Enact Alpha Protocol
Original SA post
Enact Alpha Protocol
Spycraft is a really interesting product of the OGL. It's a great example of expending a lot of energy and creativity on trying to get something to fit the standard D20 Framework that really, really doesn't, and it gets close enough that it can be really fun to play. I know most people who play Spycraft stick to the 2nd edition, but this is another of those where I've played the 1st ed and I think it's informative and interesting to look at as some vintage OGL product from the old d20 glut that absolutely wasn't shovelware. Spycraft has an assumed setting, but you only get to it in another book; the main book has little to no fluff and is all about just being superspies in a d20 framework.
Spycraft ends up working okay-ish, if extremely crunchy and fiddly, partly because it has no casters. d20 without casters can be a bit dull, but it does remove one of the biggest sources of balance issues right off the bat. As you'd expect from a modern d20 game, it struggles some with balancing and implementing things like automatic weapons or tanks, but ideally you aren't actually running into that many tanks. The biggest problem I ended up having with the game is how poorly the 1-20 level system and prestige classes ended up fitting the genre; 'superspies' isn't really a genre that goes well with 'level 1 d20 character'. Spycraft makes game attempts to get around all that awkwardness and is still committed to evoking its genre, it's just held back by being a 2002 OGL game.
All that aside, even with a total lack of fluff and a lot of d20 problems, I think Spycraft 1e is worth a look at a vintage OGL product. It really, really tries. It succeeds enough to be playable, and it does suddenly solve the issue of 'what does the rogue do' when 'we sneak into places and learn things without anyone knowing we were there' is suddenly a huge part of the genre. It has the usual Decker Problems all over the place, but one of my GMs solved that in a pretty fun way: We each made two PCs, one of them an action/commando character, one of them an intel/investigative team character, and played a larger cell. I think this is one of the ideal ways to play Spycraft; it worked great in all three campaigns we played, and Spycraft does present enough interesting and fun character options that no-one minded having two PCs. It was really neat to play as both a competent, professional, hard-working FBI man and a Marine convoy gunner who'd done a couple tours in Iraq.
On the other hand, like all d20 games, it's very easy to build a useless character. The rules are complex, even if they aren't quite as batshit insane crunchy as Spycraft 2.0 yet. Prestige classes are everywhere. The main weight of every sourcebook beyond the core seems to be new Prestige Classes, who range from (as per usual for Prestige Classes) broken as hell to worthless. The fairly simple, broad main classes get diluted a little. And nobody has Decker Problems quite the way the Wheelman does by the normal rules; it gets even worse when you start giving them sub-classes that specialize them into single vehicle types. Sure, an ace fighter pilot is a reasonable idea for an action character, but how often are aerial dogfights going to come up in your d20 Superspy game?
Since there's basically no fluff to introduce, we'll get right down to making a PC. They start out with a sidebar advising that if you want to be actual cinematic superspies off the bat, do not start at level 1. Level 1 is there for more 'grounded' agents, or for 'where James Bond was when he was on his first assignment', in their words. Spycraft is not intended to be a game about calling in predator strikes on a wedding that supposedly has one officer you want dead to maintain US hegemony; you're supposed to be facing off against SPECTRE, or Dr. Igor Tarantula, MD and his sinister Arachnid organization. More 'No-One Lives Forever' and the agents of H.A.R.M. Later books will introduce lots of real-world agencies to use as backgrounds for your PC, but the core book has a nebulous Agency and its various general 'offices' in lieu of PC races. One nice thing? Every single character gets a bonus feat at level 1. Your office just determines what sort. There's no 'human gets more feats and everything everyone else has has to compete with that'. Another nice thing: A lot of your Office bonuses will scale up as you level. They never really become irrelevant.
I'm also going to be assuming some basic familiarity with d20's framework while writing all this, because...it's d20. If I'm assuming too much, let me know.
The Home Office are the 'everyman' superspy, known for their flexibility and broad training. They get a +1 bonus to Action Die results per 4 levels (Effectively, this game's metacurrency) because they're lucky bastards, and can pick some skills that aren't Class Skills and make them count as Class Skills no matter what class they level (2 at level 1, 1 more per 4 levels). No stat adjusts. Get a Covert or Chase Feat. We'll get into those later.
The Power Brokerage are the people who make sure they
fix elections to ensure their nation's interests are upheld
handle matters of political sabotage, covert recruitment, human intelligence, and high stakes diplomacy. They get +2 Cha, -2 Str, +1 to Diplomacy and Intimidate per 4 levels (+1 at level 1, +2 at 4, etc) to keep them ahead of the curve, get more Budget (we'll get into Budget), and get a Style feat.
Military Ops agents are commandos and supersoldiers, though they can handle any job once they're recruited. They get +2 to a stat of their choice and -2 to another stat of their choice, which is real nice. +1 to Fortitude saves per 4 levels is less meh than you'd think; without wizards around Fort actually comes up more and Will a bit less. +1 to one skill of their choice per 4 levels, which is also nice. Finally they get a Basic Combat Feat. They can work out for any class, really.
Computer Espionage is for techies and engineers, and is really, really good at it. +2 Int, -2 Wis, but they get a free magical +1 laptop that gets upgraded every 4 levels, the +1 per 4 levels skill bonus to Computers and Electronics, and a Gear feat. They will hack all the gibsons, and in a modern espionage game that is really useful
Urban Assault agents are, well, I can't really tell you much about how their fluff differs from Military Ops. They're soldiers specializing in close combat, so think SWAT/hostage rescue guys. +2 Dex, -2 Int, get the skill bonuses almost everyone gets to Hide and Spot, get a +1 per 4 levels to-hit when attacking after readying an action (they like ambushes), and get a Ranged combat feat of their choice. They like to hide behind doors with an SMG or shotgun.
Black Ops characters are hard to kill. They're the veteran agents who've survived being shot in the back more than most agents get shot at from the front. +2 Con, -2 Dex, +4 HP at level 1, +1 HP per level (So slightly less shitty Toughness as a department ability), and they get bonus Wound points, too; we'll get to Wounds. They get any one Melee feat.
Wetworks agents focus on killing people. With their hands. Or a pencil. Anything nearby, really. Just get them close enough. They get +2 Str, -2 Con, +1 to Init per 4 levels, +1 to Reflex saves per 4 levels, and an Unarmed feat. You want to break necks, this is the office for it; just make sure you pick a combat class.
Finally, the Basement deals with strange matters. They're for cases where the Agency isn't sure the thing they're hunting for is even real, let alone a threat. In practice, if you're playing a no-wizard game, they tend to end up hunting serial killers or fighting people like the Aum Shinrikyo; people who THINK they have an occult reason for what they're doing, but who are dangerous because they're trying to kill a lot of people in a terrorist or doomsday attack. They get +2 to Wisdom, -2 to Charisma, 4 extra Skillpoints at level 1 and +1 SP per level, +1 to Will saves per 4 levels, and a Basic Skill Feat (Slightly less useless than in D&D, generally?).
I mention all this in detail because it doesn't take much time and it's an interesting thing to look at: Right away, you can see that the offices are designed around a standardized core. Almost every office is designed around a stacking set of bonuses that increase every 4 character levels regardless of character class. They're meant to all be playable for any class, but...well, you're not going to play a Power Brokerage Soldier, most likely. Or an Urban Assault Snoop. Or a Basement Faceman. You could
, but it's generally not really a good idea. Still, I do like the actual standardization of design for the Offices; you'll see a lot of that in Spycraft 1e. There is a real attempt to make the crunch somewhat more considered than it normally is in OGL/D20 work. It doesn't always work, and like I said, you can still fuck yourself on system mastery, but there's a real attempt to make your options useful.
Next Time: Categories of Spy
You know my name
Original SA post
You know my name
First, I should note that being an early OGL game, Spycraft assumes you'll roll stats or otherwise generate your stats as per D&D. So when we eventually make an agent we'll be using 4d6 drop lowest, assign values where you will. It's been so long since I actually made a d20 character that I had to look all that up. With how mechanically careful Spycraft normally is, using rolled ability scores is probably not a great idea; I'm okay with (and even enjoy) rolled abilities in some contexts, but in a game based on d20 a rolled score array has a very large effect on your PC and is probably not best left to chance. So much is derived from ability score in d20 and the gap between a good and a bad roll can be so strong that I'd normally rather use a point-buy system here. But rules are rules and this game predates even D&D 3.5.
Before we get into classes I should also introduce our friend the Action Die. Action Dice are very, very important to Spycraft and it puts them front and center. These metacurrency are a critical part of Spycraft's design, and both the GM and players get a pool of them; most PCs get 3 per session at start and more as they level. Another nice bit in Spycraft's organization: If it mentions a concept early, it will come with an exact 'also if you want the full details on this, turn to page X' note. So when they first mention Action Dice as a part of what sets a PC apart, they immediately provide a direct reference for where to go to get everything else about them. We'll go over them right now because I want to.
Action Dice start as d4s, and go up in size every 5 levels (So at 6, they become d6s, 11, d8s, 16 d10s). An Action Die can be spent to add to any roll, to add to your Defense (Difficulty to be hit) for one turn, to heal yourself (We don't have Clerics around so you need to do the standard action hero 'bandage and a breather' sometimes), to activate critical failures when the GM rolls badly for your enemies or to activate critical successes for yourself (you do this instead of rolling to confirm criticals), or to ask for favors from your agency or hints on the plot. Note that Action Dice spent on healing, defense, and check results explode; they keep rolling until they don't roll max. You can also use Action Dice after
rolling a check; got a 15 and needed a 17? You can decide if you throw dice at it or not. You can even continue to throw more Action Dice at something after spending one and not rolling high enough on it. The GM can use Action Dice for the same abilities; you can't actually critically fail at something unless the GM spends points of their own metacurrency pool to make it happen. Same for enemies critting you. The reason it's important to go into Action Dice now is because every class has a Core Ability that interacts with Action Dice; most of them make an Agent able to double the effectiveness of Action Dice spent on a specific specialty. You only get this Core Ability for your first PC class if you multiclass, as well as one for a Prestige Class if you go into one of those later.
Also note: PCs never suffer 'multiclass penalties' in Spycraft. Getting knocked out of advancing one class's abilities is generally penalty enough. For the most part, Multiclassing isn't a great idea since d20 tends to reward specialization, but the slew of really good Prestige Classes in Spycraft makes them worth looking at. We'll talk about some of them later, as I think looking at how Spycraft conceptualized Prestige Classes and how it designed base classes with the idea that you'd probably at least dip into one of them is valuable.
Classes in Spycraft come with the normal array of abilities from d20: Base skill points (though Skill Points are as bad of a mechanic here as they are in d20; we'll get into why in Skills but most of the time you just want to pick X number of skills and keep them maxed), Save Progression, Vitality Per Level, base Attack Bonus. It also adds in a Defense Bonus for when you're not wearing armor (Armor is very different than D&D, and you can expect to go unarmored a lot more often, being a spah), an Initiative bonus, and your Budget and Gadget point allowances for your class. Another thing to note: Not a single class in Spycraft has 'dead levels'. You're always getting or improving a class ability, every class level. Another quick note: Extra attacks are NOT based on BAB, and come from feats. Similarly, any character can attack twice in one round at full BAB by using Standard Attack twice. I won't be going into every single ability, just a general tenor of the classes.
Also, a note on HP: Spycraft separates Wounds and Vitality. Vitality is cinematic damage, near misses, good luck, and exhaustion. Wounds are meat. You get Wounds equal to your Con. Crits go right to Wounds. Wounds don't increase with level. Vitality acts like normal D&D HP and goes up every level. Characters generally have more Vitality than d20 characters have HP. Wounds take a long time to heal (1 per day of full rest). Vitality heals every hour at a rate of 1 point per Agent Level per hour. A couple hours to shake it off will make a PC able to get back at it if they only took Vitality damage, but you can still take a dramatic bullet to the shoulder, lose Wounds, and if you didn't run out you're good to fight on.
Classes start off strong with the Faceman. The Faceman is a skill-based character, though they aren't terrible in a fight; the majority of Spycraft classes (Faceman, Pointman, Fixer) use a medium Base Attack Bonus. Only the Soldier and Wheelman get a Fast BAB progression, and only the Snoop gets a slow one. Facemen are human intelligence specialists, con-artists, masters of disguise, linguists, and people-people. They're extremely good at what they do; when I was playing, our Faceman was a goddamn wizard at smoothing out political issues and worming his way into enemy organizations. They double their Action Dice when spending them on Wisdom or Charisma based skills; those are their two main stats. They get decent HP (d10+Con), but poor saves; their Reflexes are bad and their Fort and Will are medium. They have no good saves. Medium defense bonus (1 per 2 levels, starts at 1) and great Initiative bonus (4 per 5 levels). Also huge Budget points (3 per level) but poor Gadgets. Medium Skillpoints (6+Int Bonus). Also note: No-one in Spycraft gets 2+Int Skillpoints. No-one. Skills are much more important than in normal D&D.
