Friday, August 12, 2011

A Retroclone Of Top Secret?

I suppose that I haven't really been talkative lately. Mainly due to the fact that I've been watching a bunch of spy-themed movies and reading TSR's Top Secret and Victory Games/Avalon Hill's James Bond 007. At some point, it occurred to me that there should be a retroclone of one or both of those. I'm starting working on notes toward a clone of the former, but I have some areas that I'd like to ask others about.

First, how much change do I need to make to satisfy legal requirements? Am I allowed, for instance, to keep the same names of characteristics, or do I have to give them synonymous names since the game is not, itself, under the OGL? Can I go so far as to use the "Quick Reference Codes" for weapons that were so prevalent in the various modules (this may not be essential, but it could prove useful in converting those old adventures to the clone system)? Can I just paraphrase and reorganize the rules sections, and present the tables in reorganized form?

Second, what do you think that the modern audience would prefer: a retro look at the Cold War era, or a modern, Homeland Security era game, such as the last two James Bond films seem to be attempting? I'm leaning toward the latter, but I can see a retroclone being targeted at the former, with supplementary material covering the more modern era.

Third, should I consider putting my own spin on some of the rules, such as the hand-to-hand combat section? For instance, I'd like to add ways in swordplay to include cuts to the body and legs, which are absent in the second printing tables. I'd also like to change the system slightly so that wrestling is a little less of a foregone conclusion (for instance) by adding a random element based on relative character traits. Is that a good idea at all?

Fourth, I'm interested in integrating the Top Secret Companion and some of the better Dragon magazine articles (especially those by Rasmussen). However, I don't know if there is some reason that might be a bad idea.

So, what do you think?


  1. I wish I weren't so ignorant as to Top Secret and issues regarding the OGL. The only "help" I can provide is to say that I like the idea of a Cold War base, followed up with a Homeland Security supplement.

    It would be intriguing to see how you'd deal with gun damage. One of the things I love about GURPs is that hit points remain relatively static. A gun is always lethal and a relevant threat.

    Keep us posted on your progress. :0

    PS: speaking of spy movies and spy RPGs, did you ever see that Dabney Coleman (spelling?) film about the kid who played spy rpgs and then got caught up in real life cloak and dagger? Some early 80s film I believe.

  2. That's helpful!

    Top Secret derives its hit points (here called "Live Level") from characteristics, and is static inasmuch as the characteristics are (the exact formula is "Physical Strength + Willpower / 10"). Interestingly, guns (in the basic rules) do the same damage no matter what type of gun it is. Optional rules add modifiers for caliber and type of bullet, as well as location struck. I kind of like that, because it gives the players respect for all guns, and not just the high-caliber ones. The big difference between guns in the game is their base chance to hit (called "Projectile Weapon Value" or PWV), which, oddly, is partly based on caliber.

    Is the movie Cloak & Dagger? I have not seen that one, but I have Netflix.

  3. Cloak and Dagger! Yes! There's a funny scene in that movies of a big, giant d20 rolling down the street as the boy makes a skill test and his character - represented by Mr. Coleman - looks on in wonder.

    Things like strength and willpower are pretty generic as far as game terms go. I don't think you'd have much problem creating an OGL based game. I like the mechanic you describe. Guns should always hurt!

  4. I meant to type "Life Level", not "Live Level".

    I look forward to seeing that movie now. The description on IMDb makes it sound like video games (which are not particularly interesting to me), not RPGs (which are).

    Another rule in Top Secret that reinforces the fear that guns should cause is the "Sneak Attack" rule. Basically, if you can succeed at a sneak attack (from concealment, say, or from behind), which is based on your level, your target's level, and the range, then there is a 10% chance with a projectile weapon of outright killing the target, regardless of his Life Level, armor, whatever (and a 75% chance of doing 1 to 8 points damage).

  5. While I played hours and hours of Top Secret in the 80s, I don't remember much about the mechanics now. But it would be cool to see a clone. I don't know about the legal ramifications. At the very least, you could use the OGLified stat names and just percentileify them.

    Cold War - definitively. And not cold war - Doctor Yes/MERSH/Man from Uncle thing too.

    Homeland Security? Meh. Too real. :)

    - Ark

  6. Oh, if I do it, I'm totally going to do UNCLE/THRUSH, SPECTRE, James Bond, John Steed (and associates), Napoleon Solo, and such, from the perspective of Top Secret's unique mix of realism and gonzo.

    By "Homeland Security era", I mean the Bourne movies, Craig's Bond, Jack Bauer, Tom Clancy's Rainbow 6 and Splinter Cell, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, RED, and whatnot, plus SEAL Team 6 and such.

    So far, it looks like setting it in the Cold War era and providing supplementary material to cover the more recent era is best.

  7. I think a retro-clone of Top Secret would be a great idea! Based on retro clones I've seen of other games, people typically try to pick one set of rules (OD&D vs. Basic vs. 1st Ed) and try to emulate those as closely as possible before adding or heavily-modifying the rules.

    I'd say just write what you want and worry about the legalities later. They will likely be less relevant than you thought;)

    I've been reading Sprechhaltestille recently, and it was pretty ground-breaking for it's time.

