This guest post by Patrick Benson (AKA VV_GM) is the fourth in our continuing Genre Advice for GMs series. In this post, Patrick shares a few secrets for driving your players nuts — in a good way.
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Espionage games are one of the more difficult genres of RPGs to run. This is not a reference to the James Bond-type espionage game, which is not really about espionage at all but instead focuses on the fantasy of being a spy.

This post is for GMs looking to run a hardcore cloak and dagger game that is more likely to resemble a Tom Clancy novel where politics, corporate and military interests might all collide.

Why are these types of games so difficult to run for a GM? One factor is the high amount of simulation that the players might expect, and another is the lack of fantastic elements that can capture the imagination like monsters and magic do. But the most important factor is what makes an espionage game fun to begin with — paranoia.

The risks that the PCs take coupled with the sense of paranoia that they might be caught at any moment is what provides the thrill for a good espionage game. As a GM you will need to plant the seeds of that paranoia and nourish it so that the sense of paranoia increases as the game progresses.

You will need to play mind games with your players to achieve the desired effect. Here are some simple tricks that you can use as a GM to build up that sense of paranoia in your espionage game:

1. Withhold information. Never give the PCs more information than they absolutely need to have. Even better, when the PCs ask for information, don’t give it to them. Have the NPC say “That information is classified,” or a computer screen read “ACCESS DENIED.”

The best information to withhold is the final piece of the puzzle, or, in a series of adventures, the piece that is the gateway into the next scenario. Make sure that your PCs have other less respectable ways to retrieve that same information (in other words, the PCs can steal it), but it can’t be through a friendly NPC. The PCs will have to take those chances themselves.

2. Have the NPCs ask too many questions. Not irrelevant questions such as “Do you like cheese?” but subtle questions that are hard to avoid and that draw out information, like “My hotel has such uncomfortable mattresses and I’m looking to switch to another for the remainder of this trip. Would you recommend the hotel that you are staying at? What was its name?”

This tactic works for two reasons — the first is that a PC may slip up and answer the question honestly before realizing his or her mistake, and the second is that a PC can’t just say “I don’t want to tell you” without looking suspicious, but instead must avoid answering the question with tact.

3. Use the lack of an NPC’s presence to your advantage. If the PCs are spying on another person, have that NPC slip away for a few moments if possible. It doesn’t mean that the NPCs have noticed the PCs’ surveillance — maybe the NPC just slipped into a restroom when he or she turned the corner, but the PCs will not know that at first unless they wait. Until then, the PCs will think of all sorts of scenarios to explain the disappearance (secret passage, the NPC was onto them, the PCs were setup and this is an ambush, etc.).

The opposite approach works just as well. If the PCs are trying to remain incognito, have an authority figure such as a security guard make eye contact with a PC. Then have that same authority figure walk out of the room rather hastily. Maybe the NPC simply forgot his or her keys at his or her desk, but the PCs will not know that and will begin worrying that their cover has been blown.

4. Use the PCs’ sense of a private space to your advantage. Again, the secret is to be subtle with your hints. If a PC has had their apartment broken into you could easily say “The door has been kicked in and all of your personal belongings have been scattered about,” but it is so much more fun to lure the PCs in with a false sense of security.

Perhaps when the PCs arrive all seems as it should be, except there is now an empty glass on the counter that was recently used. Maybe the mail has been sorted and a letter was opened, or the television is set to a channel that the PC never watches.

Make sure that you don’t spring the clues right away. Wait until the PC settles into the scene, then start dropping hints. You can also use this tactic with a PC’s office, vehicle, or any location that a PC tends to feel secure at.

5. Rotate previously encountered NPCs back into the game. If the PCs saw an old man when they first arrived in town that morning, have that same old man appear that evening at the local restaurant where the PCs are meeting a contact. The next morning have the same old man appear on the street where the PCs have arranged to have another meeting.

You will need to decide how often is too often for these appearances to occur, but try and keep these sightings to a minimum so as not to make them seem ridiculous. You want just enough to get the players’ imaginations running and let the players’ own distrust take it from there.

With all of these tricks, you can either have the NPCs be actual antagonists for your PCs, or they can simply be innocent bystanders or coincidences. Even the invasion of a PC’s personal space can have a logical explanation behind it, such as a loved one with a key having stopped by to visit. The choice is yours, but whatever you decide don’t let your PCs know the truth until you have milked it for everything that it is worth.

Being paranoid can be fun in a espionage game. It heightens the sense of tension, and it make the scenes in your game more vibrant. When a PC is put into a position where he or she must make a decision, but also is hesitant to make any decision, you as the GM can take advantage of that.

Just make sure that the players are enjoying the cat and mouse game, even if they might be the mice.
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Thank you, Patrick!

Espionage is another genre I have zero experience with as a GM (and close to zero as a player) — but I’ve experienced my share of paranoia as a player, and Patrick’s right: It can be a lot of fun.

When you run espionage games, how far do you take this? And what tricks do you use to turn your players’ cranks?