They get a bunch of fun abilities, ranging from knowing many, many languages that they can speak with perfect regional dialect and accent (Which is actually pretty useful in an international superspy game; your Agent knowing how to speak Russian, and the right kind of Russian for who they're pretending to be, comes up pretty often), to being able to do disguise work without needing props just by changing their mannerisms and presentation, to cold-reading NPCs ('What's her favorite novel?' or 'Why's he drinking?' are the kind of questions you can ask, and the GM has to spend Action Dice to refuse to answer) before they ever meet them. They can pretend to know what they're doing when they really don't. They have friends and contacts all over the world they can conveniently remember when the team needs it. Class Capstones in Spycraft come at level 14, to give you some room to multiclass, and are usually strongly narrative abilities. For the Faceman? They look someone in the face and lie to them, and no matter what they said, unless the target can immediately
and clearly see it isn't true, the target believe them. You won't get away with the sky is green, but pretty much anything else will work.
The Fixer is a rogue/infiltration/theft/sabotage specialist. They're adaptable, great at sneaking into place, and good at sabotage and adaptability. As the guys and gals with Sneak Attack, they're also pretty good at shooting people in the back of the head. Also your liaison to R&D and the Agency armory. They get the worst HP progression (d8+Con), but good Reflex saves and the ability to make Reflex saves even better like a normal D&D Rogue. Also decent at Fort. Poor at Will. They have the best possible Defense Bonus (4 per 5 levels), average BAB, a weirdly bad Init bonus (2 per 5 levels), and great Skillpoints (8+Int) and a long, long skill list. Outside of not being able to use computers much, they can handle pretty much any intrusion or sabotage task. They get to double Action Die spent on Dex skills. Note: Dex SKILLS. Not Attack rolls. They get terrible Budget but great Gadget points.
Sneak Attack is a lot more helpful in a world with fewer undead and slimes, and where a crit goes right to Wound Points. A skilled Fixer shooting people from surprise can just drop somebody sometimes, and extra d6s of damage aren't as amiss when they aren't getting measured against 'Declare I Achieve Things' abilities like casters. They get the usual rogue-esque grab-bag of abilities, including several 'pick from a pool' powers that can let them run faster, get bonus feats, etc. They can make Reflex saves especially well like Rogues, which is actually pretty useful in a world with grenades and rocket launchers, and they're very hard to flank, themselves. They can improvise tools, they can contact the Agency to spend unused Budget Points for the team mid-mission with a little segue scene, and at level 14, they can just pull out a random gadget as needed. Doesn't matter what the circumstances are, the Fixer had a bomb the whole time.
In general, they're like a D&D rogue, except they're in an espionage setting so a lot of those rogue abilities are more useful, and there's no wizard around to just cast Knock and Invisibility to completely negate their class. Add a little extra gear stuff and the fact that Sneak Attack lets them punch above their weight for one of the 'average' combatants, and they're pretty good. Despite the Fixer name, and the immediate ability to contact the Agency for more stuff, they don't really do a lot of stuff with gear; most of what they do focuses on being a thief and breaking and entering expert.
I'll cut this here for the moment and go into the other four next. Should have room for all of them.
Next Time: On Point
Original SA post
The Pointman is an odd class. This is the team leader, the flexible agent who knows a little about a lot of things. They effectively end up building their own class for the most part, but put a bunch of buffing and team-assist abilities on top of that. They're all pretty good with people, though not as much as the Faceman, but it's hard to generalize about them; they pick up abilities and skills from other classes at their option as they level. They have d10+Con Vit, average saves all around except for a Good Will save, 6+Int Skillpoints, a poor Defense and Init bonus, but high Budget and decent Gadget points. Their defining feature? They can give Action Dice to allies instead of spending them themselves, though only to add to rolls, and if they do this the ally doesn't get to use their own Core Ability to boost the dice if applicable. But being able to toss a buddy an extra die at a critical moment as long as you're in radio contact is really helpful, take it from experience. Their other defining ability is picking out 6 skills of their choice to make Class Skills, gaining another every 3 levels. If you find your team had a gap and you need someone to fill it in at level 3, the Pointman can try.
They also get an ability that wouldn't really be useful in D&D, but trust me; it's really helpful when you're running a spy cell. Assistance lets them help out allies with long-term skills or abilities, reducing the time of something that takes an hour or more by half. This improves as they level, to 1/4 time at 11th, and 1/10th at 19th. I speak from experience when I say this would suck in a fantasy adventure setting most of the time, but when you're spending a ton of your game running searches, doing computer work, investigating leads, etc? And you often have to make progress before some costumed lunatic expects their 100,000,000 USD or they'll blow up Times Square? It really does come up. The Pointman can also let the entire team use their check results for an action, or give out orders that buff allies' actions. They get to take on other class's class abilities in time, too, just like they take cross class skills. They're also just lucky; at level 10, they just...find stuff they need. And if the GM refuses to let them ask for a contact, a break in a case, etc, they just get 2 free Action Dice for the session instead. Their Capstone is also amazing: At 14th level, instead of a narrative thing? They just declare every PC gets +1/2 Action for one combat round, once a session.
The 'flexible class' element of the Pointman is less helpful than the leadership; d20 still rewards specialization. But it can be nice to fill in whatever your party doesn't have access to, while also still being a competent diplomat and excellent leader. The management/group abilities are really the core of the Pointman and the flexibility element is window-dressing, but it's still helpful window dressing.
The Snoop is the second 'fully stealth specialist' class, but they focus on high tech, intelligence gathering, and detective work over the more 'hands-on' approach of the Fixer. They'd be terrible in D&D, having a poor Base Attack Bonus and no magic, but in a superspy technothriller, the techy who is also a master detective and stealth specialist is really useful
. They get d8+Con Vit a level, poor Saves (Poor Fort, Average Will and Ref), 8+Int skillpoints, good Defense, and good Initiative, with great Gadgets and average Budget. They also double Action Die spent on Int based abilities. But the real draw with the Snoop is their class abilities.
For one, 8 o' clock, Day 1, they get Flawless Search: Unless they outright crit-fail and the GM activates it, they never
fully fail at Search or Spot when looking for clues. Ever. They will also actually know if there's nothing to find in a place. They will always find what they need to move the plot; rolling the skills for better results is just to see how much extra information they find. They can ask questions about clues they discover from the GM. They install backdoors and leave themselves easy ways back into systems they've hacked. They can just declare they intercept enemy communications, or sweep the streets for clues and canvass people quickly. They go through electronic surveillance records and data extremely fast. They can just instantly deduce peoples' passwords and PIN numbers ("I bet he's the sort to use his dog's birthday") at high level. And at level 14, their Capstone is being able to guess where in the world Carmen San Diego (or anyone else) is. It takes them time (Up to 2 days per level of their target, Pointman can help you there!) but they will know precisely where a person is.
Snoops are probably the number one example of a PC who would completely suck in D&D but who is amazing here in Spycraft. They're very, very good at what they do, and at doing it without being detected, and you're spies: A master detective and intel specialist who is great with computers and hard to spot is really valuable.
The Soldier is a badass. That's their job. All Agents (except maybe the Snoop) are okay in a fight. The Soldier is a master at it. This is the person you call in when you've set off the alarms and you need someone to shoot their way through the guards and get your Snoop or Fixer out of trouble. And they'll do it; where everyone else tries to be subtle to some degree, the Soldier can just smash their way through problems. They're one of only two classes with high BAB, they get d12+Con Vit, they get Good Fort, Average Ref, and poor Will (Oh, Poor Will on Fighters, you are forever my bugbear. Though Will is less important without Wizbiz around). They get a poor Defense Bonus, but this is partly because they're meant to use armor instead; they're the only class that can use Heavy personal armor. They get a fantastic Init bonus, average Budget, and poor Gadgets. They also get the ability to double their Action Dice on Attack Rolls, Str skills, or Con skills. They can also use every weapon in the game, and being able to use Heavy Weapons is actually a pretty significant edge. Also still get 4+Int Skillpoints.
Like all d20 Fight Guys, they get Bonus Feats. However, Feats are generally more useful here, so it does end up doing them a lot of good. They get 1 extra combat feat of their choice at level 1, then another every 2 levels after. They get innate damage reduction, which will stack with reduction from armor and can make them pretty damn tanky. They reduce the armor check penalty of armor as they level, while increasing its Defense (Normally, you replace your innate Level based Defense with a suit's Defense in return for getting its Damage Reduction. Soldiers get to make the best of both worlds). They get better with weapons and gain increased damage with weapons they specialize in (it's about as meh as in d20, but eh, doesn't hurt). They count as being in cover when they attack because they're so goddamn dangerous, even if they're standing in the open. Their capstone is declaring they roll a nat 20 on one physical check (including Ref or Fort saves) or attack roll once a session, which they can spend a die to convert to a crit immediately.
I've played a Soldier. Their lack of subtle skills can make it a little annoying; you spend a fair amount of time waiting for the team to need you. But when they do, you can show up in a heavy assault vest with full tactical gear, a grenade launcher, and a machine gun, and you make an impact
. Actually being really, measurably better in a fight than anyone else and not being instantly invalidated by casters/save or suck spells really, really helps being a Fighter type. And hell, say you want to do melee; they have the Feats to make themselves into insane martial artists who can punch through steel plate, etc. It's fun.
The Wheelman is the one class I've never actually seen in play. Spycraft already has an issue with the team being a collection of specialists who often split up. Adding 'character who has to have a vehicle to do their Thing' to that can be even more awkward than the Soldier, so we just never bothered with Wheelmen. They're meant to be a secondary fighter who lacks the personal combat advantages of the Soldier in favor of getting to play with the Chase system, and they're so good at it that basically no-one else tries to use the Chase system, but since you put all your Feats into Chase stuff...well, if there isn't a Car Chase going on right now, the Wheelman is kind of out of luck. They get good BAB, a good Ref save and poor others, 6+Int Skillpoints, average Defense and Init, d12+Con Vit, and they double their dice when spending Action Dice on, you guessed it, anything related to a vehicle. Also get extra Gadget Points to spend on vehicles and customization for their vehicles. Also have average Gadgets and Budget otherwise.
They get specific maneuvers only Wheelmen and other Daredevils can use in Chases, which again; nobody else should generally be handling the Chase minigame for your team if you have one. They get Bonus Feats about driving and piloting and boating. They get to pick a favorite vehicle and get bonuses with it. They make every vehicle they like move better. And finally, at 14, they can just break the laws of physics. That's the description. They manage to ramp a car off a flat surface, or leap through a flatcar in a passing train on their motorcycle, etc.
You might notice the Wheelman is only really good for one thing: Chases. The issue is that in a Chase, the Wheelman is often the only one playing the minigame, unlike the Soldier showing up to combat. It takes a ton of mechanical investment to be great at Chases, and the Wheelman is the only one who can really even try, thanks to Daredevil sectioning off many of the best moves in a Chase scene. So you have a class that really only does one thing, and it's even more of a specialized, sectioned-off thing than normal for a game that already struggles with having player characters who tend to be highly specialized and split up being an intel cell. They can fight pretty well, but since they're spending a lot of their resources on driving, the Soldier is going to outdo them hard there. And the stealth/intel/leader classes all do that stuff, leaving them a third wheel, so to speak. So, we never actually used one when I was playing or running.
Give me an Office and a class and I'll make a couple Agents to show things off, as per usual.
Next Time: Agents Assemble
Original SA post
So, people wanted darker PCs, so here they come. And heck, let's give them some 1960s superspy flair since there's a Soviet, a kung fu murder driver, and a monster hunter. That way there's still a Soviet Union, and they can all team up to hunt down some remnant Nazi vampires or something.
First up is a Basement Soldier. He starts off with 15, 14, 8, 12, 16, and 16 for stats. That 8 is gonna hurt, no matter where it goes. See, Charisma is not safe for a dump stat here. Charisma is part of your Budget. You want a positive Charisma modifier as a Soldier.
So he'll put the 8 in Wisdom, making it 10 from Basement. He'll have decent enough Will from Basement anyway. A 14 goes in Charisma, dropping to 12 from Basement. 16 goes in Strength and Con, 15 in Dex (He'll raise that at level 4), and then 12 in Int. Just a generally competent guy, overall, at 16 Str, 15 Dex, 16 Con, 12 Int, 10 Wis, 12 Cha. We'll name him David Cross; that seems like a good 'guy with permanent five 'o clock shadow and haunted eyes' name. Callsign is Hunter.
As a Basement Agent he gets a free Skill Feat. Now, in normal D&D, Skill Feats are a waste of a Feat Slot. Here, a bit less so; see, Skill Feats also increase your chance to critically succeed at a skill. Being a Soldier, he has a rough time with these; they all require 1 in each skill they increase and he can't actually take any without Cross Class skills. He'll take Outdoorsman; makes him better with Survival, Use Rope, and Handle Animal, giving +2 to each and letting him Crit on a 19+ if he spends a die. He's a former park ranger from out west who Saw Some Shit and now he's a superspy.
Being a 1st level d20 character, he gets 24 skillpoints; (4+Int+1 for Basement)x4. He can only assign skills to 4, and Soldier...is not really about non-combat skills. He'll put 2 in Handle Animal so he can have his feat, and 4 in Survival, 2 in Use Rope. Then 4 into Spot, 4 into Tumble, and 4 into the ever-present and helpful Demolitions skill. If his gun won't kill it, bombs might. He'll also take 4 in Climb. Always good to be able to get up a tree.
