Spy Missions: Covert Considerations for the Whole Party
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #641
How to create perfect missions where your spies – and their clumsy friends! – thrive.
From Tony Medeiros
Spy missions will challenge you to create a world of espionage, high stakes, and stealth where your spy PCs shine while their less stealthy PC allies ruin everything!
How do you create spy missions where both stealthy and not-so-stealthy PCs all achieve mission success together? Look at the major parts of your adventure through their eyes, and then tailor your spy mission’s major faces, places, and events to who they are – whether stealthy spy or clumsy cleric.
I Spy: Must-Haves for Covert PCs
Make mission goals clearly appeal to spy PCs from the start. Tell the characters the mission includes one or two actions where there is plenty of opportunity for a spy’s expertise.
One great way to do this is have NPCs give the party specific tactical stealth advice to achieve mission success. This advice should focus on stealthing to or past a location or enemy.
For example, don’t have the constable just ask the PCs to go to the orc hunting party camp (which he’s already scouted and located) and slaughter the orcs who pillaged their village. Instead, have the constable ask the PCs to locate the orcs’ next camp – they’ve moved since he and his scouts found them. Have the constable also suggest they sneak past the outer perimeter of orc archer guards, because they were deadly accurate when they raided his village. And perhaps the constable suggests the PCs avoid or dispatch the guards quickly before they sound their horns and alert their burlier axe-wielding cousins from the main camp.
A typical party without such cues or qualifications in the mission might simply cut their way through the archers and storm into the main camp right for the orc leader. Your stealthy PCs might not think it’s worth emphasizing stealth alongside the party’s approach.
So be sure to drop clues that spycraft has high value in your mission’s goals and design.
NPCs And Monsters
There are three types of spy mission monsters, NPCs, and villains that are most effective and memorable. They are:
- Spy-types themselves
- Ones particularly vulnerable to a spy’s strengths and attacks
- Ones that counter-spy in style
Spy-types heighten the thrill and risk of facing them for your spy PCs. Players know the NPCs know their tricks, might use them just as effectively, or might know how to stop the PC dead in her tracks.
Such foes encourage spy PCs to think about strategy and tactics, do extra recon, and plan for just the right moments – in and out of combat – to strike at their difficult foes.
For example, a spy PC might have trained with another spy under the same aging mentor. This long-standing rivalry grows over time – even to the point where this other spy becomes an NPC villain who knows the strengths and weaknesses of the PC all too well.
Remember to not restrict yourself to enemy NPC spies. Infuse your spy missions’ sneaky and shadowy folk with all kinds of reactions to the party. Include friendly, rude, and apathetic interactions. The stable boy might be an informant for…everyone, because he’s terrified of fighting, but loves to make extra money using his quiet footfalls and keen ears. The latest hooded tavern visitor pounding shots at the bar clearly wants to be left alone, but after a long and lucrative mission, she gets chatty and provides the party with some helpful information on local marks or jobs.
The second type of foe makes your spy PCs stars.
You might decide certain monsters or monster roles – such as scouts or guards – might be especially vulnerable to stealth or surprise attacks. Bonus damage, automatic critical hits, or instant kills are excellent options.
If a few of those orc archers are drinking a bit too much rotgut during their late night shift, they make perfect quick-kill targets for your stealthy or assassin-type PCs. Outside of combat, a confident and glib-tongued spy might lie his way past a few poorly-paid guards for the right amount of additional rotgut and gold.
The third type of spy mission NPC or monster counters your spy PCs’ strengths, making them difficult challenges where the PC needs to work harder for the right opportunity to engage or avoid them. Include a small number of monsters impossible to sneak up on, surprise, or instantly kill. Choose high hit point NPCs or monsters that have multiple or elite senses to better survive and detect spy PCs.
Like we talk about in Faster Combat, an encounter location or Combatscape that is exciting and multi-layered is critical.
For spy missions, make sure the locations for fighting or sneaking about are littered with plenty of cover, shadows, and heights.
Think ledges, towers, balconies, cliffs, trees, underbrush, piles, and pits.
