Tag Archives: TSR

Against the Slave Lords

I’m not picking up any more books, physical or digital, until I catch up on my backlog. I have enough books and gaming materials to keep me occupied for a long time.

Wait, what’s this?

*sigh* Okay, ONE more .pdf can’t hurt, right?

DND Classics/DriveThruRPG/RPGNow has a lot of classic Dungeons & Dragons products on sale right now, but one of the most notable is the recently-released .PDF copy of the complete Against the Slave Lords campaign. This is the digital version of the hard cover print collection they released not too long ago. This book includes the classic A1-4 as well as the adventure A0, Danger at Darkshelf Quarry which was added for the hardbound collection. On a quick skim it looks like the .PDF is a good clean scan.

Clocking in at 178 pages the full cost is about $50, but for the time being it’s on sale for $9.99. At that price I had to fail my Saving Throw vs New Books.

You can find Against the Slave Lords right over here.


Clearly I need to add a picture with the “1” showing.

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Posted by on January 14, 2016 in Fantasy, Gaming


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Weighty Matters

One of the fun things about the OSR is that it has inspired me to pull out the old books and try to figure out why rules were designed the way they were.

Case in point, why did D&D use gold pieces as a standard of weight? Why not use a real world standard, like pounds or kilograms?

The AD&D Player’s Handbook specifies that encumbrance is measured in Gold Pieces, with ten gold pieces equal to one GP of weight. One GP of weight is roughly equal to one pound, but it isn’t a direct comparison. The Dungeon Master’s Guide clarifies that encumbrance is not a true measure of weight, but an abstraction of weight and volume:

“Many people looking at the table will say, ‘But a scroll doesn’t weigh two pounds!’ The encumbrance figure should not be taken as the weight of the object – it is the combined weight and relative bulkiness of the item.”

-DMG, Pg. 225

This is a reasonable, if fiddly, explanation for why D&D wouldn’t simply use standard measures of weight. However the reason for the Gold Piece standard goes deeper than just being an abstraction of weight and volume, its purpose is also to re-enforce the focus that early D&D was about finding treasure. The Player’s Handbook section on Encumbrance states:

“Lastly, as the main purpose of adventuring is to bring back treasure, provision for carrying out a considerable amount of material must also be made.”

-PHB, Pg. 101

Mentzer’s Basic edition also ties the importance of treasure to the mechanic of encumbrance:

“One coin of treasure, whatever the type (gp, ep, and so forth) weighs about 1/10 pound. Since coins are the commonest of treasures, the coin (not the pound) becomes the simplest unit of weight. From now on, the weight of all treasures, equipment, and so forth will be measured in coins, abbreviated cn.”

-Basic D&D Player’s Manual, Pg. 61

Dungeons and Dragons is full of seemingly arbitrary rules, but it’s fun to dig back into half-remembered concepts and discover the method behind the madness; that they were meant to re-enforce the vision that Gygax and Arneson had for the game.

 Encumbrance“Encumbrance? Oh… I didn’t think we were using those rules…”


Posted by on August 11, 2015 in Game Design and Mechanics, Gaming


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The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh

“Four miles east of Saltmarsh, just inland of the old coast road and looking out to sea, stands the Haunted House. Until twenty years ago it had been the residence of an aged alchemist/magician of sinister reputation, and even then had been shunned by reason of its owner’s mysterious occupations. Now, two decades after the sudden and unexplained disappearanceof its occupant, the house has acquired an even greater air of evil and mystery with the passing years.”

-The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh, pg. 3

The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh was written by David J. Browne with Don Turnbull and was published in 1981 by TSR’s UK division. It’s an excellent introductory module, designed for levels 1-3 and filled with enough twists and turns to keep the players guessing.

This was another of our go-to modules back when I started gaming. The haunted house aspect gave it a different flair from the other dungeons we ran and the mystery gave the adventure extra allure. If you’re not familiar with this module you may want to give this review a pass, as the titular secret is an important part of the scenario and there will be spoilers ahead.

You have been warned.

The adventure focuses on the abandoned mansion of an evil alchemist who vanished 20 years ago. Stories of mysterious lights appearing in the house, coupled with unearthly shrieks and other hauntings, have caused the people of Saltmarsh to shun the building. These tales are bolstered by locals who are all to eager to share stories of their narrow escapes from ghosts or vampires, especially if prompted by a few pints of ale. However there is also speculation about the missing alchemist’s wealth, which may still be hidden somewhere inside.

With a crumbling mansion on a cliff high above the sea combined with legends of lost treasure and evil spirits the setup is worthy of a Hammer horror film. However the true secret of the mansion is much more prosaic. The house is not haunted, it is the shore base for a group of smugglers who are lead by an illusionist. He uses his spells to perpetuate the myths about the house.

