The silent care of soft footfalls amid leaves as the hooded eyes seek any sign of alert within an enemy camp. A calm mind directing many shadows down corridors of a lord's stronghold to find plans of a morning attack. The gurgled end of a target caught in a garrote as a pair of assassins steal away after completing their mission. The disguised servant moving to the memorized schedule of a household during a party to claim information and follow a mark. A group working on a plan to infiltrate and steal all the treasure from a fallen fortress or guarded sanctum.
To move in stealth and spy upon quarry does not always require a rogue and thief's kit. Infiltration missions range the spectrum including disguised guests at a party, spies working for liberation as a double or triple agent, mercenary ops using brutal force to get in and out, treasure thieves running a heist, and...the usual movement of thieves using stealth and guile to complete a mission without leaving evidence of their movements. Building and running these missions can be diverse as any other event if you give it thought and care.
The target of spycraft also differs depending on the goals of a campaign. From eliminating targets to collecting information and loot, a single agent or group of allies can turn the tide without alerting your enemies. This guide enters the world of spies, assassins, and thieves to give you the elements and guidelines for crafting remarkable events.
This guide can be used for MMO-RPG in-game events, tabletop games, LARPs, and more! The rolling rules are for a d20 system, but you could easily convert this to a d10 World of Darkness table of successes and botches, d6 Shadowrun system, and so on.
What makes a good spycraft mission?
Before delving into the world of spycraft, let's consider the elements of a good stealth assignment.
The typical path of sneak in, kill the guy, and grab the loot is tried and trusted, but lacks imagination. To breath life into the genre, consider another option: player agency with consequences. The power of a fine spy/thief/scout tale lies not in moving from point A to B and collecting C with high rolls for success. It's having an objective, setting the opportunities and pitfalls, and letting your players loose within the boundaries.
Have lists and ideas ready for anything including rich NPCs, false leads, tricky information (cursed, in code, broken), and constantly moving enemies. While players shift and move through a place, have your NPCs likewise on the move, open to changing sides, or steadfast to their cause. If the location or group being spied on would have a key villain, have them prominent, accessible, without being wooden. And have levels of consequences. One small failure should not cause the entire mission to fail, even at the end grab. Give the players a chance to rise and fall to the challenge.
Even James Bond has a team to help him in missions. And he had many ways to gain the objective. Give everything life!
The best spy and stealth events thrive within boundaries, sparking player ideas. An inventive one is the level of battle. If you remove warfare from the equation, tell your players early. Let them solve problems and end threats using the environment, NPCs, tools, and equipment. If you want to use battle, consider instant kills and silencing manuevers for guards. A dagger to the foot will earn screams whereas a dagger to the throat may silence that noise.
Spycraft Building Blocks
The following are a few building blocks of story and mechanics to consider when creating spycraft encounters.
Determine the type of spycraft: battle, scouting, heist, infiltration? Each of these types of missions are all under the genre of spycraft, be it a small squad getting information on the locale around their base to sneaking into a party and stealing a treasure. This will help define the different skills to use, difficulty class (DC) for any rolls, and obstacles to encounter.
Make the motive something the team wants to accomplish. What are they seeking and why? These goals may include saving hostages, gaining wealth, gathering information, infiltrating an enemy, capturing a leader, and so on. Give hooks along the way that ensure the importance of the goal, perhaps pulling on player history or faction and political lines, to aid alliances, or forcing some moral quandries.
Determine consequences for player actions. Consider what happens if the players are uncovered or misstep. This can lead to an evolving story run by the players' actions through a series of plot steps you want to tackle. Think of it like a Rube Goldberg machine where every action causes another effect.
- Prepare before sneaking or just go? If they can collect information or start with some insights, that may give players bonuses to rolls or vital information on what they face. If they go in blind, hijinks can ensue.
- Fight their way out? Yes, but that has limited success. Players will need to hide the body or increase the kill/subdue count till they are free of alerts or out.
- Take prisoners? They could bind or knock out forces they invade, but other guards or leaders may wonder what happened to their people. Or the prisoners get loose and raise alarms.
- Disable or trip alarms? If they location has magic or mundane traps and alarms, can the players disarm or disable them? Or flip it around and set off every single alarm confusing their targets.
