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Saturday 1 July 2017

Retrospective: Top Secret

There can be no doubt that TSR, Inc. is the most important publisher in our hobby and as much it became a moribund juggernaut its its later years, it should be remembered that in its early years, it was a vibrant innovator. It released not only the first roleplaying game with Dungeon & Dragons, but the first roleplaying game with a setting in the form of Tékumel: Empire of the Petal Throne, the first game set in the Wild West, Boot Hill, the first Science Fiction roleplaying game with Metamorphosis Alpha, and both the first espionage roleplaying game and the first contemporary roleplaying game in the form of Top Secret. Published in 1980, Top Secret: An Espionage Role Playing Game for 3 or more players, ages 12 to adult would dominate the espionage roleplaying until 1983 and the release of Hero Games’ Espionage and Victory Games’ James Bond 007.

Like the majority of TSR’s titles and roleplaying games from this period, Top Secret came as a boxed set. Inside can be found two books and a pair of ten-sided dice, in those days a pair of twenty-sided dice, numbered zero through nine twice. The first of the two books is the rulebook, the second the adventure module, ‘Operation: Sprechenhaltestelle/Code Name: Pisces’.

As explained in the rulebook, Top Secret is a roleplaying game in which the players take on the roles of spies or Field Agents for an unnamed, possibly anonymous agency. They will be under the direction of the Administrator—their Game Master—who will assign them missions and assignments and who upon completion of said missions will reward the Field Agents with monies for services rendered. So it sort of suggests that the Field Agents are not doing this out of a sense of duty, that they are employees rather than patriots. How far the Administrator wants to take this potentially mercenary aspect of the game is another matter, but then again it could be hang over from the rewards (treasure) gained during a game of Dungeons & Dragons

Field Agents are created by rolling percentile dice for six primary traits and then deriving various secondary and tertiary traits from the core six. Other factors such as height and whether or not a Field Agent needs to wear glasses are rolled for, as are a Field Agent’s ratings in the languages he knows, and the Areas of Knowledge (AoK) he possesses as well as their values. Most traits are self explanatory, except for Deactivation, which is dealing with alarms and traps, Deception, which is lying, and Evasion, which is avoiding others and getting out of the way. The process requires some arithmetic and gives a result like this:

Emil Izmailov
Level 1 Investigator
Height 5’ 11” Age 26
Handedness Right Glasses N/A

Personal Traits
Physical Strength 37 Charm 99 Willpower 54
Courage 86 Knowledge 72 Coordination 97

Secondary Personal Traits
Offense 92 Deception 93 
Evasion 85 Deactivation 85 
Life Level 9
Movement Value 188

Secondary Personal Traits
Hand-to-Hand Combat Value 122
Wrestling Value 129
Surprise Value 178

English (87), Spanish (40), Russian (87)

Areas of Knowledge
Economics/Finance (120), Fine Arts (52), Geography (67), Home Economics (74), Mathematics/Accounting (129), Political Science/Ideology (93), Psychology (81)

At this point a player can also buy some equipment for his Field Agent. He can also select a Class for his Field Agent. Now Top Secret is a Class and Level roleplaying game, but not in the traditional sense, because all that a Field Agent’s Class does is determine his Bureau Classification, that is, which department he is in. These are Section 2—Investigation, Section 3—Confiscation, and Section 00—Assassination, with Section 1—Administration being reserved for the Administrator and a hangover from an earlier version of the game in which the Administrator was also a player and not the game master. What a Field Agent’s Bureau Classification does is determine what Experience Bonuses he receives for what actions carried during a mission. So an Assassin will receive a Bureau Bonus for assassinations, muggings, blackmail attempts, and rescues; a Confiscator for hijacking and skyjacking, theft, and use of counterfeit money; and an Investigator for breaking and entering, lying, tailing and surveilling, and conducting a full investigation. Each of these tasks, as well as the other tasks in Top Secret, all have a base Experience Point reward, so an Assassin who carries out surveillance on an NPC will receive the base reward, just not the Bureau Bonus that a Field Agent from the Investigation Bureau would. Problematically, there are a lot of Bureau Bonuses available for the Assassination Bureau, in fact, double the amount given for each of the other two Bureaus. There is even a base reward and a Bureau Bonus for killing civilians, which is not merely a matter of not feeling right, it is simply wrong.

