Monday, June 8, 2009

Where is the Techno-Thriller RPG Genre?

Back in the late 90's, I came across an RPG company called Chameleon Eclectic, which published a game that's been around for a few years by then - The Millennium's End RPG. Some of you have probably heard of it, but I'm sure a fair number of you haven't. ME offered up an interesting look at what it referred to as the "Techno-Thriller" genre - a campaign premise revolving around the sorts of things that made writers like Tom Clancy all their fat cash.

The premise of Millennium's End was that, starting at the end of the First Gulf War, history diverged from where it is today. Small-scale warfare picked up, terrorism surged exponentially, and the world economy became depressed, with crime and black-market trade spilling out everywhere (sounds less like a divergent time line and more like Chameleon Eclectic had a pre-cognitive psychic on staff...). Within this world of brush-fire wars, high-profile terrorism, and rampant assault-rifle packing criminal elements, the PCs step onto the stage as members of a "private security firm" known as Blackeagle/Blackeagle (formed by two American Indian brothers, hence the doubled name). By default, the PCs are operating out of a Miami office, but in theory they could be located anywhere. The PC team would then take on assignments (or be given assignments if you wished), travelling around the country or the world to fight criminals, terrorists, warlords - whoever you could reasonably pit them against.

While I wasn't a big fan of the system - it was about ten years out of date compared to the games that were becoming increasingly popular in the early to mid-90's, far too simulationist and "crunchy" compared to other games of the time - I have to say the sourcebooks and the two published adventures I have are second to none. Author Charles Ryan did massive amounts of research into modern small-unit anti-terrorist operations and provides a huge wealth of information on running a campaign in the techno-thriller genre. I'd recommend that anyone who had any sort of interest in this genre, even if they weren't going to run a game, should pick the Millennium's End sourcebooks if they find them.

So, why am I talking about this? Two reasons. First, I picked up the Delta Green Sourcebook for Call of Cthulhu. Anything that I could say about this supplement, others out there on the World Wide Web have said far better. Needless to say, it is one of the best gaming products I've ever purchased - I almost feel bad I picked it up for 50% off. That I've been watching through the whole X-Files series isn't a coincidence, and having grown up as a teenager/college student in the 90's, the whole techno-thriller/conspiracy theory vibe is just right up my creative alleyway.

Second, intermingled through my viewings of X-Files, I've been going through the five seasons of J. J. Abrams' television series Alias. I may have to write a whole other column on this series, but suffice to say, it really is five seasons of a techno-thriller / espionage / adventure / sci-fi / weird science RPG campaign. I could very easily see this show being run using the Spycraft rules for D20 Modern, or GURPS, or any other rules set with strong support for modern espionage gaming.

The weird thing is though, I think that the "techno-thriller" RPG genre as a whole has kinda gone by the wayside. Millennium's End died a quiet and ignoble death, and I just haven't seen any other RPG set in modern times, lacking any kind of super-powers or sci-fi or modern fantasy magic. You could of course do it with BRP, or GURPS, or D20 Modern (is Spycraft still being published / supported?), but those are by and large generic RPG systems, not specific games.

So my question to you the audience is, what is your impression of the state of the modern espionage / techno-thriller RPG genre? Has it pretty much disappeared, because gamers aren't all that interested in a campaign that lacks any kind of fantasy, weird, horror, or sci-fi elements? Is this because of the post-9/11 world we're in right now? I'd actually think that, wish shows like 24 or Burn Notice, there would be greater interest in this genre, but it's just not happening.

Questions, comments, and concerns are all welcome.


L. Beau said...

Maybe it's because of the success of writers like Clancy or TV shows like "24" that there are not more techno-thriller games out there. Fans of this type of stuff get their fix from narrative fiction (books & films)and feel less of need to role-play it. Certainly, when RPGs first exploded in 1970s and early 80s, fantasy and sci-fans had been bemoaning the lack of watchable movies in their favorite genres for years. Might that have been an impetus to start gaming in a fantasy realm?

I'm far from certain about all of the above, of course. Some fantasy RPG fans devour fantasy books by the cartload, and still find their appetites for FRPGs rather sharp.

Jig said...

I've been wondering that same question for the past couple of years. I've actually gone to using Heavy Gear (sans sci-fi) for my modern-technothriller fix. Of course, that's beside the point. I've no idea why no-one seems to want to tackle this market. I heard Mongoose was after the Rainbow Six/Ghost Recon license a few years ago, but that went in the gutter and emerged as Wraith Recon.. *sigh*

Samuel Van Der Wall said...

