What's like the Soviet Union, but, you know, still exists?
March 25, 2011 6:40 PM   Subscribe

Can you help me with a plausible adversary for an espionage-oriented RPG campaign?

I'm putting together a GURPS campaign set in contemporary times. I have lots of ideas on the world and the encounters and the tone. But, I'm having trouble coming up with a viable adversary for my team of super spy PCs.

I'm trying to develop an enemy organization that presents a viable threat to Western Capitalism/Democracy, but isn't an ethnically/religiously-identified terrorist organization (so, not Muslim fundamentalists). I'd also like it to be well-funded, and ideologically motivated. And while a criminal organization might work, it seems somewhat laughable to me that something like SPECTRE should actually exist.

Basically, I wish the USSR hadn't broken up. But, it has, so what might be a similar adversary? China? The Russian Federation? Sealand?
posted by Netzapper to Grab Bag (28 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
the Vatican. the Illuminati. the Bilderbergs. or better yet : a group that's so good at what they do that they haven't been revealed/discovered/talked about yet. they get the barest scrap of a tip, the vaguest whiff of a trail, and it leads to a ever-snowballing web of intrigue that can take you as the GM anywhere and incorporate anyone.

you can even have paths double back on each other.

pick one memeber of the playgroup, give them some info on their role in the conspiracy, tell them to not reveal it. make the information you gave the plant incorrect, or outdated, or pawnsmanship.

better yet, do it with two of them. different stories. different ideas. pit them against each other so that they have to maneuver against each other without revealing their intentions to the rest of the group.
posted by radiosilents at 6:49 PM on March 25, 2011

You could go a Charlie Stross and make it a rogue MMO guild (or other ad-hoc group of hackers.) Wikileaks, maybe?
posted by restless_nomad at 6:49 PM on March 25, 2011

Maybe take inspiration from something like Alias? There were various syndicates in the show, dedicated either to the whole Rimbaldi thing or else just making money.
posted by synecdoche at 6:51 PM on March 25, 2011

Make up a story that a small group of major transnational corporations have decided that the time is right for a second Business Plot. Definitely a well-funded threat to Western democracy. The ideology is, at root, one of naked greed, but you can toss in whatever political motivation you want. This has the bonus that your agents can be sent all over the world, since the corporations would have a tangled web of holdings, subsidiaries, and offices.
posted by jedicus at 6:59 PM on March 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

posted by surewouldoutlaw at 7:02 PM on March 25, 2011

Bureaucracy. Some spy agency born out of the Cold War that was made too redundant to die when the USSR did. It exists because it is supposed to, manipulates because that is it's nature, and is so entwined in the international scene that it would take, say, a plucky band of misfit PCs to finally show it to the grave.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 7:04 PM on March 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

While North Korean ideology puts a great emphasis on its own racial purity and a cult of personality that pushes it into theocracy, it's also got the same "threats" to western democracy that the US feared during the Cold War. North Korea also has ties to all sorts of unsavory regimes that have very different racial/ideological makeups: Myanmar, Iran, Syria, Zimbabwe, etc. Perhaps some kind of as-yet-to-be-named union between them?
posted by holterbarbour at 7:08 PM on March 25, 2011

To be honest, neither Russia, China nor both (+ Iran, Venezuela, DPRK, Cuba) combined would even come close to being grave threats to Western capitalism or democracy. And all the ideas I've thought, like ecoterrorists, technological extremists, or sociopathic executive officers are equally laughable too.

If you want an enemy like the USSR, that still exists, and won't resort to some alternate timeline ideas, then I would suggest the United States of America itself. Consider for a moment that you asked for a well funded and ideologically motivated enemy. The US has the biggest economy, and it's ideology of American neo-liberalism and monoculture is one of the strongest to take grip across the modern world.

In addition, with the political climate the way it has been in the last 20 years, it would be easy to paint the US as the greatest enemy of true capitalism and democracy, which kind of meets your final requirement. The only requirement that cannot be met is that the US is Western (well, maybe diehard Europeans would quibble on this point).

You can also be extremely subversive about it, and have the PCs find out that they're working AGAINST the U.S. halfway through the game. C'mon man, it's your job as GM to mindscrew the PCs. Have some fun!
posted by FJT at 7:12 PM on March 25, 2011 [5 favorites]

The incredibly cheesy-looking new game Homefront uses North Korea for this. Can't say they do a good job of making it look plausible.
posted by abcde at 7:17 PM on March 25, 2011

Seconding radiosilents all the way around. If you're looking for a (semi) historical conspiracy sort of inside the Western world, you could work with the Round Table movement, which is related to the Council of Foreign Relations, a subject of many real-world conspiracy theories. But I prefer its adjunct, the Society of the Elect, which was founded by Cecil Rhodes before he decided to put his money behind the Rhodes Scholarship instead. You could also incorporate Business Plot elements, especially considering that multinational corporations will have no loyalty to any particular government.
posted by immlass at 7:39 PM on March 25, 2011