- If the mission fails, how do they get out?
- If they succeed and have a hot/hunted item, what do they do with it?
- Does the employer double cross them? This scenario could be two rival teams seeking the same item. Or once receiving the objective, the employer tries to send the targets against the players.
Keep action moving, but give them a breather. Striking a balance between constant rushing through traps, tests, and a maze may be great for non-stop action. But to build the narrative and rising tension, give players safe zones to take a moment and consider their next moves. It could be a fortified location, a blind spot in a guard rotation, a shack on the premises. After a bit of time passes, give them incentive to move with perception tests around the location or through any watchful scouts in the team.
Mix intelligent leaders with brutes. A force running a con or holding a position are not all dumb and strong. They have intelligent leaders, specialists with different skills such as medicine, engineering, technology, ammunitions and explosives, and much more. Consider the skills of your players and create a couple of mirrors for them in the enemy ranks. A sly bomb maker, a charismatic leader that once worked for the players' employer, and a medical doctor or healer can create deadly scenarios to foil the invading players.
Encourage creative solutions. Just telling your players to think about the situation may frustrate them when figuring out the best method to win. Add items, information, and opportunities to your location. A supply room with random items, broken technologies, pieces of bombs, and some old uniforms may spark players to create disguises, build a bomb, and interfere with communications.
Rolls can be helpful. If players get stuck, ask them to roll for a skill, expertise, intelligence or wisdom, perception, or just for ideas. Based on the results, toss ideas their way based on their characters, what's around them in the area, what's in their pockets or backpack. This little nudge may give them a chance to leap out of the bad situation, or create one for their enemy.
Use alternate rules for silencing or assassinating targets. For stealth missions, instead of running typical battles, consider assassination or subdue rolls to silence a target for a round. In that time, their comrades could bind hands and feet, stuff a rag in their mouths, or move them to a secure location. This reduces long fights with boring guards and focuses on more time dedicated to boss fights! Players then have memorable moments of knocking out five guards then epicly battling the general with two body guard hyenas instead of 2 hours fighting simple guards before a seemingly short leader fight.
Make lists for failsafes, plan B, and other options for your enemies and players. Nothing ever goes to plan with heists, scouting runs, and spy missions. By creating lists of key locations and options available at different times, you can react quickly to players without losing the pace and save you from hitting a deadlock moment. Depending on the situation, you could reward or curse players based on each situation won or lost by increasing or decreasing difficulties for the next actions, like earning a boon or incurring a tail on their route out.
You can find a ton of incredible sources for inspiration. Here are just a few:
- TV: Homeland, Heist, Money Heist, Good Girls, The Great Train Robbery, Lupin, Homeland, Nitika, 24, The Blacklist, Agents of Shield, The Man in the High Castle, The Enemy Within, The Prisoner, Quantico, The Equalizer, MI5
- Movies: Sneakers, Mission Impossible, Ocean's 11, James Bond, Jason Borne, In the Line of Fire, The Man from UNCLE, War, Army of the Dead, Lupin, Any movie by Michael Mann like Heat, The Usual Suspects, Reservoir Dogs, Rurouni Kenshin, time heist in Avengers End Game, anything Tom Clancy
- Books: Tom Clancy, Robert Ludlum, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, James Bond, Manchurian Candidate, Seven Silent Men, Steal the Sky, The Thousand Deaths of Ardor Benn, Rogues of the Republic series
- Games: Dishonored, Assassin's Creed, Thief, Tenchu, Metal Gear Solid
Building a Stealth/Spy Event
To build an entire horror campaign starts with smaller ideas, key villains, and arcing plots. Before coming up with a campaign, let's start with an initial event to start. For these steps, we will create two types of horror events: psychological horror and splatterfest gore horror.
See How to Run Events & Campaigns for information and the following tips:
- Give your spy/scouting event a theme. This can help hone in on objectives, resources, and opportunities for your players. For example, it could be the heist of the century, infiltrating a corrupt organization, or scouting a battlefield the night before the fight.
- Allow rolls to help supplement roleplay. Whisper key information based on results, place items in their path, helping to put them on the right track.