He also starts with max Vit for level one, so 15 Vitality, 16 Wounds. It takes a lot of punishment to kill him and that's only going up. He'll pay the Point Blank Shot Feat Tax and Speed Trigger, which lets him burst-fire with semiauto weapons. Trust me, that's useful, and also an important bit of Feat Tax towards many useful abilities. It's d20, there's a lot of Feat Tax; most of it is more often useful
as you climb up the Feat Tax tree, but still. He'll be working towards close-range shotgun work. As a Soldier, he can use pretty much any weapon, and we'll get to equipping these people when we get to items and dip into the hilariously over-detailed Modern Arms Guide. Still, there he is. A decent fighter with pistol and shotgun, decent with a melee weapon just because of Soldier and base stats, and not much of a spy. He's pretty dangerous in a forest, though, and reasonably athletic. He's still paying some of the prices for how there are too many skills in base 3e.
Also comes with a +5 Fort Save, +3 Reflexes, and still a +1 Will from being a Basement agent. +0 Defense, +1 Init
Next up is a Wheelman, from the Wetworks department. He starts rolling and gets 8, 15, 17, 12, 14, 12. Not bad at all. He'll assign the 8 to Wis (Not that important for a Wheelman), the 15 to Dex, a 17 to Str (which raises to 19 for Wetworks), a 14 to Con (down to 12 for Wetworks), and his 12s to Int and Charisma. Since he's meant to be a martial artist and the driving is just what he gets on the side, he's a huge, huge man. We'll call him Tobias Rieper. Freelance troubleshooter. Codename
As he's focusing mainly on Martial Arts, he will buy Martial Arts as his base feat; this lets him use his unarmed attacks as a d6 Lethal or Subdual weapon that counts as being armed and crits on a 20. Because he is huge, he will spend his other feat on Punching Basics, which gives him two abilities: One, he gets to count his Unarmed as a two-handed weapon (using 1.5xStr modifier for damage), and two, whenever he punches someone, he can choose to move them 5 ft. backwards. Potentially off a cliff. Or into a wall, which does some extra damage.
For skills, he gets 28 Skillpoints, and puts them in Drive 4, Piloting 4, Boating 4, Mechanics 4, Escape Artist 4, Intimidate 4, Swim 4, and Disguise 4. Yes, Disguise. Has to be able to switch out his clothes at a moment's notice. Also gets 13 Vit, 12 Wounds. He's not as tough if someone can see him coming, but his martial arts attacks are killer if you don't see him coming, and his skill with mechanics also means he knows a lot about sabotaging peoples' cars and boats.
As a wheelman, we'll get to Tobias's car when we get to cars and chases; these people will be with us awhile. Also comes with +5 Reflexes, -1 Will, and +1 Fort, with a +1 Init and Defense bonus. Also gets a further +1 to Init for Wetworks.
Next, for a Soviet superspy, we'll do Svetlana Ivanovna Golovko. She served in the Great Patriotic War and now this magical nazi bullshit is apparently back 24 years later and needs its neck broken, even if it means working with a weirdo assassin and an American. She gets our first 18, a 12, a 14, a 14, a 14, and...a 14. Well. That's a lotta 14s. As you can see from rolling stats, you get pretty widely divergent characters; Sveta's just going to be better than the other two, stats-wise. She'll get a 12 Str (raised to 14 by Wetworks), a 14 Con (lowered to 12; she's getting on in years), an 18 Dex, a 14 Int, a 14 Wis, and a 14 Cha.
She has a (seeming) shitload
of skills; 40 Skillpoints. But as per normal, she wants to keep a bunch of skills maxed instead of spreading them. 4 in Move Silent, Hide, Open Locks, Mechanics, Bluff, Tumble, Spot, Search, Sleight of Hand, and Demolitions. She's a good liar, thief, and saboteur. And not bad in a fight.
For her Unarmed feat from Wetworks, she takes Martial Arts. She won't go harder into Martial Arts, but never, ever being unarmed is pretty useful for a killer and makes a good dip. She also buys the Stealthy feat, because Hide and Move Silent are her thing, and critting with them is helpful.
She comes out to 9 Vit, 12 Wounds; notice she has about half David's HP. She also has +1 Defense, a +7 Reflexes save, +2 on Fort, and +2 on Will. +0 Init. Does still get another +1 to Init from Wetworks, at least. She's not a great fighter, but she's good enough, especially if she gets the element of surprise. Besides, the other two are heavy killer types; she's there to sneak around and get things done while they're wrestling dark things and emptying a shotgun everywhere.
One of the huge issues everyone in Spycraft faces is that while Feats are...better than in D&D, Feats still have the problem of massive feat trees and necessary huge investments to meet pre-reqs. Similarly, there's always going to be some gaps in your skills, because you're strongly
incentivized to focus heavily on what skills you can learn rather than spreading your points around, and a lot of things are very... 'this should be one skill, not 3'. Why is Listen separate from Spot, for instance? Just how D&D 3e was designed. Ask Monte Cook. It makes it difficult to be truly widely talented, which is one of the places Spycraft runs into issues. Also, as we'll go into in more detail in Skills, D20 has never been very good about 'what constitutes being good at a thing'. And D20 has never really rewarded splitting up abilities or going outside your lane much; Tobias would be more effective as a Soldier, for instance, because he'll probably end up not being very good at being a wheelman while also not having the Feats to really master the Martial Arts (which takes like 12 Feats. They all get you something, but he never even gets 12 feats).
D20 and its derivatives, even a fairly well considered one like Spycraft, have always struggled with the fact that an average PC only gets 8 (9 in Spycraft, with your Office Feat) feats. So whole trees of feats just...aren't that great for certain characters because feats are an incredibly precious character resource that doesn't really get treated like it. Yes, Martial Arts is already useful
in one or two feats, but if you're focusing on it enough to really make it great you don't have enough feats to waste on stuff like skill feats, or style feats, or whatever. Your character resources are limited and as precious as a baby dipped in diamonds; you can't afford to spend them on a whim or a flavor ability. Look at how little David will get out of that Basement feat, for instance. This is a persistent problem with almost every d20 derivative and while Spycraft often makes the journey to a capstone feat a little better, well...the issue's still there. It doesn't matter how many cool 'you're awesome at playing cards like James Bond' Feats you put in the game; if people can only take a couple of these over the course of a campaign, they'll be stuck buying and pre-planning exactly what they need instead.
Next Time: What any of these Skills mean, and why Skills are a weakness
Skillpoints and the Eternal Sorrow of Cross Class
Original SA post
Skillpoints and the Eternal Sorrow of Cross Class
So. Skills. This is one of the places where I can't quite blame Spycraft for the badness that's coming. The main issue for Spycraft is that Skills are significantly more important to a superspy narrative than a dungeon adventure. Yeah, skills come up in D&D, but most classes are primarily evaluated around their ability in combat, since combat is the core of most of D&D's milieu. Thus, D&D 3e's skill system being a poorly considered pile is considerably more of a challenge for Spycraft.
Let's get some background. I'm not a huge d20 Expert; I've never done hardcore character optimization, I've only run a few campaigns with it, and most of my interaction with the system comes from a really good GM I had in high school. Guy managed to still find things for my PC to do when I was playing a Marshal
, for God's sake. I had a 'good GM' (the shield shitty systems rely on) who worked hard to make sure even the shittiest character classes had space to contribute. I've also run one Pathfinder game, before realizing around level 9 or 10 that my group and I all fucking hated Pathfinder. So I am not a master of the underlying system. But I think I have enough experience to make a couple general criticisms of it, especially as they pertain to Spycraft.
So for a first step, let's talk about how many skills there are in Spycraft and how d20 checks work. There are 46 skills in Spycraft. There should be far fewer; Listen and Spot don't need to be separate skills, nor do Hide and Move Silently, etc. But still, this is the world we live in. Use Rope is just as expensive to raise as Bluff. In a spy thriller. Most classes will have 15-25 Class Skills. You can technically buy into any non-class skill with 2 skillpoints per point, and with the cap on the skill being 1/2 what it would be if you had it as a class skill; unless there is a VERY pressing reason to do this, or you're a Soldier and your Skills aren't going to be very useful anyway, never do this. For instance, my Soldier bought a couple ranks of Computers for the times she was back at base so she could make Aid Another tests and help the actual hackers when she wasn't doing anything else; that was a fairly useful use of her mostly worthless Skillpoints. Skills go up to 3+Character Level for Class Skills, and 1/2 that for Cross Class. You add your Skill rank directly to your d20+Stat Bonus roll for skill tests. If you hit the DC, you succeed. Sometimes you'll succeed by more by hitting it better. If you get a nat 20 (Or less, if you have Skill Feats) you can spend an Action Die to Critically succeed. If you roll a 1 (or more, depending on the difficulty of what you're doing), the GM can spend dice to make you suffer an Error. Simple, right?
You can also spend extra time to avoid rolling and 'take 10', taking 10+Skill+Modifiers+Stat for a test if you aren't currently in danger. Similarly, if you have 20 times the normal time for the check and no penalty for failure, you can just declare you 'take 20' and get 20+Skill+Modifiers+Stat to simulate rolling until you get the max result. This doesn't auto-succeed like rolling a natural 20. Allies assisting you can make a DC 10 test; if they succeed, every ally who succeeded gives you +2 on your eventual main test. If you have 5 ranks (not +5, 5 actual skillpoint ranks) in a related skill, as listed in the skills, you get +2 to your test, too. So someone who is great at Bluffing will get a bonus to Disguise.
One of the issues pops up when you scroll down into the Skill descriptions. Basically every skill has a long description of how checks with it work, many of them having their own special rules and subsystems. They're absolutely full
of modifiers that only apply to each individual type of skill test. You have to memorize synergies, feat bonuses, department bonuses, etc. A Jump Check does not, in fact, work anything like a Tumble check, and neither of them are like Cultures at all. They also have their own arrays of DCs and modifiers, and DCs can climb extremely high. You see, one of the issues of the D20 Skill System in general is that it's very hard to determine when a character is 'competent' at a skill. A specialized character will generally be gaining 1 point in the skill per level, and usually has a +3 or +4 stat bonus. Maybe +5 if you're later in a campaign or rolled great. DCs aren't determined by some kind of general 'challenge' level or scaled to PC ability at all. They're just naturalistically placed down. You can potentially see the problem.
Let's take doing sabotage, for instance. Say our Soviet Fixer is trying to sabotage an engine on a car and make sure it'll break down a little into a guy's trip so the party can pick him up for questioning. Reasonable superspy move. However, they're still level 1 for now. While Dex is said to be her prime stat, this is an Int check, so she 'only' has a +6 in this. +6 still sounds good for a level 1 character, right? However, the base DC is 25 for disabling an engine with sabotage. And her modifiers take it to 35. Sveta cannot do this. She will need to be level 10 or more before she has a chance to do this, or to raise her skills by taking Feats (Remember, you don't get many, and the Skill Feat bonus is just +2, then +1 per additional feat), etc. So the team has to take that interesting superspy move off the table, because the DC system is unbounded in how high it can be. What looked like a perfectly decent starting skill isn't actually enough to do many things you'd want to do consistently, let alone a big, plot-shifting move like above.
Now, some of that is the issue of level 1 D20, and part of why everyone starts at level 3 if they're sane. But even at level 3, Sveta could not get close to doing that. Even doing 'simple repairs' or trying to bypass a fairly basic mechanical trap still requires a 9+ for her, so only 60% odds. Is Sveta good at Mechanics? She has a maxed skill in it, and a 14 in its stat. But no, she is not. DCs vary wildly
, and you need to stack a lot of bonuses to be consistent with skills or accomplish serious feats with them. Which requires planning your character carefully. Since DC is unbounded, you can never really guess whether or not you're in a place where you can consistently succeed with a non-combat skill. And someone who can hit a 35 DC can hit anything below it easily and consistently, which isn't so much of a problem but having no actual ceiling makes it hard to challenge someone who tries to climb up to 'I can accomplish interesting plot abilities with my Skills'. You could just raise DCs to keep a chance of failure, but if you're in a place where you're raising DC consistently as players level to 'challenge' them, you're in a place where you might as well just be flipping a coin instead of bothering with all this. Or worse, you're the Tome of Magic Truenamer. 'Oh, raise DC by 2 per level while they can only put 1 skillpoint into the skill per level, it'll be fine'. Bah!
The other issue with skills is this: Skills want to be this cool, granular system where you can dip around for flavor, as opposed to the heavy and awkward Nonweapon Proficiencies of 2nd edition. This is a decent design goal! But they're designed without actually thinking about things at all, so many things require DC 20 or whatever to do even basic tasks (like picking a lock), so you run into a situation where it's usually more effective to just pick Skills equal to your SP per level and keep them maxed. Like a lot of things in d20, trying to spread your points around will just end up making you bad at a bunch of things, when you could have been good at a couple instead. No-one should waste points on Hobby, or Profession, for the most part. Those exist for flavor, and you don't need flavor: You need to make sure you have good odds of getting the bug into place without being noticed and getting the hell out of this office building.
