Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Inspirational Espionage Fiction

As long as I can remember I’ve had a fondness for espionage films, novels, and games. It’s not as strong as some of my other interests, but it’s a recurring theme that provides frequent satisfaction when done well. Given my interest in World War II, it’s natural I gravitate toward espionage fiction inspired by or set in that period, particularly the work of Ian Fleming, W.E.B. Griffin, and Alan Furst.

I think my first exposure to the espionage genre was a network television broadcast of a James Bond film -- I don’t quite remember which, though quite possibly it was the mediocre Diamonds Are Forever -- followed by a healthy dose television and film fare often merging espionage elements with adventurous action, like such classics as Where Eagles Dare and The Guns of Navarone, more James Bond films, and even the short-lived Tales of the Gold Monkey series. The confluence of action-adventure and espionage has in recent years manifested itself in my affinity for pulp roleplaying game projects such as Afrika Korpse for Weird War II, Pulp Egypt, and Heroes of Rura-Tonga.

While most of my gaming endeavors focused on fantasy fare like Dungeons & Dragons, dark-future like Cyberpunk, Victorian steampunk like Space 1889, and, of course, space opera like Star Wars, I’ve often dabbled in and quite enjoyed espionage-themed roleplaying games. In my earliest years in the hobby, during the “Golden Age of Roleplaying” (the early 1980s) I bought TSR’s Top Secret game because the espionage setting intrigued me and was, lamentably, one of the few roleplaying games available in the local hobby store. The next espionage game to grab my attention was Victory Games’ James Bond 007 Roleplaying Game based on the films I’d grown to love from network television and later as they were released to theaters.

It wasn’t until after I’d absorbed the espionage material in movies and games that I finally became interested in the literature. I’d already done a great deal of reading in the science fiction and fantasy genres in my younger years; my first forays into espionage literature were with what one might consider the seminal body of modern spy literature… Ian Fleming’s original James Bond novels. To those familiar with the films, the novels are quite tame in terms of action, gadgets, and other movie conventions modern viewers expect. While at first I was slightly disappointed the novels contributed only trace elements to the films, I soon found enjoyment in them primarily because they retain some authenticity of the espionage tradecraft enhanced by the (for the time) exotic locales and fantastic plot elements. Now and then I pick up a new one as a diversion from whatever I’m reading at the moment. You Only Live Twice was my most recent James Bond novel, though I’m rather fond of From Russia with Love, the film version of which still retains a good degree of the tradecraft and original story, having been filmed while Fleming was still alive and active in the James Bond franchise.

In college a writing professor encouraged me to branch out from my science fiction and fantasy fare and read some John LeCarre novels. While I enjoyed Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, I realized that, without the classy sheen of glamour and attitude of James Bond, Cold War-era espionage stories really didn’t engage my imagination (possibly a by-product of having come of age during the waning years of the Cold War).

As I immersed myself in researching World War II espionage for a variety of roleplaying game projects (some as yet still unpublished) I stumbled upon the novels of W.E.B. Griffin, particularly his Men at War series -- about the OSS -- and the Honor Bound series -- about an American with Argentinean connections who works against the Nazis through the OSS. He quickly creates some engaging characters, interweaves them through relatives, friends, and social connections, and puts them through their paces in various espionage activities in World War II. His writing isn’t high, polished art -- he tends to take his time building up to the climax, which often occurs so quickly it’s almost an afterthought --  but it manages to draw readers into the characters and action. I’ve found the earliest books in each series the most entertaining and easiest to dive into.

The other espionage literature I’ve only recently discovered is Alan Furst’s novels set in the pre-war and early-war years of World War II. The two I’ve read thus far are The Spies of Warsaw and The Polish Officer. Furst tells an engaging tale, swiftly drawing readers to care for his protagonists as they struggle against the onset or arrival of war in exotic European locales, all set against the uncertain backdrop of World War II in which the participants have no knowledge how it might ultimately end. He accomplishes several literary feats with a talented author’s artistry. He quickly conveys a vivid sense of character, whether for protagonists, secondary characters, or even those with brief appearances. He effortlessly paints an impression of each location without spending far too much time on exhaustive descriptions. But perhaps the best element of his fiction is Furst’s ability to demonstrate the true tradecraft necessary of the time: dead drops, clandestine meetings with false identities, wireless telegraphy procedures, agent infiltration and exfiltration, and the nature of many covert operations against small yet significant targets. Though not as flashy as Fleming or even Griffin, Furst portrays a gritty, realistic, and dangerous world of espionage within a realistic historical context.

So how does this literary source material inform espionage roleplaying games? Fleming certainly creates the iconic classy and accomplished spy, though the books provide quite an interesting insight into his inner character the films cannot. He sets the groundwork for the modern spy genre by emphasizing exotic locales, cutting-edge technology (for its day), and larger-than-life characters. Griffin emphasizes social contacts to navigate an espionage organizations inner bureaucracy as well as operations in the field. Furst offers an illustration of front-line espionage operations complete with artfully drawn characters and locations. All three demonstrate practical tradecraft for their time, though perhaps Furst does this best in numerous yet concise little episodes.

I’ve done some game work in the past with World War II espionage, notably elements of my Weird War II Afrika Korpse sourcebook, elements of Pulp Egypt and Heroes of Rura-Tonga, and some personal games using a more rigidly defined version of Risus: The Anything RPG. One of these days I’d love to develop an espionage game or sourcebook based on operations during World War II, possibly with alternatives for running a straight historically inspired game or one infused with fantastic pulp elements to augment history. Given the simple historical scope of the period and material such a project would remain a massive endeavor, but one which taps my enthusiasm.