Forum changes: Editing of posts has been turned off until further notice.

Main Menu

[Nerdinburgh '08] Spione

Started by Joe Murphy (Broin), January 23, 2008, 12:38:20 PM

Previous topic - Next topic

Ron Edwards


The Spione Wiki is designed to provide a cornucopia of references - it's a bit overwhelming, maybe, but the Spy vs. Guy section ought to give a good start, as well as the subcategory of that name in the Film section. The first chapter of the book describes the literature and includes a profile section on the work of John le Carré. There's also an older thread at the Spione forum which is about one's "top five" for recommending to people.

My favorites aren't necessarily the most famous titles, but the most famous ones are damned good, that's for sure. Let's see ... so I guess it's most useful to provide an informal, as of this moment list for each.

Among my favorites

The Looking-Glass War by John le Carré
River of Darkness by James Grady
the Kyril trilogy by John Trenhaile
Funeral in Berlin by Len Deighton
The Sandbaggers (BBC TV series)
The Sisters by Robert Littell
The Intercom Conspiracy by Eric Ambler
The Lives of Others (German film)

Most famous

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Smiley's People by John le Carré
The Six Days of the Condor by James Grady (film version: Three Days of the Condor)
The Falcon and the Snowman by Robert Lindsey (also, film version)
Berlin trilogy and later books by Len Deighton (not related to the title in the above list)
The Company; The Defection of A.J. DeWinter by Robert Littell
The Miernik Dossier by Charles McCarry
The Mask of Dimitrios by Eric Ambler
The Heart of the Matter; The Quiet American by Graham Greene (the recent film version of the latter is a knockout; put it up in my fave list)
Spooks (called "MI-5" in the U.S.) (BBC TV series)

Titles that emphatically do not belong in the genre include the Blackford Oakes novels by William F. Buckley Jr., the Jack Ryan series by Tom Clancy, the James Bond series by Ian Fleming and others (although the literary Bond is a fascinating animal, not at all the same as either the film character or the popular icon), and any other novels by Charles McCarry.

Best, Ron

P.S. I confused myself at one point in an earlier post; I somehow got it into my head that Moreno had organized this game session in Italy, which of course makes no sense because he already did that a while ago. So my question to him makes no sense either.

Callan S.

Hi Joe,

Beyond protagonism, literature has other techniques for making a case about something - like a narrator (a voice who isn't even in a character in the story world), or even description, like the badguys always wear black, or the onset of winter comes just as someone dies. Or even as subtle as the title of a chapter. Talk amongst players is much like a narrators voice (here it's the groups voices discussing). They're all a means to an end of making a case. Did the game seem to accomidate some method like those? I've read a sample of the book part of spione and that certainly promotes discussion, I'd imagine the rules promote some methods of getting into some meaty subject. What was there?
Philosopher Gamer

Callan S.

Quote from: Ron Edwards on January 25, 2008, 03:41:44 PM
I'm so not happy with that post.

Callan, let me re-try it as the game designer participating in the thread, only.

Can you clarify what you'd like to know or want to say about the game (as described here), for me?

Best, Ron
Let's check out shared ground. Beyond just describing the game world details, on and on in a pure exploratory way, players might want to get at some situation/life choice/culture/problem. I called it 'making a case' in my other post. Those players want to aim in the general area of something, not just anywhere in the game world. In a broad sense, sound about right? Or something like it? Or do we differ here? Alot?

To use a car analogy, aiming at that situation requires movement. Wheels/protagonists are commonly used in cars. But you could use a hovercraft system, or tank treads, or some funky robot walker legs. You don't need wheels/protagonists to do it, but you do need some method of moving. Now "Protagonists are just an assumption!". When I say they aren't just an assumption, I mean if it's an okay option in the game not to have wheels/protagonists, then some other method of moving needs to be provided in those circumstances. But yeah, I didn't ask what your using, dang.

That method might just be 'Hey, the players talk about play while playing, showing what's important' and that works out cool. But before it wasn't even that, it was as if it's enough to say the current propulsion method was an assumption and...leave it at that. And sadly I was just as short. 'No, wheels/protagonists aren't just an assumption' and I left it at that. What's the propulshion method when there are no protagonists? I'm pretty sure there are lots of ways, including just inter player chat, but I need to hear it from ya!