A lot of d20s issues, which are inherited by Spycraft, come down to wanting you to have 'freedom' to pick a bunch of flavor stuff, while never acknowledging you have tremendously limited
character resources. Skillpoints aren't as individually precious as Feats, but you can still really fuck yourself by choosing bad skills or trying to cross class 'because it makes sense for my character'. When you need 5 or 6 skills to do a standard breaking and entering, in a spy game, and when the DCs can easily be such that you need to put as much as possible into those skills? You don't have time to faff about with flavor picks. Some might call that minmaxing, but I call that an accusation designed to hide and shield the weak design of the original D20 system as it related to its design intent (d20 clearly intended to allow more freedom of development and choice in characters; it does not). Now, Spycraft actually leans into the 'fiddly bullshit bonuses' play of d20; you can tell by the fact that that's, uh, the entirety of Spycraft 2e. It leans into it and tries to do interesting things with being a very, very heavily mechanized and crunchy game. I can respect that. I'm not necessarily interested in playing a heavy d20 Charop game with the normal shortcuts removed (you can't write 'wizard' on your sheet and sidestep most of the system) but both versions of Spycraft endeavor to be good examples of that game and that's a legitimate design goal.
Spycraft 1e's issue is that it was developed very early in the OGL period, and it tries to follow after d20 rather than doing its own batshit 478 pages of dense rules thing like its sequel. So you're going to have to deal with having 'Use Rope' take up space on your character sheet, competing with things like 'do all kinds of awesome computer wizard stuff' or 'Lie' in a superspy game. Similarly, because characters have to specialize to be good at things, you run into situations where the PCs end up split up, often. For instance, say my Pointman, Agent Shigeru Morita, is built to be great at Gather Information and crime scene investigation because he's an FBI/X-Files guy. He's not often going to be in the same spaces as Sgt. Patricia Gallagher, giant Marine doorgunner, or Luke Crane, amazing criminal Faceman. Or the Hacker Farm back at base that they occasionally have to get into a secured facility to do on-site lookups. Characters often end up split up by their specialization, because Pat doesn't have anything she can do to help Luke with what Luke does, and Luke's entire job is to worm into an enemy organization and lair like a trapdoor spider, feeding them false information and protecting other operations.
Also, when you get to Prestige Classes, lots of them are A: Built around 'be especially good at one particular skill or scenario', which isn't necessarily useful when you could be good at it from your normal class already and B: Tend to be built around demanding you take a ton of skillpoints in skills that are only there for the flavor of the class. Do I really need Sport (Scuba), Stringray? You very sad Prestige Class (seriously, one of its class abilities is 'you're good at wearing little diving flippers')? So you wind up wasting Feats and Skillpoints to get into hyper-specialized classes that may or may not be great and that interrupt the general flow of your very strong base class as it is.
So in short, Skills are kind of a mess and they're made much more visible by the fact that the Skill System gets used as often or more often than the normal Combat system, and it really shows it isn't up to the spotlight. Plus, you can't just be a Wizard and bypass the entire skill system by casting spells, so you're going to have to CharOp your way through skills as hard as possible. Don't dip around, don't take 'flavor' choices, find some things to be great at and do your best.
And don't play Level 1 Agents, that way lies Dart in My Neck, accidental gunshot wounds, and being chased around London by guys in tracksuits, screaming for extraction.
Next Time: Oh God. Feats. Why.
Incredible* Feats (*Note: Feats may not be Incredible)
Original SA post
Incredible* Feats (*Note: Feats may not be Incredible)
Oh god. Feats. Just...how much do I even need to say? There's a reason we use the term 'feat tax' to describe things in game systems that suck, but where a designer was like 'You cannot have any pudding if you do not eat your meat first'. Spycraft has many of the same issues with Feats that normal D&D does: In 1e, no-one seems to be quite certain what a Feat is worth
. Let's compare to another system I've done, Myriad Song. In Myriad Song, your main character building block is the Gift, which is a lot like a D&D Feat except you build around it entirely and earn them significantly more often. Having a 'skill Gift' for a situational skill (Like Mathematics) is agreed upon as a d12 (the highest die possible in a die pool, and a big deal) bonus to those situational skill uses because a Gift is a big character investment. Meanwhile, over in d20 town, what's a Feat worth? Remember, you don't get many! If your class has no bonus Feats and you don't earn extras somehow, you only get 8 of them over the course of a PC's life: 1st level, then one every 3rd level after. Now, Spycraft understands you need them Feats, so everyone except the Pointman and Faceman gets ways to get Bonus Feats, and even the Pointman can still select them as part of their 'cross class abilities' track (Though they can only get 1 that way, and only in Combat, so eh). Similar, everyone starts with 2 Feats at least, instead of 1.
But the point is, a Feat is one of the most limited, precious character abilities and resources you ever get in building your PC. However, they have absolutely 0
agreed upon value. So stuff like '+4 Vit points or +2 Wounds' is competing with 'Attack 2 times as your first half-action attack with this weapon, at -2 to hit' or 'I had a mole in their organization all along!' or 'Threat with guns increased, never need to spend Action Dice to crit with guns'. Worse, most of the cool feats are locked behind needing to take a bunch of genuinely bad feats first; this is the primary way that d20 games try to account for the wildly varying utility of Feats. Spycraft at least has the sanity to put Feats into categories and give you a direct, visual table of the Feat Trees you'll need to take to actually get to the useful stuff, but the problem is still there: A Feat is too precious to waste, and when what you actually want is 6 Feats down the line and requires you to be level 15 or whatever, well...you're almost certainly never going to get to play with that ability. While at the same time if you don't build directly towards it, you'll never have access even if your campaign goes that long.
That's another issue with Feats: They come at a snail's pace depending on how fast you level, and most campaigns in d20 end around level 6-10 anyway. High level play is extremely uncommon, yet the Feat system expects you to build up towards what you'll get at level 18. Similarly, some of the Feat Trees are so long that some classes absolutely cannot access the endpoints. Take Martial Arts: One of the reasons Tobias the Wheelman Kung Fu Assassin is a bad idea for a character is because he literally can't
get to the levels that will make Martial Arts hit its capstone. MA can be so feat intensive that it's generally better to, say, follow Sveta's route and just take Martial Arts then forget about it. Now she has an ability where she's effectively always got a knife even if she's busting out of prison with nothing but a jumpsuit, and that's got real utility in a superspy game. You effectively have to be a Soldier to ever truly master the unarmed combat tree, because getting to its capstone takes a BAB of +18, 8 pre-req Feats to progress along the core 'punch better' trail, and is at the end of a 4 Feat basic trail. Oh, and you don't actually get to use all the cool abilities you had to take to run along that trail at once; you pick one per attack and use it.
So like, Tobias's whole 'can punch people as if his fists were two-handed'? He has to choose between that and the knockback on every attack. If he were to take Kicking Basics, he'd also have to choose between the abilities that grants, or the ones punching does, and then only one of those. So most of the time, your cool Martial Arts abilities are sitting on the sidelines, unable to combo with one another. And you have to learn Punching, Kicking, Holding, and Throwing to advance Martial Arts to 'Five Style Adept' and go up to d8 base damage, 19-20 Threat Range. Then you have to Master all of them (4 more Feats, 8 more abilities, you can only actually use one of the 16 per attack) to get Master of the Fifth Style, which gates both the 'can attack twice at a penalty for 1 half action' and the 'd10+SB, 18-20 Threat'. Sure, if you get to the final Master of the Sixth Style, you do d12+SB, have 16 abilities to choose from an attack, crit on 17+, etc, but you had to spend 12
feats, and be level 18. Poor Tobias can never even get to Master of the Fifth Style and will have to settle for buying the weaker Warrior's Grace 'double attack on your first half-action' feat. Martial Arts was a trap for him to specialize in since he isn't a Soldier and doesn't have enough Feat slots. And by doing that, even though he gets some Feats in it as bonus Feats, he's screwing himself on car chases, his class's 'thing'.
Which is really the issue with Feats in general. You do not get enough Feats. Having to waste a Feat on a shitty ability so you can get a good one down the line, or having your starting Feat slot thrown away like David the Basement Soldier? It fucking sucks. If you try to 'build to concept' in a system like d20 you mostly build to make your character less effective. And d20 is a really heavily mechanical system; there's not much room for something like Spire or Myriad Song where your goal is 'justify how I can help out with this broad ability I have'. Everything is extremely specific. Yeah, down the line, a melee character who focuses on their knife can do insane things with it (We're talking +4 to hit, +10 to damage, in a system where damage modifiers are actually at a premium) but A: That will ONLY be with knives and B: They had to invest an entire Soldier into that knife. Other character types need not apply. Now on one hand, it's good that a Soldier has something special in combat, but it still takes them ages to do that thing, and it's usually so specific that it can really hurt. Weapon Focus has never been a good Feat, d20! Weapon Focus is like, the epitome of what's wrong with Feats!
This is exacerbated by the fact that Feat bonuses are more necessary than ever in Spycraft. You see, ironically, Spycraft is actually less
gear dependent than D&D. You can't get a Magical +5 PPK of Frosty Burst. There's no +3 Vorpal Combat Knife of Guard Slaying, nor is there a pair of +6 Glasses of Cryptography (Okay, there kind of are; we'll get to Gadgets later). So since you can't get a magic item treadmill of gear, you need
your Feat bonuses to break out of the basic BAB or Skill grind. This is actually one of two reasons Skill Feats are actually useful in Spycraft. The other is the expended Crit range. Trust me, that's very helpful when you're using the non-combat system more. Still, say a Pointman wants to get super good at a couple Skill Feats. That's going to cost a considerable number of their total Feats for their career. It's probably worthwhile if that's the thing they're focusing on, but it's still a heavy cost.
There's also just a bunch of loser/flavor Feats still. Like Toughness. Our good old whipping boy Toughness. A tiny static HP buff is not worth a super-precious character resource! Or 'The Look': You're even sexier than the normal superspy (It notes in its description that most Agents look like they belong on a movie set, but one with this Feat was worth a couple million to be here) and get a whopping +1 to Cha skills with the opposite sex (also dating this to the late 90s/early 00s milieu). Is that worth one of the things you only get 9 of if you're a Faceman? No. While Spycraft generally tries to be better with Feats than base d20, it still rams hard into the issues with the basic Feat concept and the total lack of 'what is a Feat worth' or awareness that they are incredibly precious.
Long Feat Trees were a mistake, goddamnit.
Next Time: Gear
Original SA post
So, gear in Spycraft 1e is actually mostly sane. Except for one thing: Budget Points. Budget Points are the enemy. The Budget system is designed to meaningfully limit your ability to just have whatever super cool guns and gear you want, but it struggles with a simple fact: Guns and armor are the only really significant expenditure of Budget. Sidearms are pretty cheap, but any real hardware costs a shitton of Budget, and any real armor is even more expensive. It's a good thing the average Agent wants to stay as far away from armor as possible, then. Budget is very fiddly and takes a lot of tracking and bookkeeping. It also ensures almost every character can't use Charisma as a dump stat; if you do, the people at the accounting office will fuck you. Hard.
So, every character has a 'personal budget' of standard equipment they can alter from mission to mission and that they bring with them on every assignment. You get 40 BP, plus 5xCharisma Modifier (Subtracting, if your Cha Mod is negative), plus your total Budget Points from your class. Most items are very cheap; getting your lockpicking kit, your bugs, your computer (if you don't have a free magic one from being Computer Ops) etc are very easy for the non-combat classes. Similarly, it's pretty easy to buy a simple 9mm sidearm and silencer, or a melee weapon. It's only heavy military gear or any form of armor that gets expensive as hell. As you might imagine, this can be a bit of an issue for your team's Soldier. The vast majority of gear is so cheap that picking it out is a long exercise in nickle and diming your budget to make sure you remembered everything, and this can take a long time.
Once you start a mission, the Agency assigns a threat rating to it. Depending on if it's Yellow, Red, or Black, you get 15, 25, or 35 extra Budget, plus your Class bonus, plus 2d4xCha Mod (subtracting if negative, again). Everyone on the team generates that, and you can pool it together to buy the poor Soldier the gear they need to do their job. This is made a little easier by the fact that only your team's Soldier should ever actually wear body armor. For most characters, especially characters limited to Light armor, wearing a tuxedo liner or Kevlar vest actually makes them considerably easier to kill past very early levels. Also I hope you don't need too many explosives; C4, Grenades, etc are expensive as hell. A single frag grenade costs as much as a decent .40 caliber sidearm pistol. C4 is 20 budget points per 1/4 pound bomb. Hope you don't have to blow things up
as a team of superspies and saboteurs. The GM can also issue gadgets and items that will be totally necessary to the mission, so I imagine that's where you get the bombs you need to plant on some Russian crime boss's crime yacht.
Why do I say not to wear armor? Because weirdly, in Spycraft, armor doesn't provide AC. Well, it does, but not much. More importantly, wearing armor (which usually provides +1 Defense) completely replaces
your Class Defense Bonus. Note you actually get your Defense Bonus even if you're flat footed, flanked, surprised, or whatever; it's your superspy ability to see shit coming and do a cool backflip out of the way, even if you were caught by surprise. It functions like armor in a normal D&D game. So why the hell would you wear armor? For one, Armor and a Helmet will give +3 Defense, which isn't that bad. For two, armor provides Damage Reduction. Medium or Heavy Armor also forces the GM to spend 2 Action Dice to critical you. And remember; your armor will stop damage, so if you get critted, it's stopping Wound damage. That's right, a Crit in Spycraft doesn't double your damage or something; it hits you right in your Wounds no matter how many Vit points you have left. Or if you Crit a minor enemy, you instantly drop them. Thus, running around in armor will make you much harder to Crit and will make Crits that do get through much more likely to chip off a few Wounds but otherwise leave you fine and with a pile of Vit between you and further bullets.
