I want to run a political game, focused on intelligence and counter-intelligence. The PC's would be analysts, trying to influence their own leaders to take action (or not to take action as the case may be), in an effort to avert war, or protect their nation.

I am not looking for a game system that revolves around sneaking into enemy encampments, or running assassination missions or anything of that sort - the on the ground agents and military units will be handled behind the GM screen - I am looking to have the players interpret intelligence, make conclusions, form plans, and convince their superiors to execute those plans.

That said, any boots on the ground work the players do should feel dangerous and exotic, not common place. The feeling I am going for is overwhelming, with a bit of impending doom.

The inspiration for this game are the first three Tom Clancy movies - The Hunt for Red October, Patriot Games, and Clear and Present Danger. These movies, and I hope this game, should have as much drama and tension in an office building as on a battle field.

I have not a single clue as to what system to run this in. I am willing to hack and house rule game systems, but starting from scratch is a Herculean task, so a total homebrew is not desirable.

Are there any systems that encourage that sort of play?

In a system, I prefer, but do not require, rolling pools of dice over rolling single die+modifiers. Combat is not totally off the table, but the players are officially non-combatants, so that is not something that should be emphasized.

  • \$\begingroup\$ What are you looking for system wise? Like what rolling systems do you like (die+mod vs. dice pool)? Is combat a complete no-no or is a combat light system ok? I'm not sure you'll find an existing system with this setting so thinking about mechanic requirements will help find a system that might work with a few tweaks. \$\endgroup\$
    – MC_Hambone
    Oct 15, 2014 at 11:56
  • \$\begingroup\$ @okeefe I have not, but we are not looking for a board game \$\endgroup\$
    – Tritium21
    Oct 15, 2014 at 22:14

3 Answers 3


What Happens When You Assume

My suggestion is based on 2 assumptions:

  • Though you list movies as influences, I assume you want your game to resemble a TV drama like The Americans or House of Cards because of the serial nature of most RPGs. It seems unlikely to me that you would invest this heavily in a single-evening game.

  • You want to incorporate your players' plans and ideas - there is not a single "true" meaning behind intelligence data, nor is there a single "right" response that the players must discover and enact in order to succeed.

A Volatile Alchemy

Based on those assumptions, I'm going to suggest a marriage of 2 games (hey, you said you were up for hacking).

Hillfolk / DramaSystem

For the TV-drama aspects of your game, where convincing each other and management to follow your lead is of primary importance, I cannot over-recommend the DramaSystem, found in Kickstarter-darling Hillfolk.

In the main book, you will find the DramaSystem, an RPG system focused on creating relationship-driven, TV-series-style games. The book takes its name from the first setting designed for the game, Iron-age raiding tribes in the Levant. But also in the main book you will find 30 (yes, thirty) other "series pitches" or settings for use with the game. Most important for your purposes may be Kenneth Hite's contribution, Moscow Station, set in the CIA station spying on Moscow in the late '70s.

The system is all about interpersonal drama - who gets what they want, who gives in now to get something later, etc.. It includes a deliberately simple system for resolving "procedural" attempts - what you call "boots on the ground." Helpfully, also in the main book, you will find some small advice for grafting DramaSystem into another system more directed towards the action side of things.

Which brings us to the second game in this mixture.

Night's Black Agents / Gumshoe

The Gumshoe system (same designer - Robin D. Laws, same publisher - Pelgrane) is aimed squarely at investigative play. The core assumption is that finding clues is never what the game is about - doing something with those clues is where the interesting play lies. It was designed, I think, for the horror game Esoterrorists, and used probably most famously in Trail of Cthulhu. But it goes far beyond horror, and luckily for you, has an amazing implementation for espionage...with a side of horror.

Night's Black Agents is Ken Hite's spies-vs-vampires game and it's amazing. The game is designed to support modular play and among the dials you can set is the mood (are you Bond / Bourne types or more like Smiley?) and the degree of supernatural elements. So turn the emotional grind up (Burn and Dust and possibly Mirror modes) and the supernatural all the way down, and you've got a good start on your game.

The book provides a ton of information on spying, spy organizations, terminology, equipment, techniques, etc.. It also provides a useful framework for building a conspiracy for your PCs to throw themselves against - but it expects them to be competent secret agents, so your use will necessarily vary.

Shake (not stir) Well and Serve

Between these two games, you'll have an tool chest overflowing with sharp and specialized implements for creating the game it sounds to me like you have in mind. It's also possible that just one or the other of them will deliver everything you want. I would run this with Hillfolk alone, but that's just me.

