Tag Archives: Spies


I have a new podcast on my list!

SpyCast is the official podcast from the Spy Museum in Washington DC. The host and guests are former members of the intelligence community (including a few from the KGB) and they bring an interesting insider’s view to the topics of trade craft. The archives go back to 2006 and I’m only a few episodes in, but I am hooked. The conversations are casual and the guests are fascinating. The average episode clocks in from 30-60 minutes and if I have one complaint it’s that I want to hear more.

If you’re looking for some insights for your Top Secret game, or just a fan of espionage history, then check this one out.

You can find SpyCast on iTunes, or from their website here.


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Posted by on August 19, 2015 in History, Podcasts


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Review – Ultimate Spy

“I and many members of the former East German Foreign Intelligence Service, the HVA, were surprised to discover a book that included elegant photographs of syp equipment, from Keith Melton’s unique collection, and accurate descriptions of clandestine techniques that we had spent our careers keeping secret from Western intelligence agencies.”

-Markus Wolf, former head of the East German Foreign Intelligence Service

Introduction to Ultimate Spy, 2nd Edition

I love DK books. The illustrations are excellent and the information is well researched. Pick up any DK book and you’ll get a brief but solid introduction to whatever subject it covers. Such is the case for Ultimate Spy, DK’s book about espionage written by H. Keith Melton. My copy is the second edition, published in 2002 and updated to include post Cold War material.

Ultimate Spy is a fun book that touches on intelligence organizations dating back to the Middle Ages, but focusing mostly on the World War II and Cold War eras. It’s a book filled with facts, spy stories, and generously illustrated with enough photos of spy equipment to make Q-Branch envious.

The book begins with an overview of the types of people who become spies, what motivates them, and what activities they engage in. This section divides the different types of spies into roles such as The Courier, The Double Agent, The Mole, and The Assassin, including an overview of how these roles have been employed by eastern and western agencies. Any game master will find useful similarities between this section and the class descriptions in a role playing game.

The next section discusses the history of spying with chapters on operations up through World War I, World War II, the Cold War, and spying in the post Soviet era with a focus on counter-terrorism. These sections talk about how espionage evolved to suit the times and includes stories about events and important operations such as the founding of the OSS, the U2 incident, and the transformation of Russian intelligence from the Tzarist Okhrana to the legendary KGB of the Soviet Union. It also discusses famous, or infamous, intelligence figures such as Sidney Reilly, Alan Turin, Mata Hari, and the Walker spy ring, giving a concise description of their real world activities.

Not to mention the frequently unpleasant endings that come to many such stories.

“Mata Hari was arrested as a German spy on her return to Paris. She was tried in a French military court, found guilty, and executed by firing squad in 1918.”

“In 1925, a British intelligence operative named Sidney Reilly was lured to a meeting with Trust members in Moscow, where he was arrested and forced to write a confession revealing all his Moscow contacts. He was then executed.”

-Excerpts from Ultimate Spy, pages 25 & 27

From there the book moves into equipment and techniques used by spy agencies, and this is a must read section for any GM wanting to run a spy game. There are wonderful pictures throughout the book, but the equipment show in this section is particularly good. It all comes from the author’s personal collection of spy equipment, which is the best private collection in the world. There are pages filled with microphones hidden in shoes and pens, lockpicks, concealed weapons, radios, disguise kits, and lots of cameras. There are silver dollars and rings with hidden compartments for microdots, messages written on the back of postage stamps and sent through the mail, walnut shells hiding code lists, and assassination tools such as the Bulgarian Umbrella which injected a poison pellet into the target.

Of particular interest to me was seeing the size and types of the equipment. In an age where everything is digital, wireless, and built of solid state micro-circuitry it is fascinating to see how surprisingly large, or surprisingly small, the spymasters of yesterday could make things. It’s also a good reminder that many of the gadgets made famous by the James Bond movies are not as far fetched as they may seem.

In many cases they aren’t as impressive as their real counterparts.

Ultimate Spy is a great read and an excellent resource for anyone looking to run an espionage game, especially those set in the Cold War.


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Posted by on September 12, 2014 in Books and Comics, History, Reviews


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Scary Discovery

Investigators have discovered vials of Smallpox virus dating back to the 1950’s.

“They were found in an unused portion of a storeroom in an FDA laboratory, located on the National Institutes of Health campus in Bethesda, Maryland.”

