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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

robowieland

Adventurer
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.

The impression I have is that TSR would launch a new line and it would do well but not D&D well so support dried up.
 

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Dr. Bull

Explorer
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.
In my opinion, Savage Worlds is the best system for simulating pulp action and adventure.
 


Kannik

Adventurer
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.
I would say Cortex Prime ought to work quite well for pulp action as well. :)

edit: The Troubleshooters might also work well! (It should be releasing into the wild soon.)
 
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TerraDave

5ever, or until 2024
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.

That was a good time to be a gamer, with a lot of viable options. I think WOD and GURPs did bring in new players.

Of course, I came in earlier through B/X D&D, and played AD&D at its early 90s nadir (but I did also play some other stuff).

We had a poll or thread here recently, and I said that WOD must have brought in some new players, but apparently no enworlders.
 

eyeheartawk

Works 60% of the time, every time
That was a good time to be a gamer, with a lot of viable options. I think WOD and GURPs did bring in new players.

Of course, I came in earlier through B/X D&D, and played AD&D at its early 90s nadir (but I did also play some other stuff).

We had a poll or thread here recently, and I said that WOD must have brought in some new players, but apparently no enworlders.
Yeah, well that doesn't surprise me. The Enworld audience is pretty self-selecting, very D&D focused. Which is fair, considering that's its focus. But I agree, me and everybody else I knew at this period in history were all gaming omnivores we played lots of different games. Some of them went on to embrace 3E and the absolute avalanche of D20 compatible stuff (alot of which was low effort dreck). I hated this period in time because it seemed like every game I liked made a D20 version, whether it fit or not. To be honest, I was glad that market crashed.
 
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TerraDave

5ever, or until 2024
Yeah, well that doesn't surprise me. The Enworld audience is pretty self-selecting, very D&D focused. Which is fair, considering that's its focus. But I agree, me and everybody else I knew at this period in history were all gaming omnivores we played lots of different games. Some of them went on to embrace 3E and the absolute avalanche of D20 compatible stuff (alot of which was low effort dreck). I hated this period in time because it seemed like every game I liked made a D20 version, whether it fit or not. To be honest, I was glad that market crashed.
That period reflected some real creativity in the industry, but probably also the weakness of 2E and TSR at that time.

Of course, MtG may have brought it to an end. Then TSR goes down, and WotC does the d20 License, to address the "fragmentation" that they said was the problem before.
 

Skytheen

Explorer
This was so exactly me too. I wasn't allowed to get into D&D because of the Satanic Panic. Magic made my mom too nervous. But dad liked James Bond, so spies were fine!
 

smcc360

Explorer
I enjoyed this game a great deal. Maybe Victory Games's James Bond 007 RPG was more innovative, but Top Secret: SI had a solid, dependable system that ran fast and smooth. A great improvement over its somewhat clunky predecessor, which was my first roleplaying game.

TSR's other historical games, Boot Hill and Gangbusters, were a lot of fun, too.
 

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