Using a spy network: Circles, Affiliations, & Reputations

One of my players is soon to need a Circles test, whether he knows it or not. He dispatched spies to find an individual in a large city. It’s a difficult Circles check, but he has a spy network affiliation and a reputation within it. He has a lieutenant, too - we followed the rules for having a “crew” to the letter.

When the reputation element is useful flummoxes me. The reputation is that he is ruthless to traitors, which should hypothetically apply to every time he uses his spies ever. I don’t feel that’s working as intended. To be more precise, I think I’m misunderstanding it as applied to a spy network. Any help here?

I feel the reputation might need to be reworked, though frankly I never understood why a reputation was necessary for a crew in the first place other than to up the RP cost for something that is so useful to have.

I’ve already figured out the failure consequence, though: if he fails, the character will be introduced as imprisoned by his rival, whose own spies noticed his clumsy operatives trying to tail him. The contact will be told that the character wanted to speak to him. It’s half a favor by the rival and half a slap in the face, and ensures the character will be hostile to the character.

I welcome elucidation of when to use the spy network reputation and improvements on my failure consequence both.

(Edit: I wasn’t sure whether to put this in Character Burner as it is about making a crew or in the Rim because it’s about using Circles. Feel free to move it.)

Is it the PC who Circled up the spy network who has a Reputation for being ruthless towards traitors? If so, I think you handled it incorrectly. Reputations are not Traits. Reputations make it easier or harder to Circle up NPCs when the Reputation is relevant.

In this case, it would have given a +1 Ob to circling up his spy network (or using Circles via his spy network to Circles up someone else), due to his spies knowing that the PC is ruthless to traitors. Failure could mean that he does circle up his spies, but one or more of them is a double agent.

And of course, if a traitor is discovered in the PC’s spy network, and the PC isn’t ruthless to the traitor, he might lose a die from his Reputation.

At least, that’s what I gather from the book.

Who’s a traitor in this situation? Is your logic that the spies fear their spymaster because he’s so ruthless and will work harder to find their target? I don’t think that failure to find a guy would make the spy a traitor, just a failure.

If the PC was Darth Vader and his reputation was “force chokes his lieutenant to death every time he fails a mission” (paired with an instinct?) then you might apply the reputation dice bonus every time for extra motivation as the lieutenant gets equally ruthless with his subordinates for fear of his life, but of course the PC would have to kill his lieutenant every time the spy ring failed. Unless he had the endless supply of manpower that the Empire has, that would likely come to grief pretty quickly.

I think I would only apply the PC’s reputation where there’s an issue of a spy considering turning against him. You could apply it as an Ob to a rival trying to convince a spy to turn double-agent, maybe, or as a bonus when the PC searches for double-agents in his own ranks, as each spy is eager to reveal the double-agent’s suspicious activities so as to avoid the PC’s ire.

The way I understand it, you’re trying to use your spies to make circles tests to find other people? So then the reputation would help when you’re circling somebody who doesn’t want to be seen as a traitor and hinder when you’re circling somebody who is a traitor and doesn’t want anything to do with you.

If you’re just circling up a spy who has the right information, I don’t see how your harshness or lack thereof would make a difference in most cases. Example: I want to talk to one of my spies who knows where the contraband will be entering the city tomorrow. There’s no traitors involved in that intent, right?

I think the intention of the rule of having a reputation within your crew is so that they really are your crew. And the reputation should amount to that.

If I or one of the players in a game I’m running has a reputation like that among their crew, I’m not going to boil it down just to that phrase. Rather, I’m going to take it as it’s intended: this guy is known as the crew’s leader, and he’s not the forgiving sort. Honestly, this says just as much about the crew as it does the player’s character. They’re the kind of people who need to be ruled with an iron fist and respond positively to such threats from their leader.

So, to me, such a reputation is not about lawyering down to the letter of the phrase, it’s foremost the reputation as that crew’s leader. So if you’re dealing with the crew, you’re almost always going to get that as an advantage unless it’s an outright negative reputation (and the one in question is not). That supports how valuable a competent crew is. However, because it has at least subtly authored the type of folks following him, it suggests perfect consequences upon failure: there are traitors and now he has to deal with them. Or, maybe in the interaction, the player simply didn’t threaten his spy network enough, so they feel like they can do whatever they want and they end up taking it too far and killing or beating the individual into a coma.

