Learner’s permit to kill: Remembering the espionage RPGs of my youth

image

 

Sometimes nothing takes you back to your past faster than a book. Or in my case, two books. These books have me reminiscing about the days when I was one of the world’s greatest secret agents, all without ever leaving the dining room table.

The books, which I recently completed, tell the genesis of the modern role-playing game. They are Empire of Imagination: Gary Gygax and the Birth of Dungeons & Dragons by Michael Witwer and Of Dice and Men: The Story of Dungeons & Dragons and the People Who Play It by David M. Ewalt. The first book, as the title implies, is a biography of D&D co-creator and RPG founding father Gary Gygax while the second book is a memoir of Ewalt’s return to D&D after a decade-long sabbatical that interweaves the history of the game and the RPG industry in general.

I read the books back-to-back, and I recommend that you do, too. Both are quick reads – fewer than 300 pages each – and one complements the other. Witwer’s book is a fine overview of Gygax’s life, how the resident of Lake Geneva, Wis., became a war game fanatic in the 1960s and was writing his own games by the end of the decade. In the early 1970s as Gygax was developing combat rules for fantasy characters he met David Arneson, who also was working on a fantasy game that allowed players to use their imaginations instead of little lead figures. Gygax suggested they collaborate, which led to the publication of Dungeons & Dragons in 1974. By the early 1980s the company behind D&D, TSR, was taking off but the friends that started the company turned on each other. In 1985 the conflict culminated in Gygax’s ouster from the company he founded and banishment from the game he created.

Witwer presents Gygax’s life in a series of dramatized vignettes. We witness formative episodes such as Gygax’s father handing his 10-year-old son a copy of the pulp magazine Strange Tales that contained a Conan the Barbarian story. Just as significant is the moment in the late 1950s when Gygax discovers the recently released Avalon Hill game Gettysburg, which would catapult him into the world of war-gaming. His love of pulp fantasy (but not, surprisingly enough, Tolkien) and war games would lead directly to D&D.

image

Witwer ably describes what Gygax did, and when and where (usually Lake Geneva), but his book can be skimpy on how and why. That’s where Ewalt steps in. Ewalt is a journalist and it shows. He knows how to use details to paint a scene rather than sketch an outline. In the chapters that focus on D&D’s early days, Ewalt takes us into Gygax’s study as he playtests what he is still calling “The Fantasy Game.” Witwer relates who was present, but Ewalt conjures the mood of the room with Gygax, as the dungeon master, sitting at his desk hidden from the players behind a wall of filing cabinets. The game would evolve past the GM as a disembodied voice, thankfully.

Ewalt also highlights Gygax’s creativity, which blossomed through the supplemental materials he created for D&D. I was surprised to learn the first adventure module wasn’t published until four years after D&D’s initial release because they were so crucial to my experience of the game. My friends and I weren’t the types to create our own campaigns. We were happy with the scenarios TSR gave us.

I’m not sure what spurred my nostalgia for all those times my friends and I rolled percentile dice when we were teenagers, but it may have started when I spotted Empire of imagination at a Barnes & Noble last fall. I smiled when I saw that the endpapers were a D&D-style map of Gygax’s Lake Geneva, a town I know fairly well. My uncle lives in nearby Delavan, Wisconsin, and in the early 1980s, when I was a student at Marquette University in Milwaukee, the man who lived across the street from my uncle was Kevin Blume, president of TSR at the time.

image

Blume does not come off well in either book. Witwer lays most of the blame for TSR’s financial woes on Blume and his brother, Brian, even as Gygax was living extravagantly on his expense account in Hollywood as he tried to interest movie studios in D&D. Regardless of his role in the downfall of TSR, my own brief encounter with Kevin Blume was positive. He took me, my uncle and my cousin on a tour of TSR’s headquarters. This would have been in the spring of 1984, probably during the Easter break, and TSR was no longer based in the Hotel Claire in downtown Lake Geneva but in an industrial park on the town’s outskirts. My uncle remembers all the original D&D artwork hanging on the walls. I remember a hallway made to look like a tunnel, which Blume said was TSR’s one extravagance when designing the offices. The tour concluded in the warehouse, and Blume said I could take as many games as I could carry. I snagged the most recent Top Secret modules and the boxed edition of TSR’s newly published Marvel Super Heroes. On the ride back to my uncle’s house, I was one happy gamer.

