1879: Preview: The Great Game

Here’s the draft Introduction for the 1879 Great Game sourcebook, currently in development. No guarantees as to what the final product will look like.

In the modern era, the mid to late 1900s conflict between the United States and Soviet Russia, played out mostly through espionage and proxy fights between smaller nations given the empires’ backing, became known as the Cold War. This name acknowledged that there were casualties, that this was in fact a war between imperial powers. The threat of actual war, with what was at the time considered a high probability of nuclear escalation and mutual destruction, simmered in the background for generations. Many in government saw the cold War, with its limited and often covert engagements, as a way of bleeding off the pressure between the two empires with minimal fallout, or blowback, or whatever other word they used to avoid discussing the body count and the damage done in an area of the world that already hated the great Western powers with a passion born of generations of their people being slaughtered for someone else’s fight.

Imperial Britain’s conflict with Imperial Russia had a gentler name bestowed by the British, the Great Game. Anything that happened below the fifty thousand foot level simply wasn’t visible to the men, and they were almost entirely old men, giving the orders. Individuals were regarded as players, or as pieces, with the latter being given no more value than the chessmen in the current match. Being taken off the board, became a euphemism for being killed in action, or assassinated to remove a block.

This book is about the pawns.

We will delve into the sordid details of the Great Game, the field operations, the backroom deals, the bribery and blackmail and extortion often necessary to collect information on the enemy. We will show you what happened to the boots on the ground, who more often than not were civilians pulled into the conflict against their will, secretaries to important men with access to secrets, industry workers given orders to commit sabotage against their employers, people whose positions gave them the tiny bit of leverage that their control agents could exert. The field agents and their own controls in the stations will be profiled, and we will talk about the risks they took for their nation, compromising their ethics and honour, and more often than not chancing their lives, as the network could be rolled up at any time and all the operatives killed on the spot if they were lucky, taken off for interrogation if not. Spies are traditionally executed by hanging, and the Geneva Accords, still in their early days, did not apply.

This is a murderous, tedious business, a bureaucracy of blood, weeks of maneuvering to open a connection through discovering the right secret to hold over them, or just routinely delivering a cash pay packet surreptitiously and watching the contact to make sure they didn’t start spending it noticeably. There often came a point where the risk of maintaining a contact became greater than the value of the information they provided, and then another body mysteriously turned up in the canal, or drifted out to sea never to be seen again.

If you haven’t read Peter Hopkins’ one-volume summary, The Great Game, or anything by John le Carré, we strongly suggest you do so. Rudyard Kipling’s Kim would be a good choice as well, as it demonstrates the mish-mosh of ethical positions held at the time, those who sold out their own people for cash, those who genuinely believed in their nation’s rival’s cause, and those who did the dirty work of collecting and moving information, and taking actions sent down from the station or higher up the chain of command, often to a purpose the agent themselves could not see. This book will describe 19th Century espionage not quite as it really was, as we shall include steampunk technology and magic, and work in a somewhat different world with an altered timeline from our own, but the dust and sweat and blood will all be very much real, much of it pulled from actual accounts of the time.

Forthwith, the world of the 19th Century spy.

Tally Ho!