Reexamining the old-school RPGs: Top Secret

By the end of the seventies, TSR was a juggernaut, riding astride D&D to dominate a proliferating marketplace of RPGs. But while D&D was the 800 pound gorilla in the TSR portfolio, the company experienced mixed success in launching games set in other milieus. Metamorphosis Alpha and Gamma World have already been discussed, but it wasn’t until 1980 that TSR made the logical next move, unveiling a game set in our own world. Cold War espionage offered a wide purview for world-building and adventures, and thus Top Secret was born.

There were, of course, perils to contend with in doing something so contemporary. The (illegal) images of U.S. money on the original cover had to removed, and replaced with foreign currency; meanwhile, the offices of TSR were investigated by an FBI worried about all those documents and phone calls related to assassination of political targets. But the game itself achieved market traction—after all, who didn’t want to be James Bond? Particularly when there were so many worthy adversaries. (What I always found interesting about Bond was that when the Cold War ended, everybody bitched and moaned about how he no longer had anyone to fight…when the truth of the matter is that he rarely fought the Soviets in the movies, but was usually pitted against a super-villain, SPECTRE proving more fun to root against than SMERSH…)

But I digress. Let me try and get back on track with a drive-by on the first three Top Secret modules:

Administrator File 001, Operation Sprechenhaltstelle. The name alone almost threw everybody, but this really was a hidden gem, and the fact that it was included in the original box set meant it couldn’t be ignored. A neutral European town infested with the agents of East and West, it featured all sorts of encounters, as well as an utterly byzantine network map at the end that took the administrator/GM hours to unravel, to say nothing of the players.

Administrator File 002, Rapidstrike. A much more straightforward “dungeon,” this was a multi-level fortress that the players had to penetrate in search of a dastardly French villainess who is, of course, sexy as hell and has gained possession of the terrible drug Zucor-25 with which she plans to dominate the world. An entire page is devoted to that drug’s effects, which never made a huge amount of sense to me, as it seems pretty much like acid as far as I can tell, all the way down to the “25” nomenclature and the reference to “mind-expanding.” If anyone has any ideas on what I’m missing, feel free to forward me info/chemicals/etc.

Administrator File 003, Lady in Distress. The genius here was that the players were briefed on a mission they never go on, since halfway to target they get diverted to deal with the emergency situation of a hijacked ocean liner containing a deadly virus. Worth GMing just to see the expression on the player’s faces.

The original rules system left a little to be desired—people took WAY too many bullets to kill, and TSR experimented with the formula in subsequent iterations, especially when they faced fierce competition from the real James Bond, with EON’s James Bond RPG. But we’ll save that dogfight for some other time.

And I don’t care what anybody says, the opening scene from Octopussy is the best ever.

David J. Williams is the author of the Autumn Rain trilogy (The Mirrored Heavens, The Burning Skies, and The Machinery of Light.)  More about the world of the early 22nd century at


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