Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Retrospective: James Bond 007

Though TSR's Top Secret was my first love when it came to espionage RPGs, I think Victory Games's James Bond 007 was probably my true love. I exaggerate slightly, of course, because, when it comes down to it, the Bond franchise is no more about espionage than Dungeons & Dragons is about the Middle Ages. That's what I liked about this roleplaying game, released in 1983 by Victory Games, a subsidiary of Avalon Hill formed a year earlier and staffed largely by ex-SPI personnel: it knew what it was and made no bones about it -- and what it was was an action-adventure game inspired by Ian Fleming's sophisticated pulp fiction (and its spin-offs).

That self-awareness might not seem like a big deal nowadays but, in 1983, it was noteworthy. Whereas the aforementioned Top Secret was a conceptual jumble intended to encompass everything from John Le Carré to The Man from U.N.C.L.E., James Bond 007 was a piece of precision game design intended to bring the flamboyant world of Britain's greatest secret agent to life. Written by Gerard Christopher Klug, whose primary design credit prior to this was "co-development" of SPI's SF RPG, Universe, the game employed a percentile-based "quality results table" to adjudicate most actions in the game. Not unlike the color-coded charts in games like later games, such as Marvel Super Heroes, the table determined not only the success of actions but also, as its name suggests, the quality of those successes on a scale of 1 (Excellent) to 4 (Acceptable). This scale elegantly enabled many actions, such as combat, to be handled with a single die roll. The chance of success -- and thus its quality -- can be modified through the use an Ease Factor assigned by the GM.

Character creation is a straightforward point-buy system designed to ensure that even rookie characters are quite competent, as you'd expect for secret agents in the James Bond universe. Points are spent on five characteristics (Strength, Dexterity, Willpower, Perception, and Intelligence), Skills (from a narrow but appropriate list), and Physical Appearance (including Height and Weight). Weaknesses of various sorts give additional generation points with which to purchase any of the above. Optionally, characters may have prior professions, which give them "Fields of Experience," which are non-mechanical "skills." That is, they represent areas of knowledge on which a character may draw without the need for a roll to determine success. They're a surprisingly elegant aspect of the game that nicely models the ability of Bond to come up with useful information in the course of a mission.

What's interesting about James Bond 007 is that it never loses sight of its purpose. Rather than cover a wide variety of topics in limited detail in order to provide breadth, it instead goes into much great detail about a small range of topics you'd expect of any game inspired by James Bond. Thus, there's an entire chapter devoted to chases of all sorts, just as there are chapters devoted gambling/casinos and interaction with NPCs, particularly seduction and torture. The result is a game that, while very focused, nevertheless doesn't feel cramped. In fact, it feels strangely liberating, as the rules quite clearly give the GM a fully-functional mechanical toolbox for emulating Bond films and novels.

Building on this, the Basic Rules of James Bond 007 provides an extensive GM section -- nearly half of the book's 162 pages are given over to the GM. Besides the usual advice, there's a great section on building memorable NPCs, complete with random tables for generating their stats and a random encounter system designed to simultaneously flesh out a mission and provide unexpected turns of events. It's surprisingly old school in its general approach and something I appreciate even more now than I did back when I played the game. Other portions of the GM section detail weaponry and gadgets, MI6, important NPCs from the films/novels, an enemy organization called TAROT to replace SPECTRE (which, for legal reasons, the game could not use), and information on numerous Bond-related world cities. There was even an introductory solitaire adventure to enable players and GMs alike to become familiar with the rules -- and all under one cover.

James Bond 007 was not only a good game, one that perfectly emulated its source material without the imposition of a mechanical straitjacket, but also a very successful one. During its brief time on the stage (1983-1987), it sold tens of thousands of copies, making it likely the most popular espionage-related RPG ever published. Support for the game was primarily in the form of adventures -- another connection to old school principles -- with a handful of sourcebooks, such as the Q Manual and Thrilling Locations, both of which could readily be used as inspiration for other modern day games. The adventures were a mixed bag, using the movies as starting points but in fact deviating from them quite radically in some cases. Even the worst ones, though, felt distinctly "Bondian" rather than generic, much the game itself.

Long out of print, Berin "Uncle Bear" Kinsman, has retro-cloned the rules under the name Double Zero and a full release of the game is coming late this summer. I certainly look forward to it, as James Bond 007 was a terrific example of early 80s game design and a true classic. Despite my fondness for Top Secret, I doubt I'd ever consider playing it again, whereas I'd happily play James Bond 007 in a heartbeat. For its genre, no one's ever done it better.

29 comments:

  1. It behooves us to mention Klug's assistant designer on 007, Greg Gorden. Gorden went on to design universal-table games like DC Heroes, Torg, and Earthdawn, so it's reasonable to speculate he had a lot to do with 007's results table.

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  2. Thanks for mentioning that. You're almost certainly right. I remember the name from various West End products and should have made the connection.