What a Bureau Classification does not do, is grant a Field Agent any mechanical benefit whatsoever. So a Field Agent in the Assassination Bureau is no better at killing targets than a Field Agent from the Confiscation Bureau—he just gets more rewards for doing so. It also gives the indication that the unnamed agency that the Field Agents work for gave them no training before sending them off on an assignment (which makes them feel mechanically more like Troubleshooters in West End Games’ Paranoia roleplaying game than spies in an espionage game). There are not even any skills in Top Secret, and even though Areas of Knowledge do cover some aspects of skills in the game, they are not explained in the rulebook (and would not be explained until the release of the Top Secret Companion in 1985). Now this is not entirely fair, since a Field Agent’s skills are really represented by his raw traits and it is these that will be used throughout most of the game. It is these traits that the players will increase as their Field Agents gain Experience Points—there is not even any benefit to acquiring a new Level.

Mechanically, Top Secret is a percentile system. It is not a game though, with a unified mechanic. Instead, it has multiple different mechanics, one for each aspect of the game—gun combat, hand-to-hand combat, wrestling, contacts, and so on, not chases though. There are no rules for chases in Top Secret, on foot or by vehicles. So for example, the outcome of an interaction between a Field Agent and an NPC is determined by the player deciding which method to use—Force, Fool, Fascinate, Impress, Bribe, Lure, and so on. The method sets the Field Agent’s Trait to be compared, so Physical Strength plus Hand-to-Hand Combat Value for Force, Charm for Fascinate, Deception for Con, and so on, while the Administrator sets the resisting Trait for the NPC. Sometimes this may even be an Area of Knowledge and using an Area of Knowledge in this way is one of the primary ways of doing so in Top Secret. The two values are compared in the Contact Reaction Table and this gets a letter representing a Reaction Key Code. The Reaction Key Code is then checked on the Contact Reaction Key table, the entry here giving a definite result, but often requiring a dice roll upon the part of the Administrator. As cumbersome as this was, it did at least point the way towards roleplaying that involved more than just exploring dungeons, killing monsters, and taking their treasure, that involved interaction and talking. This is enforced to an extent by the Experience Point reward system for missions, even as that table favoured one Bureau Classification over another.

The rules for gun combat first deal with surprise and then the first shot determination, followed by movement and actually firing the weapon. So far so good, although the process requires that at certain steps, various tables need to be checked for appropriate modifiers. Once a target has been successfully shot, the attacker rolls for injury location and then whether the wound is light or serious and for type of wound—from Abrasion and Incision to Fracture and Internal Damage. Only at this step will the Administrator and the player know how much damage is inflicted. Optional rules—given later in the book—provide further detail, including injury modifiers for location, ammunition used, and both temporary and permanent losses to a character’s Traits as the result of being shot.

Similarly, the rules for hand-to-hand combat are equally as detailed and complex, but where gun combat ends with a randomly determined hit location for a successful attack, in hand-to-hand combat both attacker and defender write down manoeuvres at the start of each round, the attacker targeting a particular location with a move like a slap to the neck or a one-two punch or foul strikes like a below the belt hit, and the defender attempting to prevent his being attacked with a defensive move such as a right side parry with the hand or ducking. The attacker always chooses the one manoeuvre, whereas the defender chooses two, and if the attacker successfully hits, the defender selects the better response out of the two. Hand-to-hand combat covers untrained brawling, martial arts, boxing, and wrestling covering an array of different manoeuvres. As complex as this sounds, it gets even more complex when more than two combatants are involved. Further, what form of hand-to-hand combat a Field Agent knows is determined not by his Bureau Classification or his training as such, but his Areas of Knowledge. So if a Field Agent has either the Physical Education or Military Science Areas of Knowledge, then he will know one or more forms hand-to-hand combat. If he has neither, then he is untrained, which again seems absurd.