Encourage spies to use their talents through the encounter features and terrain. After all, there’s nothing quite like dropping twenty feet from a tree onto the back of an unsuspecting orc for a sudden, silent kill.
Ensure your encounters include one or two events that play to your PC spy’s strengths. Visualize the encounter’s story, including what actions the PCs may take to change the direction of the encounter, and what actions will occur regardless of the PCs’ actions.
What major events, triggers, or twists might occur at the start, middle, or end? Make a note of these, creating an encounter flow cheat sheet. Think of these notes as an encounter highlight package or mission compass.
For example, in the earlier orc camp encounter, you decide the archer group’s leader carries a Shadowcrawl Orb, a magic globe forged by spell-thief refugees in the Shadow Realm that darkens and obscures the area around a small group of creatures for a short time as they move. Suddenly, you’ve not only delighted your spy PC if they find this item, but you’ve also found a way to help out your spy’s not-so-stealthy friends.
I Not Spy: Must-Haves for Everyone Else
While your spy PC grins wickedly at the constable’s advice for sneaking past the orc archers, the sloth-like and plate-wearing characters might not be so keen.
To balance challenges out, be sure the mission includes plenty of chances to stand toe-to-toe if need be. And keep individual or party-wide agility challenges to minimum. We’ve all been there – the party needs to sneak past a horde of enemies or sleeping dragon but no one thinks the clumsy cleric or warrior have a chance.
One good approach to this problem is to make group rolls led by your stealth expert, allowing some of your PC spy’s roll to count toward some especially low rolls by PC allies. For example, have the stealth expert make their stealth check and if they beat the target difficulty number, give the “oafs” the leftover amount as a bonus to their roll. Or, to save calculation time, as long as the PC spy beats the target number by at least one, it also automatically negates one party ally’s stealth roll failure. Now that’s teamwork!
NPCs And Monsters
Spy-type monsters could sneak up on and try to assassinate anyone in the party, so it might take the entire party’s efforts to save a critically wounded PC while fighting off or fleeing from the attacker. Nothing brings a party together like one of their own going down early and quickly in combat, especially in a surprise attack.
If such an attacker flees the scene after the kill attempt, your spy PC might naturally want to give chase. Once she takes off, it’s the perfect time to spring the assassin’s ally thugs on the party! Again, the idea is to simultaneously mix in stealth opportunities with more typical combats and encounters so the entire party is engaged during the adventure.
Clumsy or straightforward PCs are the perfect friends to create distractions for their spy allies. Perhaps they make a clattering noise behind a wagon to attract a lone scout, or a PC just shows himself and yells a crude insult to lure enemies away.
These are prime opportunities for spies to sneak into a key area of the encounter and get in position for a critical stealth kill or quick item acquisition.
Also, while hiding is the spy’s expertise, it doesn’t mean the rest of the party can’t benefit from doing so. The simplest, smartest tactics are best here – encourage the whole party to value “Spycraft 101” with a hail of orc arrows that fills the air from the crumbling balcony above. Describe the piles of crates, barrels or stones nearby – and the shadowy path riddled with thick underbrush and low-hanging trees leading back into the woods behind them.
Such an environment still gives the party good odds and options to consider as they look for a better opportunity to engage or withdraw.
With considerations for your non-spy PCs accounted for in your mission goals, NPCs, and Combatscapes, you can add even more non-spy fun to your encounters by including “spy-busting” solutions. Include an event that counters spy enemies, removing them from the mission.
Perhaps the orc archers will flee their shadowy tree perches if they see or get wind of their leader being captured or killed. Fewer snipers to worry about are always a good thing, right?
Make Spycraft A Team Game
To create spy missions where both PC spies and their non-spy allies shine, strive for a balance of spy-friendly mission goals, NPCs, and encounter features or twists.
Synergies such as distractions created by the spy’s allies are just one example of striking that perfect balance.
Even if someone’s not stealthy, super-alert, or silver-tongued, it’s the entire party’s abilities and talents that help achieve mission success.
What Do You Spy?
What tips do you have for making your spy PCs the shadowy stars of their missions?
