Sunday, 2 September 2012

Top Secret and the Evolution of Role-playing

 Part I: “Can you afford to know”?

In the aftershocks of the OD&D ‘big bang’, a wave of new games emerged that surely find much of their DNA in the LBBs (et al).  Indeed, from TSR alone, the Olduvai Gorge of RPGs, games such as Gamma World, Boot Hill and Top Secret followed the path blazed by the ‘original’.  Of course, acknowledging similarities also prompts us to consider differences.

I suggest that as early as Top Secret’s 1980 publication not only had TSR produced a new system but also proposed, consciously or otherwise, a differing style of play.  While acknowledging a profound debt to D&D (see Top Secret, Forward, p.4), author Merle Rasmussen readily pointed out there was something different about his game claiming that players embarked on “exciting missions” that, when “interconnected” in a series was “called a campaign” (Top Secret, p.4) Clearly, Rasmussen was up to something.

I propose that Top Secret and its support materials constitute one example of the ways in which some first wave games (OS games?) evolved from the ‘building block’ of OD&D, to offer not just an alternate systems but styles as well.  By considering two specific themes: level appropriateness and the ‘story-line’ as a style of play, this article looks to acknowledge and celebrate the range, innovation and diversity of the first wave gaming.      

A Game to Fit the Characters

Cryptic hints that something was different notwithstanding, Top Secret represented only a first tentative evolutionary step.  In fact, the rulebook contained almost no insight on how to ‘run’ a campaign (Top Secret, 1980, pp. 4, 48) at all.  The only possible hint was that Rasmussen (and TSR) compared Top Secret action “to the excitement of the spy thrillers at the movies or on TV” (Top Secret, Forward).  In the broadest sense, Top Secret characters (and players?) were part of a larger quest (story-line?) to “rid the world of…offensive characters, to set right the wrongs, to bring honor to the organization, and to improve yourself” (Top Secret, p.3).  Perhaps, such notions suggest a meta-plot in the sandbox?

If, however vague and tentative, Top Secret imagined the possibility of ‘serialization’, characters needed, at times, to be protected from players.  Of course, this does not suggest Top Secret was neither deadly nor unforgiving.  As we shall see, it was both.  Yet from the outset, Rasmussen appeared sensitive to a need for lack of level appropriateness as a survival mechanism.  For example, the rulebook makes two claims: “Since new characters are, by game mechanics, relatively weak and inexperienced, the Admin should plan to present smaller risks and correspondingly smaller rewards at the beginning of the campaign, and increase the risks and rewards as the player characters become more powerful and experienced” (Top Secret, 1980, p.4) and “risk must be carefully balanced with reward, and the situations designed must not be so deadly that no one will want to play the game!” (Top Secret, p. 4).  For Rasmussen, clearly some form of appropriateness was required, not only to make the game playable but also fun enough to play at all. Yet, the rulebook offered no concrete advice on how to create, manage or run a game of Top Secret (p. 39 notwithstanding), let alone how to make it ‘appropriate’ or even ‘fun’.  To find out how to do such a thing, would-be Admins needed to look elsewhere.  The evolutionary path then, while beginning in the primordial soup of the rulebook, quickly ‘jumped’ to the next link, support materials.  Indeed, by examining Top Secret’s “Administrator Files” (‘modules’), we begin to see some of the ways in which TSR gaming developed.  

Next...Part II: Your mission, should you choose to accept it…

1 comment:

  1. Good analysis of the emerging post-OD&D gaming styles. One of the first differences that jumps out is the ultimate goal of the game. In D&D the game was about exploring and environment and looting treasure and was, therefore, strongly player-driven. As such there was less need for level-appropriate challenges, because in this sandbox the players chose where to explore and how far to push the envelope.

    Top Secret, on the other hand, usually required assigned missions, making the adventures more Administrator-driven, and the ultimate goal was not exploration or treasure, but foiling villain's nefarious schemes for world-domination and what-not. Because the players had somewhat less choice in what they were doing (unless you were playing an anti-heroic 'Ocean's Eleven' style campaign with the PCs as thieves), there was more need to tailor the missions to the level of the characters than in D&D.

    Nonetheless, the lethality remained high, and player's decisions were meaningful. I consider adventures that challenge the player's skill, not the character's skill to be one of the hallmarks of OSR play style, and Top Secret certainly retained this essential element.

    Another interesting feature of many of the 'first-wave' RPGs was the introduction of games with front-end-loaded characters who advanced slowly or not at all (E.g. Call of Cthulhu and Traveller). These games encouraged high-end play right from the get-go, without having to spend a year leveling characters up to the point where they could tackle the big challenges.

    Looking forward to the next installment.