Combat is such a focus of the game that the primary examples of the rules play in in Top Secret—there is no sample of play—focus on combat. In fact, the complexity of the combat systems are such that studying the examples are the easiest way of learning how to understand both. This does not get away from the complexity of these rules and the frequent need to refer to tables.

Beyond the rules for combat, Top Secret covers the police and their equipment, security systems, using explosives and bullets on vehicles, fencing goods, using truth serum, disguises and more, though the Administrator is left to work out how gambling works. Optional rules provide for getting arrested, called shots, poisons, gun design, sneak attacks, and oddly, executions. In fact, there is a table of execution methods, which includes the chances of survival and effect of doing so. So many of these optional rules should really not be optional, sneak attacks at the very least if not more.

Notably, there is an optional rule for Fame and Fortune Points. Each Field Agent will begin play with several Fortune Points and a single Fame Point. He will earn more Fame Points as he attains Levels, but not Fortune Points, which are finite in number. A Field Agent will know how many Fame Points he has, but not how many Fortune Points. Both are used as luck points to overcome a fatal wound. They have no other use, but in 1980, their inclusion is revolutionary. They would not come into wider use in other roleplaying game designs for two or three more years—most notably in the James Bond 007 roleplaying game—when their application would be further refined, but their inclusion here is one of the first, if not the very first.

Lastly, the rulebook comes with several appendices. These include lists of major languages and espionage terms and agencies as well as suggestions as to devices from ‘Q Section—Special Services Division’. This is an obvious nod to the James Bond movies, as is the Bureau Classification for Assassins and really is not much more than a list of ideas and items that the Administrator will need to create some stats for. Lastly there is a short bibliography. 

The second item in the Top Secret boxed set is ‘Operation: Sprechenhaltestelle/Code Name: Pisces’, an introductory game module for the roleplaying game. Designed for the beginning Administrator and beginning Agents, it is set in a  European-style town caught somewhere between the Eastern and Western blocs. It is a known den of spies—some Red, some Blue, some grey—and minor criminality, a point of neutrality through which both powers can operate, but without consequences on either side. At the beginning of the scenario, the Agency has learned that a ‘neutral’ organisation is holding defectors from the East for auction. The Agents are tasked with locating both defectors, learn the operations of those holding them, and then disrupt them. This will probably take multiple operations Sprechenhaltestelle.

Specifically focused on the waterfront—seafront or lakefront?—of the town, Sprechenhaltestelle is essentially a sandbox that the Agents will explore and search, interacting with the locals, trying to find the clues they need to proceed further. Some fifty locations above ground and some fifty locations below ground are described and detailed, each needing to be matched with the one hundred or so NPCs. The NPCs are kept separate from their respective locations which means that tying the right line of stats for an NPC to the right location is not easiest of tasks. It does not help that the NPCs lack personality, so the Administrator will need to provide those as well as placing targets, both human and objects.

Packaged in cardboard folder with a separate briefing file for the Agents and the full scenario for the Administrator, ‘Operation: Sprechenhaltestelle/Code Name: Pisces’ is not really a scenario for use by a beginning Administrator. It is too complex to set up and run with ease, requiring more preparation work than a more straightforward plot-driven might have done. In the hands of an experienced Game Master or Administrator, this would not have been an issue, but as a first scenario…? That said, there is plenty of play to be got out of the module and a good Administrator can do a lot with it. Also, the compact nature of the waterfront in Sprechenhaltestelle does make it feel a movie backlot, for example, like that used to film The Man from U.N.C.L.E. television series. It is interesting to note that the editor of ‘Operation: Sprechenhaltestelle/Code Name: Pisces’ is Mike Carr, best known as the author of B1 In Search of the Unknown, the module that originally came with the Basic Dungeons & Dragons boxed set. It goes some way to explaining the sandbox feel of ‘Operation: Sprechenhaltestelle/Code Name: Pisces’ and of the need to populate parts of the town.

