The Art of Espionage

The Art of Espionage VI: Relationships

I’ve proposed to my partners on multiple occasions that it would make this much neater, much easier if we could write a scenario with no people in it. There would be nobody mucking up all our immaculately written plots, nobody starting new plots that don’t relate to anything we’ve written, or teaming up and starting a dynamic buddy cop film bromance. None of these. Beautiful and lifeless with absolutely nothing to hold it together. That’s the birdie.
Unfortunately, you need people in your game. More importantly, they need each other. Without establishing relationships between the characters, your players have little reason to engage one another except to check off objectives. You take the party out of the espionage party. So what are a scenario’s relationships made out of? Very little material spread very thin. Your cast forms a web, a messy sprawl of interests, alliances, and malice. There can be reasons to leave a character isolated, but these should be considered carefully. Relationships are a resource. They give a player a certain amount of information to leverage, give possible avenues for trust (a rare commodity), and open doors to conversations. They provide motives in interactions. A character with no relationships is therefore at a disadvantage, both from the perspectives of a player and a writer. From a writing standpoint, the character then requires a strong, relatively self-contained arc. They must be an outsider. Their isolation is typically both a weakness and a shield, which leaves their nature a mystery to others. For a player, there should be comparable advantages, additional resources or information.
You need to consider relationships in general from two perspectives. 1. Individual. Who does the character know well, or at all? Is the relationship simply based on hearsay or knowledge from a third party? If they have a long relationship, how precisely do they feel about one another? Are there particular events coloring this you will need to mention? Whom can the character count as friends or enemies? Does the character have enough relationships to feel integrated into the party? What about relationships the character doesn’t know about? If others have particular designs on or feelings about this character that said character does not know of, these are still just as important in considering the character’s individual makeup. 2. The cast. This one is more important. The overall distribution of relationships matters. Unless you are deliberately isolating a character as described above, I would recommend establishing at least three relationships per character. One way relationships count by the way. These are cases where one character knows they have a relation to a second character but the second does not. This still provides the advantages of knowledge and motive in interaction. Here is a case where a visual representation can be quite helpful.
If you have been constructing your scenario according to the procedure of this series, you should by now have a fair sense of who your characters are and your basic plots. Write your characters’ names on a large sheet of paper or another surface with plenty of space between them, preferably with the most central characters at the center. Begin to draw in the lines between them. Look at the plots you’ve sketched, the secrets your subjects have already accumulated, the friends and enemies you imagine. A web begins to form. Very likely some will have more connections than others. That’s fine, but pay attention to degrees. If one character has three points of connection and another has five, that is easily acceptable. If one has two and the other has eight, you might have some problems. Lopsided connections will lead to some characters feeling more integrated than others, and it’s preferable that any such variance be deliberate.
One more thing. Possibly even more dangerous than a character lacking connections is one with an overload. Such a character has so many relationships, so many people they need to talk to and who want to talk to them that they are unable to spend much time on any plot, and objectives simply get lost in the shuffle for lack of time. This most commonly occurs to a character, usually a Host, around whom the premise clearly revolves. If you notice this beginning to happen in your scenario, do whatever you can to disperse some of the connections. One alternative I have heard recommended, but not actually tried yet, is to try to set up another character as a sort of a secondary center point.
Now take a second look at your web. Chances are that some characters look rather busier than others. Moreover, you might find that you have a plot or two which seemingly have nothing to do with the others. Let’s check back in with our example scenario. Last time, I laid out some plots and how the characters fit into them. Go back and have a look if you don’t remember; I don’t feel like writing all that again. If we map out the points of connection from those plots, we get something like this.
You’ll notice right away there are some gaps. The core cast surrounding the band is almost totally cut-off from the outsiders. While this is not particularly unrealistic, it’s not good design. We need to get this shit tangled. Ideally, all plot lines should have ample opportunity to collide. It’s not a problem if they don’t, but it is important to plant the seeds which will bring out their potential to do so. First, let’s talk a bit about what relationships look like in Espionage.