How about tips for keeping their not-so-stealthy party allies and friends engaged in stealth and espionage adventures?
Or more synergistic spycraft tips (like creating distractions) where spy and non-spy characters directly help one another in spy missions?
Just hit reply with any spy tips and advice you have. Thanks!
Brief Word From Johnn
Get Roleplaying Tips Archives In Evernote
Long-time RPT reader, past RPT editor, and operator of the The future of the RPG Blog Alliance of Dice and Dragons blog, Scot Newbury toiled away over the Christmas holidays and updated his public notebook with all the latest RPT issues.
The URL is: RPT Newsletter
(You might need an Evernote account to access the notebook, I’m not sure.)
Awesome – thanks very much, Scot!
We Got Game Last Friday!
After a busy holiday period and a touch of flu, I finally got to run my campaign again.
The group decided to commit to bi-weekly Friday nights for games.
Unfortunately, one player had to drop out due to time issues.
But the good news is a new player stepped up to fill the seat!
We welcomed Michael to the group, and his Wizard, Six.
Now, you might think Six is a weird name (sheesh, people with numbers for names, right?) but Michael did an awesome job in writing up an intriguing backstory. And his backstory reveals the name is no accident. More of this story will be told as the campaign unfolds.
Anywho, with an excited new player and commitments from the others, I hope to build momentum for this campaign and see regular gaming in 2015.
As for the session, it was quite interesting. The group had an existential crisis and a tough challenge against a necromancer and his pets.
Down The Triboar Trail
We started out jumping the new wizard into the party to get the new player involved in play as fast as possible.
I gave the PC a hook that tied him to the party’s current quest. So after hearing the name “Black Spider” being bandied about by the group, the wizard approaches and offers an information trade, because he seeks to find the Black Spider too.
After introductions and some pointed questions, everyone agrees to join forces against the Black Spider and head down the Triboar Trail to follow up on some bounties the PCs acquired earlier.
As the trail takes the heroes away from civilization and deep into the wilderness, the party encounters a strange pair. Hearing sobbing coming from the woods, they investigate and see a crying ogre being consoled by his goblin friend.
The PCs try to sneak up, but the noisy fighter blows his cover and the ogre and goblin are alerted. The PCs attack. Because, well, the monsters deserve it. So much for roleplaying in 2015!
The battle ends fast, and the characters gather up their experience points and resume their journey to Old Owl Well.
Further along the trail, a band of goblins ambush the party. These creatures brandish shortbows and scimitars, and wear red scarves tied on their heads.
The goblins are dispatched in short order, but unfortunately the battle drew the attention of more such creatures. They choose to follow the party for awhile before striking, and then they lay a trap.
As the PCs round a bend, they spot a goblin standing beside the trail, apparently oblivious to the heroes. The group charges. The goblin yipes and flees into the forest. The fighter in hot pursuit falls right into the ambush, but manages to avoid the pit trap. However, a half dozen goblin archers get their shots off and the warrior is badly wounded.
The rest of the group catch up, and it seems the goblins under-estimated their foes. The battle is short and bloody. The party loots the corpses and moves on.
The next day the heroes come upon a farmer and his two sons. Their cart has lost an axle.
The PCs then proceed to rob the farmer of his life savings and kill one of his sons with a blow to the head.
At this point we pause the game. One player says he doesn’t want to play murdering bandits. Another player says he wants a grim and gritty campaign where there’s a line that sometimes gets crossed. We discuss this for about 10 minutes and we establish a new social contract for the group everyone can have fun with. There will be no murdering banditry, but there will be a short fuse in certain situations. Non-evil enemies will need to throw the first punch, but then it’s swords-drawn. There will be no Player vs. Player. But what happens “off-camera” for certain PCs gives the grim PCs a bit of leeway.
Everyone says their peace, we vote, and we resume play.
Personally, I think it’s foolish to play evil PCs. With good PCs you can at least attract allies you can trust. But with evil PCs, you can’t trust your enemies or your allies. It does make life easier for the GM, though. 🙂
So, with a neutral party on my hands, I will no longer refer to them as heroes in these logs. Further, the game world will see and judge the group through a different lens now, and I think things will be a bit more difficult for the party who will have to watch their back more as their roster of enemies builds faster.
