A Very Special Agent
Written by Tony Lee
Before the revised edition of the TOP SECRET game was published, Administrators were sometimes dogged by persistent players who wanted special abilities for their agents – those “please give my character something unique to make him better than the other characters” request that all GMs get. On rare occasions, the favor might be granted – for a price, of course. But other players, unfortunately, would find out soon enough and demand equal treatment. Players might not know why their agents are working for Orion or the CIA, how many luck points their agents have, or even who killed Laura Palmer, but they always know when the Admin cut a deal behind their backs.
Then came the revised TOP SECRET/S.I. game, saving the day with character advantages and disadvantages. Not only was there now a way to dispense special abilities fairly, but weaknesses had to be taken to compensate! Countless Admins rejoiced, believing they’d heard the last of it – until someone, flipping through the rules book while creating a character one day, muttered to himself, “Gee, the advantage I want isn’t in here. I’d better give my good buddy the Admin a call?” No matter how many rules you pack into a game, someone is bound to ask for something that’s not there. As an Administrator, I have had to create new advantages and disadvantages to satisfy players and to fill my own needs for NPCs. I imagine other Admins have had to do the same, too. Some people think it’s no big deal, and they are right. In fact, besides listening patiently to the demands, determining the parameters of proposed advantages and disadvantages, outlining their obvious and intangible effects, filling in game-related details, ascertaining that no part is too potent or ineffectual, bargaining until the cost sounds reasonable, worrying how it can he taken advantage of checking for any contradictions of the rules, soliciting promises to never exploit any unforeseen loophole, playtesting, more playtesting, and more worrying, it’s a snap.
Given below are new advantages and disadvantages for Admins and players alike to add to their games. For those of you who have wanted to drop weaknesses or pick up extra advantages for your character note that after the advantages and disadvantages come rule suggestions and guidelines for doing just that.
Combat Aptitude (3 or 6 points): This advantage makes the agent more of a fighting machine, as he takes advantage of a natural affinity for certain forms of fighting. For three points, the agent may choose one of the three combat skill categories (ranged weapons, close-combat, or hand4ohand combat fighting styles) and add 10 to die rolls for skills in that category For six points, he adds 20 to those rolls.
Driving Ability (1, 2, or 3 points): Characters with this advantage pick up driving skills more easily than those with-out it. For each point purchased, an agent receives +10 to his skill check.]
Internal Clock (2 points): With Internal Clock, an agent can almost always tell what time it is. Like Internal Compass, no roll is required if he has clues (the sun, moon, stars, etc.); otherwise, he needs an INT check to gauge the time. Changes of time zone or unconsciousness will rattle an agent’s mental clock until the agent learns the new time.
Piloting Ability (2 points): The agent is naturally proficient with aircraft, and learning to pilot a new craft is rarely a problem. This advantage allows the player to add +10 per level to his agent’s skill-check rolls after buying zero levels of piloting skills normally.
Survivalist (3 or 6 points): This is the perfect advantage for outdoorsmen. Three points allows a character to add +10 to die rolls for First Aid, Fishing, Navigation, Tracking, and all Survival skills, after buying zero levels normally. This advantage also enhances the chance of survival in unfamiliar environments for which no skills are available, yielding a +10 bonus to relevant rolls. For six points, the agent gains a +20 bonus to the rolls above.
Manias (1, 2, or 3 points): The agent has an irrational compulsion or obsession that causes aberrant behaviours, like pyromania (a morbid fascination with fire that often drives its victims to commit arson for no other reason than to watch the flames) or dipsomania (which compels one to drink excessively whether it is wanted or not).
About once every adventure or two, the Admin should set up an encounter that can trigger the mania. A WIL roll is need-ed for the agent to control himself, but at -10 for every point in the mania. For example, if the agent has two points of kleptomania, the compulsion to steal, he must make a -20 WIL roll to keep from trying to swipe objects, regardless of their value, when nobody is looking.
Mute (3 points): The agent has lost the ability to speak or produce any vocalizations. He cannot communicate with others except through writing or sign language. This disadvantage prevents him from using verbal skills such as Mimicry and Ventriloquism.
Physical Handicap (3 or 6 points): One of the agent’s limbs is permanently disabled, given three points. The player must roll DEX or MOV for any action in which manual coordination is vital, such as tying a rope, dodging, juggling, diving for cover, running uphill, etc.
For six points, the disability extends to both arms or both legs. The agent cannot perform any manual action at all with impaired arms, and any movement with crippled legs other than a slow crawl is impossible without a wheelchair or crutches.
This disadvantage loses half its point value (rounded up) if the character supplants damaged appendages with functioning artificial replacements, as prosthetics are always less effective than the “original equipment”.
