The Art of Espionage

The Art of Espionage IV: Character Types

You may be wondering how many characters you should be trying to develop at this point. There are two styles of scenarios. The traditional style has a rather fixed number of characters that you try to cast to fit. You might be able to add or subtract a character given a few days’ notice, but flexibility is limited. Then there’s the Goats ‘n’ Scapes style (named for the first scenario written in this manner), where the number of characters is widely variable. This second type is so much more difficult to write that you shouldn’t even consider it until you have four or five traditional style scenarios under your belt. The traditional style limits how many variable you will need to account for when making almost any decision in your writing.
So the short answer is as many characters as you want to and have ideas for. You might find that some you like at first blush don’t hold up as you really start trying to flesh them out. That’s fine. Not every fun idea you get needs to be a winner. The important part is that you are willing to throw it on the scrapheap when it turns out not to work. There’s also a lot to be said for characters that initially appear to be uninspiring but present a needed functionalism. Here’s the thing though, a character doesn’t need to have complex goals and explosive secrets to be great. Sometimes all it takes is a colorful personality or interesting outlook.
If you already have a good idea of how many people will be at your game, it’s helpful to have a number to shoot for. If not, you can cut things down later. We’ll come back to that down the line. I find a nice median place is the 10-12 range, so that’s what I’ll be doing with a our example scenario for now.
Most of the characters in a given scenario can be categorized by archetypes that have popped up over and over again at the scenarios I’ve written and attended over the years. It’s common for a character to fit into more than one archetype but rare to escape categorization at all. It does happen though, and these hard to pin down characters can be incredibly interesting. Following are the most common archetypes as I see them and their usefulness in a scenario.
Security/Police: this character is around to maintain some semblance of order. They function to keep others somewhat in line with the knowledge that someone with a gun will care if a trouble maker starts openly wrecking shit, waving a gun around, etc. This is a case where perceptions are the important thing. The character could be dirty or a fake as long as people think the Security is there to keep the peace. I would personally recommend having someone in this role in pretty much every scenario, even if just for the effect they have on the behavior of other characters.
One of the recurring problems with this type is that they often end up with a goal of making sure things don’t get out of hand, an objective that will almost inevitably end in failure. As I’ll address in more detail in a later article, impossible objectives are generally bad. An alternative to this is to have the Security on the lookout for a specific kind of trouble or give them specific suspicions about what to expect. These suspicions do not need to be correct; pursuing them gives the Security things to do beyond standing around waiting for bad things to happen and can get them involved in plot lines they otherwise might not be drawn into.
Reporter: These characters are common for a few reasons. 1. Scenarios are often set at notable events. 2. There is usually at least one or two somewhat (in)famous characters present in whom it is logical for a journalist to be interested. 3. People may be a bit more likely to tell a reporter things, since they have a perfectly plain reason to ask questions and might give out information in return. 4. If you want to build a character based around information gathering objectives, this is an easy way to do it.
There are also a few variants on this type that regularly pop up in my experience. 1. The straight-forward reporter, the vanilla version. They might be just trying to dig up a juicy story in general or chase down some specific lead. 2. The fake. This is really some other kind of character masquerading as a reporter to get people to talk to them. As I said above, this really can be a good way to get information. 3. Secret reporter. This one sort of uses the opposite reasoning. People don’t want to tell reporters things that are actually important. Better get a disguise! This can be pretty potent if other characters have objectives that involve preventing something from getting in the news.
Host: in applicable scenarios, this is the character at least nominally in charge. In a 20’s speakeasy, it’s the Boss. On a ship, it’s the captain. At a party, it’s the…host. While their goals and secrets can vary wildly, these characters have several things in common. They’re at the center of the premise, whatever it is. They usually have at least some authority over the Security character, which helps reinforce whatever clout they are supposed to have. They’re fairly likely to end up dead. It’s just a thing that the more successful and prominent a character is within a given premise, the more likely it is that someone wants to kill them. Conversely, the stronger the host’s support from other characters appears, the less likely a would-be assassin is to actually make a move. Whatever their other goals, Hosts tend to be interested in keeping the status quo, which tends to be a tricky proposition at best.
