Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Retrospective: Top Secret

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.


  1. I'm guessing that Merle M. Rasmussen is a pseudonym. This would explain why they first appeared as authors of a new game and then only produced a few more works before disappearing.

  2. This game was decently fun to play, but the experience system ended up causing huge problems. Like assassins only got experience for killing people. Any particular adventure tended to give different party members wildly different xp results. I suppose some people might have liked that, but our group (very young at that time) HATED it.

    We were too young to just "fix" it, or even think of that as an option...

  3. "This game was decently fun to play, but the experience system ended up causing huge problems. Like assassins only got experience for killing people."

    I don't think that's right. IIRC, everybody got experience for what they did - only certain bureaus could collect the 100XP bonus, though.

  4. It always amazes me to see how our phone conversations become fodder for your posts. As always you do a far better job articulating my rambling thoughts. :)

    Top Secret was a game I played a lot, and it was one of the few games I actually bought the published adventures for. I did so becasue the adventures helped teach me how to design for a spy game.

    I still love this game, but the James Bond RPG did, and still does, more for me.

  5. "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."

    Dragon magazine had an article in it covering just this aspect of the game. I think it was called "Pop the clutch and roll." I got a lot of - er, mileage :P out of those rules!

  6. Maybe it's just me, but every time I hear about this game my first thoughts go to that movie with Val Kilmer.

    Skeet surfin' anyone?

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  8. re rules for car chases, the James Bond RPG (which was innovative in so many ways) had a really elegant Dutch Auction mechanic for this, where you and your antagonist (generally the GM) would bid ever smaller chances of success on a percentile roll - if you met your bid you got your result, but the lower the bid the larger the chance of critical failure.

    Simulationism aside, the element of gambling suited the setting perfectly.

  9. Rasmussen also designed a pretty obscure (but fun!) card game called Sqwurm, and details appear on BGG @

    He was active on ENWorld several years ago, but then dropped into obscurity again. Here's a query to find the posts: (many of them are simply references to TS in Dragon, but not all).


  10. I was amazed to run across a *second* Merle Rasmussen game somewhere around 1990. (I dug the hell out of this edition of Top Secret when I was a kid too.)

    It was called Nutz & Voltz, and it was a game where you played robots. It was a mini-RPG published in an issue of White Wolf magazine (back when WW was just a general RPG magazine, before Vampire and all that).

    Like Top Secret, it was all percentiles.

    It was kinda cool. Don't remember if I ever played it.

  11. Top Secret S.I. was actually the game that brought me back into gaming as a married college student, after I had fallen away due to time, loss of contact with older gaming friends, and otherwise been distracted by other things. For that reason alone, it has always been a favorite of mine.

    After playing through my first session (of my second gaming era) I picked up the books and read through them and realized that my GM was fairly heavily houseruling the game (in ways of which I approved), though. I think the only time I ever played the rules as written was a quick one-shot on the bus of a band trip in junior high in the mid 1980s. Wow. Nostalgia city, there.

  12. I absolutely loved Top Secret; my group played it to death for years.

    I actually met the person who wrote the game -- he worked for a time in a now defunct gaming store in Des Moines, Iowa (I miss that game shop!), but that was many, many years ago.

  13. Great Scott! Sorry to jack the post but for just one moment I need to interupt...

    "It was called Nutz & Voltz, and it was a game where you played robots. It was a mini-RPG published in an issue of White Wolf magazine (back when WW was just a general RPG magazine, before Vampire and all that)."

    Gaaghh! Ed, I could kiss ya man! I've been looking for that article/game for forever and a day. Any chance you could get me a copy?! That game has a very strange and twisty heritage that I'd love to share with you if you have the time and the interest.

    Contact me at my blogsite.

    Thanks in advance.

    Barking Alien

  14. When my friends and I played Top Secret, it felt very "grown up" to us. We were very young at the time (14 or 15), so playing adult spies in the "real" world was very thrilling.


    PS: Wasn't there a Dabney Coleman film from the early 80s where the lead character played a role-playing game similar to Top Secret?

  15. There was, Christian, from 1984. It was called Cloak & Dagger.

  16. That was Gygax's daughter...? Man, now I feel guilty for, uh, liking that cover so well.

  17. The atrociously-named revamp Top Secret/S.I. introduced some really, really smart changes - particularly a single attack roll for to-hit, damage (two types), and wound location. First RPG I ever played, back in the mid- or late-80's - I still remember the two villains in the included starter adventure, Biff and Cherry, and the enjoyable/dumb 'Agent 13' novel that came with the game.

  18. My only experience with the game was as a mid-teen. A girl I liked from the local hobby shop wanted to run a game, but I was the only taker. I rememember riding my bike to her house in Brentwood on a weekend afternoon, to play with her in the attic. Dreams of virginity-losing dancing in my head.

    Long and short of it, my character got killed (and she laughed about it like on of those killer-DM's would) and I got no touch from the girl. Pretty crappy experience all around.

  19. Top Secret was the second RPG I played; Superhero 2044 being the first.

    I remember sitting on the ramp at Monterrey Road Elementary School with a girl whose name I can't remember as she had me "roll" up a character by pulling pieces of paper (which we cut up) with numbers on them from a box. Man, that was looong ago.

