by Nicole Winchester
“I live like them, but I am not one of them. Perhaps they could see it, if they looked for it. Americans are like children. They believe that happiness comes with new shoes, a cheeseburger, a shiny car. We know that happiness is fleeting, and it makes us stronger—strong enough to resist the decadence that surrounds us, to do our duty to the Motherland.”
–Catherine Harrison, KGB Agent, Illegals Program
“It’s like chasing ghosts. Names from tombstones. Apartments that have never been lived in. When we have caught up with them, it hasn’t been great in terms of results. It’s an abandoned safehouse, or a low-ranking officer hung out to dry—a designated scapegoat. We know what’s happening, but fighting a war against shadows is exhausting. We’ll take victories where we can get them.”
–Lawrence Matthews, FBI Agent, Counterintelligence
The end of World War II put the East and West into a state of lasting tension, a Cold War that lacked a front or major combat between the United States and the Soviet Union. Instead, the war was fought in a dozen different ways, across the globe: in proxy wars where each side funded its ideological equivalents in other countries; in academic conference rooms where officials worked to politicize scientists and results; on the field of play in international sporting competitions; through technological and military innovation; with propaganda, with espionage. Everything possible was framed as a battle between East and West.
In 1983, President Reagan called the Soviet Union an “evil empire”—and that’s exactly what most Americans believed. Most Russians likewise believed that America was an “imperialist superpower” intent on dominating the world. Generations raised on propaganda saw to that, as well as large populations that weren’t widely travelled. It’s likely one of the reasons why the defections that came through the Cold War were from those likely to travel for professional reasons—the artists, athletes, scientists, spies, and soldiers of each country used to prove superiority over the other. It might have been for power, for money, or because they became true believers in the cause, but the defections over the years gave each side the opportunity to put a few in the “win” column, ideology-wise. Some defections were more costly than others—those in intelligence circles were rare, and rarely welcomed.
The agents of Soviet Directorate S were known as the Illegals, and the process of building sleeper agents, trained to live undetected as the citizens of foreign countries, was the only program of its kind in international espionage. Candidates were chosen as young adults, out of hundreds of applicants. They were chosen for bravery, focus, will, quick thinking, resistance to stress, linguistic ability, adaptability, and a sense of adventure. The candidates were then given psychological screening to ensure they were prepared for the grueling training, then an isolated life in a foreign country. Illegals were trained individually, never meeting other agents. They learned to operate in a cell that may have only of themselves, their partner (if they had one), and their handler. There was no contact with anyone from their past life.
Illegals were trained in espionage, politics, finance and economy, several professions, and three or four languages to native fluency. One major general who ran the program called his recruits wunderkinds for their remarkable capabilities. To build credible covers, the KGB found records of deceased foreign babies and used those identities for the Illegals. Over the years of training, the Illegal was transformed into a person by that name, artificially created by the Directorate—an entirely different person, to whom Russia itself became foreign. And once they were that person, the Illegal was ready to “go home” and start the mission. Their job was twofold: to aid in managing KGB assets, and to act as sleeper cells for a possible war between the US and Russia.
The number of KGB sleeper agents that were, or are currently, residing in the United States is unknown. Russian agents were found to be active as recently as 2015 in New York City. The FBI’s efforts to find and stop them are approximately as underfunded, understaffed, and beset by bureaucracy and security clearance blockades now as they were in the 1980s. Competing operations and priorities are a constant issue, and in 1983, the War on Drugs occupied a lot of resources.
Michael Jackson performed the first Moonwalk in 1983. Return of the Jedi completed the Star Wars trilogy. Sally Ride was the first American woman in space, and Vanessa Williams was the first black Miss America. 1983 was also the year the world came close to nuclear disaster, when the Soviet early warning system malfunctioned and reported American missiles launched at Russia. The Illegals is set in the early 80s—an era often characterized as one of big hair and shoulder pads, synthesizers and skinny ties. It’s not always remembered as a time of paranoia and dread, when the people lived under the shadow of nuclear annihilation.
