Monthly Archives: February 2019

Top Secret – An RPG in Three Systems

Today, I’m going to have a look at one of the most famous espionage role-playing games ever made: Top Secret. While there have been others on the market (James Bond and Spycraft, for example), Top Secret is arguably the most famous, and the one for which I’ve seen the most nostalgia (though James Bond comes close).

What many players may not be aware of is that there have been three versions of Top Secret. The first one, published by TSR in 1980, was written and developed by Merle Rasmussen. The second version, Top Secret S/I, was developed by Douglas Niles and used a radically different system. The third version, developed by the new TSR’s staff in collaboration with Merle Rasmussen came out this past year and is known as Top Secret: New World Order.

While these three games share a genre, the systems are very different from one another and they each reflect what players of their eras think of when they think “spies.”

The original Top Secret seeks to emulate a more-or-less grounded-in-reality Cold War-era play style. To a modern player, reading the rules is a walk back through time, as it explains how to use a d20 that’s labeled 0-9 twice (which predate when I started playing in 1982). It basically uses a percentile system and character abilities are rated from 1-100, though due to modifiers applied at character creation, no starting PC will have a score of less than 26 in any given attribute. Secondary Traits are calculated using relatively simple algebra ((X+Y)/Z), and players roll for height, age, and glasses, though character handedness is determined by the player’s own handedness.

The game includes lots and lots of charts. A LOT of charts. Many many charts. The amount of charts isn’t really uncommon for complex games of that era, though they tend to make games like Top Secret and Cyborg Commando appear more complicated than they actually are (and the number of charts in both of those games makes AD&D look simple by comparison).

There are even charts for the types of missions and suggested experience point and rewards for those missions (which is actually pretty useful). Top Secret takes its role as an espionage RPG seriously and includes a listing of real world espionage organizations and a glossary of the lingo, which aging gamers nostalgic for this game may need magnifiers to read.

Top Secret rewards player savvy and genre literacy. I played it a couple of times as a kid when my only exposure to the spy genre was a couple of Sean Connery and Roger Moore James Bond films. I’m sure we played it wrong. I played it again with Merle Rasmussen at Gary Con several years ago. It still holds up, probably due to the timeless nature of the percentile-based play system.

Fast forward to the end of the decade. Roger Moore’s James Bond films had practically descended to self-parody, and while the Cold War still endured, technology had made huge leaps. Enter Top Secret S/I. While I have my suspicious why the system was so radically altered (it probably had something to do with paying royalties to Merle Rasmussen if they built upon his system without a certain percentage of changes), the game seems more willing to experiment with the system (though I’m not expert of the history of role-playing game system developments).

Top Secret S/I eschews the straight percentile roles for attributes, instead using d60 +10 (a d6 & d10 + 10), adds Advantages and Disadvantages and Lucky/Bad Breaks. The system sped combat up by utilizing only one roll to determine whether or not an attack was successful, damage dealt, and hit location. Players were able to modify the hit location depending on how skilled they were with the weapon they were using. Anecdotes available on the Internet suggest that this system could create strange, nonsensical results, but when I played it in the late ‘80s, I don’t recall that actually happened in practice.

Top Secret S/I was not nearly as chart happy as the original game and felt more like a high-stakes superspy game featuring supercar chases in exotic locations like Monaco (in fact, TSR release a Monaco-based boxed set: High Stakes Gambles). The PCs worked for a fictional (as far as a we know) agency called The Orion Foundation, and agents could use technology that existed just off in the near future. If Top Secret emulated films like Dr. No, From Russia with Love, The Spy Who Came in from The Cold, then Top Secret S/I would be more suited to Live and Let Die, Moonraker, Super Agent Super Dragon, and the modern Mission Impossible films. You could, of course, dial down the action quotient for a more classic espionage feel in Top Secret S/I, but dialing up the system of the original Top Secret to support a high-octane super agent genre might require more work. Like its predecessor, it has an extensive glossary of genre terms and was well-supported by TSR at the time.

Finally, in 2018, a new TSR, collaborating with Merle Rasmussen, released Top Secret: New World Order. Using modern RPG design philosophies, the system (Lucky 13) was updated to resemble a cross between that used in Savage Worlds, and a dice pool system. Players assemble their pool of dice by taking the die assigned to their attribute, relevant skill, and relevant asset to beat 13. The Target Number is adjusted based on a marker moving along the Tension Track. PCs also have access to between one and six fortune points each session (generated and kept secret by the Administrator so they never know exactly when their luck will run out) which can adjust the outcome.

In Top Secret:  New World Order, PCs work for ICON, another fictional (as far as we know) espionage organization. The game acknowledges that the genre works well with a single agent, and supports 1 Player/1 GM game play, in addition to larger groups.

Top Secret: NWO does well to emulate both classic espionage scenarios and more high-octane adventures (think the Daniel Craig James Bond films). My experience playing this game is limited to play-test session at Gary Con, where I saw the game develop over the course of several years. The system is my favorite of the three, though players nostalgic for old-school espionage game play will likely prefer the original Top Secret. I prefer RPGs with modern layouts (yay for the numbered list summarizing character creation!) and modern mechanics. Top Secret: New World Order has the advantage of being currently available and published by a company working towards supporting it. If you want an older version of the game, you’ll be forced to the second-hand market and some materials are rare and pricey.


