Top Secret (role-playing game)

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Top Secret
An espionage role playing game
Core rule book cover (first edition)
PublishersTSR, Inc.
  • 1980 (1st ed)
  • 1981 2nd ed
  • 1987 Top Secret/S.I.
GenresSpy fiction
SystemsCustom percentile

Top Secret is an espionage-themed tabletop role-playing game written by Merle M. Rasmussen and first published in 1980 by TSR, Inc.[1]

Top Secret (original edition)[edit]

Original edition logo

The original version of Top Secret was designed by Merle M. Rasmussen,[2] and allows players and gamemasters to build their own espionage story settings. The original boxed set of the game included a 64-page rule book and a sample adventure, "Operation: Sprechenhaltestelle". The TSR Product Code for the original boxed set is TSR-7006.[3] The game was developed over a period of two years by Rasmussen and TSR editor Allen Hammack.[2] As part of the playtesting for the game, a note about an imaginary assassination plot written on TSR stationery caused the FBI to come to investigate the offices of TSR Hobbies.[1]

The Top Secret game is based exclusively on 10-sided dice. All character attributes and other statistics are percentiles; some scores are rolled, and some are derived from combinations of two or more other scores. Top Secret also features Areas of Knowledge, which function similarly to skills in more modern RPGs. Characters gain experience points and progress upward in level. The levels had relatively limited in-game effects (most significantly, gained experience points were divided by the character's level but the base mission pay was multiplied by the character's level). Characters could also improve statistics by spending experience points. Top Secret also featured Fame and Fortune points. These were the first game mechanics that players could use to alter game results, a concept that continues in many “storytelling” roleplaying games, such as Fate.[4]: 44 

Top Secret characters are employed in specific bureaus—Assassination (Killing), Confiscation (Theft), or Investigation (Research)—all in the structure of an unspecified espionage agency. Despite a character's primary vocation, he may be called on to perform any type of mission. The in-game effect of a character's bureau was a 100-point experience bonus for mission objectives which fall within that bureau as well as bonus mission pay for those actions specific to the chosen bureau. An appendix in the rule book lists dozens of historical and fictional espionage organizations which could serve as employers or adversaries for missions.[2]

An expansion to the game, The Top Secret Companion, introduced enhancements to many game components. It included additional character classes and missions, as well as new Areas of Knowledge and abilities. A revised combat system was introduced that sped up and provided more variety to combat results. New equipment and weapons were introduced as well.[5]


Information supplements[edit]

Mission modules[edit]

  • TS001 - Operation: Sprechenhaltestelle. Merle Rasmussen (1980). ISBN 0-935696-17-2, this module details a town on the border between East and West [the exact location is never specified] where secrets and subterfuge are everywhere).
  • TS002 - Operation: Rapidstrike!. Mike Carr (1982). ISBN 0-935696-57-1 (This module details a commando raid on an enemy complex to recover a kidnapped scientist).
  • TS003 - Lady In Distress. Mike Carr (1982). (This module's plot involved agents parasailing to rescue a hijacked cruise ship. The module's ship plans were based on the MS Achille Lauro, which was seized by PLO terrorists in 1985 and resulted in the murder of one passenger.)
  • TS004 - Operation: Fastpass. Philip Taterczynski (1983). ISBN 0-88038-011-X (This module details a defection at an international puzzle tournament being held behind the Iron Curtain).
  • TS005 - Operation: Orient Express. David Cook. ISBN 0-88038-041-1 (This module contains a series of 6 adventures set on trains in Europe and rules for creating similar adventures).
  • TS006 - Operation: Ace of Clubs. Merle Rasmussen (1984). ISBN 0-394-53464-6 (The agents investigate events at The Ace of Clubs, an exclusive resort and casino operated as a front by The Agency).
  • TS008 - Operation: Seventh Seal. Evan Robinson (1985). ISBN 0-88038-134-5 (The agents have to deal with a nuclear threat by an organization that uses Tarot Cards as code names).

Modules published in Dragon magazine[edit]

  • "The Missile Mission", Dragon no. 39. Mike Carr.
  • "Doctor Yes: The Floating Island Mission", Dragon no. 48 (April 1981). Merle Rasmussen, James Thompson.
  • "Mad Merc: The Alulu Island Mission", Dragon no. 56. Merle Rasmussen, James Thompson (1981).
  • "Chinatown: The Jaded Temple", Dragon no. 62. Jerry Epperson (1982).
  • "Wacko World", Dragon no. 79. Al Taylor. (The agents must investigate a theme park).
  • "Whiteout", Dragon no. 87. Merle Rasmussen (1984). (Suspicious incidents at an Antarctic research station require the agents to go undercover to investigate).

