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.