This thread is inspired by a question Mutedfaithe asked in the Q&A thread, namely, which Intelligence Agency is the 'best' in Eberron, and since that is a rather variable term, Mutedfaithe went on to ask more specifically which intelligence group is better at what. So I'd like to ask the rest of you, what are your thoughts on the various intelligence organizations of Eberron? Who has the best assassins, the best intelligence gathering ability, the most capable field agents? Which group is employing an army of Jason Bournes, and which is using James Bond? And if agents from these various organizations meet in a dark alley, assuming equal level (so to speak), who do you think is going to walk out of that alley alive?
Groups like the Lords of Dust and the Dreaming Dark are not really counted in this, because I believe the question was more directed at a national level. While organizations like the DD and LoD are undoubtedly extremely good with intelligence work, this is more about organizations the PCs can work with. Or I think that was the original intent of Mutedfaithe's post, sorry if I misinterpreted Muted.
So, for my money, I peg the Trust as the most subtle out of them, they don't want people to know that they were involved with a situation. They use a very light touch in dealing with problems, because they don't want to be pulled into direct confrontation with others. They'd much prefer to empower others to do their work for them, and if they have to get their hands dirty, do it as impersonally as possible, using poisonings and 'accidents' to deal with antagonistic parties. In this way, I liken the Trust to the CIA in the Cold War. The don't directly confront problems, rather, they seek to destabilize enemy power groups and empower others to fight their battles for them. Also, they're keeping tabs on everyone, and probably killed the leaders of their own government. Just sayin. (Just kidding, please don't eliminate me, Hypothetically Impulsive CIA Eliminator Guy.)
The Brelish Dark Lanterns, comparatively, are more like the KGB. Extremely violent, dangerous people who just kill the crap out of people causing problems. I tend to think of the Dark Lanterns as the Jason Bournes of the Five Nations, being some of the most dangerous individual agents, and much more direct than the Trust when dealing with problems. Dark Lanterns aren't quite so interested in subtlety, so much as making sure the mission is a success. To this end they aren't manipulators, by and large, but they are very effective at countering the activities of other intelligence groups, which is part of the reason Breland holds such an edge in intelligence affairs: their agents excel at finding and killing other spies and saboteurs, leading to them having the advantage through denial of information to other parties. In my Eberron, this has led to them lacking an extensive network in outside Breland, relying on the Trust and House Phiarlan to supplement their external intelligence gathering efforts.
If the Dark Lanterns are the Jason Bournes of Eberron, then I like to think of the Royal Eyes as the James Bonds. Relying much more on social grace and manipulations, taking a page of the Trust's book, Royal Eyes agents are not quite so individually capable as Dark Lanterns, but they have a knack for convincing others to reveal more than they intend. In my Eberron, the Royal Eyes are often Bards and Rogues with high charisma, and given that its Aundair, they make more use of magical surveillance and gadgets than any other intelligence agency. Their weakness comes more from their inability to specifically act on the information they acquire, being more at home in social galas than chasing down informants through the slums and stabbing people to death. Their information gathering also tends towards understanding what other governments are up to, rather than what the more subtle power groups of the continent are planning.
Since I play Mass Effect a lot, I really like to compare the Phiarlan (and to a lesser extent, the Thuranni) to the Shadow Broker. An intelligence organization independent of of organized governments, that acts as a neutral party for acquiring information, which ultimately doesn't help any organization but itself. To elaborate, in Mass Effect, there is an individual named the Shadow Broker who runs a very effective intelligence outfit that sells information to individuals and governments. However, the Shadow Broker never gives enough information to one government that they'd have a true advantage over the other governments of the galaxy, instead forcing all of them to use the Shadow Broker's information to 'break even', so to speak. Which is how I like to run Phiarlan, they are the best intelligence gathering organization on Khorvaire, but they don't use it to topple nations, they use it to convince those nations to employ their services so they won't fall behind. So, the individual agents of Phiarlan do not really have combat expertise on the level of the Dark Lanterns or Emerald Claw, but they'll find out what you know and then sell it back to you. The Thuranni are a bit different, because while they do have their own intelligence network and act like a 'Shadow Broker' themselves, they are more often employed to counter the activities of Phiarlan agents. Thuranni find out what the Phiarlan know, and if possible eliminate whoever has that information for you. Given their bent toward assassinations, I typically have the Thuranni being more dangerous as individuals, but a bit poor at gathering information without others knowing that their information has been compromised. When the Phiarlan steal a secret, its likely you'll never know until they sell it to your enemies.