The Illegals is a Quick Start with everything you need to get right into your first session. Before you begin, talk about the broader setting with your group, maybe even reading aloud Cold War, Imperialist Superpower and Evil Empire, The Illegals Program, Sleeper Cells, and Living in the 80s so everyone is on the same page. At the start of play, explain the current issue to your players and ask them to fill in one or two additional faces associated with The Cold War in the Heartland. These additional characters will provide new plot hooks and twists that will tie your players more deeply to the lives they’re about to lead.
Then ask your players to choose from one of the two available impending issues: Managing Assets or Family Drama. Have them fill in one or two additional faces for their chosen impending issue as well, rounding out the larger cast of characters with their suggestions.
Since the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan several years ago, relations between the USSR and the US have deteriorated. Both sets of partners are feeling the pressure from their superiors, as the political stakes are higher than they can remember. On one hand, there’s the perfect American couple, secretly Illegal Russian agents, living a quiet life somewhere that’s useful to the Motherland, waiting for contact from the Center—sometimes for years. On the other, a pair of FBI agents work to find spies that were hand-picked to be the best of the best at living as normal Americans, with inconsistent help from their own government and their own agency.
Marge Fisher: Code Name: Grandma. KGB Handler. When word comes or goes from the Center to the agents, it’s through Marge. Kind, but tough.
Special Agent Paul Campos: Code Name: Shaggy. FBI Supervisor, Counterintelligence. In charge of operations in the area. Smart, no-nonsense, occasionally willing to look the other way.
In addition to The Cold War in the Heartland and the conflicts it causes, there are a number of other impending issues that can impede our agents’ missions, including:
Both KGB and FBI agents must manage relationships with multiple assets. Assets are most often weaknesses in bureaucracy or society: relatives of high-ranking officials, disaffected or lonely government workers, anti-nuclear activists, communist sympathizers—anyone who can be manipulated for information, or to take action on the agent’s behalf. These relationships can range from casual friendships or paid arrangements to more intimate situations depending on the demands on the contact, the agent’s abilities, and their moral flexibility. The KGB relied on the MICE formula for manipulating and managing assets: Money, Ideology, Coercion, and Ego. Illegals often work their assets under other identities, in disguise, or both.
Willow Dufresne: Young, passionate peace and anti-nuke activist. Sympathetic to communist ideals.
Anton Malikov: Mid-level Rezidentura (Embassy) official who has been in the US for over a decade. He wouldn’t want to go home.
Almost all Illegals are married to their partners, and they may have a family after being undercover for so long. Many FBI agents are also married (though not usually to one another) and have families. Living a double life, or even chasing those who do, takes more time, effort, and energy than a “normal” job, and takes a toll on personal relationships. Spouses that know nothing of the work may have questions or suspicions. Children need their parents present and engaged—and are far more observant than people think. Managing and maintaining family relationships can be as difficult as managing assets, and far more emotionally dangerous.
Stacy Harrison: Twelve year old daughter, loves baseball and Michael Jackson. Does not love having to babysit her little sister all the time. Why do you always work late?
Micki Matthews: Wife and doctor in one of the busiest emergency wards in the area. You don’t have much time together. When you do, you’re both stressed about work, and only one of you can talk about it.
The Illegals works best with Fate Core characters, as spies tend to specialize in ways that traditional skills illustrate clearly. If you choose to use Fate Accelerated approaches, players will find they have agents with very similar approaches and capabilities, and only stunts to differentiate them.
In The Illegals, players take on the roles of KGB agents in the Illegals program, living as regular American citizens as they execute covert missions to undermine US plans on behalf of the Center, their superiors in Moscow. At the same time, they also play the FBI agents in the Counterintelligence unit that’s tasked with tracking, uncovering, and arresting the Russian spies hidden in plain sight, in the heartland of America.