Poverty (2, 3, or 4 points): This is the opposite of the Wealth advantage, a reversal of fortune that leaves the agent at the bottom of the economic ladder. He never has much money in his pocket because all of his income is either wasted on hedonistic pursuits or goes directly to paying off debts. Everything he owns is mediocre at best. The varying degrees of poverty are displayed in the Poverty Table, which is similar to the table detailed in the Wealth advantage (Player’s Guide, page 20).
|2||struggling||old used car||500|
Secret (2 or 4 points): The agent has a secret that, if revealed, can ruin him. This secret might even be one that the agent is not aware of. If he’s aware of it, he will go to great lengths to protect the secret, perhaps even to the point of sacrificing anything and anyone, including himself. The exact details of the secret must be worked out in advance between the player and the Admin, and points are given based on the potential damage of the secret can cause.
A two-point secret is something the agent wants to hide from friends and colleagues, something best left unmentioned to save himself. Being a double agent or having a double identity, having committed serious crimes (perhaps unwillingly), using illicit drugs, and having a lover who is a wanted criminal or a spy for an opposing agency all fall into this category.
Any secret worth four points is certain to bring catastrophe when revealed, dooming not only the agent but everyone around him as well. (Player characters should rarely have a secret of this level!) The details of four-point secrets usually depend on campaign circumstances. Let’s say that there’s a well-respected, filthy-rich family with a nasty skeleton in the closet (certain family members cheated on taxes and defrauded an organized crime syndicate to build the fortune), and bringing the secret out into the open will utterly destroy the family’s name and holdings, as well as endanger all who belong to the clan. It is sensible here to give every such family member the four-point secret.
If a secret is made public or no longer has any significance, the Admin might require the player to take another disadvantage of equal or greater value (one likely possibility is Traumatic Flashbacks to the time of the secret’s revelation).
Unthinking Loyalty (2 points): The agent is so fanatically devoted to an organization that he will carry out all the agency’s commands and requests faithfully Anytime he wishes to disobey an order, he must make a WIL roll, failure meaning that he will do exactly what he’s told to do. He can never betray the institution to which he owes his loyalty as long as he has this weakness.
Since the rule book made no mention of how one can acquire new advantages or dump old disadvantages, players are presumably stuck forever with the ones they picked for their agents. Not only are characters deprived of any chance to develop new talents or overcome weaknesses, but there is actually little in reality to deter people from improving themselves.
There’s no reason why Agent Smith can’t train himself to use his off-hand. He could also gain enough confidence over the years to have Presence. And what if he finally erases Mr. Big, his “Enemy” for good?
Just how does one acquire new advantages or get rid of pesky weaknesses? Other games with similar rules on advantages and disadvantages permit changes like these by expenditure of experience points. We can thus use the TOP SECRET/S.I. game’s equivalent: Fame & Fortune points.
I suggest Admins charge Fame & Fortune points equal to double the advantages and disadvantages costs: 2 F&F points to add a one-point advantage or neutralize a one-point disadvantage, 4 F&F for a two-pointer, and so on. It’s also possible to raise or decrease the benefit or severity level of advantages and disadvantages by paying twice the level differential in F&F; e.g., upgrading a one-point “Athletic Ability” to the two-point level will cost 2 F&F points, and cutting a serious four-point “Traumatic Flashback” down to a mild two-pointer will require 4 F&F (These values can be adjusted to fit the campaign.)
As always, all changes are subject to the Admin’s approval, and the Admin should bar any addition or deletion unbefitting the character’s concept. To illustrate the point, let’s borrow the title character of the TV series “McGyver?’ Good old Mac relies on ingenuity rather than .45 slugs because he has a hang-up about using guns. He is, in fact, a man who’s willing to find a less lethal solution to problems thanks to his Moral Qualm. While doubtlessly a disadvantage in game terms, that very reluctance is also the principal motivation behind that character’s non-violent theme. Without it, the concept is shot, as the character is no longer kept from using firearms and exerting the violence that comes with shooting, and we end up with another gun-toting action-adventure hero.
Another significant criterion to look for when changing advantages and disadvantages is consistency with both the character and campaign continuity. In other words, how the characters got his advantage or lost his disadvantage must make sense, and the change must fit into the game’s story line. Usually, the players will provide explanations themselves, which can range from mundane (self-taught, professional counseling) to dramatic (winning the lottery, death of a relative). Sometimes the changes are necessitated or influenced by game results (scarred in combat, hypnotic suggestions).
In many cases, the requests for advantage or disadvantage changes can inspire game scenarios. With a dab of imagination, for example, the Admin can devise an adventure to specifically force a character to confront – and ultimately conquer – a personal phobia. To accommodate his wish of obtaining the Wealth advantage, how about sending the character on a Caribbean undersea treasure hunt or throwing him into a huge inheritance case against unscrupulous lawyers and relatives? A little creativity plus the willingness to explore possibilities are everything an Administrator needs to transform players desires into original, exciting adventures.
Oh, and a little time off from all the suggestions for neat, new advantages and disadvantages would help, too.