I can tell you from a blogger's perspective that I really tried to put out some good articles on this genre, but there is little support/desire for it out there. I say this with complete sadness because I love the genre.

You're article actually really hit home with me. I played Millenium's End a long time ago. It wasn't a huge thing for me, but I remember enjoying it.

Recently I really got on to a similar kick as you. A friend of mine ran Delta Green for us and I loved it. I picked up Spycraft v2, bought the entire X-Files series, and started watching it. Then I pumped up a bunch of modern/conspiracy/horror stuff on my blog.

I can honestly tell you, there just isn't that much interest in it out there. Delta Green probably has the most interest because it is a Call of Cthulhu offshoot. Delta Green, honestly, is a friggin' phenomenal game. If you read it from cover to cover and know anything about conspiracy lore, you'll realize how much the authors did their homework AND are spectacular writers.

Spycraft v2 actually has the foundations of a great system. I found it to be extremely unique and intuitive. However, once my players had a few levels under their belts they became gods. Characters in that game go from weak to powerful so fast. On top of that, I'm not sure if you're familiar with the Shadowrun term, "pornomancer". But basically that is what characters in Spycraft become. They get their social skills to such a level that they can practically mind control NPCs. It really sucks and the mechanics are completely broken, in my opinion.

Like I said before, I think Delta Green BRP is the best game of that genre out right now. The game is lethal as hell and it fits the setting well. I'm not a fan of the d20 version because your characters don't have the fear of death like they do in BRP.

Anyway, great article. Really reminds me of where I was with gaming about six months ago.

Jig said...

The point of a technothriller is the humanity of its cast. They aren't superhuman. A lot of characters die over the course of a novel or series, and it's often because they made mistakes. To me, a great technothriller system would have to focus on skill development and only through the old school system of receiving points for skills you actually used in the course of a session or something your character studied between adventures. Power-gaming just kills the whole point of it and turns a guy like Jack Ryan into Rambo. Even Clancy's "Rambo" (John Clark) isn't deadly because he's invincible, it's because of years and years of experience in the field and classroom. I guess this may reveal another reason why they aren't making games for this genre: D20 just can't run a long-term techno-thriller campaign.

Badelaire said...

@L. Beau: I don't think it's the writers or even the shows - I think it's the video games. Why play GURPS WW2 when you can fire up Call of Duty? Why play commando when you can play Splinter Cell or Ghost Recon or Rainbow Six? Of course, like you said, there's a crap-ton of fantasy out there too and it doesn't slow down the fantasy tabletop gaming (although some feel it is), but there is simply more of that anyhow. The techno-thriller RPGs are s niche market, so when the newest Ghost Recon comes out, such a game would take a much bigger hit.

@ Jig: Wraith Recon is a perfect example of the problem we're talking about. A game like Ghost Recon isn't something people are seemingly interested in. BUT, if you take the Ghost Recon idea, and mix it with the fantasy genre - ta da, now you've got a winner somehow. Being a commando isn't interesting anymore - you've got to be a magical fantasy commando.

Oh, and I'd agree that the Silhouette system is a pretty slick system to use - do you just strip out the sci-fi stuff by hand, use Gear Krieg, or did you buy the Silhouette Core rulebook?

@Samuel: Thanks for the commiseration. And it's sad to say that Delta Green, X-Files, etc., aren't even really "techno-thriller", so much as modern conspiracy/horror, but they are as close as most people want to get right now.

As to the Spycraft problem, whatever game it was, would have to be designed around a PC power level that was "highly competent, but still vulnerable". BRP could give you that, as could well-implemented GURPS. Rolemaster might as well if you handled it well but no one seems to like RM these days. I'm sure there are plenty of other systems out there that could do it, if implemented right, but it's kinda (dare I say) like the "Old School Characters" problem - if the genre revolves around non-superbadasses, and your PC gets hosed by a lucky shot, are you going to suck it up and make a new PC, or put down the dice and pick up the latest Rainbow Six: Las Vegas FPS game?

Jig said...

I just use the HG 2nd Ed. Rulebook. The weapons and equipment aren't that far fetched (if you rule out lasers and hand held gatling guns). All you've gotta do is pick up a "Guns and Ammo" magazine, compare the modern weapon with it's closest HG counter-part and use its stats (perhaps changing ammo capacity or accuracy bonuses as you see fit).