Riffing off what restless said, how about something like the hacker group Anonymous? You could repurpose them as being more powerful than they actually are (who even knows what kind of power they wield?), and being ideologically motivated to destroy capitalism (see the HBGary business and just extrapolate from there). As for being well-funded, well, they can hack into banks, surely....
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 7:53 PM on March 25, 2011

How sci-fi are you willing to go with your setting? Currently I'm very much digging the transhuman RPGEclipse Phase, the setting of which features a dichotomy between the traditional, centralised, corporate-dominated Inner System regimes whose power is artificially maintained through scarcity economics, versus the radical autonomist, anarchist Outer System which thrives on the post-scarcity economics of cornucopia machines, open source and collectivism. What's a greater threat to capitalism and democracy (as we know it) than everybody having access to infinite resources?

This would require a deviation into sci-fi elements, but if you're talking ancient super-secret elites pulling the strings of entire societies, you could feasibly say that said elite has been working to suppress certain amazing technologies throughout the ages. Only this one time they botched the job, and oops, now there's this upstart gang of hackers, freaks and mad scientists with the power of gods and the smarts to play for the long game...
posted by Kandarp Von Bontee at 8:12 PM on March 25, 2011

How about this crowd?
posted by edguardo at 8:14 PM on March 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

How sci-fi are you willing to go with your setting?

Not very.

I really dig on Eclipse Phase myself. But, for this, I'm trying to keep the sci-fi to a minimum. I think, at most, I'm going to allow subtle psionics--bending luck, vague precognitive senses, etc.
posted by Netzapper at 8:16 PM on March 25, 2011

Scientology. Assume everything ever suggested about them is correct (except their own doctrine) -- they've had attempts to take over small political parties in Germany, infiltrate/spy on various branches of the US government, have a bunch of brainwashed members who engage in whatever unsavory activities they're told to do, and of course they're well-funded by a group of Hollywood celebrities who are being blackmailed and/or are profiting themselves.

Partly this depends on what kind of aims you want the group to have and what kind of "bases" you want them to have. If you want the traditional Bond-style Giant Rocket To Blow Up The Moon, you're basically going to have to have the people be motivated by something other than money or self-defense, because that kind of thing just isn't that profitable. Even in the more recent Bond movies where they're trying to corner the market on water or oil or whatever, they're usually so roundabout and not that cost effective (even if you make a big pile of cash at the end, think of all the henchmen you had to hire along the way), you have to suppose there's some kind of psychological issue being worked out there.
posted by inkyz at 8:47 PM on March 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Wyoming. They're tired of being the least-populated state, so they're spying on the others to try to figure out how to get more people.
posted by Slinga at 9:50 PM on March 25, 2011

posted by pompomtom at 10:52 PM on March 25, 2011

One thing you can do is make the opponent a nominal ally, for example the British, but have your team of super spies thrust into a situation where national interests are wildly diverging and having to tussle with them.

Check out the TV series Sandbaggers if you want to get a feel for that kind of gameworld.
posted by Kattullus at 11:03 PM on March 25, 2011

I'm gonna go out on a limb and suggest a Fox-ish News sound-alike media empire.

The PC group hears about a political rally on the local news, and encounters nobody. They should vocally wonder why nobody of any magnitude is actually there, especially if they have any extra-sensory 'abilities'. "Why is nobody thinking about Faux News?"

Then they get lead that takes them across a state/county/continent or two trying to decipher the source of the rally. They get nowhere.

Upon attempting returning to their base/home space they are ambushed by a well-equipped adversary who readily handles them and actually captures them. (I've found this to be a wonderful method of de-powering an otherwise unbeatable group of RPG'ers. Strip em down to their undies and see how they fight.)

Then they're shipped to Manhattan/Bern/East Germany(if it's the 80's)/Moscow*/Clearwater, FL and have to fight back from a seeming place of total weakness. Bonus points if only one of them speak the language, you'll be astounded by how little they reveal to the other players. More bonus points go to pick one member of the playgroup, give them some info on their role in the conspiracy, tell them to not reveal it. make the information you gave the plant incorrect, or outdated, or pawnsmanship.

One of the best campaigns I've ever played in was running through the mid '80s Ozarks mining country with a bunch of over-skilled and under-equipped people. "Shit, if I could find an actual gun, I'd be unstoppable."

*Dating myself with the Moscow reference.
posted by Sphinx at 1:31 AM on March 26, 2011

posted by obiwanwasabi at 2:32 AM on March 26, 2011

Something like Quantum, from the Daniel Craig Bond films. They're basically an explicitly evil version of Iain Banks' The Business, who once 'owned' the Roman Empire and later try to acquire their own sovereign nation.