For those that don't know about them, the Shaarat'Khesh (Goblin, means Silent Blades, or Knives depending on where you're reading about it) are a Dhakaani clan of Goblin assassins and spies, that are employed by other Dhakaani clans as mercenaries, largely filling the intelligence gathering role among the Goblinoids. They are completely impartial, even fighting each other if they've been hired on different sides of a conflict, and in my Eberron they are the deadliest assassins in Khorvaire. When it comes to intelligence gathering, however, they aren't really up to the same standard as the Trust and Dark Lanterns when acting in the Five Nations. While they are probably the absolute best at stealthy infiltration, they lack an understanding of where to actually look for information. Also, in direct combat, I generally have the Shaarat'Khesh come up lacking. Their immediate instinct is to find cover and take to the shadows, striking when their opponent is unaware. So while they may not be able to kill a Dark Lantern in a sword fight, it only takes them a blink of an eye to disappear, and if you are unaware of a Shaarat'Khesh with his blade drawn, then you are seconds away from death.
There are other organizations to discuss, like the Emerald Claw and Daask, but I haven't really got any thoughts on those yet. Still, if anyone has suggestions about those groups or something like the Valenar's intelligence efforts then that'd be super cool. Also, all of that obviously comes with the caveat that its just how I like to run with them, and even if I'd suggest that the Trust avoids direct conflict, that doesn't mean I think they're all pathetic in a fight. Just usually better off staying out of it.
Otherwise, how do you portray the various intelligence agencies in your games?
Oh yeah, my money's on the Dark Lantern to win the alley fight. Or the Shaarat'Khesh, like a tiny Bruce Lee that throws knives. Either one really.
I think you summed up the situation quite nicely Areleth. Also full props for utilising the Shaarat'Khesh. But don't forget the taarka'khesh while you're at it. The shaarat (Dhakaani for Blade btw) are the knives of the Dhakaani, the taarka are the eyes and ears. They're impartial scouts and observers. They are more adept at unseen reconnaissance than active infiltration and impersonation like the Shaarat'Khesh. They are however very adept at collating data through their own network of spies. You know that golbin beggar on the side of every street, wooden cup help up in supplication for a spare copper or two, yeah he's exactly not what he appears to be. Don't expect the taarka'khesh to slip a knife in between your ribs, but when your enemies seem to know your movements almost as quickly as you take them, that's when you know that you're being followed by the silent wolves.
What was not touched on was the intelligence networks of Karrnath. I use the plural because they are exactly that, an overlapping series of small spy circles, each controlled by one of the warlords of Karrnath. They have their own specific (and often conflicting) goals, each trained by the individual spymasters of each warlord and each dancing to their own tune. Unlike the (hopefully) unified forces of the Dark Lanterns or Eyes of Aundair, each circle is as well trained, equipped and prepared as that warlord cares to make them. So some of them (I'm looking at you King Kaius) are quite well organised, capable and mobile. Others are merely a circle of snitches within the private lands of that Warlord, informants whom keep him appraised of the goings and doings of the local populace.
