Sunday, 6 October 2019

My Intelligence Problem

Hey, maybe you can do my work for me. I have this potentially challenging problem.

The Game is question is a "pretend nations" game.

Each participant controls a fantasy nation on a map.

Each nation has a randomly determined power level and the player for each nation breaks down their power points into armies, ambassadors, wizards etc.

The way the ruling player makes moves is that they write a letter to the DM, In-Character, as of they were the ruler writing to the generals of their armies, their intelligence head, ambassador etc, sending instructions, asking for information etc.

They write one of these per month, though within that can address as many of their pre-created individuals as they wish, so one letter can have one part going to the head of an army and another sheet going to the high priest or whatever.

During the month, the DM resolves the results of any interactions between nations. I'm thinking here specifically of the results of a battle between armies but a very wide range of  interactions are possible. They then write letters back to each ruler, in the voice of their generals or wizards or whatever, telling them what happened, from that characters point of view.

Players are also allowed to write to each other, in-character, if they want to, but they are meant to only do it in hardcopy.

The world creation is set up so that nations have access to each other but up until the opening state of play, have had very little ability to interact, and so they each know each others nations exist and a little about them but don't have much in-depth information.

The world has also been set up so that a major stabilising central authority has just dispensary. This is intended to lead to conflict and creative interaction.

The problem is this;

When players create intelligence agents, ambassadors and other infiltrators, and send them into each others territory, I'm not sure how to handle it.

The world creation is somewhat emergent, people don't define every hex of their nation to begin with, we are making up details as they come into play.

And the DM (me) isn't supposed to tell different players what the others are up to, unless their agents, or the people of their nation, can observe it.

So when player A sends a spy into player B's territory, how do I decide what to tell them?

I could just make parts of it up, but that means I am making up details about someone's country. If I do that I *have* to tell them what those details are ultimately. And if I go around telling people; "Oh you have a thriving but corrupt port city here" that might be bearable, but it also lets them know they are being spied on, because content has been generated.

I could ask the player being spied on for the information; "Hey do you have a city hereabouts and what in general do you think might be there?" That lets them keep control of their own nation but also, again, lets them know they are being spied on.

I could organise some "baffling" process where each month I ask each of them a random question about the makeup of their nation, and some of those might be for spies from other nations, but many will just be random?

I am OPEN TO IDEAS for solutions to this unusual problem.


  1. Wait a second... Do you know what Xingando possibly means?

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. If neither player knows what's in a territory you can establish that players can't get information about anything that the local player wouldn't know about. For example, if player A wants to find a vulnerability in a city in B's territory which isn't defined, you can make that impossible as a game rule, but answer that nearby forests are inhabited by a gang of mercenaries unknown to player B to represent A's success in getting useful intelligence. I don't know if this fits the game. But could be an option. Kind of like having the ability to create an advantage in the fog of war of common knowledge.

    Alternatively, you could have a random generation system and not letting players know if the territory and information was generated for them or it was already generated for another player's intelligence agent.

    I'm assuming this is a competitive game. Otherwise, I wouldn't find the need to obscure this info.

    All-around sounds cool. Like a crossover of Diplomacy, Civilization and De Profundis. Love to hear some more.

    1. One of my issues with this suggestion is that it gives players an incentive to NOT populate their own country with details, in order to maintain the advantage of obscurity.

      However, the random generation system sounds like it could be a really good solution. It would have to be a generator that results in lore that seems indistinguishable from what a player might come up with, in order to maintain the ambiguous possibility that it came from either source. Essentially, it would have to pass a Turing Test.

      The easiest way I see pulling this off is if there is a format imposed on the players for HOW they establish country details. Like, instead of free-writing paragraphs of lore they have to fill out a questionnaire, just the same way a generator might populate answers to a checklist.

  4. You might consider making it official that the Referee generates some content based on how the player distributes their points. So, if the player has set it up so that they have eight large cities, the Referee gets to determine the details of, say, two of them, or four, or whatever, and that would apply to other content that the player is setting up. In addition, the Referee gets to determine X amount of other content. That allows the Referee to simply pick some content at need for hidden information purposes.