This is just one of the memories conjured by Witwer’s and Ewalt’s books. I particularly connected to the sections of Ewalt’s books describing his rebirth as a gamer. Like him I stopped gaming while I was in college, but unlike him it wasn’t by choice. During those years all my gaming friends moved away. As I grew older and found new jobs in new states, I never was never fortunate enough to connect with another group of gamers. I became jealous of Ewalt as I read his book, because I would love to be sitting around a table with a character sheet and a set of colorful, polyhedral dice in front of me, surrounded by a group of imaginative adventurers.

Dungeons & Dragons was my gateway into roleplaying, and I played my fair share of it throughout high school. My good friend Tim Sheridan got me into it – he was my original Dungeon Master – but the guys I played D&D with most often were George Gifford, Hans Masing and Will Young. Will was the DM and he took it more seriously than the rest of us, actually stitching modules together into a campaign. I don’t remember too much about the sessions, except that my original character was named Simon, after the Saint (my entire life seems like one big Roger Moore reference, basically). When Will decided our characters had become too high-level he made us roll new ones. I wanted my character to be a female. This was just for the sake of variety, I had nothing perverse in mind. Will, however, did.

“You can’t be a woman! What if the other characters try to rape you?”

“I have a sword. I’ll cut their balls off.”

A lengthy argument ensued, much to Hans’ delight, but Will was adamant I could not play as a woman. If there is one truism of Dungeons & Dragons, a player seldom wins a fight with a Dungeon Master. I settled for another male character – a paladin, I think – named Quiller.

If you know where the name Quiller comes from, you may suspect why D&D didn’t completely ring my bell. My friends may have been into J.R.R. Tolkien, but I was into Ian Fleming. Battling orcs was all right, but it would have been blast to go up against enemy secret agents. Possibly reading my mind, TSR released Top Secret, the first espionage RPG, and I was pumped.

image

 

I still remember the day we gathered in Tim Sheridan’s house to play Operation: Sprechenhaltestelle, the adventure that came with the Top Secret box set. Tim was the Administrator, which was Top Secret’s answer to D&D’s Dungeon Master. My friend George may have been too used to D&D, where the characters walk about laden with swords and dirks and all classes of armor, but as much as the rest of us tried to warn him, he never figured that “clandestine” was the operative word in a spy game. Tim tried to talk him out of it, but he eventually let George outfit his character in full Australian Outback gear and a sawed-off shotgun in hand. George swaggered down a Berlin alleyway, immediately picked a fight with sentry guarding the secret hideout and died 30 seconds into the game.

Even thought he was the Administrator, Tim came up with a name for a character he would never play: Alfredo Von O’Brien. “So he can pass as any nationality in Europe,” Tim explained. That name still cracks me up. The day we played Operation: Sprechenhaltestelle was almost immortalized in my teen spy novel, The Boy Who Knew Too Much, where I described my hero’s mastery of an espionage RPG called Foster Blake’s World of Intrigue, but the scene never made it past the first draft. I realized that a role-playing game would be too retro for my book’s character. Alfredo Von O’Brien will have to find another claim to fame.

My Top Secret character was Roger Connery. With creativity like that, is it any wonder I went on to write a spy novel? Roger Connery ably navigated the twists and turns and shady contacts of Operation: Sprechenhaltestelle. He succeeded in mission after mission after that. I don’t think he ever received an injury. I recall an interview in Dragon magazine, TSR’s house organ, where Top Secret creator Merle Rasmussen said the game’s players came in two categories: commandos and detectives. Commandos approached missions with a military mindset, entering an enemy compound strapped with two handguns and at least one shotgun, sub-machine gun or rifle. These players anticipated the creation of first-person shooter video games. Detectives were players that were fans of spy fiction and undertook missions with stealth as a priority, avoiding firefights unless absolutely necessary.

