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🎨 Creative [NECRO] 101+ Espionage Plot Ideas


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So I've been tossing around the idea of playing a Mission: Impossible game - but for the life of me, I've always have a tough time coming up with a big bad plot for my players. I wanted to go to the rpgnet community and amass a bible of plot ideas for spies, espionage, and covert plot threads. Who wants to start with number one?


He's trying real hard to be one of the good guys.
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The "spy" genre runs through a lot of tones, themes, time-periods, and levels of realism. Assuming you want Mission Impossible-style plots (movies or TV show?):

The set up: There's a new info broker in town. The agency wants to know what he knows, but the guy seems like a ghost. The team's hacker is freaked out because the guy seems able to effortlessly hide his digital footprint.
What's really going on: It's a retired general that utilizes old-school spy techniques (like dead drops and HAM radios); no digital footprint because the guy's off the grid. Easy to find once they know what's going, but do they shut him down or recruit him?

The set up: Another world power (let's say Russia) has recently legislated that all devices have "back door" encryption installed, so said government can read everyone's email. Said world power seems think that that the PC's nation has stolen the master-key (letting the PC's nation spy of said world power); the only thing keeping them from declaring war is that they don't want to admit that it's gone.
What's really going on: The key wasn't stolen by anyone, but a group of hackivests made it look like it was stolen to make their government rethink it's position on backdoor encryption. It will be hard to convince the other government of this, so PC may have to steal real key, so that they can plausibly return it.

The set up: Agency is considering using new weak-AI system to analyze intelligence risks and direct intelligence activities; they want to PCs to help test it out, so AI replaces their regular handler for a few missions. If the missions are successful, regular handler and analysts may be out of a job.
What's really going on: AI is actually a "mechanical Turk" i.e. there are humans actually pulling the strings, as part of a plot to seize control of Agency. If PCs catch on soon enough, the regular analysts will owe them a debt.

EDIT: looking over this list, I am reminded why my tastes in spy fiction are considered peculiar ;)
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The set up: Your boss is wasting taxpayer money sending you to check on her cheating husband.

What's really going on: The really double-plus-ungood head of the office next door is using this chance to ruin your department and deal with you guys in a preferably permanent way... And the boss's hubby really is cheating with the milkman.

The set up: An enemy faction is carrying a full-on assault in a highly protected site in the middle of the desert. What are they protecting though... It's over your paygrade.

What's really going on: The base is protecting nothing but sand... It's the "operation holy grail", a decade-long misinformation campaign designed to bait the worst of the worst out of their holes into the basking heat of glorious nuclear fire. (metaphorically speaking... or is it?)

What's really REALLY going on: But it's somebody's bright idea to put something that really is waaaaay beyond your paygrade to know about somewhere in there, in an attempt to save on taxpayer money, but that guy was killed in a straitjacket "accident" before he could report what he did. Now that the trap is sprung, someone finally realize the clerical error, and you're supposed to go get it back before either somebody finds it or its destroy along with the base, even though you have no idea where it is or even what the heck its supposed to be.

What's really REALLY really going on: You guys stepped on the wrong toes, and people of interest is trying to remove you along with those intend for the trap. Whatever that objective is, its already been removed.

What's really REALLY really REALLY going on: They removed the wrong object, its still in there. Now do they risk exposing themselves by coming in to get it back themselves?

What's really REALLY really REALLY really... ... And they say spy business is complicated. :p
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Adam Reynolds

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You hit upon what is largely my favorite genre to play with the mix of possibilities for action, political machinations, mystery, moral ambiguities, and character interaction with all of the above. Out of curiosity, what system are you planning to use?

Anyway, onto ideas in no particular order. At least some of these will hopefully be useful.

1) A plot loosely based on Operation Mincemeat in WW2, in which British intelligence used an already dead body to invent a nonexistent officer with "classified" documents. They released the body off the coast of supposedly neutral but pro-Nazi Spain, knowing that the information would find its way into the hands of German agents. It led the Germans to believe that the upcoming attack would be in Greece rather than Sicily/Italy.

What would make this plot difficult today is that in all respects modern forensics are vastly superior. One would have to fake DNA, fake a background identity for the individual that would pass scrutiny, and fake a cause and time of death that would be believable. Though the fact that it would be difficult is also what would make it interesting to play.

1a) One interesting possibility would be to have the players actually kill a person and use the victim to impersonate one of the team members, while also impersonating the now dead person. The objective here would be just as much about using the "dead" person to infiltrate something as it is about releasing misinformation. Keeping them "dead" long enough would be the primary objective. This would be an interesting moral dilemma as to whether or not the objective is worth outright murdering someone who might or might not be innocent themselves.

1b)Put the heroes on the opposite side. A major enemy figure is apparently dead, someone in the team doesn't agree and wants to go rouge to prove it. Political factors cause their superiors to refuse to hear it, under the grounds that it is a great victory.

