Spy Missions: Covert Considerations For The Whole Party
Posted by: Jendor -- April 06, 2015


How to create perfect missions where your spies – and their clumsy friends! – thrive

Spy missions will challenge you to create a world of espionage, high stakes, and stealth where your spy PCs shine while their less stealthy PC allies ruin everything!

How do you create spy missions where both stealthy and not-so-stealthy PCs all achieve mission success together? Look at the major parts of your adventure through their eyes, and then tailor your spy mission's major faces, places, and events to who they are – whether stealthy spy or clumsy cleric.

I Spy: Must-Haves for Covert PCs

Mission Goals

Make mission goals clearly appeal to spy PCs from the start. Tell the characters the mission includes one or two actions where there is plenty of opportunity for a spy's expertise.

One great way to do this is have NPCs give the party specific tactical stealth advice to achieve mission success. This advice should focus on stealthing to or past a location or enemy.

For example, don't have the constable just ask the PCs to go to the orc hunting party camp (which he's already scouted and located) and slaughter the orcs who pillaged their village. Instead, have the constable ask the PCs to locate the orcs' next camp – they've moved since he and his scouts found them. Have the constable also suggest they sneak past the outer perimeter of orc archer guards, because they were deadly accurate when they raided his village. And perhaps the constable suggests the PCs avoid or dispatch the guards quickly before they sound their horns and alert their burlier axe-wielding cousins from the main camp.

A typical party without such cues or qualifications in the mission might simply cut their way through the archers and storm into the main camp right for the orc leader. Your stealthy PCs might not think it's worth emphasizing stealth alongside the party's approach.

So be sure to drop clues that spycraft has high value in your mission's goals and design.

NPCs And Monsters

There are three types of spy mission monsters, NPCs, and villains that are most effective and memorable. They are:

  • Spy-types themselves
  • Ones particularly vulnerable to a spy's strengths and attacks
  • Ones that counter-spy in style


Spy-types heighten the thrill and risk of facing them for your spy PCs. Players know the NPCs know their tricks, might use them just as effectively, or might know how to stop the PC dead in her tracks.

Such foes encourage spy PCs to think about strategy and tactics, do extra recon, and plan for just the right moments – in and out of combat – to strike at their difficult foes.

For example, a spy PC might have trained with another spy under the same aging mentor. This long-standing rivalry grows over time – even to the point where this other spy becomes an NPC villain who knows the strengths and weaknesses of the PC all too well.

Remember to not restrict yourself to enemy NPC spies. Infuse your spy missions' sneaky and shadowy folk with all kinds of reactions to the party. Include friendly, rude, and apathetic interactions. The stable boy might be an informant for...everyone, because he's terrified of fighting, but loves to make extra money using his quiet footfalls and keen ears. The latest hooded tavern visitor pounding shots at the bar clearly wants to be left alone, but after a long and lucrative mission, she gets chatty and provides the party with some helpful information on local marks or jobs.

Vulnerable NPCs

The second type of foe makes your spy PCs stars.

You might decide certain monsters or monster roles – such as scouts or guards – might be especially vulnerable to stealth or surprise attacks. Bonus damage, automatic critical hits, or instant kills are excellent options.

If a few of those orc archers are drinking a bit too much rotgut during their late night shift, they make perfect quick-kill targets for your stealthy or assassin-type PCs. Outside of combat, a confident and glib-tongued spy might lie his way past a few poorly-paid guards for the right amount of additional rotgut and gold.


The third type of spy mission NPC or monster counters your spy PCs' strengths, making them difficult challenges where the PC needs to work harder for the right opportunity to engage or avoid them. Include a small number of monsters impossible to sneak up on, surprise, or instantly kill. Choose high hit point NPCs or monsters that have multiple or elite senses to better survive and detect spy PCs.

Encounter Location

Like we talk about in Faster Combat, an encounter location or Combatscape that is exciting and multi-layered is critical.

For spy missions, make sure the locations for fighting or sneaking about are littered with plenty of cover, shadows, and heights.

Think ledges, towers, balconies, cliffs, trees, underbrush, piles, and pits.

Encourage spies to use their talents through the encounter features and terrain. After all, there's nothing quite like dropping twenty feet from a tree onto the back of an unsuspecting orc for a sudden, silent kill.

