The Alexandrian

A couple months ago I mentioned that I had created counter-intelligence guidelines for the Gather Information skill. Confanity had mentioned that he was intrigued by them, and I promised to get them posted sooner rather than later. For certain definitions of “sooner” and “later”, I suppose that this has now been accomplished.

Counter-Intelligence: A character can attempt to detect other characters gathering information about a particular subject in the area by making a Gather Information check. The DC of the counter-intelligence check is opposed by the original Gather Information check made in the attempt to gather the information.

Avoiding Suspicion: If a character is attempting to avoid suspicion, it becomes more difficult to detect them. Although the character suffers a -10 penalty on their Gather Information check for the purposes of collecting the information they seek, they gain a +10 bonus to their Gather Information check for the purposes of opposing the counter-intelligence check.

In addition, cautious characters can voluntarily increase the penalty on their original Gather Information check, granting an equal bonus for the purposes of opposing the counter-intelligence check. (For example a character could decide to be extra cautious and apply a -15 penalty to their Gather Information check. Their unmodified check result is 30, which is modified to 15 (30 – 15) for the purposes of determining what information they actually glean. But if another character attempts to detect their presence, they would have to make a DC 45 (30 + 15) counter-intelligence check to do so.)

Modifiers: Apply a -2 penalty to counter-intelligence checks for every week that has passed since the original Gather Information check.

James Bond - Counter-Intelligence


For PCs, these guidelines aren’t only useful to find out if someone is asking questions about them. In fact, they’re generally more useful for identifying competing interests. Who else in town is trying to find out information about the Vault of the Dwarven Kings? Or investigating the Baker’s Street Gang?

Resolving these types of checks requires the GM to know two things:

(1) Who else is looking for that information?

(2) What should the DC of the check be?

The answer to the former question, of course, is situational. For the latter you could either set simple, static DCs as you would for any other Gather Information check, or you could actually resolve the opposed check.


I generally find it useful to know what kind of information-gathering capacity factions have in my campaigns. For smaller factions (like an opposing group of adventurers or a small gang of bad guys), this is as simple as looking at the highest (or most appropriate) Gather Information skill modifier in the group.

For larger factions, I simply assign a Gather Information modifier to the group. (This number is essentially arbitrary, although I base it on the size, nature, and resources of the group in question.)

When trying to figure out how suspicious a particular group is (i.e., whether they’re performing counter-intelligence to make sure anyone is asking questions about them) or how pervasive their surveillance is (i.e., how often they’re making counter-intelligence checks), I’ve generally just relied on common sense to make a ruling whenever the question needs to be answered. But if you’re running a campaign where intelligence and counter-intelligence is likely to be fairly common (for example, a modern espionage campaign), then codifying those factors might be useful.

(For example, a Paranoid group might check 1/day; a Suspicious group every 1d6 days; a Cautious group once every 3d10 days; a Naive group might never check. In other words, if the PCs investigate a Suspicious group then there would be a counter-intelligence check made 1d6 days later.)

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4 Responses to “Skill Use: Counter-Intelligence”

  1. Justin Alexander says:


    I hope you’ll the counter-intelligence rules to the Creations page.
    Monday, June 28, 2010, 5:23:15 PM

    I’ll go with operator error on my part regarding the misplaced comments. Smile

    Yes, I’d say that definitely speaks to your available free time– Halls was off to the editor sometime last May-June, and the 4E conversion was started. I think the OGL final was delivered to patrons just before Gencon of last year.

    It’s unfortunate your experience with Open Design was so unpleasant. He’s usually very good at making corrections–especially with correcting Patron names, though he says he draws them from the Paypal listings. (someone recently commented on the same thing during the last errata period for _Shore to Sea/Sunken Empires_) Things have changed a bit in the last year; projects are now publicly available upon completion and the most current project is using the KQ forums rather than Livejournal. (Although I’d have to say that I find the website implementation a matter of taste. I thought the LJ option worked fairly well for keeping discussion focused and making it easy to stay abreast of updates.)

    As far as the background goes, I’ll have to say that unfortunately, the inflection was lost in the text. I saw it more as:

    Dwarf1: Whew. Well, we seem to have locked down that incurable disease. Too bad a bunch of people got away. Think it’ll happen again?

    Dwarf2: I’m not sure. It might. Hopefully all those crazies kill each other off.

    God: Here, take this artifact to cure things!

    Dwarf1: Will it take care of all of the incurable disease everywhere?

    God: No, only what is in the mountain.

    Dwarf2: What if it happens again?

    God: You get one shot to cure things, don’t fsck it up.

    Dwarf1: We better save this.

    Dwarf2: Yeah, who knows what’s out there.


    Mind you, I’d say not allowing the artifact to be used multiple times or not remove all effects of the disease everywhere is still a decent-sized hole, but it’s different than what you’re pointing at. The oil analogy doesn’t work as well, really, because an oil spill doesn’t cause more oil spills, where as the curse had the possibility of recreating the plague beyond the mountain. I think the most effective part of your solution is removing the god-gifting element from the artifact and making it the handiwork of the Secret Masters. Then it becomes a fallible item with limited scope that required time to mature–perhaps to better teach the dwarves a lesson about greed. Keeping the deity aspect leaves my hole, but I didn’t realize the key aspect of yours until right now.

