Our Man in Havanna

So, I’ve just had an idea. It’s one of those ideas which is probably going to eat up far too much of my spare time (wait…I have that?), but could potentially be enormous fun. It’s also one of those ideas that, now that I’ve had it, it is pretty much guaranteed I’m going to do something about it, so I may as well start now.

The idea is a role-playing game inspired by 1960s spy movies. I’m calling it ‘Our Man in Havanna’, but the exact title doesn’t matter so much right now. What’s important is that it is supposed to call up the image of cigarette-smoke filled nightclubs where dangerous men in dark suits play the intelligence game with their wits, a garotte wire, and a .32 caliber automatic. All of this was inspired yesterday, while my daughter and I were listening to this song by Pink Martini.

Anyway, here’s the idea, as it stands now:

One Hero: Most RPGs are ensemble pieces–because there are usually 3 or more players and everybody wants to be a hero, you wind up with a team of experts a la The A-Team, Mission: Impossible, and so on. This is great and all, but I want to shake things up. There is one spy in this game, he/she is the hero, and the story is about him or her. The players actually take turns playing the spy (more on that later) and the idea here is not so much to make your own character shine so much as to make the collective story awesome. Far from being competitive, this game is intended to be collaborative. It is, to my mind, one of the only ways you can have a single-hero story in an RPG without making people feel left out.

Set Roles: As mentioned above, the Spy is played by various people throughout the campaign. So what does everybody else do? Well, we’ve all seen spy movies–there are roles to be filled. Here they are:

  • The Dealer is the GM, essentially. He/she controls the deck, sets the scenes, introduces the mission, and so on. He/she keeps his role throughout the game.
  • The Spy is the person sitting to the right of the Dealer (at first). The Spy is the hero, as described.
  • The Sidekick is the person sitting to the right of the Spy. They play the various assistants to the hero (which may change throughout the session of campaign, as the story dictates).
  • The Spoiler is the person sitting to the right of the Spy. They play the wild card characters–love interests, double agents, important secondary characters, and so on. Again, these characters may change as the session or campaign progresses.
  • The Extras is the person sitting to the right of the Spoiler. This player plays all the goons, civilians, and nameless whoevers populating each scene. This is a role usually reserved for the GM in a game, but I’ve often found that players can do it just as well if not better than I can, anyway.
  • The Villain is the person sitting to the right of the Extras. This player plays the main bad guy–Dr. No, Goldfinger, Blofeld, whatever. Again, a typical GM role, but hilarious fun nevertheless.

If you have fewer than 5 players, you can whittle out roles as you see fit. Extra roles can be played by the Dealer. The objective of everyone is to make a cool spy story together–to entertain one another and have fun playing their roles. In this regard it’s almost like dinner theatre which, incidentally, I think the best RPGs are like anyway.

No Dice: Rather than using dice, the game will use a standard playing card deck (or decks–still thinking about that) in order to adjudicate the kind of things that dice usually decide. I want the game to play sort of like blackjack/poker/baccarat–high stakes, plenty of strategy, reading facial expressions, etc. I haven’t fully decided how the system is going to work yet (I just thought of this yesterday, after all), but I’m thinking it will work sort of like War, in general. If a player wants to do something, the dealer drops a card that represents the difficulty of the task and, to some extent, the nature of the obstacle. If the player can furnish a card that beats the value of the card laid down (aces low, but ace beats king), they succeed and may describe what they do. If they can’t, they fail. The suits of cards exhibit the ways which an obstacle can be overcome. So, for instance (not set in stone, but what I’ve got so far):

  • Clubs is the use of force to solve a problem: beat up a thug, break down a door, leap a pit, etc.
  • Spades is the use of stealth, subterfuge, or trickery: sneak past a guard, pick a pocket, spot a hidden door, shake a tail, etc.
  • Diamonds is the use of resources or equipment: bribe an official, use a pocket laser to cut through a safe, slip knock-out drops in a drink, snipe a target with a high-powered rifle, etc.
  • Hearts is the use of charisma, personal magnetism, and charm to solve problems: seduce the villain’s wife, impersonate a general, intimidate a contact, bluff in a card game, etc.

