After trying — with most mild success — to create a homebrew military-espionage RPG, my lazy teen self decided it would be less of a hassle to just purchase the genuine retail article.
I picked up my box set of TSR’s Top Secret at Eric Fuchs (pronounced “feeyooks,” you filthy-minded gits) Hobbies, across from the Burlington Mall food count back when the venue was a single story affair. The decision was a no-brainer, as Lil Bro was a big James Bond fan and rest of my tiny gaming circle was caught up in the Eighties’ techno-militarist zeitgeist. The game offered to fill that “too old for GI Joe yet too young for the real thing” developmental niche, and we were more than eager to take it up on that promise.
As far as that generation of RPGs went, Top Secret was utterly lucid in comparison to its peers. It was an easy leap for kids who’d cut their teeth on D&D’s convoluted tangle of rules. The system was a bit rough around the edges, but the core was robust and easy enough for new players to pick up. All the familiar trappings were there — character classes, experience points, ability scores, and so forth — codified by a staggering array of tables whose actual utility varied immensely. Dice were limited to d10s only, percentage rolls ruled the realm, and unarmed combat was resolved though a rock-paper-scissors approach which non-intuitive at first glance but quite satisfying in practice.
The game was also supported by a regular series of Dragon Magazine articles which folded everything from nuclear weapons to wilderness survival to lunar exploration into the mix. These optional additions were greeted with derision by some hardcore fans who resented the Rambo-fication of a game that was supposed to be about wispy dudes (illustrated by Jeff Dee and Erol Otus) in turtlenecks and flared trousers posing with Farrah Fawcett clones.
These letter page complaints opened my eyes to an aspect of the hobby I hadn’t yet experienced — whiny dudes who don’t understand what “optional” means and insist that fantasy scenarios adhere to their own limited parameters. If only I knew what was to come.
From the perspective of my friends and me, the ever-upwards power creep of Top Secret’s arsenal was part of the charm. We were kids of the action figure generation, where ludicrous armaments were embraced with pyrotechnic passion. Goldfinger wants to zap your junk off with a laser? Empty a grenade launcher into his smarmy ass. (In hindsight, this should’ve been taken as a generational warning sign of things to come.)
For all of that, however, my group only managed to complete two adventures before drifting back to familiar confines of AD&D. One mission involved assaulting the penthouse apartment of a Soviet superspy amalgam of Ivan Drago and John Matrix. The other concerned securing an abandoned chemical weapons facility from a team of (again) Soviet commandos. Both involved more explosions and lame attempts at tough guy dialogue than contained in Steven Seagal’s entire filmography.
It was fun, but nothing we couldn’t get in more satisfying formats elsewhere — be it the videogame arcade or action-adventure shelf of the seedy video rental place down the block. I suppose that could be taken as validation of the old schoolers’ concerns about power creep, but fuck those guys.
Besides, that kind of introspection would’ve been lost on adolescents who thought even shadow-dwelling ninjas ought to add Uzis and missile launchers to their traditional loadouts.