Now, just come up with a real-world location for your game, do a little research, roll up NPCs, and game on. I really love how balanced and deadly HG is, and it's more about RP than XP.

BTW there's an old HG website somewhere on the web that has stats for M1-Abrams tanks, F/A-18 Fighter Jets, Apaches, and etc. Fun stuff. If I can find it again, I'll post it.

Speaking on the lucky shot comment, you have to make them interested in progressing the story. One good tactic is to have them make two or three characters to be used as NPCs or "side-story" characters in case their main character gets plugged.

Louis Porter Jr. said...

Well to be honest, I don't think you have been looking that hard. My company LPJ Design has done 50 products (see here: committed to the technothriller genre. RPG Object has done it with their Blood and Guts line (see here: Let's not forget about Spycraft and various other 3PP ho have put on products (see here: Maybe the question you shoule be asking is where have the technothriller games gone, but where have the technothriller players gone?

Lon said...

There is from Reality Deviants a True20 game called Technothriller ( that does a good job at the genre and in the more rules light vein there is Wilderness of Mirrors by John Wick ( which I really want to run.

Jig said...

Well, while we're puttin' links out, here's an oldie that I loved for running mini-campaigns. It's a great homebrew system, and might be just what someone was looking for. I highly recommend it, especially if you're trying to test the technothriller waters with your group.

Stray Bullet:

GameDaddy said...

Spycraft 2.0 is currently your goto game for this, built to order, and ready for play.

The fast design rules (once you get to know them) let you whip up a quick adventure in under an hour, that is balanced and scaled based on the number and level of player characters at the table.

There is one of my Techno-Thriller adventures available from Origins 2007 published as a pdf here:

Leave a note, or PM me there if you'd like to see more modern techno-thriller / political/ Bond style adventures. I'd just need to dig them up and convert them to PDFs.

I see great games every time I go to GenCon or Origins as well.

Norman Harman said...

GURPS, Rolemaster, d20 Modern, all have spies/paranormal supplements/rules.

With Primetime Adventures you can take the Techno-Thriller Series a bit further.

Jig said...

To me, a technothriller doesn't really revolve around espionage, although it is a kind of "go-to" plot for many technothriller stories. I guess it's not that big of a deal, but it would be cool to see a game come out dedicated to the core principles of the genre`.

I think this has been a pretty good discussion. Hopefully, someone who thought all interest had died out may come across this blog and find something that gives them some hope or satisfies their itch.

I've done posted here way too much for one entity, but if anyone wants to get in contact with me to discuss this further or wants me to send them some of my Silhouette technothriller materials, I'll be more than happy to oblige.

Thanks for the blog, Badelaire.


Badelaire said...

Thanks for all the comments on yesterday's column (even if some are in part a chance to peddle your wares...). It's cool to see so many people come out of the woodwork to discuss something that's clearly of interest to more than myself.

(FYI, if you're going to post a link, do us all a favor and actually embed the link in the comment - don't just cut & paste the link in as raw text, because it won't auto-hyperlink it.)

There appears to be a lot of indie game representation of the genre going on. That is very cool, and I'm impressed to see people putting that kind of work into what they love.

However, and this might sound like a bitter pill, until a fully featured and published (not Print on Demand or PDF'd) game is put out that really grabs the genre and takes it in a new and fresh direction, I wonder if things will really take off. PDFs up at RPGNow are great, but I'm still the sort of gamer who doesn't buy PDFs if I've never looked at the content before. If I can't download a free "light" or starter PDF to give me an idea of the quality of product I'm purchasing, or if I can't buy a book in hand at a game shop, I'm extremely reluctant to hand over my money, even if it's a few dollars.

And, to be frank, I'm not a big fan of "d20" games. Not because I don't like the mechanics - although I'm not a huge fan of them generally - but because I'm not a big fan of the whole idea behind the "d20" concept, period. I know it's given a lot of publishers the ability to release and be successful with material they otherwise wouldn't have gotten published, but on the other has allowed people to release and get money for things that otherwise wouldn't have gotten published. I guess it's a two-way street - you're legitimizing amateur publishing, with all the good (and bad) that comes along with that.

Right now, in terms of books-in-stores standalone RPGs, it seems like Spycraft is "it". I've got some positive feedback on the system and negative feedback on the system, and would like to hear more.