Encounter Flow

Ensure your encounters include one or two events that play to your PC spy's strengths. Visualize the encounter's story, including what actions the PCs may take to change the direction of the encounter, and what actions will occur regardless of the PCs' actions.

What major events, triggers, or twists might occur at the start, middle, or end? Make a note of these, creating an encounter flow cheat sheet. Think of these notes as an encounter highlight package or mission compass.

For example, in the earlier orc camp encounter, you decide the archer group's leader carries a Shadowcrawl Orb, a magic globe forged by spell-thief refugees in the Shadow Realm that darkens and obscures the area around a small group of creatures for a short time as they move. Suddenly, you've not only delighted your spy PC if they find this item, but you've also found a way to help out your spy's not-so-stealthy friends.

I Not Spy: Must-Haves for Everyone Else

Mission Goals

While your spy PC grins wickedly at the constable's advice for sneaking past the orc archers, the sloth-like and plate-wearing characters might not be so keen.

To balance challenges out, be sure the mission includes plenty of chances to stand toe-to-toe if need be. And keep individual or party-wide agility challenges to minimum. We've all been there – the party needs to sneak past a horde of enemies or sleeping dragon but no one thinks the clumsy cleric or warrior have a chance.

One good approach to this problem is to make group rolls led by your stealth expert, allowing some of your PC spy's roll to count toward some especially low rolls by PC allies. For example, have the stealth expert make their stealth check and if they beat the target difficulty number, give the "oafs" the leftover amount as a bonus to their roll. Or, to save calculation time, as long as the PC spy beats the target number by at least one, it also automatically negates one party ally's stealth roll failure. Now that's teamwork!

NPCs And Monsters

Spy-type monsters could sneak up on and try to assassinate anyone in the party, so it might take the entire party's efforts to save a critically wounded PC while fighting off or fleeing from the attacker. Nothing brings a party together like one of their own going down early and quickly in combat, especially in a surprise attack.

If such an attacker flees the scene after the kill attempt, your spy PC might naturally want to give chase. Once she takes off, it's the perfect time to spring the assassin's ally thugs on the party! Again, the idea is to simultaneously mix in stealth opportunities with more typical combats and encounters so the entire party is engaged during the adventure.

Encounter Location

Clumsy or straightforward PCs are the perfect friends to create distractions for their spy allies. Perhaps they make a clattering noise behind a wagon to attract a lone scout, or a PC just shows himself and yells a crude insult to lure enemies away.

These are prime opportunities for spies to sneak into a key area of the encounter and get in position for a critical stealth kill or quick item acquisition.

Also, while hiding is the spy's expertise, it doesn't mean the rest of the party can't benefit from doing so. The simplest, smartest tactics are best here – encourage the whole party to value "Spycraft 101" with a hail of orc arrows that fills the air from the crumbling balcony above. Describe the piles of crates, barrels or stones nearby – and the shadowy path riddled with thick underbrush and low-hanging trees leading back into the woods behind them.

Such an environment still gives the party good odds and options to consider as they look for a better opportunity to engage or withdraw.

Encounter Flow

With considerations for your non-spy PCs accounted for in your mission goals, NPCs, and Combatscapes, you can add even more non-spy fun to your encounters by including "spy-busting" solutions. Include an event that counters spy enemies, removing them from the mission.

Perhaps the orc archers will flee their shadowy tree perches if they see or get wind of their leader being captured or killed. Fewer snipers to worry about are always a good thing, right?

Make Spycraft A Team Game

To create spy missions where both PC spies and their non-spy allies shine, strive for a balance of spy-friendly mission goals, NPCs, and encounter features or twists.

Synergies such as distractions created by the spy's allies are just one example of striking that perfect balance.

Even if someone's not stealthy, super-alert, or silver-tongued, it's the entire party's abilities and talents that help achieve mission success.

What Do You Spy?

What tips do you have for making your spy PCs the shadowy stars of their missions?

How about tips for keeping their not-so-stealthy party allies and friends engaged in stealth and espionage adventures?

Or more synergistic spycraft tips (like creating distractions) where spy and non-spy characters directly help one another in spy missions?

Just hit reply with any spy tips and advice you have. Thanks!

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