-The Raw Story, July 8th 2014

Smallpox is a horrible virus, causing terrible sores and was responsible for hundreds of millions of deaths in the 20th century alone. It’s also responsible for wiping out unknown millions of Native Americans who caught it from European explorers and colonists. The development of the Smallpox vaccine and the virus’ eradication in the wild is one of the triumphs of modern medicine. The World Health Organization made the following declaration in 1980:

“Having considered the development and results of the global program on smallpox eradication initiated by WHO in 1958 and intensified since 1967 … Declares solemnly that the world and its peoples have won freedom from smallpox, which was a most devastating disease sweeping in epidemic form through many countries since earliest time, leaving death, blindness and disfigurement in its wake and which only a decade ago was rampant in Africa, Asia and South America.”

—World Health Organization, Resolution WHA33.3

It’s not yet known if these vials contain still active samples of Smallpox. Also of note is this quote from the story:

“If viable smallpox is present, the World Health Organization will be invited to witness the destruction of these smallpox materials, as has been the precedent for other cases where smallpox samples have been found outside of the two official repositories.”

According to international agreements, only two places in the world are authorized to keep samples of smallpox: the CDC in Atlanta and the State Research Centre of Virology and Biotechnology (VECTOR) in Novosibirsk, Russia.”

-The Raw Story, July 8th 2014

“As has been the precedent for other cases,” meaning that this has happened before! Not to mention the two labs which we know still keep samples for study. And while I understand why we should keep samples of the virus around for study, the gamer in me can’t help but think of all the horrible potential this offers.

If all this isn’t scary enough, there is an even darker chapter in the history of Smallpox. In the 1970’s the Soviet Union was putting a huge amount of resources into their biological weapons program, including work to weaponize the Smallpox virus. This lead to an accidental release of the virus from their facility on an island in the Aral Sea. A nearby ship had accidentally sailed into the restricted waters and one crew member was on deck at the time. She was infected and spread the virus to others. Most of the people infected had been vaccinated against Smallpox but suffered symptoms anyway, suggesting that the strain developed in the laboratory was able to overcome the vaccine. At least two unvaccinated children died. The Soviets moved quickly to contain the outbreak and to cover it up, officially reporting it as an outbreak of Anthrax caused by poorly prepared meat. (Details of this can be found in the book The Dead Hand)

The idea of a virulent plague kept in a long-forgotten laboratory is the stuff of nightmares.

Which of course makes it perfect for gaming, particularly of the Espionage or Superhero genres. A game could be based on an archivist discovering an entry about a top secret lab where such samples were kept. When terrorists steal her notes the race is on to rediscover the laboratory and secure its contents.

Oh, one final note. The Soviet Union based their biological weapons facility on Vozrozhdeniya Island, also known as Rebirth or Renaissance Island, to keep it isolated. At the time the Aral Sea was the fourth largest sea in the world. However massive irrigation projects have all but drained the sea in what some have called the worst environmental disaster in the world.

Vozrozhdeniya ceased being an island in 2008. Anyone, or anything, can now walk out to it. Or away from it. Recognizing the threat this posed to the world, the United States and Uzbekistan conducted a cleanup project of the facility back in 2002.

Hopefully they found everything and there isn’t a forgotten part of the lab where vials of weaponized Smallpox are still waiting to be found.

Sleep tight!

The Aral Sea, from 1989 to 2008.

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Posted by on July 14, 2014 in Gaming, History


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Secret Aaaaaagent Game!

This past weekend my gaming group met for the first time in way too long.

It also gave me the opportunity to run a new (old) game system for my group, Top Secret / S.I., which has been on my GM’s bucket list. I missed out on playing Top Secret back in the 80’s, but this past December I picked up a copy and was intrigued by the rules.

I am happy to report that my hopes for the system were born out. The game played fast and the mechanics felt good. The combat system, with its integrated hit location and damage system, were as elegant in practice as they appeared to be when reading them. The blunt vs penetrating damage also worked perfectly, and allowed for both NPC’s and PC’s to be bludgeoned into unconsciousness.

This game session was also the first where one of my players telecommuted in. So in addition to the other chairs around the table we had a laptop and web camera set up, with the player doing his best Arnim Zola impersonation. It was good fun.

I set the game in 1965 so we could have the feel of the classic spy shows from TV. Initially it looked like I’d be running for a small group, so I planned to run a short adventure, The Missile Mission, which was published in Dragon Magazine #39 for the original edition of Top Secret. The Missile Mission is a nice breaking-and-entering theft job that is good for a small team. However when a few more players became available I decided to come up with something a little larger.

