Reviews

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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The Isle of Dread

X1: The Isle of Dread… not quite as iconic as B2: The Keep on the Borderlands, but most players who started playing with B/X or BECMI are familiar with it. Like The Keep on the Borderlands, it was included in the Expert set boxes and was intended to show DMs how to run wilderness adventures.

As a sandbox, it doesn’t have much of a plot, per se. It’s an environment. Oh, there are hooks to get the PCs there, and most PCs, especially back in the days when treasure gave you XP, didn’t need much of a reason beyond “There’s treasure over there!” to go adventuring. Rory Barbarosa’s letter speaking of a great black pearl was all most groups needed to explore the Isle of Dread.

Goodman Games has re-printed this classic wilderness adventure in a hardbound tome containing three versions of the adventure: the first printing, the fourth printing, and a 5E update.

The differences between the 1st and 4th printings are less subtle than those in The Keep on the Borderlands. Mostly, some encounters have been replaced to make them more sensible. When I read that, the first thing I did was flip to the most infamous encounter to my home group: the flooded temple on Taboo Island. In it, several members fell prey to albino mako sharks. Saltwater fish, in a flooded temple on top of a mile-high plateau several hundred miles from the coast. That encounter has been changed (I had no idea there were multiple versions I ran it; I don’t think I have a first printing, but my copy is from the first three printings before the encounters were updated). Losing two characters to WTF sharks?? so demoralized the party, they retreated back to a village where one of the surviving PCs retired completely and it more-or-less rang the death knell for that campaign.

The meat of the module is unchanged between the three copies. There are still several unique tribes of creatures on the isle, from the arachnid Aranea, to the monkey-raccoon Phanatons, to the Lovecraftian Kopru, and more. Whether or not these tribes are friendly, hostile, or indifferent is up to the PCs’ approach and the DM (except the Kopru, those dudes are evil… but don’t let that stop you from joining the cult of an Elder God and taking over the world). There are dinosaurs, random encounters of the “OH CRAP, RUN!” variety (which kills many PCs because running is anathema to many players), environmental hazards, and mysteries.

Goodman’s 5E update preserves all of these, and provides more guidelines for use of the random encounters. For many groups back in the day (especially us young, self-taught groups), a random encounter was synonymous with random combat. So, if that die roll indicated a Wild Black Dragon appeared, then you were fighting a black dragon, even if you were woefully under leveled. If the DM was nice, they might let you run away. A lot of DMs weren’t nice (hence the reputation of Old School play for being adversarial Player vs. DM).

One thing I should point out, and this holds true for Into the Borderlands, too, is that while the original versions of these adventures printed in these books are cleaned up scans of the original (nicely cleaned up, in fact–that’s a lot of work), the 5E updates have good-sized print and are easy to read. My aging eyes really appreciate that.

Next month, at Gary Con, it’s expected Goodman Games will announce the next volume in their Original Adventures Reincarnated line. I’m having trouble thinking of any more BECMI adventures that are as iconic as B1, B2, and X1, but I look forward to the announcement (even though I won’t be there myself to hear it). Personally, I would LOVE to see an update of the AD&D adventures EX1: Dungeonland and EX2: The Land Beyond the Magic Mirror (actually, I would LOVE LOVE LOVE to work on that, because adore the Alice in Wonderland stories and wrote several papers on them in school, and I LOVE those adventures; I’ve worked one or both of them into campaigns I’ve run for just about every group of my adult life; and yes, that’s a hint if anyone from Goodman Games reads this :p).

I have one more Goodman Game’s reprint to showcase here: Metamorphosis Alpha. I’ll be reading that next, then… who knows? Something fun, something classic, something cool.

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Into the Borderlands

Recently, Goodman Games released a hard bound reprint/update of B1: In Search of the Unknown & B2: The Keep on the Borderlands called Into the Borderlands. It includes 2 different versions of the original publications, plus 5E updates of these adventures.

B2 was my first D&D experience back in 1982. The GM used it as the basis for the first 3E campaign I ever played in in 2001. I ran it for my first 4E campaign in 2008. I was really unfamiliar with B1, though. I’d heard about In Search of the Unknown, of course. I’d heard it was just an empty dungeon that DMs needed stock themselves and to pre-teen and teenage me, I didn’t see the point.

So, Into the Borderlands contains a reproduction of the original publication of B1, an updated reprint version, and a stocked 5E update of it. Naturally, you can strip out the 5E encounters to use your own (more in a minute on that). The original B1, indeed, is an unstocked dungeon, but don’t mistake that for just a map with empty rooms. Each room has a description rich with the history of what WAS. Why it’s there, what it was for when built. It gives you a good background to use when deciding how to stock the location. Are bandits looting it now? A team of historians? A tribe of bugbears? Are they just random looters, or related to the original builders?