Friendship: I have already established the comfort and advantage that can be derived from a trusted ally as well as the fun of ripping it away. In general, the more important you want a relationship to seem to the player, the more space should be allocated to it within the profile. A passing mention fits to establish acquaintanceship. A closer relationship might detail how the characters met or something they have discussed, preferably bearing on the scenario in some way. If you want to further influence a player’s perceptions, provide a direct statement or two about how their character feels about this other person. For example, we might have a secret vigilante and a sheriff. The vigilante, wary of the sheriff, has always acted very politely toward the latter. In the sheriff’s profile then, we might write, “you have always approved of the respect and courtesy Dan shows you.” In this exact case, the sheriff deputized the vigilante during the game. My point is by thinking out why these characters behave the way they do toward one another and giving key information that can be acted upon, you can hugely influence how the game plays out through what appears to be very little effort. Never forget: 98% of your work takes place before the game ever starts.
Enemies: to have a practical enemy is no rarity in Espionage. Someone you need to kill, someone trying to kill you. A personal enemy, however, is a bit different. Two characters, for one reason or another, just happen to have a wellspring of personal enmity for one another. This doesn’t have to relate to objectives at all. Just adding a dynamic of ‘fuck that guy in particular’ can increase player engagement and add interesting interactions. To do this effectively, you will want to add some shading. Is this a frenemy relationship, a professional rivalry, a matter of jealousy, a bitter cycle of revenge started in the distant past, or just a ‘you have a really punchable face’ sort of thing? Are the parties only willing to take not-so-subtle verbal jabs in public, or will they actively work to sabotage one another given the chance? Are there neutral parties that have to deal with them both? Does someone else know about the bad relationship and want to take advantage of it somehow? Perhaps the two parties perceive their relationship differently. One thinks they’re friends while the other does not. Or maybe the misunderstanding is a matter of degree; one wants to engage in games of petty one-upmanship while the other has murder on the mind. Enemy relationships can also helpfully create misdirects when people are looking for someone to blame for a murder.
Romance: like in life, love is a powerful motivating force in this game. It can be used to justify acts of revenge, jealousy, courage, spite, and crimes of passion. It adds that extra bite to betrayal. It can cause a certain madness to take hold. When done wrong, it can be boring. There are basically three stages of a romance relationship to choose from for our purposes. If things go particularly well, a relationship may transition from one to another during the game itself.
1. Fireworks. In this stage, the story taking place is one of courtship, idiotic passion, and seduction. It might be one character with a hopeless crush on another. Maybe there’s a mutual attraction, but both characters face obstacles, either real or imagined, that could make the pairing difficult. Perhaps one harbors a dangerous secret and seeks to protect the other by keeping their distance. Not every character with a romance relationship needs to be the Lover type. It is quite possible for a romance plot to play a relatively small part in a character’s overall makeup. In fact, it can be better if that is the case. As I previously wrote about the Lover type, it is important to allow the players agency in deciding how things play out. That means that romances can fall flat or fizzle out. If this happens to a character whose entire schtick was based around that relationship, they’re not going to be left with very much to work with. Make sure they have some other concerns. Now if you end up with a simple binary decision, character B either does or does not accept character A’s advances, it is fitting that this subplot play a fairly small role in a character’s planned arc. If you want to draw it out, you’ll need to add further complications so that things may not play out so cleanly. See below.
2. Commitment. These characters are in a stable romantic relationship. I consider this one to be the most difficult to write for. Whether their relationship is psychologically healthy or unhealthy, some amount of thought is demanded as to why they are together. How did they get this far? Does either of them have ulterior motives that make their relationship a lie on some level? Are they happy? The thing with these is that it is so easy to find yourself locked into a binary. If they are simply a happy couple,  they’re boring. There’s little room for movement in the state of their relationship. Of course, you could just use this to establish a pair of rock-solid allies. That’s fine but not particularly interesting. Here are a couple ways to spice up a happy commitment-stage relationship. One or both of the pair are doing something in secret that the other would highly disapprove of. Provide ways for them to find out. Or a third party has interests in one of the relationship pair, which could cause a not-previously- existing rift between them. The interest doesn’t have to be in breaking up the relationship. It could be in causing a behavior in A which B finds abhorrent. Signing on to kill the president, becoming a superhero, running for congress. You get the idea.
