Monday, September 29, 2014

Top Secrets

Lately, I’ve been in a mood for espionage.  I’ve had a low-grade thing going thanks to Ken Hite’s “Night’s Black Agents,” one of those amazing games I’m probably never going to get to run.  Then, someone on RPGnet put up an amazing breakdown of all the conspiracies in the module that came with the game, which hit my nostalgia buttons hard.  After that, I read Greg Rucka’s new novel Bravo, which really got my fires going and led to me watching “The Sandbaggers,” which is probably the best espionage show ever produced.  And thanks to the glorious 70s goodness of that show, the next thing I knew, I had my old copy of “Top Secret” out of storage.

OK, truth be told, it’s an old copy, and it’s mine, but I actually bought it pretty recently, having lost/sold/misplaced my copy of the hard to find second printing (more on that later) some years ago.  I found this one at North Texas RPG Con, sans box, for six bucks.  I may have done a little dance. Reading through it was a fantastic flashback: TS was one of the first games I bought and really went nuts with.  I went to high school during the Cold War, and TS had a sense of realism that D&D couldn’t match.  Though, in retrospect, much of what we did was either commando raids, or PVP games in the blood-soaked streets of Sprechenhaltestelle. 

For the uninitiated, “Top Secret” was published by TSR in 1980.  The system is, honestly, a mish-mash, incorporating percentile ability scores, derived characteristics, and a rudimentary skills system (Areas of Knowledge), stapled to a class and level system (where Class doesn’t really do anything except determine your experience table and a few mission bonuses) that uses a firearms combat system derived from “Boot Hill” and a hand-to-hand system that combines diceless maneuver resolution with random damage.

It’s a mess.  A grand, glorious mess.  It’s a blast to play, even if lots of things don’t make sense.  The expansions (mostly in Dragon Magazine, later collected in the “Top Secret Companion”) added multiple layers of additional detail along with some good bits, like a system for using and improving Areas of Knowledge.  A second edition came out in 1981, which included two new forms of hand-to-hand combat (sword and knife fighting) but was otherwise identical.  Unfortunately, both editions used the same box and trade dress, so the only way to tell them apart is to look.  Which is why finding an unboxed one was such a great moment.

But, like I said, it’s a mess.  And while I love the Old School style of play, I’m less enamored of rules systems that are all over the map.  I suspect running it would quickly drive me nuts.  And so, I found myself retrieving my “Top Secret S/I” stuff from storage as well.

“Top Secret S/I” (I think the S/I stands for “Special Intelligence”) came out in 1987.  It was a complete re-design of the game sharing little more than the title and the overall theme.  It retained percentile attributes, but added a point-buy skill system (modified by career, which forced you to channel your skill purchases into specific areas).  Clearly a product of later generation game design, TSSI was also clearly intended to work as a generic modern action game, as the “Agent 13” pulp sourcebook and the “FREELancers” low-level supers/cyberpunk supplements showed.  But it was, in its own way, still a very clunky system. The costs of skills, for example, operated in tiers, with a cost to buy the skill initially, a cost per level for the first few levels, and higher costs for higher levels. Realistic? Maybe, but it was also extremely tedious.

The skill resolution system also left a lot to be desired.  Depending on difficulty, a skill might be reduced by ½, or simply suffer a -5, -10, or -20 modifier without a lot of rhyme or reason.  Given other contemporaneous systems (GURPS and Danger International) which both handled the genre more cleanly and easily (and for GURPS, that’s saying something) there just wasn’t a lot in the rules that demanded to be played.

Some of it was that the game just didn’t feel the same.  “Top Secret” agents felt grotty and vulnerable, like characters out of Cold War fiction.  TSSI characters felt like they belonged in a superspy show, like “The Man From UNCLE.”  In fact, the ORION vs WEB conflict set up in the boxed set and carried out through multiple adventures and supplements feels very much like an 80s updated UNCLE story.  In short, it wasn’t the same gritty game as the previous version.  For some this was undoubtedly a feature, but for me it was a bug that kept me from ever running it seriously.

It’s worth noting that TSSI had a ton of supporting materials, and despite my misgivings, I actually own all of them.  Some of them are pretty good.  “Commando” gives the game the full-on paramilitary treatment and introduces a brilliant mechanic (“Friction”) that represents the inevitability of a mission going bad.  “Brushfire Wars” is a book of adventures specifically for “Commando.”  The “Covert Operations Sourcebooks v1 and 2” by John Prados provide a tremendous amount of history and context for real world espionage but no game materials.  And lots of folks swear by the “Agent 13” sourcebook, though it doesn’t really do it for me, probably because “Justice, Inc.” is my pulp game of choice.

In the end, I don’t see myself running either game in the future.  But it’s made for some lovely reminiscence.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Hey, I Made a FATE Guy!

(Technically, I made an FAE character over the weekend, but this is my first FATE Core character)

After a couple of weeks of world-building and a somewhat contentious character-creation session (we had some confusion about the follow-up phases and who gets what Aspect when), we're just about ready to go.  We're using FATE Core with a few skills renamed (Data for Lore, for instance).  Anyway, here's my dude.

Name: Newton Bohm

Description:  Multiethnic male.  Height 164 cm, Weight 75 kg.  Eyes brown, hair black.  Normally shows a rather distracted expression unless focused on a problem, at which point he becomes focused to the point of monomania.

