When I was preparing Ep. 11 TOP SECRET, I was desperate to play the game again. I was keen to understand how the rules worked in play, as they’re paradoxical: a class and level game, that doesn’t really use class and levels; a neat character attribute generator that doesn’t tell you how to use them; a system of intuitive D100 mechanics peppered with clunky ‘outcome tables’.
I said in the GROGPOD: “It’s a narrative game trapped in a simualtionist rule-set”.
Is it really? Was it really a game of understated genius, or was it as Judge Blythy said “a bit weird.”
The only way to find out is to play the game, so the online GROGCLUB opened up for business last week to play the TSR module: Operation Fastpass (Code Name: Puzzle). It’s a scenario set in the Cold War era complete with ‘straight of central casting’ KGB agents.
The set up goes like this:
CLASSIFIED: Administrator – Priority A
SITUATION: Andrei Lerekov, a communist code expert, has sent a secret message indicating his desire to defect. Lerekov is the author of several military codes and has information of vital importance. He will be the guest speaker at the European Puzzle Editor’s Conference in Budapest.
OBJECTIVE: Help Lerekov to defect and ensure of his safe arrival in a friendly country.
AUTHORISATION: Administrator and Agents will operate under the authority of Section Mercury, ISB.
MISSION: Agent team will infiltrate the conference suite under cover, locate Lerekhov, neutralise enemy security, and get Lerekov out of the country. Security forces may include hostile agents.
Team personnel are authorised to use any means necessary to accomplish this mission.
CODE NAME: Puzzle
Here’s 5 highlights and a lowlight from the first session.
The Setting The pitch that I made to the players was that it was going to be Man from U.N.C.L.E. with eighties chic meets Ocean’s 11. I realised when preparing the session that this was best viewed as a period piece. Although the agencies involved were the ‘real’ KGB and GRU unlike THRUSH or SPECTRE, for example, there’s an absurdity to the scenario now that we know more about the actual state of Soviet intelligence. They’re pitched as ruthlessly efficient, but it is probably better to see them as comic caricatures, because that what they seem like now.
I like how TOP SECRET equips the players with the Spy-fi gadgetry which allows this tongue-in-cheek approach possible.
The Characters The players had great fun selecting actors from the period to represent their characters and they all adopted code names from a pack of cards, as they were known by the ISB as ‘The Lucky Deck. Once shuffled they were deniable assets installed behind the Iron Curtain.
KING of Clubs – Technician – Lead, Field Agent
QUEEN of Hearts – Assassin – Second in command
Diamond JACK – Infiltration
The KNAVE – Infiltration
The ACE of Spades – Investigation
JOKER – Technician
The Tourist The adventure is constructed as a Hotel Dungeon, with rooms of interest designed for exploration and encounters rolled on tables at various points of the action. There’s enemies, allies and traps … that’s right … traps … for the player characters to discover as they search for Lerekov.
I re-engineered the scenario so that it was suitable as a shorter, more action focused, session, but I’ve retained some of the encounters, such as the spy fiction enthusiast who has been keeping an eye on the ‘Ruskies’
He’s an American Industrialist, looking to make contacts, but also adding to his interest in the world of espionage by watching the comings and goings in the hotel. There was a great ‘side-scene’, almost ‘off-camera’ as the hapless ‘cobbler’, the KNAVE, sought his papers so that he could get the team out of Hungary. He wasn’t quite ready to tell the King that he wasn’t ready..
The Trade Craft
The best aspect of the session was seeing the players getting into the mode of thinking like spies. The KING and the JOKER did a sweep of the room to dry clean it before the rest of the team arrived to share their humint on the movements within the hotel. They found a bug in the light fitting, so they used a Fusion Jazz LP to turn their discussions into white noise.
They also used an elaborate bug system that dangled out of the window to listen to the room below, where they hear talk of the sinister myasnik, an infamous GRU general.
There was also a great scene where the Diamond JACK and the ACE of Spades exchanged a vital piece of information in an audacious ‘brush pass’ under the noses of the goons in the lobby filling with puzzlers.
The Imposter In a ludicrous piece of plotting, it turned out that there were TWO Lerekov ‘s at the event and they need to use a code word to determine which one one is which, unless the QUEEN gets them all killed first.
Roll 20. The only downside is the increasing flakey behaviour of Roll 20. In recent months, it seems that the platform struggles with more than 4 in a game. We soldiered on, because peace and freedom was at stake… Although, there was one agent, willing to take matters into her own hands …
The online GROGCLUB is one of the many benefits of being a PATREON of the GROGNARD files Including a chance to determine the subject of the end of the year podcast. The nominations are open this week, with polling taking place next week. There’s RuneQuest and Gangbusters planned later in the year. To find out more, on the page.
For your eyes only. Don’t accept this Podcast if the seal is broken.
INTRO: I love the world of espionage and this is the first in our ‘Spy Sequence’ that we’ll be peppering through the next year. We’ve had another iTunes review too – please give us one if you haven’t already.
OPEN BOX: Top Secret was one of those games that we only played a few times, but it made a lasting impression on us. In this section we remember those early games and I challenge Blythy about whether or not he really likes spy-based games.
POTTED HISTORY: The game emerged from a single vision, born from a college dorm, in this section I talk through the history of the game. If you want to hear the story from Merle Rasmussen’s mouth, then seek out The Dead Game’s society’s interview with him from 2014.
JUDGE BLYTHY RULES!: We roll a character and Judge Blythy complains that there are far too many tables. In a thrilling exchange, there is a transformation as Judge Nutmeg transforms into Mr Hand-Wavey Davey.
THE WHITE DWARF DRAGON: Top Secret didn’t appear in White Dwarf, so we turn to Dragon – a magazine that fully supported the development of Top Secret.
STARBURST MEMORIES: Blythy and I discuss our favourite spy moments from films and television in a brand new feature that includes an overly complicated audience participation feature.
OUTRO: There’s a chance to play Top Secret if you join our Patreon campaign. This is a thank you bit for all those who are already supporting us.