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'Traitor' Blog


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Traitor. Working Title for brainstorming and development. Personal project (not a commercial one).

One genre I have always enjoyed but never explored was espionage however I have discovered that existing games dont really capture the particular flavour I was after - the spying realities; the fear of betrayal, danger, operating clandestinely in a hostile environment, trying to fit in, developing assets, remaining undetected yet acting at the behest of your superiors .. Beyond the fiction of the “SuperSpy” fantasy to what a spy actually - essentially - is. Anonymous. Secret. A fly within the center of a dangerous web trying not to disturb the spiders while at the same time trying to dismantle it.

Traitor is intended to be my game of deep-cover espionage agents. Assets hiding in a target country, or it government; its organisation, not simply to undertake missions when activated, but to gather general intelligence and develop their resources as their own potential assets to be utilised when activated.

Those spies who choose to do nothing in fallow periods risk finding themselves without resource and suffer for their idleness as they are still playing an active role in sedition, treason or espionage by the very nature of what they are. Risk and reward is the currency of the realm.

So the players are embedded assets and part of a cell of agents who only occasionally - and very discreetly - interact until ‘Activated’ by their paymasters. In their dormant periods their efforts are devoted to deepening their level of infiltration within their assumed roles, jobs, relationships, contacts, maintaining a coherent and convincing identity and ideally developing assets to profit & aid actions in the future. Much of their activities downtime provide the foundation for their security, resources and success when activated. How astute or sloppy they are has ramifications for active mission success and can create complications. The systems, call signs and security procedures they develop could mean the difference between life and death.

When activated the players characters are given a very distinctive mission to perform and there are several concerns that should be in the utmost of their minds.

1) Don’t get identified or caught.
Maintaining cover during active phases. Utilising distraction, subterfuge and disguise; covering their tracks, erasing evidence, forging credentials, eliminating witnesses - anything to stay “in the game”. If compromised they will be forced to escape - either become ghosts and move on to hide within a secondary identity, develop a new identity or exfiltrate to safety for reassignment. Those assets who have to be re-inserted into a role with a new face, identity and new credentials lose the benefits of the huge investment they have made in their previous identities.

2) Don’t get killed
Even the most devoted agent working for a cause rather than coercion or financial gain is rarely a fanatic because fanatics are sloppy and cannot contain their fanaticism. The life of spy is the life of a rat - danger, paranoia, suspicion, betrayal and survival - to see the cause realised, to dodge that firing squad, to collect that fat paycheck and disappear somewhere warm. As for allies, families, friends and assets? Callously they are ultimately expendable and secondary to the mission. To quote Spygame “If it's your life or theirs, send flowers”.

3) Don’t fail
Fulfill your mission parameters, those limits and rules your handler sets you, everything/one else is expendable. Those that fail at missions and tasks will eventually come under the scrutiny, suspicion and disapproval of their superiors and can get disavowed, exposed, retired or become pawns in the game where their sacrifice can quantifiably achieve better results then they themselves can. They cannot get in the habit of failing or they will find themselves totally isolated, friendless and very vulnerable.


[Theatre of conflict?]

So where, and indeed when is the game based? A traditionalist would perhaps choose its natural home, the cold war but considerable setting information is required to make this believable.

The second option is fictional (like Volgia (In Cold Blood) , Novistrania (like Republic: the revolution), New Paris, Zanzibarland). Fictional settings also require considerable conceptualisation but give a looser leash.

No setting or era is immune from duplicity, espionage or corporate espionage.

The main era consideration however is the degree of technological sophistication in the location, corporation or era. As the methods of surveillance and detection and the speed at which information can move improves, becoming an infiltrator becomes harder, however, the methods and tools of subterfuge improve also. The very tools and systems developed to uncover spies can also be manipulated to protect them, misdirect, counter, misinform or incriminate others. The truth is many systems are big, unwieldy are quite simply much less effective or well managed then fiction and media would lead you to believe. Where dedication, resources and information correlation is lacking or ineffectual - even today, spies unobtrusively ply their trade, anonymously among the masses. Even in the future with mass autonomous surveillance, machines can be hacked, edited and interfered with, you simply need to introduce the tools that allow players to do so. Only when the Sauron-like cyclopean eye of counter-espionage swings their way, do all systems come into focus on you .. and the spiders scuttle forward from the shadows to corner their prey.