I based the assignment on an episode from the original Mission: Impossible show, called The CarriersThe agents were assigned to replace a group of trainees in East Germany who were being sent to a secret KGB training facility for deep cover agents. The Agency had arranged to detain the real trainees, allowing the players to take their places. The nature of the training facility was unknown but intelligence reports indicated that the KGB was pulling in a large number of trainees for a big operation that was going to kick off soon.

The agents’ mission was to infiltrate the training facility, blend in with the other students, discover the KGB’s plan, foil it, and escape. Along the way they had to take on the names and identities of the actual trainees they were replacing, and then another set of names and identities that the KGB assigned to them when they arrived, creating an Inception-like layering of secrets that was fun to keep track of.

The training facility, code named “Springfield”, turned out to be a small town built to replicate a typical middle-American town. Trainees took classes in American culture and were expected to stay in character at all times, with instructors blending in to keep an eye on their progress and occasionally test them without warning.

The KGB’s plan revolved around a weaponized super-virus being prepared in a laboratory hidden beneath the town’s movie theater. The plan was to infect the students at a town festival held on the last day of training. They would then be shipped off to the United States while the virus incubated, and once in place they would be unwitting carriers for a deadly and virulent plague.

I’m pleased to say that the agents did their job. For over half the game almost no dice were rolled, as the agents handled the job of blending in quite well. Some made sure to make occasional mistakes in their behavior, so that the instructors could “correct” them on proper American etiquette. Gradually they keyed in on the location of the facility’s control center and began to uncover the secret plans.

That’s when the dice started coming out in earnest and things kicked into high gear. Bad Luck failures were rolled, an agent was captured and interrogated, a daring rescue was made, Disadvantages came into play, more Bad Luck failures were rolled, as well as some timely Good Luck and Critical Hits that saved the day. Luck Points were spent to keep agents alive. Villains were killed, the virus was destroyed in a fiery explosion, and the agents made their escape thanks to a masterful disguise job that would have made Martin Landau’s Mission: Impossible character proud.

I am happy to report that my characters enjoyed the system as much as I did and Top Secret / S.I. will be hitting the table again in the future.



Posted by on June 30, 2014 in Gaming


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I Spy

Recently I’ve been reacquainting myself with some classic television, an endeavor made easier by having both an excellent library system and finally getting a Netflix account.

One of the genres I love in particular is the secret agent show. The 60’s were the golden era for spies on television and in movies, before my time but syndication and the birth of Nick at Night were boons for me. I watched them all, but preferred the “realistic” shows to the fantastical ones. So while I loved The Man from U.N.C.L.E. I would choose something like Mission: Impossible if given the choice.

Or to put it in James Bond terms, I’ll pick From Russia with Love over Moonraker. 

One of the shows that I remember liking in particular was I Spya show that to my young mind fully justified the existence of Nick at Night. However over the years the series faded from my memory. While other shows would pop up in remakes or on TV, I Spy dropped out of the spotlight. I vaguely remember the I Spy Returns TV movie from the 90’s and the less said about the 2002 movie atrocity with Owen Wilson and Eddie Murphy, the better. The classic show seemed to have slipped into obscurity.

I Spy first aired in 1965 and ran for three seasons, starring Robert Kulp and Bill Cosby as agents Kelly Robinson and Alexander Scott who worked as secret agents for the US government. For their cover, Robinson was a world class tennis player and playboy while Scott was his coach and partner. The pair had adventures all over the world, including sites in Europe, Japan, and Hong Kong. The stories were well written, grounded in an almost noir sensibility, and loved to throw in a good plot twist or two. There were murders, femme fatales, traitors, and double agents galore. The show also had a good sense of humor, sometimes of the gallows variety, and the banter between Robinson and Scott was that of old friends who’ve have been under the gun more times than they could count.

The show was well received, with awards going to several of the cast and writing. It was also historically significant, being the first TV drama to cast an African-American in a starring role. Cosby’s Scott was in all ways an equal partner to Kulp’s Robinson, a fact that led to the show being banned by some TV stations in the American south.

It’s always a risk taking a fresh look at a show you haven’t seen since you were a kid, but I’m pleased to say that I Spy holds up. Yes, the material is dated and some of the portrayals of foreigners, particularly Asians, are as stereotypical as you’d expect from a 60’s show. Thankfully, as a rule, these aren’t played for laughs (at least that I’ve come across so far).

