How to Make and Maintain a Top Secret Campaign

by John J Terra

When I originally introduced the Top Secret game to my AD&D game players, the response was less than over-whelming. Out of the fifteen people in my campaign, only four showed any interest in trying out the game. Everyone else was either unexcited about a “modern-day” role-playing game or disliked dealing with real weapons and actual world problems such as terrorists, spies, and the like. It seemed a bit too close to reality. That was eighteen months ago. Today, our Top Secret campaign contains ten players out of those fifteen, and one of the first four is an Administrator, too. Some of these players even like it better than the AD&D game! How was this turnaround achieved?

This article will try to give some answers. The Top Secret system is an excellent espionage role-playing game that should enjoy more popularity than it currently has. Of course, since any game is only as good as the person who referees it, perhaps the observations and advice included here will help other Administrators develop more fun and interesting campaigns, and perhaps win over some of those hesitant players.

The organization

One of the first things an Administrator (or Admin, for short) should have established before starting a campaign is a good espionage organization for player character spies. The organization is responsible for sending the agents on missions, paying them upon successful completion of said missions, and disciplining them for rules infractions, among other things. To create a strong, believable spy organization, answer for yourself the following questions:

1. Who started the organization, and why?
2. What are its goals, and how does it go about achieving them?
3. Is it a known agency, or is it secret? If secret, why?
4. Where is it located?

For example, I created an organization called ICICLE, short for InterContinental Investigation, Confiscation, and Law Enforcement. It was established by thirty Western and neutral nations to be a pool of agents that cannot be traced to one single country. It exists to keep national stabilities, prevent wars, foil Eastern-bloc espionage activity, and combat terrorism. The agency is unknown, to the public and to most non-member nations, since the agency feels secrecy is one of its best weapons. Its main headquarters is in Coventry, England.

As you can see, the international flavor of the group justifies many different agent nationalities working together in a logical way. Also, its multi-faceted role promises the full gamut of missions with the whole world available as possible locales. Consequently, the agency has many enemies to deal with, since they cannot achieve their goals without stepping on a few toes.

Since there are no moral alignments in Top Secret gaming, the Admin may wish to assign a code of ethics and rules for the organization. Such rules could prevent “over-enthusiastic” agents from torturing, looting, and firing twenty rounds at the nearest KGB agent who looks at them the wrong way. Spies, after all, are supposed to be subtle.

Of course, a nice, healthy agency bureaucracy can put a damper on agents who do things such as taking equipment from enemies that they have killed. When my agents defeated a piracy attempt by a group of machine-gun-wielding terrorists, suddenly everyone wanted to keep the AK-47 assault rifles left by the terrorists. So, everyone found themselves filling out form P152a, requesting permission to keep items they found. A percentile dice roll of 20% plus 5% per level of agent gave the lucky applicants the weapon they wished.

Additionally, as the Admin, I sometimes give one or two agents a special assignment. Usually it involves keeping an eye out for “abnormal behaviour” in his or her team-mates. Any act of unjustified malice is reported, and goes on the agent’s dossier. This sort of mission is usually delegated to a member of the Investigation bureau. If you are not interested in designing your own agency, you can choose an agency already in existence, either an actual one (FBI, NSA, Mossad, DI-5), or a fictional one (UNCLE, CONTROL, IMF). The advantage with these groups is they already have a defined structure, origin, etc. There is very little preparation necessary on the part of the Admin, though a bit of research can help in playing the organization the way it is meant to be. [See DRAGON issues 93, 97, 98 and 99 for potential organizations that may be used in Top Secret games]

The reality factor

The tone you set for your game is very important. You can expect players to behave for the most part in the same manner that you do. Ask yourself just how realistic you want your campaign to be. Is your setting one that includes robots, lasers, clones, and other things not exactly commonplace in our time period? Perhaps you want something like the television show “Get Smart” where everything is either tongue-in-cheek or downright crazy. The above-mentioned settings allow for a truly interesting, not to mention bizarre, campaign. However, things can get out of hand. Games like this can disintegrate into nonstop joke fests. This in itself is not so bad, if you wanted it in the first place.

My favorite approach is the realistic one. While I have run certain secret organizations which steal nuclear bombs or create lethal gasses and such, my missions for the most part are based on things that exist today. My standard is this: Can the situation that occurs in this adventure possibly happen or have already happened?

