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.


  1. The Boot Hill and TS firearm combat rules were based on an earlier, and extremely obscure, TSR publication called Bio One, which also made it into Gangbusters in some form. There's a lot of compatibility between those games, especially between TS and Gangbusters.

  2. Huh. I'd never heard of Bio One. Just looked it up. I have a first printing of Boot Hill and always assumed the system originated there. Now I know!

  3. I had the notion to do some nipping, tucking, and combining. I don't know if you have Gangbusters (I imagine you probably do...) but the table for rolling ability scores is the same between the two games. Using experience points to buy up ability scores is similar between the two. The skill systems are different, but between the two there's the gem of a halfway decent system buried. I haven't gone through the firearm combat rules, but given their combined heritage they're probably not too far off from one another. Though I'd probably simplify the combat rules by a lot, probably looking to Hero for inspiration.

  4. That is a new one on me, too. Thanks, Chris.

  5. Imagonnajusleavethishere:

    Please delete the link after a few days.

  6. Holy moley! Very cool. Thanks!

  7. James Bond 007 was a much better spy game.