DovahQueen: Bend the Knee
Since 2015, the DovahQueen has been taking your questions and giving advice to improve your games. Now the tables are turned in this DovahQueen series; Loren is asking the questions and a panel of three guests—an RPG-industry veteran, a Know Direction network staff member, and a fan—answers. It’s time to Bend the Knee!
First, let’s meet today’s guests.
RPG-Industry Veteran: Patrick Kapera
I’ve been designing tabletop games professionally since 1998, but I’ve been playing them since 1980. I was weaned on AD&D, and my teens were a blur of Twilight: 2000, Cyberpunk, Shadowrun, and my dearest, bleakest love, Call of Cthulhu. I was hired at AEG as a staff editor, then moved up to staff writer and eventually started building my own games there, including Spycraft. In 2005 I left AEG to start my own company, Crafty Games, which makes a little of everything: board games, RPGs, game accessories, the lot. Most days I struggle with the grim reality of being an extreme introvert with an extrovert’s hobby. The rest of the time I manage to forget myself and be someone else… as we do.
Know Direction Network Staff Member: Dustin Knight aka KitsuneWarlock
I’ve been playing tabletop RPGs since Eye of the Wyvern in 1999, and I’ve been writing Fox’s Cunning on Know Direction since last Halloween. I’m a proud freelancer for Paizo & Everybody Games, Venture Officer for Pathfinder Society, and chat addict on approximately two dozen Pathfinder related discords. I have a bachelor’s in graphic design with a smattering of diverse minors. I’m always looking to immerse myself in the study of different cultures, from art history and cuisine to travel and philosophy.
Fan: Katrina Hennessy – sometimes known as Numbat
Officially ancient, I first enjoyed D&D in the mid-70s. While there were many long breaks from RPGs in the intervening years, I dabbled with many different ones before being introduced to Pathfinder. Gen Con 50 introduced me to Paizo’s Organized Play (as well as Starfinder), and I soon became immersed in that community. My career choice presentation in high school was on becoming an author. Now, after multiple other careers, I have dipped my toes into the refreshing pool of freelance writing (paid but not published) and look forward to following my earlier dreams.
“Outside of your team, only a handful of people have ever heard your name and lived. Less than that are still alive that are aware of your exploits. The whole world has you to thank for averting crises that they remain blissfully unaware of, but it’s a debt that will never be repaid. You’re not the best spy there is; you’re the best spy there ever was. Your agency is receiving intel that another threat is on the rise. The mastermind behind the coming scheme is also the only mission you ever failed—Karminka Kuznetsov. She’s back after having escaped justice ten years ago, and this time she’s ready with an even more powerful and loyal organization to help enact her plan for global domination. Intel states that her outfit is called SOKOL, and they number thousands of elite mercenaries, alchemists, arcanists, and other spies who’s pockets are lined with laundered coin originating in hidden diamond mines. With Kuznetsov at the helm, SOKOL has been buying or blackmailing leaders from all around the world to follow her orders from behind the scenes, seizing artifacts with her forces, and developing some kind of arcane superweapon. You’re going to be sent into the field with two mission objectives, and you’re going to be allowed to prepare for the missions, and execute them, however you seen fit. Your first objective: weaken and destroy SOKOL’s ability to enact Karminka’s plan. Second objective: correct your past failure; catch Kuznetsov and decide her fate.”
First, write a brief summary for who your spy is—race, class, etc., but be sure to include personality and modus operandi. How will your spy accomplish the mission?
Patrick: Well, this is a tall order, isn’t it? Most are in this profession. I was born into the world of Spycraft, of course, and I am a Troubleshooter. This being a fantasy, I’m physically capable, highly trained in close quarters combat, passable with a pistol but exceptionally talented with a rifle, quick-thinking and clever, and able to fake being emotionally stable… at least 60% of the time.
