Top Secret memories
Amityville Mike over at the Society of Torch, Pole and Rope has a great post about Top Secret, TSR’s classic espionage RPG. Reading and responding to his post got me in a reminiscing-kind of mood, so here we are…
While it wasn’t my first RPG product (that was Knight Hawks), TS has the honor of being the first complete RPG I ever owned, a Christmas present from my grandmother.
My buddies and I played the heck out of this game for a good few years, mostly 1986-88. Being elementary-schoolers in a relatively conservative town, none of us had much of a grasp on real-world espionage or international relations. Insofar as the game was concerned, my worldview was formed more by James Bond, action-hero movies (Stallone, Chuck Norris, Schwarzenegger, et al), and Robert Ludlum novels, which I had recently discovered and was devouring as fast as I could get my hands on them.
We would take turns as Admin, so everyone would have a chance to play. I don’t remember who Admin’ed the most, maybe me or my buddy Dave… I can’t remember any specific mission objectives, but I imagine they were probably pretty standard fare like “rescue so-and-so” or “recover the stolen plans from Doctor X.” I do remember that our adventures pitted the team of agents against the Russians, Libyans, Red Chinese, Viet Cong, East Germans, neo-Nazis (although at the time we didn’t know about the neo- prefix), and the occasional megalomaniac super-villain (complete with secret base and unique henchmen). The only character of mine I remember was “Ice” Miller, named for the “top Western assassin” featured in one of the rulebook’s examples of play. I think he made 16th level or so, had tons of guns, gadgets, contacts, aliases, hot babes (which were introduced to play with the arrival of hormones in junior high), and so on…
These adventures were pretty straightforward, with the cloak-and-dagger stuff taking a back seat to bullets, bombs, and mayhem. As I recall, “intrigue” was a pretty foreign concept to us, limited to exchanges like this:
Admin: “You’re in the parking garage, you see a group of suspicious-looking men in dark coats get into a sedan.”
Players: “Let’s blast ’em!” If we needed to find out where the Bad Guy’s HQ was, the response would more likely be, “Let’s follow ’em!”
I don’t think we ever played “by the book.” There was far too many modifiers to calculate during combat, so we basically threw out most of the written system in favor of a much simpler percentile mechanic – when I encountered BRP (via Call of Cthulhu) years later, I was surprised to find a percentile mechanic so similar to the one we used! Most of our game was free-form though, with the Administrator doing a lot of handwaving and arbitrarily assigning percentage chances for actions (especially the more cinematic sort of stunts).
We eventually moved on – some of us to other games, others leaving the hobby completely – but for the time we played, we had a blast.