Top Secret/S.I. Revisited

Voros

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I dimly recall my love for Top Secret and Top Secret/S.I. in my late teens. I ended up much preferring S.I. to the original Top Secret which I found clunky although there were a few kinks in S.I. as well.

I ran a number of sessions but it was hard to keep players interested in anything that wasn't D&D and gunfights tends to be very deadly which didn't enable many teenage power fantasies so the game drifted to a stop, which I regretted.

S.I. is essentially a 1987 second edition to Merle Rasmussen's original 1980 game. The 87' edition is designed by Douglas Niles and developed and edited by Warren Spector, now much better known for his video game design than his underrated RPG work.

Sadly I long sold off my TS books, except for the first Covert Operations books which I believe I have packed aways somewhere. But I thought I'd revisit the core books and see what I made of it today.

First off, I checked out the original Top Secret core rules from 1980 and they are as clunky as I remembered. I'm not going to go into details but some typical 80s issues include poor layout, way too may fiddly modifiers and tables for its own good. As an example, the surprise rules compete for 1e in terms of pointless crunch. More good ideas than good execution, in my opinion.

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S.I. on the other hand, has aged much better. It looks to be heavily influenced by the James Bond RPG, BRP and even WFRP in places. It is essentially a simple percentage based attribute and skill system.

Throughout the book there are optional 'Reality Rules' that depending on the rule sometimes do increase the naturalism or deadliness, other times seem like more fiddly book-keeping and at other times seem like solid rules that help fill in a hole without overcomplicating things.

It has five standard attributes: Strength, Intelligence, Reflexes, Willpower and Constitution. It has random roll chargen but the 'optional' point distro system is obviously superior to the fiddly hoops the 'random' system has to implement to ensure you end up with a competent agent.

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Your attributes range from 20 to 70 to start and you get 275 points to distribute as you wish within that range. Secondary attributes include Movement and Dex, determined by averaging your REF and STR and REF and INT respectively (rounding up, as you do throughout the game). The Administrator (GM) applies modifiers based on the situation, range, etc. Some guidelines and examples are given in the Admin's Guide but refreshingly they don't attempt to cover every possible case and encourage the Admin to make their own calls.

There's a nice little point system of Advantages/Disavantages to help flesh out and personalize your agent. Advantages include Toughness, Sensuality and Wealth; Disadvantages range from Deep-Sleeper to Cowardice (!).

There is a skill system which falls in the mid-range to me, not too long and over specialized for the time but probably more detailed than I would prefer these days.

In particular the requirement for you to have a dedicated skill for the wide range of weapons (handgun, rifle, assault rifle) to be any good with them seems too much as most players are going to want to be widely competent and end up investing a lot of their skill points into guns rather than the wider skill range an actual spy would want. I would keep the basic ideas of the skill system but simplify and broaden it considerably.

But it does have a Careers system that simplifies skill selection significantly. This is the career you had before becoming a spy. Careers include Military, Professional (eg. doctor, lawyer), Worker (blue collar) and Entertainer (artist, musician, actor, etc).

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Okay, so let's discuss combat which they stick after all the chargen in the book. I personally prefer an explanation of the core mechanic earlier in the book so I understand the context of the chargen.

Intiative is determined by rolling a d10, optional modifiers include DEX and situational considerations.

You roll attribute, adjusted by skill, the weapon, cover and other modifiers as determined by the Admin. A roll of 00-04 is a Lucky Break, effect to be determined by the Admin; 95-98 is Bad Break where the Admin adds a complication (eg. gun jams), whereas a 99 is really bad news, like a tire blowing during a car chase, etc. With a weapon any roll of doubles (33, 55, etc) is a Critical Hit. A critical hit to the head or torso is instant death (told you this game was deadly!), anywhere else it destroys the limb and you pass out.

There are hit locations here but they snag an idea from WFRP and integrate it into the percentage to-hit roll.