Back to the session, the PCs give the farmer the loot they took off the goblins but keep the stolen gold. And we retcon the fighter killing the farmer’s son and we say the son was just knocked out and concussed.
The party resumes their journey and finally, after three days, comes upon the site of their first quest – a hut filled with banshee. The druid tries parley, but with the party’s help they come across rude and crass. The banshee refuses to accept the comb, and the PCs attack. It’s a difficult battle, but they prevail. Unfortunately, the creature takes her secrets with her, and only partial XP is awarded.
The group rests, then trudges on to Old Owl Well for their second bounty.
This turns out to be a ruined tower. A one-storey stump with a tent beside it. The PCs approach and the necromancer in the tower sends out his army of zombies, followed by a fireball. The PCs are repelled. They retreat, lick their wounds, and return that night with a plan.
The party splits. While the druid approaches directly, the others circle around and try to get in through the tower roof.
Another battle triggers, and it’s also a tough one. By setting the tower on fire, the party drives the necromancer out, where he is entangled and brought down with missile fire. Meanwhile, druid and wizard magic brings down most of the zombies, leaving just a few to be cleaned up by sword arms.
We end the session there. The PCs survive their toughest challenges yet, and the players and I survive an existential crisis on what is fun.
It was a good session, with lots of action, which I like. I’m looking forward to gaming again in two weeks!
Hopefully you can get some gaming done this week, as well.
From Mark of the Pixie
If you are running a low combat game, but combat is taking disproportionate amount of time, then you can do “one roll combat” where you treat combat just like a skill roll.
You don’t make a PC roll for each pin when picking a lock, so you don’t have to do blow by blow resolution for combat.
Give foes a difficulty level. And if the PCs roll over it, then you can describe them winning combat quickly and easily.
But if they lose, then it goes against them and some of them may go down or they might lose some resources, such as health or spell points.
This more closely matches movies, books, and TV shows (i.e., cinematic) where the hero can take down the guards quickly and easily, but can be KO’d (and captured) just as easily.
I would not use it for big fights, just for mooks, minions, getting past guards, and meaningless fights.
100 D&D 5E Flaws
From Scott S.
Awhile ago you sent a link to 100 D&D 3.5 Flaws
I converted them all to be usable for D&D 5.0.
Comment from Johnn: Awesome Scott. Thanks very much!
Getting Back Into RPG
From Jeremy Brown
As to Paul’s issue about getting back into RPGs after a long time away, I have a couple of suggestions.
Go back to whatever system you’re most familiar with and run a one-shot with that. If you generate interest, run with it.
An RPG my oldest daughter told me about, which sounds not only fun but easy to play, is Dread (role-playing game) Dread. It’s a horror based game, but the mechanics sound as if they could be adapted to any genre with some work. It’s diceless and completely story-driven.
In the case of game group angst, run short games. This is counter to most RPG players’ expectations, but if the GM can control the flow of the game and isn’t afraid to say “it’s 7:30, we need to put the kids to bed,” it works very well.
The last thing is just do it. Don’t worry about it being perfect. Things never are. Run a fun light-hearted dungeon crawl and see if people enjoy it, and just admit you might make mistakes and might have to backtrack. If the players are friends and family, they’ll trust you to do right by them.
Idea For Rival Adventuring Groups
From Robert Vaessen
Here’s an idea: names for adventuring groups. I’ve had a few gems over the years, and I’d love to see a list of recommendations. I like to provide a little competition for our group to chew on.
Here’s an example from one of my campaigns.
The Clean-Up Crew
A group of adventurers who seem to always know about our group’s adventure leads. They sometimes beat us to the punch, accepting jobs our group has been considering.
As a DM, I use this group to ‘clean up’ adventure opportunities that would otherwise present low hanging fruit (hanging too low) for the player’s adventuring group. I’ve had a few groups who’ve gone back to the lower level adventures after the PCs have gone up a few levels.
