Top Secret: New World Order: Merle M. Rasmussen reboots his 1980 RPG classic
The first time Merle Rasmussen played Dungeons & Dragons, he thought it was a Halloween game. “It was October 1975, and I was an 18-year-old freshman at Iowa State University. My roommate got this game filled with skeletons and undead monsters. I had no idea.” The role-playing bug had bitten him, but fantasy wasn’t his genre. So that same year, he started writing a game set in a modern world, the spy game that would become Top Secret.
Merle eventually sent his game to TSR, the publisher of Dungeons & Dragons. Gary Gygax, co-creator of D&D, saw promise in the young writer, and in 1980 Top Secret became the first spy-themed role-playing game. Since the birth of RPGs in 1974, almost every game had been either fantasy or science fiction. Top Secret’s contemporary setting, without magic or superpowers, appealed to gamers that liked to strategize and think their way through an adventure.
The real-world setting of Top Secret led to real-world consequences for its publisher in its early days. During playtesting, a TSR employee lost some of the paperwork from an adventure about an assassination in Beirut. A local citizen of Lake Geneva, the small Wisconsin town where TSR was headquartered, found the details of the assassination plot, and dutifully turned it over to the police, who passed it along to the FBI. It wasn’t long before federal agents appeared at the offices of TSR, asking why a plot to assassinate an American businessman in Lebanon was outlined on a piece of paper with TSR’s address. Of course, the incident led to TSR promoting Top Secret as “so realistic that even the FBI became involved.”
Top Secret was a success for over a decade, creating a genre that would be followed by games from other companies, including James Bond 007, Mercenaries Spies & Private Eyes, and Spycraft. It ceased production in 1992, but its legacy has remained in the role-playing hobby.
Jump forward 25 years to today, and Merle Rasmussen has written a new espionage RPG, Top Secret: New World Order. A lot has changed in the world since the days of the Cold War, and a lot has changed for gaming as well. The world is digital, no longer divided into spheres of influence between two superpowers, and things that were once black and white are shifting shades of gray.
Top Secret: New World Order starts over from scratch, including a new rule system designed with modern tabletop gamers in mind. Role-playing games differ from board games by giving the players a sandbox world, where anything can be attempted and the outcome is resolved by the statistics that define their characters, and the game mechanics that use those stats. Different RPGs can be “crunchy,” full of math and complex tables, or “rules-light,” focused on the story rather than, say, simulating physics.
Top Secret: New World Order leans towards action and realism. The mechanics, however, avoid the habitual referencing of numeric tables and bonus charts by simply giving players different sizes of dice to represent difficulty. To see if your character succeeds at a task, three dice of varying size are rolled, and they must always add up to 13 or better for success. It’s that target number of 13 that has led to the new game engine’s name, the “Lucky 13 system.”
Simple mechanics for the action don’t mean there aren’t plenty of charts in the book, from modern weaponry to vehicles to a list of specialized skills that include cryptography, handwriting analysis, drone piloting, blackhat hacking, even nuclear engineering. Players can bring their own style to the game, making it as gritty or as cinematic as they wish.
Merle Rasmussen has been running the new game at conventions for two years, honing and evolving its rules much in the same way he first did on the ISU campus in the 1970s. A team of designers have joined him, notably Allen Hammack, the original editor of Top Secret, and Merle’s old boss from TSR in the 1980s. In true 2017 fashion, a secret Facebook group of one hundred-plus gamemasters has been playtesting online, and the final boxed set version of the game is launching on Kickstarter.
Much like the early days of role-playing games, there are gamers who play for the combat and stats, and gamers who play to immerse themselves in stories and roles. Top Secret: New World Order lends itself to both styles, but Merle has expressed wonder at the extent to which modern RPG players buck the stereotype of the competitive, shoot-first gamer. “I had a group of players who came upon a camel that had collapsed in the desert. They rescued the camel and nursed it back to health, out of compassion. Later, they gave the camel as a gift to a non-player character. I was impressed to see kindness used as a tool to complete a mission. How delightful!”
Top Secret: New World Order
San Francisco! Come see me and Richard Kadrey in Berkeley on Monday with my new book RADICALIZED! Next up: Portland/Ft Vancouver, Seattle & Anaheim!
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