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Metamorphosis Alpha

Today, I’m looking at Goodman Games’s Metamorphosis Alpha Collector’s Edition reprint. This book collects a scan of the original printing of the first edition of TSR’s first sci-fi RPG (indeed, THE first sci-fi RPG) along with supporting magazine articles, essays and interviews, and an all-new adventure written by the creator of MA, James M. Ward. Through the Kickstarter, consumers could also receive all manner of supplements and adventures, but for the purposes of this post, I’m just looking at the core game book itself.

The game takes place on a generation ship, the starship Warden, centuries after a cataclysm rendered the original mission moot. The ship now continues on its way, cruising/drifting aimlessly, while factions within the ship, from humans, to mutants, to robots, androids, and other odd creatures, all struggle for survival, many of whom having forgotten long ago that the environs in which they live are a ship, rather than the known universe.

Metamorphosis Alpha was the first of Goodman Games’s nostalgia-driven reprints of classic TSR gaming material. Whether or not its success (and subsequent success of the Epsilon City expansion for this 40+ year-old game) was the catalyst for Into the Borderlands and The Isle of Dread is a question you’ll have to ask someone who works for Goodman Games. It seems logical to me.

The book is essentially a coffee table book containing a cleaned-up scan of the original Metamorphosis Alpha game. I believe it’s reproduced at 100% size, even still, the text is quite small. The included essays and interviews shed some light on the game’s history and the magazine articles flesh out MA in ways that expansions would have, had any ever been printed. Back in those days, Dragon magazine was considered official expansion material for TSR’s games, anyway.

Younger readers (i.e. people who weren’t gaming in the late ‘70s-early ‘80s) may be taken aback by the inclusion of rules for Physical and Mental Defects (the game’s terminology, not mine). They make sense in context and once you read it, you know what the author was going for. These days, different terminology would be used, perhaps Advantages and Disadvantages. Just be aware that games this old are a product of their time and people weren’t as “woke” as they are now.

In addition to the magazine articles, we also get official errata and supplemental material, much of which is written by James M. Ward himself, like the new creatures and NPCs, intended to be the “monster manual” of MA that was never published during the game’s heyday. Michael Curtis contributes a section of modern advice for running an MA game. Clearly, they’re aware that these early RPGs suffered from editors’ and companies’ learning curves as far as organization went. It took me three passes to find the single sentence buried in a paragraph that described how to generate ability scores. Nowhere that I could find offered a breakdown of the character creation process. It’s definitely a substantial barrier to entry for these games, though. Granted, someone buying this book from Goodman Games is probably not a neophyte player looking to get started with role-playing games.

As far as the Metamorphosis Alpha gameplay goes, I don’t think I’ve ever actually played the game as written. When I played in an MA game at Gary Con with James M. Ward, I got the sense he was playing very fast and loose with the rules. That’s not uncommon for games at conventions, especially if the GM is providing an “experience” more than a demonstration of a particular game. That’s fine. Based on that, playing MA is like Land of the Lost, only you find out you’re on a spaceship instead of some forgotten prehistoric valley. I suppose, in that sense, it’s not dissimilar from the Star Trek episode “For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky” (which is explicitly called out as an inspiration for MA).

Having said that, I think the premise for the game is solid. A GM certainly wouldn’t have to stick with primitives vs. robots/mutants. A few forgotten supply caches later and your stone tool-wielding PCs could have lasers and grenades (whether or not they know how to use them safely is a different matter entirely). MA’s premise reminded me of another game, West End Games’s Paranoia. In that, PCs live in a domed city, Alpha Complex) with no solid information of what lies beyond, being so ignorant they can’t even identify trees and common animals (and if they can, such knowledge marks them as a traitor, because how else would they have information so far above what their security clearance has access to?). I used this in the last Paranoia adventure I ran at Gary Con. In it, the PCs discover what is essentially a giant spaceship buried underneath the city. The intelligent roaches working on the ship provide the PCs with a choice: help them launch the ship and escape Alpha Complex or sabotage the ship, destroying it and a substantial portion of the city with it. If they launch the ship, it is revealed that it is, indeed, the Warden. The idea was, I would hang up my Paranoia GM’s hat for a bit and move on to running MA. That was two years ago and life has conspired to keep me from returning to that convention and adding another connection to the loosely-connected series of Paranoia adventures I’d been running for almost seven years.

MA influenced several other TSR products of the day. Gamma World (the first edition, anyway) is basically “MA on a planet,” and S3: Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, an AD&D adventure from the early ‘80s, featured a crashed spaceship in a fantasy world that greatly resembled a scaled-down Warden. TSR clearly had no compunctions about mixing genres. The early days of roleplaying games was a gonzo, anything-goes experience at times and the game was not nearly as “pure” as some players blinded by nostalgia would have you believe. The only wrong way to play is the way in which you and your friends are not having fun.

If you want a more in-depth look at this product, there is currently a “Where-I-Read” thread on covering this product.

Categories: Random Thoughts | Tags: , , ,

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