Sunday, August 28, 2016

Guest Stars in James Bond 007

George Lazenby (as "J.B.") breaking the fourth wall in
The Return of the Man from U.N.C.L.E.

“How to Be a Successful Gamesmaster,” Chapter 12 of James Bond 007, provides comments on 'guest stars'.  Specifically, on page 96:
Surprise guest stars from the Bond movies are quite entertaining. Having Sheriff J. W. Pepper of Live and Let Die and The Man With the Golden Gun show up unexpectedly can give players a lift. Sometimes a guest appearance by other fictional heroes – Napoleon Solo, John Steed, or Emma Peel, for example – can get a good response.
The game, however, does not provide write-ups for characters not part of the Bond license.  Gamesmasters considering using such guest stars are left to their own devices.  Yet the 'guest star' concept was not original to James Bond 007.  “The Super Spies,” an article featured in Dragon #44 (December, 1980), describes various fictional spies in terms of the Top Secret role-playing game.  The article was written by Allen Hammack, “Developer & editor of Top Secret,” along with Merle Rasmussen, “author of Top Secret.”  Incidentally, the article adopts the conceit that the referenced spies are real:  “Strangely enough, many of these actual secret agents have been publicly revealed in books, movies, and on television, but this does not seem to have hampered their effectiveness.”

Converting from the Hammack/Rasmussen data to James Bond 007 is not without difficulty.  The Top Secret Primary Personal Traits are Physical Strength, Charm, Willpower, Courage, Knowledge, and Coordination while the James Bond 007 characteristics are Strength, Dexterity, Willpower, Perception, and Intelligence.  There is no Top Secret rating that equates to 'perception'.  Also, there is no James Bond 007 characteristic that represents 'charm'; however, all James Bond 007 characters have the Charisma skill.  Comparing the Hammack/Rasmussen James Bond to the James Bond 007 James Bond, I derived the following formulae:
  • STRENGTH = (Physical Strength / 12), round up
  • DEXTERITY = (Coordination / 13)
  • WILLPOWER = ([Willpower + Courage] / 20), round down
  • PERCEPTION = ([Courage + Knowledge] / 20)
  • INTELLIGENCE = (Knowledge / 11), round up
  • % of maximum Charisma Skill Levels = (Charm / 1.6)
Hammack and Rasmussen opted not to include bureau classification (i.e., character class) and level with their descriptions; nor did they include “Areas of Knowledge.”  Other than the differences between the Top Secret and James Bond 007 game systems, representing non-Bond characters in James Bond 007 terms can be problematic.  James Bond 007 was designed to capture the James Bond oeuvre – which it does well – as opposed to being generic in scope.  Because of this, the rules may not be able to adequately accommodate characters from other franchises having differing types of missions and levels of realism.  Page 93 explains:
Bond adventures are exciting, glamorous and sophisticated.  They are not the textbook adventures of John LeCarre, or the complex psychological manipu- lations of a Mission: Impossible, or the gritty double and triple-crosses of Robert Ludlum.  The James Bond 007 Game is not designed to cover all subsets of the spy genre, and you will have to experiment with the rules to make them work in other subgenres.
Given these caveats and without further ado, your humble host presents:

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Experience and Equipment in James Bond 007

Senator Frank Church brandishes the CIA's dart pistol

At the end of every game session, a James Bond 007 Gamesmaster awards Experience Points to the player characters.  The default amount per character per session is five hundred points.  Characters of players who role-played well receive an award modifier of “up to ×1½.”  Characters of players who role-played poorly are penalized with an award modifier of “down to ×½.”  The rules advise new GMs:  “Until you are experienced as a GM and can tell good role-play from poor, you should not modify Experience Points for role-play.”  Should a mission conclude during a session, the Experience Point award is modified by ×2 if the mission “was a success” or by ×¼ if it “was a failure.”  Characters of “Rookie” rank have a ×¾ award modifier while “00” rank characters have a ×2 modifier.

With regard to character generation, Rookie rank characters are created with three thousand Generation Points, Agent rank characters with six thousand points, and “00” rank characters, nine thousand points.  After generation, the total of a character's characteristic values and skill levels establishes rank.  Although the rules state that a Rookie's combined total of values and skill levels is “Less than 125,” I'm certain that “125 or fewer” is intended.  Agent rank characters have from 126 to 250 total values and skill levels while “00” rank characters have more than 250.

Experience Points can be used to improve a character.  The amount of Experience Points necessary to acquire a new skill is the same as buying skills with Generation Points (i.e., 100).  However, a skill level costs 30 Experience Points as opposed to 20 Generation Points.  When creating a character, the 'Characteristic Value Expenditure Chart' is consulted to determine characteristics' cost in Generation Points.  When improving a characteristic value with Experience Points, the cost of the next value increment equals the new value multiplied by 150.  For example, raising a characteristic from 12 to 13 costs 1,950 Experience Points.