Is the car analogy crappy?
Philosopher Gamer

Ron Edwards

Hi Callan,

I am not really interested in trying to dissect previous posts and who-meant-what. I'm trying to move forward.

If you are saying that a story needs some substantial and consequential piece of the material, "compelling" probably being my best choice of words, then we agree fully. Spione is amply stocked with such things.

1. The primary mechanical one, which is far more important to the outcomes of play than the principals, is embodied in the characters called Supporting Cast. It is entirely accurate to say that a game of Spione is ultimately about them and what happens to them.

2. Another one, which I think is also quite important, is the unavoidable relevance of the spy "community" (Spider's Web) in Berlin during these decades to anyone alive in the world today. That is usually manifested as reactions and associations, especially when a few details are made known via discussion. Exactly which details, and what those reactions and associations will be, depends on the group.

Protagonizing characters fits very well into the "story material matrix" or "tissue" or whatever you want to call it, which is present due to these two elements. Using your analogy, these two things are the hovering mechanisms of the  hovercraft, which can also be fitted with wheels, or better, shall we say "afterburners," enhancing the airborne-motion function.

Best, Ron

Callan S.

Ah, a focus on supporting cast and their outcomes - that's an interesting difference. Perhaps not relevant, but sometimes in a film I think how supporting cast are kind of just used to show off someone elses life (yes, some sort of protagonist/hero/dude), but I think that doesn't quite work if the lives of supporting cast are treated as unimportant. Ah great, looks like I'm thinking it's all to support some hero dude. But really if all supporting cast lives get roughly as much focus as some hero dude, then you could decide someone else is actually the hero dude of the story. Might be what your getting at, but in my own words. And would the focus on supporting cast tie into the spy vs guy genre, in that it's alot about guys/normal people/supporting cast?

With #2, it is no doubt close to the bone. No wererats to grant some distance from the situation, ala 'it was a mutual decision'? ;) But wouldn't it be less about protagonising stuff and more about our own personal positions in relation to these events? I know it could sorta cross polinate to the supporting cast (ie, players start put them in that same position) and make them more relevant to us, but it'd be doing so by adding whatever diamacles swords are hanging over us in real life (hope that's not too dramatic a description). That's stark stuff. At those points in play, doesn't the whole protag stuff get left behind for awhile, while people think of their own position?

Also, rocket hovercraft - yay!
Philosopher Gamer

Ron Edwards

Hi Callan,

Actually, my point #1 refers to Supporting Cast insofar as they are present and affected by the story, but not protagonized in any full/complete way. To do so is perfectly viable but also would be kicking in the afterburner, not using the hover-widgets. I am claiming that attention to the Supporting Cast (which is to say, following the rules for Maneuvers) without necessarily protagonizing any of them is a strong hovercraft.

Regarding point #2, I am referring to a far more visceral, unconsidered experience with using the material than any sort of spoken or acknowledged activity. It may help to consider this point: that if you ask people about their politics or their relationship to historical events, you will typically get platitudes or vague denials; if they help to create a story which offers those issues as material, and if the story-creation process is Narrativist, then (a) you will discover more honest expressions of their reactions and associations, as well as (b) prompt reflection upon the issues afterwards.

Best, Ron


Quote from: Ron Edwards on January 24, 2008, 06:22:19 PM
2. Scene creation and development follows the same logic as the protagonist idea. It's pretty much the exact opposite of Trollbabe or PTA - instead of saying, "This is a scene, with such-and-such a purpose," we instead have various components of location, persons, dialogue, actions, and color sort of adding up, and either we find ourselves in a capital-S scene, or we have a nice bit of relaxed characterization or imagery. I've noticed that new groups, especially with PTA-experienced folks, tend to drive toward conflicts and Flashpoints with an almost frantic reaction ... it makes perfect sense that they want to Bang things, but it's kind of funny that the primary criticism Matt received with PTA was "Gah! What about 'just playing' and letting the scenes develop into important or not important on their own?" So that's what Spione does, and now it's the opposite criticism, "Gah! How do we know whether the scene's important or what it's about?" That contrast leads me to think that both criticisms are about expectations, not about the intrinsic quality or function of what the game offers.

