Game Design Masterclass: James Bond 007

Watching the trailer for the upcoming movie No Time to Die (the 25th Bond film) I realized it was about time to share a bit of love for one of my favorite long out of print games. While Ghostbusters is often held up as one of the greatest early licensed games, for me its James Bond 007. The game appeared in 1983 from Avalon Hill’s RPG imprint Victory Games, designed by Gerard Christopher Klug (who has since moved into video games). The game received a very healthy selection of supplements (5) and adventures (11) until 1987 when problems with the license ended the line. There are two things about the game that qualify it as a design masterclass. The first is the way it runs skill tests, and the second is the clever way the adventures were written.

Bond.gif

We’ll start with the skill system, and to be fair it isn’t as elegant as it might be by modern standards, but this was the early 80s. To make a skill test, you first work out the ‘primary chance’ for your skill. This is a combination of an attribute (or two) and a skill rating that is calculated before you start and recorded on your character sheet. So the game gets points for getting most of the maths out of the way before you get playing.

When you attempt a task, the Gamemaster gives you an ‘Ease Factor’ (difficulty) from ‘half’ to ten, with 10 being the easiest. Multiply the primary chance by the ease factor and you have your success chance. OK, so not all of the maths are done, but the table is printed on the character sheet so the player can quickly announce their success chance once they have a difficulty. This alone is worth a quick round of applause as few systems have space to print an important table on a character sheet. Certainly at the time, tables were the exclusive preserve of the Gamemaster!

Having determined the success chance, you can roll a percentage dice to see if you pass, but also how well you have done. The quality rating of your roll (from 1-4) is determined by checking your roll against your success chance on the quality table. Sadly that isn’t on the character sheet, but the Gamemaster can give you that result.

While that might sound a bit involved it actually runs very swiftly. The Gamemaster tells you the difficulty, you check your chance to succeed and roll the dice, then the Gamemaster tells you how good the roll is. For a table based system it is very quick and easy (and these are the days of Rolemaster!). It may not be the first, but it is certainly one of the earliest systems I know that not only looked for a pass or fail but also wanted to see how well you had done.

While the multiplication table might seem a bug, it’s actually a feature. As the table is on the character sheet, and is very quick to reference, it means the ease factor can change without slowing down the game. This is where the system really shines. When you perform a car chase (for example – a staple of a Bond film) the Gamemaster and player bid down the ease factor, starting from 10. Whoever is willing to bid the lowest is the one who gets to call the shots in the exchange. It’s not every game you get to play chicken with the Gamemaster, and this gives you the option to push your luck as far as you think you can. With the table on the character sheet, it is easy for the player to see what their success chance will be each time they bid. It’s quick and exciting and one of the best systems I’ve seen for car chases. Doubly so in that every vehicle has a ‘redline’ ease factor. If the bidding goes below it and the roll is a failure, there are dire consequences for pushing the car/speedboat/helicopter too far.

The rest of the system is also pretty simple. A character is built on 5 attributes (Strength, Dexterity, Willpower, Perception and Intelligence) and their skills. Health is dealt with by wound levels (possibly one of the first times that idea appeared) rather than hit points or the like. Each character also gets some Hero points to modify dice results (possibly another first) and Fame points to represent how well known they are. You get more fame as you do missions, but need to do your best to minimize it as being well known in the espionage game is not good!

Incidentally, certainly at the time and possibly today, it is the only system I know where it is statistically advantageous to play a female character. Female agents get a Fame point reduction as most agencies have fewer female operatives. They also get a bonus when using the seduction mechanics. Now I’ll grant you these are not especially enlightened advantages! But it is nice to see mechanics favoring female characters (albeit not by much) at a time when D&D still limited their Strength attribute.

Having looked at the system, I also wanted to mention the adventures. First off, they were amazing in terms of handouts and presentation (for the time). While the later ones were released as simple booklets, the early adventures came in a box. This included an adventure booklet and an envelope (marked ‘top secret’) full of handouts. These were mission briefs, photographs of targets and NPCs, secret dossiers, shipping manifests, itineraries, all manner of details you might find on the mission. Even if you never play the adventure, marvel at the production from ‘the golden age of RPG handouts’.

While the production was good, what I really wanted to mention about the adventures was their design. Each was based on the film of the same name and offered the obvious issue of what to do if the players had seen the movie. Luckily, these adventures managed to allow the players to enjoy all the iconic scenes from the movie, but for totally different reasons. So the mission itself was very different, and just following what happened in the film would take the players far far away in the wrong direction. They even carried a warning on the back “Assuming this mission is the same as the movie can be dangerous to your character”. So, if you are an adventure designer, take a look at any of these to see how you can capture a very well-known story and still deliver a mystery.

Finally, the other great thing about this game is how it adapts to different groups. Characters had three ability levels, Rookie, Agent and 00. So, each adventure was designed for a group of Rookies, a couple of Agents or a single 00. This allowed you to play as one on one or as a group without any adaptation.

So, while it may have a few clunky aspects, James Bond 007 is an RPG that has stood the test of time and delivers a masterclass in not only game design but how to match an RPG to a license. It still works today as well, if you want to play more in the Daniel Craig than the Sean Connery or Roger Moore style of Bond.
 
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Andrew Peregrine

Andrew Peregrine



SavageCole

Punk Rock Warlord
I played more of this RPG than any other back in the day. It's still the game that I compare all other games to in terms of mechanics, adventure design, and even rulebook layout. It played fast and loose with Ease Factor being relatively simple to approximate on the fly once you got used to it. The gadgets, cars, weapons supplements were also pretty impressive in their detail and presentation for the time. Great review that put a smile on my face this Friday morning.
 

James Bond is definitely one of the best RPGs ever. It works absolutely beautifully to recreate 007 super spy silliness. The bidding system works wonderfully to create interest in challenges. I can't think of another game where the players are the ones who are constantly making their skill rolls more challenging. The multiplication, which sounds so cumbersome when describing it, plays simply at the table, and the hidden benefit is that high skill level people can't simply take a penalty that prices their competition out of a test. It works so well that things that would normally be tedious are actually fun, like gambling. It also made the gear in the game super fun to mess about with, and I am someone who normally is sort of anti-gear.
It was the base of all my homebrew games for quite some time (Homebrews because my fellow gamers always wanted fantasy games). The mechanics for Hero Points are still a go to addition to anything I start to tinker with.
 




Ulfgeir

Hero
Was ages ago since I played James Bond. I do recall though that it didn't work for our group as we were too many players. I think the optimum was 3-4 rookies or 2 agents or a lone 00. I agree that the handouts were very gorgeous at the time.
 
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Group size was definitely important in a James Bond game. The 00s are so good at everything that it is very hard to have niche protection if that's important to the players.
 

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