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  3. What I liked about the system was that players could reduce the Ease Factor themselves, making it harder for them to succeed, but also making it more difficult for their opponents to do so. Which I think made it one of the first games which incorporated player feedback into the actual game mechanics.

    A number of people produced garage games (smaller than small press) that "borrowed" heavily from the system, proving it was actually quite adaptable to any play where competition was important. Foresight was an interesting SF game that did so.

    [Oh, and "give them the eye" became a running joke in a lot of local games after it came out. What can I say. We were young.]

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  4. Greg Gorden is, without a doubt, my favorite game designer. His systems share certain qualities that enable the quick flow of action and often incorporate elements of "player control of environment."

    James Bond 007 is a wonderful game.

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  5. For its genre, no one's ever done it better

    Surely that should read nobody does it better? :)

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  6. I loved the Bond game, having been introduced to it via a Bond-Cthulhu campaign (this long before The X-Files) and it became my base system for modifying for more than a decade, while a friend and co-GM was similarly charmed by Dr. Who. I ran Bond-SF, Bond-Jorune and a sort of Renaissance Mediterranean Bond-Traveller with Venetian spies and ambidextrous Moors and exiled Janissaries and haunted island lairs.

    That's what I'd most like to play again, I think.

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  7. I, too, remember this game fondly. I spent hours pouring over the Q Manual; however, I was also acutely aware that adventures were organized into sequential scenes or chapters (they were based on James Bond movies, after all). As a result, I was reluctant to actually ref or play the game, because I was already very experienced in the reality that players often had their own ideas — which meant I either would have to do a lot of work to try and anticipate player moves and run the risk of wasting much time writing possible encounters or railroad my players into a predetermined plot. Neither prospect appealed to me much at all.

    This brings up the question of how genres affect game play — how some lend themselves to "sandbox" play and while others seem to require a "narrative" style.

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  8. I never actually ran any of the published adventures, but I read them the same way I read Shadows of Yog Sothoth - as indications that a certain set of things were going on in the world semi-independently of the players, that the clues were to be found in these places and that, were the players to engage in these situations, this might be how they'd work out.
    I confess to being made deeply uncomfortable by how closely sample adventures hewed to the actual movie plots, though. It was as though the players were supposed to have seen and not seen them. Or (and this just didn't occur to me at the time) as if they were supposed to want to replicate the films exactly.

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  9. @Allen and @Christian; I heartily agree -- Greg Gordon is, I think, an unsung hero of very functional game design. One interesting aspect of his designs to me is that efforts to adapt them resulted in efforts not nearly as smooth or effective as the original (viz Torg, DC Heroes) with perhaps the possible exceptions of Kansas Jim Ogle's tuning to produce Torgv2.0.

    Another interesting note on the 007 game: much testing and contribution for the game came from Prof Neil Randall, a professor of English Lit at the University of Waterloo here in ON (my alma mater). Neil now does game development (apart from his professorial duties) for GMT. I have taken a number of courses from Neil, and still see him reasonably regularly.

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  10. Richard,

    It's been a while since I last looked at any of the adventures, but my recollection is that most of them only superficially resembled the movies/books on which they were based, often deviating from them in important ways -- so much so in fact that relying on one's knowledge of the originals would lead one to draw the wrong conclusions and thus take the wrong course of action.

    Am I misremembering them?

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  11. Fr Dave,

    It's true that the 007 adventures were very "structured," but I don't recall their being particularly heavy-handed in this regard. Mostly, each "chapter" corresponded to a new locale to which the PCs were assumed to be going in accordance with clues and plot threads presented in earlier chapters, much in the way that Bond might go from London to Jamaica to Hong Kong in pursuit of his quarry. Certainly there wasn't a lot of provision for going to someplace other than those connected to the villain's schemes but I'm not sure that's a fault of the adventures (or maybe I just had unimaginative players).

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  12. it's quite possible - it's a long time since I last looked at them, too, and it seems pretty much inconceivable that anyone would put out an adventure that directly replicated a well-known movie. Still, that's a deeply strange genre of game design to work in - the same-but-not-quite adventure, which you could fail on die rolls as much as through inattention. Thinking about it now it sounds like a neurotic catechism, where the priest changes the formulae to make sure the congregation is really listening. No doubt that's unfair and was far from the intention.

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  13. Apart from the two sequel and thus wholly original scenarios (Goldfinger II - The Man with the Midas Touch and You Only Live Twice II - Back of Beyond), all of the scenarios for the game were written so that anyone who followed exactly what Bond did himself in the films would actually fail. This certainly happened when we played A View to a Kill.

    Nevertheless, this RPG is certainly the best espionage themed RPG so far published. It perfectly emulated its genre and we had a lot of fun playing it. It is not a game for more than two or three players though -- playing it with six players was a nightmare!

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  14. Pookie,

    That was my recollection as well; good to see it confirmed. I believe Victory Games regularly altered the plots of the originals in their modules, most famously in Live and Let Die where one character in the film is split into two characters in the adventure.

