Friday, April 29, 2011

Nurturing an Octopus in Your Sandbox

A few readers asked for more explanation of the Top Secret-derived, character-based sandbox from Wednesday's post. As you might remember, that kind of sandbox was essentially a campaign scenario based around non-linear, player-centered exploration--and elimination or infiltration--of an “Octopus”, the Cold War jargon used by the game to describe a complicated espionage network.

Rather than bore you with a long, abstracted exposition of the various symbolic quiggles and layers of such a beast, I am just going to go ahead and build up over two an example as applied to our fantasy rpg flavor of choice. Let's put on our imagination caps and imagine that we are wanting to introduce a Dark and Sinister Conspiracy into your campaign—and that the players have chomped down on your hooks and are set to battle such a force.

Let's return to the Archsyndocracy of Outer Kutalika. This wee, modest realm is newly threatened by the machinations of Rebekah the Black, a young and ambitious songstress, who has organized a far-reaching network of ne'er do wells.

The ultimate goal of Rebekah's octopus is to install magical amplifying devices in every city plaza, town square, village green, and mole-man burrow in Outer Kutalika. The devices will broadcast her flat, nasally-sung ballad “It's Freyday”--a song so insipid that it boils the brains of all who hear into a stinking, malleable pile of goo--at an appointed time when the two moons converge.

TS's campaign rules set out four hierarchical layers of NPCs for an octopus: Administrators (A), Operators (O), Spies (S), and Cut-outs (C) . Each letter tended to be matched by a number on a roster list, so for the main administrator you'd have a designation of A1 for instance. Each layer will have more power and knowledge of how the octopus runs and for what ends.

Let's translate the lingo into something more appropriately, fantasy-like for our example. At the top you have the Masters/Mistresses (M). Like the shadowy bureaucrats of TS this layer is peopled by either a single, lofty individual or a small, tight cabal. These are the key leaders, if eliminated the network crumbles. In our example Rebekah the Black is the sole diva. Her designation is M1.

Below her are the Lieutenants (L), the stand-ins for the Operators. This is middle management, mostly out of the field directly, but involved with the day-to-day running of the agents. Rebekah has only two lieutenants: One-Armed Jiri (L1) who is in charge of the operations in inner Outer Kutalika and Mogg the Mendicant (L2) who is in charge of outer Outer Kutalika.

Jiri and Mogg both run a crew of three Agents (A) (it's been a long week, if you can think of a more evocative piece of nomenclature, I am game). These dudes do all the dirty work: planting the devices, lacing the town militia's soup with black lotus powder, kicking cats, etc. Mogg's team is made up of the Black Ratter (A1), Carlos the Dwarf (A2), and Sister Anya (A3). Jiri's team is Trellis (A4), Makkabbe he Hammer (A5), and Kugel the Not-Lucky (A6).

At the bottom of the heap are the Flunkies (F). These are expendable servants of all three layers. Flunkies are useful as go-betweens inside the network or for throw-away actions (a one-off and risky assassination, for instance). Their knowledge of the structure and goals of the network will be little to known. They are so likely to end up skewered on the business end of a blade that we won't even bother to give them names: F1, F2, F3, F4, F5, and F6. F1 and F2 are go-betweens to help Mogg and Jiri communicate ; F3 and F4 are used by Rebekah for odd jobs; F5 is a contact for Carlos the Dwarf; and F6 is used by Jiri to keep tabs on Mogg, who he mistrusts.

Our little cabal is complete. 

Here's how it looks on our symbolic network map below before we fill it in further. You will note that I put Rebekah the Black (M1) at the center of the web with her two lieutenants, Jiri (L1) and Mogg (L2) close by. I then divide the network by the Lieutenants sub-networks (conveniently two different geographic regions) with their agents arrayed. I then fill in the flunkies close to the people they serve.

My next post will deal with filling in the rest of that map with the communication links, timetables, and other bells and whistles that make that give this kind of character-based sandbox game its real zing. Stay tuned...


  1. Your examples continue to crack me up. Thank you for the longer explanation. I was interested after reading your post yesterday, but never really played Top Secret. Couldn't completely get my head around it.

  2. Nomenclature:
    How about anatomical inspiration?

    Heads (multiple heads fit the genre)
    Hands/(uhhhh.... suckers? ;)