In addition, Experience Points can be used to 'remove' Fame Points.  Characters accrue Fame Points through various means:  killing a person (5 points), killing a Privileged Henchman (10 points), killing a Major Villain (20 points), gaining “00” rank (20 points), for “each distinctive visible scar” (20 points), and for each mission completed – either successfully or unsuccessfully (3 points).  Fame Points measure how easily “enemy organizations” recognize the character and how much information such organizations have about the character.  Aspects such as height, weight, and appearance impose Fame Points to the extent such aspects of a character vary from “normal.”  Each Fame Point removed costs one hundred Experience Points.

Although the rules do not address the possibility, if Experience Points can 'buy back' Fame Points, it seems feasible that Experience Points could be used to buy away Weaknesses.

Finally, “Experience Points may also be used to acquire equipment from Q Branch.”  It is for this reason your humble host feels comfortable with combining experience and equipment in the same post.  “Standard” equipment does not cost Experience Points, neither does equipment assigned to the characters.  With regard to assigning equipment to characters, the rules advise the GM, “you should choose equipment for the characters so that it will relate in some way to the mission.”  That advice is immediately followed by the statement, “It may even act as a clue for the sharp-minded.”  This is an interesting reference to meta- gaming.

Experience is spent only for equipment that a character specifically requests from Q Branch.  However, before a character can obtain special equipment, he or she “will have to make a successful Persuasion attempt on Q first.”  Multiple characters can pool their experience points for purposes of obtaining equipment.  A “personal item” of equipment costs 200 Experience Points.  A large item (such as a vehicle) costs 500 points.  A “modified” large item costs 700 points, plus 50 points per modification.  Thus, an Aston Martin with an ejection seat and a smoke screen would be 800 points.  Equipment acquired with Experience Points must be returned (if it still exists) at the conclusion of the mission, so it doesn't count as a career investment.

Victory Games produced a Q Manual supplement for the James Bond 007 game, detailing various items from the movie series as well as original items.  The Basic Game includes descriptions of real world weapons and vehicles, as well as “mundane” equipment such as scuba gear, night-vision goggles, and silencers.  Some movie items (like the cigarette rocket from You Only Live Twice and the attaché case from From Russia With Love) are also described in the Basic Game.  Yet, like Mark Twain said, “Truth is stranger than fiction.”

In 1975, several CIA officials testified before the United States Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities.  (Someone must have been paid by the word.)  As a result, some items of CIA 'equipment' became publicly known.  In a vault with “a stock of various materials and delivery systems accumulated over the years, including...lethal materials, incapacitants, narcotics, hallucinogenic drugs, irritants and riot control agents, herbicides, animal control materials, and many common chemicals” the CIA – in contravention of Presidential order – maintained 11 grams of shellfish toxin and 8 grams of cobra venom.  Eleven grams of shellfish toxin (“a little less than half an ounce”) doesn't seem like much, but it's an amount “sufficient to kill at least 14,000 people.”

A method of delivering a dose of shellfish toxin to a target is the dart pistol shown above.  According to CIA director William Colby:
The round thing at the top is obviously the sight, the rest of it is what is practically a normal .45, although it is a special.  However, it works by electricity.  There is a battery in the handle, and it fires a small dart.
According to Time magazine, “the dart is so tiny – the width of a human hair and a quarter of an inch long – as to be almost indetectable, and the poison leaves no trace in a victim's body.”  Further testimony established that the dart pistol functions “Almost silently” and has a range of “about 100 yards.”  As Senator Church observed, “As a murder instrument, that is about as efficient as you can get...”  Of course, shellfish toxin is only one of many substances that the pistol's darts could employ.

Additionally, the committee was made aware of other items of 'equipment' including “a fountain pen dart launcher and an engine head bolt designed to release a substance when heated, appeared to be peculiarly suited for clandestine use…”

Among the substances in the possession of the CIA, there was evidently “an agent that...was designed to induce tuberculosis.”  Regarding this substance, Senator Walter Huddleston queried Colby.
HUDDLESTON:  Is that correct?
COLBY:  Yes. There is that capability.
HUDDLESTON:  What application would be made of that particular agent?
COLBY:  It is obviously to induce tuberculosis in a subject that you want to induce it in.
HUDDLESTON:  For what purpose?
COLBY:  We know of no application ever being done with it, but the idea of giving someone this particular disease is obviously the thought process behind this.
A Senate investigation or a budding comedic routine? Remember, 'Intelligence' is the CIA's middle name.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Adventuring in James Bond 007

