contact they meet might have more in mind than passing information.


Related to the concept of danger is that of secrecy. Espionage is a clandestine affair, and those who operate in the public eye seldom do so for long. As a result, the spy's world is full of secrecy - whether it takes the form of unknown employers, or missions whose purposes are unclear. There could very well be good reasons why the head of an espionage organisation, for example, might not wish to make him- or herself known to underlings - if they were captured, the security of the entire spy ring might be compromised - but the average spy will almost certainly not know the reason. They are told to follow orders, nothing more. Likewise, a mission may be so secret, and so important to vested interests, that the spy is only given the bare essentials in terms of information, lest he or she be captured.

This pervasive secrecy might even extend to the spy's own companions - the PC might not know the backgrounds of his or her fellow party members, or even their names! Although there could be good reason for such a situation, unless the other party members are forthcoming in divulging personal information, there is a good chance that the veil of secrecy will never be truly lifted, and with it will remain an underlying sense of tension - and danger. Just how far can the PC trust someone, when he or she does not know that person's name, or their motivations? Of course, the average PC is likely to have more than a few secrets of their own, and attempts will always be made by others to find out what they are. If designed properly, a DM's web of secrets - linking PCs, NPCs, organisations, nations, and more - can provide enough material to sustain player interest for a very long time.

Power and Politics:

Inherent within any espionage-based campaign is a considerable degree of politicking, and competition for power in general. When discussing politics and its practice, we do not mean the sort that exists among nations to the exclusion of all other forms; politics may exist on a sub-national level as well, or even within an organisation or company. Regardless of the level at which it is practised, politics will undoubtedly touch the life of the average spy. Whether the reason is for national security, for geopolitical interests, or merely for the desire to acquire more power at the expense of another, there are always roles for spies to play; although, as mentioned above, they may not always know the underlying reasons for their current mission. As political competition almost invariably involves one person's gain at the expense of another, there is a need to do so without being seen, or at least without being openly associated with the act in question. Spies are the perfect "assets" by which this might be accomplished - whether it involves assassination, kidnapping, blackmail, surveillance, or some other activity.

Not only is the political element external; it also exists within governments and organisations. The same motivations and activities that are present among political actors at the macroscopic level may also be found at more microscopic levels. In this case, it is the competition for power and influence among various individuals and factions within an organisational unit that may have an impact on the overall flavour of an espionage campaign. This may extend even to the point where spies are pitted against each other in internal squabbles within a royal court, or within an espionage organisation.

The Overall Tone:

This last element is more of a catch-all. Here, the DM should consider the spy's personal background (as discussed in an earlier section), as well as those of other prominent characters. How these people interact, if at all, will have an impact on how each of them perceives their environment. If there is a considerable amount of antagonism among them, the overall situation will be conducive towards creating a setting in which trust is nonexistent and everyone is looking for potential enemies. On the other hand, if the PC spies trust each other, and no one else does, a scenario of "a small group of individuals against the world" could very well develop.

Perhaps most important for this consideration is the overall "feel" of the campaign. Do you, as the DM, want to evoke in your players images of misty streets and skulking shadows, or of a pleasant environment in which dirty deeds are conducted without public knowledge, or something else altogether? Is there an atmosphere of uncertainty and fear that pervades everything, or could a PC conceivably go home at the end of the day, secure in the knowledge that they are safe - for now? Even this decision, simple as it may seem, will go a long way towards defining an espionage campaign.


Back Home Next

Copyright 2000, Geoff Gander. All rights reserved. Used by permission.