The issue is that light armors don't provide enough DR to be worth opening yourself up to getting shot more often. And only the Soldier gets that Armor Use bonus, where they gain Defense while in Armor as they level (to make up for losing their Class Bonus). Also, only the Soldier can actually wear the serious Heavy armors. And armor is the single most expensive item in the game. If my tough Marine convoy gunner turned superspy wants to armor up completely with either a Door Gunner's Vest (DR 14, but -15 Speed out of your 30 base land speed, which can hurt, and it's so heavy it actually gives a 2 Defense PENALTY, plus a -7 Armor Check Penalty and Max Dex Bonus to Defense of 0) or an Assault Vest w/Insert (DR 10, -10 Spd, only -4 ACP, MDB +1) I'm throwing 50 Budget at it. Then another 10 for a Helmet for +2 Defense because why the fuck are you not wearing a helmet, you silly billy? This isn't Warhammer 40k. Note this is actually really serious DR, though; DR 10? Plus the Soldier's innate DR, which stacks with it? Compare this against the damage of most guns: d10, d12, or maybe 2d10 for a heavy battle rifle. And remember you can make up for defense by using cover, and that at a certain level the Soldier makes their own cover just by shooting back at people. It is, in fact, 100% feasible to show up to a flippy action movie gunfight as a hulking mass of Kevlar and ceramic inserts, and with the right perks you can even be wielding an M60 one-handed like Rambo while holding a riot shield in the other while you walk through assault rifle fire like it was mosquito bites and mow down mooks for your lighter buddies.
That's right, this is a 2002 era game where being a huge person in heavy armor with a big gun is actually one of the most badass ways to fight and the province of the highly specialized super good at combat character. All the highly nimble dodgy action heroes are still good at fighting, but 'I am a walking tank and I am going to fuck everything between me and our mission objective/hold off a dozen guards with AKs while everyone else extracts before I make my way out' is Soldier only and works really goddamn well.
The fact that only one PC wants to do that is really helpful because you won't be able to afford more PCs doing that. One interesting thing is that guns in the core book do the sensible thing of mostly standardizing their profiles by caliber. A 9mm round is going to do d10, Threat 20, Error 1, (maybe Error 2 in an SMG since automatic weapons are always finickier), and have meh range (like 20 feet per range increment). Higher caliber sidearms are more expensive and all around better; a .45 is simply superior to a 9mm mechanically (d10+2 damage, 19-20 Crit Threat, etc), but also costs almost twice as much (13 for a 9mm Service sidearm and 22 for a .45). You can, of course, get a .50 caliber Desert Eagle that does 2d8 but it also has a higher Error rating so you can potentially let your GM activate crit-misses more often. Assault Rifles generally do widely variable but high damage (2d8+2 per shot for a 5.56mm, 2d10 for a 7.62x51 NATO, but only 2d8 for a 7.62x39mm AK round because mook guards use those so they should be worse) while shotguns do shitloads of d4s and can hit multiple close together targets. SMGs are cheap two-handed weapons that you use because you can still silence them and they only cost as much as a pistol, while those ARs all cost 30 or more Budget. Same for Sniper Rifles, which have huge Threat Ranges but only if you aim and fire.
An interesting thing is that the actual Tactical Weapons the Soldier (and Wheelman) can use are more powerful than their rifle versions even if they use the same ammo. This is because they're giving you a mechanical
bonus for paying the huge cost to use an LMG or GPMG or whatever. These are rare, expensive weapons that only two classes use; they should be impressive. An M60 7.62x51mm NATO medium machine gun does a huge 3d8 damage! HMGs are even stronger but actually need a tripod or vehicle backing to fire. You get some pretty basic 'special' ammos that will reduce DR slightly, or improve damage a little against unarmored targets, and then you also get a bunch of rocket launchers and grenade launchers that just don't do enough damage to justify the huge expense of their ammo (Seriously, while 3d10 damage is nice, as is AoE, 15 Budget a shot in an expensive 30 Budget weapon that also imposes -2 to hit and needs a tripod mount to be set up and braced is, uh, impractical
). Still, in general, the Soldier getting Tactical actually does give them access to some impressive firepower when shit hits the fan. This will be undone by the Modern Arms Guide, which mostly makes Tactical weapons just assault rifles with a very high Error rating, high cost, and a larger magazine. Sure, sure, same bullet and all, but c'mon! This is a special, rare weapon prof that's hard to bring to bear. It should be impressive!
I go into all this to basically get at the fact that most characters' gear will be fairly cheap and easy to acquire, if fiddly, while the Soldier is going to eat your Budget like the very avatar of the bloated American Military Industrial Complex. And don't you worry, we'll get into the Modern Arms Guide next update.
Meanwhile, Gadgets...well, Gadgets kind of suck in Spycraft 1e. They're your cool superspy items. Most of them are very, very specific, very fiddly, and not great. Spycraft 2e does a much better thing and makes the entire Gadget system into a sort of 'build your own modular magic items' system, which 1e really could've used. You're supposed to be excited about Gadget Points, but most of the time...eh. Most Gadgets are too specific, too niche, and too weird to actually come up much. Sure, your street clothes giving +1 Defense (without replacing your entire Class Bonus) is handy, or having a secret copier that saves and reprints documents is helpful, or a hip flask that's actually a magnetic bomb, but they're just not that exciting overall. The issue is that Gadgets are trying to replace Magic Items, but they don't really get what a Magic Item is useful for, so they're all those piles of flavorful Utility Items that no-one ever spends their GP Per Level allotment on because they need stuff that gives direct skill/save/stat bonuses. If you've seen it in a spy movie, it's somewhere in the Gadgets section, and it's probably underwhelming. Making them into much more heavily standardized and mechanical items in 2e was a huge improvement.
Gadgets are also spent on buying and modifying vehicles. With enough of them, you can technically requisition a CVN and hijack a USN aircraft carrier for your spy shenanigans. I'm not sure why you would, but you could. Also, because you requisitioned it, you can also have all kinds of superspy modifications made. To your CVN. Which you can use to enter chases using your Wheelman. I am absolutely certain that at some point in this game's history, a CVN and the Wheelman's level 14 'Break The Laws Of Physics' ability has been used to do something completely, totally ridiculous like ramping over a fruit stall only to land on the long-suffering cabbage cart behind it and continue on into the water.
Next Time: Gun Porn, You, And Why The Modern Arms Guide And All It Represents Belongs In The Trash
Mechanical Lever Action Gun Porn
Original SA post
Mechanical Lever Action Gun Porn
So I realize I've never actually precisely defined a term I use a lot in my reviews. 'Mechanical Levers'. When I'm talking about that, I'm talking about things you can meaningfully modify to make two options mechanically different. Take Myriad Song, an example of a game with a shitload of gear that actually had the mechanical levers to make the differences between its items matter: You could change which Traits an item used to attack, you could modify the capacity or give it a Sweep attack, you could modify where it threatened enemies or where it could be used to attack, you could modify damage, and there were a ton of special rules that actually mattered while being sort of standardized in what they did and how you countered them. So that game could have a massive gear list and actually have a reason to have it! By contrast, Urban Jungle, despite being in the same system, wasn't interested in having dozens of space weapons and so greatly simplified gear rules, preferring simpler equipment. Or Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 2e had very few actual traits about a weapon that could change it meaningfully, so by way of that its own 'gear porn' book was a bit underwhelming in actual new items because when you have a 1-5 Armor scale and then the majority of weapons are just SB+0 and maybe a couple minor traits, there just isn't room to produce dozens of items. Meanwhile, Warhammer 40kRP was a game that had very few actual mechanical levers, but tried to have a ton of gear, with the outcome being that every game had a couple clear best options you should always use and a ton of equipment with no mechanical reason to ever touch it if you could avoid it taking up page space.
I say all this because I want you to think about how you meaningfully distinguish non-magical weapons in a d20 based game. Damage, Threat Range, Error (In Spycraft), Range Increment, maybe magazine capacity, Cost, Fire Modes, and maybe accuracy, but accuracy starts to get into what's normally the province of magical gear and in Spycraft, you have very limited access to things that directly raise the accuracy of your weaponry outside of a few laser sights and some very expensive accurizing. A maximally accurized weapon (which takes about 2 missions and a ton of gadget points to get, but if you put it on a personal weapon you only pay for it once) with a laser sight will have +4 to hit at 50 feet or less, which is extremely good by d20 standards (+20% to hit is good in almost any game), but that's about the limit of crazy modifications you can make to your personal weaponry in the core book. Similarly, the Core Book doesn't really care if you're using a Mateba .357 'semiauto' revolver or a Colt Python, or if you carry a Browning Hi-Power or a VP70; they're both just .357 revolvers or 9mm service pistols.
For some people this would not stand, and so we get the Modern Arms Guide, a book that belongs in the trash. This is the book for when you really care if you're using a SOCOM .45 or a simple Colt M1911. For if you need to make dozens of minor modifications to your personal service pistol or need to describe how your rifle has a cryogenically treated barrel that improves the weapon's harmonics and makes it a whopping +1 more accurate for a shitload of Budget points. Yes, a +1 bonus to hit is valuable. Yes, many of the new rules introduced in the MAG have actual mechanics attached to them. No, they still don't meaningfully distinguish an M16 from an M4, even if they try.
This is a book that adds full rules for 25 distinct polearms
to a superspy
game. Though on that count I can't tell if that's an in-joke about the way D&D's origins lie with a man whose three passions in life were weird fictional race wars, weird purple prose, and shitloads of polearms.
There are something like 40 new weapon special qualities and rules introduced in this book, all as ways to pretend they can meaningfully differentiate between 12 different 9mm service pistols. And, of course, you get a full 'guns and bullets' pop-firearms 'realistic' primer on every single gun in the book. 20 new types of special ammo, most of them useless! New rules for when your body armor doesn't work, as if body armor didn't have enough issues outside of Soldier! New ways to spend shitloads of budget on weapons, making them dominate the Budget system even more! Rules for determining if a target is a soft target or not! Rules for crawling, crouching, and going prone! Extensive fiddly gunsmithing! For instance, now you have weapons defined as 'Armor Defeating' that will blow through 'hard targets' (anyone with DR 6 or higher) and ignore 10 DR (15 if you also use an Armor Defeating ammo type) but do half damage to 'soft targets' (DR 6 or lower). Many of the new special ammos will do 0 damage to anyone with DR 6+. Lots of other rules will give +1 or +2 in various situations but rarely ones that matter that much; how often does someone actually try to Sunder your sniper rifle for that heavy Bull Barrel to actually matter?
Part of why this is an issue is that it conflicts with a major point of abstraction the game was trying to push: Vitality Points aren't generally
you getting shot. They're near misses, attacks that your armor barely saved, impact wounds, bruises, small cuts, etc. Wounds are where you take a hit to the shoulder and start bleeding dramatically. Once you start introducing 20mm cannons designed to pop the night-sights on a tank or 23mm shotguns that blow out engine blocks, and explicitly add in rules about 'it just punches right through the PC and so doesn't transfer full force to them', that conceit gets a little tougher to keep up. Are you going to say it's safe to get shot with a .50 BMG round just because it probably blows through you on the way?
Modern Arms Guide also introduces a bunch of ways to solve problems it causes. In the normal book, outside of possibly higher Error ratings and definitely higher prices, higher caliber weapons were generally mechanically better. The high price and the lack of concealment was how you paid for bringing a big gun to a fight; you're spies, that's probably going to limit people outside of the Go Loud Soldier. Modern Arms Guide introduces Recoil, which reduces a weapon's to-hit if your Strength isn't high enough and you try to fire it on anything but single shot. This was done to try to make the Colt .45 no longer king of service pistols (at the same time as making the Colt .45 Error 0, Threat 19-20, and giving it 'Takedown' so it causes a 10+1/2 Damage Caused Fort Save or it knocks people over. What? .45 ACP definitely
doesn't do that) by giving it Recoil 20, so you need a 20 Strength to fire a Colt .45 one-handed with Speed Trigger on to use a Burst or you suffer the difference between your Str and the Colt's Recoil as an attack penalty.
The issue with Recoil as written is twofold. One, it actually doesn't apply much! Only if you fire in Burst, Strafe, or Autofire (We'll get to those) RAW. My old GM made it much more important and made it so you suffered Recoil on extra shots if you made more than one attack, which is probably why the rule sticks out so to me (we actually had to worry about it a lot!). But as it stands, it introduces a big new parameter to guns, and later feats and such in later books will give bonuses to recoil control and such, while not really making it that important; most of the weapons you'll be autofiring actually don't have huge Recoil ratings. Two, it introduces a ton of rules for dealing with recoil (bracing, using bipods, modifications to the barrel, new feats, using both hands...) but like...you introduced a complication entirely so you could introduce a dozen ways to get rid of it. Also now Soldiers who are using a gun need huge Strength potentially. Sure, it was cool when my 20 Str Marine could handle an anti-vehicle shotgun with no worries about recoil, but that system was introduced entirely so I'd have to bypass it
. By Core Book I could've done that anyway.
