Spy Games

Watch the Skies 2 is go! I helped run this 50-person alien-fighting megagame last year, and it was one of the best experiences of my life. Now we're trying to fix all the broken bits. Top of the list are a lot of quiet background changes to make sure your actions have a serious impact on the 51 other people in the room, but the big fancy eye-grabbing change is a new focus on conflict between nations.

I can't reveal the big secret underground sub-system that's going to spark this backstabbing, but I can reveal that a big new way to win that conflict will be a whole new room for Spies.

In the original Watch the Skies, the Diplomats go to the UN, the Scientists go to the Science Center, the General goes to the World Map, and the President... mostly just sits at their table and waits for everyone to come back. Sure, they can mingle and chat, but they don't really have a cool thing to do in the way the other roles do.

This time, my lovely colleague Melissa and I will be running the Spymaster's room. In that room are manilla TOP SECRET folders for every country. While everyone's off at their tables, the President can write secret orders for their spies and slip them into these folders. When they return next turn, they'll find a type-written report saying what the result was.

In the original, spies were controlled by the generals and map control (who are already a little overwhelmed). When you used a spy, you had to physically place it on the map in front of everyone and announce what they were doing. Map control had so much to do with actually adjudicating battles that they couldn't let you do anything outside the base rules with them. 

Now we have two people dedicated to the spies, you will be able to use them to do anything that you can think of. The basic rules for them remain (Making countries into allies, and defending against alien infiltration) but you'll have the RPG freedom to just make up crazy ideas. You want your spy to dress up as the president of america and blow up a dam in russia, you can do it. Once you've submitted the order, we'll figure out the rules, roll the dice, and go out to make it happen - all with nothing to link it back to your country.

Oh - and the alien Infiltrators will be going through the exact same system. They'll have the same powers, same subterfuge. I can't wait to see the spy games that y'all are gonna come up with.

Mad Max Car Bits

Soon, the apocalypse we've prayed for will come, and we'll fly through the wasteland in crazy fucked-up road demons, shiny and chrome. Until that glorious day, maybe you want to pretend to do that in an RPG.

At the start of the game, give everybody 2 skulls and this page of car bits. They can pool their skulls to get anything on the page, or anything they make up.  Here's clarification on what some of this stuff does:

Bull Bar: Can be raised or lowered, sending up plumes of sand dust.
Spiked Wheels: Pops the wheels of any nearby car.
Boarding pole: Swings around with a counterweight, so you can swing onto another car.
Harpoon Grapple: Pierces another car. Can be swung around and aimed.
Smoker: Belches thick black smoke, blinding people behind you.
Caltrops: Each skull gives you one shot of them. Tip them out the back of your car to pop tires.
Wall of Sound: Hook up a musician to inspire the troops. The musician can give one of the following effects to cars around them:

  • Strike fear: All enemies must save or flee.
  • Pump up: Everyone drives faster
  • Death or Glory! Everyone becomes stronger and suicidal brave.
You can keep giving your players 2 skulls to customize their cars and grow a fleet every time they level up. Otherwise, you can just let people buy this shit and customize their car naturally.

While I'm here: Here's a simple tool to judge how much damage your car just took.

For a small amount of damage, roll a d6.
For a decent hit, roll a d12.
For a massive blow, roll a d20.
  1. Paint scraped. 
  2. Rear view mirror smashed. You can't see behind you.
  3. Side door fucked up. If it was open, you can't open it. If it was closed, you can't close it.
  4. Windshield smashed. Everyone in cockpit must roll or take damage from flying glass.
  5. Any oil or gas you've got around - in flamethrowers, oil tanks, etc - catches on fire.
  6. Tire punctured. Roll randomly to see which one.
  7. Brakes destroyed. You can't stop the car.
  8. The engine's taken damage and the car is slowing down rapidly. 
  9. Door torn off.
  10. You careen off-course in a random direction.
  11. You're skidding out of control. 
  12. Engine's overheating. If you keep driving it'll explode. 
  13. Someone is flung out of the car.
  14. Steering wheel destroyed. You can't steer.
  15. One of those beautiful car bits you bought has been torn off or destroyed.
  16. Roof torn off.
  17. The car's on fire.
  18. Your car screeches over on it's side. It's about to roll!
  19. The car has split into two pieces, both of which are still rocketing down the road.
  20. Giant, fiery crash.