In our playing sessions, I was the detective in a group of commandos. For reasons that defied logic, this worked out well. My shotgun-wielding friends respected my spy lore enough that they held off on blasting up a room if I asked. Roger Connery had the skills to rival James Bond and Quiller. I supplied him with sleeping gas capsules hidden inside a phony paperback book, My modus operandi was to throw one to the floor as soon as I encountered a hostile enemy guard. Not as dramatic as combat, but did I mention that Roger Connery was rarely wounded?

image

 Our Top Secret sessions were a blast. I especially enjoyed TSR’s third published module, Lady in Distress, where the agents had to parachute onto a cruise ship taken hostage by terrorists in the Mediterranean (a few years later the same situation happened in real life aboard the Acchile Lauro). In the surge of nostalgia I had after reading the Witwer and Ewalt books, I discovered that used Top Secret modules are available on Amazon and found a wild coincidence. A minor character in The Boy Who Knew Too Much is named Mademoiselle Larreau. I had forgotten that was the name of the villain in Operation Rapidstrike! the second Top Secret module. I wonder if some day I will encounter a reader who was also a Top Secret player and who will ask if I was making a deliberate Top Secret reference. The answer is no, I named the character after my college French professor (for no real reason, many of my minor characters are named for teachers). I won’t rule out that I may have made a subconscious Top Secret reference. Every time I typed the name Larreau, something about it did seem familiar.

After school and on weekends our Top Secret missions rolled along, and Roger Connery continue to save the world. Then ads began to appear in comic books for a new James Bond RPG from Victory Games. This 007 fanatic was excited, but apprehensive. What if the game was terrible? Or worse, what if it was like the advertised 007 Atari game that never materialized? In the summer of 1983 – at a time Octopussy was still in theaters and I had just graduated high school – the Bond RPG debuted at gaming conventions and I stopped worrying. The game, officially titled James Bond 007: Role Playing in Her Majesty’s Secret Service, was brilliant. image

During my tour of TSR several months later, Kevin Blume told me his company had been trying to procure the rights to use Bond in Top Secret but that “one of our competitors” won the license. It’s easy to see why. TSR might have published a supplement that would have established Bond’s milieu as a campaign setting for Top Secret, similar to Gygax’s World of Greyhawk for Dungeons & Dragons, along with modules based on the 007 films. Victory Games, however, could offer Bond his own gaming system.

And what a system it was. Just a few chapters into the rule book I could tell that the Bond game, designed by Gerard Christopher Klug, was an elegant system that would be simultaneously easier and more fun to play than Top Secret. As a TSR product, Top Secret often betrayed its links to D&D. It was a complicated game full of charts and mathematics. Every form of hand-to-hand combat had its own numbers table. If you were injured you to had to roll dice to learn where you were injured then roll again to determine the severity of your injuries. When the Top Secret Companion was published in 1985, Tim and I laughed to see Rasmussen had added a Difficulty Breathing Chart to the rules, so now you could roll to see if you were wheezing as well as bleeding after an injury.

The Bond game greatly curtailed the incidence of dice rolling. Every action in the game – from skiing down a bobsled run to gunning your Lotus Esprit through a roadblock to sweet talking Honeychile Rider – was resolved using a single chart. Complex mathematics were reduced to something called an “ease factor” that most often was determined by the Game Master’s discretion. The Bond RPG also got rid of the randomness of character generation. As in D&D, character creation in Top Secret all came down to rolling the dice. Your characteristics – strength, courage, knowledge, etc. – all were due to luck. You even had to roll to find out how tall your character was. In the Bond game you were given a certain number of “generation points” to build your character.

You didn’t have enough generation points to create the perfect agent, so you had to spend them wisely. You needed to know what kind of agent you wanted to be beforehand. Smart or strong? Tall or medium height? Slim or stocky? image

The Bond game also added something called “fame points” that corrected one of the things that bothered me about Top Secret. In D&D you received experience points for creatures you killed, and the more experience you gained the faster you could level up your character. Likewise for Top Secret, but Top Secret was supposed to take place in the real world and I believed there should have been consequences for killing people, even bad guys, in the real world. So did the developers of the Bond game. Kill someone, even Auric Goldfinger, and your fame points go up. Fame is bad for a secret agent, and if your fame points became too high you were forced to retire. Indiscriminate killing was discouraged in the Bond game. Commandos need not apply.

A major transition occurred as I started to play the Bond game. I was no longer a player character, I was now the Game Master (about my only complaint about the 007 game is that I didn’t get a cool title like Administrator). Top Secret – again, like D&D – worked best with a team of player characters, but I found the Bond game worked best with a single character playing as a 00-level agent. You could play with multiple agents, but that seemed to work against the source material. What were the other three agents supposed to do while one canoodled with Anya Amasova or Kissy Suzuki? “Ah, yeah, we see you’re busy, James. We’ll be down in the casino playing baccarat. Page us when you’re done.”

image
Portrait of the author as a young Game Master.

