The Numbers: Eccentric Secret Agents Chasing Secrets About Secrets

This is a game about eccentric secret agents and the shadowy cabals they serve competing over fragments of secret information that can be feverishly assembled to reveal yet more secret information. The year is 196X, and the espionage games of the Cold War make a most excellent cover for what’s really important – hunting and capturing the Numbers.

Every so often, a scientist, mathematician, analyst, weather forecaster, etc. will discover a number that is not merely a number, but a Number – usually immediately before their life is turned upside down as a swarm of secret agents from a variety of international conspiracies descend on them to claim that Number before another agency does. The player characters operate one of these secret agencies competing in the maddening web of the Numbers game to gather all the Numbers they can and prevent them from being misused.

The actual significance of the Numbers is left deliberately unstated. There are sci-fi elements to the setting that can easily be explained as “Numbers science,” but the explicit connection between these concepts should remain obscured. Player character agencies typically are looking to learn about the Numbers to keep them secret. Actually using the Numbers is a shocking proposition and is typically the provenance of sinister rogue factions. Agents in The Numbers might be risking their lives for a bunch of made-up nonsense that doesn’t matter for any reason other than lots of powerful, dangerous, secretive people seem to think it matters. Whether you play this foundational absurdity for comedy or for surreal psychological horror is left up to your playgroup.

Numbers agencies place great value on the secrets in the head of every person aware of the Numbers, so the tone of Numbers espionage is frequently one of gentility and battles of wits rather than violence. A living agent is infinitely more valuable than a dead one, so Numbers factions are far more interested in capturing, interrogating, or deceiving their opposite numbers than in eliminating them. Of course, that makes the factions that do resort to violence all the more shocking for their lack of decorum. And there is the far more insidious threat of the factions that have mastered the astoundingly elaborate means of extracting information known as mindbending that mean that no Numbers agent can entirely trust their friends, their fellow agents, their superiors, their loved ones, or even their own senses.

The whole of the spy-fi genre, but The Avengers TV series and The Prisoner are the most direct inspirations. The background setting of the John Wick films nicely illustrates the type of parallel society Numbers agents live in.

Materials and Progress
The Rules - My goal for this first pass was to steal as much as possible. Most playbook abilities are harvested and reskinned from Blades or Scum and Villainy. I wanted to see what I actually needed to do before making work for myself. I also haven’t rewritten the base rules for the same reason; nothing much has changed from the baseline Blades rules, except where noted. The biggest new rules I’ve added are the rules for equipment, including rules for concealed spy gadgets.

Handouts and Play-Aids - These summarize most of the stuff you need to know if you already know the Blades system. This document includes the character and agency playbooks, a brief walkthrough of character and agency creation, the standard equipment list, a description of the twelve actions, and the agency upgrades.

  • There are eight character playbooks: The Asset (a civilian caught up in this nonsense world), the Boffin (a technical wizard), the Burglar (an intrusion specialist), the Daredevil (a reckless agent who survives through sheer luck and courage), the Face (the face), the Minder (a strategist and master planner), the Professional (a dedicated and ruthlessly efficient agent), and the Protector (a bodyguard and transporter).

  • There are three agency playbooks: the Agency (a secret conspiracy that nobody knows about plugged in to the Numbers world), the Branch (a rogue department within a larger faction secretly pursuing the Numbers without the knowledge or approval of their nominal superiors), and the Crew (an independent and free-wheeling group of world-class agents chasing numbers for the thrill of it.)

(New users can only put two links in a post, see replies for links to the following.)

The game’s factions are still a work in progress, especially when it comes to the minor details. I’m going to write their starting situations when I’ve firmed up the list. There are a few more factions to come.I focused on usability before holistic setting design, but I could certainly flesh the background out more.

Agency management and downtime is mostly lifted from Scum and Villainy.

Even though it takes place on something that resembles 1960s Earth, I intend to flesh out the setting with Hotspots - fictional locales that are especially important to the Numbers games. Expect a rough outline of them in the next update.

Feedback Appreciated On:
Just about everything, but especially…

  • Some names - I’m not in love with “The Face” or “The Protector” as playbook names. I also wouldn’t mind removing the confusion of “The Agency” being only one type of agency.

  • Long-term play stuff - I have only managed to actually play Blades and this in one-shot settings. I love the faction game on paper, but haven’t put it into practice yet. For those of you with experience, do any of the tweaks I made look like they’ll immediately fall apart?

