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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.
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