At this point you may be asking, “But Jeff, you were such a massive James Bond fan at that age! How could you be the Game Master? Weren’t you dying to play as James Bond?” Oh, hell no. I could be wrong, but I doubt many people played as James Bond. Would you want to suffer the humiliation of dying as James Bond? How could you explain that to Saint Peter when you arrived at the Pearly Gates? “It says here that you played as James Bond and lost the duel with Scaramanga. I don’t know if I can let you in, my son.”

But if I didn’t get to be James Bond, I did get to be Q. As Game Master you acted out the non-player characters, and I always enjoyed handing out the gadgets as Q. Will said I did a good Desmond Llewellyn impression. The trick to that, I realized, was to always start a sentence with either “Right!” or “Pay attention!”

The reason I became Game Master is that I was the one buying all the supplements and adventures as they came out. Players aren’t allowed to read the adventures. The term didn’t exist in those days, but – spoilers! The modules were based on the movies, and you may be wondering if watching the movies spoiled the game. The designers anticipated that and threw a few twists into every booklet. One the back of each adventure was this message: “Warning: Assuming this adventure is exactly like the movie could be harmful to your character.” In Live and Let Die, for example, Kananga and Mr. Big were not the same person. My favorite shocker was in the For Your Eyes Only module – skip to the next paragraph if you haven’t played this mission and plan to some day. The KGB mastermind was not Kristatos, but the unassuming skating coach Jacoba Brink. Someone finally justified Bibi Dahl’s existence in the story!

image

The Victory Games designers sometimes improved upon the movies. The Man With the Golden Gun may be one of the weaker Bond movies, but it was a ripping RPG adventure because Scaramanga was such a formidable villain. Or you could improve upon the movies yourself. One of the things that always bugged me about A View to a Kill was May Day switching allegiances at the end of the movie. When we played the Victory Games version, I kept her evil and she attacked Will’s agent (Agent 005 David Arris, if I recall correctly) as he was winching the bomb out of the pit in Zorin’s mine. They wound up fighting atop the bomb as it swung like a pendulum over the bed of explosives and a timer counted down. Will defeated May Day and defused the bomb with a second to spare, and we agreed our version was a hell of a lot more exciting than Grace Jones saying, “And I thought that creep loved me!”

The overarching triumph of this RPG is that it felt like Bond. When designing the game Klug hoped it would appeal to fans of both the books and the movies. Believe me, in the 1980s a certain sect of Fleming aficionados were ready to pounce on anything Bond that “sold out” to the films. At the time, trying to appeal to fans of the books and the films – plus a third audience, gamers – was a high-wire act. Klug and his team pulled it off with a remarkable balance. Bond fans became gamers, and gamers became Bond fans. The game won several awards soon after its release.

Once my friends and I started playing Bond, Top Secret slipped to the wayside. We weren’t alone. The Bond RPG was an instant hit, selling 100,000 units in the first year, and it cut into Top Secret’s success. Victory Games supported it well, keeping up a steady stream of nine published adventures based on the movies (as well as two sequels), plus supplemental books titled Thrilling Locations, Villains and the one book every Bond fan should have bought even if they weren’t into the game, the Q Manual. The company even put out mini board games based on action sequences from several movies and a complex war game simulation of the assault on the volcano base from You Only Live Twice. Although Top Secret was around longer, TSR put out only six modules and one supplemental rule book. Victory Games created a small library for its Bond RPG. image

And then, without warning, the Bond RPG was gone. Even though a new Bond movie, The Living Daylights, with a new Bond, Timothy Dalton, was in the offing, Victory Games lost the 007 license in 1987. The reasons remain hazy to this day. Several accounts say either Danjaq/EON Productions or Glidrose Publications (Victory Games had to deal with the entities holding both the cinematic and literary 007 rights) demanded an exorbitant increase in the licensing fees. But in a 1990s interview with the James Bond fan site Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, John Parkinson, Danjaq’s vice president of marketing, said the game company had decided to pull the plug and that Danjaq/Eon considered the RPG one of its most successful licenses. The article also reveals that a Diamonds Are Forever adventure was in the works when the gaming system ended and thus was never published. Personally, I was saddened that the Bond game went away before the game designers got their crack at The Spy Who Loved Me, the one adventure I most wanted to see.