  • Tone - Again, for those of you with long-term play experience, do the mechanics match the less-brutal-than-Blades tone I’m hoping to hit? I expect this will mostly come across in the harm and healing rules - I used the less-harsh healing system from Scum and Villainy, but am considering making it even less harsh. That said, I want it to be more of an investigation game than an action one, where violence is rare and shocking, so I don’t want to make it too easy to shake off injury. Would it benefit from mindbending harm being handled any differently from normal harm?

  • What’s missing? Do the playbooks sell their concepts with their mostly scavenged mechanics, or do they need a little uniqueness to get to communicate their intents?

  • Sensitivity - These questions will become more significant as the setting gets set down on paper more comprehensively, but I want to at least have them in mind as I go:

    • Even though it isn’t intentionally one of my touchstones, there is a a certain imperialist, misogynist, martini-swilling elephant in the room that is the genre of '60s, British-esque spy fiction. Have I done enough to distinguish this from that? How explicit should I make that?
    • Of course I want players to be able to have fun playing characters from any background, and it’s easy to fall back on the old RPG handwave of ‘the people in the Secret World don’t see race/gender/sexuality, just results,’ but a large part of the game is about moving through the mundane world of 1960s Earth with all its divisions and prejudices. I fully recognize and subscribe to the idea that ‘historical accuracy’ as an excuse for foregrounding prejudice in a historical game is bunk, and that people aren’t coming to this game looking to experience play-acted discrimination, but I still think I should say something, you know?
    • When Hotspots come in, have I unthinkingly tapped into any racist/imperialist/Orientalist tropes?
    • For mindbending factions, their methods (essentially the mind games from The Prisoner) involve sustained gaslighting and psychological abuse. Have I crossed any lines with them? Should I write an aviso around those factions/that concept? Or is the whole thing elevated and divorced from reality enough that I’m worrying for nothing?
    • Are there comparable questions I’m not asking but should be?
  • Ease of Use - One thing I really appreciate about FitD games is the “if you don’t know what ability to pick, the first one on the list is pretty easy and useful” trick. I have not done this here. In fact, I worry that some of the core abilities I’ve selected, while thematic, are a bit too situational to be good core abilities. Especially the Protector’s.

  • And finally, do you expect games to be a bit further along than this before including them in the Library section of this forum?

Thanks for reading, don’t hesitate to ask me questions for clarification, and let me know what you think!


Links that didn’t make it into the first post:

The Factions

Upkeep and Downtime

One quick comment. - there are now two hacks with a Boffin playbook! The dieselpunk Skies of Fire hack is the other one. It is a great word for your “techie” playbook.

1 Like

I can’t recommend Charles Stross’ Laundry Files highly enough! Even if you don’t use the lovecraftian elements, those books are freakishly well reasoned and researched. I LOVE that it’s set in a John Wick - esc universe. Government agents making close contact with a private league of assassins and a criminal underworld far more organized and unified than inter-agency alliances sounds wicked fun! Great idea.

IRL Research Topics to get you started:

  • Operation Cyclone
  • Project Solarium
  • The 5 Eyes
  • Murder Inc.
  • Different Mafia organizations (Camorra, Cosa Nostra, Bratva, Triad, Yakuza, Vor v Zakone, etc)

In terms of naming things and playbooks, you’re gonna have to consume a lot of spy and near-spy movies and books. Don’t be afraid to look at non-traditional espionage, like the movie The Accountant and the tv show The Black List or Person of Interest, as well as more traditional espionage media, the Americans tv show.

Dark Heresy 1st ed had a great splatbook Disciples of the Dark Gods, with one chapter near the back talking about jurisdictional disputes and another talking about how tone shifts. I can throw you a drop box link or screen captures if you’d like? In any event, think about more or less sinister organizations that’re going to “want in” on your operations/scores because “this falls under our jurisdiction.”

For playbooks, I would look at the question of how the agent got into this life:

  • Academic turned agent (a subject matter expert who’s loosely trained in combat)
  • Street Urchin that grew up rough (unwanted cousins from the wrong side of the tracks)
  • Special military (When they got “too old” and retired, but all they know is service)
  • Family connection (they got groomed and recruited from a young age)
  • Reformed criminal (confidential informant or undercover agent?)
  • Political/Corporate Fixer (They learned the ropes for profit)
  • Cop that turned agent (a local officer of the law who showed promise)
  • Double agent (who do they really work for? maybe an advanced playbook?)
  • Civilian with unwanted experience (think Ripley from Aliens)

Then think about how those backgrounds could influence the playbooks uniquely. What do they bring to the table that the other’s don’t? Don’t worry so much about mechanics: let the narrative surrounding their unique talents influence their directions.