This might seem like an inconvenience, but it is in fact an asset in some regards. These small cirlces have no particualr modus operandi, they march to the beat of their own drum and needs. Rooting out one spy won't mean that you'll have information on the six others still operating within the castle. It also means designing any counter-intelligence initatives as difficult and painful. Think of the intelligence networks of Karrnath as more like small splinter-cells, each operating under their own auspices and radically different from one-another. Cataloguing and tracking them is hard, predicting their movements are worst and negating all of them next to impossible. They are fractured and as such communications sharing and efficiency are not their strong suite, but it also makes keeping your fingers on them rather annoying.
Speaking of Splitner Cells let's jump to another Karrnathi group, now persona-non-grata, everyone's favourite Emerald Claw. If you're looking for a much more dangerous and motivated spy agency, fresh out of Karrnath, the Last War and now itching to have a little fun, look no further. The Emerald Claw were famed for their unconventional (by Karrnathi standards) tactics, strategy and operating procedures. They were everything the Rekkenmark dogmatic Karrnathi were not, subtle, sneaky, willing to utilise information and guerillatactic rather than sheer weight of numbers and military might. They were the precise knife in the dark, the shadowy weave of magic and deadly force. The Emerald Claw are fanatics of the highest order, well trained, well equipped (at least before Kaius tried to snuff them out) and well placed. They operated on a level that put them on par with Brelish or Aundarian operatives. The Emerald Claw were the spies for Karrnath during the last war, the assassins willing to do things and go places (figurative and literal) that Karrnath would not, could not, ethically or honourably.
And now they've been cut loose. Free Agents to cause as much or as little mischief as possible. Armed to the teeth with all sorts of juicy info on the other nations and no silly Thronehold Accords to keep them in check. Third Echelon would shudder at the knowledge of these guys.
Lastly I'll touch on House Medani, whom as always linger in the shadows, not so much forgotten as wearing a Tardis Key about their necks. They are not (typically) assassins or direct action operatives, with even less of a touch on events that the Trust (and that's saying something). They are however the ultimate counter-agents, the best inquisitives that money can (and often does) buy. They see things, see things that others do not. Patterns in events that would seem nonsensical to even a Malkavian. They collect and collate data, watch and warn others, protect those whom cannot see the danger coming. Very much the silent partner of all intelligence gathering, they instead remain apart from it, warning others and protecting their primary (person whom has hired them to keep their body, mind and soul intact). Medani watch and gather.
If Baron Trelib has any overarching goals for his information gathering, Sovereigns only know and the Shadow certainly isn't divulging.
Hmm I'll muse on this and post some more up later.
While comparisons between Phiarlan and the Shadow Brooker make sense to me in regards to what they do with the information, in my mind the working methods and ultimate goals differ a lot. Phiarlann is a family operation whose members have a talent with shadows and an ingrained sense of history and lore. They decend from the Aeranal clans/families whose purpose was preserving the stories of the ancestors. I distinctly remember reading that they still place great value on performing those ancient elf ritual performances and that being named a keeper of one is one of the greatest honors within the house. Keith also hinted that they don't keep the balance to make more money. They do so because they see it as their duty to preserve that balance, or maybe they even still operate for Aeranal's prophecy. They sell information with an overarching goal that goes beyond mere profit. In this regards, the likely operate much more like other organized based on (religious) ideals. It is just that those ideals are lot less violent and brutal and a lot more subtle than say the Templars of the Silver Flame or the agents of the Emerald Claw. It is also possible that the whole split of the house was actually planned and that the hostilities between the two is just an act.
As for individual agents, I see them as excellent thieves, cat burglars, saborteurs and performers, likely some of the best of Khorvaire. The active branch is goal orientated: steal x, spy on that meeting between Y and Z, break the axis of that wagon so that the cargo does not arrive on time and so on. They are not good at long term infiltration, sleeping agents, spreading misinformation and the like. Of course, most of the House belongs to the reactive branch. They are the performers who send whatever they accidentally overhear/see while working on stage to the leaders of the house and which intel is used by the active branche.