For whatever reason, a great game ended after only four short years. Not that it should have mattered a great deal to me, because I wasn’t gaming much by 1987. As I mentioned earlier, the Bond RPG appeared after I had graduated high school. I never found a group of gamers at Marquette. I was too busy with school work and the student newspaper and magazine. Gaming became a Christmas and summer pastime when I returned home to Pennsylvania. But one by one I lost my gaming pals. Only a few days after we graduated high school, George moved to Phoenix, Arizona, to live with his aunt and uncle. Tim joined the Navy. Hans joined the Marines. Will was two years younger than I and my most consistent Bond game companion, but he went off to college himself and I was a Game Master without any agents to run.

As I grew older and found new jobs and new homes, I never had the fortune to live in a town with a thriving game or hobby shop, which would have made it easier to find a community of gamers. When White Wolf Publishing put out its Vampire: The Masquerade RPG, I tried unsuccessfully to recruit players. Not even friends who were Anne Rice fans would bite. I fell out of the gaming habit, though deep down the yearning remained. In the early 1990s I filled that yearning with an annual trip to Gen Con, the nation’s largest gaming convention in Milwaukee, even though I never landed a slot in a Top Secret or Bond RPG session, damn it. When Wizards of the Coast took over TSR, the company moved Gen Con to Indianapolis. I stopped going because I resented the slight to my favorite city. image

For a variety of reasons beyond my control I found myself moving often in the late 1990s. In one of those moves I lost all of my old RPG supplies except the Bond basic rule book, the Q Manual (thank God!) and a supplemental book called For Your Information. Apart from their collector’s value, losing all that stuff has been a road block to getting back into gaming. It would be easier to play Bond again if I could simply pull out that Dr. No module.

Reading Witwer’s and Ewalt’s books has sparked my yearning anew. The books introduced me to Gary Con, a new annual gathering of gamers in Lake Geneva established as a memorial to Gygax, who died in 2008 (the first, unofficial Gary Con was essentially his wake). When is the next one? I wondered. Maybe I can go. Alas, I found out the the next Gary Con was only two weeks off (it took place the first weekend of March) and I couldn’t justify getting away on such short notice, even when I learned Top Secret creator Merle Rasmussen was one of the guests. Scrolling through the events, I learned Rasmussen and a re-formed TSR would be introducing a new espionage RPG currently titled Codename: ACRID HERALD (that screams “acronym” to me, but the best I could come up with is HARD DICE, AL). The news that Rasmussen has created a successor to Top Secret has me giddy. I may not find anyone to play it with me, but will I buy it? You bet.

Then I came across Modus Operandi, a website devoted to espionage RPGs, and discovered that the Bond game also has made a comeback, sort of. Classified, a game published in 2014 by Expeditious Retreat Press, bills itself as a “retro-clone” of the Bond RPG. I’m not sure of the legality of the whole thing, but Gerard Klug does get a credit. As this surge of interest in role-playing games pulled me into a game shop, I was happily surprised to find a copy of the Classified rules, so I bought it for $30. It was a silly purchase since I still have my old Bond rule book, but a quick flip through Classified revealed it is indeed a faithful update of the Bond game. Anyone wanting to give one of the best RPGs ever designed a spin should take a look at Classified.

This leaves me with an itch to role-play but no one to game with. Ewalt found a new group of D&D campaigners through Craig’s List. Curious, I tried this myself but only found someone else looking for a D&D group. In Milwaukee. Ah well. Maybe something will come along. I wouldn’t mind playing D&D again (although the Player’s Handbook now goes for $50. Yikes!), but I’d prefer some espionage action. I was once a world-class secret agent who saved the world every couple of weeks. I may be rusty, but I’m ready to get back in the game.

2 Comments

  1. It is totally awesome how you tapped your past to incorporate those ideas into your book. I haven’t quite gone that far, but I wish I had. I do remember those dang D&D dice and my first invitation to that crazy and complex role-playing game.

  2. I played Hero Systems for both espionage and Superhero action. I’ve also played many an hour of D&D, although right now we’re playing Pathfinder which is D&D 3.5 with some of the annoyances smoothed out. You can get PDF-only versions for mostly reasonable prices. If you don’t mind mixing up sleuthing and magic, you can do a pretty good espionage game in Pathfinder.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *