Gaming Thursday: Top Secret NWO Review

Here we go!  Some 33 years after I bought my first RPG, Top Secret, the newly minted (and Kickstartered) Top Secret NWO arrived on my doorstep!  Written by the same author it promised a return to super sweet spycraftian action.  I ripped open the package to find a box sporting the deliciously familiar motif of gadgets and secret documents and money and IDs.

Ahh, wonderful nostalgia, both for the cover but also for a boxed RPG!

Inside awaited the rulebook, a set of bog standard dice, a pad of nicely done character sheets (albeit a bit odd in that they present a “folder” motif but since they’re one page it isn’t much of a folder…), a very nice looking and heavy duty screen, an introductory module (perfectly done up with prominent bands of yellow on the cover, again reminiscent of the module included in the original Top Secret box, good ol’ Sprechenhaltestelle), and a gaggle of play aids:  some die-cut counters (of artwork I am not that fond of), a series of vehicle cards, and a kind of secondary character sheet table card thing.

The intel is set.  The mission is clear.  Let’s dive into the debrief…

At its heart, this version uses a new system called “Lucky 13.”  On a base level, it’s kind of nifty.  It’s an ascending multi-die type system, and for a test you roll three dice:  one represents the attribute being used, one represents the trade skill being used, and one represents either the difficulty of the task, or an asset (like a gadget or gun or etc).  The intent is to roll 13 (usually) or over; if you do, you succeed.  Like many other systems using die sizes to denote ability or quality, there are rules for stepping up or down a die size based on circumstances or modifiers, and dice can explode on one end and be indicators of a complication on the other.

On its face, this is straightforward system.  There are two additional and unique bits though that I think make it more interesting.  The first is that every time you roll a 1 on a die, you gain both a narrative/situational complication (you may still succeed, but a new obstacle or disadvantage or problem is introduced) and something termed the Tension Track is increased by 1.  For every 3 steps up the Tension Track, the target difficulty number goes up by one – so no longer do you need a 13, but a 14… then 15, and so on.  I like this idea a bunch, as it’s a nice way to model how in something as touchy and fraught as spy type action is as every little complication in a mission starts to add up, especially psychologically, with stress and tension continuing to ratchet up, and how this is reflected both in your character having a tougher time to succeed (with the increasing target number), but also as the player notices these higher values and themselves feel under more pressure.  Cool.  There’s a way to dial the track back as well; every time you roll the highest number on a die, it not only explodes (roll again and add that number to the total) but the tension track goes down by one.  So, there’s ends up being a fluctuating rhythm to the mission (though, due to the law of averages, this could mean that the tension rarely gets too high before it comes back down again, so it undercuts the idea a bit).

(Of note here is that, rolling the highest number on a die ALSO gets you a bonus to your next roll… so you get three things for a high roll?  Let’s revisit that later…)

The other nifty thing is that the third die either represents a piece of gear, where better gear gets you a higher die to roll, or if there is no gear involved (and more interesting to me), the third die is named the Decision Die, which is a die assigned by the GM (Administrator, in Top Secret parlance), where a higher die represents and EASIER task.  This seems backwards, but it makes sense and I like how the GM is assigning you a die to roll… or no die if the task is especially heroic in nature!

There are five attributes in the game: Nerve, Suave, Pulse, Intellect, and Reflex, and four tradecraft skills:  Sigint, Huminint, Techint, Combat.  For one, I especially like the names given to the first three attributes, they are quite evocative and unique.  It makes the last two seem ordinary by comparison – off the top of my head I don’t know what I might have named them instead, but I wish they’d found equally evocative names.  Secondly, I like that there are broad tradecraft skills rather than this long list of skills (which to me feels wrong for a superspy game), and again three of those four are nicely unique and evocatively named.

To round thigs off, agents have a reputation (rated by dice), clearance level (again, a die value), and some specializations (which raise die values) and backgrounds (which doubles a die rolled).

I’ll also note that the included module has some lovely maps and floor plans.

