Along with Dungeons & Dragons and Traveller, another great love of my early RPG career was TSR's Top Secret. First released in 1980, it was written by Merle M. Rasmussen, a writer of somewhat mysterious pedigree. That is, he appears to have debuted on the RPG scene as the creator of Top Secret and, with the exception of a couple of D&D modules in the mid to late 80s, to have done little else in the field. I always wondered what became of him, but, after doing some digging and checking with my contacts, I've not been able to find out any more about the man behind one of my favorite early RPGs.
Like a lot of games from that era, Top Secret was built on the class-and-level model of D&D, with players being able to choose from among Assassins, Confiscators, and Investigators as classes. Character classes had little game mechanical effect, being used primarily to determine if the PC received bonus XP for certain class-specific objectives. Otherwise, character classes were fairly vestigial. The game used percentile dice for everything, from attribute generation to skill use to combat. My set included two twenty-sided dice of rather shoddy quality, but I understand later printings of the game included the more-familiar TSR "Dragon Dice" with the crayon.
Top Secret was brief -- the whole book was only 64 pages long -- but it contained everything I ever felt I needed to run an espionage game. There were rules for combat (of course), including several very enjoyable hand-to-hand combat sub-systems, generating missions and complications, fame, gun design, special gadgets, and lots more. Many of these rules were, as one might expect for the time, very cursory, laying out the broad outlines and then letting the referee, known as the Administrator, fill in the blanks. As a kid, that was just fine by me. The only time I ever felt out of my depth in coming up with rules was when it came to car chases, which Top Secret didn't really touch on that I recall. We eventually wound up using a modified version of the Car Wars rules to handle such eventualities.
What I remember most vividly about Top Secret was that it existed in a nice conceptual space halfway between the purely realistic spy novels of the era and the over-the-top action of the James Bond films, which were deep into the Roger Moore lunacy era at that time (Moonraker was released in 1979, remember). The modules produced for it were, by and large, semi-plausible in their conceptions, but each included enough space for individual players and referees to add their own elements if they preferred slightly more outlandish action in their games. My home campaign assumed the characters were members of an U.N.C.L.E.-like organization that drew on agents from every Western nation and fought terrorists, Eastern bloc spies, and the occasional diabolical madman bent on world domination. We had a lot of fun with the game and I still remember some absolutely awesome fistfights aboard the Orient Express as it barrelled on toward Istanbul.
Top Secret is also noteworthy because the cover image features yet another appearance by Gary's daughter, Elise, although you can't see her face in the photograph. Legend also has it that there was originally a different cover that included US dollars on it, but that it was pulled and replaced after it was realized that it was, at the time, illegal to photograph US legal tender.