Playing a Host character is often very stressful for a player. All those secret plots and insurrection plans that tend to be brewing beneath the surface of any scenario? Most of them tend to be at least partially directed against the Host, and the player knows it. They might feel like they spend a lot of time just waiting for someone to pull a gun on them. The big trick in managing this type is finding the balance between giving them enough resources and support to credibly protect themselves while not making them so overwhelmingly strong that nobody is willing to challenge them. Casting-wise, give this role to someone you know will be okay playing on the defensive.
Assassin: death is exciting. There are multiple metrics for measuring the success of an Espionage Party, but one of the most frequently noted is the body count. The Assassin is one of your tools for making sure not everyone makes it out alive. As the name implies, the Assassin does not kill indiscriminately. They have specific targets they want eliminated, either for their own reasons or because they were hired to do so. This usually ends up going one of two ways. Either the Assassin needs to gather information to find out who their target is before they can kill them, or they have multiple targets. This partially depends on their other goals, of course, but when a character is mainly there to do one thing that can be completed in a single action, you need to come up with ways to keep them busy (more on this later). Also to consider is that it is often rather difficult to kill someone and not get caught. Depending on the cautiousness of the player, this can slow the Assassin down considerably as they plan their move.
Puck: this character type is primarily present to promote chaos. Practical jokes, lies for the sake of lying, leaving mysterious notes with no real significance or game-breaking secrets, this is the realm of the Puck. This type is usually written as a carefree jokester, but their motives can vary. This is not a type that is always necessary by any means, but they can be very useful. Many espionage players play reactively, sort of waiting for something to happen and proceeding with caution. The Puck assures that things happen, which means those players react, causing more things to happen… If you have any worries that your scenario may end up too calm and stately, throw a Puck or two at it.
Chump: there’s a patsy in every successful con. If a plot point depends on somebody being totally fooled about something, this is the fool. This character may be exactly what they look like, or they can be playing along with someone else’s game, not understanding that the joke’s on them. In the former case, it can be easy to create some widespread false belief about the Chump they are simply unaware of. This kind of ruse can easy to perpetuate simply for the fact that many players assume nobody is what they seem. Or leave a big gaping hole in what the Chump believes to be true and give another character exactly the tools to take advantage of it. The other way to go is have the Chump be in on a plot but left out of some crucial element. This makes their chumpishness less obvious, but still sets them up for a dramatic betrayal. Because they generally don’t need to know or accomplish very much to serve their structural function, Chumps make great characters for nervous/uncomfortable players.
There are two common weaknesses in fitting a Chump into a scenario that you should watch out for. If you’re using the ‘exactly what they claim to be’ variety, you may end up with a Chump with nothing to do, because the character doesn’t have any interesting secrets. This is an instance where there is a lot of stuff going on around the character, but the Chump is just left standing there. You’ll either need to come up with an interesting quest they can complete while being their straight-forward self, or give them interactions that make use of their cluelessness while being essentially divorced from the betrayal they’ve been set up for. The other danger is that it’s easy to end up with a Chump just at a huge disadvantage. Having no chance is no fun, so you may want to do something to counteract this. One way is to put the Chump in limited personal danger or make pulling off the long awaited betrayal somewhat difficult for the person that’s been fooling them. Another might be to give the Chump an unexpected ally, maybe someone who has figured out the Chump is being duped and has reason to do something about it.
Wild Card: this is a chaotic character in a completely different way than the Puck. Where the Puck wants to do things to confuse people, create conflict, and stir up trouble, the Wild Card is a ticking time bomb you wind up and let go. You don’t know what it’s going to do, but it will probably be big. With most characters, you have a pretty good idea of which side they’re likely going to fall on in the conflicts you’ve plotted out. The Wild Card is an intentional attempt to throw a monkey wrench into your own plans. They are usually armed, often unbalanced or otherwise possessed with an extreme world view, and tend to have open ended goals. By open ended, I do not mean too vague to act on. Something more along the lines of ‘teach anyone rude to you a lesson.” You don’t know who’s going to be rude to the Wild Card (unless you’ve specifically written rudeness into a character) and how they interpret teaching a lesson is entirely up to the player. If you know you have a player that can handle it, you can also encourage the Wild Card to make up their own objectives as their whims dictate.