With a twist

If you need a little more spice, I would also recommend taking a look at Jonathan Wick's A Wilderness of Mirrors at least for its fantastic planning mechanics in the genre of espionage gaming.

This Message Will Self Destruct...

Disclosure - I have run Hillfolk, but only gotten to read Night's Black Agents. I do have experience running investigative games before GUMSHOE and understand the problems that the system solves.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I listed the Clancy movies to put them in contrast with things like Bond and Bourne, for the feel and an idea of what the players would be doing. I will definitely look into Hillfolk and GUMSHOE, though at first glance the latter feels a little divergent from what I am going for. For a Frankengame, from what you have described, it looks like a good starting point. \$\endgroup\$
    – Tritium21
    Oct 15, 2014 at 12:43
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Tritium21 - Thanks. I would love to hear what you think of any of the games in this answer. Frankly, I envy your players, it sounds great! \$\endgroup\$
    – gomad
    Oct 15, 2014 at 13:00
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for generally being a excellently-tailored recommendation, but also for Smiley. \$\endgroup\$ Oct 15, 2014 at 17:41

Wilderness of Mirrors has some pretty excellent planning/things go wrong mechanics that work well, though you'd be modifying it a bit to be more operational than heist.

Spione has some pretty interesting set up with Cold War Spy games. It's more aimed at the issues of internal distrust and division within an intelligence agency, but works great for that.

It's pretty crunchy, but the Burning Empires RPG actually supports your idea pretty well, although it's a sci-fi bent. You've got alien parasites secretly invading human planets, and a lot of the action can be set at the leadership level - half the problem is the intelligence/counterintelligence AND getting the people in power to align to actually fight the threat.


As a big fan of oWOD I would recommend two from that setting: Vampire: the Masquerade and (in bit different way) Mage: the Ascencion. Why? Well, those two systems can be VERY EASILY turned into something you've just described and for your players it gives a feeling to be a bit unique. For vampires, politics is a second nature - they un-live to manipulate mortals using their pawns, ghouls, money and powers... and do it quite often against their own, their grudges can be ancient, their goals very long term... and theirs predatory instinct can turn them into very ruthless politicians.

For mages politic is a mean to change the views of population, since each of the Awakened is basically a prophet without a followers. Celestial Choir tries to preach "Love thy brother!", Akasic Brotherhood -"Perfect yourself!" while New World Order repeats its mantra "Eat! Work! Obey!" through mass media.

I had a setting some time ago about such political game set up in the late 40s/early 50s Berlin using V:tM.

Mechanic in the system is easy, especially if you don't want to focus on combat.

EDIT: it was not enough room in the comment: In V:tM You have never ending intrigues of camarilla's princes that are hiding behind their pawns, you have the growing resentment of the masses - Anarchs, there are Reds Under The Beds aka Sabbat and no one realises that they all are just pawns of some methuselah who is just feeding his cattle for slaughter. Discpilines such as Auspex, Obfuscate and Obtenebration turn vampires into perfect spies, tools like Domination, blood bond or ghouls would allow players to create their own network of agents.... Nosferatu constantly watch the world from the shadows, Ventrue play their political games, Giovanni have their Mafia and Malkavians... well, they just know enough to hide in their madness - can you decipher it to find the truth? Those all are great tools that can be used in a spy game, just please don't turn it into mindless abuse of systemas i.e. "I have 5 dots in contacts and 5 domination, can I have nuclear launch codes?"

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ While I agree that the VtM setting is quite political, I find that the system offers absolutely no support for politics and social conflict. If you can show how this system (because the setting won't be used) supports the play style described, I could upvote. \$\endgroup\$
    – gomad
    Oct 17, 2014 at 9:48
  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm not sure what do you mean "system offers no support" ( check updated post) \$\endgroup\$
    – Yasskier
    Oct 17, 2014 at 11:16
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Well, for starters, check the section in this blog post about illusionism in WoD. Next, everything you list as a plus is setting - factions and rivalries, disciplines, etc. When you talk about the system, all you have is a warning about abuse. I am waiting to see something about how the system handles social currency, discourages "my guy" syndrome, or otherwise offers mechanical support to a political game. I'm not saying it's not there, I'm saying I spent ten years looking for it and this post doesn't show any yet. \$\endgroup\$
    – gomad
    Oct 17, 2014 at 11:49

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