Yes! Each player takes on the role of both a KGB deep cover agent and an FBI agent. Agents generally work in pairs, so you’ll still be working together—as FBI partners, and married KGB spies. You’ll also be working against yourselves, replaying scenes as the “enemy” after you’ve played out the first side’s actions. Who are the “good guys”? That’s up to you.
While outsmarting yourself might be fun, the point of playing both spies and spycatchers is to see how these characters and partnerships develop over the course of their missions and operations. To examine the choices they make and the effect it has on their relationships: with their co-workers, sources, family, and one another. The alternating scenes can be played out with either pair of agents going first—choose by rolling a die, flipping a coin, or deciding what pair might be most interesting to kick things off. Though corresponding scenes might have some details determined due to what was roleplayed previously, feel free to “edit” the previous scenes to add something more interesting or more fun for the story.
If you have two or four players, this dual narrative works well—just assign a KGB and FBI agent to each player. But what do you do with an odd number of players? A possible dual role for a third player could be the faces from the current issue: the KGB handler and the FBI Counterintelligence supervisor. In that case, the Relationship Then and Relationship Now aspects for those characters would describe the relationship with each set of agents as a pair, not as individuals. Another option is to step out of the dual narrative to play a particularly important asset: a double agent trying to play both sides for their own benefit.
Players should select a high concept and a trouble. In choosing a high concept, consider the reason you decided to train as a KGB or FBI officer at the height of the Cold War. What made you choose a life with such sacrifice? Was it patriotism? A need for excitement? Poverty? Idealism?
Instead of the first aspect of the phase trio, players choose a code name aspect for their agent, such as Grandma, Harpy, Foxtail, or Intrepid. Code names are always in the spirit of the spy genre, and usually reflect how their coworkers and fellow agents see the character. It might be fun for players to suggest cool code names for one another’s agents!
Rather than completing the last two phases of character creation as usual, begin by creating a Relationship Then aspect that describes the relationship that your character had with their partner when they first met. Did they become fast friends, or start out on the wrong foot? Was there attraction? Or was the partnership strictly platonic?
Finally, use a Relationship Now aspect to illustrate how the relationship between the partners has changed over the months or years they’ve been working together. Has it improved or deteriorated? Has it developed into something different than it was before, or has the status quo been maintained? Is there anything that gets in the way of working together successfully?
The Illegals uses just a few modified skills from traditional Fate Core. These skills aren’t new, but have been renamed and contextualized to ensure that they fit the setting. The other skills (Athletics, Burglary, Contacts, Deceive, Drive, Empathy, Fight, Investigate, Notice, Physique, Provoke, Rapport, Resources, Shoot, Stealth, and Will) remain unchanged. The Illegals also adds Language, a skill from a previous spy-themed Quick Start.
Agents often learn how to handle basic electronic and mechanical repairs. They also learn the finer points of sabotage. Repair can be used to cut brakes, cut off communications, and otherwise cause problems for the other side as long as there’s machinery or technology involved.
All agents are briefed on their missions, but some do extra homework—or unauthorized digging—to make sure they’re well informed. Intel is what you know about operations—yours and everyone else’s. Whether you have high clearance or friends in high places, you get to read all the good stuff.
The Illegals uses the Language skill developed in Camp X in The Fate Codex, Volume 2, Issue 3. Agents use Language to blend in with the local populace, to read and listen to surveillance, to communicate with potential assets in immigrant communities, and to send and decipher codes.
Illegals: A transmission has come through with a new operation, the first in months. An American scientist with top secret nuclear plans for US missiles—in space!—has been instructed to drop film of the plans in a local park. It’s likely that the scientist, who is known to have been struggling with the morality of his work, is under surveillance by the FBI. The agents must get the plans and deliver the film to Grandma without being noticed.