When you roll to hit the second die determines the hit location, there's a nifty little diagram on the Character Sheet displaying the hit locations and hit boxes per limb. There is a optional 'Reality Rule' where your skill level with a weapon allows you to bump hit location by the skill level (generally 0-5) which is a cool if very deadly idea.

HP per limb, head, etc is CON divided by 10 (rounding up as usual).

One slash in a hit box is for bruise damage from hand-to-hand combat, blunt weapons, etc. Two slashes for guns, explosives, etc. In hand-to-hand combat the first die determines the Bruise damage (that seems a bit high to me), with knives, guns etc they have damage die listed in the equipment chapter.

On average a shot from a handgun is 1d6 and an assault rifle 1d8 so chances are good if you are shot and don't have a vest on you are in deep shit.

BUT the game does has a system of Luck Points you can use to save yourself from deadly gunshots and other dangers. You never know how many Luck Points you have, only the Admin does.

Considering how deadly gunfights are Luck Points, borrowed from the James Bond RPG I suspect, would be required for pretty much any style of play I'd say, whether it is Bondian or The Sand Baggers.

There are rules around loading, drawing and short or extended bursts that contribute to the gritty and naturalistic feel of combat without getting too complicated. The S.I. Commando supplement I'll try and discuss later has some excellent rules around suppressive fire, line of sight, etc if you really want to dig down into combat 'realism.'

A quick word on the artwork. The interior art is merely okay in both Top Secret and S.I. They tend to reuse artwork even within the same book! But I do like the covers, they give a good sense of the game and stood out from other games of the time with their use of photos instead of art. The later supplements have more conventionally 80s RPG art covers that are pretty fun too.

That's probably enough for tonight and hopefully gives you a feel of the core rules around chargen and combat.

Overall I was surprised to find the S.I. system pretty streamlined and well designed.

I also want to discuss the Admin guide and the Covert Operations books I was very fond of when I was younger.

Also discovered there was a range of supplements I never knew existed for playing the aforementioned commandos, pulpy agents in the 30s and 40s and even a low-powered supers supplement! Would like to discuss those too if I find the time.

Let me know if you remember this system, ever played it or are familiar with any of the supplements.
 
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finarvyn

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Great thread. I wish I could contribute more.

I played a lot of Top Secret back in the day, but never upgraded to TS/SI. This is unfortunate. as decades later I have encountered several people who have raved about how SI is so much better than the original TS.
 

Dumarest

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Thanks for posting this. I love reading a thoughtful review. Can't wait for your review of DragonRaid! :wink:
 

Silverlion

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I have the Agent 13, and F.r.e.e. Lancer's books.
Kinda cool stuff.
 

KrakaJak

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I played when I was very young. Like 10 or 11 years old? The thing I remember most is the hit location boxes, which I thought were cool, and that you could have a sword-cane, which I also thought was cool.
 

dokel

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I got the original game for Christmas when I was 13. I remember creating characters and running them through the adventure that came in the box. I also remember liking the hand-to-hand combat rules which had a kind of 'rock-paper-scissors' vibe iirc.
 

Voros

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I got the original game for Christmas when I was 13. I remember creating characters and running them through the adventure that came in the box. I also remember liking the hand-to-hand combat rules which had a kind of 'rock-paper-scissors' vibe iirc.
That would be from the original game.
 

Gringnr

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I bought this BITD but got turned off by the Orion/Web stuff. Dumb reason, I know, but that really killed my interest. Today, I would probably just ignore that aspect.
 

Voros

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I bought this BITD but got turned off by the Orion/Web stuff. Dumb reason, I know, but that really killed my interest. Today, I would probably just ignore that aspect.
I consider the Orion/Web stuff just as a default so that you have something to start with right away. The supplements give you a wide range of options to play with from the stark naturalism of Covert Operations to the super-powered F.R.E.E.lancers.
 

Toadmaster

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For all its faults TS had one of the all time great game covers.

I played some TS, and remember buying TS / SI. Although I thought it came out earlier than '87. I remember it being an improvement, but only played it a few times because by that point we were pretty deep into the HERO system (Danger International being a direct competitor) and if it came out in 1987 GURPS was hitting its stride by then.
 