Which is really my issue with the entire Modern Arms Guide. Recoil sums it up perfectly: It introduces a new complication to combat, on the premise of 'greater realism' in a game where you're playing cinematic superspies, solely so it can fill page space with fiddly modifications and new rules to remove that complication from the equation.
The other issue with it is that when you start to directly mechanically define all these weapons, you end up with 'best' weapons. For instance, you have no mechanical reason to ever use a 9mm service pistol besides the Browning Hi Power if you can afford it. The Colt .45 is an amazing gun in the MAG because they decided it should have 0 chance of ever failing or malfunctioning. The FN Five-seveN is straight one of the best handguns in the game because it has inherent AP (penetrates 3 DR) and can be loaded with AP ammo on top of that (+2 more) while being cheap, having light recoil (It's rating is 0!), doing +1 damage over a 9mm, and not becoming 'Armor Defeating' and thus useless against soft targets after that. By mechanically defining all those pistols, instead of adding flavor you've now added situations where you just have a 'best' gun in each category. You actually had more options to be flavorful back when it was like 'I have a 9mm service pistol, model's whatever I think is cool'.
By trying to mechanically differentiate all these dozens of guns to justify its own gear porn in a system with relatively few mechanical levers
they end up with the same issue 40kRP did: Every category has good guns and trash guns. And with how expensive all guns are, why would you ever buy a trash gun? Since guns are already the most expensive part of your kit, since other equipment is cheap and most PCs aren't wearing armor, why not get the good gun in a category when the difference in cost is usually only 6-10 BP? So instead of a wide range of cool guns, your agents just all end up carrying a Five-seveN if they're using a sidearm or a G3 for an assault rifle or whatever. There's a Good Gun and a Bad Gun because you mechanically differentiated the guns in a game system that doesn't have enough sidegrade potential to make multiple sorts of 'builds' of a weapon valuable; you want the weapon that does the most damage, with the best range, and the least error and best Threat.
So in short, the Modern Arms Guide is actually a good metaphor for a lot of d20. It purports to be about giving you new options, but without enough things to mechanically differentiate those options, it just ends up adding a ton of extra complexity. Then, by mechanically defining everything, strictly, without enough to distinguish it all? It also gives you stark 'best/worst' choices for your highly limited character resources, which then makes you choose a binary 'flavor' or 'effectiveness' situation, which sucks for everyone involved. The way d20's design often ends up making it impossible to build to a 'concept' because so much of d20 is about trying to spend highly limited resources the best way you can to get mechanically effectiveness is part of why I dislike it so much. You'll see people lament 'minmaxing'. If you're not a wizard, because of the nebulous nature of what makes you Good At Thing in d20, you need to minmax to some degree or else you just end up having a bad time if you use the rules. A cool character concept doesn't stand up to simply never doing enough damage or constantly failing your critical skill checks, after all. d20 is a hugely mechanics focused game, and you're going to need to interact with those mechanics. A lot. The MAG just extends that to picking your sidearm as well as everything else about your PC, and I hate it. It's a waste of page space that only makes a persistent problem with the system even more omnipresent.
Next Time: When you take a life, do you know what you give?
Death To Spies
Original SA post
Death To Spies
So, at some point or another, some asshole in a jumpsuit with a beret or a ski mask (depending on how classy of a supervillain you're dealing with) is going to see you. They're going to push a button. And then there's going to be a lot of loud noises and a whole squad of their buddies aiming AKs at you. Alternately, you're going to line up the shot and try to carefully take a guard down with a silenced pistol only to remember this is d20, and that doesn't happen, and really having a silenced weapon is mostly a waste of time because it takes 7 hits to kill people unless you crit, all while the same guard is hitting the aforementioned 'call for more AKs' button and is yelling 'REQUEST TO ENGAGE'.
What happens then? Mostly normal d20 combat, but with a few interesting wrinkles. Spycraft has the unenviable position of trying to do cinematic superspy action in d20, a relatively slow paced system that isn't really built to accommodate automatic weapons, rocket launchers, or sniper rifles. Spycraft tries to deal with this by using a Vitality and Wounds system to try (futilely) to solve the 'are hit points meat' question and to use the relatively low chance you actually take a Crit to simulate all the cool near-misses and narrowly blocked punches of a cinematic fight without going 'you missed, you missed, you missed'. You get a ton of Vitality. Your Wounds remain linked to your direct Con score. You only take Wounds when you run out of Vitality, or when someone Criticals you. Note that even 'Minion' enemies still (potentially) have significant Vitality. A Minion (weakest kind of enemy) can be dropped with any Crit, though; no need to roll Wound damage, they just go down the first time they take a hit that would make them bleed.
Critical Hits do not multiple damage in Spycraft. Very little does. Crits do require you to spend Action Dice to activate them, though; otherwise, you just rolled well and probably hit the guy. Note that only a 20 is an actual automatic hit; if you had a Crit Threat of, say, 17-20 with a sniper rifle, rolled a 17, but you were shooting at a hard to hit guy who was in heavy cover and you were under suppressive fire so you still missed, you can't activate a Crit. This rarely comes up. If you needed an 18+ to hit someone in the first place shooting at them at all was probably kind of foolhardy. Note that Crits will
include your Sneak Attack damage (meaning a foe could eat +Xd6 Wounds, which is not good), and that while a Fixer needs to be within 1 Range Increment to Sneak Attack, the Range Increment on a sniper rifle can be pretty long...
Another important thing about Spycraft: Unlike D&D, where usually physical combat defaults to melee and ranged is more of a specialist thing (still works fine, just a normal fighter has so much Multiple Ability Dependency already that they'll tank Dex and use heavy armor) Spycraft basically makes guns the default weapon. Melee takes serious specialization to even begin to approach guns; a d6 combat knife is one of the most common melee weapons, and melee in general does significantly less damage than guns without plenty of Feat investment. When you could just pick up an AR and blast away for 2d10 (or 4d4+2 if using MAG) why invest precious points in Strength so that you need to close distance, too? It's not like you're likely to easily take someone down quietly, given the other effects of d20 and people taking multiple hits to go down. Which is actually kind of a problem for a spy game, not having easy ways within the rules to quietly subdue guards.
Another curious thing: Guns do a shitload of damage at level 1. Later on, though? You'll be kind of underwhelming compared to a D&D character. This is because you don't have magic items or magic spells; no-one will ever really get a better AoE option than the 2d10 Frag Grenades (or 3d10 RPG shots) you started out with, even if some characters will buy Feats to improve them some. You have very few sources of bonus damage to your guns. They'll still work fine at high levels, especially as you'll likely have more ways to hit more often and you'll probably have better crit chances to drop mooks quick, but guns start off feeling extremely dangerous (imagine you're a Fixer with a low Con for 9 Vit and 12 Wounds; those 2d8+2 5.56mm M-16s look pretty lethal right now!) and eventually fall off a bit.
The high damage is also why I say a character with a decent Defense should never wear armor if they can only wear light armor. 2 points of DR from your low profile tuxedo liner is not going to save you compared to giving enemies -10% to hit or whatever. Better to stay in cover and dodge as much as possible if you can't wear serious armor. Light and Medium armors just aren't really worth the tradeoff past low levels; at low levels, light armor and a helmet will surpass your class Defense Bonus and will help you survive early firefights. But at low levels, you also don't have the money to buy the armor. I get that they really wanted to make 'action heroes don't usually wear armor' attractive in a d20 system and to have a 'class bonus' that scales with level, and I do appreciate it, but the way armor as DR interacts with combat for anyone but Soldiers can be sort of weird in how much a light bullet proof vest gets you shot.
The other twist on d20 combat caused by all the gunplay is that a map is even more essential than it is in D&D, since you're going to be using cover and lines of fire. A lot. Cover is very
helpful and powerful. Always fight from behind cover if you can! If you don't, you're just begging to get shot up. If you can fight around a corner for 75% cover, you're at +7 to Defense. That means enemies are effectively getting -35% to shoot you. Even hiding behind a chest high wall (friend to all gunfighters) gets you +4. Fighting from an actual bunker or prepared firing slit? +10. As everyone who has played X-COM knows, you want those full shields as often as possible and standing out in the open should make you wince reflexively. This means a GM needs to design combats so that you can move around and flank peoples' cover and stuff, because two sides trading fire from behind +4 to AC 50% cover is just going to drag out a d20 fight, especially at low levels when you're all having trouble hitting each other anyway. Maps are essential to making the most of this combat system.
Another important thing: Characters have a lot more offense, a lot faster, compared to D&D. Even at high levels, when you have to take some penalties to hit to get more than 2 attacks a round? You'll still generally be more accurate than a D&D character and their 'effectively my 4th attack is at -15 to hit' nonsense. Plus, one of the first core combat feats for every fighting style is 'attack 2 times as one half action once a round, at -2 to both'. Characters can multiattack while staying mobile much easier than D&D. You can also just take two Standard Attacks from day 1, level 1. You also get additional combat options like Aiming (+1 to hit for 1/2 action) and Bracing (+2 to hit for 1/2 action, but you need a solid surface). One fun Feat is Perfect Stance, which makes you Aim and Brace in one action even without a solid surface any time you Aim and Brace; +3 to hit for a half action spent setting up approaches the level where it can actually be useful, especially if you were using a sniper rifle, which need to aim before firing to get their high Threat. You also get the option to provide Suppressive or Cover Fire; this takes no attack roll and simply adds to an ally's Defense (+4, and it's a Dodge Bonus so it stacks with everything) for 5 of your bullets, or gives an enemy -4 to hit for one round for 5 bullets. This is there so the Snoop hiding behind cover who can't hit shit with their 1/2 BAB can still lean their pistol over the table and pop off shots to make life easier for the Soldier walking forward with an MG and a pile of Kevlar. It's a good option! Naturally, Feats can improve this, but the base action is already useful for all agents.
The issue is the enemy can do that too, so if they outnumber you they can kinda pin you down. Also, if you don't move to cover while under Suppressive Fire the people suppressing you get to make an actual attack, too. You still suffer the same penalties, you also just get shot for not putting your head down when a hail of bullets came your way.
How does Spycraft handle automatic weapons? Here's where the Soldier/Wheelman having awesome to-hit compared to others can really shine. You can fire Bursts on a standard attack, getting your choice of +1 to hit (Wide Burst) or +2 to Damage -3 to Hit (Narrow Burst, Meh) for the cost of using 3 bullets an attack. A Feat can give +1 Damage and Hit when using either kind of Burst, but eh. You only really take Controlled Burst because it leads to Controlled Strafe and then to HAIL OF BULLETS (Fire all the bullets, attack up to 4 times a round with an automatic gun) so at least the Feat Tax got you something semi-useful. You can also Strafe. You designate X number of squares, all adjacent to one another on a wide facing. Then you take -2 to hit for every square you fired at (-1 if you have Controlled Strafe), use 2 bullets a square, and roll a single attack. Compare that to the Defense of everyone in the line you were shooting at (you can sweep through empty squares to get to non-adjacent targets, but you have to use bullets and take to-hit penalties for each) and anyone hit takes a hit. Then roll damage once and use that for all those hit. Any big targets take +2 damage for each facing of theirs you strafed, and you can only crit one target. In practice, it's fine for Soldiers but you really
need a map to make Strafing work. Autofire picks a single foe and fires X 'volleys' of 3 rounds each for a full action. You take -1 per volley fired, and then hit the target once per 4 you beat their Defense by (up to the number of volleys fired). In practice, unless you have amazingly favorable odds, you're better off just shooting twice or something; Autofire's chances of scoring more than 2 or 3 hits are very low since you effectively need -25% for every extra hit.
Most characters just stick to Burst and Strafe. But then thing is, Burst is useful enough that it immediately gives automatic weapons the small edge they need to stand out compared to a semiauto pistol; getting +1 on command at the cost of a little ammo is very worthwhile for most d20 characters. So yeah, generally, automatic weapons are implemented in a way that doesn't fundamentally break d20's action economy and that gives you a couple useful extra options. Meanwhile, a sniper rifle has high crit if you're aiming, and a shotgun just attacks 2 adjacent targets a shot without any of this strafe rigamarole and with good damage. In general, there's an argument for every gun type and a genuine reason to consider using a shotgun, AR, pistol, MG or sniper rifle. The SMG gets to sit out in the rain and be sad about just being a shittier AR, though. Poor SMGs. They always suffer in these games. Still, this is one of the reasons I find the MAG annoying; you had good reason to use just about every gun in the game previously. Then it reduces the utility of MGs by making them do the same damage as ARs (they're still generally better just for the ammo cap, though it also added a dumb rule where if you don't have a loader for your belt you take penalties from belt scrunches and misfires), gives ARs the same damage type (lots of d4s) as shotguns, and generally makes you pick one 'best' rifle, pistol, etc from each category but I've already complained about that.
Another nice thing: Remember how you needed Feats to actually do things like trip people without getting AoOed in normal D&D? Not so, here. You want to shoot a guy's gun? The to-hit might be kind of hard, but no Feat required. In general, Spycraft also does away with Attacks of Opportunity; melee is instead 'sticky'. If someone is engaged in melee and doesn't have the Feats to escape it (Mobility) they can ONLY take a 5 foot step away from their attacker and can't actually disengage. So instead of someone just ignoring an AoO and running past your melee character, if they don't have the Feats to flee they're just stuck the minute someone engages in a melee combat. As you might imagine, this raises the utility of melee a bit!