So, by way of example, if you want to break into the villain’s hotel room and I (or the villain) drops a 4 of clubs, that means the doors are locked tight and, possibly (if the Extras player feels like it) there’s a goon outside the door. The Spy would then refer to his or her hand and see if there’s anything of a 5 or higher. Depending on what is there, that determines how the spy can solve the problem. If all he’s got is a 5 of Hearts, he needs to charm his way into the room somehow (perhaps by speaking to the chambermaid), otherwise he can’t do it.

Face Cards will have additional crazy effects, but I haven’t determined what, yet. I’m also thinking that direct confrontations (like fights, chases, and the like) might involve more complicated contests, but I’m not sure how yet.


The idea here is to create a game that is stylish, cool, collaborative, and fun. I’m using cards because I want the players to feel like they’re gathered around a table of green felt in Monte Carlo, stuffed cheek-and-jowl with men in good suits, women in sparking gowns, and dark strangers with eye patches and the uniform of a third-world dictator. I intend to break the game into phases–the Briefing (wherein the Villain and other characters are created), the Investigation (wherein the spy figures out the Villain’s plan), and the Confrontation (wherein the Spy tries to defeat the Villain). I want death traps and car chases and snappy dialogue, goofy gadgets and, most of all, fun.

So, whaddya think? Sound cool? Suggestions? Advice?

About aahabershaw

Writer, teacher, gaming enthusiast, and storyteller. I write stories, novels, and occasional rants.

Posted on November 21, 2011, in Gaming and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Very interesting ideas and I look forward to seeing how it all works itself out. The fact that you’re aiming for much more story-driven improv rather than game mechanics-centered should make for a much different feel.

    BTW – have you picked up the rules to a new RPG called ‘Fiasco’? It’s a game that has gotten some enthusiastic reviews and is extremely story-driven. It tries to capture the essence of the ‘caper or event gone bad’ type of film, prevalent in films like Fargo, A Simple Plan or Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels. No GM, completely collaborated group storytelling, and a black and white dice mechanic that only comes into play at the end of the first and second Acts in order to determine positive or negative results for each character. It is also set up for all kinds of different ‘playsets’ that determine the time, place and fiction of the story being created. So it includes playsets like Suburban America (which results in a style along the lines of American Beauty), High School (for Brick or Sixteen Candles), Vegas (for The Cooler or 3000 Miles To Graceland) or Mission To Mercury (a la Moon or Apollo 13). The company’s website also offers for free each and every month a whole new playset to use for all new stories… including times/places like Gangster London, Civil War Reconstruction, Touring Rock Band, 1932 TransAtlantic Cruise, Dallas 1963, Jersey City Mob, and many other.

    The creator/writer of the game described Fiasco as “a game of powerful ambition and poor impulse control.” If you haven’t heard of it, it sounds fairly awesome. Go to http://www.bullypulpitgames.com/games/fiasco/ for more info on the game.

    • That *does* sound cool. I’ll have to check it out. Knowing me, I’ll probably wind up messing with it somehow.

    • More thoughts on Our Man In Havanna:

      Gameplay thoughts:

      -All players have a hand of 5 cards. Each role has special abilities.
      -If a player loses or ties a test, they get to draw a card.
      -If you tie the King, all roles move one step to the right.
      -Play a Queen to prevent any further complication of the test (i.e. ends the hand automatically)
      -Play a Jack to take a card from another player’s hand.

      If you don’t have card to play (and no one willing or able to help you), you can appeal to luck. The Dealer will drop a card on your behalf and, success or fail, you’re stuck with the results.

      • Interesting idea, and I d enjoy story-driven over mechanics-driven a huge amount. Playing cards also feel quite natural to a game like this. Would each player have their own deck, or is it just one communal deck?

        The only suggested rule I don’t love is this one: “-If you tie the King, all roles move one step to the right.”

        Why completely change the roles of the game (and possibly the characters, too?) in the middle of the game? That sounds jarring and not terribly fun to me. Especially if people actively choose what role they’re playing, why suddenly take it from them?

  2. The basic idea is to emphasize collective storytelling. Only the villain and the spy are ‘unique’ characters–everybody else plays, like, whoever. I felt like I wanted to give people the opportunity, inside a single adventure, to play multiple different roles. I can see how it might be jarring, but if the group takes ownership of the idea that no one character is ‘theirs’ as much as ‘everyone’s’, it might not be a big deal.

    It does require some thought, though–you’re right.

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