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Gaming Thursday: Top Secret/SI (& NWO!)

July 6, 2017

I was all set to post about reading through Top Secret/SI tonight when I learned of some very exciting news:  TOP SECRET IS BACK!

The original creator of Top Secret, Merle Rasmussen, has teamed up with a few others to create Top Secret: New World Order, and it’s LIVE on Kickstarter right now!

Colour me stupendously excited.  I’ve backed it and eagerly await its release.  Judging by the couple of images at the Kickstarter, it appears it will be a dice pool system using dice sizes for rankings, in basic stats (Nerve, Suave, Pulse, Intellect, Reflex), spycraft (sigint, humint, techint, combat), and something else… roll 13+ to succeed.  We’ll have to wait and see.

But for now, back to…

Top Secret/SI (for Special Intelligence) popped out in 87.  Still quite enamoured with Top Secret, I snatched it up as soon as I heard about it, and dove into it.  It was a pretty big rules re-design, introducing and updating it to many of the ideas that were becoming prevalent in the RPG world.  Gone were the individual resolution systems for infiltration, interactions, and combat, replaced instead with a universal percentile resolution system with a target number of your Stat + Skill Level x5 +/- Modifiers.  One unique thing was how your base stat was determined, via a d60 +10 roll, with this added bit of if all your stats totaled  less than 275, you could add enough points to make them total 275.  Looking back, a somewhat interesting way of generating a starting target number with a max of 70% chance of basic success, but one that you were equally likely to roll that 70 to rolling a 20… and having yourself a nigh-well impossible chance of doing much at all with that stat, maxing out to 45 even with max skill levels… and worse, sometimes you had to roll 1/2 or even 1/4 stat…. yeah.  Don’t even try to do anything in that area of expertise with that character.

The character sheets, though, were awesome.  They came as a full-blown dossier, and cemented my love for game-enhancing feelies:

I just love that so much.  With all the space for photo, nationality, history, and more, it really brought the more “fluff” parts of the character to bear, and reminded that hey!  You’re playing an espionage game here.

One thing you’ll see on that dossier is the agent diagram with the hit boxes.  Each location had boxes equal to 10% of your CON score, and each point of damage would cross off the box.  Cross off all boxes in head or body location, and you were dead.  Other areas, and the body part was destroyed.  Much less abstract than “Hit Points” and really quite deadly.  Though at the same time a bit odd that the hands were their own hit location with just as much damage soaking capacity…

Right from the get-go, the campaign style of Top Secret/SI was turned up several notches compared to Top Secret, a much more Bond-esque and superspy type world with a big bad organization like SMERSH or SPECTRE, called WEB, and an equally large organization opposing it, named ORION.  To give a sense of the tone in a number of the published modules, I ended up running them in a superhero Champions game, and they fit right in.

What was also nifty is that, over time, TS/SI became TSR’s base system for modern day and near-future action.  Supplements expanded the range of campaign styles, including Commando for more combat-oriented, Rambo-like stories, and even FREE-Lancers, a light cyberpunk-esque style campaign.  I never really got into FREE-Lancers (which is a bit unexpected, given I loved me my Cyberpunk and Cyberpunk 2020 games), but I ate Commando up like candy.  My games became much more closely linked in tone to Mack Bolan and Phoenix Force books than suave James Bond types… though we never abandoned all the fun gadgets.  Looking back, a rather amusing mix.

Overall, I do remember that at the time TS/SI came out I was… not altogether happy.   I had a lot of “Why did they change that??”, an early curmudgeon/grognard type reaction.  And so I went forward with this kitbashed version that combined aspects from the original game with the SI edition.  Likely it was this total hot mess, but it served us well for many years.  With some distance in time and mental space, on the whole I’d say TS/SI mostly gained compared to the original release.  Even if it lost some of the uniqueness and flavour baked into the subsystems, the unified resolution mechanism in TS/SI was a plus.  The game put even more emphasis on your character’s RP aspects, and the damage boxes for hit locations made combat tense and interesting, and the aftereffects lingering.  It definitively had an impact on my thoughts on what made a good RPG system for years to come.

And now, it looks like I’m getting my wish to play a Top Secret game once again.  Come November, no way in heck I won’t be playing, and reviewing, TS/NWO.

Just call me codename:  BAGMAN

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