I remember Karminka. I let my guard down with that one. I let her get too close and before I knew it, she’d made off with the target, my heart, and my designer tux. I still need to pay her back for that long walk through the frigid morning fields with nothing but strategically placed foliage to protect my modesty. Those sightseers got more than they bargained for that day!
Karminka’s greatest weakness, I think, is arrogance. She bested me once; she assumes she can do it again and leave the Agency with a black eye in the process. She’s spent all this time and money to set up the perfect honey trap… and for once I’ll take the bait. This time, I’m the foil.
Any good spy keeps a number of situational strategies ready. I call this one “Dogpile Day.” After a loud and embarrassing failure in the field against a weapons smuggler (more on him in a moment), I come under review at the Agency. This review unearths a litany of misdeeds I’ve committed over the many years of my tenure, including dangerous alliances with foreign powers and a “retirement fund” of stolen operational funds. Overnight I’m left without a safety net, and seemingly without allies as former friends distance themselves from the latest leper at the home office.
Or so I want everyone to think. In truth, Control is in on everything, and perpetuating the lie that her mightiest has truly fallen. She’s all too happy to assume the role, given the grief I’ve subjected her to over the years. And with the news of my circumstances coming from her office, coupled with me being pushed out intot he cold and left to fend for myself, there’s no reason for anyone to suspect it’s actually a trap — least of all Karminka.
I set up shop as a mercenary, just as I would if I were suddenly cut off for real, and we let rumors spread naturally through the known moles and trusted spin doctors in the Agency. Soon enough Karminka will come looking for me, and then I’ll keep her occupied sinking the dagger between my shoulder blades while the rest of my plan unfolds elsewhere.
You see, all those people who never lived to tell of my exploits? They work for me now. I’ve spent a long career collecting strays — everyone with a bit of talent or a unique gift and a few who are embedded in organizations or places I might need help. I’ve treated them well and kept them safe and well-funded with legitimately obtained Agency funds, and in return I’ve asked that they make themselves available… just in case.
When Karminka comes calling, and she will, someone in SOKOL will undoubtedly reach out to the weapons smuggler I failed to capture. He’ll gladly agree to help Karminka with her new pet project and having someone on the inside should help me string things along. Even if no one reaches out though, I should be able to keep Karminka busy long enough for the rest of my network to close in on SOKOL’s funding.
Those diamond mines are the key. We don’t have to capture them, or even find them. All we have to do is turn the world’s buyers against them. There are shockingly few brokers who deal in jewels of this caliber, and all of them spook easily. Swap even one false gem into a delivery and they’ll never work with SOKOL again. Swap a couple across multiple brokers and the blowback will be so bad SOKOL won’t be able to offload their hoarded baubles as paperweights.
An organization SOKOL’s size won’t last long without a constant influx of cash. Elites in any specialty rate top dollar, and they’re unlikely to stick around when their meal ticket runs dry. Coordinate this with strategic raids on SOKOL fronts in several countries, and we can probably panic Karminka’s lieutenants and send them running to her side — and to the location of their doomsday weapon.
That’s when everything comes together. The Agency and my extended network move to capture the lieutenants and the weapon, and with luck we leave the organization headless and floundering. I’ll take care of Karminka myself… because nothing less will do.
It’s a bit pie in the sky and relies on a dizzying array of coincidental planning, not to mention some fuzzy timing that will almost certainly go boom once we get the op running. But that’s what good RPG plans are for, right? They’re at their most fun when they implode. Also, this one offers the GM just enough scope to showcase an evolving global story, while focusing the “action” of the session on me and his prize NPC. There’s nothing like playing to the medium.
Dustin: I have fond memories of running a one-shot two-player adventure for a friend back in high-school with a similar, albeit less sophisticated premise. I highly recommend the experience and challenge people to consider what genres work better with a single-player character. I have to confess this was the sort of adventure I had in mind when I wrote my Pathfinder (1e) kitsune phantom thief rogue. Abilities like case the joint and skills like disguise and stealth have a natural synergy with having to work alone. Bookish thief and always prepared will help fill any missing party role. That being said, it’s easy to play this sort of factotum-esque build in a functioning party without any serious mechanical adjustment. The same genres that make for great solo-adventures tend to have dynamic resolutions that reward a party having a versatile but less combat-oriented character!