Those issues aside the writing is strong, the settings are vibrant, and the acting is excellent. If you’re a fan of secret agents, then I Spy is one you should check out.

It’s also perfect material if you’re looking for inspiration for your next game of Top Secret, Spycraft, or Covert Ops.

I Spy was released on DVD in 2008 and is also available on

It also has a swinging 60’s theme!

Man, I wish I could look that cool when lighting a fuze.

Not.. that I toss bombs or anything.

Hello NSA. Please don’t hurt me.






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Posted by on June 4, 2014 in Pulps, Reviews


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Observation on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

I’m making progress on catching up with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

I am a fan. A big fan. I’ve liked the show since its (admittedly slow) start and I’ve been enjoying it more with each episode. I’ve even come to genuinely like Skye, who annoyed the heck out of me at first, and can at least remember Agent Pretty Guy’s name now.

Wayne. Or Will. Walter? Whitney?

Okay, I remember it most of the time.

Last night I watched the episode T.R.A.C.K.S., where they go undercover to pull a job on a train. This was an episode I particularly enjoyed, and not just because it reminded my of the train episode from Firefly. It’s because I realized something;

The Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. are PCs.

Stick with me. Normally gamers play their characters to try and emulate iconic fictional characters, but we don’t take things too seriously. We’re not actors, we’re having fun, and the banter of game play reflects this in ways that the archetypes in the stories usually don’t. This dynamic feels reversed in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

T.R.A.C.K.S. was like watching a gaming session jump off my table and onto the screen. The mission briefing was serious and straight forward. The plan was equally straight forward, but carried out with the flair of a group of player characters, complete with banter that felt like table talk. In particular, Jemma Simmons’ insanely detailed cover story was exactly the kind of thing that would spring from the mind of an overly caffeinated gamer. Throw in some brutal plot twists pulled from the mind of a ruthless GM and you’ve got a good night’s gaming session. There were even a few times where I could hear the dice falling as the characters made their saving throws.

I’m definitely looking forward to the next episode and I’ll be watching with a can of Mt. Dew and a bowl of Cheetos at my side.

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Posted by on March 21, 2014 in Movies & TV


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Top Secret / S.I. Part Three


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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Top Secret / S.I. Part Two


Today I’d like to talk more about Top Secret / S.I., the espionage game released by TSR in 1987.  Part one of my review can be found here.  Top Secret / S.I. (Special Investigations) is the successor to TSR’s original Top Secret, which used a different rules set.  For simplicity’s sake, in the rest of my review any reference to Top Secret will refer to the S.I. edition.

Last time I talked about the combat system, which I found elegant and unique.  Top Secret has a number of other interesting rules as well.  One of these is the luck point system.

“Luck points have a single purpose: they negate disastrous occurrences that happen (or, more accurately, almost happen) to your character.”

-Players’ Guide, page 90

Luck Points are used by the player to make a bad thing go away, such as turning a killing blow into one that knocks the agent unconscious, or to say that the agent really meant to cut the red wire while diffusing the bomb.  Luck points themselves are not a new thing, even back in 1987 (my favorite is the GURPS, “Zounds!  It was a flesh wound!” rule) but what makes it different in Top Secret is how the points are handled.  An agent starts with, “at least 2 Luck Points,” but the player does not know how many his or her agent has left.  More points can be received during game play, either awarded by the GM or through rolling 00 on a die roll, but again the player is kept in the dark about how many the agent has.  This means more bookkeeping for the GM, but adds tension by forcing the players to decide if they want to literally press their luck.  The only time a GM tells the player how many points they have is after an adventure, and only if the agent has none left.  Then the player has the option to spend Fame & Fortune points (Top Secret’s experience points) to buy more. The GM secretly rolls 1d4 and that is the agent’s new Luck Point total.

Too many Luck Points can take the fear of death out of a game, but keeping the number a secret is a great way to keep that edge and make the players sweat.  An agent who has already spent a couple Luck Points is going to think hard about an unnecessary gun fight.

The game offers a number of optional rules, called “Reality Rules” that can be used by the GM to make the game more “realistic”.  These include alternate character generation rules, skill prerequisites, and the like.  For the most part I find that they add unnecessary bulk to the game and the rules even caution that, “they take a little longer to learn, add some complexity to the game, and may slow the action down some.”  I appreciate that the author points this out and clearly makes these rules optional.

