Until the appearance of the Top Secret Companion in 1984, all those releases had been adventure modules. Don't get me wrong: I have fond feelings toward several of those modules, but, since I didn't get to play all that often, I didn't get as much use out of them as I might have liked. The Companion, on the other hand, was the kind of support material I could simply read without having to use it. In fact, I'm pretty sure I never used anything the Companion introduced, which is why I want to talk about it in this post.
As presented, the Companion is a collection of new and expanded rules, along with some clarifications of rules from the original game. In principle, I should have loved this book – and, in principle, I did. There's a great deal of genuinely interesting stuff here, starting with an alignment system that accounts for a character's views on politics (democratic vs authoritarian), economics (capitalist vs communist), and change (radical vs reactionary). There are also new personal traits, areas of knowledge, bureaus, divisions, missions, and more, in addition to many, many random tables for generating every conceivable detail for player character agents. There are also new and optional rules for weapons, hand-to-hand combat, and equipment, not to mention a genuinely interesting system for improving a character through enrolling a character in special training courses. Topping it all off is a lengthy mission entitled "Operation: Meltdown," dealing with, among other things the space race between the West and the USSR.
If all of the foregoing sounds interesting, you'd be right. I loved reading the Top Secret Companion and thinking about all the ways I could use the new material in my infrequent games. Unfortunately, when the time came to run a session of Top Secret, I never actually made use of any of it. Partly, it was because it simply didn't seem worth it to add new rules to a game I played so rarely and partly it was because so many of the new rules and expansions were of the kind that are simply too fiddly or hard to remember to make good additions to regular play. The Top Secret Companion was thus the first time I encountered a "theoretically good" RPG book, one that seemed to satisfy my desire simply to read rather than to play.
I don't know that the Companion was uniquely perverse in this regard. Indeed, I am sure that there were many people who made good use of the book and its expanded options for Top Secret. If so, I am happy to hear this. For myself, though, this book represents the start of a period in my later teens when I found myself increasingly drawn towards the ideas contained in a game book than I was in actually using them at the table with my friends. In fact, during my later years of high school, I had less and less time to play RPGs at all and yet, despite that, I continued to be an avid consumer of roleplaying game products, many of which I neither used nor, in my opinion, could have used.
From what I have gathered talking to others, my experience was not unique. Many people continued to acquire the latest roleplaying games and supplements for them, even though they never had the chance to play them. From my current vantage point, that strikes me as perverse, but, at the time, reading a book like the Top Secret Companion was a good substitute for playing with my friends, which I did less and less, as the demands of school increased and I had less free time to engage in gaming. Looking back on it, I can't help but wonder to what extent companies like TSR understood this about their customers and so published more and more material that might continue to appeal to people who still considered themselves roleplayers even though they didn't actually play RPGs all that much anymore. It's something I continue to wonder about even today, as I look out on a market saturated with so many games and game products that there is simply no way most of them are being played by anyone.
Perhaps unfairly, I look back on the Top Secret Companion as a harbinger of a change within TSR and the hobby as a whole. The faddishness of the late '70s and early '80s was dying down somewhat and the earliest generations of gamers were starting to drift away from the hobby. Even I, in my mid-teens by this point, played the games that had meant so much to me just a few years prior a lot less. Much of my "gaming" activity was no devoted to thinking about playing rather than doing so. That's probably why a book like the Companion appealed to me so much when it was released. My feelings about it now are decidedly less positive, but maybe that says more about my own personal history than it does about the book itself.