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Top Secret / S.I. Part Three

—–BEGIN TRANSMISSION: FOR AGENT’S EYES ONLY —–

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!

Spy-vs-spy

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

 

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Top Secret / S.I. Part Two

—–BEGIN TRANSMISSION: FOR AGENT’S EYES ONLY —–

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

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

 

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