The world news section of your paper can offer some truly exciting ideas for adventures. The recent West German spy scandal, with its wave of defections on both sides, provides some interesting possibilities for missions. Also, there’s illegal arms shipments to Iran to be stopped and cocaine smuggling from South America to be foiled. What about the recent attacks on NATO installations by terrorists? These are the sorts of things from which good adventures come.

By the same token, it is strongly suggested that if you do use current events for inspirations, good taste should prevail. Sending agents out to avenge assorted car bombings or hunting down Salvadoran death squads seems to be a poor reaction to the tragic and confusing goings-on in some parts of our world, especially when such events are embroiled in controversy and it is hard to tell who the bad guys are.

Making the agents do too much, or making them do something so far-fetched that if it happened in the real world it would be the end of civilization as we know it, is another trap into which Admins may fall. Take the following adventure. See if you can spot where it starts to get a bit unrealistic. The agents are supposed to go to the Soviet Union and book passage on the Trans-Siberian railroad. They are to go to this remote area where a secret lab is located. Once at the lab, they are to break in and steal a particular object. After they take it, they are to go to Vladivostok and steal an experimental submarine, then sail it to Pearl Harbor.

If anyone out there raised their eyebrows at the words “experimental submarine”, then give yourselves 500 experience points (plus an extra hundred if you are an Investigator). Does anyone have any idea how tight Soviet Naval security is? If you remember the true story of the Soviet destroyer that tried to defect to Sweden, only to be stopped by a massive force of maritime strike aircraft and naval vessels, you know that the Soviets would be even more paranoid about an experimental submarine. A mission like the above mentioned one is certainly spectacular, but tell me, what does one do for an encore? How can the Admin outdo himself now? Only by making the situations more and more impossible. While some Admins find this acceptable, I think that AD&D gaming has a good term for it: Monty Haul.

If you intend to run a campaign that meshes with our current world situation, then forget such missions as assassinating Qaddafi, Khomeini, or any other irksome leader. Don’t bother trying to overthrow Castro, blow up the Soviet aircraft carrier Kiev, or spark a war between China and the Soviet Union. Stay with things that could be happening behind the scenes.

Scenario work

Now that you have an agency from which you can send agents, and you have determined the overall tone of your campaign, your next step is to provide your players with exciting, challenging, and fun missions that will keep them on their toes, and possibly even attract new players. First, let’s look at the ready-made scenarios available at your local hobby shop.

The one common denominator in all of the Top Secret modules is the feasibility, however remote, of the situation really happening. Just recently, PLF terrorists hijacked the ocean liner Achille Lauro in the Mediterranean, which is exactly what happens in one particular module. (I won’t reveal which one… It’s supposed to be a surprise for the agents!)

The two most far-fetched modules are TS 002, Operation: Rapidstrike!, and TS 008, Operation: Seventh Seal. They deal with mad scientists and nuclear terrorism, respectively, and are very challenging. Situations in real life along these lines are possible, but not probable.

TS 004, Operation: Fastpass, is a classic East-West defection scenario. The maps provided give the Administrator some fine inspiration for further adventures in Eastern Europe.

TS 006, Operation: Ace of Clubs, is a nice whodunit, and offers a good chance for players to really role-play their characters, as well as bone up on old skills or learn some new ones. Like Fastpass, it can be used over and over again.

My favorite is TS 005, Operation: Orient Express, which gives not one but six different adventures on the European Rail system. This module is a real bargain. Like Fastpass, it too, can be used over and over, and is a valuable resource for traveling in Europe by train. It is also perfect as an escape route for your NPC villains who have been foiled by your intrepid players! If you do not have the Administrator’s screen, this is another good item. Not only do you have the charts at your easy reach, the mini-module is challenging as well. The same holds true for the recently released Top Secret Companion volume.

I will not go into the modules included in DRAGON Magazine, due to the difficulty in locating the issues that have them. If you can, by all means get “Operation: Whiteout” (DRAGON issue 87).

The other scenarios available to an Admin are the home-grown variety. Unlike the preplanned modules, design-your-own modules offer you the advantage of complete freedom of design. Since the campaign hinges on the missions it features, extra care should be taken in preparation of scenario. A constant string of badly planned games will lead to a decline in players.

