Directives from A-Cell 108: Tradecraft Meets Lovecraft

Categories: Directives from A-Cell > Items of Mutual Interest

By Adam Scott Glancy, © 2012

One of the beauties of Call of Cthulhu’s BRP system is the way it handles task resolution. Just find the appropriate skill and roll the target number or less. Success or failure as well as degree of success or failure are determined in a one roll.


Looking at skills and groups of skills can tell you more about a character. They suggest knowledge and abilities that live in the spaces between the skill scores. High scores in Spot Hidden, Disguise, Conceal, Sneak, Locksmith, Sneak and Hide are the kinds of skills that professional espionage agents and counter-intelligence officers would have. But do those skills necessarily translate into the specialized knowledge necessary to perform a dead drop, a brush pass or a black bag job?

In Delta Green, we can answer that question with the Tradecraft skill and by playing out the details of tradecraft.

Tradecraft is usually defined as the specialized skills of professional intelligence and counter-intelligence operatives. Playing Delta Green has thrown a spotlight on tradecraft because the campaign setting almost universally puts the players in the role of modern professional investigators with backgrounds in the intelligence and law enforcement communities. Player characters are expected to have high levels of training, professional standards and systems of institutional tradecraft that the agency that trained them developed over many decades.

Back in 1999 Pagan Publishing published an optional skill called Tradecraft (base skill 5%) in Delta Green: Countdown. Author Adam Crossingham designed the Tradecraft skill to combine with and modify other skills when conducting covert and clandestine activities. To plant a bug, for instance, you roll both your Electronics skill and your Tradecraft skill. If both skill rolls succeed then the bug is in place, working and undetectable. Making the Electronics roll but failing Tradecraft means that the bug works but could be detected by a Spot Hidden roll. Failing Electronics and making Tradecraft would mean that the bug isn’t working, but won’t be detected.

This combination of skills could be applied to clandestine surveillance (Spot Hidden), undetectably picking a lock (Locksmith), or tailing a car (Drive Auto). Tradecraft allows you to exercise a skill in a way that prevents detection of the task you have performed.

Of course, the effect could be replicated by combining the primary skill with existing skills such as Hide, Sneak, and Conceal. The Tradecraft skill was meant to consolidate those stealth-related skills when they’re used specifically for intelligence work, leaving the character with more skill points to spread around. Which is not out of line with the archetype of the highly trained intelligence professional.

What using Pagan’s Tradecraft skill during the game can’t do is satisfy the oft-voiced desire to know the specifics of executing covert and clandestine operations. Players who run spooks and feds want to know how to convincingly act like spooks and feds. Adding a new skill to the game isn’t going to provide the immersion these players are looking for. They want to know the tricks of the trade.

As the Keeper, you should encourage them to learn how to fake it convincingly. When a player uses actual intelligence and counter-intelligence tradecraft, have it enhance the character’s in-game performance. The simplest way is to provide a bonus to skill rolls based on the tradecraft the player uses. As a rule of thumb, grant a 5% bonus to the Tradecraft-related skill roll for each specific tradecraft technique that the player describes, up to 1/5 the Tradecraft skill level.

For example, a player wants to determine if he is being followed without revealing that he is on the lookout for a tail. He needs to roll under Spot Hidden/Tradecraft. To gain a bonus, he could tell the Keeper the actual tradecraft technique he’s going to use: a cleaning run. The player character checks for a tail using reflections in store windows while he appears to be browsing. He goes into public places with confining entrances and exits. He sits in a coffee shop to read the paper while keeping an eye on the patrons. That’s three key details, worth up to +15%.

Further, sometimes just knowing detailed tradecraft techniques could eliminate the need for a die roll. Rather than just using a Conceal roll to set up a dead-drop system, the player could describe the intended system in detail based on real dead drops from the Cold War. Whether to obviate the skill roll based on such juicy player details is always the Keeper’s call. Of course, if you don’t roll you don’t gain a skill check, but sometimes reducing the risk is worth it.

Picking up genuine intelligence and counter-intelligence tradecraft is easier than one imagines. Intelligence agencies rarely share their techniques, not even the old dusty ones from one or two conflicts back, but intelligence historians such as Norman Polmar and H. Keith Melton provide a great deal of accurate information. Tradecraft can be picked up from the memoirs of intelligence officers like Robert Baer, Peter Wright, Victor Ostrovsky and Oleg Kalugin. In many cases, however, the authors’ former employers screen the manuscripts to prevent them from revealing current intelligence methods and capabilities. Journalists who write on intelligence matters generally don’t have that restriction. Books by Mark Bowden, James Bamford and Robert Young Pelton contain very specific examples of tradecraft.

Fiction is another source of tradecraft, but one that should be taken with a grain of salt. More often than not, when I read accurate tradecraft in fiction I can recall the historical incident, memoir or news story from which the author had cribbed the details. Better to get it from an original source.

The information age has granted us a bounty of search engines for finding articles, websites or even good ol’ fashioned books on the subject.

The best way to introduce tradecraft into your Delta Green game is to make sure everyone around the game table is involved. If it’s just you as Keeper instructing the players on good tradecraft, that puts a lot of weight on one pair of shoulders. Getting all the players involved in learning about tradecraft will almost always benefit the whole group. That’s just more eyes on the same target and more information being brought in from a wider variety of sources.

It has been suggested that it’s asking too much of the players to want them to know all the ins and outs of modern espionage just because they want to play Delta Green. That makes about as much sense as suggesting it’s asking too much for Dungeons & Dragons players to know something about the fantasy genre. The very fact that players are playing Delta Green suggests they are interested in the horror, mystery and espionage genres, all three. They probably have already consumed a great deal of pop culture and entertainment on these subjects. They won’t be overly burdened by consuming some more.

What’s that? You say you want a condensed set of tradecraft and procedures tailored specifically to Delta Green operations? Sorry. You’re not cleared for that.

Not yet.

 – Adam Scott Glancy


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