An RPG Resource Review:
Like the preceding two 'military-oriented' books from this publisher (US Militaries and World Militaries) this work is divided into several chapters of information on various topics, followed by a single 'New Rules' chapter which demonstrates how to utilise the information within a game. The aim – declared in the Introduction – is to provide some contemporary, historical and future military settings in which an espionage or military campaign could be run, along with lots of ideas for single adventures and events to use either in a wartime campaign or even as side excursions within a more conventional spy game.
The first battleground to be investigated is Afghanistan. The chapter opens with a description of the geography and terrain – which would have been vastly enhanced by a map of the area – and then a brief but reasonably accurate account of recent history since the 1970s, when the indigenous government was replaced by one supported by the Soviet Union. While there is rarely such a thing as a true 'government' in Afghanistan, with most of the land controlled by warlords loyal only to themselves, throughout recent history, the major powers have done covert battle by choosing and supporting sides, providing plenty of opportunities should you choose to run an historical game. There are a couple of really nasty ideas for how things might have gone really 'pear shaped' and propelled the world into the aftermath scenario that is dealt with in the penultimate chapter, and a fairly straightforward cave-clearance adventure that pits the characters, as Soviet Spetznaz forces, against a mujahadeen stronghold.
Next up is Bosnia, another part of the world that has spent most of the 20th century in conflict and continues in similar mode into this century. As in the previous chapter, this account begins with the geography and history of the region, culminating in more detailed notes on events during the 1990s. The various factions involved are described and the chapter ends with a mission in which the players, as SAS soldiers, are sent to raid a Serb-held village (rather confusingly, the mission brief is provided as 'Option # 1' although there aren't any others!).
The following chapter describes a seething maelstrom of revolution and drug wars, Central and South America. After a brief overview, focus settles on Colombia with a US presence ostensibly to counter the drug trade, but also bolstering the current government against left-wing insurgents before moving on to brief descriptions of the 1982 Falklands War, when British forces fought to expel Argentinean invaders, and the incident in Grenada the following year, when US troops intervened to quell a Marxist-led coup. There are also notes on Nicaragua and Panama. Again, unless you are a good geographer, you'll probably be running for an atlas to check where all these places are – a general map of the region would have helped greatly. In many ways, this part of the world may be the one best suited to those who want to run espionage games against a background of international conflict, as there is a wealth of opportunity for fact-finding missions and undercover support (or hindrance) of warring factions. Several of the wonderful collection of adventure seeds provided takes advantage of this, and there are other small-scale patrol missions ideal for a small group of characters operating on their own for those wishing a more military game. The full-blown mission provided is set in Colombia, with the agents pitted against a US 'advisor' who has gone rogue and set up as a warlord in his own right.
There is a slight change in pace for the next chapter, which visits Vietnam. Here, possibly one of the times the Cold War came closest to turning 'hot' as the capitalist and communist ideologies warred by proxy in the jungles and plains of Vietnam, new styles of warfare developed as conventional strengths of numerical superiority and more advanced technology proved insufficient. There's a lot of scope for groups who want to go historical, with espionage and covert missions galore as well as more conventional military patrolling. The scenario provided is rather thin, a downed aircraft with an experimental bomb aboard needs to be retrieved, but all you have to work with is a hilltop base and a few Viet Cong after the same objective.
The final 'setting' chapter looks at potential end-of-the-world situations. The basic premise is that an outbreak of a particular virulent influenza virus reaches epidemic proportions, and triggers internal unrest and international incidents that rapidly escalate to nuclear exchanges. The result is a devastated planet with about one-quarter of its former population scrabbling to survive. You can also weave in various 'flash-point' incidents detailed in the preceding setting chapters, or use them as the main basis for the disaster the world has suffered. While most of the material assumes that the catastrophes have already happened and the agents are now attempting to survive and prosper during the aftermath, it could also be interesting to run a campaign in which things are falling apart around their ears. The provided mission involves making contact with one of the few surviving Agency field offices… or – as for once the 'Option 1' is not the only version presented – it's an office belonging to an enemy organisation and the agents can make a hostile take-over instead.
The book rounds off with a 'New Rules' chapter, which primarily deals with concepts necessary for running a long-term campaign without much resupply – be it trips behind enemy lines in any setting or the survival image of the last setting. However many of the rules, such as those providing a more realistic view of injury and recovery and the ones for poisons and weapons of mass destruction, could be adopted by GCs running games in any setting who want greater realism and truly scary effects when their agents are wounded or encounter Bad Guys who are happy to throw nuclear devices or deadly diseases at them. There’s also a section on having a 'battle in the background' – while recognising that the focus of a role-playing game is going to be the individual players there will be occasions when using material from this book that a group of agents may find themselves surrounded by a larger-scale combat, and provides some incidental events that may befall them (snipers, incoming stray mortar rounds and the like).
The rules should be approached with some caution, as it is possible to turn the whole thing into a die-rolling exercise rather than playing out actions such as scavenging for supplies. On the other hand, if your priorities are such that you'd rather not waste game-time on any particular aspect, you have the option of using the rules in a mechanical manner and getting on with what you want to do during a play session.
Overall, the book gives a good overview and some excellent starting-points for running a different sort of spy game than hitherto presented in the main ('Silver') Spycraft books, one in which combat and violence provides a constant background. I feel that anyone wanting to run a campaign in any of the settings will need to do quite a bit of research into the localities and likely incidents before they will be able to begin; and may also benefit from accessing other RPG material that has looked in more detail at the area of interest – for example Holistic Games's Real Life Roleplaying books on Afghanistan and Colombia, or Palladium Books' Recon if you are heading for Vietnam.
This product gives some excellent ideas for broadening the scope of a Spycraft game from pure espionage into small-unit military operations and wartime spying, and provides good starting points for several campaigns.
The main drawback is that there are no maps! Even a map-freak like myself doesn't have every single nation's detailed layout at their fingertips – and even if you don't want to research the area further you are going to need to get maps covering the region in which you set your game.
I am always a bit wary of attempts to mix role-playing – a very individual activity, where each player has one character and you rarely get hierarchical command structures within the group – and the broader scope of a full-blown war situation, but this offering from AEG manages to create the right balance: a backdrop of a war situation against which teams of player-character agents or special forces operatives will be able to operate in a more conventional role-playing manner.