Muscle/bodyguard: this character type is known to be dangerous, but doesn’t kill without reason and isn’t particularly out to prevent others from causing trouble like the Security. They usually work for another character and may or may not be secretly working against the boss. They may just be in the role of protector or is on hand to act as the boss’ fist. Unlike the Assassin, this type of role plays well as openly intimidating and tends to be relatively straightforward. An interesting variation is the secret Muscle, where the ‘boss’ doesn’t know the Muscle is protecting them or doesn’t trust them. Protection can be tricky work. It’s pretty easy for two characters to stick together the whole time if they have exactly the same agenda, but that’s kind of boring, so I would recommend avoiding it. Given at least somewhat independent objectives, they’ll find plenty of reasons to split up and come back together later. The challenge for the Muscle then is determining when to go foraging alone and when to stick close.
Investigator: the other side of espionage is counter-espionage. This could be someone trying to smoke out a traitor, track down a murderer or catch a thief. Whatever the details, their main challenge is to gather information. It’s like they’re the only player in a murder mystery game actually trying to solve it. But unlike a lot of murder mystery games, there is no script and characters are hardly ever required to incriminate themselves (there might be an occasional unusually truthful character, but those can be hard to spot even when they are present). This means that they’re going to have to talk to a lot of people and piece together rumors, stray facts, and their own observations all while trying to figure out who’s lying and why. They may be an actual detective or secret agent or just someone looking for revenge. It’s rarely a challenge to keep the Investigator busy. The hard part is figuring out how to give them ways to find out what they need to without making it easy. Information dissemination will get its own article down the line.
Traitor: backstabbing is a time-honored tradition in espionage. Sometimes you just want to make sure it happens without leaving it up to player whim. This is what the Traitor is for, often found with a partner for maximum back exposure. If the partner’s player is particularly genre savvy, they might not trust the Traitor very far just on principle. You could mix things up a bit by making them both Traitors, by making a false Traitor who secretly has their own agenda that actually just has nothing to do with the partner’s, by making neither a Traitor but super suspicious of one another, or by making the Traitor under orders to do some backstabbing but looking for reasons to resist them. The betrayal might come in one fell swoop (i.e. killing partner or someone else the partners were supposed to be aligned with) or by generally working counter to their supposed agenda. If you want a Traitor with no partner, you could give the Traitor information that allows them to worm their way into another character’s confidence before sinking the dagger in. You can also try to pull a Manchurian Candidate, have the Traitor brainwashed or a robot and just fly into a berserker rage upon be triggered.
Grocery List: sometimes you just need to buy eggs, cauliflower, petroleum jelly, and Nutella. What are you making with those? Hell if I know. If you had the chance to closely observe most espionage characters without looking at their profile, you could probably manage a fairly accurate guess about their overall goals. This is not the case with the Grocery List. If you have some objectives you really like but can’t seem to find the right character to give them to, call the Grocery list. Pile those objectives together and give them a rationale. The Grocery List often overlaps with the Wild Card. As for the rationale, it could be a series of quests issued by the Game Master character, a scavenger hunt, some kind of fraternity hazing, following a prophecy, or just a stupidly varied set of interests. Besides serving as a receptacle for otherwise unused objectives, the other great thing about Grocery Lists is that their objectives can usually be fit into already established plot lines without creating any new ones. If you need to fit one more character into a scenario on short notice, the Grocery List is an excellent go-to.