All in all, a promising beginning!  Unfortunately… from there on out, the promise doesn’t pan out.

To start with, the layout of the book is, shall we say, problematic.  Even to describe the basics above, the book splits many of the pieces apart, needing some digging and memory to splice it together.  The three effects of an exploding die are split across three sections – two of these sections are adjacent, but they don’t feel like they were thought of together, and the third, lowering the tension track, is some four pages away, even though the bit about raising the tension track on a roll of the 1 is right there in the previous sections.

And that is the best of it.  Actions in combat (timing/initiative, which in of itself is an odd system) is separated from the rest of the combat section by a section on NPC reactions, Surveillance, Interrogation, and Hacking… all things that don’t take place within that timed/initiative system.  Certain sections and categories are very loosely defined, then suddenly you have a table with 40 languages in it.  Gadgets are kind of unceremoniously crammed into a place near the start of the book (with their own oddly varying levels of detail), while weaponry (technically only guns, melee weapons are described in an appendix under Miscellaneous Weapons that includes explosives, ammunition(?), and a purse) is very much later in the book.  Damages for weapons range from Instant Death to 3d20 to 1d4 (and the module has a very amusing event where there’s an explosion, and the blast radius damage goes from instant death in zone one to 1d12 in the second… where 1d12 is unlikely to kill anyone but the weakest of agents; that’s some crazy drop-off in damage and lethality!).  One place in the book says “this die cannot be raised above 1d12+d4… where nowhere else in the book does this kind of die type exist (I’m guessing in an earlier draft the dice must have stepped up from d12 to d12+d4 then up to d20).  The otherwise lovely GM screen even has a prominent typo on it!

To top it off, there is nothing akin to the amazing appendices and glossaries from the original Top Secret game of all the spycraftian terms, agencies, and the trove of thematic information to build upon.

Overall, the whole affair is poorly organized, with a gaggle of rules that at times are very odd, clunky, or convoluted.  Truthfully, for me, it’s quite the letdown.  Even within the interesting concept for the base die system, there are plenty of bits that fall apart.  For example, the third die:  its either a piece of gear, or the decision die.  I didn’t see it called out in the rules anywhere that you can choose whether to use either your gear or the decision die… which could mean that if you have a basic level gadget, your die roll would be less than the decision die would be on an easy task?  Here, I think it would have worked much better to leverage the idea of stepping dice up and down to have gear step up the decision die if it is beneficial in the situation, and the number of steps could be based on how good the gear is.  Thus, on a difficult task that would net you only a d4 decision die, if you had an advanced widget, that widget could step up the die to a d8.  Likewise, stepping can be leveraging elsewhere to include modifiers and effects that step either attributes or tradecraft as appropriate.

In addition, I would change the exploding die rule to present a choice (explode, aid next action, or lower tension track) rather than give all three.  This introduces an interesting, well, choice for the player, prevents each exploding die from becoming something that too reliably swings favour to the character, and most of all it would keep the tension track from fluctuating up and down so much that it remains essentially static, thus preventing much tension (though, we might need to double check that the tension doesn’t ratchet up too quickly thus leading to a death spiral).

And so here we are.  After all my excitement, my assessment is that what we’re left with is a game that sports moderately detailed simulationist system with a die mechanism that has a couple of nifty concepts (especially the tension track idea), but as a whole game ends up residing in an awkward valley:  it neither delves deep to provide the rigor and plethora of detail for an intricate spycraftian simulationist game, nor does it provide anything to support a more narrative-heavy gamist system to allow for great trope-filled spycraftian shenanigans.  In addition, most of the sub-systems within fail to use the base die rolling system in elegant and exciting ways.

This doesn’t dampen my love or desire for a good Top Secret game or campaign, though.  I can’t see myself playing this system (although, to be fair, I really should at least to see if my impressions follow through in actual play), but I can definitively see stealing the concept of the tension track and using the naming conventions for attributes and tradecraft skills.  Not to mention the modules, and I do hope a number of them get published.

TS:NWO debriefing complete.  Good luck out there.

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