Wander into a Wilderness of Mirrors

A few years ago I ran a short-lived Spycraft 1.0 PBEM campaign. It barely made it out of the briefing stage, ultimately succumbing to the asynchronous maladies that doom most play-by-email games.

The campaign lived on in the back of my mind, and when Uncle Bear blogged about John Wick’s Wilderness of Mirrors espionage RPG, it all came crashing to the forefront. I had to try this game. Recently my gaming group did exactly that, running it as a pre-game before our regular Friday night Star Wars session.

Wilderness of Mirrors is unlike anything my group’s played before. It’s a story game, with a dice mechanic that’s used to determine whether the players or the game master has narrative control.

Everyone creates a spy that’s defined by one of five characteristics based on archetypal spy roles: Saturn (the leader), Mars (the hitman), Mercury (the faceman), Vulcan (the fixer) and Pluto (the sneak). Players have 30 points to buy up ranks in these attributes, but here’s the rub – it’s easy to get one rank in any of them (you get that for free) but the second rank costs 4 points. Subsequent ranks in a skill go down from there; your third will cost you 3, your fourth will cost you two. This is the opposite of most RPGs (in which higher stats cost you more) and it means that it’s easy to excel at one thing, but hard to be good at everything.

Those who are the best at what they do – who have the most ranks in a given category – gain access to a special ability. For example, the hitman can get an automatic kill while the face man can make one person believe anything. These abilities can only be used once per game; even if you have two equally competent hitmen, they can only pull off the perfect kill once.

Once players make their characters, the game master gives them their superspy assignment: rescue an ambassador, defeat an evil mastermind, recover a lost artifact, etc. Then the game master sits back and let’s the players detail their cunning plan and the obstacles they’ll face.

For our playtest, I borrowed the setup from my long-ago Spycraft campaign. A neo-Nazi group known as the Brotherhood of the Spear has stolen the Reinhart Papers from a holocaust museum in Philadelphia. The Papers include the half-mad ramblings and calculations written down by a German physicist during World War II; our heroes’ job is to recover the papers from the Brotherhood’s warehouse near the old Philadelphia Naval Yard.

Seed planted, I sat back and let the idea storm hit. And man, did it ever hit.

Though I’d originally envisioned the session as falling somewhere between James Bond and Mission Impossible, during the planning phase it quickly transformed itself into a sort of Hellboy/Austin Power mashup, complete with undead Doberman pincers and heroes with codenames based on lunchmeat. I credit/blame Brendan and his character “Salami Johnson” – a Austin Powers-style superspy – for the game’s decidedly silly turn.

We ended up with the following “plan”:

  • The ware house is a near the Naval Yard, but in a remote, out of the way location.(1)
  • It’s protected by undead resurrected German Shepherds from the 1940s, with C4 collars (2)
  • There are cameras located everywhere (1)
  • Electrified, barbwire fence surrounds parking lot (1)
  • The warehouse is located on the Delaware River (1)
  • Warehouse isn’t just a warehouse; it has multiple sublevels (1)
  • Poison gas – Xyclon-B gas – on sublevels (1)
  • The Nazis are trying to re-ceate ancient experiments (1)
  • Kol. von Striker is the commander of the base, and has a gun that shoots around corners. (1)
  • The prisoners are Jewish school children (all with Mossad training), unknown to Nazis (1)
  • Papers are held in a vault that is guarded by lasers. (1)
  • The vault itself is located in a pocket dimension (1)
  • The Nazis use special goggles to view the Papers. (1)
  • Frau Heinzentiz sexed Salami to death. He’s back for revenge (1)
  • Warehouse doubles as a cloning facility for Nazi soldiers. (1)
  • Clones can only be killed by dismemberment because their internal organs have been redistributed. (2)
  • Italian and Japan neo-fascist ambassadors are on hand. (1)
  • Von Striker is deathly allergic cheese. (1)
  • Warehouse is located blocks from Pats and Genos (1)
  • Because they are clones they can all recognize each other on sight (1)
  • The Clones have a primitive Hive Mind (1)
  • A neo-Nazi sergeant is the central brain who coordinates them all (1)
  • Use Black hang-gliders to land on the roof. (1)
  • Distract dogs with hot dog gun. (1)
  • Salami has 12 hours to live. And is infected with Syphilis-X (1)

I think it’s safe to say their imaginations pretty much ran amok coming up with this list, which yielded them 27 mission points. There wasn’t a specific mission point cap mentioned in the rules, so I ran with it.

