Top Secret / S.I. Part Three

18 Dec


Just a few more thoughts on Top Secret / S.I., TSR’s secret agent role playing game from 1987 and successor to the original Top Secret game.  For simplicity, any reference to Top Secret from here on will be regarding the S.I. edition.  Here are the links to part one and two.

The Players’ Guide covers most of the rules for Top Secret and as mentioned previously there is a lot about the mechanics that I like.  Today I’m going to look at the Administrator’s Guide.

The Administrator’s Guide includes rules covering specific situations, a lengthy section on advice for a GM on how to run games, and finishes out with information on the default setting.  The guiding principle of the Administrator’s Guide seems to be advice for the novice GM and every section is written with this in mind.

The additional rules cover different damage types, such as radiation and poisons, and special combat situations such as fighting animals and underwater combat.  I was pleased to see rules for seduction and gambling that include simple ways to use dice to determine card and roulette games.  With these you’re all set for running a James Bond style casino encounter.

The sections covering how to run a campaign are serviceable.  They cover adventure rewards and character advancement and mention non-tangible rewards the PC’s can earn through play, such as contacts and reputation.  There’s a good discussion on creating NPC’s and how different types of NPC’s will react in a fight.  For example, street thugs will barge in, police will call for backup, and professionals will fight smart and look for cover.  It also discusses the different villain roles; from mastermind, to henchman, to foot soldiers.

There is a section of advice on doing research to help a GM create scenarios and settings.  This section is so basic and vague that I could replace it with one sentence, “go to the library.”  In just over a page it spends time telling the GM to read encyclopedias, novels, magazines, look at atlases, and watch movies and TV shows.  Yet for all that space devoted to the topic the closest they get to specific advice is a small number of authors.  An Appendix N style bibliography would have been far more valuable, not to mention it would have aged better.  In 1987 I would have found this section obvious and unnecessary.  In 2013 I find it quaint and amusing.

There’s a discussion of different adventure design styles that I found very interesting; linear, non-linear (sandbox), and matrix (a hybrid, similar to location based adventures).  This is all “game design 101” today, but even now it is rare to see it laid out in a core game book.  When you add its 1987 release date and it’s a remarkable artifact.  It’s the oldest discussion of the topic that I’ve seen in an official rule book.

One section of the GM’s advice that didn’t sit well with my black little OSR heart was entitled, “Keeping Characters Alive”.  The book extols the philosophy, “players should really have to work to get their characters killed!”

“When you throw characters into a situation fraught with peril, give them an out.  If the first attempt to save their necks fails, give them a second check in the form of a sudden, unexpected bit of luck; if the second chance fails, let them spend Luck Points.”

I suspect this advice is in keeping with the super-spy genre and specifically a nod to the James Bond RPG, which was Top Secret’s chief competition.  I can understand not wanting a death count on par with Call of Cthulhu, but an espionage game should have a healthy element of fear involved.  I’m okay with giving the characters a break but the emphasis on designing the game to keep the characters alive risks taking the edge out of the game.  Especially when the game already has a luck point mechanic.

Top Secret’s default setting involved a generic international good guy group, called Orion, that battles a generic international bad guy group, called Web.  This follows the model of many spy shows and movies and works fine for a foundation.  There is a limited discussion of other styles of games that Top Secret could be used for, but very few tools on how to use them.  Looking at the roster of other Top Secret products it appears that they never strayed from the Orion vs Web theme.

It’s too bad.  Top Secret is a game that could have benefited from the variety of settings books that TSR and Wizards of the Coast became famous (infamous?) for later.  It would be perfect for writing a sourcebook that discussed hard boiled cold war adventures between the CIA and KGB.  Or a book on the early modern spy era, with Bolshevik spies hunting revolutionary ex-patriots through 1920’s London.  Sadly this was not to be and the line was unable to expand beyond it’s core theme.

I am very pleased with Top Secret / S.I., enough that I plan on getting it to my gaming table.  When I evaluate a game for my group I evaluate its core rules and ask myself if it does anything more interesting than the systems we already know.  Top Secret makes that cut by presenting a slick, innovative set of rules that I want to try out.  If you’re a fan of espionage games, or modern games in general, the Top Secret rules are worth a look.

UPDATE: Folks in the Top Secret G+ group have pointed out that there is a CIA vs KGB sourcebook and a pulp adventure sourcebook as well!  They are The Covert Operations Sourcebook and The Agent 13 Sourcebook respectively.  Thanks to those who pointed me in their direction.  More for my gamer’s wish list!



Posted by on December 18, 2013 in Game Design and Mechanics, Gaming


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3 responses to “Top Secret / S.I. Part Three

  1. Jeffry Willis (Jeffrywith1e)

    December 18, 2013 at 5:39 PM

    ORION vs WEB was great. There were a few novels that featured fiction set in that universe. There was a strange comic book series that kind of visited it also.

    There were two tangent settings that branched from the ORION vs WEB. One was actually more of an expanded part of it where the agents gained minor low level super powers. That setting also had a couple of novels. F.R.E.E. Lancers was that one.

    The other setting was completely separate- 1930s pulp resource book as well as campaign setting called Agent 13. Strangely, I’ve heard there is a film coming out based on Agent 13.

    • Fractalbat

      December 18, 2013 at 9:22 PM

      That sounds cool. I’d love to see a resurgence of pulp movies. I’m glad to see there were more settings books than I realized! More to collect!


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