Laundry Files is an interesting point of comparison. I have used the Mythos as a loose analogy for the Numbers before - once you begin to realize their significance, you find yourself unable to relate well to normal people and care sufficiently about the things normal people care about. And if you go beyond that into actually understanding them… well, you’re in trouble. I’ve only read The Atrocity Archives, might track some others down, thanks for that.

The ‘competent but unassuming technocrats’ of that book could probably be done with the Agency or the Branch playbooks, but might be decent inspiration for a fourth agency playbook.

And I could definitely use some more IRL inspiration to heighten and incorporate as factions. I like your suggestion of more organized crime. I have one major organized crime faction already, but there might be room for a less extravagant one at a lower tier.

1 Like

If you’re looking for a point of comparison with Flemming, Jennifer Morgue (book two) is excellent.

5 Eyes is a cornerstone in my modern hack! I’m pulling it out a a supplement because I’m struggling with how best to tie mechanics to an oppressive surveillance state. I’m also using Detachment G and center lane, Stargate, etc.

1 Like

IRL commentary about who’s actually doing what around the world aside, what trouble are you having with mechanically modeling a panoptic surveillance apparatus? I’m a data scientist and systems engineer by trade, so maybe I can help?

“Big data” as it’s called by absolutely no one who actually knows what they’re talking about has three components: 1) collection, 2) structuring, and 3) querying/modeling. Which of those elements are you interested in modeling for your mechanics?

“Big data” as it’s called by absolutely no one who actually knows what they’re talking about”

I see you know my publisher. I co-authored a book about using large real-world data sources in the middle and high school science classroom. I objected to the publisher provided title, but got out voted.

I’ll post more about my sticking point later tonight.

1 Like

That definitely ties into the idea of whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stranger. I like it. How would you go about mechanizing that? Trauma does an interesting job of that, but I think you’ll need a more robust system for tracking alienation?

The alienation is mostly there in the negative, if that makes sense. By default, everyone is assumed to buy in 100% to the necessity of the Numbers – the core absurdity. My reskin of Trauma (as seen in the rules changes) is called Doubt; as you start to become disillusioned in the significance of the Numbers and your mission, your effectiveness as an agent wanes, and you start thinking about retiring. I adjusted the trauma/doubt tags for that reason (Arrogant, Compromised, Divided Loyalties, Guilty, Obsessed, Paranoid, Reckless, and Vengeful) for which I will add some explanatory text in the next version!

Numbers characters are alienated from normal society, but it turns out abnormal society is huge and intricate. 2/3 of the factions are just as driven as you to chase the Numbers, after all.

The Asset playbook is where more of the sense of this whole thing being absurd comes through, especially their Work-Life Balance ability.

I don’t want to build too much more mandatory paranoia and alienation into the system. I like leaving it up to the individual group where on the scale of ‘absurd-funny’ to ‘absurd-nightmarish’ they decide to play. Or even if they gradually slide from one toward the other!

1 Like

the 1d4chan article on shadowrun has a neat section on Black Trenchcoat, Pink Mohawk, and Mirror Shades that may be interesting for you to check out. I’m not sure you want to mechanically account for the difference in play styles, or leave it entirely ambiguous, but I think you’re looking at something a lot of GMs overlook when considering mission-oriented adventuring.

Oh, I love it! That’s a great take on it. I’m struggling a little with how I want to incorporate trauma into my scifi, mercenary setting. I’m looking into how Darkest Dungeon handles their stress and trauma systems, as I do want that slightly darker theme for me.

Thanks for the offer of help-

My stumbling block is less about the technology and more about tone. Although a character may be able to hack into a network of cameras or access data, it isn’t a game about hacking. I am trying to come up with mechanics that set the tone for a paranoid surveillance state. The stress of living off the grid – avoiding security cameras, using single-use cell phones, stolen credit cards, fake IDs, etc. The crew needs to complete their scores without getting their cover burned.