The missions you give your agents should be consistent with the goals of the organization to which they belong. The first thing that should be considered is what locales are to be used as backdrops to the mission. Taking a package of plans from point A to point B is easy enough, but add the Soviet Union as the scene of the adventure and things become harder to do. Recovering the remains of a ditched USAF B-52 may seem routine, but if the bomber crashed in Libya, well …

Which leads to another point, namely the objective. Let’s take the crashed B-52 bomber as an example. It crashed in Libya, so why are a group of NATO agents trying to salvage it? It just so happens that this particular plane has some state-of-the-art elint (electronics intelligence) equipment on board, commonly used by the majority of the NATO nations, and it cannot fall into the wrong hands. There’s your objective. Find the equipment and bring it back. If you cannot do this, then destroy it. thus far, this still seems like your basic recovery mission, rehashed from movie, television, and book plots. Ah, but now comes the next element!

Call it “complications” or “plot twists” Nothing is ever as it first seems. This can be information either unknown to or withheld by the case officer assigning the mission. Murphy’s Law reigns supreme in the field of complications. Back to the example: The agents are briefed and sent packing to Libya. What the agency does not know is that the KGB was immediately tipped off about the crash, and Soviet agents have already dispatched a team to retrieve the equipment. Also, a group of nomadic terrorists are converging on the wreckage, and a group of anti-Qaddafi partisans have seized the surviving crewmen in an attempt to bargain for military aide from the USA

Does this sound complicated? Of course it does! But if the Admin is organized, there should be minimal confusion. Once again, plausibility should take precedence over complications. It certainly would not make sense to have a squad of militant neo-Nazis also converge on the plane. Everything thrown at the players should have a logical (and not far-fetched) explanation.

Notice that the last plot twist is not necessarily bad, if the agents play their cards right. In theory, the Western agents and the anti-Qaddafi faction are pursuing the same goals. If the agents find these people, both groups could benefit. Always give the agents an even break. Remember, you are not out to kill everyone off.

Thus, designing a module can be as easy as following these steps:

a. Select a geographical location;
b. Create a situation;
c. Create a list of people involved;
d. Draw up maps and floor plans, if needed;
e. Make up a chronology, so you know who is where and when;
f. Set the objectives for the agents, and write up their briefing;
g. Whip up a series of nice twists and complications (since things are never as they seem); and,
h. Invite the players over and enjoy!

Books and movies can be good sources of adventure, as long as you are careful that your players are not reading or watching the same things you are. Take one of those plots, and ask yourself what you would change if you’d written that book, or directed that movie. Watch “The Avengers”, “Mission: Impossible”, “I Spy”, and “McGyver”, for visual inspirations, and read books by Ken Follett or Robert Ludlum for literary inspirations.

While we are at it, movies like Rambo, The Terminator, Dirty Harry, or Commando, while nice to watch (I suppose), are terrible excuses for a TOP SECRET adventure. Besides, you could go crazy rolling all of those gunshots to see if they hit, and where, and how severe the wounds are, and so on.


A good adventure can combine an exotic setting with a tough challenge. You can weave plots and sub-plots, with clues strewn about for your agents to find and piece together. But if you don’t have good, realistic non-player characters, you are wasting your time as well as that of your players. Since many missions involve human targets and contacts, it is incumbent upon the Admin to come up with NPCs that the characters can believe in and relate to.

Every good story has an antagonist, and what is a TOP SECRET adventure but a story in which characters participate? An antagonist can be anyone from a basic lackey who guards a target to a wily KGB colonel who seems to slip through the agents’ fingers time and time again, to return and befuddle them in the future. Obviously, the Admin would spend more time developing the latter NPC, though most NPCs deserve some minimal fleshing out.

Languages known, high AOKs, a physical description, and a short personality sketch should be included for all but the most insignificant characters. It also helps to throw in detailed, ad-libbed descriptions of a few random passersby. It makes the players suspicious of them, since they probably think you would not bother describing the NPC unless it means something important. It sure does mean something, all right. It means the players will go crazy. This can be fun. More on this later.

