Suddenly Talesian froze, still kneeling over the dismantled sculpture, his eyes snapped shut in the middle of lifting out the handful of enchanted cloth at the heart of the explosive device hidden within. We all wanted to ask what was the matter, but after three minutes holding our breath, we remained silent by force of habit.
“Sheth...could you...help me up?” Talesian said slowly, softly. I looked at the others. Lorne and Lydia stirred. They were both closer, surely they could help him without setting anything off.
“Only Sheth!” his quiet vehemence drew them up short, his eyes still shut. “Plainsman,” he said to me, “your time has come. The last layer of the weapon is protected by explosive runes; the trap will still kill us all--and everyone upstairs--if anyone reads but a single word.”
I helped him to his feet as the others turned their backs, and he patted me on the shoulder with confidence I did not share. “Describe what you see, and I will guide you. Your illiteracy is our best protection now.”
Most good roleplaying games have elements of mystery, suspense and thriller, after all, as these are plot based and can apply to any setting. But sometimes you want to push things further and create something that combines genres. Even if you’re not a fan of Smash Up, there’s a lot of fun to be had when you mix the tropes of one genre with the setting and elements of another. If your players are pining for Secrets and Spies while playing Dungeons and Dragons, here are some ways to give them the feel for what they want without changing settings.
1) Secret Whispers
The message cantrip can give the feel of modern spy thrillers with agents whispering to each other through hidden earpieces. A social venue the PC’s have crashed allows for lots of whispering back and forth as they distract the mark, case his room, etc. Note that message can work through a scrying sensor, allowing for the “handler” to call shots from a vantage point on the roof, nearby apartment, or getaway vehicle. If the PC’s are too low level to have message work reliably through a scrying sensor (5% chance per level for a scrying spell) perhaps their patron provides the targets of the spell with a some minor magic that “boosts the signal.”
2) Codes and Riddles
Codes and ciphers are perhaps the easiest element of spy thrillers to import into fantasy, at least for the party rogue. To kick it up a notch toward spycraft, emphasize the use of regular code books, rotating keywords, and other trappings of old-school cryptography. If your group is into props, making your own code grille for them to decode messages with is a surefire winner. And speaking of codes, the locking wards on doors and chests in fantasy games and settings doesn’t make most people think of computer passwords, but it could. To make the party rogue feel more like a computer hacker, have them focus on the individuality of the person who made the wards for their own personal use. That evil high priest they are investigating...what’s his favorite scripture?
3) Magical Message Drop
But what if the secret message isn’t written at all? Have PC’s discover that an enemy agent gets instructions via magic mouth spells when they arrive in a particular public place. Suddenly all those ranks in disguise (or equivalent spells or items) have yet another purpose, as they try to impersonate the agent and get the magic mouth to speak to them instead. But what if someone mistakes them for the real bad guy? Having to stay in character during an impersonation gone wrong is a tried and true staple of the spy genre, and a great opportunity to play “double or nothing” with the information they are after.
More than any other genre, spy thrillers are driven by small but powerful items prized by the superpowers on both sides. The fantasy genre tends to use maguffins that are powerful for their own sake--the One Ring, the Sword of Shannara, Hand of Vecna, etc. To make a fantasy adventure feel more like Her Majesty’s Secret Service, consider having the PC’s quest for powerful, portable things that they can’t use themselves, such as command words to a powerful golem; rare ingredient for epic spells; the remains of a powerful artifact that can be re-enchanted. Have rival teams of adventurers hired by the other side, both groups fighting to deliver the goods to those who can actually use it.
5) Gunpowder Plots, Minus The Gunpowder
The rare gunpowder in fantasy settings is probably better suited for firearms than for a weapon of mass destruction. For a bomb threat, consider instead a necklace or wand of fireballs rigged to break, so that all the charges are released at once (if players aren’t sweating, feel free to count out the d6’s you’d roll for a fully charged device). Explosive runes might be activated at a distance using a spyglass or scrying device, and could set off other effects. The shrink item spell can be used to shrink a bonfire and its fuel to a piece of inert cloth 1/16th the original size, making for an interesting “time bomb” as the duration runs out, or the spell can end early by a collision with a solid surface. This spell lends itself to sabotage; even a simple block of wood could do devastating damage expanding to full size in the right space.
6) Set Pieces And Chase Scenes
Finally, good spy thrillers keep a sense of urgency using breakneck chases and treacherous set pieces for the fights. It’s easy enough to import this into a fantasy setting using carriages, carts, and caravels for transportation, but be ready to take it to the extremes. Players are used to fast movement in the middle of combat, with spells and monk abilities to fly around. Don’t let them use these mobility options. Force them to fight bare-knuckled with the baddies in a small space that’s moving swiftly toward oblivion...and then crank up the Mission Impossible theme to eleven.
So there you have it: six ways to cross the genres and mix some spy thriller into your D&D fantasy setting for a change of pace. Who knows? If your players like it, you could build an entire campaign around these kinds of intrigues, with them as agents in a shadow war between secret societies.
Leyshon Campbell has been playing and writing for gaming for over twenty years, from the Kargatane's Book of S series, playtesting D&D 3E in a Ravenloft campaign, to the ill-fated Masque of the Jade Horror. He ran an extended spy thriller campaign in Ravenloft called “Kara’s Daughters.”
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.