How to Use the Other Kind of Intelligence

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0795

Recently I challenged you to place a spy in the party. In response, RPT reader Joshua Barry wrote in with some excellent tips on Tactical vs. Strategic spying with some great fantasy examples I’d like to share with you today. Let’s dive in!

I’d like to expand on your definition of a spy and look at intelligence.

We think of characters like James Bond or the TV show The Americans. But what about grandma and her knitting circle? Did you know what she overheard the Vicar say to the Mayor?

Your mother never wanted you to know grandad was a major in the Dragoons. And here is his hand-drawn map that allegedly shows where the Dragoons hid their spoils.

That bar girl you have been seeing? Her family is interwoven into the Church of the Final Process.

Anyone can be a spy because the spy’s whole job is the consolidation of information. With that there are two primary types of intelligence and information: Tactical and Strategic.

Tactical Intelligence

Tactical is stuff you take action on in the immediate and is considered small scale.

So, if things escalating with an NPC in a pub is the situation, then noticing his buddies have taken notice and look willing to join the altercation is the tactical intelligence.

You can make a decision in the immediate to continue escalation, calm the situation, or flee. But that bit of information is something you do right now.

Strategic Intelligence

Strategic is more big picture (even though you have to define your own parameters of what the big picture is) like noticing all the above NPCs have a tattoo of some dark god.

Finding how many followers of the dark god are in this pub and their influence on the town can be seen as strategic because now the players know the town is not safe. Supplies coming into the town may be helping the dark god. Supplies coming from the town may be corrupt.

So your classic spy is on the lookout for strategic intelligence. There are many methods that can be employed.

Ways to Get Intelligence

Technologies and spells that allow you to look or listen are probably the safest and easiest for higher level characters. You wouldn’t expect some Private First Class in the infantry to demand up-to-date satellite photos of an area and get them. You would think a First Sergeant or a Major might have that kind of power. Also, a character that specializes in satellite analysis might have access at lower levels but then that would be their thing.

A way to gather intel that might not normally be considered is trash. Whether Chief Detective or Paparazzi journalist, going through the trash is a wonderful way to gather information on a target.

Paperwork that shows someone is in debt makes them susceptible to bribery. An anti-war politician who suddenly has written transactions with a weapons-maker. A celibate clergy member has discarded some sort of weird sex toy. Even something as simple as a lot of empty wine bottles can imply the resident might have a problem.

One step further from trash is scat. I have a biologist friend who specializes in gathering feces of whatever animal she is studying at the time to find out if it has made modifications in its diet.

This bit of intelligence might be helpful when Farmer John’s sheep come up missing and he claims his long dead wife has risen from the grave. Odds are it was just the pack of wolves that took the sheep, or maybe something a little more exotic like an owlbear. His wife did, in fact, join the ranks of the undead, but she is not a killer of sheep.

Even the cliche of putting your head to the train rail, people traveling in single file to hide their tracks, or tipping the bartender for rumors are gathering intel.

But can it be worked into your D&D game? YES!

Intelligence in Your Campaign

The most powerful non-god in my campaign is the dragon Onofre. Yes, she is extra ancient, so she would be a tough cookie straight-on. But that is never going to happen because she focuses on divination spells.

She has a paranoid streak and is a little OCD. Magic Missile is great and all, but if she knows you are coming she can just teleport herself and her stuff away while setting up an elaborate trap the likes of which Grimtooth’s Traps would think too cruel to publish.

Druids in my game are not tree huggers but more ‘dog eats dog’ survival of the fittest types. If you have drawn one’s wrath, birds will steal little things out of your pack. That journal the bard keeps…squirrels keep ripping out single pages. Racoons will follow the player to their favorite spots. Trees will watch for hunting and survival tactics.

When the bard finally lashes out, every loved-one in the journal will be mauled by bears. A fresh shipment of mead will be sent to their favorite tavern, but the honey was made by bees that only visited oleander flowers (poisonous). Lastly, spiders will put webs on the feathers of their arrows so they cannot fly straight.

“Well, that is your campaign!” you say, “I want adventure ideas for my players.” Ok, steal a weapon.

A subset of my job when I was in the Army was technical intelligence on enemy munitions. It is no secret, we all do it to each other. So if I were to come across a 155mm artillery round from, say, Thailand, dudded out with an unknown proximity fuze (the Tai purchase from many different nations, ally and enemy) I would need to gather as much technical data as I could on the fuze up and to the point of taking it.

So that is your story arc. The players witness a new military technology that an enemy nation has been able to produce, and they must steal it and take it back to their allies.

It doesn’t have to be a weapon.

Maybe the elves have a new rudder on their sailing ships that allow them almost magical manoeuvrability.

Maybe you want to do a more corporate espionage angle: seeds. The enemy has a superior type of grain or tobacco or otherwise that is fetching a great deal of the market. They are slowly bankrupting your kingdom. The players must get seeds.

Also, open it up to your players. Have them play a thief that claims to have learned everything they know in their old recon/scouts unit. An illusionist who specializes in marketing and mass hypnosis. A paladin who is always at the bar sipping milk and listening (in Qatar, we would always try to spot the morality police, and milk or coffee was always a dead giveaway when you are at the bar).

Want to go over the top? Have a god or goddess of secrets and make it the patron deity of the players. Make it a minor or forgotten deity that has decided to play in the big leagues. Their donation to the church is information which is then sold to persons in the best interest of the church.

Ok, I think I have prattled on enough. I hope I gave you more ideas to run with instead of just boring “digging in monster poop.”

May your TPK be one all your players love. – Joshua