3. A bit of advice: it's perfectly OK for someone to say, "Hey everyone, I got it! I know exactly what [a character] will do," or something equally blurted-out and based on something specific the person wants in the story. If so, then it's perfectly OK for each person with a turn still remaining prior to this person to use the Color option, if they are all actually interested in responding to the stated desire. And if one person along the way has something of his or her own, and if that doesn't fly for the person who spoke, well, Flashpoints are there for that purpose too, because nothing said during Maneuvers has to be true. Flashpoints therefore can be either more like bidding in Universalis, or more like conflict resolution in (say) Dogs, or any combination of the two.


OK, I think I get it now. We did do quite a lot of hurtling towards the Bangs at breakneck speed. Although I think it's interesting that all the players pushed the story towards flashpoint at quite different rates. Knowing what I know now, I spent a lot of time just adding colour and letting other push the story. Oddly, I think I would have enjoyed it more if we were all willing to sit back a little more and let the story move forward a little more sedately. With a bit more colour to flesh out the story, I think we would have come up with something more to my tastes. 

Having looked over the Influences, I can see I'm going to have a problem. I've only heard of a few of them, and the only one I've had any contact with was a failed attempt to watch Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy :-) I think maybe my trepidation about this not being my kind of thing may be right.

I had a look over the rules diagrams PDF. They certainly seem to be useful in terms of staying on track as far as the procedure of play. I think the problem is that what I was looking for was a two page intro to the basics of how spy fiction works so that I would have more of an idea of the sort of story to expect.

I think I'm going to need borrow the book and come back to you with thoughts after I've read the text as well as just played in a single session.

Ron Edwards

Hi Gordon,

You wrote,

QuoteWe did do quite a lot of hurtling towards the Bangs at breakneck speed. Although I think it's interesting that all the players pushed the story towards flashpoint at quite different rates. Knowing what I know now, I spent a lot of time just adding colour and letting other push the story. Oddly, I think I would have enjoyed it more if we were all willing to sit back a little more and let the story move forward a little more sedately.

I don't think that's odd at all. Your current thought of what might have been more fun is totally accurate. The system is built to permit, in fact, to enforce the idea that anything interesting can arise through genuine inspiration, and that it never has to be pushed or forced. The great pleasure of Maneuvers in Spione is that conflicts can be entirely unpredictable and yet entirely logical given what has just happened. When it doesn't work, it's because someone has leaped ahead and tried (for instance) to make some character a psychopath or to put some entirely unrelated agency on full-bore attack mode, out of nowhere - in other words, because they have generated conflict that isn't, in emotional or thematic terms, particularly compelling.

I keep talking about the procedures of Spione as a "new thing" in a vague way which might be annoying to readers, and your posts are allowing me maybe to articulate it after all. Let's see if I can do so as a series of numbered points. When I say "we know," I'm referring to outcomes of multiple discussions, design attempts, and play-experiences here at the Forge.

1. We know that a group, working together, can generate fun and engaging fictional conflicts. That's one of the finest achievements of the Forge community, that this is now understood as a given, and previous notions about the issue, specifically that it's hard and can hardly ever be successful, have been set aside.

2. We also know that it can be done well or badly, and that the good version requires some mix of "is this interesting," "is this plausible," and "is this well-timed." How that mix is tuned, procedurally, comprises a critical element of game design (or fiction creation if you want to get more general).

3. One way it can be achieved is by designating moments in which all the conflict creation is wrapped up in a neat, group-understood package, as a transitional and initiatory part of beginning a new scene. What has occurred previously is entirely known, and this package-making is a defined and known process that re-shapes the upcoming void of what happens next. My Life with Master is one of the benchmark designs using this concept, and Contenders is a very direct offspring of MLWM. Primetime Adventures is another benchmark design and has spawned multiple progeny, or perhaps created a design environment in which they emerged. I deliberately designed It Was a Mutual Decision as a member of this "family."

4. This method is overwhelmingly functional relative to the "worthy conflicts are nigh-impossible" assumption, and it is also quite easy to buy into and to introduce to people who are grappling with that assumption. (Not 100%, but definitely easy.) As I tried to say in point #3, its key feature is to lock down the timing of conflict creation.

