Which agency shall we spy for?

At (I think) the end of 1986 or beginning of 1987 I was in Sydney saving up money to live on for my next year at ANU, and I went with a role-playing chum and classmate from ANU (Frank, @frank.hampshire ) to visit a role-playing chum and classmate from high school (Paul). Paul offered to kill the afternoon by running an adventure using Danger, International, the then-current cinematic-espionage build of the HERO System. Frank and I agreed which of use was to play the face man and which the mechanic with a polished deftness that caused Paul some alarm, but then found ourselves considerably exercised by the question of which Agency our characters ought to work for.

Frank is a staunch ALP man and could not bring himself to imagine a CIA or SIS operative as heroic. The Mossad was right out of the question Similarly, I wasn’t going to touch the KGB, GRU, Stasi, or any of the other Warsaw Pact possibilities. ASIS we agreed was laughable. The DGSE was in bad odour because of the Rainbow Warrior bombing. Paul ruled out any sort of fictitious UN agency. Frank and I settled on the BND. That turned out to be fateful, because the adventure Paul had to run was set in West Germany¹ .

In another incident my friend Tony Purcell ended up running an clandestine-ops campaign in which the PCs were working for Swiss Military Intelligence because the players could not agree that any real agency might have good guys working for it. It was not that we objected to clandestine ops categorically — we were happy to play clandestine operators of a fictitious agency — but rather that we had specific political grudges against every known agency that was a plausible international actor.

Does anyone else have this trouble, or is it an Australian thing?

¹ There were two Germanies back then. Fancy that!

If the game is one where you can be from any agency, I’d probably just make one up. The US seems particularly prone to multiplication of entities without necessity, so it’s easy to invent a new agency and fit it into the framework.

But I’d be more inclined to start with “you are working for the …” and then build the game based on that. To use an example from a recent Pyramid that I might turn into a full game some time, you’re all Stasi agents in East Berlin investigating a series of deaths that gradually point in a tentacular direction… so, yeah, you have amazing powers to make inconvenient witnesses go away, but will that actually solve the problem? I think my players are able to put themselves into the mindset of someone who’s not a good person, but that may be because they trust me.

See also my one published adventure,
(originally “Blood in the Sand”), where the PCs are a bunch of Arizona militiamen. They are not even slightly good people, but they still get a chance to be heroic.

I’ve never run a straight intelligence agents campaign, in either the Fleming or the Le Carré mode, and I doubt I ever will; I haven’t read enough about such things, either in fiction or in historical material. When something along those lines comes into my campaign, it’s usually as part of a superhero campaign. Mostly I feel free to make up an organization—once as an offshoot of NATO, once as a fictitious additional branch of M.I. devoted to supernatural and weird threats to the King, the Empire, and humanity. The closest I came to a real organization was having a group be under the auspices of the Defence Imagery and Geospatial Organisation, an Australian agency with the motto “See the unseen. Know the unknown,” which seemed too Lovecraftian to pass up in a Laundry-inspired campaign. But making them an analog of the Laundry and the Black Chamber quite transformed them from their real world profile.

I tend to feel that all secret agencies should be portrayed as morally dubious, and that their agents have the mission of sacrificing their own ethics for the preservation of something better than themselves. If you imagine a campaign based on Christian mythology, it might be about Satan and his angels covertly serving God. So “I don’t want to play agents of this agency because they’re not the good guys” seems an odd argument to me, though perhaps I’m not understanding it.

I think themes are important, and one of the classics for the Cold War is “we, on the front line, find we have more in common with the enemy front-liners than with our own masters”.

Yes, so we are told in Good Omens. . . .

The classic theme that you suggest, @RogerBW, is less apparent in the James Bond and Jack Ryan genre — which is really a class of thrillers — than in actual espionage stories such as Le Carré or Sandbaggers.

Maybe a historical setting is best for getting your players detached from their feelings. Those empires and their causes are no longer with us…

Or maybe not. I recently heard an Iranian academic ask Melvyn Bragg to please not refer to That Man as Alexander the Great! They were discussing the fall of Persepolis so feelings were running close to the surface.

And there are plenty of people in gaming groups (especially in the UK) who might feel fighting on either side in The Great Game in India was a bit morally questionable.

There has to be a solution to this or Nazi chasing and Nazi punching becomes the only acceptable setting.

Roger’s Age of Aquarius campaign worked quite well. The characters were student-age types in 1967-68, who acquired psi powers through trials of an “experimental drug” and were recruited by MI5, without a lot of choice in the matter. We found ourselves dealing with psionic criminals, Russian and US psionic espionage, our agency turning on us, and so on. MI5 is a counter-espionage agency, which made the moral side easier.

Speaking of historical espionage, the last thing I tried to run was a campaign set in an alternative 1957–59 in which Anthony Eden was correct about Nasser. The PC was a “Visiting Case Officer” working for a (fictitious) “D Section” of the SIS. I used Classified for the rules because that was cheaper and more convenient than supplying the player with a copy of the more appropriate James Bond 007. That campaign was Sandbaggers in London and book-Bond in the field. That particular player was not worried by working for the SIS, and was just happy for a chance to duke it out with some ex-Nazis (Otto Skorzeny was a campaign big bad).

Ah, well, if the setting is espionage/thriller/etc. plus weird powers (which is certainly a campaign template that I like), then one falls into @JGD’s “Occult Secret Service” model (which I wrote up in more detail here). At that point it’s entirely reasonable to say “you are a new agency set up to deal with this weird stuff”, or indeed “you are a new branch of an existing agency without all its cultural baggage”.

I use that template, but my model is less The Laundry than League of Extraordinary Gentlemen or perhaps even Planetary: the covert supers team, not the covert mages team. But it’s still “occult” in the original meaning of the word. When I ran Gods and Monsters, the general public was unaware of the existence of M.I.7 and of the powers they dealt with, and part of their job was keeping it so.