Helmsman said...

This post caught my eye because right now I'm working on a game I've described as Tomb Raider meets James Bond based in the modern world as we know it, with a very light glaze of supernatural that you wouldn't know was there if you didn't know what to look for. The system complements this as a fairly gritty realistic simulationist system with lots of modern toys to play with. I was in the habit of calling it a "modern pulp" game but I think it qualifies as what you're talking about too.

Anonymous said...

You mentioned it right in the article... yes, a game lacking any sort of fantasy/sci-fi elements isn't going to do well. Alos, anything "Real-world" or historical isn't going to get a big following, since it requires research and knowledge to be run and played effectively. In a fantasy game nobody has to worry about reality if they don't want to.

Mark Hughes said...

Palladium's working on a modern urban combat/police game "Warpath: Urban Jungle", based on a novel by Jeffry Scott Hansen. Aug or Sept 2009 release date, they say (and lately, Pall's been hitting their ship dates sorta reliably). And they still publish Recon/Advanced Recon, if you want to die in fear in the jungle.

Back in the old days, the serious technothriller fans played either Leading Edge's Phoenix Command, or GURPS. Even now, I expect most are playing GURPS.

Louis Porter Jr's "Haven: City of Violence" is a fantastic modern crime game, and lends itself well to things like Burn Notice and the Tom Berenger flick "The Substitute" (which I adapted in a H:COV scenario).

grumpykiwi said...

About 18 months ago me and two others approached Charles Ryan with a view to releasing a re-write of Millennium's End. We got as far as drawing up legal contracts, company incorporation etc, before it all came to a halt. A great pity really, with the aid of laptops/PDA's/iPhones, the complexity of the old system was gone.

Badelaire said...

@grumpykiwi: That's unfortunate. Any more details you can share about what happened? I think Charles Ryan is really a pretty damn creative writer, and it's a shame that his game has laid idle for the last few years. One hopes that someday it can be picked back up again.

grumpykiwi said...

I can't say anything about the legal side of things, but we were all disappointed when it fell through. We'd already done a lot of work for it. The combat system was re-written. There was software support to speed things up. We had a whole new background, books of gear and guns and assignments mostly finished. We had a designer, marketer, lawyer and accountant on stand-by ready to go too.

I got divorced and my interest kind of fell to one side, but some of the other stuff is being re-done as generic modern gear guides etc.

One of many "what might have beens" in the world of RPG's I guess.

grumpykiwi said...

I'll just add another comment. The ideal time for releasing a techno-thriller RPG would have been 2002 or so in the aftermath of 9/11. No-one did as far as I can see.

Badelaire said...

Definitely too bad to hear that something that had so much promise fell apart when it appeared a lot of people had put a lot of time and effort into it - but that's sometimes what happens. More TV & Film productions crumble at the 11th hour than a lot of people realize.

As to your comment about 9/11, it's interesting that you mention this, because you're right - I can't think of a major Techno-thriller RPG that came out around that time period, However, both the TV series "24" and J.J. Abrams' "Alias" came out late 2001 - "Alias" came out at the end of September, "24" came out the end of November. I also notice that The Bourne Identity came out in 2002.

In a lot of ways (but of course, not all of them), the future portrayed in Millennium's End bears a haunting resemblance to the last few years - economic upheval, a rise in terrorism and "brush-fire wars", a higher public profile for mercenary / private security companies...definitely food for thought.

Jig said...

I said I wasn't gonna flood this place with anymore comments, but because grumpykiwi came along... Do you per chance still have any of this stuff? or as I get the idea you used to be on the ME Mailing List would you know anywhere I could find the Ouch! Damage Calculator or TLCalc, the DOS-based Threat Level Calculator? Really, any ME programs would be extremely helpful.

grumpykiwi said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
grumpykiwi said...

I'll see what I can dig up from the GrumpyKiwi archives. I think I have pretty much everything ever written for the game. I haven't played it in about 2 years, but am thinking of starting again soon(ish).

Paul said...

If anyone would like to fire up a game, I would definitely be down to play. I know this was all commented on five years ago, but I love Millennium's End and would absolutely love to play in a game, for once. I have a basic site with some updated work on it, if anyone's interested, and I have a forum set up that I do little more than keep up-to-date these days. If interested, please write here and/or send email to . I have no interest in ANY OTHER game system for a covert genre game such as this; they're all underwhelming when compared to the completeness of Millennium's End.