- Provide NPCs and items that will have details to help. They may find or purchase plans to the location, get incorrect information on guard rotations, locate battle plans, or leave modified guard orders to cause problems.
- Allow players to go different directions, keeping track of where they go and the consequences of those paths. Let them split their groups, find things out of order, and miss things.
Set the Stage
Determine what the spy or stealth event is. This could be a couple sentences, which gives you something fantastic to give players when starting the event. Here are two examples used in this guide.
Lucky Aces Infiltration Team: Answering the call, a group comes together under the name Lucky Aces. Each person takes a moniker based on a playing card. Enemy forces in a warring faction headquarters received another shipment of supplies and weapons, preparing to strike. The Aces will sneak into the compound, gather information, sabotage efforts, and save prisoners if any are found. They have sketchy information and part of a map. Stealth is key! How will they proceed?
Map by eViLe-eAgLe!
|The two sets of tents provide housing for the 3 guard squads. One mans the walls and crossbows, taking turns to get rest. One patrols outside the walls. One splits time protecting prisoners and manning walls.
|A few prisoners may be kept shackled in the tents, along side any medics or other support staff. This position doesn't have a formal prison and may fall back to having important prisoners in the tower.
|Large mounted crossbows with limited turn radius are set up on wooden platforms with just enough clearance to fire over the wall. They use local lumber for ammunition and building.
|All supplies are kept behind the practice pells kept in crates and covered with tarps and boxes. Players could use these items, set fires, steal, or many other uses as needed.
|The leader, knights, plans, seals, and other import items are kept in this solid structure. It's the most reinforced and defensible location for enemies and players depending who gets control first. Lookouts could also be here on the roof, or a treacherous climb to try and enter here directly over the wall.
Lost Arc of Jade Winds: A beautiful arc of gold and jade was unearthed by a rival lord. It holds not just wealth but power, ancient scriptures and tomes of lore mark it as the vessel for archmagi relics of the ancient past. And we need it first. You need it before the rival opens and learns of that power. And payment? How about anything else you can find and lift from the vault? Gold, platnium, jewelry, fine artworks, weapons and armor...if they own one relic, they may have many more!
Map by Morvold Press!
|The vault is located on the second floor of the lord's estate, which houses students and adepts of the arcane to research mysteries, craft arcane items, and repair finds. The stairwell leads from the lower floor to a reinforced chamber with guards. This is the only entry to the floor.
|The two chambers provide living quarters for the magical adepts and researchers. Some tomes and personal effects are here. Players could steal clothing, switch places with students, or trap and question the students.
|Chamber of carefully maintained supplies, materials, and more. They could use this as a midway point to hide, resupply, or dump bodies and items.
|The personal chambers for the headmaster of the arcane teams. This may be a wizard/bard/cleric of some renown and ability. They could try barring the way, have someone in the supply room watching, or try to sneak them early. Consider some failsafes here or familiars.
|Numerous desks, tables, and crafting stations with a central table for meeting. They could find information, pose as students here, find items to help the heists or info for the spywork.
|The leader, knights, plans, seals, and other import items are kept in this solid structure. It's the most reinforced and defensible location, easy to trap your players, could have numerous traps and triggers. Get creative and allow the players to get inventive.
Set Key Factors
When you plan a scouting/spy mission or a heist, give yourself key information to fall back on.
- What are the possible objectives? Spy and scouting missions may focus on learning numbers and positions of the enemy, a leader, supplies to capture, prisoners to save, plans and documents to collect, and more. Give objectives a location, protections, methods to find it, and DCs for any skill checks.
- What are the entrances and exits to the location? Make note of gates, doors, hatches, windows, and more and how they can get around or through them. Players can get inventive on how they break through walls, floors, windows, chimneys, and other potential points.
- Who and what guards the objective? Create a list of guards of people and creatures that patrol or guard the area. Note their paths, key locations, number of members and strength, and more.
- What are the protections and traps? Make note of siege weapons, turrets, weapon depots, traps and triggers, magical traps, wards, and other protective options at the location.
- What can be stolen or destroyed? The supplies, general gear, and other items found in the location could be the prime target, a side objective, helpful for enacting plans or as a great distraction. Consider all possibilities for what you put in play.