Roger Moore in Rio de Janeiro
©Associated Press
Chapter 14 of the James Bond 007 role-playing game provides a Non-Player Character Encounter System:
This system allows you to create a random encounter whenever you feel the need to do so.  This encounter may occur when the players are unable to catch on to the main plot of the adventure, when the mission is proceeding smoothly but you feel the need to spice it up with a chance meeting, or when you want the characters to have an encounter that is typical of the Bond movies.
The basis of the system is a set of two Area Encounter Tables based upon the physical location of the player characters.  The 'Hot' table is used when the PCs “are in a location directly related to a mission” while the 'Cold' table is consulted when the PCs “have wandered astray.”  However, some of the listed encounters transpire in particular locations.  Each table is presented as a grid of thirty-six possible encounter types.  (Some encounter types are duplicated within a table and some exist on both tables.)  Two six-sided dice are rolled to determine an encounter; the first die indicates the column and the second die indicates the row.  Of course, “If the encounter you generate does not match the adventure or interferes with it, ignore it and roll a new one.”

Descriptions of the encounters take up about four pages of the rule book.  About half of the encounters relate to the “caricature types” from Chapter 13.  Examples of other encounters include 'Tourists', 'Newspaper', 'Dead Body', and 'Questioning'.  Some encounter types have a sub-table in their descriptions, requiring another D6 roll – possibly with a modifier as listed in the main table.  For instance, double fives on the 'Hot' table is “Beautiful Foil (+3),” meaning 1D6+3 on the Beautiful Foil sub-table.  Number 5 on this sub-table reads as follows:
Encountered in a casino, restaurant or fancy night spot, this Foil is very fond of the good life and also has connections that can lead to a Shady Contact or a Technician (the choice is up to the character).  The Foil will display a growing fondness toward the character, hoping to continue the liaison.
The resolution of some encounters is dependant as to whether or not the character spends a Hero Point.  After determining the encounter – but before revealing it – the GM asks the player if he or she spends a point.  If the player spends a Hero Point and the encounter type is 'Intuition', “the character gains a valuable insight into the mission as if from thin air.”  Without spending a Hero Point, the 'Intuition' encounter amounts to nothing.

Roll 1:2 on the 'Cold' Encounter Table is 'James Bond'.  If Bond is on the mission, then another encounter is determined.  Otherwise, the character(s) encounter(s) 007 himself.  Fortunately, Chapter 16 of the rules is all about 'James Bond as a Non-Player Character'.  Although Bond is an encounter on the 'Cold' table, Chapter 16 encourages the GM to have the PCs “encounter Bond while they are on a mission” generally.  “Bond will always recognize the Player Characters,” the rules state, “even if they are in disguise.”  Similarly, “the Player Characters will always recognize him.”  What is Bond doing?  Well, he's going somewhere.  A Destination Table is thoughtfully provided.  Most commonly, Bond is en route to “deliver a secret message to NATO headquarters in Belgium.”  Other possibilities have him going:  “To Italy to help their secret service,” “To see Lazar in Macao about some ammunition,” or “On a date with Moneypenny.”  Naturally, “players should not be encouraged to think that Bond will help them on their current mission” and “they should never feel that they are simply Bond's foils, but must be made to feel they are essential in their own right.”  If the players are having a tough time of it, Bond “may be used as a means of giving the characters some information” and he “may also give the characters some small item from help them.”  If the player characters fail utterly, and such failure “has caused events to lead to the annihilation of life as we know it, thes yes,” the rules permit, “Bond will show up and somehow...prevent the conflagration.”

Given that “one of the highlights of a Bond adventure is the plethora of exotic locations he visits,” Chapter 19 of James Bond 007 is devoted to Thrilling Cities.  (A 1985 supplement, Thrilling Locations, expands greatly on this concept.)  The chapter includes “capsule descriptions of some of the centers of intrigue of the world,” namely:  Hong Kong, London, Nassau, Paris, Rio de Janiero (sic), and Tokyo.  In honor of the current Olympic Games, presented below is the description of Rio – current as of a third of a century ago.  