  5. Perhaps each player could be responsible for defining a couple secret strengths and weaknesses each game turn, determined by the relative success of their previous turn. I.e. on a good turn they might define 2 strengths (The town of Walton has been fortified) and a weakness (the Governor of the Marches is ambitious and unreliable) but on a unsuccessful turn they might have to define 3 weaknesses.

    Successful spycraft reveals whichever strength or weakness is most relevant to the spy mission.

  6. why not just have spies report on some or all of the contents of letters between other players and the dm?

    say player A sends a diplomat to player B's territory; diplomat A might not be privy to information regarding B's military activities, but could report on the goings-on in B's court (as determined by the relevant concerns brought up in player B's letters).

    you said worldbuilding is emergent. i would suggest new details of a kingdom only come into play in response to that kingdom's player's own inquiries, THEN other players' spies may be able to report on those, if they are in a position to learn such information.

  7. Each month, the players have to define the details of a few hexes that are assigned to them by the GM. On a normal turn, the GM can assign them at their whim, but if another player is snooping, you can slip a relevant hex into their assignment.

  8. Oblige each player to create a few random tables of truths. When an agent goes snooping, roll a random result. This becomes "true," but also might be bad/corrupted/partial intelligence.

  9. Building off Garret F's comment - the spies aren't hanging around the countryside, they're in the palace. They can only know about things the king talks about (ie, things included in the player's letters to the GM).

    There probably should be a chance of discovering you have a spy in your midst and/or a chance to feed the spy false information.

    1. From a resource management perspective, would assigning a spy to your own court for counterintelligence seem fair?

  10. Tony Bath's Ancient Wargaming addresses this, but in a general way. While the goal was to generate emergent and interesting battles in Hyboria, he addresses a number of issues that are applicable to our hobby as well.

    1. This was actually partly inspired by reading Playing at the World and the descriptions of multiple world-games in there.

  11. Give each player an internal intelligence service that from tme to time provides information on his own territory. Sometimes this information will also be known to other players (via their spies), sometimes only to the GM who's making it all up.

    Yes, you'll be inventing stuff about players lands, but if you don'tdo it too often, make sure it fits with what they are inventing and provide interesting campaign hooks, that might be ok.

  12. To really ratchet up the paranoia, let opposing players have some say in the world building of their opponents fiefs, rather than GM fiat. "I put some infiltrators in the gloomy forest north of the capitol."

    "I don't have a forest."

    Well, you do now.

    How to react to this information? Maybe you want to cut that forest that just sprang up down : build an armada or something, and in the process root out these interlopers pushing forest life on you.

    What kind of infiltration was it even? Maybe something serious. Maybe a feint. Maybe they wanted you to cut down a forest. Maybe they wanted you to have said armada.

    Maybe you should burn your armada?

  13. Various ideas

    1. Make each player write out details of a new area of their land that is visible to outsiders each month. Start with the capital city then primary areas (largest city, wizard headquarters, etc.)

    2. Spies and infiltration can only be undercover when cover is possible. Therefore, make it so that spies can only be sent via methods like merchant caravans, embassies, wizard or young nobles exchange programs, migrant workers, and things like that.

    Each time one of these events occurs a player can accept or spurn the attempt to intermix the two populations. If they accept then they have to provide information about what the visitors see and what that area is like. This will require the sorts of details a spy might be interested in.

    They can choose to be North Korea, but then they'll be stuck with no trade agreements, ambassador visits, new technologies and spells from foreign lands, etc.

    3. Set up the game like Civilization where nothing exists on the map until it has been written down. A player who has only written details for 1 city only has 1 city.

    4. Set up the system somehow so that undefined weaknesses are more vulnerable than defined weaknesses.

    5. Tell players that someone may have spied on there country in one of 3 different areas. Ask them to provide details about these 3 areas. Send out these information requests 2 or 3 times more often than actual spy attempts occur.

  14. You could have each player write out a d12 list of internal facts about their country: 4 good, 4 neutral, and 4 bad. Anyone spying on the country rolls on that table to discover what facts they learn. If you learn facts about your own country by deploying internal spy networks, you are basically building the internal infrastructure to utilize, reorganize, or neutralize a discovered fact. The advantage is that each nation knows what it has on that table, as they have their ear to the ground so to speak, but they still have to build up the internal organizations to do anything with that just like anyone spying on them from the outside.