5. I do not find it hard to understand why most of the occasional frustration with PTA play arises from the "interesting" variable, rather than the timing (which is locked down and thus non-problematic) or than the plausibility, which is accounted for so well by creating the TV show together prior to play. When the conflict must be created nearly whole-cloth during these designated times, there is a kind of make-or-break for the interestingness which can be hitchy. Sometimes the group Drifts the rules to add a kind of brainstorming session at this point, making the process more interactive and nuanced, but also essentially leaving play in order to storyboard. It's productive and can be fun, but it's not play, and in my experience, can be prone to dominance issues.

6. This one is a bit of a side point. I have been frustrated for about three years now that the method I've just described has, for people who encountered it as their "escape" from agonizing and non-productive play, become practically synonymous with "good design." It's a fine thing, yes, but it's also a particular technique and not necessarily the best technique for a given topic, or in combination with other techniques. I have been especially annoyed, personally, with the co-opting of my term "conflict resolution" to describe it, which is intellectually abominable and has poisoned multiple discussions. All of this has set up a baseline of confusion, which is then manifested through a negative version of the technique, which is to propose "conflict" over competing narrations of what might happen next. (This is what people often call "stakes," even though the term means much more local and non-problematic things in the games themselves. It also began to enter texts in 2006, to the detriment of those games.)

7. Spione does it differently. The phase of play called Maneuvers steps far back, away and above, from either scene or conflict creation. It's an organized dialogue environment which is, in fact, much like that Drifted step in some groups' play of PTA, in which a group dialogue decides upon the scene and conflict. No one person can dominate, and the notion of "driving toward" a given intended conflict later should be jettisoned. One works with things as they are, when they arrive at your "go," or as you might suggest and chat about during others' "goes." It is important to let go of the notion of controlling what play is about to be about, and to trust that group interest will prompt such things into emergence with no need for negotiation.

8. Spione therefore arranges those three variables in a different way. It puts "is this interesting" into the top priority. The timing is locked down in the exact opposite way from PTA - instead of being packaged as a unit achievement, it must be piecemeal and emergent from the operating, in-action components that have been put into play (in this, it's more like Universalis). Another way to look at it is that unless the thing is indeed interesting, it doesn't happen, and that is OK - it's not a disagreement or cause for negotiation outside of the procedures of play.

9. To put it in the way which I hope makes most sense for anyone reading this, (a) if fun and engaging conflict can be made in a quick package that often relies on a side process of chat/negotiation, then (b) it can also be done by formalizing and extending the chat/negotiation, without needing to make the package so quick. The question "oh my god, what will the conflict be?" should not be a source of stress. We (and here I mean "we the players") should know that it can be done ... and we can relax into letting it happen, and permitting it to arise from characterization and location rather than through a decree.

10. What I'm seeing you describe, and which I've seen people grapple with when introduced to Spione, seems to be a form of desperate anxiety when faced with playing without a conflict firmly in place. I think the technique, so productive and fun in MLWM for instance, has become a crutch - perceived almost as a lifeline out of "no fun" play, and as such, to be seized and applied at all times, in any game, in fear of the "no fun" returning. That's not a good thing. I've seen groups spend nearly the whole of PTA- or other recents games-play waffling over what the conflict will be and how it might turn out, with the SIS basically being thrown out the window - it's unstructured story-conferencing, not story creation, and it blows big donkey dick. Since the Spione rules literally do not permit that particular activity, the only way for this anxiety to manifest itself is for someone to go ballistic and bring KGB assassins, CIA plots, Stasi repression, pornography, infidelity, and who knows what else into their next narration, prompting crazy-ass Flashpoints over nothing really.

Gordon, what do you think of that? Does it make sense? What do you think of the possibility of using Maneuvers as a creatively generous, extended process, instead of a yawning pit over which we must impose a conflict or fall?

Best, Ron


Actually that all seems to make a lot of sense.

Now all I need to do is find a group for another session and see if I can get it to work at the table :-)

Callan S.

Hi Ron,

From what I understand now - were the flashpoints in the AP happening a little fast? Or atleast faster than what might be the assumed average for the game? From what I've read here I'm getting the feeling there may be more of a slow boil - err, how to ingrediants are added one at a time to the soup, in a way that somehow suits the last ingrediant, but not toward a particular recipe. Not a bunch of ingrediants at once?
Philosopher Gamer

Gregor Hutton

Just a quick post to say that I'm now back from being in Ireland and I'll have a post to make later. A few points just to clarify.

