ACE is not a complicated game. It’s pretty short and the mechanics are very light and intentionally simple. For some people, this might make it less appealing or more intimidating as the system asks you to improvise and create your own results without giving you a predetermined result. Which is perfectly fine, it takes different strokes and all that, but maybe I can help by talking about what I do when I run ACE (and other rules-lites that I’ve played.)
ACE is actually a hard game for me to run. I’m always conflicted between making up my own world that follows all the tropes of the real one, or just setting things in the real world. I settled on the Marvel Comics approach of putting made up places right next to real ones and trying really hard not to ever draw any maps. (Wakanda for example.) But you’re welcome to do whatever it is that works for you.
Really the cool thing about ACE is that you can set the game anywhere and make it interesting. A rural Kansas farm can hide a deep underground lair or be the site of chemical weapon manufacturing. A run down apartment can be the home to drug runners selling a new and incredibly dangerous substance. Any kind of place that seems totally ordinary and not-at-all adventurous has the potential to be practically anything since the nature of ACE revolves around international level threats and deep secrecy. In Operation Oversight posted last week, I ran a short raid on a pool hall with a small apartment complex above it and it turned out to be the site of a massive winding labyrinth called The Bunker. Nothing is ever what it seems in ACE and you can always use that to make any location the site of an epic story.
Characters & NPCs
Another bright side to ACE and the clandestine nature of things is that you have a pretty solid reason to not reveal the backstory of certain characters either as classified material or intentionally as plot points that the PCs are actively trying to figure out. Naturally the PCs may also be privy to this option, deciding to keep their backstory redacted so they can reveal it later if they so choose. (Think like Melinda May from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.)
However part of the fun is in exploring backgrounds in an espionage based game. Characters (NPCs and PCs) could come from anywhere and be a part of any faction or historical operations. Characters could have a history in weapons manufacturing (Q from James Bond anyone?) or have led their own raids, or participate in deep cover operations having done dark and horrible things to blend in. The possibilities for characters are pretty endless and with tons of media to pull inspiration from, you’d be hard pressed to come up with a boring character or interaction in ACE.
In Operation Hydra the players already had a plan. I put them in positions where they knew they had been working this angle for a while. It meant something to them. In Operation Oversight, they knew the stakes, but they had no plan. They had directions and leads, but no set path. The idea to send Sam Nelson to Avionus was theirs. The idea to take on Belisle first, was theirs. Who went where, and how they did it, was all entirely thought up by the players. And the whole air of the game really felt like they were weighing their options and planning a major operation. (the player controlling Uhu even named the Op. Personally, I would have called it Operation Trident what with the three fronts and all, but that’s just me. :p )
It was all about freedom. ACE has very little in the way of limitation or restriction. The gear you bring, the way you level characters, it’s entirely left in the hands of the players. The missions and operations should be the same way. Toss them a line, and let them follow it the way they want to with the approach they want to take. Yes, this does mean as a GM you may be forced to improvise a lot. I consider this a good thing though, to be able to bounce situations and reactions off the players is part of the fun. For those among us who prefer to have a contingency plan for every possibility, then by all means. But keeping things loose is probably your best bet. There’s no telling how much Archer your players have watched and if it’s too much, you may be in for some unexpected reactions when they meet with adversity.
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