Endless Flight

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I bought Top Secret SI at Toys ‘R Us for around $10 when they had some on clearance. I would find certain TSR games there for dirt cheap a couple years after they were published up until the early 90s.
 

Voros

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Agent 13 was the pulp version, wasn't it?
Yep, it is 30s pulp adventure with minor super powers, Fu-Manchish supervillains and more. Written by Ray Winninger of Underground fame. It's pretty solid. Great cover.

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Endless Flight

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I don’t think I’ve ever heard of Ray writing a bad thing. Those S.I. campaign books were pretty good.
 

E-Rocker

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I did not play RPGs in the '80s, but I did read comic books. I recall seeing the ads for Top Secret/S.I. in comics and being somewhat intrigued, even though I didn't really understand what it was. That cover definitely fires up the imagination.

But what does the S.I. stand for??
 

Dumarest

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I did not play RPGs in the '80s, but I did read comic books. I recall seeing the ads for Top Secret/S.I. in comics and being somewhat intrigued, even though I didn't really understand what it was. That cover definitely fires up the imagination.

But what does the S.I. stand for??
Special Intelligence.
 

Voros

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So to wrap up on the core rule books. The Player's Guide wraps up with rules for Unarmed Combat and Vehicles. Both are reasonably gritty to fit with the rest of the game but not unwieldy.

Fame and Fortune points are covered in the Administrator's Guide. Not sure why this just wasn't in the Players Guide but they are gained for completing the adventure or session (Admin's discretion), performing a heroic act that put your life in danger, role-played a difficult encounter with an NPC and if the Agent single-handedly achieved the goal of the adventure.

So an average of 2-4 points per session/adventure. Agents can use Fame and Fortune points to gain or improve skills, improve one attribute by one point if they roll over their current attribute score (as in BRP but more strictly limited) or buy 1d4 Luck Points if they are out. Admins are not to tell players how many Luck Points they have EXCEPT when they run out.

Although it encourages the Admin to keep the tracking of the Agents finances abstract and high level it does state that any weapons, etc comes out of their funds. That seems odd for Agents of an intelligence service, perhaps the intent is to discourage the players from loading up on guns and RPGs but it seems like there are easier ways to address that via the controls and limitations the Agency would put on the Agents.

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There's sections on animal opponents, special damage (poison, radiation), how to decide on roll modifiers, etc. A good section on NPCs, different kinds of players and how to structure a session. Niles reiterates his idea of different adventure structures or as he calls them Storylines that he also presented in the Wilderness Survival Guide, it is a non-judgemental presentation of Linear, Open and what he calls a 'Matrix Storyline.' He notes that Linear is okay for first sessions amd new Admins but if you stick to it for too long players will not enjoy being railroaded.

Then there's a section on missions and different campaign options (set in the past, real world espionage, counter-terrorists, mercenaries, private eyes or law enforcement) before they present the default campaign setting of two broad-based depoliticized fantasy forces, the devious and conspiracy-minded Web and the 'good-guy' agency Orion. The box set includes a pretty extensive weapons and equipment booklet and an excellent and very useful settings and scenarios booklet that includes a number of maps and index keys to generic hotel rooms, houses, airplanes, airports, trains, boats for use in play plus a good 10 page mission written by Niles and Warren Spector about stopping some Web weapon smugglers in San Francisco.
 
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Dumarest

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This actually sounds like it could be good for G.I. Joe-type games, where Orion = Joes and Web = Cobra.
 

Voros

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This actually sounds like it could be good for G.I. Joe-type games, where Orion = Joes and Web = Cobra.
That would be even better with the Commando supplement.

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Although as David Cook notes in the intro, despite the slightly 80s action hero cover, the baseline of the Commando game is very naturalistic and deadly, you'd have to be generous with the Luck Points and drop some optional rules (like PI, see below) to get a G.I. Joe feel. It would also give you all the weapons and equipment you'd need although you may want to dip into F.R.E.E.Lancers for some of the more sf equipment you sometimes see in G.I. Joe.