Given their bent toward assassinations, I typically have the Thuranni being more dangerous as individuals, but a bit poor at gathering information without others knowing that their information has been compromised. When the Phiarlan steal a secret, its likely you'll never know until they sell it to your enemies.
A point I'll make here is that until 30 years ago, the families of the Thuranni house WERE the assassins of House Phiarlan - while meanwhile the remaining Phiarlan houses include the core of the intelligence gathering apparatus, such as network of Serpentine Mirrors; Phiarlan is also the larger house in terms of numbers. So yes, I certainly feel that Thuranni is better at assassination, but Phiarlan is better with intelligence.
They decend from the Aeranal clans/families whose purpose was preserving the stories of the ancestors. I distinctly remember reading that they still place great value on performing those ancient elf ritual performances and that being named a keeper of one is one of the greatest honors within the house.
This is from the dragonshards and I believe repeated in Dragonmarked. Essentially, the Phiarlans began as bards in the full sense of the word - both providing entertainment but also preserving history and sharing news. That role of providing information grew broader and deeper, and was transformed somewhat when they manifested the Mark of Shadows. But the Mark only goes back a few thousand years; their role as bards goes back to Xen'drik. As Madfox says, it's also the case that they recognized that information could be used to affect the world, and they've continued to do that. But the key point is that for Phiarlan (and Thuranni, who after all WERE Phiarlan until 30 years ago), entertainment isn't simply a cover; it is as much a part of house and history as spying, and it's the face the common people of the world are familiar with.
Thanks for posting this, Areleth. I was going to get around to it, but you did a better job anyway.
When I imagine the different intelligence agencies, I try to remember that a little over a hundred years ago, they were all one. There were no Eyes of Aundair, there was only the King's Dark Lanterns. They were all Citadel trained and worked together. When the Last War broke out, the Lanterns splintered, went to their respective nations, and started their individual branches. With that in mind, I try to think of how each nation would deal with this fracturing and adapt their tactics.
The Brelish Dark Lanterns lost a lot of their arcane and divine spellcasters. Between that and the cosmopolitan feel of Breland, I see them doing a lot recruiting and having the most agents. They also have the original Citadel facilities already up and running to train new recruits, where the other nations had to start from scratch. You're more likely to run into a small squad of them where the other nations run individuals. I also see them as being ready to stab first and ask questions later since giving the Eye of Aundair time to cast is never a good idea.
The Eyes of Aundair have a lot of magic to bring to bear, but wizards take time to train, then you have to give them intelligence training, so I see a small but elite force. All that schooling also leads to a more refined, James Bond style spy, who is more comfortable moving around the upper crust then rubbing elbows with the common folk.
And Thrane? As the Hellcow has said, they have a religious branch and a national branch, so I see a lot of in-fighting over jurisdiction, like the CIA and NSA. I also see them as the ones least likely to commit assassinations or any truly overt actions, mainly manuevering the situation to let local law enforcement handle it. Unless its a supernatural evil or corrupt law enforcement, then they step in.
Karrnath has the worst of the bunch, in my opinion. When Kaius declared the Emerald Claw traitors, he lost a large portion of his intelligence capabilities. With Karrnath's strong military tradition, though, I see them as having more agent's placed in high positions in the other nation's armed forces then normal.
I'll post more on my ideas for Daassk, the Trust, and Phiarlan later.
I think we've got the national stuff mostly covered (could look at Droam and their intelligence/thug arm Daask but I'll save that for another day). Probably something fun to tackle are the Intelligence groups that don't hold any particular national allegiance. The Dragonmarked Houses have gotten some love, but personally I just love the Cabinet of Faces. There is something about an international conspiracy of Doppelgangers whom believe they are acting out the will of the Traveller that tickles me pink. And they wield their power through gathering information on and by extension influencing government policy. Again like the Emerald Claw they have a cell-like structure, with each agent generally only aware of their immediate superior (or Visage). Generally the Cabinet isn't interesting in much-racking or getting their hands bloody. Much easier to find something scandalous on their target and pressure them into compliance rather than relying on crude violence. And if worse comes to worse there is nothing like good old poison, blending into the common staff of any facility and laying the trap well in advance. The Cabinet are not the arcane might of the Eyes of Aundair, the well trained an equipped Dark Lanterns. But they are the best deep-cover spies you will never come across, so sublte is their passage.
