Monday, March 8, 2021

Downtime Activity: Gathering Intelligence and Spying

Often players will want to gather intelligence about something during downtime from other people. This can take many forms, from gossiping over drinks, to the use of stool pigeons, or casing a joint, or more daring activities like spying or going undercover. The DM has a strong interest in enabling this activity, because good intelligence is an opportunity to introduce hooks that interest players, and also allows meaningful player choices. 

These downtime activities takes inspiration from Robert Parker's masterful Savage World of Krül rules, with which Robert ran one of the legendary games of G+. I will have more to say about that game on another occasion. For now I just want to let you know that the basic idea (although not the details) of these rules came from Robert's wonderful system of downtime activities. 

A note on hiring people to do things. The general thrust of downtime activities has been no "outsourcing". But my thinking has been evolving here. The new principle is "if you want to do something right, do it yourself". I also try to fold in the whole issue of "hirelings" into the system of cultivating relationships with people. You want lackeys. FINE. Build the relationship. 

Gathering Intelligence (Rumormongering)

Suppose a player wants to chase down some information about something, like a group, or location, item, etc. This is the downtime action for them. 

The player first specify what they want information about. They next specify the group from whom they want to try to learn something. The DM will say whether that group might know something or whether there's no point in talking to them about. (There is no such thing as wasting this action by asking the wrong people.) The player will then say how they go about trying to elicit the information. 

Do they share war stories and buy the mercenary outfit free rounds of drinks to learn about a certain enemy they've faced? Or maybe they want to track down rumors about a traveling caravan by bringing trade goods to an outpost?  

The player may also use this downtime activity to turn up something interesting, in the spirit of "Dm throw something fun my way." In that case, they no longer have to say what they're trying to learn about, but they still have to say who they're trying to get the information from and how they're doing it. 
To perform the downtime action, spend 1d6 x 25 gp and roll 2d6. Apply modifiers from the following list up to a max of +3:

  • Add 1 for each relevant relation (at the level of acquaintance or higher) you have who might help you chase down information with the relevant community
  • Add 1 for each relevant fictional advantage you have, for example, being well-loved by a given faction you are gathering information from, or having some juicy gossip they'll love to hear.
  • Add 1 for each additional 100 GP you spend to grease palms.  

On a 6-: no useful intelligence gathered. 

On a 7-9: the player turns up real information, but the DM has the option of inserting some sketchy material, either by making the information somewhat ambiguous or misleading, or by mixing truth with a bit of outright falsehood. The DM shouldn't say whether they have or have not exercised this opiton. 

On a 10+ solid intelligence.

One problem you might have with this system is that the players will know from their roll when the intel might be shaky. But I like the idea that players have a sense when there might be something dubious about the information they got. 


Sometimes you don't just want to chase down information. You want to infiltrate an organization, or case an establishment, or spy on an ambassador. This is he downtime action for you.

The player first proposes a target to spy on and a goal in terms of what they're trying to learn. They say how they will be pursuing that goal. 

The DM then sets a tracker to get the relevant information. The tracker, will usually consist of successive layers of information to be unlocked, but sometimes it might just have a single payoff at the end. The tracker should be longer the more involved and difficult the job is. 

If all you want is to case a joint, then it's likely a one step tracker. If you want to infiltrate the inner circle of a mob boss or king, the tracker might have 7 steps. (You could also use a modified version of this system to handle sabotage or assassination. Instead of information, the result would be the desired outcome.)

Spend 1d6 x 50GP on expenses for the operation (more if high society infiltration is involved). Then roll 2d6 and add the following modifiers up to a maximum total of +3. Here's a version for Jorune and for D&D.

Jorune Version:
  • Add disguise skill modifier if relying on a false identity. 
  • Add culture skill if relying on high society, etiquette, or specific cultural knowledge.
D&D Version:
  • Add 1/2 your assassin level (rounded up)
  • Add 1/3 your thief level (rounded up)
For both Jorune and D&D: 
  • Add +1 for each relevant contact
  • Add +1 for each fictional edge you would have given the details of your plan and your capabilities

6-: Failure with complication. No progress on the tracker. Roll on the Spy Troubles chart below to see what complications have arisen from your failure.
7-9: Success with complication. Advance one step on the tracker. Roll on the Spy Troubles chart below to see what complications have arisen from your failure.
10+: Success! Advance one step on the tracker.

This kinda generic chart is written with infiltrating a powerful organization in mind. You might need custom tables for different sorts of jobs.

Spy Troubles 1d10

  1. Bad reputation. Other people have seen you with the organization, and you are starting to get a bad rep with factions that don't like it. This may be hard to shake. 
  2. Mixed up with the wrong people. You learn that someone you know or love is somehow mixed up with this organization in a way that troubles you and may, possibly, threaten your cover. 
  3. Expensive proposition. Owing to a looming disaster, you suddenly need to come up with a lot of funds to keep the operation going. 1d6 x 100 GP or no further progress is possible on the tracker.
  4. All the wrong friends. Someone from the organization is getting too close for comfort. Maybe like an affectionate puppy they followed you home and now know something about you, or maybe they romantically propositioned you. Whatever it is, they are trying to insert themselves into your life in a way that is risky. The DM may bring them in during a session to introduce complications.
  5. They are getting suspicious. You slipped somehow and someone is harboring suspicions. Unless you take care of the problem, for example by doing something to prove your loyalty, or discredit the suspicious person, a second spy troubles result will result in serious trouble (50% frozen out, 50% cover blown).
  6. Moral quandary. To prove you bona fides you must do something your character would rather not do. The DM will tell you the choice you face. If you choose not to do it, no further progress on the tracker is possible. The DM may or may not allow clever workarounds.
  7. You're not the only one! You and another spy have made each other. Their purpose is not the same as yours. This is a delicate situation that may need to be addressed. Until it is resolved, further spy troubles involve the DM picking a result that is produced by the rival spy.
  8. Blackmail. Someone knows what you are doing, and is trying to shake you down. Pay your level x 100 GP per session until the tracker is completed. Or maybe they want something more interesting.
  9. Frozen out. Someone got suspicious and you are now frozen out. Ghosted. No further progress possible.
  10. Cover Blown. You've been made! The group stages a confrontation. This could be anything from a kidnapping to a bitter discussion. You can play this out, or make a second custom 2d6 roll to see what the result is, given the nature of the organization. 

Procuring a Spy

Suppose a player wants to do this, but doesn't want to spy themselves. In order to procure a spy, they must first do so through cultivating a relevant relationship. Normally, you can only get someone who you can trust and is able to do the job if you have cultivated a relationship with the person through downtime activities. 

The player must spend a downtime action trying to recruit someone and setting up a mission. Roll 2d6 with the following modifiers to see if they're willing to take the job. You may proposition as many relations as you want for a single downtime action. 

  • Acquaintance -1
  • Associate +0
  • Friend +1
  • Intimate +2
  • Dangerous Mission -1
  • Very dangerous mission -2
  • Double pay +1
6-: No thanks.
7+: Yes. 

The cost is twice their level x 100 GP per downtime, and triple their level if they are an assassin. If they are 0 level, then it costs 50 GP. 

Have them make a roll each downtime as if they were a PC, with a -1 penalty. (You can still apply modifiers if they have the relevant skills, but the max positive modifier is +2.)  If you want a job done right, then you have to do it yourself! Generally, the DM should involve the PC who is hiring them in any problems that result from spy troubles, i.e. they come to the PC for help with the problem, and in the worst case scenario (cover blown!) the organization has a 50% of tracing the rat back to their employer. 

1 comment:

  1. With the fail in the rumormongering roll, I like to think that "no useful intelligence gathered." still yields a rumor, just tangential to (and not answering) what they were looking for.