1c) It could instead be about the deception campaign more generally, in which the objective is about concealing as much information is possible within the current digital age and with the modern media.

2) A plot loosely based on Stuxnet, that is about gaining physical access to plant a computer virus via a USB stick. If you are interested, you could also have the development process as well, in which it is about getting the resources needed to create it in the first place and keep it all under wraps.

2a) An alternative is the inverse position. Have the heroes by on the opposing side of a Stuxnet style virus. One that is inside their nation's Air Defense grid and has a countdown. What lengths are the characters willing to go to to stop it? Once they discover it, do they publicly put their military on alert or do they reverse the attempted trap? Or do they attempt to force a diplomatic solution before the time runs out, if the above ideas fail?

2b) Same idea but instead of USB, the virus uses heat from one computer to talk to the one next to it. It wouldn't directly affect the plot, but this idea is just plain cool(and amazingly factual). Computer speakers are another means of communication.

3) As a smaller plot that would only be part of a larger campaign, creating a covert cell phone network based on aerials rather than cell towers that allows them to fly under the radar while still communicating properly.

4) Trying to stop the assassination of a rival political figure, out of concern that the power vacuum would be worse that him remaining in power. This would require that the heroes avoid detection from two enemies. Their agency also cannot simply warn the person as it would appear to be a threat and worsen diplomatic relations that were in the process of being lessened.

4a) Developing a diplomatic relationship with a nation whose head of state you had just assassinated. Especially if it was a monarchy and the descendants are the children of the previous head of state.

5) If you are interested in corporate espionage, which would have high stakes but low body counts, a few other specific options come to mind, not to mention that you can adapt most of the above options, though murder generally would not be allowed(unless it is something extremely valuable).

5a)Have the characters realize that the company they are spying upon is about to do serious damage to the financial system. Do they sell it to the highest bidder, perhaps even the company they were hired to spy upon? Do they warn the authorities or public in an attempt to stop the company? Or do they stay loyal to their employer and consider loyalty superior to any of the above options.

5b) A character who realizes something similar to the above about their own employer. Same options as above.

5c) A character who realizes that the particular person who hired them was about to betray their company. Which side do you take, the company or the friend?

6) A traitor hunt, tied to a group of people that the main characters are familiar with. What could make it especially interesting is if the players portrayed each of the people involved, with one of them the actual traitor.

6a) The characters were all trainees from the same class at whatever training academy they were in(annoyingly enough I had thought of the idea before the show Quantico existed). This could either allow flashbacks or just allow the characters to know each other.

6a)It is taking place with an international coalition, in which each nation is unwilling to admit that the traitor is from their party.

7) A nation is about to launch a foolhardy operation akin to Market Garden from WW2. Although they are winning the overall war, they are launching an operation that is all but guaranteed to fail based on intelligence that the characters have discovered. How do they prevent the operation from being carried out when national pride is on the line for the alliance that is involved in the campaign?

7a) How do they prevent a war from being launched under similar circumstances? Or do they let it happen, believing that the long term consequences would be a net good?

8) Espionage or covert operations involving a major treaty negotiation. Players could possibly also be involved in the diplomacy side, or it could be ignored with the focus instead being on the spies. It would be about both discovering the exact details of the enemy's objectives as well as trying to gain leverage through

8a)It is a negotiation that the characters want to sabotage, under the belief that it would do more harm than good in the long run. But they have to sabotage it without the blame coming back to their nation.

8b) The negotiation is about something other than traditional power dynamics. Perhaps it could instead be about something like climate change

9) These ideas all require an alternative setting, one with entirely fictional nations with fictional histories. All of the above are also possible within the following setting as well as within reality. The idea of this setting was about being able to tell any conceivable story within what is essentially a modern setting, though one that is fictional and thus easily understood for the purposes of playing a game.

For the purposes of an espionage campaign it is nice because it is simple enough that the players can always keep ahead of the various powers and their machinations, as opposed to the complexity of the 193 nations of reality. The downside is that creating an entire setting is obviously a great deal of work for the GM. Though personally, I tend to outright steal location names from science fiction planets. So we have Coruscant and Thessia in a conflict with Vulcan.

9a) Because it is a fictional setting with room to explore the past, it would be interesting to have an adventure archaeology plot within the story, with factions out to control the past in an effort to affect the present and future. The key story would have to do with which side was responsible for a certain military action, with an archaeologist able to prove the answer forensically. With the case involving traces from a nuclear explosion.

9b)A genuine global police force, with enough military force to actually have authority on conflicts between nations. It is on the verge of a scandal that could bring it down, related to the archaeology story above. Which side do the characters support? Is the present good of the organization worth covering up the truth about their past misdeeds, even if those in power gained it as a result of the above actions that were executed by their predecessors? In such a context does nationalism even matter?