[Atmosphere? What Traitor isnt]

This is not intended to be a kitsch fantasy spy story - neither “Man from UNCLE” or “James Bond” (the Bond novels perhaps a different matter). There is no intention to be playing cinematic spies. Players characters have a huge gulf or disconnect between their superiors and resources. While specialist equipment can be resourced (and indeed historically exists), even resourcing such equipment has its risks and many “gadgets” are in reality ‘one trick ponies’ at best, incriminating liabilities at worst.

[Atmosphere - What Traitor is intended to be?]

Threat. Paranoia. Betrayal. Mistrust. Fear Culture. Combat especially should have real threat and even simple injury is to be avoided where possible (like real life). This is not Bourne, not superspies - this is gritty suspense. Besides injury, combat has effects and consequences for both assailant and victim, bodies to hide, secrets to be kept. As for assassination or murder? Better it be quick, clean and anonymous - covering tracks to get away with it because exposure could be a death sentence.

Whatever the players will end up spying against, be it a ideology, a nation, a government or even a corporation they will need to be aware of the teeth these enemies have. Ideally their enemy should be oppressive, watchful, ruthless, paranoid - even tyrannical - likely hidden by a thin thin civilised veneer of morality, respectability, public oversight, accountability, law or policy. Here my fiction can be exaggerated. Out of the public gaze people ‘disappear’ and spies rarely make it to prison… more likely to be abducted, tortured and murdered. Why? Again, to dial up the threat of real consequence. Sure your spy could get turned and become a double agent or live out the rest of their day's in prison but the players need to be under no illusions. To add to their insecurities the players are under the constant risk of surveillance and betrayal - not just from their enemies but even caught within the machiavellian schemes of their masters. To quote Spygame “It is a game and it's very dangerous and very real and not a game you want to lose”.


Ok, despite their best efforts and intentions they DO lose … the gig is up, cover is blown for the whole cell (not simply the expendable individuals) and they are on the run. Where do we go from there? Simple, I evolve the game - exfiltrate, make the dangerous journey home and you know ... their experience makes them eminently suitable to play the game from the other side; welcome to the world of counter-espionage.

[CHARACTER Creation]
By hook or by crook - why become a spy?

There are several reasons (or more correctly motivations) that lead people to become spies, sometimes these are simple and held individually, sometimes complex in combination. Here are a few of them.

Firstly we have Ideology. Being manifestly against the idea of what “the other side” believes and promotes enough to fight against it (examples? communism, capitalism, censorship, abortion, animal experimentation, transhumanism, corporate corruption ect). These are ideas and moral standpoints and can produce diligent and patient spies, undermining the institutions from within. Inpatient spies of this type however have a dangerous tendency to become fanatics who make rash unsanctioned actions. Even patient spies however can waver as an idea needs a representative; achievable targets and little victories to create morale adhesion.

Next we have Ego. Ego is a wonderful tool to be exploited in short term assets however makes for unstable long term, deep cover sleeper agents. Ego wants reciprocation - it's often not enough to be ‘playing’ a top secret agent, pulling the wool over everyone's eyes; Ego wants to gloat, to be preened, show off and “shine forth”.

Then we have Interpersonal reasons. Having experienced the deprivations and injustices of the ‘other side’’ firsthand, or through friends or family - people retreat into themselves - fall into depression, bad habits and addiction, or they flee. These are the most eager and easily convinced to return and spy against their enemies. These type of spies have the advantage of being true natives to the environment they left yet may have a slow burning anger within them for vendetta which can make them volatile. To them it is personal. This said, they often have a far greater comprehension of the harsh realities of their trade.

Another of the most popularly harnessed motivations is Coercion. Some agents could have been rightly imprisoned for crimes and given the “second option” (such as Harry Palmer, convicted Black marketeer while in military service). Others may be blackmailed? (considered a sexual deviant by society). Or perhaps working as a spy is the only thing that protects or finances their family in their newly adopted homeland - they trade their personal freedom for their loved ones. Criminals often benefit from having many of the attributes such as suspicion, subterfuge and duplicity that are an essential grounding in spying. However criminals are less likely to obey orders to the letter and more likely to develop self-serving assets, dabble in their personal brand of illegality or turn to work for the enemy as double-agents.

Lastly we have financial reasons. The spy receives money via a devised method in a dormant fund with huge bonuses for particularly hazardous active work or valuable intelligence during inactive phases. These spies exist on a fulcrum of popularity for their paymasters, being only slightly more trustworthy than any other freelancer or mercenary. They run the risk of being expendable as their loyalty can be demonstrably bought and sold and they can become a risk as intelligence liabilities. Yet nothing drives professionalism and success quite as efficiently as personal greed and they seldom suffer from a crisis of conscience.

