Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Casual Encounter - Michael Westen

Today I want to illustrate how Classic Traveller, despite its sci-fi orientation, is flexible enough in its rules structure to create characters in other genres as well, like the espionage genre.  I have referred elsewhere to my appreciation for the USA Network show Burn Notice. Here is the show's main character as a Traveller character. 

"I'll see what I can do."
Michael Westen used to be a spy. Until the day for no apparent reason the Imperial Talaveran Ministry of Intelligence "cast him out", leaving him with no money, no job history and no idea why he was suddenly out of a job.

Michael Westen     89A995     Age 34  4 Terms (Other)  Cr 0-lots
Liaison-3, Streetwise-2, J-o-T-3, Electronics-1, Mechanical-1, Air/raft-1, Unarmed Cbt-2, Gun Cbt-2 Tactics-1

Michael now lives in the capital city of Bishor ( B-788795-D). He can't leave the planet, but can move around freely. He has no work record, so he takes whatever work happens to come along. Mostly, Michael solves problems for people. Usually the kind of problem they can't solve by going to the authorities. People call Michael when they have a criminal problem. The client tells Michael what their problem is, and Michael persuades the problem to go away. Sometimes he has to get creative with his persuading, but in the end the problem generally goes away. Most of the time, he succeeds in solving the problem without having to shoot anyone.

PCs who are Talaveran, or have worked with (or against) Talavera may have heard of Michael's reputation. To his clients, he is confident, reassuring and willing to help. To those in the intelligence community he is a highly competent agent who has a long record of accomplishing difficult missions. He is also credited with killing over a dozen spies, and blowing up a debated number of buildings. Taking on Michael Westen with fewer than a platoon of men will not, as they say, "go well."* How much of this is true, only Michael knows. The question of who cast him out and why is always at the front of his mind.

Michael lives by the Reaction table. Most of the 'jobs' he does, he does by assuming a persona, then infiltrating the environ of the person causing the problem. He then persuades the NPC to do something, whether it be leave his patron alone, commit some act that will get them arrested, reveal the secret information or location of the macguffin. What is Michael's #1 go-to skill then?  In Traveller it is Liaison

From the CT Skill description: This individual is trained to subordinate his or her own views and prejudices where they may conflict with those held by the individuals being dealt with. As a result, greater cooperation may be achieved, and substantial progress in mutual projects made. Liaison is primarily used as a positive DM on the reaction table when dealing with other individuals. Now that is a handy skill for a spy. Get the other person to help you, without realizing what they've done. 

Combine this skill with his knowledge of sub-cultures, especially criminal ones, (Streetwise) and overall inventiveness (J-o-T), and you have someone who is rarely at a loss for what to do.  Throw in his combat skills and his vehicle skills, and Michael can go almost anywhere and do just about anything. 

I put his SOC at 5 - he's not exactly a criminal, and apart from government operatives, no one knows about his espionage career. To most Bishorians, he's a guy who's not very plugged into society - he is not married, claims no local University background, he has no regular job and does not participate in many normal civilian activities like sporting or social events. The personae he adopts, however, can be anywhere from SOC-2 to SOC-12.

A common espionage activity is analyzing data. Here's how I work it.

Intelligence Analysis
Intelligence analysis is the practice of taking collected data and distilling from it useful information. As a mostly intellectual exercise, this should take place in the realm of the players, not the characters. Use the intel analysis roll to request a clue or hint from the referee. Typical roll 9+, with DM's for high EDU, high INT or espionage experience. The referee should make the roll in secret, and give true or false 'rumor' type information. This activity should never be used as a roll-playing substitute for solving puzzles presented by the referee.

Streetwise skill can also be used as a DM when Tailing a suspect.

You can read my earlier post on Surveillance for general guidelines on role-playing this common espionage activity. Here are some suggested game mechanics. 

Surveillance is the action of a character observing someone's actions at great length without the subject's notice, or it is an individual detecting that he is being observed. Any surveillance attempt will take 2D hours to accomplish. Both sides make a 2D roll with DMs, the referee keeps the NPC's roll secret. Compare totals to determine the winner.

Dms for Surveillance
+1/lvl of Recon skill, if in a wilderness setting
+1/lvl of Streetwise or Liaison skill in an urban setting
+1 for INT 9+
+1 for vision devices (binoculars, etc.)
+1 for successful Disguise
Winning gets the observer information about the target. Losing means getting no information. Losing by 3+ means the agent is 'made' by the target.

Dms for Counter-surveillance
+1 for EDU 9+
+1 - +3 for electronic security equipment
+1/lvl of Recon skill, if in a wilderness setting
+1/lvl of Streetwise or Liaison skill in an urban setting
Winning means the surveillant got no information. Winning by 3+ means the target has 'made' the observer and can retaliate, or present the observer with false information.  Losing means the surveillance went undetected by the subject. 

*From season 4, episode 7, "Past and Future Tense" - a Russian operative, upon learning who they're up against complains "He is Michael Westen! There are only four of us!"


  1. One of my favorite TV shows and characters ever. James West (the Robert Conrad iteration) is the only character I can think of that comes in a close decond. Thanks for the article.

  2. I've never seen the show Wild Wild West, just the movie which was not good. I'll have to check it out. Thanks for the tip!