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Hero Points in James Bond 007

The 'Glossary of Terms' in the James Bond 007 rules defines Hero Points as:
Points which may be used by a player to alter the Quality Rating of a dice result in any manner he chooses.  The use of Hero Points allows failure to become success, and certain death to become only a graze.
Although only two pages, the rulebook devotes a chapter to Hero Points, clarifying their use.  As indicated in a previous post, a task can have five possible outcomes, failure and four Quality Ratings of success.  The spectrum of possibilities can be represented thusly:

QR1 (excellent) – QR2 (very good) – QR3 (good) – QR4 (acceptable) – failure

Immediately after the dice are rolled and the result determined, a player may alter the result by one step per Hero Point spent.  The example of play includes the scene in Goldfinger where Bond is strapped to a table and threatened by a laser.  (In the example of play, the movie scene is described on the left column of a page while the right column shows the conversation between the GM and Bond's player as they play through the scene.)  Bond's player has Bond attempt to Persuade Goldfinger to keep him alive.  The player barely succeeds with his roll and the GM states it will take three Hero Points to obtain a result wherein Goldfinger is convinced (i.e., changing a Quality Rating of 4 to a Quality Rating of 1).  We see that Hero Points can cause an unlikely (yet possible) result that nonetheless accurately represents the source material.

Robert Kern, credited as “Game Development and James Bond Savant,” wrote in Heroes (Vol. 1, No. 6), “The hardest part is visualizing the varying degrees of success.”  Kern encourages developing the habit of “telling the player the possible outcomes ahead of time” (i.e., before the player rolls).  According to the rules, “You can also spend Hero Points to change the Quality Rating of a dice roll performed by the GM for any task directed against your character.”  Also, “If the GM is rolling the dice to resolve any hidden task (whether for your character or an NPC), your Hero Points can be used to improve that result as well.”  By definition, players cannot be aware of the possible outcomes of a “hidden task.”  In such a situation, a player would be spending Hero Points blindly; it is possible to waste one or more Hero Points if the hidden result turned out to be Quality Rating 1 – the best possible result.  Also, Hero Points can only be used to “improve” the result of a hidden task.

The GM permitting, “you can spend Hero Points to affect the environment in your character's favor.”  Such alterations should be reasonable in scope; spending Hero Points to, for instance, “change a snowstorm into balmy weather” should not be permitted.

“Fellow Secret Agents working on the same side as the Player Characters” are also entitled to Hero Points.  Besides Hero Points, there are Survival Points, which are defined by the 'Glossary of Terms' as “Points given to Masterminds and Privileged Henchmen...which negate the Hero Points used against them by Player Characters.”  This definition does not correspond to how Survival Points are explained in the Hero Points chapter.  In that chapter, we are told, “NPCs use their Survival Points to alter Quality Ratings of any tasks directed at them, never to alter the Quality Rating of any dice roll for them.”

So how does a player character acquire Hero Points?  This is a good question.  “The rate at which you award Hero Points will affect the tenor of your campaign,” the rules tell us.  With too few Hero Points, the campaign will not accurately represent the Bond milieu ; with too many, player characters “will be able to pull off some amazing feats with regularity.”  The rules say that the process described for awarding Hero Points “is admittedly rather conservative.”  In short, every time a character rolls a Quality Rating 1 result (except combat rolls) he or she gains a Hero Point.  This means that more-skilled characters will have more Hero Points since they can more easily obtain Quality Rating 1 results.  “This is to be expected,” according to the rules.  It also means characters earn Hero Points – which can be construed as 'luck' – by making lucky rolls.  In essence, the lucky get luckier – a disparity with which I am not entirely comfortable.  Additionally, a player may be tempted to engage upon numerous, useless tasks in order to cultivate Hero Points.  Such activity (“for example, trying a Seduction attempt with every female in a gambling establishment”) should be “penalized,” the rules state.  The penalty, however, is denying “the player any Hero Points.”

Other methods of awarding Hero Points are expanded upon by Neil Randall, one of two people credited with Systems Development for the James Bond 007 game, in an article in Heroes (Vol. 1, No. 2).  Fortunately, Heroes editor William E. Peschel interrupts this article to inform readers, “This is okay.”  It's always nice when someone who had nothing to do with creating the game validates a statement by one of the Systems Developers.  Anyway, Randall indicates that, in the games he runs, “players don't roll the dice very often.”  Therefore, he allows “Hero Points for all Quality Rating 1 results, whether they occur in Combat, Chases, Characteristic rolls, Skill rolls, or Ability rolls.”  Randall includes “Characteristic rolls” even though he recognizes that “characteristic rolls don't use the Quality Rating system.”  Randall also suggests the possibility of assigning Hero Points as a reward for good role playing:
Say, for instance, the character rushes into a burning building to rescue the lovely young lady trapped inside.  Award a Hero Point or two.  Award a Hero Point for helping a fellow agent beyond the call of duty, especially if it does not impede the mission.  Award a Hero Point for figuring out a very difficult clue...
Should rescuing a homely young lady garner more or less Hero Points?  Randall notes that rewards for good role-playing officially come in the form of additional Experience Points; however, “there is no nicer feeling for the player than to be rewarded instantly for an action which is directly the result of playing within the Bond genre.”