Saturday, January 15, 2022

Top Secret/SI in the 2022 character creation challenge

 Your Mission, if you choose to accept it, is to figure out this game's core activity. And why its fonts are so big. 

A little chronology: the original Top Secret was written in 1980, when we were in full Cold War mode, and the PCs worked for an unnamed intelligence agency in Assassination, Confiscation or Research. I never really got a chance to play this, but did build a character for it back in the day. It sounded very gritty and grounded based on the modules I saw for it. While the agency you worked for didn't have an identifying tags, the game made it clear what you were supposed to be doing.  

Then comes Top Secret/SI, which by 1987 the cold war tenor had changed, glasnost was in force, and TSR tried to re-enter the espionage market with a complete revamp of the game. It's a super rules-light system – 7 characteristics of 20-79 can get modified up by skills, halved or quartered by difficulty, all rolls are d100 – but the Players Guide gives absolutely no framework for who the characters are or what they are meant to be doing. There are some samples with WEB and Orion, but no definition of them. The player is left with nothing to hang their hat on. 

This is because the Administrator's Guide is selling the game as being able to do anything. Yes, there are some pages in the back detailing the WEB vs. Orion secret espionage agencies subverting or defending "human freedom" but the GM is also told hey, you want to do Police Officers? Journalists? Private Investigators? Be contemporary? Or in the 20's? or Victorian? Or in space? And they can be hired already? Or all be normally people who get pulled into some sort of problem? Sure, this can do ANYTHING! And yes, the engine is so low frills and chrome free that you could. But the box isn't selling a generic game, and the GM books is full of advice on how to do research and set up campaigns of any sort. When when I say there's 40 pages of it, don't think that's a lot because the entire book has a 1.5" header, wide gutters between columns and 14 point type. There's not a lot of meat in this space. 

Back to character creation, which again, is done kind of blind without a GM with specific ideas. You have 5 rolled characteristics (with an innovative 1d60+10 for each, giving a range from 20-79) and two secondary characteristics that are averages of two of the five top line ones. Everything in the game is rolled as d% against these scores, or skills that add to these scores. Purchasing a skill gives you your full characteristic as a roll, while levels 1-5 each give 5% bumps, and specializing gives a 10% bump by narrowing the skill. The GM can apply difficulty by halving or quartering your skill base. 

You have 30 points to buy skills, but you need to pick from (or design your own) packages, such as Military, Professional, Mechanical, or Entertainer. Nothing in this really hooks for "here's how you were trained as a spy", but from a comment in the Entertainer description something clicked: Entertainer exists to have Robert Culp's agent in I-Spy having a cover as a Tennis Pro, or the Impossible Missions force being made up of otherwise civilians. So I started building the game in my head around that type of setting. 

This part of character creation is incredibly easy: roll the 1d60+10 5 times for Strength, Reflexes, Intelligence, Will and Constitution. If your total is under 255, you get the difference as bonus points you can distribute as you will. Average Strength and Reflexes for Movement, Reflexes and Intelligence for Dexterity. 

I rolled Str 45, Ref 32, Int 41, Wil 75, Con 72. He's physically below average – well below so in Reflexes – but indomitable and can soak damage. This comes to 245 points, so I have 10 more, which I haven't decided on yet. 

My first thought is the classic PI who solves cases now with genius but by being able to soak up beatings while not stopping the investigation until someone lets something slip. Looking over the skills list almost nothing ties to the characteristics I'm actually good at – WIL and CON – until I get to Hypnotism. Then everything clicked. 

Raymond Golubev aka Rasputin Grey, the Man with the Million Dollar Brain, aging stage mentalist. Drop the 10 points to get Int to a more respectable 51, and his age explains his low Reflexes and Strength. Looking over the Advantages and Disadvantages system there's a simple way (pick one of each) vs. the realistic one (each has a cost, take a matching cost up to 6 points). I went for Simple and then abused it, taking the 6 point Photographic Memory vs. the 2 point Deep Sleeper (I seriously considered taking Memorable Feature with "crazy eyes", and then a 2 point addition as his maintenance drugs, but decided against both for something more simple). 

The Entertainer career means 4 points in Mechanical skills, 2 points in Combat, 0 in Specialist, 4 in Education, 10 in General and 4 in Language. I have 8 floating points I can distribute as I like. 

Starting with Mechanical, I spend 1 point for Basic Tool Use 0, gives me a whopping 38% chance of using any tools, but it's a prerequisite) and 3 for Carpentry 1 – I buy this higher than baseline because you need to be at least level 1 to specialize, which I do in Magical Equipment. This gives him a 53% chance to build wooden magical gear. 

Combat, I spend 2 points for one level in Knife Throwing (he used to be a lot better at this, but these days it's 43%) and Basic Melee 0, just to have any chance at all. 23% chance. Wheee! 

Specialist gets 2 of my free points to buy Concealment 0, which works for both himself and objects, likely to be hidden in his magic boxes or other props. 51%

Education I need to spend 4, and that goes to Basic Liberal Arts, Anthropology/Sociology/Psychology and Literature all at 0, all at 51%

Language I pick Russian for my second language, and mark down the 5 levels in English. 

That leaves General. Slight of Hand and Stage Magician (the one the prereq for the other) would soak all my points, so I'm just declaring he used to know this but his hands aren't up for it now. Instead 8 points gets me Hypnosis 1 (80%), 2 more for Acting 0 (51%) and 1 for Social Chameleon (51%) 

Finally his Pysche Profile, which is a very quick and dirty sort of alignment system. A devoted skeptic and atheist, he has Low Cruelty and Piety, Total Sanity, a High passion for projects and Loyalty to the organization, and a Mild greed. 

Once a popular staple of the late night talk show and cabaret set, Raymond Golubev, AKA Rasputin Grey, aka the Man with the Million Dollar Brain, is a mentalist and entertainer. His heyday was in the 1980s, but even today in his 70's he still cuts a formidable figure with his wild hair and crazy eyes. He's had to retire a lot of the stage magic (hand tremors make close up magic impossible, and it's no longer quite safe to play at knife throwing) but his photographic memory, hypnosis skills, and long history still get him international bookings, which are great cover for his recent espionage work for ORION

I can easily see him being pulled into an MI team, or used as a cover for a more athletic spy, or any of the other general ideas of this sort. Assuming that's what the game is supposed to do, which is still up in the air….

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