Name’s Craft. Spycraft.

I don’t know what it was exactly about the box, seen in passing at the World’s Largest Bookstore, but it stuck in my mind. When I saw it again at the hobby store downtown Bowmanville, I picked it up, read the back copy, and bought it. Thus was Top Secret, by TSR, the first RPG I ever played* (I should even say ran, for I was the first GM for what was to become my first gaming group).

So it comes as no surprise to my friends (and blog readers) that the superspy genre of games have always excited me and even evoke a certain sense of nostalgia. Covert action, gadgets and guns (or superpowers), world hopping, and larger-than-life plots, fights, action, chases… all part of the genre. When Spycraft (by AEG) came out, I eagerly leapt in and found a game that ran so well and captured the old ‘TS’ feel that I have come to call such things (and even movies or novels) ‘spycraftian’ in nature.

While I was in China, my newly-released Spycraft 2.0 (second edition) arrived. How is it, you ask? Is it a good game? Does it capture the genre? Let me tell you what I think…

This game is AMAZING. That’s the short of it. My grand-ultimate game system (GUGS? I need a better name…) would/will now consist of a combination of Silhouette, HERO and Spycraft 2.0.

The medium of it says that what the makers of this game have done is put together a ruleset that fully supports 20th century action and could even support some future-day genres. By default, the action is geared towards the heroic, with capable characters, but it’s not into the realm of the fantastic. The copy on the back cover announces “Your license to Improvise!” and they use the word “toolkit” as well – both are very apt.

Here is the long of it.

Before I get too deep in, I’ll say two things that may want to make you stop reading now:

One, it’s an OGL game, ie, based on the d20 rules. If you have some FUNDAMENTAL problem with d20, you’ll have problems with this game. I’m talking something like you just refuse to play a game with classes and levels, or you can’t stand the task resolution system, or you hate feats, or your hat of d02 knows no bounds, then Spycraft 2.0 isn’t for you.

Two, this game is very PRECISE. Flexible, but precise. Things are very spelled out, be it about resolution, about what characteristics weapons possess, about the three different types of skill rolls, about your character’s status, etc. If you are of the mindset ‘freeform!’ and ‘rules light, let the GM figure it out’, then Spycraft 2.0 isn’t for you.

For those still with me, let me talk about what makes Spycraft 2.0 so cool and froody.

I’ll begin with precision. It is not that the game is restrictive or bounding — again their slogan is “License to Improvise” — it’s more that what is usually left ambiguous is spelled out in 2.0. Everything from skills to weapons to equipment has certain ‘tags’ associated with it, that lists what’s needed, what penalties apply, or what special qualities it possesses. Effects are quantified and summarized in a list of status/conditions. Things are fully cross-referenced (with page numbers) to other rules that apply. The net result of all this is that everything needed is actually there. There’s less chance for interpretation and argument, or ambiguous wording. It’s all there.

One area where this shows up quite prominently is with skills. For starters, there are only a few skills, but some skills cover a broad range of abilities (in keeping with the heroic nature of the characters). Within those broad skills are specific rules for select actions that can be performed with the skill, rules that cover specialized cases. For example, Acrobatics has specifics on Balance, Falling, Jump, Skydiving, Tumble, and even Maneuvering Personal Vehicles. Each skill is further defined by action type (see below), governing attribute, time, possible for take 10/20, tags (requirements and effects), cooperation capable, and retries allowed — all summarized on a table. There’s no question what’s up.

What I find especially refreshing is that each action/skill is listed as being either Active, Passive or Secret skill check. Active is your standard check; Secret is when the character performs a task but shouldn’t know the result (GM rolls) and Passive is when the GM chooses when to roll and doesn’t even tell the character he rolled unless necessary. This precise spelling out sets up different situations, and removes the scenario similar to “Should I know?” or “Make a Spot Check.” “3” “Um. Ok.” “My character suddenly loads his gun. For no reason at all, he, uh, just likes doing it.”