Remember, these NPCs have origins, goals, motivations, and a few ingenious ideas of their own. They, too, have been trained and outfitted by their respective organizations. They are not just clay pigeons waiting to be blown away by trigger-happy agents — at least, not all of them are. Even the lowly guards should be alert, suspicious, and competent. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be guards in the first place!

Of course, the greatest temptation for the Admin is to allow the NPCs to act upon knowledge that they would have no way of knowing. The Admin has to put himself in an NPC’s place, and ask what he would know and do in a particular situation, limiting your responses to what can be allowed based on the NPC’s statistics. One frustrating hazard the Admin faces is when some of his prize NPCs are wandering into a brilliantly planned trap, courtesy of the players, and there is no way NPCs could know anything about it. You have to sit there and let it happen.

Give the NPCs a three-dimensional quality. A particular assassin may be fond of classical music (give him a Fine Arts AOK of 100), or a jewel thief may have a personal distaste for killing and thus not carry a gun (this would be a perfect character to give a high Evasion rating to, for making easy escapes!).

Not every confrontation with an enemy agent need be fatal. Nothing injects a little color more than a healthy rivalry with someone who can be a challenge. This lends continuity to the campaign. The players get a sense of accomplishment in foiling and outwitting an archenemy. Perhaps the rivalry will ultimately end with one side or the other dead, but at least both can be satisfied that each gave a good account of themselves, and the victory will have been well-earned.

Write down the stats of your NPCs on 3″ x 5″ cards, and file them in alphabetical order to keep everything organized and quickly accessible. This is perfect for those NPCs that always pop up at the most inopportune times.

Another matter entirely concerns the brief contacts, the faceless cut-outs, or the horde of 100 angry Iranians that the agents have brought down on themselves due to sloppiness. Life stories, relatives, and what flavor ice cream they enjoy are moot. These people need only the briefest detail, since they are only cannon fodder. Concentrate only on the NPCs that you think the agents will most likely get involved with in one way or another.

Case officers and other members of the players’ organization may also be fleshed out, with satisfying results. For example, if your spy organization has two case officers — one who happens to be very easy-going and another who is short-tempered — notice how differently the players act towards each in situations like debriefings. Once again, the players get a sense of continuity. They will get to know and come to expect certain behavior from certain NPCs. Needless to say, agents who act disrespectful towards a grouchy superior can expect the worst missions imaginable.

In short, make your NPCs human. Agents will be less prone to kill if the characters they face seem real. When running an NPC, play the part well. Ham it up! That’s what role-playing is for.

Just because you’re paranoid…

In the AD&D game, a DM can strike terror in the heart of the stoutest players simply by rolling dice, deliberately glancing at certain charts, then smiling wickedly. This is known as a paranoia roll. The TOP SECRET game allows the same opportunity, but it must be more subtle.

What a wonderful world we live in! Such variety, such excitement. So many people, each with their own story. People can be peculiar — even normal people. Reflect this in the game. Observe: You and your three friends are agents in Vienna, Austria, trying to track down a dangerous GRU agent. The following description is read to you.

“You four are seated at a sidewalk cafe. At the table on your right are two men dressed in badly tailored suits. They are furtively looking around the cafe, and one man keeps adjusting his tie. The waitress seemed extremely friendly; she asks your names and where you are staying. Twenty feet down the street is a parked Mercedes in which a man appears to be listening to a Walkman. At the fourth table behind you is a man in an ill-fitting suit drinking vodka and chain smoking smelly thin cigars. He looks arrogant. The waitress arrives with your order. The dishes are not prepared quite to your liking. The waitress explains that the cook is new. At the street corner sit four people at a bus stop, two men and two women. They are not traveling together.”

Does anyone have any idea who the enemy is? There are many possible leads, and the situation certainly looks threatening. That is the idea! In the world of espionage, everyone is suspect. It is a world where each mistake could be your last. Let the players know this. Use your voice to your advantage. Stress mundane facts. “The man in the car appears to be listening to his Walkman”. Of course he does! He is listening to it. Players, however, will kick their imaginations into high gear and suspect that the Walkman is a gun or something. This could lead to some very amusing (or horrible) results.

This is a big world with an even bigger population. Try to have as many people as possible in a starring role. Don’t make all KGB agents alike, wearing ill-fitting suits and having Coordinations of 30. These people are experts. Avoid stereotypes.

