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.)
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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!