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My First Game: Top Secret/SI

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For the vast majority of people who get into the tabletop role-playing hobby, Dungeons & Dragons was the gateway. While I enjoy D&D and think my favorite edition of it is the current one, my education in games was much broader. The gaming group that I joined was a bit older than I was and they were sick to death of D&D by the time I started playing. Instead we had four rotating games we played each month and I am grateful for the exposure to multiple systems right away. I thought it might be fun to look at the first RPG that I ever bought: TSR’s Top Secret/SI.

Top Secret/SI was designed by Douglas Niles and Warren Spector and released in 1987. It is based on Merle Rasmussen’s Top Secret from 1980. While the earlier game adhered to a lot of design ideas from D&D, like levels and classes, Top Secret/SI hewed much closer to a contemporary: James Bond 007 RPG from Victory Games. It was a percentile based game featuring attributes that influenced skills, offered a combat system that shied away from hit points and even gave players the chance to save their character’s bacon with Fame and Fortune points. My favorite mechanic was using the ones digit to determine hit location in a fight, with skill levels allowing a master of combat to bump the hit to more vital areas.

The setting also took a turn. Players were now superspies working for ORION, a multinational agency fighting against WEB, a ruthless terrorist organization bent on world destruction. ORION gave this version more of a Mission Impossible with briefings in hidden secret bases around the world with colorful bad guys. The adventures did their best to grab pop culture influences like Commando movies and The Hunt For Red October. There were even a series of linked missions about freeing a fictional island from the grasp of WEB.

TSR thought it might be able to bend Top Secret/SI into a setting hub like it’s older sibling Dungeons & Dragons. It published two before the line shut down. F.R.E.E. Lancers was a dark future, street superpower setting where people with guns, gadgets and cool powers fought back against a corporate fascist America. Agent 13 was an homage to The Shadow hoping to hook people on pulp Indiana Jones style action. Of the two, Agent 13 worked on me. It sent me into used book stores for other pulp heroes of yore for more inspiration. (As a bit of trivia, the Agent 13 book was written by Ray Winninger, who is now the head of the Dungeons & Dragons studio at Wizards of the Coast). I’ve used that book in nearly every pulp game I’ve run from Adventure to Spirit of the Century and Broken Compass. There are some solid advice and villains in there that are very easy to steal since they were developed for fiction but nobody really knows about them.

I think something vital to my development as a game designer were the rules options presented in the book. “Espionage” is a broad category in fiction, just like “fantasy” and the designers gave suggestions on how to tweak the game to a table’s liking. I loved being able to adjust those rules on the rare chance that I ran a game for friends. It allowed me to run something down and dirty like a commando raid while also being able to create stats for Sledge Hammer of the eponymous 80’s satire show. I strive for that element in my own designs over the last twenty years, because I know a game is just a recipe and people fiddle with recipes all the time.

I’m not sure why I got hooked by Top Secret/SI rather than Dungeons & Dragons. I think both of them play into power fantasies and exotic locations. Blofeld’s volcano lair isn’t far off from a dragon’s hoard. I was more familiar with spy fiction than fantasy thanks to James Bond broadcasts on network TV. I think that people are more likely to get into a game based on fiction they already love. It’s why licensed games are important. If you love Star Wars, you’ll figure out FFG’s system. My reckoning was fantasy was yet to come, when I would pick up a system that had dragons and machine guns: Shadowrun.
 

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Rob Wieland

Rob Wieland




eyeheartawk

Works 60% of the time, every time
Would be curious as to the demographics of who didn't start with D&D.
(My fourth rpg, and only played 2-3 times in 40+ years.)
I'm 35 and started in the mid 90's. My first game was GURPS 3e, second was Vampire and third was actually AD&D 2e. I think it depends on when you started. There was a period between the late 80's and the advent of D&D 3e when D&D was far from the out and out pre-eminent roleplaying game.
 

pming

Legend
Hiya!

Interesting first -game choice! :)

I rather like Top Secret/S.I., to be honest. I used it for a VERY successful "Zombie Apocalypse" game back in 2008'ish I think it was (maybe earlier). My "Zombocalypse" as I named it. I created a new 'background' for the world, a brief overview (VERY brief!) of each major country/area of the world, and some rules for Zombie Hoards which, to this day, I am rather proud of. It worked PERFECTLY for what I was going for.

Nice system, easy to understand and use...and, true to that, easy to modify for whatever little 'genre/style' you want to play. Best system for any "modern day" game I've played so far...albeit with some minor "assumption upgrades" (like the Internet and Cell Phones, for example...).

