Since Episode 11 was released in March, there has been something of a revival of Top Secret RPG. Pookie has done a retrospective review that examines its nuts and bolts, there’s been Save for Half podcast giving a very insightful overview of how the rules work, and a Kick-Starter for the All New Top Secret: New World Order (which is much better than the working title of CODE NAME: ACRID HERALD, I mentioned in the podcast, which was play-tested early last year). By all accounts, the new, updated system by Merle Rasmussan is very different from the original first edition that we played.
The Patreon GROG Club, also known as The Lucky Deck, reconvened this week to continue the adventure Operation: Fast Pass. In the previous write up (I recommend you read it first) I posed the question: is it genius or weird?
Finally, I think I have the answer … with 5 points and a fumble.
I adapted the module to fit within two sessions of two hours. I tried to compose them as episodes of a 50s/ 60s Spy TV show.
The actual scenario is based around a timetable that carefully places the NPCs in and around the hotel at various points of the adventure. It is also constructed with three acts: the first section is a surveillance mission, gathering information about the NPCs and their movements; the middle section is a room by room exploration of the hotel to find the defector; finally it’s an escape from the country, through the Iron Curtain with a rip-roaring fire-fight as the PCs join a resistance movement in Yugoslavia. The hotel is fully populated, complete with traps and challenging, unlikely encounters, very like a dungeon.
The scenario’s attention to detail is actually a little dull, but the core idea is great: reach out to a potential code-breaker, Lerekov, who is visiting a Puzzle Convention in a Budapest hotel and get him to a safe-house outside of the country.
I cut to the chase by GumShoe – ing and providing the intell up front. I hand picked some of the NPCs and encounters that I found interesting, such as the American tourist who is obsessed with spy novels. There’s was great fun to be had with the ‘hoax’ Lerekov too. The players were very engaged so they were able to cover a lot of ground, by using a quick pace to pack in the action.
Fame and Fortune
When the bullets were flying, it became very random and unpredictable with a combination of low rolls to hit and high rolls for damage. The scale was all over the place. The Knave took a bullet in the leg in the final moments of the cliff-hanger first session. At the beginning of this session, I allowed him to spend a FAME point to rewind the scene. The fame and fortune points were a ground-breaking idea that foreshadowed Indy ideas like ‘FATE points’.
It was a worthwhile spend as the scene transformed from a potential disaster to shift the balance towards the players.
Tables, tables, tables
The lack of universal mechanic was confusing for the players as each situation seemed to have a bespoke resolution. Take the NPC reaction table, for example, it’s a wonderful idea – pitching the primary traits in opposition to the target contact and checking the result on a table. However, the same results seems to come up every time, which meant that most of the NPCs were very cooperative.
Hand to Hand Combat
In the podcast, I mentioned that I found the Hand to Hand combat rules appealing, describing them as ‘rock paper scissors devised by Steven Hawking’. I like how the turn structure privileges hand to hand combat and ‘possession combat’ to disarm or get an advantage over an opponent. It’s not realistic, but it does emulate film and television spy thrillers. The defender is able to pick defensive manoeuvres which are compared to the attackers move. The choices are revealed at the same time and the results compared on a table. It seemed a little clumsy in practice, but did produce one of the most satisfying moments of the session: the face-man killed the imposter Lerekov with a single blow to his chest.
As a team of agents, the Lucky Deck were well equipped with various gadgets: the night vision contact lens gave them advantages driving and swerving to avoid bazzoka attacks; rear-view specs spotted ‘The Butcher’, the GRU asset, hot on their trail; and smoke bombs and truth serums were deployed. The most satisfying application was The KING using his magnetically charged wrist-watch to snatch the pistol from the KGB agent – from the other side of the wall!
Overall, is it genius or is it weird? It’s weird genius. The kind of eccentric old uncle who’s great company for a few hours, but you wouldn’t want to live with for a longer period of time. My opinion has changed a little. The crunchy tables do add narrative colour, but they also generate results that are duller in play than they are to read. That said, both sessions were tremendous fun thanks to the players, but the rules and the scenario had a role to play in making the fun possible. I’ve made my pledge for the new edition.
I can see us having a falling out with Roll 20 as it was a battle to maintain a connected conversation for most of the session. I’m going to explore options for future Patreon club outings. It’s a mumble – cut out- warble and fumble at the moment.