An RPG Resource Review:
This, the core rulebook for Spycraft, is a solid yet flavourful read, containing all you need to get a game of Spycraft up and running... well, apart from the D20 Licence necessity to have a Wizards of the Coast core rulebook for certain details of character generation and advancement. Sensibly, the Introduction contains a summary of what's different between Spycraft and Dungeons & Dragons, while the Character Generation chapter makes specific references as appropriate.
The book opens with some general background on 'Honour among Spies' - spying as the Great Game - and an introduction to the basics of role-playing and the implementation of the D20 game mechanic for this game.
The first chapter deals with Agent Creation. It starts with an informal questionnaire designed to get you thinking about the sort of character you'd like to play, and what makes him 'tick' - delving deeper and even making the interesting suggestion that you might care to 'get into character' and complete one of those online personality tests! After giving a nice overview of the character sheet provided, character creation proper begins. In Spycraft all agents are human beings, but to give some variety over and above the class you choose, you also have to select the 'Department' from whence you came, which gives both background flavour and various game advantages and disadvantages. The ones presented here are just about all based around a background as a spy even before you begin (with the possible exception of Military Operations, but even that has a 'cloak and dagger' slant to it); however later publications in the Spycraft line provide additional departments that allow for a wide range of backgrounds and former careers for your agent.
Following department selection, you can then choose one of the six 'core classes' as your starting one: Faceman, Fixer, Pointman, Snoop, Soldier and Wheelman. Most of these are fairly self-explanatory. A Faceman is a master of disguise and deception. A Fixer is not only good at finding stuff, he's also a good burglar. The Pointman is not one in the military sense (the fellow who goes at the front on patrol) but is a versatile operative who can turn his hand to many things, and gives support to the rest of the team. The Snoop is the computer expert, while the Soldier takes the lead in combat and the Wheelman is the vehicle specialist. Each class has a range of useful abilities unique to it, which are enhanced as you rise in level. Of course, you can choose to change class when you get a new level, and you'll then acquire some, but not all, of the abilities of your new class.
There are some minor differences from Dungeons & Dragons. Rather than Hit Points, a character has both Wounds (= to his Constitution) and Vitality (rolled on a class-dependent die, and with the addition of any Constitution bonus). Damage is taken from Vitality first, and that is quickly regained once the fight is over. Wounds are, well actual physical wounds and take longer to recover from. Every character also receives Action Dice. This Alderac Entertainment Group innovation gives the player the option to roll an extra die to increase their chances of success at anything, provided the roll is made before the GC (Game Control, the name for the GM in Spycraft) announces the results of the roll. Every 1st level character starts with 3d4, but over the course of a session the GC may reward good play, quick thinking or whatever they please with additional Action Dice. As this is the only way the GC gains Action Dice for his NPCs, it behoves him to be generous! As you increase in level, the die type and number of Action Dice increase, and the pool is refreshed each session. Characters also have a modifier for Inspiration and Education checks. These are used to modify a d20 roll, Inspiration may be used when the player wants a hint from the GC, and Education when the character may well have knowledge (probably from his training as a spy) that the player doesn't possess.
The next two chapters deal with Skills and Feats. There's a comprehensive list of skills, which are handled conventionally according to D20 rules. Each skill is provided with a range of examples of things that you can do with it, complete with details of the required die rolls. No real surprises, apart possibly from the way in which Languages are handled. You may speak your native tongue plus as many languages as you have taken ranks in the Language skill... but every time you enounter a new language being spoken you may make a roll, the DC being set according to how uncommon the language is, and if you succeed you suddenly 'remember' that you know that language, and may add it to your character sheet!
Feats are grouped by various types, and many are hierarchical (you need to have particular feats before you may take another one in the 'feat tree'). Unfortunately there is no comprehensive list of all feats. There are Basic Combat Feats, Melee Combat Feats, Ranged Combat Feats (firearms feats, in other words), Unarmed Combat Feats (your martial arts ones), Chase Feats (which relate to driving and other vehicle skills), Covert Feats, Gear Feats, Basic Skill Feats, Advanced Skill Feats and Style Feats. These last are quite fun - you can be Filthy Rich, a Card Shark or possess a Safe House, for example. It's all a bit complicated, and it's quite difficult to choose - you need a clear picture of the way you intend your character to develop and - if you are going to aim for one of the Prestige Classes given in other books - often need to start selecting appropriate Feats (and for that matter skills) right from the outset.
