Cold War Spies in Blades in the Dark

Last winter I revisited a game idea I’d had: inspired by Saladin Ahmed’s suggestion to tell a spy story about spies from disadvantaged minor nations during the Cold War, I wanted a game that would push the dilemmas experienced by those intelligence agents to the forefront. How do you achieve your goals when you’re tiny pieces playing a much larger game? How do you make sure your nation isn’t simply eaten and discarded? How do you achieve your own goals, and how do you do all that while holding onto your humanity?

I knew that GURPS and a good storyteller *could* do all that, but I wanted something that felt more like Monsterhearts (more on my love for that game here) with mechanics that pushed those experiences to the forefront. I spent a while jotting down notes and trying to puzzle out how it would work. I came up with the idea of people choosing particular trainings for the characters, each relevant level of which would give them another die for a skill roll. I thought of measuring stress as a clock (Apocalypse World style) to denote the growing burden of keeping your cool while everything around you is going to hell.

And then I bought a copy of Blades in the Dark (and here) and realized that what I wanted had already been developed.

Now, admittedly, I don’t yet know of a BitD hack that does everything I am looking for. I also haven’t dug deep into the pile of BitD hacks out there, either in circulation or in development. But I no longer think I need to design all of this from the ground up. I think Blades in the Dark, with some modification, should work extremely well for what I want.

I still must find some way to reward continued player-player interactions, encouraging some collaboration without assuming that everyone is on the same side all the time. I don’t want to sacrifice the experience of questionable loyalties, self doubt, and second guessing your own judgement—but I also don’t want to make those things so grating or dominant in the game that it’s impossible to play without giving yourself ulcers. Similarly, as long as I’m letting player characters not all be on the same side all the time (or even all be part of the same Crew) I’ll need to find some way to either replace the Turf mechanic or modify it, and some way to alter the underlying Crew dynamic.

Suffice to say, there’s still a lot for me to figure out. But this looks fun, and maybe some of you would like to see it?

Please let me know if you’ve seen other Cold War spy BitD games. I’m thinking more Quiller Memorandum or The Witch Who Came In From The Cold, less James Bond.

Here’s a few of the other BitD hack resources I’ve found, though none do quite what I’m looking for:

(https://www.reddit.com/r/bladesinthedark/comments/8l5ysh/has_there_been_a_simply_spy_thriller_hack/)

(https://forums.somethingawful.com/showthread.php?threadid=3713405)

(https://itch.io/t/420201/share-your-projects-forged-in-the-dark)

(https://thysane.itch.io/the-spies-that-death-forgot)

And, of course, the Forged in the Dark forums:

(https://community.bladesinthedark.com/c/forged-in-the-dark)

Atomic Blonde

atomic-blonde-footage-reaction-video-cinemacon-2017-social

Convoluted, paranoia-inspiring, and extremely violent, Atomic Blonde feels like what a Bond film would be if the brutality of 2006’s Casino Royale met the conflicted and complicated world of *actual* spy fiction.

Actually, that’s a better description of the movie than I’d thought it would be. Atomic Blonde is full of gorgeously choreographed and grimly performed fight scenes (as one might expect from David Leitch, director of John Wick), and it is definitely not a film intended for a passive or unthinking audience. The underlying story is twisty, and nearly every person’s loyalty is deeply questionable, enough so that I spent a good portion of the movie not sure who was on which side; perfect, really, for this sort of spy movie. Not so good if you’re watching this thinking that you’ll have a neatly packaged Bond-esque film, but quite possibly more fun because of that.

I kind of wish that there’d been a little more in the way of clues for me to catch throughout the movie, or that I’d put together the ones that were there faster. If I had, I wouldn’t have been quite as confused in the end. But when I reflect on it, everything holds together, and I only have a deeper appreciation for what’s there.

I won’t give you any spoilers (apart from saying that if you can’t handle visceral uncomfortable violence, you probably shouldn’t watch this movie), but I will say that I rather liked Atomic Blonde. It wasn’t exactly what I’d expected, and I’m glad that it wasn’t. While I’d happily watch Charlize Theron play Bond in some sly, neatly packaged, thoroughly sanitized version of what current American moviegoers have come to think of as “a spy-action movie,” the gnawing distrust and complicated loyalties of Atomic Blonde deliver an excellent spy movie experience, and a better one than I’d thought I’d find.

The Quiller Memorandum, by Adam Hall

Ah, pseudonyms.  Adam Hall was one of the pseudonyms used by the author Elleston Trevor (which was itself not the author’s original name).  It seems entirely appropriate to me that such an excellent spy novel should come from someone who felt so compelled to shroud and change their own identity.  If you like spy stories and intrigue, or would like to try dabbling in them for the very first time, look no further.  Quiller is a far better Cold War spy than the cinematic Mr. Bond ever was, more deeply focused on the details of spycraft, practicing intimate information war as a metaphoric knife fight where you’re never truly certain as to who holds the advantage.  Drawing blood is rarely the point of the duel, and secrets are more valuable than lives.  The Quiller Memorandum, as you might have guessed, is a very exciting book.

Does the title feel achingly familiar?  Just like something that you’ve read before?  Well…

Continue reading