A trip down memory lane tonight, back to the first RPG I bought, and played: Top Secret. I first spied (ha!) the game across an atrium at the World’s Largest Bookstore in Toronto, sporting the same photo (albeit in colour) as the cover of the rulebook. It grabbed my attention right away. I didn’t know what it was, but I wanted to check it out.
Fortunately, I was already familiar with the choose-a-path style books, and had even played that kind of narrative game with friends, with one person taking on the role of the book, the other as the reader – GM and Player. So when I did buy the game at a more local hobby store, it wasn’t hard at all to fall right into the game and start playing. It was just what’d we’d been doing, only with rules.
And what rules they were! It’s fun to revisit the book now, and bask in the glory of all those tables and charts. It was a percentile based system, with straight up modifiers. Skills (or Areas of Knowledge) were interesting in that they came into play primarily only when trying to influence, fool, or charm an NPC. How you’d sneak into a compound was a whole independent set of rules that used a calculated statistic vs a category of security level, rather than a contest of skill rolls. Looking back on it, that’s a pretty interesting rules design. While there’s something to be said for rules unity (ie, same system everywhere), this does have the effect of enriching the two different activities: interactions with people is given some breadth and flavour, while infiltration is more mechanical and every agent is given some capacity in it (befitting its bread and butter role in espionage). Nice.
Revisiting and rereading the rules some 32 years later, here’s what stands out for me:
The game included the concept of “luck points” as a way to not only alleviate the quite deadly nature of the game, but to match the source material and add in some narrative fun. What I really like was that there were two sets of luck points: Fame and Fortune. The former, you gained while performing missions and you, as the player, knew how many you had. The latter was rolled randomly and secretly by the GM (The Administrator, in this game’s speak) at character creation. Thus, you only had X amount of Fortune points, and when they were gone, you were gone too. If you’d used up all your Fame points, you could try to use a Fortune point… but press your luck one too many times…
The Hand to Hand combat rules was a glorious hot mess of choosing specific attacks and defenses and comparing them against each other on large tables and finding a result and rolling damage based on the tabular lettering… on the one hand (ha!), kinda interesting and seemingly precise, but on the other hand, slow, convoluted, and not entirely representative of actual melee combats (in which you react with a movement, not pre-plan some defense).
Besides some basic attributes/stats for the characters, there were a number of calculated secondary (and even a couple of tertiary) stats that was the average of two or more primary stats. There’s an aspect to this I like; a lot of challenging situations really does rely on two or more aspects of a character (someone with low courage isn’t going to be all that effective in a brawl, no matter how strong they are). On the other hand, given the random stat rolling exercise, it was easy to have high/low stat combos that both made everyone rather similar and also made those who lucked out in the right combo of right rolls all that much better.
Like many old school games, the glossary and appendix at the back of the book is pure GOLD. This should be a requirement for all games, I assert. There’s a lot of flavour added in here, and lots for the GM to glean from in adventure design.
Lastly, check out that starting adventure. From the dossier design to the clear map to the open-world nature of it, it’s an excellent first modul, and the feelie nature of the dossier especially is a great atmosphere setter. Besides the bits that came in computer games of the time, this probably began my lifelong love of feelies.
I’m always going to love me some spycraftian special/secret agent action. I’ve come a long way in my tastes of rule systems (including in my no-longer-love for the Spycraft 2.0 RPG), and when thinking about my (still in development, honest!) own rule system design, considering how to run a Top Secret game gives me avenues to explore and be sure is supported in my rule system. It’s given me something to chew on.
And now I reallllly want to play a Top Secret-like game.
(Also, I did buy Top Secret/SI when it came out – I’m going to re-read that one too…)