Top Secret does not come with a specified background. Rather it comes with an implied background of an agency or institution with the mandate to conduct espionage operations. Top Secret being an American RPG means that it is implied that this agency is the CIA, but of course, it does not have to be. The Admin is free to create background and content as is his wont, drawing upon the source material of his choice, whether that is the James Bond books and films, the John le Carre books and films, or television series like The Man from U.N.C.L.E. or The Avengers. Certainly, James Bond films are fairly obviously referenced in the rulebook and there are nods to the other sources too. 

It does not really help that there is little advice or help for the Administrator for running Top Secret in the rulebook. There is some guidance on creating environments and some on setting up a campaign network, but really the advice on running the game appears in ‘Operation: Sprechenhaltestelle/Code Name: Pisces’. It is reasonable enough, but overall hindered by the lack of any discussion on running or playing an espionage-themed roleplaying game. All right, Top Secret is the first, but some advice to that end would have been helpful, for those new to roleplaying and those who have been playing fantasy and science fiction roleplaying games.

Surprisingly, at the time of publication, Top Secret appeared to receive no reviews—certainly not in White Dwarf or Different Worlds magazines—but it did attract some official interest. As related in ‘The Rasmussen Files’ in Dragon #38 (June, 1980) and this interview with the designer, Merle M. Rasmussen, on the podcast The Dead Games Society, Mike Carr’s game notes were found and handed into the authorities and on January 17th, 1980, the FBI paid a visit to the TSR offices, investigating a tipoff about an  assassination plot in Beirut, Lebanon. Further, and to avoid official interest, the cover had to be redone so that it did not show a photograph of American dollar bills, which would have been illegal at the time. This also had the effect of covering up the photo of the model whose legs can be seen on the cover. That model is Elise Gygax, Gary Gygax’s youngest daughter, who would also appear in a number of adverts for TSR products.

Physically, Top Secret is a workmanlike product. Both the rulebook and the module are clean and tidy, but both are relatively lightly illustrated and not all of the artwork is of the best quality. Perhaps the main issue physically with Top Secret is the layout, which has one subject matter after another with no thought to real organisation or being able to find anything. What this means is that the combat rules are not all together and not all of the rules and entries for NPCs are together, for example, and there are no chapters for easy organisation and access.

By modern standards, Top Secret is not a great game. It lacks any real background beyond that which the Admin can draw upon his knowledge and consumption of the genre, leaving him with the tasks of creating an agency, threats, and so on. It couples this with a set of rules that consists of multiple subsystems, so that there is one set of rules for one activity, one set for another, and so on. This makes it cumbersome and often slow to play. The lack of Class abilities is an oddity and the skewing of Experience Awards to the Assassin Class as well as the monetary reward for achieving scenario goals, point towards a design that that has not quite escaped Dungeons & Dragons-style play.

Yet as much as Top Secret’s design is arrested by the post-Dungeons & Dragons design ethos of providing detail and realism—often too much detail and realism—its design can be can be seen as a transition. A transition away from the wargames based design of Dungeons & Dragons to the more coherent handling of theme and rules seen in later TSR, Inc. roleplaying games such as Gangbusters, Conan, and Marvel Superheroes. Despite all of this, Top Secret is always going to remain a classic because it was the first roleplaying game to do espionage and because it remained the top treatment of the genre until the release of Hero Games’ Espionage and Victory Games’ James Bond 007, both in 1983. In between then, Top Secret would prove to be popular and be supported by a number of scenarios and supplements, many of which would help the game explore the espionage genre better than the core rules do. It would then be replaced by Top Secret/S.I., a roleplaying game more inspired by the James Bond movies and a better, more modern design. 

Top Secret is a classic because it was the first and it will always be remembered for that. It cannot be said to be a great game design or necessarily a great game, but there are some clever ideas within its pages. It would just take a bit more time and other games for them those ideas to bear fruit.


A new version of Top Secret called Top Secret: New World Order is currently the subject of a Kickstarter campaign. Again designed by Merle M. Rasmussen, it will eventually be released by TSR Games.

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