And Thrane? As the Hellcow has said, they have a religious branch and a national branch, so I see a lot of in-fighting over jurisdiction, like the CIA and NSA.
Just as a side note, this is an issue that can apply to any country. Remember that the faith of the Silver Flame is present in all nations. While the Church may now have jurisdiction over Thrane, that doesn't mean that your adherence to the faith requires you to be loyal to Thrane; it simply requires you to protect the innocent from supernatural threats when they present themselves. Hence Brelish and Thrane followers of the Flame could fight each other on the battlefield, but would in theory stop and join forces if a threat from Shavarath spilled through onto the field.
With that in mind, it should be noted that many members of the secular organizations ARE followers of the Flame. The difference between a templar and a Flame-loyal Knight of Thrane is that the templar receives more focused training in supernatural dangers and is more likely to be deployed to areas consider high supernatural risks - but the knight is still expected to support the templar in fighting the demon if it appears.
So I certainly see the secular orders feeling that the church orders are overreaching when they interfere in secular affairs - especially if you have an elf or dwarf old enough to remember the time before the church came to power - but nonetheless, most Thranes respect the purpose of the church when that purpose presents itself. Again, without Tira's sacrifice, Thrane (and Galifar) wouldn't exist today.
(Of course, note that this is what a follower of the Flame is SUPPOSED to do - it doesn't mean they'll all live up to it when a demon actually appears. Likewise, people aren't expected to throw their lives away foolishly; if a demon appears next to one city guard, the best way he can help people is to run and alert the tempplars, not throw his life away attacking it.)
I think Cyre brings some interesting things to the table. Prior to the Mourning Cyre had to have had intelligence networks in place all across Khorvaire with assets, field agents, safe houses, and the like. After the Mourning, all those things were still there, just now they had no oversight, no control, and no orders. Just a bunch of Cyre operatives out in the cold. I'm trying how best to use these guys:
The Cyre intelligence network joined a third party. How much would the Dreaming Dark love to acquire an already in place spy network? No mind seeding, no having to build up in places they previously hadn't been in before, everything is already there. The Lords of Dust or The Daughters of Sora Kell would also appreciate them. Heck, the Darguul would love operatives who weren't goblins. But after being at war for a hundred years, I can't see them joining the Dark Lanterns or any of the other original five nations, which makes the Dreaming Dark even better. "Look at how peaceful Sarlona is, you can help us make Khorvaire just as peaceful." A bunch of displaced veterans trying to make the world a better place and instead making it darker.
The Cyre intelligence network goes out on its own. They could use their skills to try and find out the the cause of the Mourning, get revenge for Cyre, or just try to become rich. And they have no constraints anymore. Where a Dark Lantern has to act in the best interests of Breland and not drag them into a war, a Cyran operative has no such perogative. They are working only for their own self-interest. Getting two nations to go to war might even be there main goal, or be seen as a beneficial side effect. They could even do it for the lulz, depending on how bitter and angry they are.
Ideas on what a Cyre black ops agency would be called? I'm horrible with names.
Prior to the Mourning Cyre had to have had intelligence networks in place all across Khorvaire with assets, field agents, safe houses, and the like.
Why? The King's Citadel was royal intelligence, and had those assets, field agents, safe houses and the like spread across the kingdom - do you see a particular reason for Cyre to have an entirely separate network? As Areleth nothed, the King's Citadel broke into national organizations, and Cyre inherited its agency from those - but do you see a reason for a Cyran order that is entirely disconnected from the Citadel, which is after all the King's Citadel?