The mansion’s map is well done. The upper floors are creepy enough to keep the party on edge, a sensation bolstered by the illusionist’s spells. In true old school fashion the layout offers several ways to explore the house, and two secret ways to access the hidden lower chambers where the smugglers have their headquarters. Also within the lower halls is a sea cave where the smuggler’s ship can be found at anchor.

“You have entered a room which is so unlike anything else you have seen in the House that for a moment you pause, somewhat taken aback. The illumination here is good since several lighted torches are held in shoulder-high brackets around the walls. This was obviously a cellar, but equally obviously it is now used for an entirely different purpose; your first impression is that it is the living quarters for about ten people.”

-The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh, pg. 11

I have never failed to get a rise out of the party when they discover the truth about the house. The twist from Hammer horror film to Scooby Doo caper is what makes this adventure unique and memorable. It’s a fun mix of exploration and mystery with several fine additions thrown in, such as a room barricaded by the smugglers that contains some of the alchemist’s creations or the hidden laboratory where the alchemist’s final fate can be discovered.

The writing in the adventure is flowery and verbose, even compared to adventures written by Gary Gygax. I enjoy this and it makes the adventure fun for the DM to read. Unfortunately it also spills into the boxed text.

A note about that; unlike many in the OSR I am not against boxed text descriptions in modules. My friends and I didn’t learn D&D from older players, we were 12 and 13 year olds who figured it out on our own. As such, boxed text was helpful in teaching us how to describe things to our players. That’s what good boxed text should do, help the DM give the players an evocative description that also allows them to make decisions.

What boxed text should not do is tell players what their characters are doing and that happens a lot in Saltmarsh. Frequently the text tells the players not only what they see, but how they react to it, or how they approach it. For example, in one case the text assumes that the adventurers enter from the hallway and makes no sense if the characters are coming down the back staircase. However this is a minor flaw in an otherwise excellent module.

Aside from being a good adventure, Saltmarsh provides opportunities for further escapades. With its sturdy construction, secret chambers, and hidden sea cave more than one party has decided to turn the mansion into a base of operations. Some have restored the structure and lived there openly while others have picked up where the smugglers left off, especially if they capture the ship intact.

The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh was written as a lead-in to a three module series that includes Danger at Dunwater and The Final Enemy. However it is perfectly fine as a stand-alone adventure. If you’re looking for a classic module that combines traditional dungeon crawling with an interesting twist I recommend tracking down a copy. It’s available in .pdf from and print copies shouldn’t be too hard to find.




Posted by on January 26, 2015 in Fantasy, Gaming, Reviews


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Mordenkainen’s Fantastic Adventure

“The module you are about to read contains the basis for one of the most difficult adventures that my character, Mordenkainen the Mage, ever underwent.”

-Gary Gygax, Special Preface to WG5

Mordenkainen’s Fantastic Adventure was co-written by Robert Kuntz and Gary Gygax as module WG5 of the “World of Greyhawk” adventure series. It was meant to be a stand-alone adventure set in the ruins of Maure Castle, not far from the Free City of Greyhawk. The module is based off an adventure created by Robert Kuntz when he took on the role of co-DM for Gary’s original Greyhawk campaign.

“Primarily, although not exclusively, I created my Castle, ‘The Ruins of El Raja Kye,’ from which this dungeon is derived, for Gary Gygax, who deserved an opportunity for some extensive play because of all the judging (in between all the writing) he had done for the players in his Greyhawk Campaign.”

-Robert Kuntz, Introduction to WG5

I love getting glimpses like this into how the Lake Geneva gaming group worked. It’s a wonderful reminder that Dungeons & Dragons was created by gamers just like us, with the same concerns at the table that we still have today. These were our people, or perhaps I should say we are their people.

It’s also nice to see that Gygax wasn’t the only one who had a fondness for long, comma filled sentences.

The OSR has talked extensively about many classic modules, but Mordenkainen’s Fantastic Adventure seems to be mostly overlooked. This surprises me, because it has always been one of my favorites. I ran it several times for my first gaming group (remember re-running modules?) and used it again with my first university group. I suspect that its late arrival on the scene is why it doesn’t receive more attention, 1984 being beyond what many gamers consider to be the golden age of D&D.

Which is a shame because WG5 is a classic dungeon in every sense. The maps twist and turn and it’s three levels are dense enough that careful cartographers will be able to spot hidden areas. There are tricks and traps aplenty, some quite deadly while others can despoil the characters’ hard won treasures. The dungeon is largely a hack & slash with few options to negotiate with the dungeon denizens, but that’s not to say it doesn’t require thought. Adventurers who simply kick in each door and start swinging will have a harder time than those who use tactics and caution.

