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I have Classic Spycraft but tend to find classic d20 games (d20 modern, D&D 3.5) to be too crunchy when it comes to emulating high-action movies such as Mission Impossible or James Bond.

I have the feeling an appropriate system would do the following:

  • Allow players to build any character they like within the framework of the genre and with approval of the GM (that is, the system itself should not smother ideas through restricting classes and ability trees)
  • Fast combat and action. There'll be explosions, car chases, gun fights... Retaining intensity with a good pacing is paramount.
  • Not be too focused on precise positioning or 5ft squares.
  • Not too lethal or gritty. Characters are going to be defying death a lot and should survive impossible odds while doing cool things.
  • Allow players to be cool and competent almost immediately, though a margin for evolution would be nice to have. Basically, the game should not prevent a character from jumping on a table, then off, kicking a mook in the face and landing, ready with guns... just because he doesn't have 2 or 3 required feats. It's just as bad if the game allows it with a -10 penalty. Characters in such movies are expected to be doing that on a semi-regular basis.

Bonus trait: * Not be too abstract / narrative / story-game-like so new players to roleplaying games can rely on a modicum of crunch / structure to help their imagination.

Systems I'm thinking of: FATE (Spirit of the Century, possibly the new Fate Core), PDQ#, Cortex (of Serenity or standalone version), Mutants & Masterminds 3e. I have barely used any of these, so I'm unsure. Feel free to comment on their fitting my idea.

Systems I'd prefer avoiding: Spycraft, GURPS and anything crunchier such as HERO. Though as above, I haven't really played any of these, so if you really believe they fit, do mention why.

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I wish there was an Apocalypse World hack for this. It would address all of your points. Since AW is giving birth to so many hacks, maybe it already exists or someone is making it. –  Zachiel Feb 6 '13 at 11:38
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Feng Shui could well be worth a look; en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feng_Shui_(role-playing_game) –  Rob Feb 6 '13 at 12:16
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Have you considered Leverage? It's a Cortex-Plus game that's geared to capers and action. –  Jadasc Feb 6 '13 at 12:35
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As this is a system-recommendation question, please adhere to both the FAQ and the rules for subjective questions as outlined in Good Subjective, Bad Subjective and on our Meta. In particular, all responses should be based on actual experience and contain references and examples whenever possible. –  mxyzplk Feb 6 '13 at 12:40
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@Zachiel funny you say that, I had the idea of a hack yesterday while driving back home yesterday. I'm actively writing a hack right now for a Spy World game –  MrJinPengyou Feb 6 '13 at 13:17

7 Answers 7

up vote 11 down vote accepted

Leverage

If you haven't seen the (sadly, now-cancelled) show Leverage, you're missing out. The seasons had their ups and downs, but taken as a whole it was a good show and I'll miss it. The conceit was that a group of the best bad guys in the world took it upon themselves to be good guys. Basically, it presented a caper movie every week. The genre is described sometimes as "competency porn" because you're watching people who are without question among the best in the world at what they do, just for the thrill of seeing it.

The Cortex Plus Action system was developed for the RPG of the show, designed by Cam Banks and it does a great job of handling the way a heist, caper, con, or (for your purposes) intelligence operation plays out in popular media.

The Leverage book may be in short supply and I'm not sure how long the PDF will be available either. You may wish to back the Kickstarter (be quick about it!) because there are reward levels that will get you all of the Leverage and / or Smallville stuff.

The system is designed to remove PC lethality, so players can count on their characters being captured and subjected to death traps, etc., instead of just being shot in the head. It's also designed to allow character to shine in their fields, cooperate in cool ways, and to generate and use situational advantages for one another.

The system is simple enough to remember everything, but flexible enough to create the playstyle it sounds as if you want. It uses a die-size-as-ranking mechanic similar to . You are required to create your own distinctions (Aspect-like differentiators) and encouraged to create your own Talents (feat-like differentiators) within the framework of the game. Play is fast and flexible - no battlemaps, no hard simulationist mechanics.

I'm out of time now, I'll try to get back and talk in more detail about the system later.

But yes, look at (a great, crunchy-enough story game system) as well as Hollowpoint, which is a drastically different take on the genre.