Incidentally, the two men looking uneasy are trying to pick up girls, hence their unease and furtive glances. The waitress is merely a flirt, the man in the car is on vacation, and the arrogant vodka drinker is a man who happens to be arrogant, drinks vodka, and has poor taste in clothes. And the cook? Oh, he’s just new, that’s all. The GRU agent is one of the women who even now is taking a seat on the bus which has just pulled away. Better luck next time.

…doesn’t mean they won’t get you

“Don’t get mad; get even.” It’s not really the best way to live, unless you happen to be an Administrator. The complications tables given in the TOP SECRET rules, as well as in the Companion volume, are exactly what the Admin needs to drive home the point that actions have consequences — sometimes fatal ones. This is especially true when the complications call for an assassination attempt against the PC agents.

When such an action is called for, by all means, give the agents a fighting chance. In fact, the attempt itself can be the basis for a whole adventure. The agents just would not know that for a fact. Take the following example.

A long while ago, the agents in my campaign broke up a nest of Exterminators (a group of assassins mentioned several times in early DRAGON issues; I made them a world-wide assassins’ network) in Paris. Unfortunately, a few of the enemy agents escaped with a good description of my agents. All was forgotten and other missions followed, until one day a London tabloid came out with a story hinting at the existence of an ultra-secret Western spy agency based in England.

The description fit “my” agency to a T, and the higher-ups, who were positively livid at these uncomfortably accurate allegations, immediately dispatched the intrepid agents to find out where the leak was. They visited the reporter at his office. So far, so good. What they did not know was that the story was a tip given by an Exterminator. The Exterminator then rented an office directly across the street from the reporter’s office window, set up surveillance equipment, and watched to see who would nibble at the bait.

By the time they realized what was going on, several of the PC agents were killed and the killers had escaped, to return someday to plague the agents again. An archenemy is born, and a contest of survival begins.

In that particular scenario, the agents did have a few chances to guess at what was happening. It was not a hopeless situation. In fact, the mission in Paris that started the whole thing in motion was very sloppy, hence the vendetta’s generation. Had loose ends been tied up a bit tighter, the enemy would have less information to go on and less of a chance to strike back.

Thus, retaliation by enemy agencies is not always certain; when it is, there is still a chance the agents can find a way to survive it. Be creative in the actions of your NPCs, and your players will enjoy the challenge, even if they do manage to get their characters killed in the process.

Administrator style

The beauty of the TOP SECRET game is the low margin of error allowed to the participants. In AD&D games, if three-fourths of the party gets wiped out, the resurrection, wish, or alter reality spells are trotted out, and POOF! All is well. On the other hand, if four out of six agents on a mission get gunned down by the Red Brigade — well, it was nice knowing them. This makes TOP SECRET gaming very, very exciting, knowing that each mistake could very well mean the end — unless, of course, you have a Fame and Fortune point to spare.

Fame and Fortune points are all that stand between an agent and the enemy’s Uzi. They are very potent and should be carefully played. Fame and Fortune points are the players’ only chance to alter your reality and change the flow of events in your game.

The Admin, like the DM, has the last word in any situation. There may be times when a player could expend every Fame and Fortune point he or she had, and it would still do no good. Obviously, such times should be few and far between, and should have a rational explanation. A fanatical assassin or sentry who is determined to dispatch an unconscious agent may in fact be able to do so, regardless of how cleverly the player uses his points. The TOP SECRET Companion recommends that the players give an explanation for how the point is to be used. Personally, I feel that this opens the door to too many bizarre explanations, as well as forcing the Admin to keep track of which agents used which excuse, and it should be avoided.

If the agent failed at some non-combat maneuver and expends a point in order to succeed (such as for leaping a chasm, jumping off a speeding train, etc.) then let the attempt succeed. In projectile combat, saying things like “I resemble the shooter’s brother”, or “The bullet ricocheted off my belt buckle,” seems a little silly. Why not just alter the effect the bullet had, changing a serious wound to a light wound? Simply explain that the wound was not as bad as originally feared.

