Review: Overview of Top Secret/S.I.
Written by Dave McAlister
What You Got
Top Secret/S.I. was an espionage RPG which had a contemporary setting but incorporated its own good guys (Orion) and bad guys (Web). The boxed set contained all the usual rulebooks and dice as well as a couple of extras that certainly caught my eye. Firstly there were the fold-up card figures and secondly the floor plans, designed in such a way as to look like blue prints. In addition there was a “real” Orion agent business card!
The game itself was simplicity incarnate. The world background was our background and scenario ideas just leapt from the newspapers. The rules allowed for every conceivable action and reaction, while enabling the gameplay to continue at a reasonable speed.
Character generation was also straightforward, although time consuming – you could expect to spend 1-2 hours creating your character – the player rolled 1d6 and 1d10 for each of the five main attributes (Strength, Reflexes, Intelligence, Willpower and Constitution) to obtain a number in the region of 10-69, but because the players were secret agents they got to add another 10 to that score. Secondary attributes (Movement and Dexterity) were calculated using averages of the main dice rolls (Strength/Reflexes and Reflexes/Intelligence respectively). The player could also customise his character with advantages (such as Athletic Ability, Photographic Memory and Wealth) and disadvantages (including Allergy, Colour Blindness and Unattractive Appearance), as long as the point total of the former equalled the point total of the latter.
Despite some problems – such as the lack of a description for the Overweight disadvantage (which was corrected when the description was included in the F.R.E.E. Lancers supplement) – the system produced lively characters. There were also the optional rules for developing a Psychological Profile for the character. Within the six subheadings (Cruelty, Loyalty, Passion, Piety, Sanity and Selfishness) you could choose one of the descriptive words (None, Low, Some, High and Total) to describe the character’s attitudes towards other people and toward life in general. Using these rules you could produce some great role playing hooks.
Finally, the player had to decide what his/her character did before becoming a secret agent and what skills they acquired. To facilitate this the player was offered five career packages (Military, Professional, Worker, Entertainer and Other) – the Other career package was an optional package that could encompass anything from rich playboys to unlucky hobos (other career packages were available through supplements to the main rules). The differences between the career packages were two-fold, firstly the distribution of skill points varied (although all players started with 30 points) and, secondly, the savings that a character may have accumulated were detailed.
Once a career was chosen the player got down to the gritty task of acquiring skills. Each skill had varying levels of cost – the more complex the skill the more it cost – they were also split down into levels (six in total, 0 through to 5). Skills were “bought” using the skill points and each level above 0 enabled the player to add 5% to the chance of success at an action. Once all the skill points were spent the character was nearly completed, the only thing left to do was to write a background for him/her. This, however, was easy due to the wealth of detail that the character generation process provided.
Game Mechanics & Combat
Actually playing the game is the only way to really get a feel for the mechanics but, in a nutshell, they are amongst the easiest and most realistic around. Skills are based on the attributes to which they are associated plus 5% per level. In order to complete a task you had to roll under the character’s skill with percentile dice. Combat worked in the same way and, whilst not always fatal, was dangerous enough so as to try and avoid it.
Happily, the characters had what are called Luck Points. These are rolled, in secret, by the Administrator and the player never got to know how many he had – until he ran out! They could be used for anything a player wished (within reason) but were almost exclusively used when the character had been injured by an attack, especially if it would have proved fatal. The player could inform the Administrator that he wished to “lucky break” the damage, in which case he only took some or none (depending on the circumstances). Lucky breaks could also occur whenever the player rolled 00-04 when attempting an action. If this was the case the action was completed perfectly, however if the player rolled 95-99 – regardless of his ability – that was classed as a bad break.
Lucky or bad breaks resulted in either an exceptional success or a spectacular failure. The precise nature of which was up to the Administrator. As Top Secret/S.I. didn’t have experience points per se, at the end of every scenario players were allocated Fame and Fortune points. It was with these that new skills could be bought, as well as lucky breaks – should the player so desire. The maximum number of Fame and Fortune points that could be allocated was six, with two or three being a good average.