- What can they learn? Players may want to get and study plans ahead of time, question residents or workers in the location, to be prepared. Consider the best ways in and out, considering misinformation and changes in rotation they may not find or learn about.
|Lucky Aces Infiltration
|Lost Arc Heist
|Entrances and Exits
|Protection and traps?
Set a Difficulty Class
This is the difficult (DC) required on a roll or roleplay to complete a task or get info. You can set a DC for both quite easily and effectively, just to give context of finding or missing things. Consider awarding not only successes but failures, these could be painful finds, breaking evidence by finding it, or discovering incorrect details to increase tension or misdirect.
DC for Roleplay Events
For roleplayed freeform difficulties, you do not judge a roll result but keep a keen watch on position, path, described focus, and actions. For investigations, use the set locations to have players divide up and search.
Read through their text and provide information based on their attention to detail:
- Set areas they can search (icons used as examples).
- Watch their roleplay actions and details.
- Provide insights only based on their details, giving them more to check or considerations to make.
- Consider their class, backstory, present interests when deciding what they find. Someone distraught may miss details, overzealous players may find a ton of details (some real, some false), a magic user may focus on arcane clues while a warrior checks the killing blow.
- Don’t feel obligated to give all the details simply because they said they searched where you indicated. Have them work for it, interact, and come to conclusions. Provide incentive through the environment, a sense they believe they are correct, and outside force or NPC agreeing.
- Let your enemies lie! A trusting thief may be the greatest threat they have in the event.
- If they fail to find the correct clues, don't force the information or punish them for missing it. Provide hooks into the next areas and scenes that point back to it or have it be a detriment later. Sometimes a failure is just as telling, and can muddy up a scene adding depth.
Example for a roleplay investigation of the Lucky Aces Infiltration Team:
|The supplies could have kegs of booze, blackpowder, and oil to create throwable bombs and large fires to seriously distract guard to one side of the keep. The group could use other areas to entyer from the northwest where tree cover is still present.
The well in the center of the camp leads to an underground lake with a river. They could investigate it as a potential for entry or exit.
|The crossbows are mounted and hard to turn. The front gate and west has far more coverage than the back.
Entering through the southeastern crossbow mount may be the safest for ducking into the supplies. Fewer guards.
Listening to the guards at these posts in the northeast may give information of prisoners and how they are doing while investigating the walls. Sounds of prisoners they know may be heard.
|The stonework of the tower and house is old, crumbling in places. A well placed bomb or pulling with horses and chain hooks could break through or form a hole.
Leadership and important prisoners are easily seen entering and exiting the tower.
Guards patrol the top of the tower, using a trapdoor. While difficult, it could be a vantage for entering the tower unseen from above.
DC for Rolling Events
These games you roll to get a result. Usually 1-20 or d20 die with 1 being a critical failure and 20 a critical success. If you use custom game rules for MMOs or tabletop systems, bonuses may be added on rolls to go beyond a 20 or to reroll. Also what they roll differs for these situations.
- Tabletop System: As noted previously, this could be any system using dice. Convert table results as needed, roll DC vs number of successes, etc. This uses a d20 system.
- Homebrew: Use special rolls set by group, guild, or your own
- Champion’s Compendium: Traits rolls, items can influence results
- Warcraft Conquest Simplified 1.2: Perception or Expertise rolls, Perceptive +5, other skills as best supporting the situation.
For all of these systems, you have control to set the DC and what players learn. Here are recommendations with examples from the Death of Lord Ferris:
|Critical Failure. Consider causing noise to give away a position, breaking a vital item they needed, losing a map, tripping a trap, or a curve ball.
|As you answer questions to the guards, playing the part of a student, your hastily hidden dagger falls from your robe to the floor and the disguise falls apart. The jig is up!
|Failure. They may not find the most vital piece of information or miss a location, but you can give them additional information based on what they check.
|The doors all look the same...difficult to decide which one belongs to the headmaster. A gargoyle statue stands in the center of the hall facing one door. Investigating this may help?
|Success. Provide additional details that could find or disarm a trap, locate an item, or aid in the situation.
|The gargoyle holds an orb in its claws, the same color as the crystal inset in one door. The pair seem tied, certainly a trap set off by opening the door!