Ren is an agender thief who specializes in stealing rare books. From an emperor’s diary to a lich’s grimoire, the kitsune treats the world as their library and every locked door as a challenge. They love figuring out why something was kept hidden almost as much as the knowledge itself, using the context of someone’s secrets to help them read between the lines and fully appreciate the impact of whatever it is they stole.
Using their natural shapeshifting, Ren successfully infiltrated the agency and went to work disseminating their archives. But after four months of redacted reports and missing leads, the fox found the work of their fellow agents so lacking that they went to work finishing the work of one of the bureau’s most glaring failures. Within a week they’d managed to secure evidence of a forged treaty and a signed confession from a scorned viscount, promising the agency credit if they allow Ren to join as an operative.
Karminka Kuznetsov has remained an enigmatic frustration for the otherwise accomplished spy. Even after decades of successfully unraveling any casein their way, Ren considers her case an ongoing mystery they refuse to let go. Cementing a target’s origins and motives have always been Ren’s strong suit, and Karminka’s ability to run an organization for so long is a testament to her genius. But the fox knows a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and the more an organization grows, the less iron-clad it’s defenses.
The first step is undermining her weakest allies: Those who she keeps loyal only because they have a weakness. Ren’s first plan is to use their archives to uncover and deduce the blackmail Karminka is using to silence one or more world leaders. Depending on the nature of their secret, the kitsune will ply those with ties closest to one of Karminka’s diamond mines, possibly using ‘evidence’ that the villain plans on pointing their weapon at that leader’s state explicitly because their secret was so easy to uncover. Pretending to be a countryman of that land, Ren will act as a vigilante on behalf of this stooge, swearing loyalty and using their influence to infiltrate one of Karminka’s diamond mines.
Ren would first target the mine’s ledgers, curious if there are substantial amounts of spell component grade gemstones being hoarded by the organization to possibly fuel this superweapon. Sabotaging the weapon’s fuel and using it to find Karminka’s stronghold would mean having to abandon the mine altogether: Ren wouldn’t just leave the paranoid villain with any hints that there was something wrong with her precious supplies. But it might become necessary if there is no way to track any higher-ups from the mine itself, although that would be doubtful given Ren’s ability to disguise themself as specific individuals and Kuznetsov’s minions undoubtedly using lackeys for their grunt work.
Preparing fake coins to sneak into the coffers of these mercenaries would be a necessary contingency. With Kuznetsov’s plans approaching fruition, convincing the mercenaries that the would-be tyrant is looking to consolidate her personal wealth at the expense of her soon-to-be-former allies would be a powerful bargaining chip. Learning what currency the organization also allows Ren the ability to use the powerful enter image spell to track the organization while disguised as whatever ruler was stamped on the coin.
Working their disguises up the chain of command, Ren’s ultimate goal is to watch a minion speaking directly to Kuznetsov. Learning her mannerisms becomes a critical ace in their sleeve in the event they has to disguise themself as her, granting Ren unfettered access to the organization’s resources and the ability to get close enough to the arcane superweapon to sabotage the device in a way that ensures a critical failure the first time it’s used. But capturing Karminka herself requires figuring out what makes the super-villain tick, staying a step ahead of her allies and avoiding suspicion while developing a plan not to foil her ambitions, but rather providing her a means by which she can obtain her true goal. Whether this went down the path of existentialism or romance would depend entirely on the route the campaign takes. But even if conquest is her only goal, her subjection of the world’s leaders and economy proves that the world is never truly lead by faces minted on coins. True authority is the ability to choose when you exert your power without resistance, just as Ren treats the world as their own personal library.
