System idea: managing a secret organization


Hi all,

I'm toying in my head with some potential ideas for our next campaign. One of these is a novel way to represent a setting where the PCs are at the head of a secret conspiracy or covert faction of some kind, and waging a secret war against some other such cabal.

The basic idea is that players don't always use the same character. During the game, they may encounter and recruit suitable NPCs, which then get detailed and customised and become PCs. Each time some mission opportunity presents itself (the campaign would be fairly structured, although not everything needs to be a formal "mission"), the players will decide who to send on that mission.

There are a few tricky bits to make this work. The first is to make it so that just sending the highest-level characters is not always the obvious choice. To this purpose, I introduce the concept of a team "profile". The "profile" is a number that's equal to the highest level of the PCs in the team. A high profile draws a lot of attention, which means the player cabal's occult enemies will bring in higher-level opposition, and covert operations will be far more difficult. The enemy is competent and resourceful, and although they can't know everything the players do, it will be very hard to prevent them from even suspecting the involvement of a high-level character - someone that has probably thwarted their plans before, on whom they have extensive dossiers, and whose every acquaintance is being monitored. Also, it'll be more difficult to gather intelligence when you have a world-famous face (even if only in the spy community); at the very least, NPCs will require bigger favors, and small fish may just be afraid to get involved at that level. Note that because the profile is the highest PC level, it also discourages composing groups with extreme level differences (which is usually problematic).

The other tricky bit is what happens when you have multiple missions going on at the same time. You probably don't want to switch back and forth between PC groups all the time, and you don't want to be unable to have different missions progress at different paces - ideally, most of the time, you should be able to run a mission start-to-finish and then switch to another team, or at least only switch scenes at well-controlled plot points. To this purpose, I introduce two concepts. The first is that if the cabal sends two teams in the same general area, this draws a whole lot of attention, as it's exponentially harder to keep a large operation hidden. The profile for both groups is equal to the sum of their profiles (i.e. if a profile 3 group and a profile 9 group both operate in the same city at the same time, the mission profile is 12 for both). This means that attempting concurrent missions where the teams can easily meet is all but impossibile. If the players really want to attempt it, I'd be okay with handling the extra complexity in exceptional circumstances.

The second is that the enemy has extensively compromised long-range communications. They have an artefact that lets them monitor sending and similar spells and/or they have spy satellites and taps inside Internet and phone providers. Bottom line, anything you do to quickly contact HQ or another team while on a mission may not get through and/or get intercepted. In this way, the DM can control if and when one team's actions can affect another's. Couriers, dead-drops or other high-latency methods are easier to handle as then the DM can control when a scene change is required.

That's what I have so far. Does it sound like an interesting idea, overall? Any glaring flaw I can't spot?

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Way back in time I ran something similar in a modern setting. Based on Mission Impossible (the TV series not the movie franchise), where each player built 3+ PC specialists and a team was assembled to run the mission by a designated team lead (it rotated among the players).

Two things became apparent very quickly. 1) The players had consistent preferences for modus operandi and thus wanted a particular set of skills generally consistently leading to particular PCs being used. 2) Each player quickly developed a favorite PC and advocated playing that one. 1 and 2 were somewhat in conflict as the favorites didn't hit all the specialties particularly well, but that was solved with some xp expenditure. A third issue was system-specific: Players had differing levels of system mastery and some PCs were simply more competent than others.

Ultimately, it wasn't my most successful campaign. The players were less engaged with their PCs and the PCs were less engaged with each other.


Small God of the Dozens
I might look at Band of Blades if you haven't already. Not to use, but to mine for ideas. It has some strong mechanics for troupe play and a nice balance between playing the bigwigs and them switching off to play the grunts who have to go do the dirty work.

Other than that, I Iike your ideas for profile, it's similar to some other mechanics in other games designed to represent the 'secret-ness' of a mission or the the resulting fallout. It should be good tool for balancing the challenge of missions where the PC level could vary quite a bit.

You're going to need some good rules for factions and favors for sure. I can picture what you're aiming for, but it'll need to be done just right. You might need to hack out something rather robust (but not fiddly) to track influence and the status of various relationships. You can only press friends and contacts so far before they balk. You may also benefit from bulking out the downtime rules a little. Having some more granularity on things like surveillance, info gathering, and social infiltration will probably help a lot.

There is a 5E hack of Blades in the Dark called Here's to Crime that you may want to get. It ports over some good mechanics from Blades for 5E play specifically for the sort of thing you want to run, including the flashback mechanic. Flashbacks are a fabulous tool for cutting down on those endless planning sessions where the PCs sit around for hours trying to anticipate every eventuality and get things just so.


Thanks, that's good advice! Nagol: good point about MO preference. In my mind, that issue gets addressed in part by presenting concurrent missions, i.e. there is plot pressure and the same PCs cannot be everywhere at the same time. Not sure that would work in practice. One potential problem could be if level differentials end up in such a way that there is no combination of PCs that produce a viable profile, which could happen if one or two players tend to stick with the same characters while others rotate frequently. Although that might not be too bad if I pick a system where the power curve is not too steep; also, I'd definitely make sure to have player buy-in beforehand. There'd be flexibility, but if someone declares that they hate the whole premise, then the whole thing is a no-go.

I'll take a look at the sources Fenris-77 mentioned. I'm definitely going to want something to track relationships, but I'm fairly sure I can put something together. I'm more concerned about downtime, though. In my group, some players want to just get to the next plot point ASAP, while others want to put every single minute of their character's time to good use. That results in situations where a couple players spend upwards of one or two hours looking for equipment, crafting gear, talking to contacts, reviewing rules on training, and so on, while others state they'll go for ale & whores and then sit and twiddle their thumbs. I've yet to figure out how to deal with that issue, and I'm worried that this setup will exacerbate the problem. Some characters will necessarily end up with a lot of downtime.


Small God of the Dozens
The flashback mechanic covers a lot of that stuff. It allows the party to adjust on the fly to unforeseen complications and avoid the tedious planning. I can't recommend it highly enough for this sort of game. Blades in the Dark generally has a lot of ideas you may find very useful to steal or adapt. Also, there is a ton of 3PP stuff designed to add to Dragon Heist, and a lot of that has the kind of help you're looking for.


Lord of the Hidden Layer
Aquisitions Inc is supposed to be a not-secret group doing adventurous stuff (including some spy work). You might be able to use the Downtime and Building an Organization rules from there, or adapt something from them.

Epic Threats

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