One final suggestion. If an agent has just committed severe premeditated stupidity (e.g., rushing at a loaded AK-47, drop-kicking a vial of nitroglycerine across the room, wandering into a critical nuclear reactor), then, for heaven’s sake, kill off the fool. Points should be used to bail an agent out of a jam not of the agent’s doing, not as a cover-up for deliberately bad playing.

Disciplining unruly players in the game is another tricky thing. In AD&D games, the DM can bring in “bolts from the blue”, divine intervention, and other things that can make fantasy life interesting. In the modern-day world of TOP SECRET gaming, however, an Admin’s options are limited, and even in the context of those options, he or she must be careful, for TOP SECRET characters are not as resilient as their AD&D counterparts. A hit squad that gets too effective could conceivably create the TOP SECRET version of a party-killer.

Once again, this is where a bureaucracy comes in handy. Any decent bureau should be keeping tabs on the psychological status of its agents, as well as their performance. It further stands to reason that the agency would encourage other agents to report signs of erroneous behavior to their case officers. (Admins should use caution when exercising this privilege, or the game winds up resembling a certain other humorous role-playing game involving traitors, The Computer, and many laser blasts.)

Agents found to be abnormally violent or prone to fits of wanton vandalism could possibly be transferred to husky-cleaning duty in a Yukon branch office. Withholding experience points or payment (perhaps even levelling fines), giving forced leaves of absence without pay, or getting chewed out by a case officer in front of everybody are some ways of dealing with out-of-control agents. If these measures fail, consider locking them up for psychiatric observation, enforcing dismissal, or the ultimate trouble-ender: termination. It is recommended that you not assign the latter duty to PCs; things may get personal.

As an Administrator, you must be ready for whatever off-the-wall solutions your players come up with. Try not to force your players into doing things the way you want to do them. A player in our campaign tried his hand at Administrating and became frustrated while the players got bored. He wanted to see the players take a very specific course of action — and, like any good players, we refused to be placed in rigid confines.

Perhaps one of the disadvantages of TOP SECRET gaming is that it takes place in a society in which, if one has the money, one can go anyplace, buy anything, and do anything one wishes. Admins must be prepared to ad-lib like crazy when the players decide to rent cars, go to a restaurant, or demand to see the Soviet ambassador even though you never “wrote one up!”

Props can add a very nice touch to a game. The above-mentioned player who tried to control the agents had the best briefing I have ever seen. He had glossy photos of people who were supposed to be our targets, as well as a news magazine article related to the mission. Part of the briefing was tape recorded. We were also supplied with a road map and other such materials. Despite the problems, much of the adventure was very impressive.

This list of suggestions is by no means complete. Hopefully, they may help make the chore of running the game a bit easier and fun for the Admin. Of course, should you reject these suggestions and get captured by the Regiment of Aggravated Top Secreters (R.A.T.S.), this agency will naturally disavow any knowledge of you.

Author’s note: For anyone who wishes to use ICICLE in a TOP SECRET campaign, here are its statistics, using the format given in DRAGON issues 93, 97, 98 and 99.

ICICLE (InterContinental Investigation, Confiscation, and Law Enforcement)

Nature of agency: International Western and neutral agent pool
Governing body: Private individuals with numerous governmental connections
Personnel: Unknown; possibly in the low hundreds
Annual budget: Unknown; possibly in the tens of millions
HQ: Coventry, UK (front: Excalibur Investment Firm)
Established: 1975
Activities: Worldwide intelligence/counterintelligence, defection protection/prevention, law enforcement
Policies: Secrecy and subtlety are our best weapons. Keep the peace. Do not kill if unnecessary.
Objectives: Keep the world from blowing itself up. Calm down trouble spots. Prevent undesirable elements from getting too powerful. Remove anyone who resists said objectives. Maintain a strong international force of agents that any single country can draw upon, and not have their activities traced to them by their adversaries.
Areas of involvement: Worldwide
Allies: Mossad, FBI, Scotland Yard, and Italian anti-terrorist units
Additional data: The public has no idea of this agency’s existence. It was founded by a group of wealthy ex-spies from six Western nations. There are sub-stations and branch offices in selected countries (not to be confused with safe houses). The KGB, CIA, CON, and the Exterminators suspect that some sort of private organization exists, but they have no details.
Bureaus: All
Alignment profile: 01-94/07-94/01-94

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