Katrina: “I’m too old for this,” they thought, perched on the roof, looking down at their target. “Time to train a replacement; if I live through tonight that is.” They looked back through time to the girl they had been. How would they find another her?
They’d started life as one of too many daughters in a minor Taldan noble family. They had initially applied themself to their studies and actually enjoyed the sword training, becoming an adequate fencer. When they reached their teens, however, they had become increasingly resistant to the planned life their mother had determined for them. They began sneaking out at night, developing the necessary acrobatic skills to depart unseen across rooftops and ledges.
One fateful night they had crashed the wrong party, found themself challenged by a boisterous half-orc in an outlandish “pirate” hat who offered them punch and a “little something” to spice it up. Killashandra, as they had been known then, found themself in a much more honest and open conversation than they had planned. The next thing they knew, they had been granted a “temporary field commission” in the Pathfinder Society, attached to a small group of new Pathfinders and sent on a series of minor missions in Absalom to prove themself a worthy candidate for more formal training. They rose to the occasion and there followed several other missions.
Being all too human, Killashandra did not have the naturally acute senses or longevity of some. Instead, they spent years honing their skills, learning to use magic, to disguise themself and blend into almost any culture, to protect themself and defend others. They learned valuable team skills and eventually developed leadership skills as well. They became almost too effective, losing themself to the tasks at hand and disassociating from former friends and family. Eventually, they realized none but those who assigned their missions would even miss them.
Now, a world away, with decades of mostly successful operations behind them, and their own small but well-connected team backing them up, Killashandra has long operated under a different identity. using a name few know, they work to thwart the worst disasters the world has never known. They are good at what they do but the years are starting to take their toll.
“But that woman!” they quietly seethe, “That bint has to be stopped.” Having escaped justice ten years ago by putting the lives of innocents in harm’s way, Karminka Kuznetsov was like a festering sore on their soul. The woman had finessed them into a position of having to choose between pursuing her or saving children. The choice had been clear. Now it was time to complete that previous mission.
Looking down on the woman, with her authoritative manner, commanding her minions, the spy/vigilante considers their options. Tempting though it is to eliminate the enemy quickly while they have the advantage of height and surprise, the assassin’s methods have never been theirs. No, all their skills will be necessary to instead extract the woman and use her to crack wide open her organization. That will be the best way to prevent whatever diabolical plan SOKOL intends to use their super-secret arcane weapon for. Of course, they will need to capture the weapon as well as the woman.
Thankfully, there are those on their team who are better equipped than they to examine said weapon and disable it. “My skills are the ones needed now, though.” The ability to remain undetected, even when in the direct visual path of another, the ability to detect and disable traps thus avoiding alarms and capture, and most importantly for this insane plan to work, the ability to briefly traverse an insubstantial surface, are what has allowed them to penetrate so far into enemy territory and now prepare to take SOKOL’s leader by surprise. If this works, their team is ready to assist with the extraction and then the even more challenging work begins.
Over the years they have maintained and furthered the legal training their mother insisted on, so they are ready to apply that knowledge to help dismantle the money laundering and free the slaves working the diamond mines that finance SOKOL’s operations. They will need to trace those financial paths to expose the corrupt leaders in various countries that have aided and abetted. It is time to clear out the whole nest of vipers, expose them to the fresh air and sunshine and the view of the people. All while remaining unnoticed in the background of course. Retirement may be in their near future, but it is not here yet.
I’ve heard from my guest writers; now I want to hear from you. Who’s your super-spy and how you thwart Kuznetsov’s evil plan? Leave a comment below, on our Discord, or on Know Direction’s Facebook page.
Each Bend the Knee features three guest writers. One is from the RPG industry. Another is from the Know Direction network. The third guest could be you! Leave a comment on Know Direction’s Facebook, Discord, or Twitter, or you can send an email to DearDovahQueen@gmail.com for your chance to be featured on the next Bend the Knee or Dear DovahQueen.