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.
“You’re so rock n’ roll!” declared @oilpainting on Twitter. This was following my RPG Academy all-nighter, as I was on my way to work, bleary-eyed after the excitement of the night before.
“I’m only doing this because I can’t be Bruce Springsteen,” I replied, echoing President Obama.
I operate the Armchair Adventurers much The Boss operates the E-Street Band: old friends who enjoy playing together under the control of a benevolent dictator. At this point of the year, my messianic megalomania kicks into overdrive as I fill up everyone’s diaries with the plans for the next 6 months of gaming. There’s method in this madness, as when it comes to negotiation with the fun prevention officer (FPO) it’s essential that you declare your intentions on the family calendar because once it’s on there, it’s happening.
Last year was such a remarkable year. The number of games we played and the hours that we managed to commit was at levels not seen since the 80s; it’s going to be hard to sustain. I’m moving house for one thing. Dirk Towers has moved in its entirety to a half-way-house until the new site is ready. It was a difficult and exhausting exercise. We’ve already filled hundreds of boxes and have barely made a dent on the years and years of accumulated stuff.
Thankfully, the ridiculous home-made shrine to the actress Caroline Munro has been diligently bubble-wrapped.
Judge ‘Little Steven’ Blythy has been on hand to step into the GamesMastering duties for the Wednesday Night Roll20 group. The old gang is together once again after the triumph of Old School The Traveller Adventure, this time joined by none other than the Daily Dwarf, to take on the revival of Against the Giants in the New School Old School D&D 5e STORM KING’S THUNDER.
The first session was hit by some technical glitches with video and audio, but the kit provided by Roll 20 for the campaign works really well. This is the first time that we’ve used ‘miniatures’ for years. Normally, we talk through locations and relative distances, but having the characters on the screen represented by tokens on a gridded map, brings a new dimension to the game. I was frantically trying to pick a spell that would have enough range to hit the goblin who was firing arrows at my Sorcerer.
A great start to what promises to be an exciting campaign.
The Armchair Adventurers – MONTHLY SESSIONS
The monthly sessions are sacred. There’s a change this year as we will be changing location. We’ll be moving from Eddy’s shed and heading for the FLGS in Bolton, Portcullis War Games Emporium. If you live in the area, get in touch, you’re welcome to join us. Sessions are on the first Tuesday of the month 6pm – 10pm, the first is on 7th Feb. Let us know if you’re coming, we’ll have a character ready for you.
When it comes to planning these, there’s always a tussle between on-going campaigns and one-shots. We alternate Games Master responsibilities, so we’ve found it difficult to have a really good run and develop a momentum. This year we intend to have a longer run to get to the end of Fungi From Yoggoth, the campaign that we began in the Autumn of 2015. It has been a great campaign, shredding through characters, and illustrated by Ed’s sumptuous hand-outs. Ed is currently retro-fitting the final sections to fit with 7ed, so we can experience the differences.
Blythy has just concluded an episode of Numenera that left our adventurers fleeing the alternate planet of Star Swarm to find our way back to the Ninth World. It will be back later in the year, as will Nights Black Agents. We ran several sessions of excellent Zalozhniy Quartet last year, but I’ve decided to rest it for a while. Of all the games we played, it was the one that suffered due to the loss of momentum as we ‘GM-switched’. I’m keen to run the Dracula Dossier, but I think we’ll work out a way that we can do it over a sustained weekend of several sessions. It needs to be compact and have a certain dramatic intensity to work.
KING OF THE ONE-SHOTS
For my GM duties, I’m going to be the King of the One-Shots, starting with a couple of Mythras games in the Luther Arkwright setting. I’m going to have a play-test at the session mentioned above, to get me ‘match-fit’ for the session at Convergence – which is set to be a 7 hour epic, based on the magnificent ‘Fire Opal of Set’ which appeared in Imagine #14. Please sign up if you can come … so far it’s me and Blythy.
Also, I have a commitment to deliver a ‘one-shot’ for the Patreons. I’ll be polling them soon on a date and game. I’ll also be running Top Secret and GangBusters online soon too.
In our plans for the next 6 months is a trip to Southport with our Gnomes, to join the Steam Dwarves, with our friends The Old Scroates and believe it or not, we’ve been given a press pass for UK Games Expo.
This town rips the bones from you back. Baby, I was born to roll.