Or you could have a Red Cell-type group who'd gone rogue and decided to sell their skills and knowledge to the highest bidder, sort of thing.
posted by permafrost at 3:17 AM on March 26, 2011

What if the enemy was a big computer conglomerate that had hidden switches in the software or the chips so that they could "turn off" their products via the web if they were being used for ill or had been stolen or whatever. The baddie's motivation might be that information wants to be free but is being suppressed by the government (a la wikileaks) or maybe his home life was wrecked by screens and he wants to return to a simpler time. if it's a corporate baddie, then maybe they want everyone to have to replace their product/buy more because it turns out people don't actually have to replace all of their gadgets every two years anymore but they depend on it. In any case, the baddies are going to turn off everything (and do a few demonstrations to prove they can), wreaking havoc and causing disasters unless your hero saves the day.
posted by carmicha at 7:00 AM on March 26, 2011

Also, if you want to go mildly SF with the psionics you mentioned, you could have a secret group loosely based on Heinlein's Howard Foundation that basically runs all the psi types (or would like to) and is taking over the world. The sort of elitism involved--probably heritage-based--would absolutely be antithetical to Western values.

(I really like secret conspiracy theories; if that's not your bag, I'm probably not very helpful. Sorry.)
posted by immlass at 8:01 AM on March 26, 2011

You know who really runs the world? The Roman Empire.

Constantine XI disappeared after the siege of Byzantium in 1453, along with a few of his most trusted lieutenants and a big pile of worked gold. The original plan was to bribe their way through the Turkish lines, high-tail it to Venice, raise an army and retake the city. But it quickly became obvious to them that the age of empires and city walls was over with the invention of cannon, so they resolved to be the power behind the throne from now on. Preferably several thrones at the same time.

Byzantium had a long history of paying mercenaries rather than raising their own armies, playing factions off against each other, and other dirty tricks, so they took to their new, more subtle power games like a duck to water. After a brief stopover in Venice, where Constantine had some very interesting conversations with the Doge, they headed for Switzerland and started buying up European princes with a combination of bribes, blackmail and the occasional assassination.

One of their biggest concerns was science and technology - they'd seen first hand what cutting-edge military hardware had done to the walls of Byzantium, and they were damn sure that any new breakthroughs were going to belong to them first. So pretty much anywhere in early-modern Europe where you see a scientist getting cold hard cash from a patron, the heirs of Constantine were probably behind it. (These days they don't have much time for libraries, but the vault in the Jura mountains has to be seen to be believed - they even have Lilienfeld's original transistor in a case there... that gave them a good 20 years head start in the semiconductor revolution before the Bell Labs reinvention in the late 40s).

There were a few bumps along the way (they backed the wrong horse in the French Revolution, but made it up in spades when they organised the American Revolution), but they managed the transition from monarchies to democracies pretty well. It helps when you own both parties, of course.

Although Switzerland (which they've pretty-much owned since 1800 or so) is still officially their base of operations, with Geneva being the third Imperial city, after Rome and Constantinople, most of the real action these days happens in the US and China. In fact, they've been paying so much attention to China (see China's increasing influence over eastern Africa and its raw materials) lately that I wonder if they're thinking of another change of focus, similar to their early-20th-century shift from Europe to the US. It's not really clear whether this would a good or bad thing for the US.

They own quite a few big players in one way or another - about 40% of this list for a start. A good rule of thumb is that if a company does a lot of basic research, they probably either own it, or are sniffing around it. You might be surprised where else they turn up - they're bankrolling everything from pirates in Somalia to electronic voting machines in the US. They endow research chairs at Oxford, and ran Bell Labs from about 1950 onwards. They keep an eye on the underground, too - they've got people inside the Tea Party, the Green movement, even the Mafia, just in case.

It's important to understand that the Empire isn't on the side of good or evil, it's on the side of order - they're in this for the long game, and they actually do a fair amount of good along the way. For example, much of the Global Warming research done in the past 20 years was ultimately funded by them (the institutions they're funding have no clue, obviously) and they're not above the assassination of a GW skeptic who they feel is getting too much press. In the past 5 years, they've started to dabble in geoengineering and longevity research - hubris, they have no shortage of.

They've got 2000 years of history telling them that there's a natural order to the world - them on top, everyone else down below. They rode the wave of democracy because they had to, but now they see a chance to use corporations to do an end-run around all that messy, unpredictable voting stuff, and really set the world on the right track again. The scary thing is, they might be right - the Empire's final victory will mean the end of war, and destabilizing the Empire might throw the whole world into chaos.