FBI: The agents have recently been assigned to watch a nuclear scientist assigned to the Strategic Defense Initiative, one of the Pentagon’s top secret projects. Though the scientist has no record of communist sympathies, general surveillance has shown that his conscience has been bothering him, and he’s uncertain about continuing his work. If he makes some contact that implicates him in espionage, the agents must try to take him in for questioning.
Opening Aspects: Broad Daylight, Public Park, Innocent Bystanders
In evading or conducting surveillance, the characters might encounter a number of obstacles. In general, selecting roughly two challenges per character gives everyone a chance to show their skills. Here are a few challenges the agents may need to make to carry out their mission:
Stealth: The FBI needs to conduct surveillance of the target and the location without being spotted, while the Illegals need to go unnoticed and retrieve the film while potentially under surveillance. The urge to give in to paranoia will be difficult to fight, but these characters are professionals.Difficulty: Good (+3) to Great (+4)
Deceive: Illegals make extensive use of disguise to ensure that their American identities are never associated with their identities on missions. Deceive allows them to create disguises that are barely recognizable. Difficulty: Good (+3)
Notice: Agents, particularly those trained for surveillance, have remarkable observational skills. Notice is important for any spy, but the FBI and Illegals both need to look for anything in the park that might indicate the mission is blown. Difficulty: Good (+3)
Athletics: If the FBI spots the scientist and moves in, he might run. Giving chase will require some athletic ability. Difficulty: Fair (+2)
Shoot: When these situations go downhill, they often end in a shootout. The Illegals probably won’t open fire, but they may not have a problem with returning it, while the FBI have a badge and a gun they’re encouraged to use. Difficulty: Fair (+2) to Great (+4)
Illegals: Whether the film is successfully retrieved or not, the agents must infiltrate the scientist’s facility to obtain more information about the secret plans, as he’s now in FBI custody. The building is massive, protected with the latest security technology, and staffed with security 24/7. With the FBI on to them, there’s no time to groom an asset that works there, so they’ll have to break in.
Opening Aspects: High-Tech Security, Cover of Darkness, Endless Hallways
FBI: Whether he’s arrested at the park or brought in as a suspected leak, the agents question the scientist. He can’t be held long on suspicion alone, but he can be held long enough. Though the agents aren’t able to interrogate their suspects in the way KGB officers might, intimidation and threats can go a very long way. The sentence for treason is still death, and this scientist isn’t a trained spy, just a man with a crisis of conscience.
Opening Aspects: Tiny Interrogation Room, Middle of the Night, Video Camera
Illegals: Grandma contacts the agents to let them know that the FBI is transferring the scientist to a more secure facility that night. They must drop everything and race to intercept the prisoner transport so he can be exfiltrated to Russia, his knowledge used to further the Soviet cause. Their only opportunities to stop the transfer will be on the drive from FBI headquarters, or at the small nearby airport, where the scientist will be flown out by private plane.
FBI: After they question the scientist, Special Agent Campos comes to tell the agents that their scientist has attracted CIA interest, so they must give him up and transfer him to a more secure facility for further interrogation. Though the FBI technically have jurisdiction, the CIA have classified the entire investigation due to the security of the research. The agents will accompany the scientist by private plane to a CIA facility, then return home, minus one lead on the Illegals.
Depending on the outcome of the scenes, the scientist might be successfully transferred to the CIA facility, exfiltrated to Russia, somehow miraculously run free of both his keepers, or end up killed in the attempt to intercept him, in a CIA prison, or eliminated by the KGB. Whatever happens, he’s likely going to regret his decisions.
Nuclear Scientist now working in a facility contracted to the Pentagon. Assigned to the Strategic Defense Initiative. Very conflicted about the way his work contributes to the proliferation of nuclear arms. Was recruited by another set of agents at work in the area. Believes his actions will help maintain peace and protect his family.
