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.