One Reality Rule that I do like is allowing characters to “bump” their hit location.  Bumping works as follows:  After a successful attack the player looks at the hit location result and can modify the number up or down based on the agent’s skill level.  For example a character with a Pistol skill of 3 who hits location 3 (the abdomen) could change that result up or down the chart up to three places.  This would allow the agent to turn the abdomen hit into an arm hit, or any other location within that range.  I like this rule because it rewards skill and gives the player more control in a combat system where hit location is integral.  However I am concerned that it may be too powerful.  With only 10 hit locations a little skill goes a long way and my instinct is that half the agent’s skill might make a better value, but I’ll reserve judgement until I see the rule in action.

Top Secret has two types of cover, Soft and Hard.  Soft Cover can be anything from bushes to boxes and helps conceal an agent.  It gives the attacker penalties to their To Hit rolls, but offers no physical protection, so a bullet hitting a location screened by Soft Cover will still hit and do full damage.  Hard Cover fully protects some or all of the agent’s body.  If you shoot an agent leaning around a rock wall and the hit location indicates a body part that is covered, the bullet strikes the cover instead.

Bumping can also be used against targets behind cover, which is another reason why I am concerned about its power.  Especially when connected with this odd rule for Hard Cover:

“Hard Cover may or may not conceal a target, and it never results in a die roll modifier, though it may make a target impossible to hit.”

-Players’ Guide, page 73

The rules also explicitly say, “you can even bump shots from concealed areas to exposed ones,” in regards to Hard Cover.  If Hard Cover never results in a To Hit modifier and the bumping rule is in use, then when faced by a skilled gunman you’re better off taking cover behind a cardboard box than an iron safe (assuming you want to poke your head out and shoot back).  The attacker can blow through the box and hit any part of the body, but he or she will be at 1/2 their skill.  Conversely if your agent is behind an iron safe and exposing only his or her head and gun arm, any other part of the body is protected but the attacker is using their full To Hit skill and should have no problem bumping the shot into the agent instead of the safe.

The simple solution would be to grant the same To Hit penalties for Hard Cover that Soft Cover offers and it is strange that the rules explicitly say this isn’t the case.  The phrasing in this section is awkward, leading me to think that it went through several revisions and that somewhere there is an errata on this.

There is an extensive section on vehicles and vehicular combat that is… adequate.  It consists of skill checks modified by circumstances, much as the rest of the rules work, and includes a series of maneuvers and a crash table that will make any Car Wars fan feel at home.

I confess, I was disappointed with the vehicle section.  There’s nothing wrong with the rules and they’ll get the job done.  It’s just that I was so impressed by the combat mechanics that I was expecting something equally unique and streamlined for car chases.  Especially with how integral chases are to the spy genre.

However I did find an interesting jewel on the Administrator’s Screen, the Chase Flow Chart.  It’s a series of circles with connecting lines and arrows that acts as an abstract guide for running chases.  You roll to determine which circle the chase starts in and each circle has a number of exit lines.  Some exit lines have an X, indicating a dead end.  Others lead to different circles representing the next intersection and the length of the interconnecting line determines the distance between intersections (how far the street runs, how long the rooftop is, etc…)  Some circles are shaded, indicating a chance of encountering a hazard (a busy intersection, a low hanging tree limb, a mother and baby carriage crossing the street).  Using the results from the table as your guide and adding creative descriptions, this looks like a great way to handle any kind of chase scene.  The Chase Flow Chart is also system agnostic, so it’s something well worth using with any game you want to run.

That’s it for Part Two.  Top Secret / S.I. continues to impress me and I have more to say in Part Three.

This Blog Will Self-Destruct in 5… 4… 3… 2… 1…

Chase Flow Chart


Posted by on December 13, 2013 in Game Design and Mechanics, Gaming


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Top Secret / S.I. Part One


One of the many things I’ve enjoyed about the Old School Renaissance has been the chance to go back and take a fresh look at games I haven’t played in decades, or games I missed completely.  Top Secret / S.I. falls into the latter category.

I recently acquired copies of both Top Secret and Top Secret / S.I..  Top Secret was TSR’s original spy game, released in 1980 and grounded in the Cold War.  In 1987 TSR released Top Secret / S.I. (special investigations) as a successor to the original.  The new game was designed with a streamlined rules system and a cinematic setting more in keeping with the James Bond movies.

I’ve been a fan of espionage stories since I was young.  I like them all; from the high glamour cinematic spies like James Bond and The Man from U.N.C.L.E., the slightly more realistic world of I, Spy, or hard boiled tales like The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and the exploits of Sidney Reily.  I even love the comedic adventures of Our Man Flint, Get Smart, and especially Spy vs Spy.