The next chapter looks at Finishing Touches for your character, including such things as backgrounds. They expect you to spend skill points on backgrounds, although most of the suggested ones are actually a licence to the GC to cause even more and personalised trouble for you! You are supposed to gain extra XP (experience points) for missions in which your background takes effect, but to my mind this rather mechanises roleplaying - so I have discarded this rule, ask players to fill out a background questionnaire and leave them to spend all their skill points on skills. There's also an explanation of how to use Action Dice, and details on 'Gear.'
Character equipment and weapons are divided into 2 groups. You have your 'personal' stuff which remains in your possession, and then you have 'mission specific' gear which has to be returned after the mission has been completed. While that makes sense, there is a complicated system of personal and mission 'budgets' where you are given an allowance of points to spend on the items you want (or think you'll need). In the 'real world' an agent is usually quite well provided for, and certainly given whatever equipment his parent agency thinks he'll require for the task he's been set.
As well as 'Gear' you also have 'Gadgets' which start with some of the sort of gizmos that people like James Bond have to play with and get even more unlikely and extreme. Good if you like your spies to be cinematic tending towards the comic-book end of things, but to be used with caution if you prefer a more 'realistic' game.
A fair range of equipment and weapons is listed, with both the price in 'budget points' and in real money given. Weapons are mostly generic, with an eye towards the use of the Modern Arms Guide for more detail and game statisitcs for 'real world' firearms. Most of the equipment is quite straightforward and should leave your agents well-equipped... even for such specialised operations as those that might require a space suit! (Don't laugh, the Space Shuttle turns up in the vehicles section... and there is at least one published adventure where a quick jaunt into orbit is involved!). The gadgets are a mixed bag of useful and silly, while the vehicles are quite impressive, and there's a fine collection of add-on gadgets and 'the usual refinements' to enhance and customise your vehicle once selected.
Next comes a chapter on combat, the usual sort of details about how it all works. Naturally, the main focus is on combat using firearms, although there's also scope for melee, fisticuffs and martial arts. However, lurking amongst more conventional attack actions is a gem - the taunt. You may use your Bluff skill to taunt your opponent even in the midst of combat, and goad him into a rash move.
Chapter 7 is one of the real joys of this book: it's all about running chases - from a simple footrace to high-octane exploits with cars, aircraft, etc. The system allows for the performance of specialist manoeuvres, and enables the hunter and the prey to choose their tactic and then spring it upon their opponent. While it's mechanical, and has the potential to drag out if you are not careful, it's an excellent way of simulating the vehicle chases that are a staple part of many 'action movies.'
The next chapter deals with 'Tradecraft' - the actual art of spying, the tricks that are used in playing the Great Game. The types of missions that can be undertaken, and how to assess the 'threat level' - and so determine how much mission budget to make available for the purchase of gear and gadgets. This moves on to a discussion of various methods both of presenting missions to agents, and what they can do once they have been given a task, or a situation to resolve. It's somewhat of the nature of the trade that you'll be told what to do - which makes the GC's job easier - but it's often left to the agents to decide exactly how they intend to accomplish their mission... and so the GC has to be ready to react to their actions and ensure that everything runs smoothly (in game terms, that is: not necessarily as far as the agents are concerned!). There's a range of tactical advice: communications, forceable and stealthy entry techniques, dealing with the authorities, transportation and so on - quite a good primer for the new spy here. Sources of information, techniques for collecting evidence and interviewing people, security checks, travel arrangements, getting your weapons to where you need them: it's all here. Agents should study this chapter thoroughly!
The final chapter, Control, is aimed at the GC. It explains useful things like how to use Action Dice to your NPCs' advantage, tips on judging just when the PCs and NPCs will be able to spot each other sneaking around, environmental effects... and much, much more, even rules for such spy pastimes as gambling for hight stakes! That done, the 'Mastermind System' is introduced. This is a mechanism for designing the opposition such that game balance is maintained between the agents and their foes. Personally I find it far too mechanical and a bit stultifying, but it is an adequate yardstick for making sure that your Bad Guys are neither overkill nor a pushover.
The chapter winds up with a selection of serial (Spycraft-speak for a scenario) ideas - in outline, you'll need to work on them before you can use them in a game, NPCs and some excellent advice on the planning and running of a game. This last is again essential reading.
Overall, this is a book jam-packed with detail, clearly presented and useful for anyone wishing to run or play a contemporary espionage game. At times it runs the risk of getting too mechanical, of substituting die rolls and numbers for role-playing... but you can always set the book aside and role-play to your heart's content!