Their history, along with their R&D obsession, results in an incredibly small-c conservative organisation with some cutting-edge toys that it's loathe to use. They're pathological about hiding, keeping to the shadows wherever possible. They work through shell companies and false fronts, sometimes several layers deep. Man with French passport shoots Vodafone UK's CEO, but the police turn up solid evidence that he's Israeli? Nah, the Egyptians were talked into setting it up by a well-placed Empire operative within Etisalat U.A.E.

They own satellites, they can command armies by proxy, their communications system is the best in the world, and they're ten years ahead of anyone else in brain-computer interfaces.

I can't think of a better end-of-level boss than the direct heir of Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus, a man with two millennia of Empire at his back. His forbears built Rome, Christianized the Western world, and stage-managed the Cold War. No way are a bunch of half-assed PCs going to get anywhere near him.

Ok, that was way more fun than it should have been. Hope you can pick something useful out of it.
posted by Leon at 8:59 AM on March 26, 2011 [5 favorites]

I shouldn't really go on, but I will...

It's a damn shame what happened with Kennedy, but you can't make an omelette without breaking eggs. Empire schools are the best in the world, bar none, but once your kid reaches university age it really makes sense to send them to Harvard or Cambridge so they can get some real-world experience. Since it got into DNA, the Empire has been taking blood samples from all its citizens, right up to the Emperor. 'cos, you know, long game. And you can never be too careful. The Empire, having no truck with voting, gets its leaders the old-fashioned way - birth, adoption or murder. It's been pretty quiet lately, but I'd hate to get caught up in a power struggle for the top spot. The AI research Turing did in the 60s was absolutely fascinating.
posted by Leon at 9:31 AM on March 26, 2011

So, here's an interesting question: What kind of threat to the US are you thinking about?

The usual Tom Clancy type stuff almost always revolves around an uberweapon- a nuke, bioterrorism, etc. And it's exciting, but part of the reason we really don't see that, is those kinds of weapons are just shitty and destabilize things rather than clean them up, which is what an organized group (like a nation) would prefer.

Realistically, the threats we see getting targeted are either about information loss (infiltration, hacking) or about national interest on a foreign level (which allied governments stay in power, keeping our oil and other resources flowing, etc.)

The big threats that aren't addressed, though, include stuff like how corporate money has tilted our democracy and is basically squeezing us dry, or the racist and religious fanatics infiltrating the military.

So, some possibilities:

- Iran/Contra pt. 2 - switch up the countries, illegal weapon trade, narco-terrorism, and now with Homeland Security and the Patriot Act, maybe some of the folks are being selectively "disappeared" to favor one side in a conflict.

- Corporate Vote Hacking- corporate lock in with a few politicians, they've got hackers jacking up the vote machines to derail democracy.

- FBI's "stay in business model" - The FBI has been getting in the news lately for doing stuff like grooming people for a couple of years to become terrorists- like making sure they can't get civilian jobs, etc. and then turning around to catch the threat they themselves made.

What happens if some group (The FBI, XE, security contractors) decides to rile up and arm some ex-military ring wing extremists to actually go off, so then they can turn around and (get legislation to fund themselves more, get a contract, whatever)?

- The False Wikileaks Game - corporations, countries start setting up fake alternatives to Wikileaks, which they then use to issue forth documents on their competition (sometimes true, sometimes not)?
posted by yeloson at 12:38 PM on March 26, 2011

Huh, I love inkyz's Scientology idea. They are definitely extremely well-funded, ideological, and malevolent. If you go this route, the New Yorker's lengthy and exceptionally fascinating recent profile on this cult is an absolute must-read (and is just amazing reading regardless).
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 2:15 PM on March 26, 2011

Remember Aum Shinrikyo and the sarin gas attacks on the subway in Tokyo?

"Over the next week, the full scale of Aum's activities was revealed for the first time. At the cult's headquarters in Kamikuishiki on the foot of Mount Fuji, police found explosives, chemical weapons and biological warfare agents, such as anthrax and Ebola cultures, and a Russian Mil Mi-17 military helicopter. (...) The reasons why a small circle of mostly senior Aum members committed atrocities and the extent of personal involvement by Asahara remain unclear to this day, although several theories have attempted to explain these events. In response to the prosecution's charge that Asahara ordered the subway attacks to distract the authorities' away from Aum, the defense maintained that Asahara was not aware of events, pointing to his deteriorating health condition. Shortly after his arrest, Asahara abandoned the post of organization's leader and since then has maintained silence, refusing to communicate even with lawyers and family members. Many believe the trials failed to establish truth behind the events."

Shoko Ashahara is currently awaiting execution.

To continue the story, compare with"The Testament of Dr. Mabuse": "dr Mabuse is an inmate in an insane asylum, but has for some time been obsessively scribbling out meticulous plans for crime and terrorism — plans that are being carried out by a gang of criminals in the world outside, who receive their orders from a shadowy, unknown figure who has identified himself to them only as Dr. Mabuse."
posted by iviken at 4:22 PM on March 26, 2011

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