Brilliant Nuclear Scientist, Nervous, Code Name: Beaker
Good (+3) Nuclear Science, Puzzles
Fair (+2) Facility Knowledge
Poor (-1) Keeping His Cool
Minimum wage night-time security guard at a scientific facility. More pay would result in more attention paid to the job. At the moment, does as little as possible. Not the person to play hero.
Clockwatcher, Shift-Work Tired
Good (+3) Facility Knowledge
Fair (+2) Security System, Video Surveillance
Poor (-1) Paying Attention to Detail
The players have completed this operation, for better or for worse, but the Cold War is ongoing, with attendant impending issues at work. Here’s a few plot hooks and mission seeds to continue the story of the Illegals and the FBI agents that hunt them:
Suspected KGB operatives have foiled FBI operations more than once, and Speical Agent Campos confides in the agents: he believes there’s a leak in the Counterintelligence division. Someone that they work with every day has turned, supplying the Russians with information that could cost them their lives. Who is it? Why would they do it? And what will the agents—and the Illegals that have turned them—do when they find out?
The Center sends new orders to the Illegals through Grandma: they are to recruit their child into the program. A second-generation Illegal, a native citizen of the United States, is far more valuable to the KGB than even the highly skilled first-generation agents. If they protest, the message is clear—it is not a negotiation, it is an order. As parents, how do they react? As agents? Is it an operation they can go through with? What happens if they go against orders? And what happens if they decide to tell their child the truth about who they are?
An acclaimed Russian ballet company is coming to the city for only two performances, and the intelligence community is rife with rumor of a possible defector in one of the featured dancers. Both the Illegals and the FBI are ordered to put the visiting company under surveillance, as close as possible. The ballet company will be under heavy KGB security, and aiding the rumored defector will be difficult. If the Americans can find a way to free the dancer, the Illegals will have to work fast to neutralize them—one way or another.
Here are two sets of characters created just for this Quick Start, built as partners. Ideally, two players should take the roles of both the Illegals and the FBI, one player choosing an agent from each side. However, if you have four players dying to fight out the Cold War on American soil, they can each choose an agent and start playing right away.
Catherine applied for the Illegals program because she was poor and she was idealistic. She truly believed that she might go out and change the world, and the money she could send home to her family was a blessing, even if she may never see them again. Once paired with Michael and sent to America, she was shocked and disgusted at what Americas took for granted. The excess and waste only confirmed her belief in the Soviet doctrine, and the work they’ve done has hardened her. She loves her new American family, and wouldn’t give them up for anything, but she is still Mother Russia’s.
High Concept: Mother’s Good Soldier
Trouble: I Am Above You
Code Name: Queen
Relationship Then: I Am His Shield
Relationship Now: My Greatest Weakness
Great (+4) Fight
Good (+3) Language, Rapport
Fair (+2) Deceive, Notice, Will
Average (+1) Burglary, Drive, Intel, Shoot
New BFF: You ingratiate yourself into people’s lives with remarkable ease. Add +2 when you use Rapport to handle assets one-on-one in a scene.
Ruthless Brutality: When you fight, you fight with brutal efficiency. Once per scene, add an additional free invoke to an aspect of your choice when you make a successful attack with Fight.
Lady of 1000 Looks: You are extremely skilled at disguise. Add +2 to overcome or create an advantage with Deceive when you’re in one of your disguises.
Physical: □□ Mental: □□□
Mild (2): Moderate (4): Major (6):
Michael applied for the Illegals program with a sense of adventure, and even he would say that he was naïve. He didn’t really consider what he’d be asked to do, or the toll it would take on his mind and soul. Michael didn’t miss his family in Russia, glad to give up the old for the new, but the missions have worn on him and left him in doubt about the morality of his job. He also enjoys the comforts of the West a little more than Catherine, and isn’t sorry for it. What father wouldn’t want his children to have heat and electricity and fresh food?
