Espionage, House Rules, Looking Back, Modern, OSR, RPG, Top Secret, TSR
One of the games I played a ridiculous quantity of from 1981 to 1992 was second edition (not SI) Top Secret.
As a teen this generally was a “why does anyone play any of the bureaus besides assassination? look at this cool gun combat system that we can use all the time!” but gradually became a more traditional espionage style game with a bit of extra violence because… look at this cool gun combat system that we can use!
It didn’t help that the first module we had was OPERATION: RAPIDSTRIKE which typically plays out as a stealth insertion with LOTS of gunplay.
Now, the game has some warts that we ran into and smoothed over as we got more and more play out of it. 1 second combat rounds are a bit intense, but hey, that’s what you get (and don’t get me going on the roll, pitch, and yaw calculations that Merle gave us for firing guns in zero gee environments in the pages of Dragon).
We had two house rules that helped game play immensely in our experience – and I honestly assume the first was EXPECTED from play but never really spelled out in the rules (I should really ask Merle one of these days).
1. Incorporate stat checks into play. Check against Courage. Check against Charm. Check against your AOKs.
2. This one pains me because I love all the weird conflict subsystems of Top Secret… but the Contact Reaction Table is quite frankly bad for the game. In one-on-one situations relying on anything except for AOKs, there is almost no way an agent can get anything from any but the most incompetent contact. But if you have two or three agents double or triple teaming the contact, then there is almost no way that the agents WON’T get what they want. This is where stat checks work better than the reaction tables… And I wish I still had a copy of the house rules document we had (typed up on a typewriter). I believe the way we did it was opposed checks (using the abilities listed in the Contact Reaction section) instead of checking the table, and whoever rolled higher AND succeeded “won” the contest, and the difference between scores indicated the level of success or failure (using the letter codes from the rules).
For stats over 100 (most prevalent with AOKs in early play, but they start showing up at later levels of play for all stats), you would add your “bonus” over 100 to your opposed test roll (so if you had an AOK of 147 and were trying to FOOL a contact, you would roll d100+47 and compare the result to their d100 roll).
How did your Top Secret games play out? Did you have any house rules?
As with the James Bond game, this was another game we never got to. We pretty much played from Friday after work, through the entire weekend, every week. Three regular GMs, with another player or two getting to be the George Harrison of our group and get a limited amount of time in the spotlight. Mostly 1st ed AD&D, then Classic Traveller, Call of Cthulhu, 1st/2nd ed Gamma World, and 2nd ed Runequest. I even managed to squeeze in a year or two of Vampire: The Masquerade towards the end of our group’s life. The second tier, semi-semi-regular games, included FASA Star Trek, Paranoia, Stormbringer, Shadowrun and Cyberpunk. And then finally there were the one-shots, where we usually had a Harrison who would pull out something like Dragonquest or Toon, and beg us until we agreed to give it a shot. I know one of them had Top Secret, and another had James Bond, but we just didn’t get enough enthusiasm in the group to give them a try. Nowadays, I’d love the chance to get into some 50’s or 60’s Cold War era espionage gaming, whatever the system. But players interested in that period are a lot harder to find.
LOVED Top Secret! Probably the game I played the most after The Fantasy Trip back in, & after, high school. Don’t remember any house rules other than an improved weapons chart. & yea, most of our missions involved a disproportional amount of gun play 🙂
this was my experience too, but good fun
Ted Wallerstedt said:
I am still playing Top Secret today, but I no longer use most of Merle’s rules. I have converted Rapid Strike, The Lady In Distress, Executive One, and Dr Yes to Savage Worlds (I call the mash up Savage Secrets). I also have ran The Missile Mission which was converted by someone else, and developed Operation Skyhook with these rules as well as a few other adventures.
In the 80’s with the original rules, we never had a mission without loosing a character. I love the content but really like the pulpy feel of doing this Savage Worlds.
Shane Russell said:
Oh man, so many memories of that game….from shootouts in a restaurant in Berlin to being shot with nerve gas by a train conductor on the Orient Express to breaking a bad guys kneecaps with a billiard cue and carjacking a makeshift getaway car from a newly married couple, that game really had it all, if all you wanted to do was kill or incapacitate people.
We were a bit limited in the funding side of things and getting new material, so we played the Orient Express missions several times (students living in a smallish town with only two game shops in Australia). We did design a couple of our own mission, but they weren’t as polished as the published material and they went off the rails rather quickly. We did find some of the SI stuff and convert it over, but for whatever reason, they seemed to take much longer than our standard play session and it wasn’t really a game that allowed you to play a single mission over multiple sessions.