Old hooks representing now-unchallenging situations make for disappointing walkthroughs and low drama for the players. A Clean Up Crew makes short work of the easy pickings, preventing players from using these lower level adventures as a fall-back when I present the more challenging adventures.
Does anyone else have ideas for rival adventuring groups?
20 Elf Sub-Races
From Jesse C Cohoon
What is considered to be an elf/elvish varies widely by culture, time, and setting. Elves can show up as everything from the Tolkien-esque to creatures others would identify as trolls.
Here are twenty ideas for making interesting elves to your game.
Faen (Arcana Unearthed)
Value security and safety, wanting nothing more than to settle somewhere safe and live a pleasant, peaceful life with friends and family.
Unfortunately, their psychology counters such a life in that they are curious explorers who pursue new discoveries, live more for the moment than for the long term, and value things like laughter, song, and strong positive emotions more than humans do. This can cause them trouble as they don’t foresee the consequences of their behavior.
- Loresong faen often seek new mystical wonders or magical spells. Loresongs are usually about 3.5 feet tall.
- Quickling faen seek wealth or riches. Quicklings stand about 3 feet tall.
- Sprytes are only between 16 and 18 inches tall. Their gossamer wings resemble those of an insect and beat fast to keep them aloft. Their wingspan is about 20 inches. Their bodies are thin and lithe (all the better for flying). Their faces are long and comely, and they have large but slender and pointed ears.
Touel’alfar (World of Corona)
Winged elves, albeit flightless, which they use to hover and glide, giving them exceptional balance.
They were once a prominent race, but over the years their numbers have declined due to the war against the Demon Dactyl.
Nowadays, they train humans to become rangers for two purposes: to give elves access to the outside world without leaving their valley, and to correct evils in the world.
A conservative warrior-aristocracy society with a greater understanding of magic that they use to enhance their everyday lives.
The abstract elven psyche is both mystical and logical, creating a nearly perfect balance between the two.
High elves can be seen as emotional creatures, perceived by some as empathetic, as well as passionate about things they take liking to.
Wild Elves (Faerun)
A reclusive, insular, feral and stealthy elven species who remain close to nature and are rarely seen by other races.
They tend to think in terms of predator and prey, and of life and death. They view outsiders with suspicion, but are fierce allies to those they consider their friends.
Tend to be more impulsive than the other elves, and dislike remaining in one place for any length of time. They are happiest when traveling, especially across the expanses of untrodden wilderness. They are drawn to adventure through sheer wanderlust, desiring to see and do everything possible during their long lives.
Closely resemble their land-dwelling kin, but have developed gills for breathing underwater, and webbed fingers and toes for swimming. They have an over-developed sense of self-worth, viewing their land-bound cousins as limited by their environment, boasting they have embraced a biome filled with life and endless possibilities.
Many aquatic elves adopt the lonely lives of hermits, while some band together into small communities, more for mutual defense than for any perceived racial bond.
The most arrogant, haughty, and patient believe they are the true elven race, the builders and leaders of the elven realms.
They feel the other elves fail to live up to the solemnity and dignity of their ancient stock.
They also feel rushing a job or finishing a project with anything less than perfection is betraying the elven ideal. As a result, they tend to have a much narrower range of skills than other elves, but they are the unrivaled master of the skill, art, or craft to which they turn their efforts.
Snow Elves (Greyhawk)
An aloof and secretive people, accepted by neither elves nor men, they have simply withdrawn from both and carried on their lives, inhabiting snow-covered mountainous regions.
Their isolation from their cousins stems from the fact they were deceived into allowing dark elves passage through their lands, not knowing they were serving the aims of an evil god who had recently declared war on their cousins.
Their conflicts with man stems from the dawn of history, where they sought once to dominate or destroy the men who entered their mountain valleys and homes.
The most noble and most reclusive of the elves, having withdrawn from the world after making their mark, which was to ensure the world was well on the path of goodness.
They view themselves the protectors of good in the world, but rarely come to the assistance of the “lesser” races.