Of course, weapons and gear also get this treatment, which should come as no surprise. Actions are listed just as precisely (adding in Trick and Final to the usual mix of Full, Half and Free). Vision/Hearing checks are nicely spelled out, making perception no longer quite as interpretive. Damage has several types with defined effects: physical, fire, electricity, and so on.

Precision covers huge grounds, all over the book, from the above-mentioned skills to combat, where it is, of course, especially notable (and welcome). Precision covers 75% of what I find great in 2.0.

Another area improved are the character classes. Now, while I greatly prefer classless stat-and-skill systems, 2.0 does go a long way to making the classes and characters pretty flexible, with good multiclassing rules and rogue-ing the classes. What I mean by rogue-ing is they borrow a page from the rogue in the d20 SRD, where at certain levels you can choose from a list of ‘special abilities’. This very nicely means you can customize what your character is all about as you go along, so not every Wheelman will be exactly the same.

The addition of stress damage to the game brings ability to simulate how things ‘pile up’ for a character as things happen throughout the game/mission, leading to penalties if the levels get too high. Allow for the ‘cool under fire all the time’ vs ‘wound up stressball’ differentiation between characters. Overall, a well-implemented layer that is tied precisely to the rest of the game (including hobbies!)

But the piece de resistence is 2.0’s NPC generation system. This is one very rocking system, able to generate HORDES of NPCs (including animals, robots, etc), very quickly, all within a set power level yet varied. There are seven traits, each trait is rated from 1-10, and, using a table, you correlate the trait’s rating with the desired threat level (ie, challenge rating of the npc) and you have a value that is applied across a broad range of NPC abilities. Tack on special qualities from a medium-size but inclusive list, and you’re done. Now, you may be thinking “Woah, where’s the precision in that?” and you’d be right — this is much more ‘broad brush’ rather than precise. This doesn’t mean you CAN’T build a character or NPC using the usual PC rules — that’s quite appropriate for the big bad — but you can create everyday adversaries from a few pages that don’t need to be fully fleshed out, only what they can do for their short on-screen time. Elegant, fast, and one to be seen.

The last thing I’ll mention isn’t so much a general-game excellence, but one that relates to the Spycraft genre itself and an improvement over the first edition, which is in picking gear. Gear picking would almost take an entire session on its own when we played — we have X points, and Y mission points, and you can share the mission points, and what should I spend that last 2 points on, and etc. Now, you get a specific number of gear picks from specific categories at a specific calibre (depending on the calibre of the mission). Yes, this means more tables to glance over, but it makes it much much faster, and even manages to introduce some differentiation between the different classes (soldiers will get more weaponry picks than the snoop, but less electronics picks).

There are few areas of the game that I am ambivalent about, starting with some of the feats, specifically, the martial arts feats. While on the one hand I give them props for their inclusion of stances into the game, and for the usual feat things, the way it’s organized I’m not so crazy about. Each martial art feat gives one stance and one maneuver. Thing is, sometimes I can’t picture how the stance is supposed to tie into the purported martial arts style or maneuver the feat names. Ditto at times with the maneuver. Given other aspects of the game, something more flexible, allowing for even more options (and non-trained characters to at least attempt some of these) and freeing up X stance from a style/maneuver your character doesn’t want would’ve been appreciated.

One thing from the original game that truly rocked was the chase system. The cool news is that the chase system concept has been expanded to cover all sorts of things including interrogation, hacking and seduction. Also cool news is that they removed the maneuver comparison cross-reference table which, by the very way I am trying to describe it, you get that it was somewhat complex and really didn’t add much. Now for the bad news: I’m not crazy with what else has been done to the system. If you win the opposed roll, you have this list of effects (precision!) you can choose from, some of which seem to… make the whole thing pointless? If you roll 4 above you get to choose two of the effects… I dunno. Maybe I need to see it in action, but right now something doesn’t strike me right about it.

And there seems to be a lack of night-vision goggles. How could they forget those?

The final word: Wow. This game is one amazing piece of work.

Hopefully I’ll get a chance to see it in action soon. Spycraftian action!

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