I have a player who would like his character to begin developing a network of people in the towns they visit. For lack of a better phrase, and because it seems that would be the most likely mechanic to exist out there, it would be a "spy" network, although the members wouldn't necessarily be spies.

This network would kind of take the place of building a stronghold or similar domain, so I've been looking at those rules in D&D, but they don't seem to fit what we have in mind.

What we're looking for is a way to at least partially abstract the process of finding likely members and track the "health" of the network. Some good tables for generating events that affect the network and/or information they turn up and pass around would be an added bonus.

We're playing D&D 4e using the Legend & Labyrinths house rules, but the mechanic doesn't necessarily have to be from a D&D system.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Smallville's character generation methods and relationship mechanics might also be useful to you. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 9, 2011 at 1:09
  • \$\begingroup\$ Could you think up a better example of what your network would be like? Are its members something like monks copying books for their libraries, like in The Name of the Rose? Is secrecy paramount? \$\endgroup\$ Apr 11, 2011 at 15:14
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Adriano: Are you familiar with Smallville RPG's character generation? \$\endgroup\$ Apr 12, 2011 at 23:12
  • \$\begingroup\$ @xanatos regrettably, no. Just D&D \$\endgroup\$ Apr 13, 2011 at 12:43
  • \$\begingroup\$ Adriano: Ah I see. How it works is the characters go through a life-path with each choice influenceing what happens next as well as establishing the relationships with other chracters and NPCs. At the end of the process you have a mind-map grid with the connections between characters. Using this would give you the relationships within the network's NPCs as well as with the PCs. You rescued X's daughter, now you get a bonus with a check to get info from X. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 13, 2011 at 21:25

3 Answers 3


Use Reign to model competing spy networks. Use Ars Magica to play Spy v. Spy with your PCs being spymasters

To amplify Gomad's point, Both Reign and Ars Magica have excellent spy-network subsystems which I've used.

The Reign company rules do not require sovereign rule over a territory, as multiple companies can spatially co-exist. Therefore, they are perfect for modelling competing spy networks and providing a largely abstracted but manipulatable way of gaining information, sowing disinformation, and tying the actions of the PCs into the consequences of spy success or failure.

The Ars Magica agent rules (found in Houses of Hermes: Societies are far more specific and crunchy, though easily adaptable to any given system. They provide for hierarchies of agents, their advancement, and all standard espionage actions. They are far better than Reign's rules for spending quite a lot of time exploring the spy game, but thereby take more time and effort to resolve.

Amusingly, the systems can even be combined without too much effort, although the complete combination would be the answer to another question. (hint, hint.)

  • \$\begingroup\$ Did anyone ever ask the question you hinted at? \$\endgroup\$ Jan 4, 2012 at 16:38
  • \$\begingroup\$ That's a negatory, ace. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 4, 2012 at 17:03
  • \$\begingroup\$ I'd love to ask but it'd only be a hypothetical question. Anyone need to know this? \$\endgroup\$ Jan 4, 2012 at 17:08
  • \$\begingroup\$ It's been asked, I'm certainly interested @BrianBallsun-Stanton \$\endgroup\$ Apr 20, 2015 at 7:51

I would look into and the Company rules it presents. It provides a way for an organization to be a character, in the way that Ars Magica sort of a character out of the Covenant. If I recall correctly, Companies are rated on power, control of members, wealth, and geographical area, among other things.

You can get the Reign rules (including the Company rules) without the setting in the Reign Enchiridion, which is just under $10.00 - a very fair price for a good set of rules.


Interesting question. I'm not certain that you should be monitoring the health of the network, most lore about spy/terror orgs says that the more independent a cell is, the better.

A bottom-line spy knows, ideally, only his immediate superior, and the superior in turn knows only the spies he inducted and his own superior, creating a tree. That way, damage is minimized if one spy is captured.

This, on the other hand, lets you abstract the bottom-line cells, and have the lieutenants of the character be the only NPCs you have to maintain.

At this point, you can also simulate the underlings passing correct info, bad info (maybe they tortured someone to get data and the victim lied to end the suffering?), without having to actually roleplay and remember the quirks of 30 people. I guess these could be rolls done by the DM to ascertain how much info the spy network gets, or whether some people are discovered and what happens to them...

So what you have to maintain is:

  • state of the immediate underlings
  • state of the underlings you want to modify in your current session
  • information you want to disclose to the spy network.

EDIT Nowadays this structure is used, as I said, for the security reasons I mentioned. On the other hand, in a pre-telecommunications age, this setup also means that you, as a DM, can concentrate on maintaining only local state. It's possible to have messengers that update the spy with news from a distant place, certainly, but what you don't have is constant updates on state of the whole net. Intelligence takes time to be gathered when you have only horses and -sometimes- rituals/scrying spheres for telecommunications.

After a while, the spy will have a more-or-less valid map of the net, based on both the information disclosed and the time passed from each disclosure.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Cell structures are actually quite modern. It's still important to understand the network from a simulating-the-network point of view if you want it to be capable of anything more than passing plot-macguffin and macguffin-notifications around... \$\endgroup\$ Apr 9, 2011 at 10:08
  • \$\begingroup\$ As I mentioned, albeit very unclearly, it's not really a spy network either, so independent cells aren't really a plus--it's more of a knowledge/information network. \$\endgroup\$
    – Numenetics
    Apr 10, 2011 at 4:13

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