Calm, serene, and difficult to surprise. They are at one with the world of nature, using what naturally occurs in the world to shelter or defend themselves, and thus are uncomfortable in cities.
They have lost the urge to build and replace nature with walls and palaces. Even the cities built by their elven kin seem foolish to the wood elves, who have come to believe that buildings of stone are transitory in nature, and that in time, the forest returns to overgrow the greatest of cities.
Sadistic, destructive, and treacherous, viewing themselves as the rightful heirs to world and still remember the perceived injustice of their exile to the underworld.
They hate other races and either wish to make war upon them or view those others with contempt and tolerate them only as necessary for trade or temporary military alliances.
Even among their own kind, dark elves are cruel and suspicious.
Seelie and Unseelie Courts
At best, elves who come from these courts typically go by their exact words, don’t care about the consequences of their actions, and delight in the mess they’re making of mortal lives.
At worst, they’re totally crazy, immoral, and horrific.
Fire Elves are wild, willful, and unpredictable. Fire is the source of life, and a way of living, believing, and thinking to them. They don’t worship fire itself as a god, but revere it as a holy emanation of creative force. They are a hardy folk, living in many climes, but always secreted away from society, as few share their beliefs.
Water (not aquatic) Elves are pacifists, making no weapons and fighting no battles. Why should they fight when they can just flow through, over, and around any opponent? They see things from the point of view of the ocean: there is nothing they cannot outlast, outmaneuver, or wash over. Water elf society is (pardon the pun) fluid. There are no set standards. They have no need even for individuality, especially since they can merge with each other to form a great water elemental.
Earth Elves broke away from mainstream elven society, delving deep within the earth, learning the secrets of the soil and the healing presence of the earth itself, losing the literacy and the connection to the arcane in the process. But just because they are simplistic and unlearned, don’t mistake them for being stupid. They tend to move and think slowly and with certainty. They have a great knowledge of soils, rocks, minerals, and plants, and they keep this knowledge alive in their songs and rituals. From their friendship with the earth, they have also gained great contacts with the animal and plant spheres.
Air Elves are a sorcerous people, few in number. Because of their small numbers, they tend to live in communal setups. They feel little for the concerns of the outside world, being stand-offish and caring little for the mores of normal society. Money means nothing, and marriage is a foreign concept. They took their studies to high places – eyries and such. Their numbers dwindled even further than they had been at the start, but enough survived the experiments and rituals to have allowed this offshoot branch to continue.
Nymphs and Dryads
Were female spirits of the natural world, minor goddesses of the forests, rivers, springs, meadows, mountains and seas. They were responsible for the crafting of nature’s wild beauty, from the arrangement and growth of the plants, flowers and trees, to the nurture of wild birds and animals, and the formation of rocky caverns, springs, wetlands, and brooks.
Solitary creatures whose principal occupation is making and mending shoes. They enjoy practical jokes.
Avariel (Winged Elves)
More delicate than their earth-bound cousins, with hollow bones to aid their flight. They have pale, often porcelain white skin, and white, black, brown, or speckled wings. The avariels’ society is split into two groups that coexist together:
Warriors – geared towards war and power, answering to war chiefs who govern avariel society equally with the religious leaders who live by a complex code of honor and spend their lives defending their race.
Scholars, philosophers and artists – intellectuals who believe in solving problems through reason and diplomacy. The avariels spend much time researching magic and history, contemplating religion and worshiping their gods.
Elves that help Santa Claus build the toys for all the deserving boys and girls. Many of these elves have magic that helps this task out.
Generally benign, mischievous, short of stature and attractively childlike. They are fond of dancing, and gather outdoors in huge numbers to dance or sometimes wrestle, through the night.
Shinto showcased supernatural creatures that have much in common with elves and fairies. Some of these creatures are good, others are evil, and many are different. Some are mischievous, whereas others avoid humans entirely. Shinto is an animist religion, and youkai are often associated with natural features such as forests and mountains.
Sithi (Tad Williams’ series Memory Sorrow & Thorn)
With alien cultures compared to human standards, almost immortal, powerfully magical, and not overly fond of mortals, these creatures are elf in all but name.