Jul 9 2010 11:35am

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

Church Tucker
1. Church
Loved this one, as it was one of the few that I was successful in roping in people to play. The "James Bond" angle was an easy in for many prospective players.

I don't remember the controversy over the cover art. Was the money close to 100% size? Seems like a curious complaint. The 'assasination' concerns remind me of what happened to Steve Jackson Games later on.

And yeah, people took a lot of shooting to die, but that's movie logic after all.
James Davis Nicoll
2. James Davis Nicoll
As I understand it, the Treasury Department is not allowed to be flexible when it comes to images of US currency. I seem to recall a major political party down there getting their hands slapped over parody currency.

What I remember about TS (aside from once mistkenly sinking a yacht belonging to the House of Orange because our bomb guy got confused about N boats from the left and N boats from the right) was the hand to hand combat system, where both sides picked their move and then cross-referenced it on a chart to see the results. I believe it was kick to the crotch versus rabbit punch that produced two simultaneous knock-outs. The system sadly could not handle more than two people fighting each other at all.
TW Grace
3. TWGrace
What the government did to TSR pales in comparison to what they did to Steve Jackson...
James Davis Nicoll
4. Stefan Jones
I was freelancing for various competition when this came out.

The alternative, which I purchased but never played, was Mercenaries, Spies, and Private Eyes:

Actually, I did play in a demo at a convention, run by Mike Stackpole himself. A whodunit set at a monastery.
Chuk Goodin
5. Chuk
I loved the hand-to-hand combat rules for Top Secret. Pick an attack from column A and a defense from column B, compare to your opponent's.
Kenn Gentile
6. nachtwulf
We had a house rule about the "resiliency" of the agents. I'm not sure (it was oh so many years ago) if it was hit points halved or "third-ed" but I remember everyone b*tch*d about it soo much initially... that it was a big success. :)

Now I wanna dig out my set again.
James Davis Nicoll
7. roblewmac
guns in top Secret may not blow your head off right away but it's balanced by hardly anyone ever missing
Monica Annis-Hilliard
8. beltempest
We only peripherally used some of the combat rules and charts since it was often hard to figure out how an agent could manage to shoot himself in his own gun hand during a fire fight.
James Davis Nicoll
9. roblewmac
Beltempest yeah I noticed they cover a LOT of stuff that's NEVER going to come up. I just started playing two years ago. Had a dream about it then found on e=bay for six bucks clearly an omen. But since I PLAY by e-mail going strictly by the rules would take years
James Davis Nicoll
10. roblewmac
funny enough I just played a bit where somebody shot in the head while tied up would have strictly by the rules lived
James Davis Nicoll
11. Jimbonator
Top Secret's combat system was a bit on the simple side, but compare it to Bureau 13's. At least Top Secret kept the game moving forward. Bureau 13 had you looking up stopping power of leather jackets and suede vests...

The James Bond RPG was never a threat. It and the Star Trek RPG *should* have made waves, but neither rocked a boat.

The real problem with Top Secret (and Gamma World, and M.A., and Boot Hill...) was that they never created characters players could take to heart. A cold-blooded Bulgarian assassin is far better to watch in action than to act out. But a dwarf thief who clumsily picks locks, a half-orc trying to cast a Bless spell, or a paladin in shining plate mail tempted into bed by a succubi? 1,000,000 gp.

Subscribe to this thread

Receive notification by email when a new comment is added. You must be a registered user to subscribe to threads.
Post a comment