I hava a few pieces, but I haven’t got my head fully around it yet. For example, characters don’t have a real name - they just hae a tripcode (or random pass phrase that might sound like a name). The have cover identities that can be burned – collecting exposure (a personal level of heat) and generating individualized entanglements (rolled secretly by the GM). Too much exposure burns the ID, resulting in major issues for the character. The individual exposure tracks also influence the crew’s HEAT track and can result in escalating retribution from factions. Exposure / Heat may also end up having an impact on Engagement rolls.

It might sound good on paper, but I don’t want it to get too complicated. In addition, my current version doesn’t have a strong connection to character actions.

I am also working on connecting the Identity Intelligence / Find-Fix-Finish-Exploit-Analyze-Disseminate intelligence protocol as the backbone for structuring missions.

As a reference, I really like John Twelve Hawk’s Traveller & The Dark River books. Perhaps minority report (if the players are interested in pre-cogs) & Poul Anderson’s Sensitive Man…

I apologize if some of what I wrote doesn’t make complete sense. I’m two days into recovering from moderate CO poisoning. I’ll probably read this tomorrow and think a crazy person wrote it.

I think that’s good. Shadowrun has always suffered from having two or three concurrent games running in parallel: meatspace, cyberspace, and astral space. It’s fine for veteran GMs and parties that don’t mind being split up, but honestly it’s a nightmare and doesn’t come across as fun for people who aren’t prepared for it.

Well, it’s always best to start with what you’ve got in the toolbox. The stress and heat systems can be tailored to be more strenuous for players, so that should help. Additionally, tailoring the obstacles and consequences your players face to be more information based can help. Adjusting clocks can also be a tailored response.

Pseudos are a classic and time honored tool for building legends and covers. You should consider looking at the advancement rules, and “changing identity” could require a playbook advance like changing your playbook would. From the sounds of it, this could also be used to remove trauma, which appear to be subverted in your system for entanglements (e.g. the corporations are closing in on my guy, so I’ll burn this identity). You may consider a pre-emptive “burn” to alleviate entanglements or an enforced identity burn when you accrue four entanglements that spawns a super bad armed response (the fuzz found you!). There’s a cost to burning, of course, because you’ll burn your reputation and probably a lot of your assets as well, but you get to hold onto your action and playbook advances. You’re still you, but you’re a no-body again (except for your close contacts).

Seems straight forward. The hotter a character is, the more heat they bring down on everyone else.

I would definitely look at how to weave these into the mission start thing that BitD has. I would recommend looking into Stars Without Number’s 1st edition supplement Darkness Visible (the espionage splat book). There are some outstanding adventure creation tools and tables that I think will help you.

1 Like

Really cool! Are you looking for online playtesters?

These actions are really stylish, I especially like “Dare”. It might help to have an example under “Eliminate” (or any action) of why you might prefer “Scuffle” instead. Since Eliminate can be used in close range and non-lethally, it might not be obvious why someone would put dice into Scuffle. Also “Command” is listed in the examples for Sway, but you probably meant “Outwit”.

For Equipment, it might save space and mental load to remove the L/R distinction. Just make non-concealed armor cost some large amount of load, and then let players take an “L-only” item like climbing gear or a disguise kit if the GM and Player can agree on a flavorful way to gadgetize it. I do really like the L and R system, I’m just not sure the rulebook needs to specify what can and can’t be a gadget.

Those are excellent notes for the actions list, thank you very much!

As for equipment, I’m still tinkering with it. I might end up doing exactly what you say here. When I first thought up the system, I envisioned doing a bit more with it than I’ve done in this version. Things like bulletproof vests and rifles being only available for Load and maybe some other things only available for Requisition, but that hasn’t really materialized. I took the L+L rifle off the standard gear list after my first playtesters thought there were too many lethal weapons on the standard list, especially as I emphasize the rarity of outright murder in the setting. As I added items to the list, I kept thinking “well, why couldn’t it be both standard or gadget?” Maybe you’re right, and that should just be the default state of affairs.

I need to settle on a nonlethal weapon for the standard gear list. I have tranquilizer darts on there right now, but I also have that listed as special gear for the Professional, and I think something up close would be better. A cosh or chloroform or a stun gun or something.

Regarding playtesting, no plans right now, but watch this space. I’ll probably be running it on a friend’s stream in the next couple months and might put out a call for players. And I would love to do a fully external playtest once the text is a little more complete. But I’ve never done one of those before – anyone have any good resources on preparing and evaluating one?