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No PC lethality is something I'd definitely want, àla FATE. I'm a bit familiar with regular Cortex (such as used in Serenity) but I've never run it. How's Plus Action different from that earlier version? –  leokhorn Feb 13 '13 at 17:06

It's still in the writing stage, but I suggest you investigate Classified - an attempt to re-implement the old James Bond 007 Game produced by Mayfair.

From the author's blog:

One thing that I'm doing as I go through Classified is making changes where I think appropriate to update the system to better reflect the modern period as opposed to the 1980's. For example, Photography is no longer an Ability as the digital revolution has, IMO, enabled everyone to be a passable-enough photographer without the need of specialized training.

So it's a retro-clone of the 007 game (which I played, wasn't too crunchy, and did a good work "simulating" the genre) updated for modern days. You can keep pace with the work by following the blog I linked and maybe enquiry if there is any chance of playtesting it, maybe.

Update: the paper edition has been made available for a short time on Lulu, here is a review.


Alternative: Gumshoe (specifically you would probably want Exoterrorist or Night's Black Agents as a starting point). No personal experience with this one, but here is a nice dissection of why Gumshoe is a good choice for the spy story genre.


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(+1) Thanks. UncleBear aka Berin Kinsman was writing a clone called DoubleZero but that seams to have disappeared. I am glad that someone else has has taken up the touch for what was an excellent RPG. –  David Allan Finch Feb 7 '13 at 8:18
    
I'll try to keep an eye on what Classified becomes, thanks! As for Gumshoe, I'm not very familiar with it, except that it has mechanics that prevent getting stuck in investigations. Is NBA just flavor or does it adapt Gumshoe rules for the genre? (also, interesting article) –  leokhorn Feb 13 '13 at 17:08
    
I checked a bit and looks like yes, especially for NBA they adjusted it for the genre, adding more tactical choices in combat. Also, most James Bond movies start as "investigation" where Bond invariantly manages to get only the right clues, leads and choices... Gumshoe seems to be a natural choice in this case. –  p.marino Feb 13 '13 at 22:56
    
I used to play the original VG James Bond 007 game with Berin Kinsman in the late 80s, and I know he got a late-stage draft of his "DoubleZero" retro clone before he shelved/backburnered it because of life problems. I haven't talked to him in a while but I think it isn't a completely dead project for him, but he's moving to Finland and he's got weird stuff on his plate. –  Epiphanis Jan 7 at 4:13

Here are the things I've run spy/thriller games in.

  1. Spycraft 1e - I really like Spycraft especially in its first edition - it's really not all that crunchy and the rules are quite elegantly tuned for spy stuff. 2e did get too complicated for me and I never ran it. Ran this a bunch, even did some of the Living Spycraft stuff for the brief time they had it. It has d20 complexity, but like "3e PHB only" level of complexity, not bad especially because everyone knows how d20 works.

  2. d20 Modern - Mmm, the flaws of d20 not particularly well tuned for spy/thriller stuff. d20 Modern wasn't sure if it wanted to be "D&D in the modern day" or a more general modern system and so I never enjoyed playing/running this. Misses most of your criteria.

  3. Top Secret/S.I. - The old Top Secret is crufty as hell, it's one of those games you only like if you think Gamma World and Boot Hill are the acme of RPG design. Their redesign, Top Secret/S.I., was a really good system. Many of the supplements and world stuff "Orion vs Web" were trash but some like "Commando" were gold. Had hit locations with wound boxes, decent skill system. Old and hard to find right now though.

  4. James Bond/Feng Shui - I got my hands on the old Victory Games James Bond RPG and it had great flavor. The system, however, was 1984 standard, so we ran it using the Feng Shui rules, which are great for fast action. This was very enjoyable, I remember the car chases especially fondly (and car chases suck in most systems). Characters all start as action movie badasses in Feng Shui by default.

Bonus: Find more info on and content for these systems and others on the Modus Operandi espionage roleplaying web site...

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I do have Spycraft 1e so it was my initial choice. It seems to simplify d20 in places, which would be good. I'll check Modus Operandi, thanks! –  leokhorn Feb 13 '13 at 17:23

I don't know that I'd rate it "best", but the old TSR Top Secret game had a few things going for it in terms of your requirements. It's an old RPG, so not as precisely-crafted as newer products, but the whole rulebook is something like 70 pages or so. As a result, the GM has a lot of flexibility. It's been quite a while since I played, but here's what I remember.