High Concept:  Unlicensed Cog
Trouble:  Ur-Obsessed.

Other Aspects:
I owe Harlan big time.
I have seen The Universe.
I can think my way out of anything.

Data (Great +4)
Notice, Computer (Good +3)
Empathy, Will, Pilot (Fair +2)
Shoot, Stealth, Burglary, Investigate (Good +1)

I’ve read about that! (Spend 1 Fate point to use Data in place of any other skill for one roll or exchange)
Danger Sense
Indomitable (+2 to defend from Provoke attempts related to intimidation or fear)

Refresh: 3

Physical Stress: 2 Boxes
Mental Stress: 3 Boxes


“Brain Man”
There’s a reason Cogs are banned from Boa Sorte.  Even Cogs with no Guild standing.  It’s not like I was counting cards, mind you, I was counting EVERYTHING.  Long story short, some very unpleasant people took a distinct dislike to my activities.  If Harlan hadn’t “taken a shine” to me, I’d probably be in orbit without the benefit of an environment suit.

“Harlan’s Head-Huntin’ Expedition”
My fortunes tied to Harlan, I accompanied him and Professor Bobo, a most curious fellow on a search for the head of a massive Ur statue. According to the good Professor, whilst attempting to translate an Ur inscription, I was subjected to a large-scale memetic infection which attempted to overwrite my central nervous system.  I prefer to believe I achieved a small measure of enlightenment regarding Ur mind-sciences.  It was the closest thing I’ve experienced to the Cognetic Mindweb since my dismissal from the Guild. I have seen the underlying fabric of the Universe and I will see it again.

“The Azure Expedition”
When Professor Bobo informed me that there were probably Ur artifacts on Azure, I fairly leaped at the opportunity to accompany him and his bodyguard, a small rabbit-like (and extremely violent) alien named Jack.  As matters turned out, my brilliant intellect and Jack’s propensity for sudden lethal violence made an excellent pairing in light of the incredibly hostile native fauna.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Double Header Weekend

Yesterday, I ran more of "Hoard of the Dragon Queen" for the guys.  They survived the siege of Greenest and have bluffed their way into the camp of the raiders.  High points include the single combat, which went longer than I'd expected, and my loud, ADHD fourteen-year-old telling one of the other players to tone it down a notch.

Today, I kicked off the playtest of Dresden Files for FATE Accelerated Edition.  I freely admit I got into the playtest via nepotism.  That said, I am committed to do it justice, so even if I'm not a FATE guru now, I'm intent on getting there.  Most of my players are in the same boat, but we're all big fans of the source material.

With that in mind, we sat down and established our setting details, opting for Houston (since it's where we live).  We came up with a couple of initial aspects ("Winter lasts one week," "The most diverse city in America," among others), and then characters.  We ended up with a White Court Wizard who's spent far too much time in the Nevernever, a human who rejected his Changeling heritage, and a Houston cop who's trying to balance her True Faith with unwelcome knowledge of the supernatural.  I also wrote up the owner of a local magic shop (Tex-Arcana) they can use as a base of operations, just for fun.

That done, we managed a short combat-heavy encounter rooting a Red Court vampire and her minions out of an abandoned mansion.

I'm not going to get into the rules stuff.  Suffice to say, what we did certainly felt right.  There are a lot of rules we still need to play with but it was a good start.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Three Games In Four Days

The #rpgaday challenge is done, but I don't plan on going back into stealth mode just yet.  Over the past four days, I got three games in and I figured I'd talk a little about those.

Saturday, I GMed D&D 5th Edition for my son and the guys from the Mutant Future game (our Mutant Master is about to go on paternity leave and I don't want the band to break up during our downtime).  I used Horde of the Dragon Queen, and got about halfway through the first chapter.  The PCs consist of three pre-gens from the Starter Box: the Dwarf Cleric (Father Mungo), the Halfling Cleric (Nit), and the human longbow fighter (Arenher), along with a high elven monk my son came up with (Erdan Feyfist).

All of the group are experienced gamers.  None of us had played 5e.  From a DMing perspective, I really like the game. It's easy to run, and very easy to eyeball stuff and make rulings on the fly.  We got through six combat encounters in four hours, while learning rules, role-playing, and problem-solving.

The module is great.  It feels like 2nd edition Forgotten Realms, and that makes me happy.  My only complaint is that Wizards didn't make the monsters from the Appendix in the book available online.  I've gotten to where I rely heavily on PDFs when I GM, and I hated having to flip to the back of the book for one set of stats while I had everything else printed out on paper I could mark up.

Sunday, we (my son and I) went to my buddy Greg's D&D 4e game.  This is a long-running campaign that started at 1st level and is currently 16th.  I played my El-Adrin Swordmage, Rashid, and my son guest starred as our party's follower.  We beat up a lot of drakes.  Rashid briefly ran out of hit points but got better.  Good times.

Last night was the last part of a brief Dragon Age game I've been running for the Tuesday Night Crew, while our Pathfinder GMs are on break.  This was the third part of the adventure in the first boxed set.  Introducing the guys to Dragon Age has made for an interesting diversion from the usual d20-derived games.  By the end of this session, they were fully embracing the stunt system and generally acting like Big Damn Heroes.

My game ended a bit early, so we spent the last hour spit-balling ideas for our next game, a short FATE-based space opera.  It appears we will be Shadowrunners in space, more or less.  I think my character is going to be a Combat Accountant.