^_^

Paul L. Ming
 

Augreth

Explorer
„The Dark Eye“ from Germany was my first Pen&Paper, but it was quickly followed by Dragonlance (2e) :)

Eye of the Beholder on the Amiga 500 introduced me to the realms before I even knew pen & paper games, and my friends and I were impressed by Yoda‘s massive 13d force ability, although we didn’t even know that d stood for dice. The number was just bigger than all the others :D
 

Mortus

Explorer
1983 Red Box, Mentzer/BECMI was my first RPG, but afterwards I was playing almost every game as they were published. I enjoy learning and playing new systems. Recently, I tried the S5S system through The Terminator RPG and it was awesome! Perfect, lethal fit for the IP and great hacking sub-system.
 

Lidgar

Hero
I also started with Top Secret, although it was the original version. Many fond memories of infiltrating secret bases and intense gunfights!
 

univoxs

That's my dog, Walter
Supporter
I think "pulp" is one of those genres that time has nearly forgotten, which is too bad. Are there any games in this genre currently being printed from big publishers? I haven't done my research.
 

Marc_C

Solitary Role Playing
I think "pulp" is one of those genres that time has nearly forgotten, which is too bad. Are there any games in this genre currently being printed from big publishers? I haven't done my research.
Modern AGE by Green Ronin has a Pulp Mode you can choose to play. I'm currently running a 1920s pulp campaign set in my home town.
 

eyeheartawk

Works 60% of the time, every time
I think "pulp" is one of those genres that time has nearly forgotten, which is too bad. Are there any games in this genre currently being printed from big publishers? I haven't done my research.
There's Cthulhu Pulp for CoC 7E. But that's not just straight pulp. The previous edition of Amazing Adventures from the Troll Lords was a straight pulp game before this current edition where it got turned into some universal 5E thing. But it hasn't been out of print long and copies can easily be found.
 

Didn't start with Top Secret/SI, but played it plenty. Still have my original, battered boxed set. Our campaign probably veered pretty close to sci-fi, being inspired by the more improbable parts of Roger Moore-era Bond. The Commando sourcebook injected a further element of classic 80s action movies.
 


Kannik

Adventurer
Nice! My first RPG (35ish years ago now, wow) was the original Top Secret, so this is dear to my heart (and to this day I still love spycraftian stories/movies and games). I also bought TS/SI the moment it came out, and we played a hybrid version of both sets of rules for quite a few years on all manner of missions, from the militaristic (using the Commando supplement) to the superspy variety (with gadgets galore). I'm sure if I revisited the rules we mashed together to create that hybrid version I'd be horrified, but we loved it back then. Top Secret got me hooked into playing RPGs real fast, and I began immediately designing and developed maps (using CAD even), modules, character sheets, handouts, and, of course, house rules galore. Good times, I still have all the books and modules on my shelf. :)

From there, we played a few other RPGs and I ended up not giving D&D a try until about 3-4 years later.

Thanks for sharing, it's great to read another account of someone introduced to the hobby via Top Secret! :)
 

It was a pretty good solid game design. There were other games which had solid mechanics, but the Fame and Fortune part was relatively new territory. TSR didn't usually innovate much after the early 80's in RPG design, but this game was an exception. I don't recall that we played a HUGE amount of it, but we did play enough to have a couple of campaigns and some durable characters. To be perfectly honest, aside from 1e GW I think this was pretty close to the only other TSR game we played much (well, there was also Boot Hill, but that game was pretty limited in its scope, fun though).

I think it was just eclipsed by some even better designs and as TSR descended into oblivion it just got mostly lost. While there are more modern games nowadays it still stands up reasonably well, which is a lot to say for a game of this vintage.
 

Ranger REG

Explorer
I remembered having bought TOP SECRET/SI way back when because I couldn't find any James Bond 007 RPG in my FLGS. I also bought a lesser know supplement to TS/SI titled Commando to run an A-Team/Rambo type campaign for my friends who came out of military services. Would love it if WotC would resell it in digital format. I sold mine years ago due to financial hardship.

OBTW, does anyone know which issues of DRAGON magazine have supporting articles on TOP SECRET?
 

Von Ether

Adventurer
TS was perhaps the first campaign I got to be a player in, which my GM ran as modern day dungeon. (I got to play some D&D one-shots before becoming a forever DM in D&D, Gamma World and then leaving the TSR ranch with TMNT.)
 



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