Tuesday, April 15, 2014

What Gamers need to know about Surveillance

     Most gamers at some point have found themselves involved in spying on someone, or breaking into a secured area to do something, or stopping NPC's from doing the same to the PC's interests. I certainly have, from Top Secret to Traveller to Twilight:2000. Yet upon some reflection on this subject I have realized that for the vast majority of my games, whether as a player or as a GM, my handling of reconnaissance and surveillance has been rather awful. My players and my characters have walked blindly into military bases and corporate buildings as casually as walking into the mall, without being detected or stopped. The level of ineptitude is completely unrealistic and has robbed many games of a dramatic tension that would have made for a much better story.

     So I've done some looking about in the RPG books that I have, trying to find the surveillance and reconnaissance rules I've been missing. To my surprise, it's not that I was ignoring them, there just weren't many to find.

  • GURPS book Espionage: almost no discussion of surveillance
  • Original Top Secret: has an Observation skill but no mechanics for using it
  • James Bond RPG: no rules for surveillance
  • Traveller: BK4/Mercenary has recon rules, but its use is limited to mostly a DM on surprise rolls prior to combat.
  • D&D: none that I could find.

I recently purchased a copy of the original Spycraft rules (a D20 system) from DriveThruRPG. Finally, a rules set that addresses surveillance, both in interpreting photo/video data, and eyes-on intelligence gathering. It would not be difficult to incorporate the following information into the rules for the surveillance skill in Spycraft.

      It may not be a surprise to my faithful readers that I got onto thinking about this subject as a result of some articles from STRATFOR that I've read. Http://www.stratfor.com/weekly/detecting-terrorist-surveillance is one such article, if you want to read more, search their site on the terms “protective intelligence” “attack cycle” and “situational awareness” - all of these are concepts that anyone can put into practice in their own life for their own safety.

Here's another article from The Art of Manliness on Developing Situational Awareness, including a clip from The Bourne Identity. Jason Bourne could fit easily into a Traveller game as an NPC.

Without getting into game mechanics, here are some thoughts on how to incorporate information-gathering activities into a game. The Stratfor article puts it this way: "Surveillance can be defined as 'watching someone while attempting not to be caught doing so'".Countersurveillance (CS) is the reverse, attempting to catch others watching you or your things.

What is Surveillance and How do you do it?

Surveillance has two components, which I'll call the what and the how. The 'What' part is determining the appropriate target to be watched - you have to know where your opponents are before you can watch what they're doing. Beyond simply saying "that building over there" the agents need to know the target's significance, its strengths and weaknesses in resisting penetration, and what specific security measures are being employed. Another part of the 'what' is finding a good location from which to observe the target. This is known as a 'perch' in intelligence lingo. A good perch allows clear visual access to the target while being difficult to spot from the target. A car parked on an entrance road where there are no other cars present is not a good perch, but a car in the middle of a full parking lot can be one.

The 'how' part is getting your agent's eyes or detection gear on the target without being noticed. Two related concepts that are critical to the 'how' of setting up good surveillance are described by Stratfor and others as cover for action and cover for status. Cover for status addresses the question of the agent belonging in the environment. In other words, does the agent appear to observers to have a reason for being where he is? Is the agent dressed in a way that stands out or in a way that blends in? Think of plain-clothes detective work. Similarly, cover for action is the plausibility of the agent doing what he is doing. Someone sitting in a parked car, holding binoculars while looking at your building is going to draw attention unless there is some other good reason in that environment for the person to be doing that. An agent dressed as a delivery guy moving packages in and out of a delivery truck has both cover for status and cover for action. 
 If either of these are not thought out or done well, then the agent will stick out as being 'out of place' and the enemy will attempt to 'blow their cover' by challenging the agent's right to be there. Of course this could be a ploy to draw attention away from the spy who does have good cover. It should be hard for the agents to tell, at least initially, if their cover is blown. Keep in mind that surveillance & CS tasks are uncertain; the PCs should not automatically know whether their efforts are successful or when/if they have been spotted.

  A psychological phenomenon that comes into play while conducting surveillance is called “Burn Syndrome”. It is a reflex to 'break cover' as a result of the perception of being spotted. The GM can require some kind of determination task from the agent if he thinks he has been spotted. Failing this means that the agent did something that breaks his cover for status or action, and the enemy is alerted, whether or not the agent had been spotted previously.

Good surveillance takes time, so don't let the PC's sit for just ten minutes and then tell them everything they want to know. It could take hours or even days to properly evaluate a target - learning guard schedules or employee break times, identifying the guards who are slack or those who are super-vigilant, spotting all of the mechanical security devices.

Have lots of uncertain task rolls for Observation/Vision/Surveillance or however the skill is described in your game system. Never let them think they know everything, and make your own rolls for the NPCs conducting security & CS for the location. If you put some thought to a location's security measures and give a compelling reason why it is vital for the PC's to get into the location, a stakeout by itself can be a tense, interesting game session that may even challenge the player's nerves, let alone their PC's.

Image courtesy of Flickr http://www.flickr.com/photos/igoussev/3457787302/

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