(i) I played as a player, so there weren't any non-particpating people at the table.
(ii) We got through 3 Flashpoints in play, so I don't think we were going straight to flashpoints at all.
(iii) The two characters chosen both had short Supporting Cast lists, so we did actually complete the game in the 3 hours or so. Most cast went out through double cards though Joe Prince revealed a trespass and wrote one out using a Fate.

The text is very clear on how to set-up and play the game, how to move cards in Flashpoint and what they allow you to do. The book was passed around to help people decide what they wanted to do on their turn in flashpoint and it wasn't always a "crude" or "flashy" event that was generated.

[In fact, Joe Murphy seemed bored by me going through the sequence of ordering the cards very deliberately, since I guess we all "got" how you could move them and what their positioning and strength meant.]

A tripping point was that no one had seen the book beforehand since the con was put together at very short notice. We also were very unfamiliar with each other as a group -- I think if we played together again we would have a much better feel for each other.

We did have some discussion of when to go to flashpoint, over and under-shooting but I got the feeling that we didn't act as a group on what we discussed. But more on that later.

Ron Edwards

Hi everyone,

Callan: yes, that's right. That's a good analogy. The interesting thing, too, is that when the water boils, not everything will necessarily be resolved or known, but some will, and there's no way to tell what will or what won't until you're in the middle of it. Once that particular process (Flashpoint) is over, the group returns to Maneuvers.

Gregor: I was waiting for you to encounter this thread, because you were the point man and my primary thing to say is, "Thank you," for bringing out the game to everyone there. Please don't get the wrong idea from the thread so far. It's not an easy experience for some of them, and I've had to address points of confusion or dissatisfaction as they've come, from that person's point of view. That does not mean I think you fell down on the job, misrepresented the game, or did anything poorly.

The fact is, you can say X and Y and Z about Spione until you're blue in the face, and people will only hear what they can process at that moment, for whatever reason. I went through this a thousand times with Sorcerer, which is only a half-step (albeit a signficant one) away from "normal" role-playing. With Spione, the difference is indescribably vast. It's like asking people to jump off a cliff with you.

Regarding introducing Spione to strong role-players, is, "I've been there." Even if people have a fun time, they still itch and fuss and find things to be weird about. I really don't know whether it will ever work as a convention or demo game. It lacks a comfortable structure like the ones found in Contenders or Perfect. Its genre features are not quite "genre," as you know, and they deliberately kick the more familiar Thriller genre features in the balls. The only thing to do is to trust the slow boil, and for the ingredients to be added to be things that are genuinely interesting. It also requires prompting genuine interest in the history, or elements found in history. For instance,

Did you know that the communist spymaster for East Germany totally dominated the intelligence "war" for twenty-five years? Without him, the KGB would have been a mere shadow of itself, in terms of spying on the west. He made the CIA and everyone else look like idiots, over and over, and the more we find out, the worse it gets. His name was Markus Wolf. And get this: he was a liberal, intellectual, Jewish German. When he retired in the 1980s, he became a glasnost activist.

If you're talking to an American or a Brit, and if the person is really listening and using any part of his or her brain, that little speech is pretty much guaranteed to elicit a reaction like, "What? He was what? How ... no, wait a minute. What?" (Yes, everyone who's into this stuff, I know that Wolf's character remains a matter of some controversy. I'm presenting a superficial view which is, nonetheless, at least accurate if not nuanced.) The point is that the person is jarred a bit. That's not the KGB. That's not the communists. That's not the Germans, for Pete's sake. Then they might be curious. Who was this guy, and what were his spies like? Once someone shows some curiosity, then things can move. It's the equivalent of being turned out by a genre character-concept, but not the same.

I really don't know how that can be made to happen in a con environment when everyone's just pulled up a chair and is expecting some comfortable variant of Dogs, Polaris, or My Life with Master. In my expected model for play of the game, it shouldn't be "made" to happen anyway, it's just a matter of finding out who's interested in that way and pulling them together eventually. If neither anchor is present (shared interest in the topic, or shared social familiarity as a group), then I dunno.