  20. I'm intrigued by this notion of two separate posters being lured into the world of Top Secret by a femme fatale :)

    I had the good fortune of picking up an original TS boxed set at a local con auction last year, for just a few dollars. When I got it home and opened it, I found not only the original book and material in pristine condition, but all the original modules as well. Score!

  21. My brother and I played this a lot when I was young; the genre led itself well to DM and single player. My characters died a lot. My most memorable death was when I rolled up a character, but didn’t have enough money to buy bullets. I had a gun but no ammo and my brother in classic older brother fashion rolled some dice behind the screen and said my agency was out of whatever caliber I needed. I was 10 so I did the logical thing; I tried to rob the gun store and was shot to death by the police. That’s how I learned about silent alarms.

  22. I'm still mad that my mother sold my Top Secret set to the used book store when I went off to college! I'm unusual in that I started with Top Secret and worked into D&D from there. Its the game that I associate with the best one session of gaming that my group back in my high school days had (and we had a lot of good days and campaigns). Sigh.

  23. Love Top Secret...actually ran a pretty decent PBEM game with a friend, though needed to supplement with the Story Engine rules. However, the game itself is awesome, especially for a small group of players.

    One interesting thing (from a design perspective) is the "reward" system. Different characters received different amounts of money and experience for different activities based on CLASS. What this does is encourages class-specific behavior...which is totally cool.

    2E AD&D also tried to encourage class specific behavior with a class specific experience system with very poor results ( I convert people to my faith...and that makes me better at hitting monsters in combat?).

    A classic game...and I avoided the SI version like the plague!

  24. _Top Secret_ is something I probably haven't even *seen* since 1988, but I recall one mechanic from it very clearly, that I think *is* the bridge from a more-or-less human-scale espionage game to Roger Moore Lunacy. And that thing is the:

    You start off with some number of Fate Points (that's probably not the name). You can spend one to achieve any *one* result. And the rulebook, as I recall, specifically stated, "The player wants to dive out of a plane without a parachute, that's OK. If he keeps doing stupid stuff like that he's gonna run out of points soon enough."

    And *that*, boys and girls, is how Jaws can survive reentry on the outside of a space capsule.


  25. I they're called "Luck" points and the only thing they do is prevent death.

    I recently blogged very negatively about all such stuff like that (the Top Secret mechanic being the first I saw). I recall a particular PC in a car chase being shot (to death) over and over and over again as the Luck points were drained away, extremely awkward.

  26. So at the risk of sounding like a broken record, James Bond RPG had a similar mechanic ("Hero Points"), but a point could only affect the outcome of a single die roll, turning a failure into a success or a success into a crit.

    Still, I think it was a troubling precedent: it's the first actual game mechanic I can recall that supports "story gaming" - a departure from the oracular power of dice in favour of a dramatically satisfying outcome.

  27. The chase mechanic from the James Bond game is awesome as Richard mentioned above. I just bought that game a few days ago for a couple bucks at a used bookstore and I have been having a blast reading through it. The auction format sounds like it would work very well to create tense and exciting chases, and I think I will steal the basic idea to use for chase sequences in my D&D campaign. I was rereading that section before I fell asleep last night and I was involved in a very elaborate chase sequence in my dreams last night that involved me comandeering an ambulance as I was being pursued by machine gun wielding goons in a helicopter. Somehow my dream self did not think to turn on the ambulance's siren, so I ended up going off road to get away from the traffic and crashed into a construction lot and fled on foot into the trees... and then I woke up.

  28. you can get everything (even all the Dragon magazine articles and Modules) in a Torrent.. all scanned. Ive been 'Thumbing' through it for a couple of days reliving old times.. I totally dug this game.

  29. Top Secret included Fame and Fortune points; they were used to avoid a lethal damage result. An agent received one Fame point per level; characters received 1-10 Fortune points at the beginning of the game, but the total was kept by the Administrator - the player didn't know how many Fortune points the agent did until they ran out.

    They were not, per the rules as-written, 'drama' points. They served one purpose in what could be a very lethal game.

  30. Merle was his real name. Top Secret was the first game he wrote, and he would have been the first to admit he had no idea what he was doing. I used to work with him at a game store in Des Moines.

  31. My favourite memory of Top Secret was a multi-day operation that involved two agents moving from the US down into central America, locating a compound full of heavily armed goons, assaulting it and rescuing the hostages. It was long, arduous, and consumed Fortune points like mad. And at the end, in a 'Dallas' like twist, the GM indicated it was our neophyte characters' training mission (i.e. was an Agency fake, not a real mission). It was a good thing he was on the other side of a table, or melee may have ensued...

    Great game. Not as 'crunchy' as monsters like Spycraft and D20 modern.

  32. Stuntman Mike has the right of it. :-) However, Top Secret Fame and Fortune points were OPTIONAL. See Rulebook pg. 41.

    James Bond's Hero Points were much like Top Secret's 'Fame and Fortune' Points, in that they could avert a fatality or severe injury by lowering the 'Wound Level'. But they could also be used to improve the result of a player skill roll, or decrease the GM's. Also, at the GM's option, they could ALTER the immediate environment, though only in 'minor' ways, to benefit a Player Character. You could spend a Hero Point to bring a useful item to hand in a brawl, say, a rock or sturdy wooden pole, for example, rather than produce a rocket launcher out of thin air to destroy a Huey Hog in a car vs helicopter duel. See pg. 75 of the Rulebook.

    Great Retrospective on a game that intrigued me greatly when I was younger!