So, B1 is much more robust than I ever thought it was. It includes suggestions on how to stock the rooms, as well. Goodman also includes 3 stocked versions by their designers before the 5E update. It also mentions that the designers intend the word “dungeon” to refer to ANY of the myriad unground complexes ripe for exploration and not just trap/monster-filled lairs of illogical coincidences or literal dungeons used as jails under castles. It makes me wonder if Monte Cook had this in mind when he expressly called the complex of lairs, caves, and ruins under Ptolus “The Dungeon?”

I’m sure almost everyone who’s been playing since the ’70s/early ’80s has their own memories of Keep on the Borderlands. Either the mad hermit in the wilderness, or the ogres that served as a serious wake-up call for unsuspecting adventurers. The Keep on the Borderlands is a beloved classic adventure. For many people (myself included), it is an integral part of our earliest D&D experiences.

One interesting thing I noticed in B1 is that the original 1979 map & text uses Roman numerals for the rooms, in excess of 40 described locations. The 1981 update keeps the Roman numerals on the map, but uses standard Arabic numbers in the text. That’s not confusing at all. Fortunately, the 5E update uses Arabic numbers on both the map AND the text. The 5E update also fleshes out a few locations mentioned on the map that were not covered in the 1979 or 1981 versions.

Included in this hefty tome are also three version of B2: The Keep on the Borderlands. Two of the earliest printings (including the one I have several copies of from my Basic sets), and a 5E update. B2 doesn’t seem to have changed all that much between printings, except for that minotaur illustration. The print run of B2 determined which minotaur you saw. If B2 was your first adventure, your first minotaur was either the Erol Otus minotaur chowing down on a chicken/turkey/??? leg or the Willingham armored minotaur. The armored minotaur was my first. Every copy of B2 I have features this guy, except now, for the first version of B2 included in Into the Borderlands.

Back when I first started playing D&D, B2 was the 1st adventure I ever played. We didn’t know what we were doing, so my fighter went through it cave by cave wiping out everything single-handedly. I had several notebook pages of loot. I don’t have any specific memories of running B2 from back in the day. I used it as the basis of my first D&D 4E campaign. It taught me that rooms FULL of monsters are A) hard to use on battlemaps and B) make for REALLY long 4E combats.

In retrospect, I shouldn’t have just swapped out the monsters with their 4E counterparts, but 4E was such a shift in playstyle from what I was used to, I had no idea. The adventure itself, though, the Keep, the Caves of Chaos, the sandbox nature of it, but not TOO sandboxy, it holds up.

Into the Borderlands includes two old versions of B2 and a 5E update. Without scouring the text line by line, the only change that stands out to me between the old versions is the aforementioned Minotaur art (and the color of the cover). The 5E update of B2 has much the same content, though the encounters have been adjusted to account for close to a 1/2 dozen edition changes (depending on how you count). The ogre is still there, & the Minotaur, both of whom could be a nasty surprise. Back in the day, the monsters in the Caves of Chaos were there to be killed (and have their stuff taken). I’m sure there were group who weren’t unabashed murderhobos, but I didn’t know those groups. More RP is encouraged these days between the PCs and the “monsters.” There’s no reason everyone in the Caves of Chaos have to be devotees of the cult, no matter which edition you play.

Using the Caves as a competing non-human settlement with the Keep could make a pretty rich campaign. Another change I noticed was the Mad Hermit is now a Druid instead of a Thief, which makes more sense (the druids were an unknown class when B2 was initially published). Together with B1, B2 as republished by Goodman Games is more a mini-campaign setting than merely two classic adventures. Of course, they were all along, but it’s nice to be reminded of it. Maybe in the future, I’ll run a game set there.

Next, I’ll look at Goodman Games’s reprint/update of X1: The Isle of Dread. After that, I’ll have a look at their reprint of the original Metamorphosis Alpha.

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Fallout 4 Review

First, a word on the previous two installments in the modern Fallout era: Fallout 3 and New Vegas. I enjoyed the quests and gameplay of NV over FO3, but I like the Capital Wasteland envrionment of FO3 better. The bombed out buildings and underground warrens felt more post-apocalytpic than the endless desert of the Mojave (I did LOVE the environment of the Honest Hearts DLC, though). I played both games multiple times, and at least once each completely unmodded (a real challenge on New Vegas, due to all the bugs; it wasn’t until my third modded playthrough that I actually got Veronica’s quest to work; my first game she got stuck and wouldn’t move at all, EVER). Still, I played the heck out of both of them, racking up over two hundred hours of play time on each game (over 400 hours on Skyrim, though, between 3 playthroughs).