Resource: resources allow people to do things they otherwise can’t just by talking to each other. They are effectively the economy of Espionage Party. Just as in life, Espionage Party has its capitalists. These are people with a prime interest in manipulating the flow of resources for their own ends. Maybe accumulating money, stealing things, making a series of trades, selling illicit items behind closed doors. The point is that they are interested in resources for more than purely pragmatic purposes. Building economies is tricky (it’s getting its own article later too). The Resource type character really only works if you’re committed to making your distribution and flow of resources work well. This might be a type better avoided for your first scenario.
Lover: it would not be inaccurate to say that the basic structure of a scenario is defined by the relationships between its characters. Of these, love and romance are often the most compelling. That said, the Lover, as I am using it, is not just anyone who happens to have a romance or sex mentioned in their profile. This is a character that is defined by their pursuit of love or navigating an established relationship. Even more than most, the Lover’s person is determined by the people around them. Their objectives are usually of a soft nature. This type is often found in love triangles, wooing the night away and causing conflict by redefining how other characters relate to each other. The main challenge with an established relationship is setting up conflicts which are serious but still resolvable in a way that isn’t instant. Sorry, I don’t have a handy list of what will fit that bill.
For a Lover pursuing someone, this represents one of the few kinds of objectives where you do not need to provide ways to succeed. For one thing, the pursuit itself can take up plenty of time and provide a lot to do regardless of the outcome. Second, something you should try to stay very light on is forced choices. You set up the starting conditions and then pretty much stand back and watch everything go to hell. That’s the fun of your job. You can write a nudge into the other character’s profile if you like (especially if something else you’ve written in depends on the Lover’s success). But by leaving it open, you ensure that both players can make choices that matter.
Friend: this character type occupies a space somewhere between the Lover and an official partner (as in police, mobsters, etc.). Their bond is that of friendship, their reward that of friendship, their adoring gaze that of friendship. You get the idea. The Friend is there most of all to support another character, whether morally or physically. What makes this type interesting is that there is no limit on what other type the Friend is paired up with. They might be working as wingman to the Lover. They could be helping the Investigator piece things together. They could be a chum of the Assassin with no idea what their pal’s real job is (or even more interesting, knows the Assassin kills people but still treats the friendship as normal). They could be the one person trying to keep the Chump out of trouble or the one supporter the Host can be sure won’t betray them (making it really tempting to also make the Friend the Traitor). That’s not to say that the Friend shouldn’t have goals of their own. The Friend is best used when their objectives dovetail with their pal’s in surprising ways. As far as why this is a character you actually want around sometimes, consider the characters you already have. If anybody looks isolated in terms of whom they have to interact with (especially if this is a very secretive character), or has a big, difficult job they might need some more help with, the Friend is an excellent way to even things up.
Doctor: the main function of this character is to have a healing ability to treat characters that have been wounded or poisoned without immediately dying. Their presence acts as a way to at least somewhat lower the body count, which may or may not be desirable depending on your other plans. I will say that it is entirely possible to have a fun, successful game with no casualties. The thing is, this is one type that rarely provides enough on its own. Mostly waiting around for someone to be hurt isn’t all that fun. So if you have the Doctor, I recommend combining them with another type in almost all cases. If doctor is the character’s actual profession, do not make it the sole focus of their identity unless you can come up with a very compelling reason to do so. I find them to be more interesting when you come up with the other aspects of their character first.
There are less common types than those I’ve detailed here, but I didn’t feel like talking about them. This thing would probably just go on forever, and I would never get around to publishing it if I did. So why was this supposed to be helpful? Am I saying you should explicitly build your scenario around these archetypes? No, don’t do that. That’s a dumb idea. What these are helpful for is plugging holes. If you’ve gotten to a certain point and find you’re running out of ideas and can’t quite figure out how to complete your cast, look back at this. Is there some function you’re lacking? Don’t have enough conflict? Is one side in a conflict too weak? Consider what archetype could solve your problem. Also, I’ll be referring to these types in future articles as a kind of shorthand. It’s a good idea to define your terms first. Sorry, no development of our example scenario this time, but we’re going to start doing some big things with it in the next one.
Next time: plotlines

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *