The premise of this book is straightforward: to provide a coherent background for modern espionage games that is realistic but imaginary enough to avoid problems such as the real security services coming round to check out your terrorist plot or anyone's real-world sensitivities being offended (after 9/11 my group requested that I never run an aircraft hijack scenario, for example). The introduction explains all this, and is quite fascinating reading now, as when it was published in 2007, Crafty Games had only recently formed as the Spycraft team moved from Alderac Entertainment Group to set up their own company.
Chapter 1: Little World Lost sets a very bleak scene in which everyone - and their governments - seem to have lost their way. Before you say that this is pretty much what the world has become, no - this is darker and more cynical, with some key differences including an underlying dark plot or two... and your characters have the capacity to do something about it. The discussion then launches into an alternate history beginning in 1945 and tracing through the Cold War and beyond, similar to what really occured but with underlying differences that grow and tangle as America, Russia, the UK, China and European organised criminals all circle around each other, plots and counterplots abounding. It's a fascinating and convoluted tale, with just enough rooting in reality to sound plausible, ending with a global wave of terrorist attacks that leads to speculations about the wisdom of forming a world government...
This has led to the formation - or at least revelation - of several organisations. Some mirror real-world organisations and others really do exist. Each gets a paragraph of background, enough to set the scene and let you see who's who. There's also an impressive collection of operations which may (or may not) have been carried out by these organisations, or parties unknown.
And so on to Chapter 2: Traces of Terror. This starts off by discussing the point that most folks don't consider themselves to be 'evil' even when others see them that way... and that things get even murkier in the world of espionage. Not to mention the massive public relations teams that assorted organisations have on hand to make sure that the public believe what they want them to believe, rather than the truth. This chapter is also a chance to meet some of the major players, ones who stay out of sight but have a vast influence on events. It also presents much of the chilling alternate history of recent days within the setting's timeline, establishing the background against which your games will run and your characters operate. Reading through this can send plot ideas spiralling through your mind, and enough is left open-ended that it is possible to start weaving your own ideas through it without tension or the danger of disrupting what is written here. And then there is the utter weirdness of the Eternals. Incorporate them if you want supernatural elements or leave them out entirely, it's all modular enough to allow for this flexibility.
Next comes Chapter 3: Tradecraft. This is all about the things spies do and, crucially, how they go about doing them. Assassination, intelligence gathering, recruitment, subversion and more, they're all here. There are notes on how intelligence organisations function and the day-to-day lives of their operatives. Some of it is even correct... but all of it makes for a good cinematic spy game. There's masses here: tactics for buildings clearance, building cover identities, disguise, even cryptology... (I recall once before this book came out, running a convention game that involved a code - one of the players turned out to be a cryptographer and breezed through that part of the adventure!). There's even advice on legal considerations of the spying game and what to do if you're compromised... and a comprehensive collection of spy jargon so that you can sound the part (if you want to admit to being a spy, that is!). The chapter ends with a fine collection of references - books, films and TV shows that will aid you in presenting this semi-real version of the Great Game convincingly.
Finally, Chapter 4: New Rules presents a wealth of new game mechanics to enhance your game. There are new base and expert classes, the concept of the master class, new campaign qualities and much, much more. New talents and specialities allow you to fine-tune your character, and there are some cinematic combat feats to choose from, other types of feat (gear, style, chase, etc.) not being neglected either. Some of this material is applicable to the World on Fire setting but most can be mixed in to whatever Spycraft game you are running. If you are using this setting, there is rules-based detail on the three 'villainous' factions - the 'Good Guys' are left for future sourcebooks (which didn't materialise, alas) and there are resources for creating notable NPCs as well as full rundowns on some major players in the setting.
Overall, it is an intriguing setting while the Tradecraft and Rules sections are of such quality and general application the book is well worth a look even if you want to run your games in a different setting, or in your version of the real world.
Return to World on Fire page.
Reviewed: 19 January 2015