So what is the essential mindset to play a spy? As a criminal. A criminal of the most damnable sort, sponsored; a privateer not a pirate. Simply being a sleeper agent and not acting still makes you guilty of high treason and those crimes and betrayals you may be expected to perform or simply need to perform to survive could well exceed the bounds of your personal morality - spying is not only the life of a rat but a rat trapped in a particularly dangerous maze. You will always be, in someone's eyes, an enemy and the lowest kind of traitor. Every day you step cautiously deep in hostile territory. Unlike a common criminal, spies cannot simply walk away from their jobs, no matter how hazardous they may be and this often creates an ambivalent, even toxic relationship between spies who take all the risks and their insulated calculating paymasters. If caught there is good prospect of torture followed by a painful death - the steaks are simply that high.

In the characters basic tradecraft or by the very nature of their previous experience the players handlers discovered their general strengths and these served as the main focus of their training and give a general indication of their likely role within your cell.

Cleaners tend to be quiet and astute - tidy minded individuals - with an attention to detail. When evidence, both data trails and physical evidence needs to be removed, planted, tainted, overlooked or otherwise manipulated the cleaner steps in. They are just as capable of removing a trail as they are at creating breadcrumbs to provoke a capture or demise. Beware the quiet man. Their unassuming manner and astuteness make them ideal in both pre-mission reconnaissance, planning and ‘dry cleaning’ (bug sweeping and determining of you are under surveillance).

The cobbler is both craftsman & quartermaster. They provide the material for mission success through forgery of documentation, developing false credentials and the collection / adaption of equipment for use in field work. If guns are needed (for example) the cobbler would, once they have been acquired, keep them safely hidden and serviced, make silencers, remove serial numbers, and modify them. They may even make ammunition from a workshop. Creating zip-guns would be within their capabilities. Should a fuel tank require a hidden compartment in a car for example, the cobbler would do the work. Some are also capable bomb makers - while others die trying to become capable bomb makers.

These agents protect the cell from external threats like bodyguards but are essentially enforcers. They are physically skilled and more importantly mentally inclined (?) and capable to efficiently perform the distasteful realities of wetwork; close combat, armed combat, intimidation, interrogation, torture and murder. They are the spies most likely to develop underworld contacts and have access to the black market and this may even form part of their cover. They are the cells catspaw and guardian but often also enforce the will of their handlers should a cell member need to be ‘removed’.

These are the saboteurs, the resistance, the terrorists, who are talented at arson and explosives - mass destruction and mass distraction. They are also skilled at protecting and denying areas or slowing searches through the use of booby-traps.

I intend to develop (for personal use) a curious hybrid of the d100 games; BRP, Warhammer 1st edition and Unknown Armies 2nd edition (Specifically the combat system). Why UA combat system? Because no other system I have used has so efficiently encapsulated the uncertainty and danger of realistic conflict with consequence (making it ideal to my mind for the style of play I am trying to create).

Lastly I considered porting a basic trust/suspicion mechanic to encourage doubt, mistrust and Paranoia but instead chose to bastardise the madness meter mechanics (to create a paranoia meter if you like).

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*[Theatre of Conflict?]

Those old episodes of the series "Mission Impossible" Come to mind; every other week a new fictional despotic regime seems to crop up - pseudo Starlinist satellite 'rogue states'. It seems more GM friendly then historical accuracy of specific settings and their complexities. It also leave scope for expanding the plot beyond its natural parameters - while I don't want a strictly horror, supernatural or superscience game, teasing elements could occur.

It seems suspense or 'tension' type games are the logical progression when 'horror' has become so very predictable.

- Alternatively perhaps a 'third party state' in cold war / post USSR breakup? Somewhere where both sides of the old lines are on hostile ground to a new enemy?

Or... Is there a historical precedent where Foreign agencies both side of the iron curtain played the spy game 'at hazard' from the host country?

While familiar with spy stories my historical knowledge is full of vagaries, stopping me taking that particular route. A personal 'rogue state' can be developed prior to play and evolve in play - to create a spy sandbox.



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Currently watching 'the secret agent' TV adaption of the Joseph Conrad novel. Traitor would be much like the world of spying from Verloc's perspective - a rat in a trap trying to survive, as at odds with his masters as he is with their enemies (whom he informs for) and the anarchists he is betraying.

It does introduce the curious idea that the enemy power is aware he is a spy but tolerates him as it believes to have him 'over a barrel' being able to betray him as a Russian provocateur to the anarchists at any time.
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