So, again, thanks. I'm interested to know what the game was like for you, and any suggestions you might have for dealing with the game in this context.

Best, Ron

Callan S.

Isn't that being a bit dramatic to say it's potentially impossible to present? I know it covers a vast amount of ground, so it seems unbefitting to describe it in some reduced way. But people are (and should be) trying to find out whats fun about a game, in order to play for that very quality and then they actively pursue it. Too much trust factor, as you'd know, and their just following your footsteps. I know you want them to find whats important about the various world events, but surely that can come with repeat play. Surely a more basic pitch can initiate things? I thought of one to get at the core idea of guys - I mean, yeah, world events are important but at the base your game is about guys, so it's not missplaced to set a basic pitch revolving just on that. Anyway, here's a pitch I had fun making up, taking into account what I know of the game:
QuoteWhat does an animal do when it's cornered?
What does a man feel, when every step he takes slowly backs him into that corner?
This is the life of a spy. This is Spione.
I mean, way off? It seems a core part of the game - people backed into corners, and it suggests something juicy to get out of it - what he feels. Or is 'feel' too passive? Anyway, surely Spione's not that impossible to pitch?
Philosopher Gamer

Ron Edwards

Hi Callan,

Depends on whom you're talking to. In this thread, and in reference to Gregor's experience, I'm talking about dedicated role-players in a strong gaming-community context, like a convention or at a website like this one. Presenting Spione in that situation is like selling air to fish. That's not a slam on that culture, but it is a fact; I've had it demonstrated to me extremely clearly on multiple occasions. For instance, I introduced the book and the activity to a roomful of folks using a personal pitch almost exactly as you describe. Y

Gregor, in hopes of making better tactics for the future, I'll be interested in anything you suggest. I also hope I'm doing a better job of promotion in this thread than I've managed in the past, as I've been ripping my brain apart with every post to try to apply what I've learned from those past experiences, and to be as absolutely honest with the readers as I can conceive.

Outside of that context, the book is a remarkably easy sell. I've passed out cards on request to people standing in line at the butcher shop, sitting next to me in an airplane, and chatting on the basis of having kids in strollers in the same location. None of these were intentional targets for sales at the outset, either - more like, "Oh man! I have to have this book. Do you have a card?"

If you check out the website, you'll find the back of the book in there somewhere, and I think I did a pretty decent/dramatic job of describing the Cold as a juicy thing. But again, it's not targeted toward role-players, and the notion of being and feeling like a spy, as a goal or purpose of the activity, is not mentioned or present in any way. It's not at all about "you have a spy guy! you say what he does!" (I know that deviates a bit from what Ralph posted, but I think his point was far more focused on a particular stage of play rather than toward the purpose of the activity as a whole.)

Best, Ron

Gregor Hutton

Hi Ron

Yeah, I agree and I don't know how to best tell people to have an open mind and don't try to be over-clever. I find the book really helpful to me to read out loud when playing, next time I should get someone else to read it out actually that would be a great way of spreading the knowledge about the table. I really think the handing the book around thing helps a lot, it passed around a lot for flashpoints but it should have circulated more.

The phrase that strikes me at the start of play is "Principles are spies -- not spymasters, not politicians, not special ops commandos". But the thing is, we all nod and go "yeah, yeah, I get it, no James Bond, ordinary people, lying and spying" but in play we still default to more "gamer" stuff. Y'know, the big, flashy stuff, the kills, the bombs, disappearances, etc.

I think we had problems with holding ideas lightly and just playing the game, it's like we have to unlearn some of the "indie game" and "general gamer" expectations we have. I mean, we got to the first Flashpoint and I think one of the players asked if we should set the stakes.

Maybe it's like the playing music analogy. We all came along with our own strong riff, or style we are going to play, and just played that riff irrespective of the beat, scale or contributions of everyone else and the theme of play. But I think the only way you get better is to talk about it, and we did (and are), and we pick up the instruments again.

I think Spione has a really stripped-back and elegant way of generating fiction, and the answer I see (for me, anyway) is to leave other games and their expectations at the door and just follow the advice in the book. It really is low prep rules-wise as long as I bring my own opinions and observations about people and life to the table.