Now an unhappy commitment-stage relationship is a different matter. Remember, the day of an Espionage Party is the day seemingly everything happens (at least the stuff not covered in backstories). There is a certain amount of hand-waving necessary; a load of contrivance is essential to the game. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t think about why things are happening now and not earlier. If an unhappy relationship is heading for a breakup, what has kept them together this long? Is there a specific trigger you can plan to make things go from bad to worse? Is it possible to find redemption? The real problem with a troubled romantic relationship is that you want the problems to feel like real obstacles while still being things that could possibly be resolved in the space of a couple hours (even if the pacing is more than a tad unrealistic). If the matter is an ongoing argument, establish the stakes and what each party wants. Make it a matter where either a compromise could be reached or both parties have other desires that could influence the course of the argument. Perhaps their disagreement involves a third party, which could certainly make things more dynamic depending on how that party acts. Perhaps the problem is how one of the characters behaves. The event the couple is attending represents an opportunity to demonstrate that they’ve changed somehow. Or perhaps resolution isn’t in the plans at all. A is definitely breaking up with B this time. Maybe there’s a good reason they’re doing it at this particular time and place. Maybe it’s just the next time B displays some maddening behavior (and you’ve written it into B’s profile so it will almost definitely happen.). The story then is about what happens now. Will B fight to stay together? Will there be dramatic repercussions? What about mutual friends and acquaintances suddenly caught in the middle? The heart of the stories that play out in Espionage is all about changes to the status quo, those the characters fight to bring about and the ones they struggle to prevent. The short-term repercussions of these changes or the lack thereof must be taken into account as you figure out how to create interesting arcs.
3. Fallout. Here we have a romantic relationship which has ended before the beginning of the game. It could be a few weeks or decades. The point is that these characters share an intimate past. They may be different people now. They may still be dealing with it. This is a good example of a relationship type which can stand independently of objectives. Even if the characters have no goals all that related to one another, the weight of their shared past and the baggage that goes with it can add heaps of flavor to their interactions. If you do want a more goal-oriented relationship, the obvious way to go would be to have one of the characters want to rekindle the old flames. Again, the trick with romantic relationships is finding the right level of tension. Perhaps A mysteriously disappeared years ago only to show back up tonight with a dire warning. B can’t take them back until they learn what happened, something A is reluctant to discuss. Or perhaps there is a secret love-child, a revelation that can cause all kinds of things. Or maybe this is just another shade of enemy-relationship, a slow-burning mixture of desire and rage left to stew for twenty years.
Don’t feel the need to keep your relationships in these neat, appropriately dramatic boxes. There are plenty of other possibilities I haven’t mentioned yet, but my fingers are tired, so I’m going to stop now. Back to the example scenario.
Now let’s get to work better connecting the cast.
Groupie: the Groupie is going to be friends with Model. Groupie will not know about Model’s work as a gunman to pay off their loans.
Roadie: the roadie used to be an addict and has managed to get clean. The Dealer is their childhood friend, but they’ve barely spoken in years. The Roadie, feeling down from Designer’s games of manipulation, wants to rescue Dealer from an imagined awful life as a distraction from their own demons.
Drums: Drums is a fan of Designer’s fashion work. Does not realize Designer is a super-villain.
Bass: Bass has an emotional connection to some of the songs the Designer will be using to manipulate the Roadie. This is more an implied connection than a proper one.
Former: Former once had a romantic relationship with the Crasher, does not know about their government work.
Manager: the Manager will be looking for a way to take the Groupie out of the picture and will be pointed in the Model’s direction.
Spy: Drums and the Spy dislike one another. They have a history of one-upmanship at parties in the past. What rivalry they have may be primarily in Drums’ head. I’m working on it.
Dealer: the Manager is afraid of the Dealer. The Manager saw them do something horrible once and believes they might die if they ever say anything about it.
If we add these new connections, our web will look something like this. Doesn’t that look better? I’ll expand on how these new relations will work into the plots at a later time.
Next time: Secrets

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