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  15. Great post! I loved both Top Secret and James Bond and this took me right back to those days.

    With respect to Top Secret, I never saw it as a mish-mash. Although it certainly drew from a variety of sources in the genre, I always thought that, with its character archetype specialties, cleaved more closely to Mission Impossible - a team of operatives with specialized niches as opposed to Bond style super-agents.

    @Pookie: are you the same Pookie I knew from the Pyramid message boards ten years ago or so, and whose game reviews I loved so much?

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  16. I am actually surprised to hear that so many people played James Bond back in the day. I did collect the game and almost all it's supplements, because I was the GM of our group and an Ian Fleming fan, but we never actually got around to playing. (Now I heartily regret giving it all away many years ago.)
    I do still like the spy-genre, though, and if I were to go back and try it again I would probably want to use this system... although I would likely set the game in a 1950's era Bond setting ala the actual Fleming novels (which I find far more interesting and exciting than the movies.)

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  17. I too am an admirer of the Gorden's resolution table style designs. We played a lot of TORG but the follow-up Masterbook (done w/o Gorden?) was terribly over written, relying on a formulas and derived stats that made no algebraic sense.

    007 was a solid design but I never got past Bond being a lone wolf -type character. Top Secret had more role-playing potential because it catered to agent teams with specialties.

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  18. I would likely set the game in a 1950's era Bond setting ala the actual Fleming novels (which I find far more interesting and exciting than the movies.)

    I agree. I was naively hoping that, when the reboot of the franchise was announced, they might go the historical route and set the new series in the 50s, but, alas, it was not to be.

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  19. Such a great post. I know that this was the first RP game I ever played back in '86, mainly because of being such a big Bond fan (still am). It is also refreshing to see someone not only mention the game, but also praise it for its superb design; I feel it has really gone by the wayside and is quite forgotten. Thanks!

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  20. Loved this game and we tried to adapt the rules for a fantasy game but found it didn't scale up very well but that's to be expected from the scope of its inspiration. We were also in our late-teens and so our characters were mostly min/maxed "draw first, shoot best" speed demons. I'd like to try this again with more seasoned players more interested in RP and colorful characters.

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  21. @John Fletcher
    The game was scaled so that you could play with just the one 00 agent, two ordinary agents, or more rookies. So that it could be played with more than one player and the GM. That was certainly how we played it.

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  22. With regard to the franchise being rebooted and reset in the 1950s, BBC radio recently broadcast a nicely done adaptation of Goldfinger that had Sir Ian Mckellen play Auric Goldfinger. You could literally hear him relishing the opportunity to play a villain. I am hoping that the BBC release it on CD.

    With regard to playing an espionage style game set in the 1950s (a decade that seems weirdly overlooked when it comes to gaming), you might want to look at two games, both set in Berlin. The first is Cold City, which while well done, does focus on co-operation, betrayal, and monster hunting between the four powers in the city. The other is Ron Edwards' Spione, a story telling game set in Cold War Berlin.

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  23. @Sean Robson
    Yes, I am and I am still writing reviews. How my reputation...

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  24. I spent many a summer night in highschool playing James Bond with my first gaming group (along with D&D, Rolemaster, and Gurps, WFRP, and Gurps). Many years later, we still regularly quote those sessions.

    And one more thing... Best... chase... rules... ever!

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  25. I loved TS, but marveled at how it morphed into a gun-battle game and quasi-military in our group.

    When we played T2000, it morphed into sneaking, limited gun play, and more spy-esque. Oddly, FASA Star Trek was like that too...

    Go figure.

    Not too much demand for JB/naught-naught-seven in our group. TS held our interest, when we weren't fighting Drow or tramping across Greyhawk.

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  26. My favorite part is the Example of Play which takes an iconic scene from Goldfinger and "interprets" it as a RPG session. When I am preparing to GM a session I often pull it out for inspiration!

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  27. One of the best of the old-school games from my childhood. I could never convince friends to play, but I loved how it perfectly modeled the feel of the Bond mythology, focusing on girls, gadgets and gambling.

    I'd go so far as to say no other game before or since (with the possible exception of Ghostbusters) so perfectly modeled their source material.

    Come to think of it... I'd love to hear your thoughts on that WEG classic.

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  28. I played quite a bit of this and it was a great system - I still have a copy of it today and I wouldn't hesitate to run it as-is. We usually played with 1 Gm and 1 player as a 00 or 2 players as Agent-level partners.

    One thing about the Avalon Hill-backed RPG's like this and Lords of Creation, etc - they came in nicely-packed boxes. There was no shortage of separate maps, player handouts, screens, etc. I still have my mostly-complete pad of character record sheets for this and LOC.

    And the Q Manual...sigh...Rookies drove Beetles, 00's drove Ferrari BB512's...

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  29. Is that mentioned Double Zero game available anywhere anymore? That presented link seems dead.

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