WG5 can be classified as a “funhouse dungeon” but not a completely arbitrary one. There is enough story to tie events together if the players pay attention to the clues. The castle was a legendary center of magic before it fell into ruin. Since then a powerful and evil wizard named Tomorast has taken up residence in the dungeon and surrounded himself with minions, apprentices, and the demon-cult he has formed. A cult whose numbers have been dwindling due to Tomorast’s penchant for using them as sacrifices to the greater demon Kerzit. Kerzit is a guardian demon who Tomorast has summoned to protect his greatest treasure, a grimoire known as the Tome of the Black Heart. Tomorast has used the dungeon as a laboratory and storehouse for his magical experiments and now his own deadly creations have mixed with those remaining from the castle’s history.

There are many other things about WG5 that I like. The adventure opens with a two-page section called, “The Adventure Begins,” which guides the players through their journey to the castle ruins and describes their initial decent into the dungeon. It’s clearly written assuming that the players are using the pre-generated characters and feels forced, which I normally wouldn’t like. However the pre-generated characters are legendary figures from Gary’s campaign, Mordenkainen, Yrag, Bigby, and Riggby, and it feels like this is based on what actually happened when Gary was a player.

That feeling is certainly worth a short railroad.

The dungeon itself is well laid out in the classic style. It’s three levels deep, which makes it large enough to pack in plenty of adventure but not so large that it takes over a campaign. Though by its nature there are plenty of options for the DM to expand it on their own. Each section begins with a short description of the general feel of that level including notes on the construction, which helps the DM to describe the environment and provide some clues on the dungeon’s history. For example the stonework on the third level is noticeably more recent, indicating that Tomorast has been expanding the dungeon to suit his needs.

That’s not to say the module is flawless. There is only one way to descend from level one to two and it is hidden behind a secret tunnel. I tend to look at designs like this with a practical mind and the dungeon’s creators wouldn’t have put up with such a difficult design. I’d add a more accessible way to reach level two, but I might bar the second path with a magical gate that can only be opened from below, or perhaps have it filled by a tunnel collapse. There are three paths between level two and three, but they don’t line up on the map correctly. It’s so far off that I wonder if it was intentional, indicating some kind of magical teleportation such as you find in the Castle of the Mad Archmage, but this is never stated.

The adventure is designed for characters level 9-12, which I like. It’s powerful enough to be epic but still within the range of what most gaming groups can legitimately reach through regular play. Danger is present from the moment the characters enter the dungeon and the module doesn’t hold off on true peril, with one of the most deadly (and spectacular) challenges found on the first level. Treasure abounds within, including potent magical items, but most of these objects are designed to be interesting and cool rather than overpowered.

The Tome of the Black Heart itself is no simple spellbook. Instead it’s a manual with instructions for creating objects and summoning powerful otherworldly beings rather than simply providing more spells for the wizard’s arsenal. I particularly like this, as this makes obtaining the Tome feel less like the completion of an adventure and more like the opening of several new quests.

This concept is reflected throughout the dungeon and fires the imagination of both the players and the DM. Every quest completed, every great treasure obtained, is just the key to the next adventure.

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Posted by on January 13, 2015 in Dungeon Design, Gaming, Reviews


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The DragonDex

I came across this nifty resource today.

The DragonDex is an exhaustive index of every article in Dragon Magazine, from issue #1 to issue #359. That’s an impressive feat!

In addition to the total index there are sub-indexes that will help you narrow your search. Of special interest to me is the Adventures list and the Fiction list looks fun. There are two lists that I’m surprised not to see, most notably a collection of the various PC and NPC classes presented in Dragon, but those would be easy enough to parse out from the master list.

Hats off to the creator for this handy resource.

*UPDATE* The character classes are broken out under a heading in the master index! Hat-tip to the author for the correction!

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Posted by on October 7, 2014 in Cool Stuff, Gaming


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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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The Halls of Beoll-Dur

The Halls of Beoll-Dur is an adventure printed in issue #41 of Dragon Magazine, September of 1980. Four authors are given credit; Dave Luther, Jon Naatz, Dave Niessen, and Mark Schultz. It is designed as a mid-to-high level adventure for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons where, “it is essential to the success of an expedition that most, if not all, party members be 8th level or higher.”

Adventures are some of my favorite gaming features and I played or ran quite a few of the ones that saw print in Dragon. So it came as a surprise to learn about The Halls of Beoll-Dur, an adventure I had not known about until recently. Issue #41 was before I’d started subscribing to the magazine, but I’d made a point to get my hands on old issues, especially if I heard they had adventures in them. Fortunately I have a copy of the Dragon CD archive collection. Thus after over 30 years I have had the chance to delve into the pages of this adventure.

“You know what they awoke in the darkness of Khazad-Dum, shadow and flame.”

-Saruman the White

There are a lot of things I like about Beoll-Dur, both as an adventure and from a design standpoint. The influence of Tolkien is heavy, from names like the dwarf cleric Duinor and the stronghold’s name of Beoll-Dur, to the setup for the adventure itself.

