The Independents: The Agency

This message will self-destruct in five seconds.

Wait, sorry, I’m out of practice. Hey, at least it’s not like the time when I put the detonation before the message. Boy, did I get chewed out for that one. Anyway, we have successfully deployed our recruiting tool, releasing it through this new “independent gaming website”. Christ, sometimes I really do think the Reds won. Anyway, we made it Pay What You Want (dirty, dirty socialism is what it is!), so potential Agents will be able to easily pick up the basics of what joining The Agency entails without getting off their welfare-loving asses. It also includes the basics of the Field Agent Inserts. I again register my grievance for the identifier: Mindset Stuck in the Fifties. Stuck implies that I would have ever wanted to leave.

Anyway, mission update complete. Now, this message with self destruct in five seconds.


The Agent is explaining to me what this “Internet” is.

Oh no.

Well, this was disconcerting to find on my Google Drive. But it did have rather fortuitous timing of showing up with an alert from our good friends over at Evil Hat Productions about a new release, The Agency written by Tracey Barnett with art from Brian Patterson. It is a short, Fate-based system about a spy agency that is described as “a dash of James Bond, a glance over Spies Like Us, with a heavy dose of Archer”, with some Paranoia thrown into the mix. The Agency is one of the world’s foremost spying agencies, with some of the best-trained operatives the world has seen. There’s just one little complication: all those agents are dead, killed off in a massive purge by an outside agency.

This is only a minor hiccup for Alice, the supercomputer who is the true brains of the Agency. In case of just such an emergency, she had prepared digital versions of these specialists (called FAI’s) and had a massive recruiting pool: ordinary people, willing to engage in a bit of espionage for money or the thrill, and who didn’t mind a bunch of personalities shoved into their brain. Player characters are the digital versions of the dearly departed specialists, all sharing and jockeying for control of the body of one entirely ordinary and mundane person as that new Agent gets sent to battle secret organizations in overly elaborate and non-OSHA compliant lairs, contend with rogue agents who have turned on their homelands, and disable wacky doomsday devices.

It’s a mostly straightforward port of the Fate Core rules: the Agent and the FAI’s pick out Aspects that define their characters: A High Concept that defines them, a Trouble that haunts them, and a personal issue. For the Agent, it’s their Burning Desire: what would make them want to spy? For some, it’s the money: Alice pays very well for their risk of life and limb, and hey, is it worse than Ubering downtown on a Saturday night? For others, it’s the thrill and glory: they chase an adventure, or want a taste of the high life, or want to pick up chicks. The players can invoke this desire with their own personal pool of Fate Points to reduce Stress in game, along with being an Aspect for roll modifications.

For the FAI’s, it’s their Unfinished Business: what is lingering from the life that you once had? For some, it might be professional: the old assassin rival who finally got the drop on you is still walking free, or the doomsday device you lost track of is still circulating somewhere. On the other hand, it could be personal: what happened to your wife after you died? Do you even want to know, or better, don’t want to know, but feel like you have to?

From there, players build a skill tree for the Agent and their FAI’s. The rules recommend that FAIs begin the game disoriented and have to remember what skills they have, meaning you can assign them to your tree on the fly. However, thinking as a potential GM, I am ok with players having a strong idea of what they would want to play beforehand. The idea of at least partially formed personalities jockeying against each other in session 1 (or zero) amuses me, but I feel that GMs should decide for themselves. Skills are narrow, and the Agent can only take very mundane ones: Accounting and Housework are examples given. FAIs have a much broader number and ranking of skills (including the stereotypical spy skills), and are better overall at everything compared to a standard person.

In the end though, while players are highly trained and skilled in their fields, they are all reliant on one meat suit. Players have to rotate their turns in, and switching one out removes the skills the others might provide. Players can spend Fate Points to forcibly take control of the body from one another, but the Agent does not recover stress on their own between scenes, meaning that you better be careful with that body. It’s the only one you are getting for a while.

I should point out: the game described itself as a mix of black comedy and absurdism, but other than the brief setting notes there isn’t a whole lot to enforce that. You could run this game depressingly straight, focusing on transhumanism and the existential nightmare of what Alice has created. One of the example Troubles that the authors mentioned as having appeared in playtesting was  “Two Weeks From Retirement, Forever”. The FAI had to grapple with the perpetual knowledge that he will ALWAYS be Two Weeks From Retirement, and not even death could change that.

Of course, if you are like my group you spend a game of Fate learning to download a copy of yourself into a smart bullet so you can shoot yourself into a Vorlon craft to play Grand Theft Spaceship (yes, this is what actually happened the last time we played Fate at all, never mind The Agency). So, with that in mind, I volunteered to run a one-shot during a gap week in our gaming schedule, without telling players what they were getting into (sorry guys, I couldn’t resist).

All in all players took the “I’m dead”  bit better than I planned. We started with Virgil, the burned spy who couldn’t keep it in his pants and who was facing multiple paternity suits. Then there was Z, a member of Z Branch who died from some sub par circuity after budget cuts. Finally there was Wallace, the actor who didn’t know he was was spy who didn’t know he was a cyber implant.

All them awoke to a quick briefing aboard an about-to-explode plane, and learned the meaning of teamwork by using the “not-so-gently used” nylons from Virgil to choke out a guard and Wallace’s stunt driving to drive to safety.

From there they learned of Baron Dumkoff, the nefarious overseer who was looking for investors for his superweapon at a bare knuckle fighting tournament. Rather than getting personally involved they used Wallace’s acting skills and Z’s cheating skills to work their way into the upper levels of a high stakes poker game. Along the way they learned that Vergil had at one point knocked up Natasha, Wallace’s greatest rival, when they were all still alive. And that they had been dead for eighteen years before being activated as FAIs.

It turns out that all those paternity suits that Virgil had been dodging had left a slew of literal bastards with spy blood in their veins, and one was cleaning up in the blood sport beneath them. In response the players decided to make a bomb, and pretend it was a baby in a stroller. After a failed check, it was accidentally rolled past the gaming tables into the nursery and day care, and primed to go off . . .

Did the players try to stop this?

No, they got busy getting cold clocked by their (Virgil’s) bastard son, and decided to use the detonation countdown to make their move. It turns out the entire operation was a con: Baron Dumkoff was an obvious alias, and was using the threat of his superweapon to get under-the-table payments from rogue nations. Any chance of that was squashed as the PC’s mowed down his staff with rifle fire . . . but as they prepared to return home, they realized the investors had gone to Natasha instead, and she’d made her own getaway. And how many other bastard children of Virgil’s are out there?

All in all my players laughed at and cursed me in equal measure. For a comedic one-shot I really could not ask for a better end result. I can see problems in making this a long-term game, but for short campaigns and one shots, where you are not taking things too seriously, it is a raucous good time.

The Agency is currently Pay What You Want over at our affiliate Drive Thru RPG, so you can check it out at no charge. However, I do encourage you to throw a couple of bucks Evil Hat’s way for their efforts.

Now, if you excuse me, I have about a week of memory loss to deal with for some reason. Does anyone possibly know why I have something labelled “Nor’easter Machine” in my basement with a cycling timer going?

Aki is currently suppressing the urge to laugh maniacally, monologue about how people were fools to underestimate him, and is wondering how to expand a basement man cave into a lair. Follow him @WHalfling. Image credit to Evil Hat games.

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