The game’s core mechanic is pretty simple. The team leader – the Saturn – distributes the mission dice among the group based on how often he thinks their skills are going to come into play (or personal whim; either way works).

When a player takes a risk – like hang gliding into a neo-Nazi compound – they roll the appropriate attribute dice (e.g. Pluto for sneaking). They can augment their attribute dice by spending mission dice. They add up the results of the dice throw, and compare it to the following chart:

  • 1–5: Operations Narrates
  • 6–10: Operations Narrates with one Agent Veto
  • 11–15: Agent Narrates with one Operations Veto
  • 16–20+: Agent Narrates

The veto is in the spirit of improv comedy; it’s not a question of saying “no”, but instead saying “yes, but …”

So when the players hang-glided in, and one of them failed his Pluto (Sneak) roll, I was able to say “yes, the hang glider got you into the compound, but you fell short of the building. And you can hear the undead dogs growling…”

What followed was creative chaos. We’ve played a few games that have built-in mechanics for player narrative control (namely Battlestar Galactica and Serenity, both of which use the Cortex system) but this was the first one where the entire game is built around narrative control.

The story proceeded in fits and starts, as our heroes broke into the warehouse, confronted the clones inside, and played havoc with the story. Tweaks and edits were weaved into the narrative at every turn, and my job became helping to keep track of it all (ok, you’re on the first sublevel, but remember that Jon added the poison gas was on sublevels 1 and 3…)

It took us about two and a half hours to play the game, with an hour of set-up, 30 minutes of goofing around, and 60 minutes of actual play. I used the optional “countdown” rules that gave me “Setback” points for every 15 minutes of real time that passed. I could use Setback to make the results of any risk check one result worse, usually to the heroes’ detriment. In the end, our heroes recovered the papers and escaped the building just as it exploded. Alas, the school children were not saved, having been brain washed by the Nazis into being their loyal minions, and our heroes were not able to get them out before the building exploded.

The group had a blast, even though we ventured pretty far a field from your traditional espionage mission, and didn’t exactly keep with the spirit of the game. I think this was to be expected when you go from playing a fairly traditional RPG like Dungeons & Dragons or Star Wars; Saga Edition to playing a narrative control game like Wilderness of Mirrors. Players had the chance to do whatever they wanted, all the while riffing off of one another’s ideas. Once the weird/silly seed was planted, there was no turning back.

I think that I was too liberal in the Mission planning phase and focused them more on a) what they were encountering and b) how they were going to deal with it. I’d also want to limit their options more; 27 Mission Points gave them too many to spend. I think 15-20 would have worked better.

I say this because another important aspect of the game is Treachery; players can earn more Mission Points by betraying their fellow agents. Unfortunately, because there were so many Mission Points in play, my players never felt the need to betray one another – they had all the points they needed, and were having more than enough fun dealing with the neo-Nazi clone troopers. Increasing the scarcity of mission points would have made treachery much more appealing to my players.

As the Game Master (aka Operations) I found my job was primarily to nudge people back on track. The heroes had enough mission points to achieve their goals, usually with only a veto from me, so narrative control was firmly in their laps. I liked the Setback mechanic, which let me add more vetos, and occasionally seize narrative control, but I would like to have started with a small pool of such points. I think that would have made things more challenging for the players, and forced them to spend more mission points earlier in the game (which in turn increases the chances of treachery among players).

Our sense was that if we played it again, we’d likely take a more serious approach, and try and hew closer to the traditional spy genre. Going in the opposite direction, we all agreed that this could make for a fantastic Paranoia-style game. Our playtest certainly had some of Paranoia’s zany energy, and it wouldn’t take much to transport these rules to Alpha Complex.

I don’t know that we’ll play it again any time soon. It does work well as a one shot, but honestly we’ve got enough on our hands with our regular Star Wars campaign and the occasional board game. We had fun, but not that much fun that it would displace say, a Friday of Arkham Horror. There’s not a lot here (heck, I think this review has more words than the game), which makes its $5 price tag a bit steep. However, like Uncle Bear noted in his write-up, at the time I bought this John Wick was also selling the PDF for his mammoth RPG Houses of the Blooded for $5, so in the end I think things worked out just fine.

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