In general, Spycraft's combat feels good for a d20 game. The additional wrinkle of being much more gunfight based gives you more to do with movement and lines of fire and cover if you're playing with a map (and you should be). Everyone being able to double attack if they don't move, and do it at no penalty, means the various 3/4 BAB classes can still pull their weight in a fight even if the Soldier leaves them in the dust for individual combat prowess and the Wheelman is second in line. Even your terrible-at-combat terrified IT nerd who is just waiting for the program to break through the mainframe while their buddies hold the enemy off can still snap off Cover Fire or Suppressive Fire with their pistol, and they're still hard to hit. So everyone can do something
useful in a gunfight, no matter how bad you are at it; Suppression/Cover really do add a nice option for less able characters and are really significant moves even with 0 Feat investment. It's still d20 Combat with no magic, but it makes it work. Crits also add a lot of tension to a fight.
Also don't forget Action Dice! You can throw these babies at anything
in a fight. Saving throws, attack rolls, damage rolls, healing yourself, adding directly to Defense for one round...they add another nice dimension to a fight. One issue that can come up, though? The GM's Action Dice are always d12s
no matter what size the players have. Which can get a little ridiculous when your players spend a d4 and you get a d12 to throw at them. I get the GM having higher dice; they overall get fewer of them than the players to start, and they need to be spending them a lot. But having them be d12s regardless of what size the players are at right now means that early on GM Action Dice can be pretty much insurmountable if they decide you're going to miss a guy or that a guy's going to hit you. It's a bit of a bugbear in an otherwise fantastic element of the system.
Next Time: Action Dice, in detail
ACTION ACTION ACTION!
Original SA post
ACTION ACTION ACTION!
One of the clear design goals of Spycraft 1e is to be a game. I don't mean this in some dumb GNS Theory way; I mean that Spycraft really wants to gameify the interactions between the GM and the players and how it effects the story and wants to provide mechanical decisions to make and ways for the game to be challenging beyond 'Boy I sure do hope I roll high on this 30% chance to succeed test'. This is a game that wants to have clear rules and systems that you can engage with to try to succeed, and that wants to have things the GM can play around with without just crushing the players by fiat too. This is a game designed by people who want the mechanical side of the game to be engaging for the players and the GM both, and Action Dice are one of the clearest indicators of that.
Action Dice are also a really well done metacurrency introduced into a system that practically screams
for metacurrencies to mitigate its randomness and provide more decisions for players to make. See, one of the things about a d20 is that a d20 resolution system has some real strengths, but also brings some very specific characteristics to a game. One of the strengths is that it's extremely easy to calculate the probability of an action in d20. There's also less dice reading than d100, and most d100 games really don't use 1-4% increments of granularity anyway, so a simple die that reduces everything to increments of 5% is an easy shortcut. Heck, lots of d100 systems even bring in '01-05 are auto-successes, 96-100 are auto-fails' like a nat 20/nat 1 in d20. So in some ways just using a d20 system is acknowledging what most percentile games already do. Having fairly easy math is a bonus and makes designing and playing a lot easier; if you don't need complex dice mechanics, don't use them.
The issue is that a d20 is very swingy, same as a percentile. Which is part of why it can be hard to know when your character is 'good' at something. If I'm in a 2d6 or 3d6 system, those normalize the dice results somewhat; if I need a 10+ on 3d6 I can be pretty confident of my check, or a 7+ on 2d6. Which means you don't need to fuck around with huge DCs or modifiers as much in a system with a more normalized dice result, but also means those modifiers are variable in what they do to the probability of a roll; in d20, a +1 is always +5%. The fact that DCs in d20 seem to be partly assigned at fucking random (DC 20 to pick a simple
lock?) and that you often end up in situations where the DC goes up as you level so you have to find extra sources of bonuses or else you never move ahead of the curve doesn't help. Anyway, you often end up in situations where you feel like you have no decisions to make that could help you hit a DC that you needed to hit, so the mechanical engagement of the game can often come down to 'man I really hope I hit that 40% chance'.
This is why I say d20 is in need of metacurrency, because metacurrencies are often useful in both providing decisions to make and helping you deal with a swingy dice system. I've played WHFRP2e without Fate Points as a vampire; let me tell you, even with very high stats, you sweat it when you know you can't use a Fate Point to reroll a critical test and it makes you take a lot fewer risks. Any Blood Bowl player can tell you how it feels when you have no rerolls left. D&D, though, has traditionally never had anything of the sort. You throw those dice on the table and you pray, and if you rolled badly, sorry! Blackleaf did not find the poison trap, I declare her dead.
I say all this to get to this: The metacurrency of Action Dice is well implemented, well integrated, and something that makes the d20 system as a whole more engaging and more fun to deal with. The fact that Action Dice are thoughtfully implemented into this game and legitimately address a major issue of the d20 system, while also having more general utility as a mechanical conversation between the players and the GM? It's one of the biggest reasons I say Crafty Games has some good designers. This game could have been OGL shovelware, but while a lot of the other added systems are 'They really tried and did their best with early d20 but it's got a lot of problems that come from the base system', Action Dice are something that D&D honestly should have picked up and backported into itself because they slot so well into d20 and make the system much more enjoyable.
So I've given you the basics on these guys: Action Dice are your pool of 'I am a cinematic superspy' points. You throw an action die at a roll, any roll, and you add the die result directly to the roll. The die also explodes. You can also decide to keep throwing dice if you still didn't hit your target. Your Pointman can also toss you one of their dice. And if the dice are going to something your class is especially good at, you double how many dice you roll. They also increase in size and your starting pool per session goes up by 1 every 5 levels. This adds a lot to dealing with d20. If you're willing to spend resources, you can get some important stuff done and do it at lower levels than you ought to or turn an important roll you flubbed into a success. Or spend them on increasing damage after you critted a guy to Wound them harder and maybe drop them immediately. This alone would have made them a useful addition.
The other useful part, though? The necessity of spending them to activate crits and critical failures. Partly because this means the GM has to actually use up resources (since the GM also has a limited pool; they get 1 per PC, plus one PC pool's worth) to invoke critical failures; they won't do it every time you roll a 1. Partly because it makes crits less common and less lethal; not everyone can afford to convert every critical, and remember, if you have Medium or Heavy armor on, crits against you cost 2 dice. Plus you have a pile of DR, so there's a chance the crit just bounces off afterwards, or barely Wounds you. That threat of double resource loss can be enough to stop the GM bothering to Crit your Soldier while focus-firing them. The GM actually gets to make mechanical and narrative decisions about when to deploy their own story points. However, this does mean a GM can
absolutely turbo fuck you if they're playing in bad faith; this is not a system that's going to wholly restrain a GM that is playing to kill you, because any GM can easily kill the PCs in any game if they want to. Someone can just throw a pile of damage dice onto a crit to make sure they take your PC out, for instance; nothing in the system actually stops the GM doing this. It's an incredibly obvious dick move, but no system alive that has a traditional GM structure is going to stop a GM who thinks they 'win' by killing the players, because the GM still has narrator powers in that structure. So I don't consider this that much of a failing.
Similarly, you get Action Dice by doing cool stuff and playing in character. If you're using EXP, you immediately
gain an EXP award for earning an Action Die; no saving them till the end of the session for bonus EXP like 7th Sea here. You are highly incentivized to use your Action Dice, and the only time the GM gets more is when they hand out more. This is actually done to encourage the GM to award dice regularly; the book states this plainly. The GM needs to keep rewarding you for taking risks and raising the stakes or they'll run out of their own currency. The game system really wants both GM and players to run their Action pool hard. It's still subjective when you get Action Dice, but a stingy GM will run out of their own pool pretty quickly. So the GM has a mechanical incentive to watch for moments to hand you more Do Cool Stuff points, because by doing that, they increase their own pool. This back and forth and looking for opportunities to reward players really does help create a more fun atmosphere for the game and helps discourage adversarial GMing. The system wants you to engage with mechanics and give players decisions to make and challenge them, but it's really not about one side 'winning'.
If all that was what you did with Action Dice, they'd already be a good part of the game, but they're also used for the Favor system, which is used to help keep plots moving but also to demonstrate player agency. You're international superspies. You have connections. If you need to look at another agency's files, or call for military backup, or ask the city to redirect a parade route away from where some cunning puppet-based supervillain plots to make a British nobleman explode as a living bomb? You know who to call. You make a bare d20+Level (+2 if the kind of favor you're asking is normal for your class; Pointmen know the bureaucrats, Soldiers know the military, etc) test after spending an Action Die. You can spend another to add to this roll, too. If you hit the DC, your call goes through and you can get the legal help, backup, or whatever that you were asking for. If not, you can't. Your GM can also declare a specific favor impossible before you spend the dice, or declare that it's simple and doesn't cost anything (like getting basic faked papers and a cover ID when starting an assignment). DCs for Favor tests only go up to 25, at which point you can borrow a space shuttle or acquire an immediate Presidential Pardon, etc.
Favors add a lot to the feeling of being 'important'. They imply a web of contacts and support people, and give your Agents more agency to solve problems. It's fun to be able to liaise with other agencies or develop contacts in the military or have a frustrated R&D guy you constantly go to for 'one more gadget'. It's an important part of the superspy genre and helps emphasize that a lot is riding on your characters. It also gives the players some control of the narrative and a good, easy way to pass along extra plot hooks and clues. You also get Education checks, which should have completely replaced the Knowledge skills (Knowledge Skills in RPGs are one of my bugbears; you're always guessing which one will come up and I prefer much more general academic abilities as a result) but didn't because D20. Education Tests cost no Action Dice and are just Level+Int Modifier, and the given example is 'You did your reading before the mission; that woman matches the description of a GRU agent known to operate in this area'. It's for stuff your character 'should' know based on being a superspy. Inspiration is another form of this and costs Action Dice, but is much more explicitly 'I'm stuck, can we get the plot moving again' questions to the GM.
Also remember, the GM has to spend Action Dice or offer
you Action Dice to deny class abilities. Even if it would 'derail' the plot. If the GM is out of Action Dice and the Faceman asks a Cold Read question that will absolutely show them that Ms. Lake isn't a photographer, she's a hired assassin, the GM has
to tell you. They gave up their narrative control when they spent all their dice earlier. Same way you did if you used all your dice and then had a roll you didn't like. By making it a system that constrains both sides of the table, but that also rewards both sides and encourages the GM to regularly reward player actions by granting both more of their pools of narrative control, it becomes a back and forth that raises the stakes of the game and gives you mechanical and narrative decisions to make. And it does it while mitigating a known issue of a d20 based system. This also encourages players to take risks! Knowing you can dig your way out with Action Dice if you must is a really big boost to players, which makes them try the crazy infiltration mission or take the one in a million shot. Which in turn is completely in genre.
So in short, Action Dice are a well-implemented metacurrency that added a lot to Spycraft's gameplay, both in 'feel' and in actual mechanics and what it does to the gameplay and relations between the players and GM. This is what I mean when I say the designers are very interested in working with mechanics; the whole system of narrative control here is a game mechanic and a subsystem. It's clearly defined in how it interacts with both parties at the table. It uses that clear definition to feel fair and to help it feel like an exchange. Similarly, it encourages the GM to hand out lots of metacurrency by directly tying the GM's own pool of fun things to play with to how generous they are. They even give guidelines; a GM should be aiming to hand out an Action Die every 20-30 minutes of play at least. It's really helpful to have all of this defined instead of hand-waved, because it makes it easier to see the intent of the subsystem; everything about it encourages you to use these liberally (though not constantly) and to play with this aspect of the game often. This is a place where the designers' desire to define, mechanize, and adjudicate really helps the game, and where I think it was very good that they decided to go into the level of detail they did rather than leaving a GM without guidance.
Next Time: Chase Chase Chase
Original SA post
So, a disclaimer: I have never once used the Chase Rules. My old GM in college took one look at them and declared that we weren't going to bother and made the Wheelman off-limits as a PC class, and when I was running my own game I did similar because I had bad memories of playing a Cavalier in d20 and never actually getting my damn horse. So this part of the system is not something I've used, so I won't be trying to do a careful analysis of how well it works or not; I haven't seen it in play, which makes assessing it accurately difficult.
However, I can give you my spot impressions, and also talk about the larger issue the Chase System raises as part of an OGL product and with d20 in general.
As happens any time you have vehicles in an RPG, every vehicle has a bunch of rules and mechanics attached to it; they have wound points, they can take locational/subsystem damage on critical hits (in case someone on your team is leaning out the window firing their rifle while the Wheelman plays their subsystem), and most of it boils down to giving bonuses or penalties to the opposed maneuver tests that you choose as the Predator vehicle tries to get closer to the Prey vehicle. Distance between the two is measured in Lengths, which end up being used a bit like the chase's HP mechanic. Most of the time, the degree of success between maneuvers is what will determine how much the Prey opens up distance or the Predator closes in. The maneuvers all have opposed bonuses and penalties against one another; for instance, if the Predator is trying to Redline their engine to catch up (at the cost of some vehicle HP from overheating) but the Prey decided to try a risky Barnstorming maneuver (driving through a crowded shopping mall or something, as any good James Bond-esque car chase will do) the Redline is very weak against that move and suffers a -8 to maneuver. Predator and Prey choose their maneuvers in secret before the rolling that resolves things. Many moves also require you to have a good lead already if you're the Prey. Finally, some moves are 'Finishers'; if the Prey is far enough away, they can attempt difficult Finisher moves to end the Chase while the Predator can do the same at close range. Some maneuvers are improved if you have the Daredevil feature from having Wheelman levels. Some of the best moves are impossible if you don't have Daredevil.