  8. I'm working on it!

    "Sprechenhaltestelle" is an excellent sandbox situation. There is a Mission(s), which is a Top Secret trope (just as the Patron is a Traveller trope or the Dungeon is a D&D trope), but the ways in which the chosen mission(s) can be resolved are not prescribed at all by recourse to "scenes", "boss monster battles", or similar deterministic narrative concepts.

  9. There was a James Bond 007 retro clone called Double Zero written by Unclebear. The PDF can be found here...

  10. Some friends and I are looking at using for some old fashioned Top Secret play, so I was searching the Internet for TS related stuff and found this. Have you done anything with this?

    1. I have let the project fall by the wayside, as I have done with most of my gaming interests for the moment (life has a way of making us do things and keeping us from the things we'd like to be doing instead). I have made a few notes and written a few pages toward it, though, and I do intend to get back to it as I can.

  11. What ever happened with this idea, man? Any progress towards a Top Secret retroclone?

    Merle Rassmussen is kickstarting a new version of the game, just BTW.

    1. I wrote some on it (still have the files), but got distracted by rediscovering how much I love Traveller and MegaTraveller. Every few months, I pull out the manuscript and work a bit more on it, but it's really low on my priority list.

      Yeah, the new Rasmussen game has me thinking that I should definitely stick to the '70s/'80s Cold War time period, since his game will be covering the more recent espionage world.

    2. I was considering doing something with Top Secret myself...before I saw the new Kickstarter. Now, I'm wondering if I should even bother.

      But if I DID bother...well, I'm not sure I'm even up for such a task. I'm not the biggest spy buff or anything. I'm pretty sure I could work out some good/cool mechanics that would work/play as good or better than the original (yes, I have a pretty high opinion of myself...), but it's the "everything else" bit I'm worried about...the theme-y, non-mechanical stuff. Maybe in collaboration with someone else, I could put out a decent game...

      Anyway, as I said, I'm now wondering if I should even bother. I'm backing the KS at a high level (fact: this is the first Kickstarter I have EVER backed), so I am already invested in "new TS." But it's an idea I still come back to, from time to time. I'm fairly surprised no one has put SOMEthing out yet.

      [assuming you're not counting Haven: City of Violence]
      ; )

    3. Well, as I understand it, the new TS is not going to be the old rules, but an entirely new set of rules. So that still leaves the original rules open for someone to create an emulated set.

      The thing about doing a retroclone is that you should try to at least emulate the original. Otherwise, you're just writing a new game inspired by the original. Like, your Cry Dark Future game (I think you've mentioned that you're still using that name) wouldn't be a retroclone of Shadowrun, right? It's a new game inspired by the setting.

    4. @ Faol:

      Exactly right.

      And there are definitely parts of TS I wouldn't simply cut and paste...melee combat, for example, is a bit of a bear to actually run at the table. Knowing myself, I'd probably transpose the B/X combat system to the game.

      On the other hand, it could be possible to create something largely INSPIRED by Top Secret's charming clunky-ness. I actually haven't given the idea much real thought. I just LIKE Top Secret...there's something about it that really tickles my (spy) fancy, in a way that James Bond doesn't (though THAT game is just about perfect in its emulation of the Bond "sub-genre").

      Mmm...I'm going to mull it over a bit.

    5. Ha! Melee combat is one of the reasons that I am interested in retrocloning the game. It is clunky, but it gets across the feel of hand-to-hand scenes in some espionage films (and a lot of books) just right.

      Anyway, the second edition (did you know that there was a second edition of Top Secret?) melee combat rules are much less clunky, though still a bit* more detailed than most would expect.

      *a lot

    6. I know of the Top Secret "S.I." Edition, but I've never played or owned a copy of it. I'm more interested in the first (original) edition.

      I've spent several hours the last couple days combing through the TS book and several modules (FastPass, Rapidstrike, the mini-module with the GM screen). There is a lot...a LOT...that I like about the game as is, but the grittiness of the guns and melee system are NOT in that list of likes.

      *sigh* I suppose you can't make a true "retroclone" without them. But giving players the means to customize guns in a way that gets their "min-max" juices flowing is SOOO unappealing. I remember my own TS character from decades ago, with his full-choke, 10-gauge rigged for full-auto (probably with explosive ammo or something). It becomes a mini-game of putting together the best PWV that meets your concealability needs, distracting from what the game SHOULD be about.

      Anyway...maybe I'll do a series of blog posts on the subject this week.

    7. Nope, not SI. The February 1981 second edition printing features a significantly revised melee combat section. I wasn't aware of this until I picked up a boxed set on eBay in order to get the Sprechenhaltestelle adventure (my original copy of the adventure vanished over the years) and got the April 1980 printing. Where the original cross-reference charts gave combat results that require checking values and other things, the second edition streamlines it to a simple damage result, with the values mainly affecting which tables a character can use without penalty.

      As for gun design, I've always taken that as something to help convert other guns than are on the tables, but it's also a way to cover the genre trope of the agent who has a weapon modified for their personal preferences. Anyway, the gun design section is deep in the optional rules, and doesn't even cover rifles or shotguns as written.