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Learning from James Bond 4: Conclusions

I promised to find something in this trawl of Bond plots that would be of use to roleplayers, and I guess the first and easiest one is, they provide two dozen worked examples of a recipe for constructing adventures, which we know works.

1. Find something in the real world that makes people angry or scared – there’s plenty to choose from right now: the war in Ukraine, inflation, food shortages, forest fires, hurricanes, oil and gas prices, water pollution, supply chain chokes, anti-abortion activism (or abortion, if you’re that way inclined). It’s best if the mechanism for this thing is a little obscure – if you can already point to a culprit (say, packing the Supreme Court) then there’s no mystery and the solutions become more real-world obvious. If your players are conspiratorially inclined, it’s easier – “the frogs are turning gay” is a grand mystery that demands an explanation.
(If you’re looking for headlines to rip, I should note that there are two absolutely superb Bond plots unfolding as I write – first, the mystery of the exploding Baltic pipelines reads just like a 60s Bond “set the fighting fish against each other” plot, and we don’t know its resolution yet! Second, the Wirecard internet payments scandal seems to trail off into Russian spy involvement and a German government that would rather be conned than shamed.)

2. Try to state the anxiety in the simplest, most immediate terms. “Inflation” is somewhat abstract, but “your money going away” or “scarcity and rising prices,” “not enough food” – that’s a clearer fear.

3. Create someone to blame for it, to serve as your villain. That might not be easy in the case of something obviously impersonal like a volcano or some really collective wrong, like global warming, but then you create someone who wants to make it worse. Financial crises are threats to the money in people’s bank accounts; Goldfinger and Trevelyan want to create another, worse financial crisis, when the viewers are still reeling from one. They work great as lightning rods.

4. Why are they doing this? How can they benefit? Crises can generally be exploited by someone – if you create scarcity, you can profit from higher prices. Destroy a thing and you weaken the people who depend on it. If you can’t think of anything else, just say “terrorists.” In fact if this whole business is making you queasy, just think of something that brings lots of people together (Olympics, royal funerals) and say “terrorists want to attack it.” Done.

5. How are they doing it? This can be completely fantastical – an earthquake machine or a space laser for frying crops or an engineered disease that only attacks the muscles of pro wrestlers. But it must be preventable/reversible, to give your players something to achieve. Who would want to turn the frogs gay? Maybe someone with an engineered frog that they want to spread across the world. A frog that… spreads a disease or soaks up soil nutrients or hypnotizes financiers into making weird decisions. How do you stop it? Blow up the frog factory.

6. Who have they pissed off, who will tell the PCs all about it? OR, what minor part of this operation will catch the PCs’ attention? The earthquake engine requires enormous amounts of powerful magnets, so suddenly there’s a shortage of rare-earth magnets and nobody knows why – go find out. Or a small leak of superfrogs shows up in your bathroom, and then villain mooks attack you to keep you from telling anyone. OR your mysterious cousin who got really into astrology is now making predictions about the future on the local news, and they’re all about Starbucks being poisonous. If your players are really disinclined to investigate things, bring the mystery to them. “A big guy in a black suit and shades is following you. Actually, looks like two. Oh and right up ahead a big black SUV has just stopped across your path.” Why? Turns out you picked up the wrong backpack at the cafe and this one has some weird little glass vials inside.

This is already the complexity of a Bond plot. Bond usually comes into a villain’s scheme sideways: he’s investigating a minor part of the plot, that looks like one thing, then he opens the door into the main plot and discovers it’s bigger and weirder. Then he finds the villain’s disaffected girlfriend or murdered partner’s daughter and she can fill in the blanks.

So how do we make it exciting?

1. Locations – just trawl the world for the craziest places you can find, then have scenes happen in them. You do not have to explain this. The Tokyo flood defenses, an aquarium with underwater tunnels and fighting fish, hotels suspended off mountainsides, the Hoover Dam, whatever.

2. Fights – every time the players penetrate a bit of the plot, goons show up to fight them. Sometimes the relation is obvious – players break into the base, the guards resist. Sometimes the villain acts first and the players are wondering what they did to provoke it. More generally, every 20 minutes of screentime (ie at least once a session), someone wants to fight the players. They can be:

  • the villain’s employees
  • rival investigators (CIA, KGB, Elon Musk’s iPad-wielding assassins)
  • vengeful villain’s enemies, afraid you’ll screw up their assassination plans
  • vengeful villain’s cast-offs, hoping to get back in the villain’s good books by dealing with you
  • law enforcement – either clueless or the villain has told them you’re dangerous.

3. Clear feedback for success. You know you’re getting close when the villain’s own weirdo boss monster bodyguard shows up to kill you. You’re near the base when the first guard turret shows up. Did you kill a courier, but now here he is again? He was really important, that’s why they made a clone factory out of him.

I’m gonna say 2 layers is enough for any normal Bond plot: minor boss leads to major boss. That’s one adventure. And you can make things look more mysterious by tying the adventures together – Sandy Petersen says a good Cthulhu campaign is like an onion, where you start in the center and every successive layer is bigger than the last… but every layer also starts with a small hint – a new minor boss that leads to a new major boss with bigger implications. All your enemies so far have been SPECTRE and you didn’t realise until now.

And this, of course, is why Bond makes such a natural partnership with Cthulhu – the plot structures are the same.

Addendum: Bond villain plots fit the format of Dungeon World’s Fronts so exactly that I can only assume the latter were modeled on the former (or on Bond’s children – Bourne or Marvel plots or similar). So, for instance, Skyfall could be rendered thus:

Adventure Front: Raoul Silva
Cast: Silva (ex 00 agent), Patrice (assassin), goons.
Impulse: to discredit M, then kill her
Impending Doom: M killed, MI6 loses independence, 00 division shut down
Grim Portents:
– Silva’s team steals hard drive with agents’ identities
– …hacks MI6 computers
– …destroys MI6 offices
– Silva captured… but he still has control of computers, so he can escape easily
Silva kills M at Whitehall (NB: Bond prevents this, leading to…)
– repeated attempts to kill M by commando raid (which Bond ensures happens at his old family home)
This whole adventure is a portent for Campaign Front: SPECTRE

Prefer something more… classical?
Adventure Front: Emilio Largo (part of Campaign Front: SPECTRE)
Cast: Largo, Count Lippe, Fiona Volpe
Impulse: blackmail, funding for SPECTRE
Impending Doom: $100 million to be paid to SPECTRE and/or the nuking of 1-2 major NATO cities
Grim Portents:
– French pilot Derval killed, Bond finds his body (Bond causes Lippe’s death by almost capturing him)
– bomber aircraft with 2 atomic bombs goes missing
– Bond meets Largo, is recognized by him
– Largo’s yacht has suspicious underwater hatches, sign of people entering underwater
– Largo captures Bond’s friendly CIA agent Paula Caplan, she dies
– Volpe tries to kill Bond (Volpe killed)
– the first bomb goes off (prevented by Bond raiding yacht)
– ransom increased greatly
– the second bomb goes off

The main thing these fronts don’t have is the stakes question, which is really just “will Bond stop the villains?” Honestly I’m not sure how a stakes question is supposed to differ from an impending doom. Maybe it’s “how will the heroes be changed by this experience, whether or not they win?” In which case, Bond provides slim pickings: as an iconic character his job is not to be changed, especially if he wins. And Bond never loses so the other possibility, of having to learn from failure, is foreclosed.

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