One element that always seems to make it into the games I run is intrigue. As a youngster, I grew up playing Top Secret and James Bond:007. The spy genre is based around solving mysteries: what’re the bad guys up to? Can you trust your friends? The genre also taught me about verisimilitude — trying to keep an air of realism, even when the adventure was total pulp fiction; and it taught me story structure — how to lay out an adventure to allow players to uncover the mystery yet keep a certain pace to things.

A few good rules to keep in mind:

1) The Jaws rule: Don’t show the monster/McGuffin/bad guy too early. They lose the impact they will have later. Also, your players don’t slaughter them so early you don’t have a story for the rest of the game session. Build up the tension while they uncover clues.

2) The Raymond Chandler rule: “When in doubt have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.” If things are bogging down, or they’ve gotten too far in an adventure where you can’t finish that session…but you won’t have enough to fill the next, throw a new challenge at them — especially near the end of  a session. It can be a red herring that slows their investigation, it can be an entirely unrelated thing that distracts their attention.

3) The basic spy/mystery plot:

You start the adventure with the hook — the event that gets the characters on the road to solving the mystery. It can be an expository scene where they gain information from an employer, they get a mission briefing from their agency, or they stumble into the middle of an action piece. The point is to hook the players into pursuing the plot. Once you’ve got them there, the basic plot looks something like this:

ACTION SCENE — EXPOSITION SCENE or CLUE FOUND — INVESTIGATION SCENE with each of the action scenes being in their own discrete and appropriate to the type of action set piece. You can do this sequence as many times as you like, but the typical movie three-act outline means each cycle of this sequence gets you closer to the final reveal of the plan/horror/bad guy/whatever. In spy movies like the Bond series, each of these cycles happens in a different exotic locale, but in a sci-fi or horror piece, if could be a different part of the same general set piece. For instance, in Aliens, the initial hook is when the company and the marines ask for Ripley’s aid. The first action scene involves no combat, but does set up the mystery — where’s the colonists? What happened that trashed the colony? The exposition is that the colonists are all in the atmosphere processing plant, which leads to the investigation of the plant and the inevitable action scene in the creepy alien lair, and so on…

Give out just enough information to push the plot, and if the characters do well in their skill tests while investigating, give them tidbits that help set them up to do better in the next story sequence.