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Top Secret

Top Secret

Top Secret was a game I really wanted to like. First off, it was made my TSR, and in the early 80s, I expected everything they produced to be pure gold. Second, I loved the genre (or what I knew of it at 13 years old). Third, I thought Top Secret would be as far from D&D as could be, and I loved the idea of role-playing games spanning a huge spectrum of possibilities.

Mostly, however, I was disappointed. Not because it was a terrible game, necessarily. (Frankly, I hardly remember the mechanics.) First off, my friends weren't as thrilled as I was with the idea of being spies, with exception of maybe one. Second, like with V&V, some of the early published adventures were strangely dungeon crawl-like, which was too much like D&D. I wanted crazy James Bond action, not a slow room-by-room slog through the bad guy's headquarters. 

The real issue, though, was that I think this was the first time in my gaming career where I saw the Unassailable Wall of Realism. Now, the UWoR is not believability. That's a different, but related issue. The UWoR is what prevents a player for GM from knowing how to deal with a situation because it seems real, but outside their area of expertise. In Top Secret, when the PCs are spotted by the police trying to break into the evil mastermind's headquarters, what happens? As a 13 year old, you probably don't have a clue. In a Traveller game, if the starship compartment is flooded with radiation, what happens? Again, if you don't have a fair grounding in science, you find yourself on unstable footing. If in some other modern setting you're dealing with a plot regarding corporate terrorism and hostile takeovers, unless you've got some experience with the financial world, you're not sure how to proceed.

It's that darn real world intruding on the fun. The Unassailable Wall of Realism.

The UWoR never stands in the way of fantasy games. Because its fantasy, the GM can make anything up, and it's as plausible as you want it to be, more or less. I don't just mean handwaving mistakes away by saying "it's magic" (although there's some freedom in that too). I mean that the town guards don't have to act like historical town guards or modern policemen. They can act like however you want them too, and it's not incorrect. Since you make your own definitions in fantasy, you can't do it "wrong." You might create a fantastic situation that someone else doesn't care for, but there's no objective way to measure it all. It's all subjective.

Further, with fantasy, adventure ideas are as simple and easy as fairy tales. You have to slay the dragon menacing the village! The prince has been kidnapped! You have to find the magical thingamajig! With modern day or futuristic games, it's more challenging. There's more real world knowledge that's required with politics, science, law, or what have you. And it's the same for players. It's easy to come up with solutions to those fantasy genre problems, and certainly nothing you try to do is "wrong." But if you're playing a lawyer in a modern day game, you feel like you need to know a little about the legal system just to deal with your backstory, let alone how you play your character.

But as always, I digress.

Neither my first Top Secret GMs (I don't think I ever ran the game) nor I knew what it was like to be a secret agent in Monaco. We didn't now how to construct James Bond like intrigue and we didn't know how to react to it as players. So our few adventures never felt like the movies we were trying to replicate. They were a little fun, but also a little silly. I'm sure if we'd been older, or more versed in the genre, or had better premade adventures, it would have gone better.

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( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
akitrom
Jun. 23rd, 2010 06:13 pm (UTC)
You're talking about the original Merle Rassumussen Top Secret, rather than the Top Secre: S.I. game, yes?
montecook
Jun. 23rd, 2010 10:10 pm (UTC)
Yes.
dark_towhead
Jun. 23rd, 2010 08:45 pm (UTC)
I still have a battered copy of the game, which I cling to for sentimental reasons. I got it new, back in the days when TSR games could be bought at Toys R Us . . .

I recall the mechanics being a bit on the overly complicated side, and I recall there being three classes (well, three "bureaus" that characters could belong to, each with different specialties). We goofy GMs at the time would make the experience different than DnD was to have characters from the individual bureaus on similar but conflicting missions: one player would be out to assassinate someone another player was out to save . . . Something like that. I recall the games deteriorating into angry initiative checks. :)

Fun but silly, as you say.


Every time I move (and oh the places I've gone), I try to pare things down. That's usually when I find the Top Secret boxed set, and I say, "Man, I should get rid of this." Then, I flip through the main book, and see the 70s-tastic artwork (oy. Painful but striking) and the leftover notes from twenty-plus years ago, and that weird little "It's not a dungeon crawl, it's an underground city!" module Operation: Verfremdungseffekt (or whatever it was called) and I think . . . Okay, okay, I'll keep it a little while longer.

Alas, I am a packrat.
dadiceguy
Jun. 23rd, 2010 11:32 pm (UTC)
I had fun playing both versions of Top Secret. Top Secret SI more than the original. Though my memories of both are hazy at best. Though a lot of the fun I had with games back then was more about the people I gamed with than the game itself.

And "The Unassailable Wall of Realism" I may have to borrow that if you dont mind.
trans_simian
Jun. 25th, 2010 02:04 am (UTC)
I enjoyed Top Secret, but those games never became ongoing campaigns for some reason. Just one shots where all of the players were working for their own agencies or factions, each trying to seduce, steal from, or assassinate someone or another (PC or NPC). I liked running the game, it worked well for one offs. I did know something about the genre, however. I had seen a lot of 'The Avengers', 'It Takes a Thief', 'I Spy', and 'The Wild Wild West', in addition to James Bond movies, one Ian Flemming Novel, and I think 'The Eye of the Needle' by Ken Follet. But the genre is not really a team player genre, and I think that you need some easy way to keep a group of players together.

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