How does your reputation help your spy network find someone?

It’s not your spy network until you have a reputation among them as their leader. Someone who is just affiliated with the spy network certainly cannot use it to the same extent as the boss can. The trio of affiliation + reputation + relationship-with-a-key-member/subordinate is how you mechanically represent this different level of power.

Plus, it’s trivial to figure it out in the fiction, just like you’d use any other reputation. How does being a celebrity in a particular region help you haggle with a clerk in that region? Because you’re beloved there. How does being the leader of a spy network (iron fist, soft heart, whatever kind of leader) help you command and get results from that spy network? Because your authority is respected, feared, beloved, whatever is appropriate.

@paul: That is basically how I’ve been viewing it, but it rubs me wrong.

@Dean: That is treating the reputation as Infamous within the only population that it applies to, though. That’s the opposite of his intent in crafting the reputation: driving them towards loyalty out of fear.

@Jimbozig: That’s the counter-argument. But this reputation is part of his crew’s creation; it’s the sine qua non of his crew being a crew. If nobody else knows his reputation as ruthless to spies but the informants who help him dig them out, but his bonus doesn’t apply to his dealings with them, then it seems rather useless.

@noclue: Motivation through fear was the intention, but I can easily see it not applying here. But “if not here, when?” is my dilemma.

The question, judging from y’all’s replies, can basically be boiled down to this:

Does a reputation intrinsic to a crew always apply to dealings with that crew?

The Character Burner says to buy a relationship with his lieutenant, “then buy an affiliation to the group and a reputation within that affiliation” (p.96).

So it looks like this reputation is irrelevant when dealing with anybody not one of his spies. And it reads like it’s either always on or practically never on.

I like Ten of Swords’ idea about it applying to finding double agents or applying an Obstacle to attempts to infiltrate.

I could also see the reputation applying to finding a spy, but not having his spies find someone else. That is, if he rolls Circles to try to have a deep-cover agent in the enemy House, it could apply because he’s searching for someone to whom the reputation applies, but not to having his spies find a third party. In fact, this makes far more sense to me than how I previously viewed it.

I am still curious about whether the reputation is meant to always apply in dealings with the crew, though. I’m still thinking yes - when Circling up the crew directly. And then, of course, when he fails, a traitor is one obvious result, and if he fails to be ruthless he loses a reputation die. All of that I agree with.

What rubs you the wrong way about it?

I think it basically does apply to most dealings with the spy network. There will obviously be exceptions, but why else would you spend the resources on it if you didn’t want it to be meaningful? Relationships, affiliations, and reputations work like BITs in that they’re a declaration of content and meaning. The player wants this to be important. If the player doesn’t pursue it, then it loses its value, for sure, but as long as it’s reasonably relevant, include it. BW isn’t a game in which it’s important to weasel a die here or there out of a player. Sure, veto stupid stuff, like using Oratory when talking to your mom at dinner, but I don’t think this is a case of system abuse at all.

The reputation isn’t just that this guy is ruthless to traitors. It’s that he’s the leader of the spy network and is ruthless to traitors. I can see a situation in which he’s interacting with the network, but not giving them orders, so there’s no benefit - unless his reputation is that he’s their shining god. Interactions without orders might apply to something like a noble family or the fans of a sports team, but that’s likely to be a marginal interaction with a spy network. The spy network is a marginal thing in and of itself. It really has one use: spy and report. You could get all kinds of favors and money out of a noble family or a fraternity. That’s where a more specific reputation makes more sense. You’re the Responsible One of the Family. That’ll get you a loan from your dear aunt, but it’s probably not going to help you convince your redneck cousins to rob a bank.

As long as the affiliation is with a narrow group, the reputation will fairly come up more frequently.

It’s the ability of the player to add 4 dice to his already decent Circles exponent whenever he uses spies that rubs me the wrong way, yes.