Supplements & Scenarios
TSR Inc published a number of supplements and scenarios for Top Secret/S.I. The supplements are detailed below. They have been separated into two categories; “must have” and “useful”. The scenarios haven’t been detailed as to do so would give too much away! However, what I have done is create a list of all the Top Secret/S.I. products (including scenarios) so that you can see what you need to complete that collection. You can access the product list here.
Must Have Supplements
Orion Rising: This detailed the Orion regional headquarters and their staffs and, as it was written by an assortment of authors, looks, at first glance, disjointed. Closer inspection, however, reveals a good sourcebook with plenty of information, as well as scenario snippets, that no Administrator could do without.
The Web: This supplement did for Web what Orion Rising did for Orion, only better. You got a full run-down of Web’s history and objectives as well as an insight into their chaotic nature. Each Web regional office was detailed, covering all aspects, including power struggles. Well worth the money, if only for Sabrina Gonclaves, the Web Enforcer!
G4 File: Guns, Gadgets and Getaway Gear: The third “must have” supplement elaborated on the information given in the Equipment booklet from the boxed set. Full details, in game terms, were available for all known weapons and vehicles. Also included were details of real and imaginary research items, including the obligatory cigarette gun! No longer did the PCs have to drive a generic sports car, now they could drive anything from a Ferrari F40 to the Aston Martin Vantage.
Commandos: This book gave detailed rules on running commando and mercenary missions. Although it sounds specialised, the additional skills that are included mean that it is more than worthy of inclusion as a “must have”.
High Stakes Gamble: This boxed set centred on Monaco and included detailed rules for gambling and car chases. It also contained scenarios and enough detail to use the Formula 1 Championships as a backdrop. Squeezed in beside all this were maps of Monaco and the surrounding area and, best of all, a selection of cards detailing vehicles including cars, boats, bikes, planes and helicopters. Players now knew what their vehicle looked like as well as having all the relevant information immediately to hand.
Agent 13 Sourcebook: Although published with an eye to detailing life in the 1930s, and thereby allowing a campaign in the world of Agent 13, this supplement offered the Administrator a whole host of campaign ideas. Rules and ideas are provided for all sorts of campaigns from The Untouchables through to Indiana Jones, from horror to science-fiction. This supplement proved that the Top Secret/S.I. system was usable for almost any genre.
Brushfire Wars: A supplement for the Administrator who wanted to run commando type scenarios. There was a lot of good information in this, and with little effort the scenarios included could be incorporated into any campaign.
Covert Operations Sourcebook: This sourcebook covered the majority of real-life spies and their exploits. It also detailed the history and workings of the CIA and KGB. A good idea, the main problem lay in the fact that real spies aren’t as flamboyant as PCs, which diluted their use in a campaign. The detail on the CIA and KGB made it worth the price though.
Covert Operations Sourcebook Vol 2: Another sourcebook detailing real-life spies. Again the information on the spies, whilst interesting and detailed, was hard to incorporate into a campaign. The sourcebook’s saving graces were the detailed descriptions of various world-wide intelligence agencies, including the British, German and French.
F.R.E.E. Lancers: Yet another good sourcebook, this time placing the players in the near future (at the time of printing this was the 1990s, but could quite easily be pushed back a decade or two). As well as providing the basic outline of what had happened in the last 10 or so years it introduced new career packages, skills and special metaphysical abilities.
F.R.E.E. America: This was a sourcebook for a sourcebook. With a wealth of background information, F.R.E.E. America ensured that the near future was as detailed and graphic as the present day. Not a lot of use if you didn’t have F.R.E.E. Lancers but still a worthwhile purchase.
Can You Still Get Them?
You should be able to find some or all of the Top Secret/S.I. boxed sets and supplements, mainly via the internet. Failing that, you could try the traders that attend almost every convention.