9c) Relating to the above, the development of true private armies, as a result of the power vacuum caused by the possible dissolution of the above organization. The characters could be on either side of the debate as to their creation. Option one is to help to create one of the first, with the hope that the transition can be as peaceful as possible. Option two is to sabotage the creation and double down on the international body surviving or states coming back into power.

9d) This is only partially espionage related, but the heart of it could be, if that is what the players are most interested in.

The development of a space program in a setting in which no one cares about it. There would be two main groups here. The first is the science and engineering department that are actually running the show. The second is the dirty tricks department, who are involved in doing whatever is necessary to get the first group proper resources. It is a mix of ex-intelligence/military and political and business types who believe in the cause. The organization takes funding from anyone who helps and does whatever it takes to get the job done. The ex-intelligence side would be about securing resources and technology that are necessary for the program to succeed, using covert actions as needed to push their agenda forwards.

Craig Oxbrow

Ah, y'know. This guy.
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Kidnapping rocket scientists to work on a launch system to weaponize a highly virulent disease.

Assassinating a major political figure because their deputy is in your pocket.

Sabotaging a satellite to strike a foreign rival by destroying its communications - and endangering thousands in nearby nations in the process.


Game Guru-Thread Shepherd
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18) Investigating drug shipments, brings us back to a Caribbean Island where the local hogun seems to rule. Zombies are working the fields. Guys with machines pistols are dressed like voodoo acolytes. Actually it is a local drug lord who is using the strong voodoo tradition here and various drugs to keep the locals working for him.

19) Someone is trying to sell stolen project Slice Formula to someone in Barcelona. You are tracking down the scientist who stole it and his friend helping him sell it. They may get desperate and try some of the product themselves in an attempt to escape. This should make capture pretty problematic.

20) Eastern Europe is the hotbed of black hacks. You are to locate a moderately trustworthy asset and use him to break into a Chinese Military Computer Complex. Besides pulling some data (the breach is the cover), the Company wants you to insert a backdoor so they can modify the readings of certain satellite data. First you have to negociate the black hacking world, then you have to survive the Chinese backlash which will be surprisingly immediate.


Game Guru-Thread Shepherd
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21) The local crime org is using drones to deliver drugs (and possible other things). The drones are seriously upgraded in terms of defenses and performance. They are practically military grade. You need to find out where the tech is coming from and who is implimenting it. Finding out the supplier of the drugs would be an added bonus - and you may need to find them to connect the dots to find the drone set.


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22) Some Next Gen Chips, being made under US government contract for what you assume is an special system inside an aircraft, were stolen. The thieves knocked over the armored delivery truck probably to steal the diamond shipment. They may not realize what they have (or might of even tossed them). Finding these thieves is much more difficult than it should be.

What is really happening. They knew about the shipment and for the last month or so have stolen two diamond shipments to set up the "thief pattern". They stole the diamonds (and everything else in the truck). If you find the safehouse somehow, you will find the diamonds and the other loot (except for some rolexes out of a bigger shipment, which they are now wearing).

If you don't (and even if you do), you will eventually get word of some of your diamonds showing up in Hong Kong. Following the trail, you will find a State Secrecy Bureau (Chinese CIA) agent with a rolex. Once you figure the connections, finding the chips in a heavy industrial military controlled complex will be tough.

Also remember, Unless you are James Bond, espionage is very episodic. There does not have to be a Big Bad or even a theme. Or if there is a big bad, they are only there for one extended mission (1-3 missions that are very related).

Covert Affairs might be a good example of current espionage in action - minus the soap opera elements. The first season or two of Alias is also a good watch.
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committed hero

nude lamia mech
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23) In your next intel briefing, you are given materials taken from the trash of a surveillance target. Contained within are things taken from your trash - although only the PCs recognize this. Before your agency makes this connection and starts asking sensitive questions, you need to know why the target was looking into you. This element comes from an old airport novel Dunn's Conundrum, by [not that] Stan Lee.

23a) The other agency targeting you follows up with a raid on your organization's sanctum. When you realize that you are outgunned (perhaps the leadership was taken by surprise by a mole in their midst), you have to escape the chaos with some MacGuffin (either a person or thing) and strike back while on the run.


Game Guru-Thread Shepherd
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24) Some North Korean diplomats (insert country of your choice) are in town. This means there are a number of N.Korean agents floating through. There may be an opportunity to catch their in country contacts, you are assigned to surveil the diplomatic mission and follow any "loose members" (you know which one are definitively spies, but there may be more). It is time to play cat and mouse (or hide and go seek) with other trained operatives.

24b) You determine someone of importance (intelligence or otherwise) wants to defect. Now you have to keep this secret, define the negotiation, keep it all secret, and work out an escape and exit strategy.

24c) 24b was done to keep the intelligence people busy. He backs out at the last moment or "busts himself out" with the help of his fellow agents.
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