|Great Success. Provide detailed information regarding the stiuation that could get them further in the heist, past guards, or into or out of a tight spot.
|By removing the orb from the gargoyle or casting magics the break the tie, you could end the trap spell and enter the chamber. Maybe you could use this somehow? You know this to be the headmaster's chamber.
|Critical Success. Provide finer points that are rare and difficult to find, a great win or highly successful piece of work.
|After finding the vault and reviewing the long hall, you find a series of traps set to panels throughout the floor. Breaking these may be difficult, but bringing the orb of the gargoyle could prove helpful! Tossing it down through the hall, the magics are identified as the headmaster, giving you moments to chase it without triggering a single trap!
Set the Scene
I strongly recommend prewriting a few things that may be lengthy. This cuts down on waiting for responses and keeps the event moving forward. Here are examples:
- Description of the scene: What they see, what’s available to investigate, potential sketchy maps and plans for them to look over prior to arriving, rumors and gossip they could find along the way or from listening in stealth.
- What is important to check out: One line with a raid marker in text detailing what is there to check or seems important. This can be a great starting point
- DC responses: Set up your DC and results, keep these short, you can expand on them as you like while in game to make it special. Have some neat ideas for critical successes and failures to modify. Give players with high rolls a chance to save their friends.
- Questioning or infiltrating staff: What if they want to question a servant or take the place of an NPC? Keep a list of names and options ready for they to slip into. This gives weight and importance to the scenes.
Connect your content with the physical location. If you are in game, add raid markers per area they can investigate or access. This helps you track what players are checking, connecting to your DC rolls and descriptions. To make your life easier, take screenshots and create images plotting your raid markers. If you don’t have a chance to set them with another player, use screenshots and Google Drawing.
For VTTs like Roll20 or at the table, use maps and props to hand out and let them prepare with: sketchy maps, images of NPCs, household objects or miniatures/tokens to represent traps or key items. Connect these with your descriptions to track.
Run the Event
Much like a battle, these events will have a beginning and finale. A heist or infiltration will have similar steps including spying on the location, determining points of entry, gaining entrance, dealing with obstacles, gaining objectives, and the exit strategy. You can follow these examples for each transition, giving players more to handle and react to until they reach the final encounter.
Connect environmental rolls and situations to solve. You can definitely mix battle and environmental obstacles in your stealth mission:
- Lucky Aces: Ground cover getting to the wall is sparse in some locations, weather could make this worse. Use environmental rolls for the terrain and getting past the spear barricades to the wall.
- Lost Arc: Traps or active enchants may cause bad effects for players in a hallway. They may have to dodge arrows from walls, flame gouts, icy floors, or dodge pitfall traps!
Connect information and situations when moving scenes. Players may gather or learn information as they investigate for entry, gain entrance, get past issues, and start moving to targets. Call back to this information or provide hitns as it becomes relevant in the next areas.
- Lucky Aces: As they scouted the wall and got over, they overhead guards speaking of ill prisoners puking their guts out with the doctors in the green tents. They may joke about the color being the color and state of prisoners. They may see movements of squads and changing of the guards at specific times, giving them something to work with and a location.
- Lost Arc: The players overhear guards and students speak of a new group in the ivory wing, fresh faces and just arrived to the school. They will be given a tour and shown where not to step, students joking about the situation. They could go to this wing and take the places of the students, getting that tour and using the information!
Consider failures and misdirection clues as a possible new solutions. A setback shouldn't always hurt the players. Give them a chance to turn it around. Perhaps some of the learned information that were incurred due to a critical failure cause incorrect assumptions. This can add depth and the turning of a bad situation into something helpful without damning them.
- Lucky Aces: They get the tents wrong! They enter a set of tents expecting to find the prisoners, but find sleeping archers! They could knock them out and take their places, moving through the camp with more ease.
- Lost Arc: Triggering a trap may not just hurt the players but NPCs as well, causing many of their number to end up dropped in pitfall traps too. The players could capitalize in a race to get out to trap them. Huzzah!
You have created a great spy/theft event. Have fun, tweak as you need, build your events one to the next for a grand campaign. You can use infiltrations and thefts in battles, horror arcs, scouting parties, and so much more!