    Again, it’s unfortunate you don’t participate in Open Design any longer. I often drop in and find your insights on (dis)associated mechanics and game design quite valuable.

    Thursday, June 03, 2010, 12:38:21 PM

    I’m not sure what happened to the other note I’d left you here– but I never saw a reply. Were you a patron? If you were, why didn’t you bring up what you thought was the plot hole during design?

    Also, it’s a bit disingenuous as you put it here. That artifact doesn’t exist as the story starts, but becomes available after all of the background you mention occurs, leaving the elders with the option of cleansing the insane dwarves they’ve locked away, or keeping it for another time– since the plague might have escaped with the exodus. They choose to save it for another time.

    Wednesday, June 02, 2010, 7:00:10 PM

    Justin Alexander
    Hmm. Looks like the commenting system is borked. Not sure what’s causing the problem, but your previous comments have become attached to the post for 05/19/2010 instead of the post for 05/17/2010. (And this comment is actually attached to 05/14/2010, which is also not the Halls of the Mountain King post.)

    Anyway: I was a patron, but one of the reasons I stopped supporting Open Design was because I rarely if ever had time to participate in the process. (The first time I ever read any of the Mountain King material was a couple days before posting my blog comment, if that gives you any indication of my ability to commit time to that sort of thing.) I also found Open Design’s principle of locking creative content away instead of making it openly available to be antithetical to my personal ethics. Baur also managed to NEVER get my name right on the patron credit page. Also the Open Design website is one of the worst examples of why installing some blog software is not the same thing as making a functional website.

    Anyway… where was I? Oh, right. Halls of the Mountain King. I’m afraid the only bit I included that actually pre-dates Gravaja delivering the relic is locking everyone into the lower levels of the citadel. But since they were still locked down there when the relic was delivered (and would continue to be so since they didn’t use the stupid thing), I don’t feel anything particularly deceptive was being laid bare in my obviously tongue-in-cheek summary of this ridiculous premise. But if you prefer a slightly different tongue-in-cheek evisceration:

    God: “I give you this relic so that you can fix this stupid problem.”
    Dwarves: “I think we’ll just tuck this puppy away in case the exact same problem happens again.”
    God: “But it’s happening right now. You haven’t actually solved the problem yet. That’s why I’m giving you the relic.”
    Dwarves: “TUCKING IT AWAY NOW.”

    That doesn’t make much sense, does it?

    God: “I give you this relic that will allow you to seal the oil well.”
    BP Executives: “I think we’ll just tuck this puppy away in case we have another catastrophic oil leak.”
    God: “But it’s happening right now. You haven’t actually stopped the current leak yet. That’s why I’m giving you the relic.”
    BP Executives: “TUCKING IT AWAY NOW.”

    I’m sorry, but that’s pure nonsense.

    I mean, it’s not an unsurmountable flaw that destroys the entire module. But that little chunk of background just flat-out doesn’t stand up to even the lightest scrutiny.
    Thursday, June 03, 2010, 5:11:14 AM

  2. Charlie says:

    This rule can be very useful in urban campaigns, the only problem I have is that I don’t play d20 and I’m almost a newbie to it as I usually play HARP for fantasy settings. So I’d very much appreciate if you explained what does a -10 penalty means or DC 45, does it make it a lot more difficult or just a little?

    Also, as a small critique to the site(which I find incredibly helpful and I’m grateful that it exists), these kind of rules should be on the index section on the side, where the Gamemastery 101 and such are. I stumbled upon this rule reading another one of your articles, so it might be better to make an Index for them too. Otherwise whoever failed to read that article might never find out about this one. Just a thought, nothing more, otherwise this site is excellent!

  3. Leland J. Tankersley says:

    Welcome, Charlie. I’ll anticipate Justin by saying that he is slowly working on improving the site indexing; I had a similar complaint some time ago.

    As far as the d20 system goes, the core mechanic is roll a d20, add bonuses, and compare to the task difficulty (DC = Difficulty Class). A DC 45 task is almost inconceivably difficult (for mere mortals, anyway). Typically, the bonuses a character will have on a check (one for which they are suited/trained, that is) tend to be roughly equal to their character level plus 5-10 or so. So a 10th level character might be expected to have a +15 to +20 bonus in their core skills (it’s possible to really concentrate and pump one or two skills way up, though, which is why DC 45 isn’t completely impossible to achieve). But you can see that a DC 45 is completely impossible for anyone that doesn’t have at least a +25 bonus, and for a character to have even a 50-50 chance of success they need a +35 bonus.

  4. Charlie says:

    Hi, Leland! It isn’t a complaint as much a “suggestion box” kind of thing. :)

    As for the d20, that’s a lot clearer, thank you very much!!

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