From memory, we modified some of the weapon damage, reducing melee damage and added some disorientation after explosions as we seemed to use grenades much more often than your typical James Bond.
Steven Parker said:
Oh man, Top Secret was the game where I finally learned to listen to – no, HEAR – my players. We played TS occasionally, except for two who really dug the game, where we would fit in one-offs and the off nights where not everyone could show up. As far as house rules, I vaguely remember tweaking melee combat so you could anticipate better, a sort of rock-paper-scissors thing where you each revealed your first move then you could adjust your remaining moves based on that. Seem to remember three moves per round?…
But that led us to making combat rounds 5 seconds long. 1 second? Really? “Ok, it’ll take at least 7 seconds to punch in the key code. Two goons round the corner…” I mean, I get it. But 1 second?…
One player was really into muscle cars so his agent was a driver with an agency sponsored hot rod – but not weapons and armor and surveillance gear – it was a performance vehicle, built to outrun and outmaneuver anything else on the road. It was all based on real-world engineering and auto components I had no idea about. I was totally unprepared for what became the Fast n Furious in 1987! 😉 This guy’s 80’s hot rod could have easily taken on that Traveller TL10 ATV we had going in our sci-fi game!
Then my girlfriend was all about surveillance and hidden gadgets and had all these backstory ideas about things she had overheard on missions and in the home office and most of it was based on WWII sabotage and spying she had read about. I knew about WWII battles and ordnance and history but not much about the behind-the-lines intrigue she wanted to game out. It was admittedly bad (sorry, Agent!) but she rolled with it and then it clicked and I was able to incorporate it and it was fantastic.
I guess TS was the first ‘modern’ game we played, where we were bringing today’s (1980’s teens) sensibilities to things as opposed to IMAGINING the results, as in our usual sci-fi/fantasy worlds. . There was a helluva lot more discussions about task outcomes in our TS games than anything else we played 😉 So when my players brought all these detailed write-ups to the table, and they all made sense, I was scared sh*tless. But, I took them as a guidepost and built the “campaign” around them and well, yeah – fantastic.
Not that I didn’t do that in our fantasy and sci-fi games. It was just a different level of game reality, combined with the ultra-realistic rules, and it threw me for a loop. But I learned my lesson that day 😉
Top Secret is dead! Long Live Top Secret!
Jonathan Becker said:
Had a really tough time with the clunky HTH system, but I did love this edition of TS. Still do, and still own it, though I haven’t played in years.
[absolutely detest “S.I”]
Recently backed the new TS Kickstarter and got the whole tasty box set. It’s very nice, but I think I’d probably still prefer to run the old 2E version. It’s the best system for modeling something like the Mission Impossible films (at least, the first couple). We
Loved Operation Whiteout from Dragon.
You know, every time I read a post somewhere about an old game where people wax nostalgic about how great it was, and bemoan the fates that keep them from playing it again, I gotta say “Hey! Step up and offer to run it on Roll20, there’s a bunch of people right here who’d like to play!” So I said it. Run it, and I’ll play. 🙂
I didn’t get into RPGs until ’84 so Top Secret/S.I. was released around the right time for me – I didn’t find Top Secret until much later. Never found anyone to play with, although, if the truth will out, I think I prefer S.I.’s version more!
If you ever find your rules though I’d love to hear about them. Maybe you’d be happy to share them on my espionage RPG website: Modus Operandi.
Adam Fairbairn said:
I used their source books for material in a ICE Cyberspace Module I had published. The fourth senarion in the module relied heavily on the Exotic Locations source book. That was a cool book.
M Po said:
I had it, loved reading it but never got the chance to play it.
Top Secret was my first RPG, bought almost entirely on the strength on the cover of the boxed set (and my love of the superspy genre). It was therefore the first RPG I GMed and what got my group of friends playing RPGs. We played it a tonne, many weekends late into the morning doing all manner of spy deeds. Resulting, of course, in uncountable hilarious and memorable moments, with “Cabbage?” ranking high up there. When SI came out I kitbashed the two together, my first foray into rulemaking. I still have the Agent Dossiers from those games, the delicious folders crammed with stats and props and more. So great and exciting to see so many big fans of the game! I’ve written a few posts about it over the past couple of years with loving touches of nostalgia. I played some Spycraft when it came out, but alas that has been the last game in this genre that I’ve played in a while. Totally jonesing to play again. 🙂
and eventually branched out
LOVED top secret! We actually just started a campaign at the beginning of the year, with the same people who played 35 years ago and we’re having a blast. The game seems to work a lot better as middle aged folks who know a little more about the world than as 13 year olds who just wanted to get automatic weapons and light up the bad guys!