I’ll try to avoid spoilers, though there may be a few (particularly about the opening). I haven’t played through the entire game yet, so I can’t speak to the ending. I do know you can continue playing after the ending, however, so it can’t possibly as bad as the original ending to FO3.

Fallout 4, the latest entry in the post-apocalyptic RPG series by Bethesda, starts off suitably bleak with you the Sole Survivor of Vault 111. Technically, that’s not true; you start off in 2077 before the war, and get to see a slice of life in the final days as you and your spouse plan your day with your infant offspring. The war comes to Boston and as fiery mushrooms sprout on the horizon, you race to Vault 111. Fade to black and when you come to, you are the Sole Survivor… sort of; your infant survives, too, and is kidnapped before you can free yourself from the cryogenic tube in which you’ve spent the last 200 years. Yes, Vault-Tec is back to its morally questionable antics with non-consensual experiments on its residents.

Thus begins the Main Quest: GIVE ME BACK MY SON! (Confession: I made a male character, so I don’t know if your child is a girl if you choose a female protagonist). It would be appropriate to make your character look like either Mel Gibson or Liam Neeson, and the robust character creator (which is similar, yet more detailed than Elder Scrolls Online’s character creator) allows creative and patient players to do just that. SPECIAL is still there, but skills are gone and you’re allowed to put a point into perks at each level (or level up a SPECIAL attribute; your choice). I hear there’s no level cap, so there’s plenty to go around (in fact, I understand in order to max out at 10 in all attributes and every perk (most, if not all, perks have multiple levels now), you’ll have to be over level 220). This makes it really hard to gimp your character by creating an energy weapons guy, then find out there aren’t very many at all in the first 1/3rd of the game (New Vegas, I’m looking at you).

That being said, rushing headlong into every fight thinking you can FPS your way to victory is a bad idea. It’s easy to get carried away exploring and wander in an area that’s far too dangerous for a fresh-out-of-the-Vault dweller. Power Armor makes a comeback, though, and with great power comes great responsibility, i.e. the responsibility to make sure you have enough fusion cores, because power armor actually uses power this time around. It’s also customizable if you’ve scavenged the right materials, so you can pimp it out and make it your own. Weapons and armor come in different flavors now, so they can be found with special qualities, similar to the weapons in the Borderlands series. While it’s pretty awesome to find a shotgun that fires exploding ammo from a game play perspective, it does take me out of the game a bit, because it just doesn’t feel real. That’s a minor quibble, though, because you can still mod those weapons and make them more awesome. You can’t break them down for scrap, though, so if you don’t want a particular legendary weapon, just pawn it off to your companion or sell it.

Intrepid Report Piper is making some stimpacks in the background.

Intrepid Report Piper is making some stimpacks in the background.

Fallout 4 is a scavenger’s delight and by the same token, the Settlement Building mini-game is an OCD packrat’s worst nightmare. You’re probably already in the habit of taking everything that isn’t nailed down. While you will immediately have a use for it (most things can be scrapped for parts), you can easily spend hours at a time building up your settlements. In theory, you could spend quite a lot of time doing nothing but. Too bad the controls are a little funky, a situation that will be modded on the PC, I’m sure.

Speaking of controls, Bethesda has committed the cardinal sin of screwing with keybinding. Some baffling choices have been hardcoded into the game. For example, melee and grenades are bound to the same key and cannot be separated. Rebinding the movement keys removes your ability to move around in Workshop mode, making building settlements such a huge pain-in-the-butt, that it is no longer something you’ll want to spend time on. If you’re not a leftie and are comfortable with a controller or the WASD default set up, this won’t be a bother. I’m a leftie though, and WASD is very uncomfortable for long periods of time. Breaking the interface when reassigning keys is extremely irritating (ME3 did this, too). I know WHY this is: it’s easier to design one control scheme shared across Xbox One, PS4, and PC than it is to design multiple control schemes that play to the strengths of each one. Still, that’s no excuse. It sucks, frankly. Fortunately, some Googling showed me how to install a keybind applet that resides in memory and bypasses the game’s keybinding so I can set up my preferences without breaking the interface too much (it’s NOT a mod for the game, so it doesn’t interfere with quests in any fashion). I can’t use the workshop menu at all with that script, though. I’m not sure which solution is better. The script is easier to disable when I do want to work on my settlements. I shouldn’t have to do that fiddle with these things to have a playable experience, though.

