Friday, February 17, 2012

Spies in Atlantasia

John Holland concedes that the fantasy setting of The Realms of Atlantasia necessarily obviates some degree of realism so, in fairness, we cannot criticize each instance of inexact correlation between Atlantasia and our quaint reality.  Now, your humble host makes no claim to expert knowledge of espionage practices in the real world; however, espionage in TROA differs decidedly (and perhaps necessarily) with how espionage is portrayed in real world media.

In the real world (or so the media would have us believe), espionage is the clandestine collection of information, typically sponsored by a political and/or military entity.  This ‘collection of information’ is effected, in part, by covert operatives (i.e., spies).  A complication of espionage is that the information source often has its own espionage apparatus.  So, there are various entities, each trying surreptitiously to acquire information about one another while simultaneously safeguarding their own information.  These activities engender not just agents, but counter agents, double agents, sleeper agents, etc. Things get complicated and confusing, causing an inefficient deployment of resources. The situation is different with Atlantasian spies and their activities.  Holland presents an intriguing concept but – as is his want – he imbues that concept with Atlantasian goofiness.

In Atlantasia, any and all spying is conducted by the Spies' Guild.  There are no competing organizations to complicate matters.  Like most guilds, the Spies' Guild does not take kindly to outsiders plying the guild trade.  Every once in a while, some journeyman thinks he’s slick enough that he can get away with a freelance operation.  Well, he can’t.  A thief can get away with an occasional side job without the Thieves’ Guild taking notice, but nothing gets past the Spies' Guild.  You have a better chance of finding a half-elf sunbathing in Baba-Luna than you do of successfully defying the guild.  Holland has too much decorum to detail what happens to freelancers, yet between the lines a gruesome fate is implied.  In fact, Holland spends less than a page discussing the Spies' Guild; much of this post is extrapolated from the notion of an espionage monopoly in a fantasy setting.

The Spies’ Guild has a Guild Master in every city.  Each Guild Master oversees a spy network that extends beyond his (or her) city.  According to page 524, “The Spies' Guild is run by a being no one has ever met, or at least no one has ever remembered meeting this being.” 'This being' has its own network that relays communications from the Guild Masters to 'this being' and vice versa.  (I have a theory as to the identity of 'this being' but I shall not disclose it in this post.)

There is no permanent Guild House for spies in any city; the de facto Guild House changes frequently. Typically, the “top members” take turns in hosting the Guild House “with a room always available for the Guild Master (who[m] no one ever sees, just hears) whom all information goes through.” Apparently, individual spies are granted an audience with the Guild Master in order to convey information. In an effort to control the dissemination of information, spies are not allowed to congregate. You see, “the...members have no idea who the other members are!”  More to the point, anybody can be a spy:  a dwarf shaman, a gypsy horse trader, an elf noble, a priest of Ta-Khu, a gnome sailor, a cosmic mage...anybody.  I bet there are even dolphin spies.*  "The point is; spies are everywhere!"

If spies don’t know one another, how do they gain admittance to the Guild House?  Holland doesn’t say.  I would think that any worthwhile spy should be able to infiltrate any household.

If the location of the Guild House is secret and the location varies, how do spies know where to go (especially if they do not communicate among themselves)?  Good question.  From page 524:

Spies know where the Guild House hidden messages placed in certain inns around the city. These messages are placed in places only a spy would know to look and written in symbols only spies know. 

Please note the phrase “in symbols.” The Thieves’ Guild has its own language, but the Spies’ Guild doesn’t.  If they had their own language, then it would be possible for non-spies to learn it or understand it via magic. Using “symbols” the Spies' Guild can place messages in public places yet maintain their secrecy.

Holland says, “All full-fledged spies have small pins that distinguish them as spies and those are only shown to the Guild Master. ” I think that Holland is supplying Spies' Guild disinformation to us in this statement. How can you show something to someone who is never seen?  Perhaps it is time to discuss some of the benefits that spies obtain at high level.  At 50th level, spies gain the ability of 'True Insight.'  Holland doesn't explain what one can accomplish with 'True Insight' and the success rate is 75% at best, so I don't think it's very useful.  At 90th level, however, spies get a 'Helm of Telepathy.'  Guild Masters don't need to see any secret decoder pins; they know who their agents are via telepathy!

Inquiring readers may want to know how prospective clients actually contact the Spies' Guild.  That's another good question and I have thought many times about this.  The way I figure it, you don't contact the Spies' Guild, they contact you.  Their information gathering abilities are so effective, they can anticipate the needs of their clientele.  Perhaps much of the guild's business is simple blackmail.

If the Spies' Guild is the only game in town, doesn't it present a conflict of interest?  If you want the services of a spy, isn't it likely that the subject of your spying may want to spy against you (or at least be informed that they are the targets of espionage)?  That's the brilliant part; the Spies' Guild plays both sides against one another.  Ultimately, after taking money from both sides (I don't think that Helms of Telepathy grow on trees, but I could be wrong), the side that prevails is the side that is more valuable to the Spies' Guild in the long term.  That's why you can't afford to antagonize the Spies' Guild, they can (and will) help your enemies.

Finally, how are spies recruited?  I refuse to speculate.
*  Atlantasian dolphins have an Intelligence of 15.  The highest Intelligence score a player character can have (without magical aid) is 14 and that is only achievable by a noble spy (or a spy noble) where the player rolled a 10 for Intelligence.


  1. There's a sort of surreality to this that is kind of appealing in the way of crackpot conspiracy theories. Maybe everyone in Atlantasia is a spy and they just don't tell each other?