The thing with Chases is that between the Daredevil bonus, the bonus Chase feats, and the other class abilities and things they get? A Wheelman will always completely clown a non-Wheelman unless there's a serious level difference or the Wheelman is built extremely poorly. Other characters can try to play the Chase minigame, and can even buy Chase feats and all, but the issue with that comes back to a normal d20 issue: You don't have many Feats and your character resources are limited, and actually being 'good' at this almost requires being an actual specialist. And a character who isn't a Wheelman and thus who is locked out of some of the best maneuvers and worse at some of the other better ones spending a ton of their extremely limited, valuable Feats on being good at chasing will still get clowned by an equivalent level Wheelman; basically, you have little business actually buying Chase Feats unless you're the class that has 'Does Chases' as their entire core class ability.
This isn't quite like combat; combat is much more balanced around the idea that the Pointman or Fixer is the actual 'baseline' of combat ability and the Soldier is exceptional, but combat is still inherently a group activity. Everyone else can be giving cover fire, moving to flank enemy cover, sneaking up on a sniper to Sneak Attack them in their perch, etc. The Soldier actually needs the rest of the team helping out while the Soldier defends them in combat. Here, the rest of the team can shoot or something during the chase (though at huge penalties, unless they have Feats, because it's d20 and most of the time doing anything beyond the basics requires Feats) but the real meat of the subsystem is down to the Wheelman against the enemy. And if the enemy is an enemy Wheelman, they cancel one another out some. If it isn't, the Wheelman is going to kick their ass unless something weird is going on, which is absolutely fine sometimes; they should get to show off the stuff they put all those points into. But it does remove mechanical challenge if it happens a lot. The very 'one character against another' nature of the subsystem seems like it makes it a bit more focused on the one character that does it well.
In essence, this is an entire subsystem that had to be invented for this game because there's no subsystem from D&D that can be adapted here. The problem isn't really the subsystem itself; looking at the numbers and resolution system at a glance, Chases are actually pretty reasonably designed and will resolve without too much unnecessary complexity and in a reasonable amount of time. The problem is that after inventing the subsystem, they then made one class that does that subsystem and nothing else. The Wheelman has a stark choice as a character: Be good at the thing you're for, or be meh at the thing you're for and also not great at being a second 'major' fighter for the team. If they choose to be awesome at Chases, they'll win most Chases handily, but just having a higher BAB and slightly more Vit doesn't actually make them able to keep up with a Soldier much in combat since they lack the Soldier's feats, combat class features, etc. So whenever there isn't a car chase, they'll just be a Soldier but meh. Also, you kind of specialize in specific vehicle types, though a good Wheelman has enough Feats to master multiple vehicles. So you'd better hope it's a Car Chase and not a Helicopter Chase or whatever, if you built for Car Chases.
The issue at heart is similar to the issue Thieves caused in D&D. Once you introduce a class that is specifically mechanically defined as The One Class Who Does Thing, the way d20 is designed, you now introduce that nobody else Does Thing. And often that class ends up with only Does Thing on their plate. So a Wheelman is awesome at their mostly-one-character focused subsystem, at the cost of being fairly bored the rest of the game. And unlike the Soldier, who interacts with combat, something that's a core part of the d20 system and almost certain to come up at some point, Chases are pretty specific. Chases also being what they are, this means a team without a Wheelman really can't interact with this system at all, so they just plain can't catch an enemy Wheelman unless again, one of them spent a lot of resources to be a shittier Wheelman. By strictly defining this and then making one class vastly superior to all the others at it, while also making the system highly dependent on opposed tests between two individual agents participating in the minigame, they invented a subsystem and then locked almost everyone else out of it.
And that's why we never ended up using it. You can just ignore this whole thing and cut the Wheelman from the game and it still feels like a complete game. One of the things about d20 in general is that d20 is a system that demands a lot of specialization. This is why, even in cases where a d20 game is better designed, I tend to dislike them; it's a matter of taste. I prefer games about PCs who are more broadly competent because it's much easier to keep the group together and keep everyone contributing, but I also tend to prefer systems where a character can take something they're bad at and over time, learn to be good at it. That is not something that is going to come up in d20. You need to be decent at something from the start and devote yourself to it; gaining abilities randomly as what 'looks cool' was intentionally designed to fuck you over in D&D 3e, after all. The Craft games are generally better about this sort of thing, and the Feat design in Spycraft 1e becomes noticeably better about it once they hit on the idea that the 'basics/mastery' 2 Feat 'trees' from Martial Arts were a good model for Feats in general, but you still really want to plan from the start or you can end up with a PC who isn't really good at anything, just less bad at a bunch of things.
D20 is designed around specialization and most things in it take a significant expenditure of character resources thanks to its base design, and in the end that's what sort of irks me about the Chase system despite it being a reasonably well designed subsystem on its own merits. By designing a single class that dominates it, the game makes the expenditure of character resources on Chases a really poor idea for any non-Wheelman since they can never really match the Wheelman (and the enemy in a Chase may well be a Wheelman). If you then make all Chases against non-Wheelmen, with non-Wheelman PCs to compensate, you just end up revealing you could have never had a Wheelman to begin with. Making a class entirely for a single subsystem that has a strong element of 'you only need this one character for this' (since the resolution of Chases is entirely down to opposed tests between the drivers) is not a good idea and does not produce a compelling class to play.
Next Time: Tradecraft
Tradecraft and Denouement
Original SA post
Tradecraft and Denouement
Bet you weren't expecting this to be the last Spycraft update, but it is. Because in reading a bunch of the GM's Guide and Tradecraft stuff, I keep coming back to my central thesis with this review: Spycraft is a well designed game by people who put in the effort to get across a genre they were excited to make a game for, and it is fought at every level and every turn by being a d20 OGL game. Let's take a look at the Tradecraft talk.
So in Tradecraft, you're told over and over: Try to keep killing to a minimum, don't interact with local authorities, don't get into gunfights with cops or soldiers in a foreign country unless absolutely necessary, and generally try to be in and out without anything exploding. Which is part of a normal bit of genre confusion in Spycraft: The game sometimes can't tell which sort of espionage thriller it's trying to be. Every now and then it gets a lot more into 'if the Soldier came out, your mission is already fucked', while giving you rules for mowing guys down with an M60 or having explosion-filled car chases through a public area. What's interesting is that Spycraft is also trying to be apolitical. It isn't, because there are political and ideological assumptions built into the genre conventions of the Espionage Thriller about heroic espionage agents, but it doesn't particularly focus on any sort of agenda. You're not really going to find passages about 'actually the CIA is always good and did only great things for South America' or 'Oliver North is a hero, I tell you!' or whatever; the general assumption is that your Agency may be a non-state actor as per old superspy serials and that you will primarily face non-state actors with volcano lairs and men in colorful jumpsuits, if the example Masterminds are any indication. There's actually no assumption you're even Western spies; the game suggests playing as agents of whatever nation and nationality the players think would be interesting.
Which is another source of the odd genre confusion. On one hand, you have a lot on what sorts of spies and spying are done, exhorting you to be patient and careful and minimally invasive, on the other you're trying to stop Dr. Kholera and his 1% virus (for '1% of humanity will survive') as he threatens the UN Security Council from his spectacular underground lair. The bigger issue is that neither
sort of espionage action is at all supported by the underlying RPG system. Stopping Dr. Kholera is closer
to what d20 can deal with; after all, his underground lair is very much like a dungeon full of combat and trap challenges, with investigation centered around finding the place, but the careful in and out intelligence gathering described in the Tradecraft chapter (or even quiet assassination missions) don't really work with the fundamental assumptions of the d20 system. Or rather, d20 has had to be crowbarred into a shape where they will at least somewhat play out properly. A huge amount of effort and design work has gone into making the classes more capable at non-combat functions, held back by the still pretty bad d20 Skill system and the unbounded DCs. Worse, because Spycraft 1e is an early OGL game and the first game by this design group, it still hews much more closely to D&D 3e's design in places, and suffers for it.
Let's look at some common superspy (or even normal spy!) actions and see how at odds with d20 they are. Take a guy out, quietly? You need to roll a crit, roll high enough on damage if he isn't a Minion (they just drop on crits, but it still costs a die), etc. Your actual chances? Very low. We saw Sveta trying to sabotage a guy's engine back in the skills chapter, and something to remember about that is that would remain a difficult action up to level 10 or so. Even just trying to sneak past level equivalent guards or mow down mooks in an exciting action scene takes longer because this is d20, without magic, instant-kill moves, or other ways of generally bypassing the basic damage system. It's not surprising in retrospect to hear that the optimal strategy at high levels is to focus on crits, because that's a character's only way to take people out quick without chewing through all their HP. Even just sneaking up on a guard and knocking them out (Superspy story, that should be easy enough) is actually hard to do in d20's combat engine. Lots of normal genre actions require lots of levels, feats, etc or outright become difficult to do because of the d20 system base.
I could also go into the huge section on hazards and designing enemies and all, but A: The hazard's section is that sort of massive pile of weird rules few tables ever actually use and B: Designing enemies eventually comes down to 'they're all built like PCs'. Including the mooks! The mooks are just weaker and usually lower level. Trying to build 15th level Mook tables to throw at my 17th level Superspies is the kind of thing my nightmares are made of as a GM and one of the things about d20 that I despise; I can deal with NPCs/Enemies built like PCs in a simpler system but a 15th level PC-alike in d20? That takes some goddamn time and fiddly bullshit to deal with. At the same time, determining exact enemy character level is often important, since the enemy's character level or skills or whatever often help set the DCs the PCs have to deal with. That part isn't really Crafty Games' fault, that's on d20, but that only strengthens my point.
Spycraft came out at a time when D&D 3e was still pretty new, and the OGL was still new, too. I don't blame the AEG employees who would eventually become Crafty Games for jumping on the d20 OGL; it provided them with a big, pre-made audience of people who wanted more d20 gaming at the time. And this was at the beginning of the push to try to pretend d20 could be used for any and every RPG and genre. They made a good faith effort to try to build a superspy game in the early OGL, and the game they produced is well-designed, mechanically interesting, and if you played it, you'd get something out of the rules. Especially if you like the d20 base and enjoy character optimization and lots of options and bonuses and things to play with. Combat makes an attempt to make modern combat work in a d20 system, and has some notable high points like the cover fire system or reasonably well-handled automatic weapons use. The classes are mostly well designed and fun to play. If you were in for a d20 game, especially at the time when this came out? This is a pretty good d20 game. Especially as the base use of Action Dice really helped to cover for one of the serious drawbacks d20 has as a resolution system (I say drawback, not flaw; having flat probability math might be worth it depending on someone's design goals).
The issue is that it puts a lot of effort into smashing a genre into a system that really fights it all the way. The thing that gets me about Spycraft is that the designers are skilled and thoughtful designers who engage with the mechanics a lot. I really would have loved to have seen what sort of base system they'd have designed if they weren't married to d20 by the OGL. Nothing about d20 actually works with
the superspy genre. The wild swing in competence between level 1 and level 20 (and the way you're expected to level enemies up to match) just isn't a good fit for a genre that's normally about broadly competent action heroes. The basic assumptions of d20 combat needed a lot of effort to fit into a modern context. Gadgets and Gear ended up breaking with many of the assumptions of the d20 Gear Treadmill, but the d20 Gear Treadmill is actually a critical part of the system. Some of the better balance of Spycraft comes wholly from the fact that it can cut the standard D&D wizard entirely out of the loop and just not have to bother with casters, too.
So that's the verdict: The main reason I call Spycraft well designed is because it ended up producing a functional game that does have mechanics worth engaging with, and did so while running face first into the fact that no, d20 is not a universal system. That isn't even a flaw of d20; no system is a universal system
. Rules and design are part of the fiction of an RPG. A critical part, even! If you want to have lots of deep interpersonal intrigue with daring combat and highly complex characters that take a long time to develop and create, but you produce a combat system that kills people in one hit most of the time? That's going to end up shaping the fiction more than your original concept or intent. If you want highly competent action spies, but you start play at level 1 since that's the default assumption? It's going to change the story into more bumbling and hijinks, even though you're playing the superspy game with a well thought out rules system, because that's just part of what level 1 d20 characters are
. D20 as a system brings its own assumptions to the table just from the way the rules are designed, and Spycraft spent a lot of time working around that. It did it reasonably well, but I'd have loved to have seen a version of Spycraft that didn't have to.
So in the end, Spycraft is another sign of the long shadow of the OGL and the way it tried to slam every square genre peg into the round genre hole of D&D's base rules system. An interesting, well-designed d20 OGL game that was definitely worth looking at and playing in the day, and that produced its own legacy of extremely crunchy but thoughtfully designed d20 clones for people who really want to deal with 478 pages of pure crunch. That may not sound appealing, but that's not meant as a knock; that's a valid style of gaming, especially if the crunch is actually meaningful and potentially fun to interact with and tinker around with.
So now let's examine something where it isn't, for contrast.
Next Time: There has come a reckoning.