On the plus side, the game is playable. It is, in fact, the most stable Bethesda game I’ve ever played at launch. I didn’t come into Skyrim until several months (at least 6) after launch, so I can’t speak to it, but I remember the absolute nightmare FO3 could be (and NV was worse, but that was an Obsidian game built on Bethesda’s engine). Of course, WHY game publishers get away with releasing such buggy software could be a whole essay in and of itself, and I won’t get into that here.

Ain't he cute?

Ain’t he cute?

In addition to the stability, the companions are the most well-rounded of any Bethesda game, to date. They have personalities and quests, and romance options more in depth than Skyrim’s “I see you have an amulet and I like you well enough, let’s marry!” Many of them have quests of their own for you. One in particular is a source of Radiant Quests, ala Skyrim that you’ll either love or you’ll grow tired of and avoid him (or if you’re on a PC, hunt down a mod to turn off his Radiant Quests). Gone is the faction/Karma system of New Vegas, now your companions judge your actions based on their own philosophies and the rest of the world doesn’t really care if you steal from the raiders who have been shooting at you.

The skeleton tableaus and subtle back story woven throughout the environment is just as strong here as it has been in past installments. Sometimes, these after-the-fact stories are stronger and more engaging than the actual plot. Someone in the Commonwealth certainly likes setting up their teddy bears in odd positions. I found a couple in flagrante delicato, and another trying to read the paper while doing his business, if you get my meaning. In addition, I understand Bostonians find the geography unsettlingly accurate, if a bit compressed, much like D.C. residents did FO3.

Crafting is pretty robust, even putting the settlement building aside. You don’t have to hunt for food recipes, though perks are needed for some of the more advance chems, meds, weapon, and armor mods. In fact, food is pretty awesome, better than stimpacks in many cases. Plus, you get XP for cooking. Save your stimpacks for broken limbs and Dogmeat (if you can stand the whining when he’s injured, he’ll heal quickly, but it’s REALLY realistic and I hate hearing a dog in pain). They didn’t include the ability to craft ammo, though. It makes ammo nearly the most valuable resource in the Commonwealth, especially once you have a strong settlement up and running providing you with clean water and food. You can also rename your modded weapons, so you could have a ripper called “Dr. Teeth” and a gauss rifle called “The Electric Mayhem.” My double-barrel shotgun is called “Nora,” after my character’s wife who was a lawyer before the war. See, she’d give the opposition both barrels in her closing statements, like I do Feral Ghouls, even after I think they’re dead (ESPECIALLY if they look dead). I also modded up a flamethrower and called it “Trogdor the Burninator” and my scooped rifle is AT&T (reach out and touch someone).

The shooter portion of combat is better than it was in FO3 or NV and VATS is still there when you need assistance (and the annoying, darting giant insects are much easier in VATS). You’ll want that assistance when you finally encounter Deathclaws and Super Mutant Suiciders (they give new meaning to the term “Nuclear Football”).

Bethesda has definitely learned in the years since FO3, and probably have taken cues from other games as well. Fallout 4 is challenging and fun and a worthy addition to the Fallout Universe. There’s hundreds of hours of content here and future DLCs will no doubt only serve to strength that. Unfortunately, as much as I praised the companions earlier, some of the interactions with other NPCs is lacking. For example, the first time I encountered a friendly ghoul in the game (which did NOT exist at all for my character just a few days ago), there was no dialog option why this guy was so obviously inhuman; he just just another Bostonian. As I understand it, there are certain friendly ghouls to whom you do have a WTF? reaction the first time you see them, so apparently, I wasn’t supposed to encounter this guy before all the others. So, it’s possibly an oversight, but it was immersion-breaking.

Scenic Diamond City

Scenic Diamond City

If you think it’s a travesty that the Fallout series has moved beyond turn-based isometric games, then Fallout 4 is not going to change your mind. If you liked FO3 and NV, you will likely enjoy Fallout 4. PC gamers are used to Bethesda’s quirks by now and know that a decent game by them can become great with the proper mods. Fallout 4 is already a great game, mod will make it awesome.

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I Kan Haz Moar Reviews!

I have copied & updated a handful of reviews I had over on Amazon, since they were fantasy RPG-related and seemed pertinent. They’re mostly the same text as I had on Amazon, though I have additional thoughts from experience since it’s been YEARS since any of those reviews were written (D&D 4E had just come out when I wrote the review of HackMaster Basic). You can access them from the Reviews link at the top of the website. You don’t even have to go to the Reviews page!

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New Page – Reviews!

I’m not a professional reviewer, but some of you may want my opinions on some of the products I’ve purchased for use in gaming. To that end, I’ve created a reviews page and posted my first review: Gale Force 9’s Dungeon Master’s Keep – Ultimate DM’s Screen.

Each review I do can be found through the Reviews page, but I’ll also make a post (like this one) announcing it.

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