Yet I never played the classic spy games of the 80’s.  My original gaming group used a home brew system for espionage games.  In later years I rarely played straight spy adventures, but frequently added a tradecraft element to whatever system we were using.  For example, my longest running campaign was a D6 Star Wars game where the players were an intelligence cell for the Rebel Alliance.

Given all that, I was eager to dig into the Top Secret games and see what they have to offer.

I started with the original Top Secret and decided that it is not to my tastes.  I find it a dry read and the rules feel clunky.  I’m not opposed to crunchy systems and use GURPS as my measuring stick, especially for modern era games.  A game needs to give me a reason not to use GURPS for me to get it to the table.

However Top Secret / S.I. impressed me and lives up to the claim of being a more streamlined system than original.  The rules still have a fiddly quality to them, but with a logical flow that makes them easy to understand and use.  There are a number of specific mechanics that intrigue me, some of which I’m surprised we haven’t seen in other games.  From here on any reference to Top Secret will refer to the S.I. edition.

The majority of the rules are contained in a 96 page Players’ Guide.  An Administrator’s Guide offers expanded rules for specific situations, GM advice, and design tips, but the Players’ Guide is the core of the game.  Agents are defined by five primary attributes, two secondary attributes, a handful of advantages and disadvantages, and a number of skills that are selected from within the agent’s career specialty.  All stats and rolls are based on a d100 percentage base.  Skill and attribute checks receive circumstance modifiers allowing the GM to make things easier or harder as the situation dictates.

Players have the option to do a psychological profile for their agents, assigning key word “tags” to define the quirks and foibles of their agent.  These have no in-game function but it does replace the traditional character description with something that has a more 70’s psychiatric vibe to it.

At its core the game’s rules have a feel similar to TSR’s science fiction game Star Frontiers or Chaosium’s Basic Role-Playing, but from there Top Secret goes off in its own direction.

The combat rules use a hit location system.  This is nothing new in RPGs, but hit location systems usually feel like an add-on to the combat rules and in practice I find that they are quick to be discarded.  In Top Secret combat is built around the hit location system and the results are elegant.

Top Secret combines the agent’s To Hit and Hit Location rolls into a single percentile roll.  If the player rolls under their agent’s combat skill, they hit.  The value of the ones die determines where the target was struck.  Weapon damage is kept a separate roll, but for unarmed combat the damage is combined into this single roll with the tens die indicating the damage.  An agent’s constitution is divided evenly between the ten hit locations.

For example, an agent with a 65% hand-to-hand skill is punching a guard with a constitution score of 60.  She rolls a 42, indicating that she hit the guard in location 2 (the left chest) for four points of damage, leaving him with two points remaining in that spot.

Damage is indicated on the character sheet (called an agent’s dossier) by a character silhouette with a set of boxes at each hit location, This looks more at home in a Battletech game than a TSR role playing game but it works quite well. Unused boxes are blacked out and the remaining boxes are marked off as damage accrues.

There are three types of damage; bruises, wounds, and constitution damage.  Bruises are caused by blunt trauma, such as hand-to-hand combat or being struck by a club.  Bruises are marked off on the hit location with a single hash line and when the agent run out of points in a hit location, that body part is unusable.  If the location is the head, chest, or abdomen, the agent must make a CON check or fall unconscious.

Damage caused by a non-blunt weapon, or bruise damage exceeding the points in a single location, cause wound damage.  Wounds are marked with an X in the hit location box.  If an agent is wounded in a location that already has bruises, the hash marks are turned into X’s.  The third damage type, constitution, is done by poisons, radiation, and other effects that injure the entire body’s health instead of damage from combat.

There is a great deal about this system that appeals to me.  It allows characters to take and give a beating without risking death and without requiring additional rules for subdual.  This is especially appropriate to the spy genre, where being beaten up or clubbed into unconsciousness is a common trope.  At the same time it makes knives and guns dangerous, as they should be.  The system is quick and easy to understand and I’m surprised that it hasn’t been applied to other games.

The combat mechanics alone are enough to put Top Secret / S.I. onto my list of games I want to play so that I can see them in action.

I have more to say about Top Secret and In my next post I’ll talk about additional mechanics and other thoughts about the game in general.




Posted by on December 11, 2013 in Game Design and Mechanics, Gaming


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