As you would expect the Commando supplement also adds new Advantages/Disadvantages, Skills from Atomic Demolition Munitions to STANO and HALO, etc.

But most unusually, along with rules for the effect of fatigue, lack of food, water, sleep they introduce a new Secondary Attribute, Psychology Index (PI), calculated as the average of your WIL and CON scores.

You can lose PI due to lack of supplies, being alone, losing a team member and being wounded, etc. If your PI reaches 0 you suffer from Battle Fatigue or what we would call today PTSD and you break down into crying fits, sleeplessness, uncontrollable shaking and even hallucinations or hysterical blindness or paralysis.

After that we come to Combat and here they have some well implemented rules for details usually ignored in other RPGs involving firefights, including Fields of Fire, reduced ranges for terrain, welll done rules for Suppressive Fire, Fire Discipline and crossfire, Indirect and Artillery Fire, Close Air Support and discusses Immediate Action Drills. Knowing next to nothing about real-life military combat the cumultive effect seems to me to be a detailed but relatively simple set of rules for close-to-real-life firefights.

After that they add one other interesting mechanic that you see in some modern games, Friction. All missions start with 10-30 Friction points as determined by the Admin and can gain points as the mission is prepared and executed. Examples of additional Friction points is if the mission takes place on adverse terrain or under poor weather, is simple or complex, has a political component, has poor intelligence or they receive aid from the native population. If Friction hits a 100 something goes seriously wrong on the mission.

Finally the book goes into pretty extensive detail on real world elite fighting units and the socio-political situations around the world in the late 80s from 'Warsaw Europe,’ and North America, Central America, to the Middle East, India, Africa and even often ignored areas like Australia. Like Covert Operations this is all very well done, surprisingly balanced and detailed but not conventionally gamefied.
 
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Voros

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So the Covert Operations supplements came in two volumes, both written by John Prados. Prados is a serious military history academic* and has written important books on the Vietnam War and the C.I.A. and these books reflect that.

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Unusually, these books don’t present any conventionally gameable material but are historical case studies of well known and lesser known spies.

This includes the famous likes of Kim Philby and the Cambridge Circle of Soviet spies as well as lesser known US spies, defectors, Israeli and Polish cases, etc. In addition there are potted histories of the C.I.A., the NKVD/KGB, GRU, Mossad and lesser known intelligence agencies.

If you’re a fan of history and espionage this is catnip, if not it may seem dry and too much ‘fluff’ not enough crunch. There is absolutely no discussion of how to integrate these deglamorized tales of alcoholics and rabid ideologues or brave, disillusioned former-true-believers into a game. To me it sparks loads of ideas but it is all left to the GM to figure out how to use it.

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At the same time for those who aren’t history buffs who aren’t interested in reading extensively on the subject these are excellent books that go beyond being mere primers due to the sweep and detail of the writing.

There are good bibliographies included although since these books were released in the late 80s there have been far more quality books on the subject published. But any bibliography that includes the classic Wilderness of Mirrors is worthwhile.

*Prados also did some game design and created the award winning Khe Sanh, 1968 board game.
 

Toadmaster

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Wow, this game was much better supported than I remembered. I thought they just turned out the core and a couple of adventures.

I graduated high school in 1986 and gaming started to slow down with everybody getting jobs, going to different colleges etc. I suspect if this had come out a couple years earlier I might have paid more attention to it. It probably would have bridged the gap in our group between those who preferred D&D and those of us more into HERO and GURPS.

Unfortunately it doesn't appear to be available on DTRPG and the Ebay prices are on the high side.

Thanks for posting this.
 

Bunch

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Looking through my books I have purchased the contents of the boxed set minus the paper minis and some of the other more decorative assets. I have the Covert Ops sourcebook (#1).

I haven't had a chance to play it yet. Thanks for going over it and comparing it to more modern systems.
 
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