Allow players to build any character they like within the framework of the genre and with approval of the GM (that is, the system itself should not smother ideas through restricting classes and ability trees)

Mostly there - no classes, just attributes and "Knowledge Areas" (skills), so if you want someone who's an expert in electronic surveillance and explosives, go for it.

Fast combat and action. There'll be explosions, car chases, gun fights... Retaining intensity with a good pacing is paramount.

Car chases are an obvious omission in the rules, but action resolution is typically very swift - you get a single roll, modified by circumstances, and any appropriate skill.

Not be too focused on precise positioning or 5ft squares.

Totally optional

Not too lethal or gritty. Characters are going to be defying death a lot and should survive impossible odds while doing cool things.

It's pretty hard to kill characters in Top Secret, though my guys managed it a couple of times. There's a hit location mechanic, which seems oddly out of place given the otherwise hand-wavy nature of the rules.

Allow players to be cool and competent almost immediately, though a margin for evolution would be nice to have.

Definitely. Other than expanding their skill set, experienced spies don't have all that much of an edge over the new guys. Oh yeah, and Fame & Fortune points, which make them much harder to kill.

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Plus it had rules for drawing-and-quartering! –  GrandmasterB Feb 7 '13 at 17:42
    
I remember reading an actual play of it and it seemed rather detailed with wound locations and such, as you say. Seems like it might be as complex, if not more, than a d20 game (which I consider "complex" already). Then again, maybe I focused too much on these strange bits. –  leokhorn Feb 13 '13 at 17:15
    
Like I said, the wound location rules did seem a bit out of place. As I recall, it was better to manage not to get shot in the first place, since the result of getting shot was almost always a very serious wound or instant death. The damage & location were figured out with a single roll of two dice, though, so it's not as complex as some systems. –  Mark Bessey Feb 13 '13 at 23:38

I've had great experience with Feng Shui. It does have some restrictions based on "class" you pick, but I haven't felt constrained in any way. You simply pick a (Hong Kong) action movie archetype you like the best and play it. The wikipedia entry has more info:

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I'm just going to put FATE on here again. I know you mentioned it, and so does one of the other answers, but it really is the best for this kind of seat-of-your-pants-characters-do-crazy-stuff gaming.

I find that FATE is usually a good fit for modern gaming, and was extremely pleased with the system when we played Dresden Files. It really matches well, and leads with story and what the characters are doing, rather than being a strict simulation game.

Certainly, it is not a particularly lethal system, and with the way players can manipulate the odds makes the game exciting without seeming "too easy".

In addition to the Dresden game we played, we enjoyed a spur of the moment game with an earlier incarnation of FATE. It was surprising how quick and easy it was to get into the action. Everyone caught on to the game very fast, and we went from bored and looking for a game into running a high-octane spy thriller adventure that went from a warehouse break-in that ended up culminating with battle on board the evil mastermind's space satellite all in a single evening of play.

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I should try to get back to FATE at some point, especially with Fate Core coming up. For my specific case, though, with players totally new to roleplaying, I'm a bit scared FATE would be a bit too advanced with its abstraction/meta elements (aspects and scene editing, mostly). Even I can't always get behind this (I like simple systems but I'm a bit of a simulationist at heart it seems). –  leokhorn Feb 13 '13 at 17:12

You might want to try James Bond RPG if you can still get a second hand copy from somewhere. We played it in the late 80s and early 90s. The system is fast and quite comprehensive without being overwhelming. It does tend to simulate the older James Bond and so has Hero Points but you could probably ignore that if you want it more gritty. The resolution system is quite unique and interesting in it own way.

Also have a look at Agents of Oblivion which is a Savage World add on which has a good reputation. You can select the amount of powers that you want in the game.

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We played Mayfair James Bond but hacked in the Feng Shui ruleset instead of the slightly older, cruftier shipped mechanic and it worked great. Also better for later, more high-action Bond. –  mxyzplk Feb 6 '13 at 12:39

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