Having a reputation that always applies at the same time an affiliation does is extremely powerful in an intrigue-heavy campaign.

I haven’t used Circles enough to know if it’s too powerful or not, or even the way the system is meant to work.

4 dice from an affiliation and a reputation is, at minimum, 50 resource points. That’s a lot. I think it’s also fair to assume his relationship with his lieutenant is also at least 10 points. Sorry, if 60+ resource points doesn’t even get me 4 dice that are usable in one way, and that is spying, I’m going to feel like my resources were poorly spent.

If you honestly think it’s harming your game, take a step back and re-evaluate what, specifically, this is about. Is he pursuing beliefs while making these rolls? If not, don’t prompt a test! And if he is pursuing beliefs, you have innumerable ways to challenge him. Do you have a problem that he’s too easily using his circles to find information that you want to remain hidden? I’m not going to accuse you of railroading or roadblocking, but it’s important to realize that such a large expenditure of resources on one thing means it’s very important to the player to have that experience in the game. And in this case, he wants to spy! He wants to get a lot of secret information and he used the system fairly to get that power. It sounds like you’re just having trouble rectifying the gap between what you want and what the system allows players to do.

So you can do one of two things: Change the system because it’s harming the game for everyone else at the table. Or you can change your own expectations about what the game must be.
I absolutely understand the issue that the biggest exception in your game is almost always what the game ends up being about. A low magic world, but one of the players gets to play a sorcerer? The campaign will usually be about magic on a level disproportionate to that one character. A world with a strict social caste system, and only one of the players is noble? The campaign will usually be about nobility on a level disproportionate to that one character.

So I fully sympathize with the issue if this guy is the only player cracking open the intrigue piñata. However, I don’t think that directs you one way or another. Bring it up with your group. Ask the other players if they feel like the game is wrongly revolving around that player’s ability to unravel your plot. If they don’t mind, then I would suggest adapting and figuring out how to challenge him on a more meaningful level while not denying him what he spent heavily to get. If they do mind, then my solution would be to limit the power of his network. Don’t limit his mechanical ability to contact them, but limit the information they can get for him in a given span of time. I don’t think there’s anything stopping you from making a roll for his spy network to see what they uncover. And when that’s going on, there’s nothing stopping you from giving them situational disadvantages.

To me the reputation would function best when circling up a spy who knows the info he wants. His reputation should definitely help, even if he adds 4 dice ( he earned em right?). But, the Ob is going to depend on things like what circles the mark travels in and how well guarded they are, how fast they want the info, etc.

Failure could mean a traitor in his network or outright detection of his efforts to find the mark. Remember NPCs can have their own spy networks too.

And so what if he can always find people he’s looking for? Give them Beliefs that challenge the PCs and let him find them.

Strongly agreed.

First, circling up people with very specific information is not easy, even with a lot of dice. Those would have to be excellent spies.

Second, interesting beliefs among the people he’s circling up should pretty much be standard operating procedure. How does his lieutenant feel? Maybe his spies don’t like being overworked and this guy who is important to the plot confronts the player’s character. In my experience with BW, obstacles that arise in the fiction are a lot more difficult to deal with than problems with too few or too many dice. Challenging beliefs and complicating things with NPC’s are the ultimate trump card.

Good points all.

I’m not worried about it taking over the game; I’m just the kind of guy that likes to know the rules backwards and forwards, and this seemingly-gray area vexed me. It’s something I think could and should come up a lot, so I want to do it by the book.

After due consideration driven by insomnia, I will give him the full dice on his Circles test.

Thanks for your input, everyone.

My understanding has always been that there’s an easy way to determine a Reputation’s scope: its attribute. If he only has a B1 Reputation as a scourge of traitors, it applies to only a small group of people: perhaps his immediate reports; or those already under suspicion as less-than-loyal, or just the spies in a particular village. In any case, the Reputation should spell out exactly what ground it covers, not just what the reputation is.

If they bought a 3D Reputation, yeah. It applies to everybody that interacts with him in that arena: nobody wants to seem the slightest bit uncooperative, and puts extra effort into pleasing him.