Beoll-Dur is a large dwarven stronghold dug deep into the heart of a dormant volcano. It was founded as a training site for dwarven clerics, where they could learn and pray in isolation form the outside world. All went well for the temple, until the volcano woke up.

Fissures opened, ripping a crevice through parts of the complex and opening a passage to the lair of Searazul, king of the Salamanders. The fiery warriors stormed up into Beoll-Dur and though the dwarves fought bravely, they were overwhelmed. A few survivors holed up in a hidden chamber, eventually tunneling their way to freedom, while the high priest Duinor and his chosen clerics made a last stand. Duinor’s spirit lives on in the complex, holding out within a divine sanctuary in the hopes that one day the halls will be delivered from Searazul’s grasp.

It’s a great setup for an adventure, with equal parts Moria and Erebor at its foundations.

“Oh I do love maps.  I have quite a collection.”

-Bilbo Baggins

One of the first things I do when reading an adventure is look at the map. Like mister Baggins I do love maps, and if the map appeals to me it’s likely the adventure will too. The map of Beoll-Dur does not disappoint.

The design is aesthetically pleasing, hand drawn by someone with skill but just rough enough that it feels less like a professional module and more like a very well done home adventure. Instead of the usual blue or black fill for solid space, Beoll-Dur’s map uses a hash pattern very similar to the wonderful maps being produced today by Dyson Logos. There are some nice artistic flourishes and I’m fond of the script used for the text, though it doesn’t work as well for the numbers in the room keys.

The layout of the complex is nice, not too spread out and not too cramped and the structure makes sense for a location that was once inhabited. You can tell a lot about the dungeon just from the map and a lot of thought went into the layout here.

“If there is a key there must be a door!”


The upper two levels of Beoll-Dur are a nice mix of realistic and weird encounters. There are temples, lecture halls, dining chambers, recreation, and bedchambers fitting to a population. Then there are stranger things; imprisoned monsters waiting to attack, strange places where elemental magic has crept in, hidden magic chambers, crypts and tombs for the honored dead, and a massive boiling pool that erupts into an enormous geyser. In the center, running between the levels, is a great crystal column where the spirit of Duinor resides, forming an area of sanctuary for those who would aid his beloved stronghold.

But only if they prove themselves worthy of his aid.

The deepest layer holds the chambers of King Searazul and his salamanders, where his elite troops train and his council prepares gateways to other planes of existence. It’s easy for a dungeon master to see Searazul’s halls as the beachhead from which he plans to carve out a domain of fire on the prime material plane.

In fine old school form, there is a lot of exploring to do. Many rooms are empty of monsters. Some hold puzzles, some are deadly traps, some give clues to the history of the site.

And there are secrets. Many secrets. The party that doesn’t search for secret doors will miss a great deal within Beoll-Dur, something which I have an appreciation for. There is a great deal of treasure within the halls and most of it is hidden.  Players will need to work to find it, but for those who do a fortune will be theirs.

If they survive.

“The dark fire will not avail you, flame of Udun.  Go back to the shadows!”


I like that they used salamanders as the primary adversaries. They’re not monsters I see used very often. They give an infernal feel to the adventure without resorting to more common demons and devils players are used to fighting. Other fire related menaces arise as the party delves deeper into the halls, including the atmosphere itself. Those without fire protection will suffer from the increasing heat, though Duinor will offer some protection to those who pass his test.

The design of the module is interesting, with a few features that are atypical for traditional D&D adventure design. The adventure goes straight into an “Instructions to the Dungeon Master” section instead of an introduction. The history of the site is given in straightforward text, without the flowery language usually used for backstory. Though it is no less evocative for the lack of purple prose.

A very interesting design choice is that individual rooms are not always keyed. Instead a central room in a section is numbered and the description covers the main room and the surrounding chambers. For example, a single entry covers the dining hall, the kitchen, and the officers’ mess. In another location three hidden treasure rooms share a single numbered entry.

The descriptions themselves are concise with enough information to let the dungeon master build upon. The effect has more in common with the OSR’s one page dungeon design or the descriptions in Stonehell Dungeon than with anything TSR is known for. I’m sure that this style was used because of the space limitations in Dragon Magazine and it allows the authors to cram a lot of material in a short amount of space. The adventure is 16 pages including the maps.

The Halls of Beoll-Dur is an excellent example of old school adventures. It’s fun and interesting to read and will provide a good challenge to any adventuring party. I’m surprised at how long I remained unaware of this adventure. It should receive more attention within the OSR circle and is worth your time to track down.

Have you run or played The Halls of Beoll-Dur? I’d love to hear stories about how the adventure went.



Posted by on February 18, 2014 in Dungeon Design, Gaming, Reviews


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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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