    When you use a result for one specific car, mark that you've used it. If you roll that result again, use the next result up. So, if the windshield has been smashed and you roll a 4, you go up to result 5. If result 5 has been used up as well, keep going up until you find one you haven't used. This means even a small amount of damage gets more and more harmful as a car gets smashed up.

    If your car has armor, you can use it up to declare that a specific hit does nothing. One piece of armor is two skulls.

    May our lord V8 preserve us. Amen.


    I've been reading the RPG Dread. It's a horror game, where you must pull a block from a Jenga tower whenever you make a risky action. If the tower falls, you're removed from the game. It's such a neat little idea that I'm planning to make my own tower, based on Tartarus from Persona. 

    Instead of removing blocks to make risky actions, you add them. The tower slowly rises in front of you. I prefer this metaphor of the dark tower rising - more ominous. Eventually, the tower naturally becomes too unstable to hold any more blocks. Here's a test I made out of houses and scraps from Mystery Teens. You choose blocks at random, so every tower will be different. In this test, the tower tumbles at around 11 blocks. I'm not sure what the sweet spot should be: 30? 20?

    The big bonus of building the tower instead of tearing it down is that there's no setup time. Whenever someone dies in Dread, you have to rebuild the tower and pull some pieces, so the game has to screech to a halt for a setup break just as it was getting interesting. This tower is meant to start in pieces, so when it falls you can keep on playing without a pause.

    I'm planning to use this for my game Mystery Teens. Whenever you take some time or risks to find a clue, you place a block on the tower in the center of town. None of the adults can see it. You can open up each tower block (if you can manage it without making it fall) to find strange and revelatory dream cards. When the tower falls, you've reached the climax. Hope you've figured out the solution to the mystery, because the villain's plan is currently boiling out of the moonlit suburbs like an exploding black octopus.

    Here's another thought about Dread, though:

    Motivation in Dread

    Dread characters are made by giving you a questionnaire with loaded questions like "Why did you kill your wife?" After listening to this full play recording of Dread, I've decided every Dread questionnaire needs one extra question: 

    What do you value more than your life or sanity?

    The DM on that podcast explained that every block pull is optional. Even when a madman is swinging an axe at your head, you can still choose not to pull the block - it just means you've chosen to fail. Choosing not to pull a block means you can't be removed from the game, but the Host can do whatever they want to your character in exchange. 

    Reading through the Dread rules now, I'm not sure they support that reading. I love it anyway. Whenever dark and terrible things happen to their characters, it is crucial it's their own fault. Like I've said before, they need to choose to go into Silent Hill or Death Frost Doom. If you force them to die, it's arbitrary. They're just frustrated at you, not blaming themselves.

    Now, in any game with dice, this is hard to get right. It's easy for something horrible to happen to a character just because they were unlucky. You have to design against this possibility, working against the dice, making sure everything can be anticipated and foiled before the dice come out. Conversely, the tower in Dread makes sure that every death is the players fault- that's just how the system works. If you don't want a consequence (losing a limb, going nuts) you can always pull. If you don't want to die, you can always choose not to pull. Death always comes at your own hand.

    So it's wonderful that Dread makes players to doom themselves, but by default the choice to risk death doesn't feel interesting to me. In the play recording above, their goal is just to Survive. As a horror game, I assume that's the goal of many Dread adventures. But when that's your only goal, most block-pulling choices boil down to two options:

    A: You pull a brick, and risk being removed from the game.
    B: You refuse to move the story forward, and suffer some consequence that makes it seem like you're more likely to be removed from the game in future.

    This choice seems interesting in the moment: Do I want to risk death, or get a broken leg for certain? But it's fake. If you choose B forever, you'll never die. If the goal is simply to survive, you just need to always pick B. When the obvious best choice is to do nothing and refuse to move the story forward, something is wrong with your system.

    To solve this problem, you need to give the players a goal other that survival: Something they value more than getting removed from the game. The wonderful thing about the Character Creation system is that you don't even need to decide what this is - you can ask the players themselves. Maybe they decide their character would sacrifice their life for their family, their honor, their country, whatever. You can then take those answers, and put them at the end of the adventure.

    Now that value will be put to the test and strained to breaking point. At every step of the adventure, as the tower gets more and more unstable, they need to decide - do I really care about this thing? Am I really willing to sacrifice death for it? That's an interesting choice. If they decide no, and flee as their family is slaughtered, that's a fantastic character moment that'll make them great to play in future games.

    This is so perfect for getting that Doomed Obsession that I'm crazy about. James Sunderland, looking for his dead wife. The journey to find Colonel Kurtz. Getting the players to give you the rope to hang them with. It's lovely.


    So much is happening with the next Megagame! It's transformed into its final form, very different to the original pitch. I'm so excited about it I'm tripping over the keys as I type here. Let's see if I can explain this.

    It's still got the same hook as my first pitch: I'm making an entire paper town (which is more than half done now). It's called Lovelyville, a tiny seaside town in 1960's America. Nothing ever happens here. Everybody just minds their own business and gets on with their lovely little lives.

    ...Except of course the whole town is a web of corruption, and everybody has a secret. You can investigate the mysteries in town by opening up these little houses to find physical clues about those secrets inside, like picking up a rock to see what's squirming underneath. All that's unchanged. 

    But! In the first pitch, the mystery was pre-written. You were interviewing NPC suspects to solve a premade mystery. Now, I'm going to run a full 50 person Megagame, where every suspect is another player. Everyone plays one of the people in the town. Maybe you're the local butcher, the mayor, a cop, the doctor. You'll all have a secret and a goal, and you'll all get your own little building.

    This could be yours!

    Instead of being pre-scripted, everything happens in-game. There are rules for Arson, Murder, Theft, and other crimes, and every player will need to do some dirty dealings to achieve their secret goals. Everything you do leaves behind evidence in these buildings, mostly in the form of cards. If you're stealing jewels, buying weapons to murder somebody, getting kerosene for arson, you'll be keeping all those items inside a building somewhere. When you sneak a peak inside someone's house, you're finding evidence of all the actual misdeeds they've been doing throughout the game. 

    Trying to hide evidence and pull off the perfect crime will be just as satisfying as following a trail of clues to find out what your fellow player's been up to.

    There will be a central mystery that ties everybody together. Last night, every single child in town went missing. As far as anyone can tell, they just snuck out of bed and into the night. The town is in crisis, and that's going to unearth all the old corruption that's been unfolding under it's sleepy exterior. 

    I'm hoping to put tickets on sale next Sunday, and set the date for the event 5 weeks after that on the 6th of June. 

    The next post will deal with how Murder is going to work - Alibi's, Killing, hiding the body, what happens to the Dead, and Death.

    Interrogations & Graveyards

    The first block of Mystery Teens is nearing completion. Everything you can see here can be lifted up to gaze at the underbelly beneath - Trees, river pieces, houses, graves.


    On top of opening envelopes, and opening up bits of the scenery, everyone will have some slots during the day when they can drag in any character in the game for full interview in person. You can ask any question you want, it's full role-play. There'll be a special interview room set up, with a big light-bulb to shine in their face.

    I will play every suspect, using a variety of wigs.

    The 10 big questions

    I'm hoping to put tickets on sale for Mystery Teens this week or the next. Here's how signing up for this thing will work. The Eventbrite page will have 10 mysteries. Pick one:

    • The central Scooby-Doo mystery. You've just walked into school on a perfectly ordinary morning morning to find every student but you has disappeared. What happened to them?
    • A cop drama, working the other side of the same case as the Lovelyville P.D.
    • An Indiana Jones search for lost treasure in the ancient ruins below the town
    • A Heist caper where you have to figure out where the Maltese Diamond is and how to steal it without getting caught
    • A Phoenix Wright courtroom battle. One of you plays the Prosecution, one plays the Defense - you both have to uncover the facts of a murder and then twist them to get the verdict you want in a live court scene
    • A Film Noir mystery where you play the main suspect in the courtroom mystery above - a travelling salesman who gets in over their head and uncovers a web of corruption
    • An X-Files/Twin Peaks mystery about FBI Agents who fall into supernatural chaos - one believer, one skeptic
    • A kinda lovecraftian Pans Labyrinth thing where you play a child who starts falling out of reality and has to solve strange riddles to get back
    • A classic intriguing Sherlock Holmes case where you play a monkey detective who can only talk by holding up signs
    • A Tintin mystery where you play a boy reporter thwarting a gang of crooks
    Each of these will have a price and a recommended number of players. I'm thinking that you just buy the mystery straight-out instead of buying individual tickets, so you can bring more or less than the recommended number of players if you'd like. That price will include everything you want to solve a mystery: Food (massive amounts of coffee and donuts for the cops, of course) interviews (more on that later), whiteboards, maps, big corkboards with photographs of suspects and bits of string showing their relationships. I want to provide everything you need to replicate the Detective chic of Rust's Shed from True Detective.

    Once you sign up you'll get a package in the mail with all your secret documents. Everyone gets a dash of background info, rumors and news articles to start them off, and their own personal mystery, distinct from the group one. Bring that stuff on the day, and you're set.

    Mystery Teens

    In about 7 weeks I'm going to run Mystery Teens, a Megagame about solving weird mysteries in a small town. If you sign up, I'll give you a mystery, and plonk you down in the middle of town to solve it. I'm going to make an entire paper town, with an amusement park, dark woods, a graveyard, an abandoned mansion, suburbs and cars, the whole lot. You'll solve mysteries by going out into town and investigating. It's totally self-directed, and you can investigate any place that takes your fancy.

    Here's how it works. You're snooping around and you find one Old Man Herring was at the crime scene on the night of the murder. You can look up his address in the directory...

    ...and head over there.

    From here, you have a few choices. Let's say you do the basic - knock on the door, see if anyone's home, and ask him what he's up to. You do that by opening the envelope in front of the house.

    Seems like a prime suspect. From here you could check his alibi by looking up the local cemetery - but if you want to go further here, you can sneak into his house and look for clues. You do this by actually opening up the house itself.

    Inside every one of these houses will be physical clues and evidence.

    You will be able to search almost any object in the game like this. Say you want to search the boot of his car:

    The room will be full of tables, each one a block of town filled with houses and props like this. Every one of these cute little paper props will pop open to reveal filthy, horrifying secrets hidden within. The paper houses, the cardboard graves - they all hide secrets.

    You'll sign up to solve a certain mystery with 1-7 of your friends, and spend the time snooping around this town while everyone else is hot on the trail of their own case, At the end, all of these mysteries will explode together in a climactic Denouement where you reveal the answer - or answer wrong, and see the villain get away laughing. 

    I'll keep updating this blog and the facebook group with more details and snapshots of more of the buildings. I'm planning to put tickets on sale this week or the next. 

    The Megagame

    Watch The Skies 2 just happened in the UK, and I realized I never posted about the aftermath of our own Megagame event in Brisbane. It was amazing! Click any of these images to make them bigger.

    The Russian team, and the aliens shouting "Worms! Worms! Worms!"

    Alien Documents

    The News and the game map

    The war room

    The Aliens successfully steal the world's supply of coffee. Later, they gifted it to France.

    Ace Reporter Gordy Higgins personally challenges the aliens to single combat, and is abducted.

    You can see more on our facebook page. This game went so well that I'm going to run another megagame of my own design in about a month and a half. It's inspired by Scooby Doo, Twin Peaks, and the Megagame "At Right Angles to Reality". Here's a sneak preview of one of the locations:

     More details soon!