High Concept: Conflicted KGB Assassin
Trouble: I Am a Monster
Code Name: Badger
Relationship Then: She’s Untouchable
Relationship Now: She’s Too Good for Me
Great (+4) Deceive
Good (+3) Notice, Shoot
Fair (+2) Drive, Fight, Intel
Average (+1) Athletics, Investigate, Language, Stealth
Five-Dollar Disguise: You can create a convincing disguise out of found items, or a few things bought at a drugstore. Once per scene, add a +4 bonus to Deceive when using an improvised disguise.
I Have a Bad Feeling About This: Your instincts have become highly attuned to danger over the years. Add +2 to Notice when attempting to defend against surveillance or ambush.
Skilled Sniper: You’ve been trained as an assassin, and sniper attacks are one of your specialties. Gain an aspect instead of a boost when you succeed with style at any long-range Shoot attack.
Physical: □□□ Mental: □□
Mild (2): Moderate (4): Major (6):
Lawrence came from a law enforcement family: his mother was one of the first women on the force and that’s where she met his dad; his dad’s brothers were cops; their dad was a cop; and so on. His education and background attracted attention from the FBI around college graduation, and he was an easy sell. He’s been married to Micki since she was in medical school and they have a good relationship, but his inability to talk about his work makes him feel as if he’s living only half a life at home. He was partnered with Jamie about two years ago, and highly respects both her intellect and skill—though he didn’t always.
High Concept: My Blood Runs Blue
Trouble: I Can Save You
Code Name: Checkmate
Relationship Then: She Needs a Mentor
Relationship Now: She’s Smarter than Me
Great (+4) Physique
Good (+3) Investigate, Notice
Fair (+2) Deceive, Intel, Drive
Average (+1) Athletics, Contacts, Repair, Shoot
Eagle Eye: You have a keen eye that can pick out details others might miss. Any time you create an advantage with Investigate, create an additional situation aspect. If you succeed with style, add a free invoke to the additional aspect.
Bad Cop: You might work mostly by the book, but why should you let the perps know that? Use Deceive instead of Provoke whenever you’re intimidating a suspect or witness into giving you the information you want.
Inter-Agency Cooperation: You’ve spent enough time with the Bureau to make friends in other departments, even a few officers in the CIA. Get a +2 when using Contacts within the local law enforcement and intelligence community.
Physical: □□□□ Mental: □□
Mild (2): Moderate (4): Major (6):
Jamie had planned to be a social worker. That’s how she wanted to help people. It wasn’t until she went to a career fair with a friend in her final year of college that she even considered law enforcement, swayed by a convincing FBI recruiter. An idealist, she was excited by the thought of helping and protecting people—victims of crime—through work as an agent. Though her parents worry constantly about the danger she’s in, she’s fully committed to the job. Jamie dates, but finds it difficult to meet people on her erratic hours. Lawrence is her first partner, and she’s finally feeling like it might work out.
High Concept: Guardian of the People
Trouble: I Am the Law
Code Name: Fish
Relationship Then: Typical Condescending Old Cop
Relationship Now: His Experience Is My Benefit
Great (+4) Empathy
Good (+3) Intel, Rapport
Fair (+2) Deceive, Fight, Will
Average (+1) Drive, Physique, Provoke, Repair
Good Cop: You can develop an instant connection with anyone you’re questioning, due to both your training and sincerity. Gain a +2 to Rapport whenever you’re trying to get a witness or suspect to open up to you.
Old Wounds: Your knowledge of people is uncanny, as is your knowledge of their weaknesses and failings. Once per session, when you force an opponent to take a mental consequence due to a Provoke attack, you can spend a fate point to increase the consequence’s severity (so mild becomes moderate, moderate becomes severe).
I Sense Hostility: Use Empathy instead of Fight to defend against physical attacks, provided you’ve observed your attacker for at least a few minutes prior to the attack.
Physical: □□□ Mental: □□□
Mild (2): Moderate (4): Major (6):