Modules published in Gygax magazine[edit]

  • "Operation Rendezvous Oasis", Gygax no. 4. Merle Rasmussen (2014).

Top Secret/S.I. edition[edit]

Top Secret/S.I.

In 1987, TSR published Top Secret/S.I. ("Special Intelligence"), a revised edition designed by Douglas Niles. The TSR Product Code for the revised boxed set is TSR-7620.[6] S.I. introduced a more structured gaming environment in which players worked as agents for secret intelligence agency ORION against its evil adversary, WEB. Later source books in the product line introduce both supernatural (Agent 13) and futuristic (F.R.E.E.Lancers) adventure settings. These settings introduced several recurring characters such as Sebastian Cord and Agent 13.

The Top Secret brand ceased production in 1992. TSR was purchased by Wizards of the Coast in 1997, which in turn was purchased by Hasbro in 1999.

Combat system[edit]

Top Secret/S.I. uses a fast, simple, unified combat system based upon a percentage roll.

The original Top Secret uses separate systems for Hand-to-Hand Combat (rock-paper-scissors) and Projectile Combat (two, ten-sided dice).

Combat is divided into 5 second rounds. If necessary, rounds are subdivided into 1 second “phases.” In each round, Weapon Possession and then Hand-to-Hand Combat are resolved first. In each phase, character movement follows Projectile Combat. Characters may move up to 15’ per phase. Weapon firing order is determined by each weapon’s speed and five categories of twenty eight condition modifiers (Drawing, Shooter’s Movement, Wounds, Aiming, and, for the initial round, Surprise Factor).

For Projectile Combat, a character's stats, skills, bonuses and penalties; their projectile weapon's properties; and the current combat conditions give the character a percentage chance of hitting a target. For each projectile fired, the shooting player rolls two ten-sided dice to give a number from one to one hundred (the first die result indicates the "tens," the second the "ones"). A result equal to or lower than the chance of hitting the target succeeds. The shooting player then rolls additional two ten-sided dice for each success to determine the target hit location. Finally, the shooting player rolls two ten-sided dice to determine damage for each success. With a damage roll, the first die indicates the type of wound (from "abrasion" to "internal damage") and the second indicates the seriousness of the wound (modified by the type of wound, resulting in one to twelve points of damage to the target's general hit points).

For Hand-to-Hand Combat, each combatant in each round chooses from seven combat types (weapon Possession, Untrained, Knife Fighting, Boxing, Sword Play, Judo, and Martial Arts). Each combat type allows the player to choose from a total of up to three attacks and defenses (combined). A combatant may only choose a combat type allowed by their Physical Education or Military Science Knowledge Level. Each combatant secretly chooses their attack(s) and defense(s) from their preferred combat type for that round. The combatants then simultaneously reveal their choices. The gamemaster interprets the combatants' attack and defense choices, looks up the result on the attack combat types' tables, and modifies the result by any object used as a hand-to-hand weapon (e.g., purse, boot, tape recorder, bolt cutter). On the martial arts table alone, there are twenty eight attack choices and fifteen defense choices.

Character sheets[edit]

Character sheets in Top Secret/S.I. resemble agent dossiers, and are intended to provide quick and easy reference to all a player's stats and skills. They also provide a detailed map of the ten possible hit spots of a character's body, and a blank portrait area for drawing or attaching a depiction of the character.


Box sets[edit]

Accessory books[edit]

G4 File cover

Mission modules[edit]

Modules published in Dungeon magazine[edit]

  • "Operation: Fire Sale", Dungeon no. 26. John Terra.

Solo Operations Casebooks[edit]

The Final Bug cover


Five novels were published by TSR from various campaign settings from Top Secret/S.I. game.


Two graphic novels based on the Pulp era setting were published.

Agent 13[edit]

TSR published eight issues of 13: Assassin comic that featured stories set in the Agent 13 campaign setting bringing the story to a more modern era (1990s). The first six issues had a back-up story set in the Top Secret/S.I. setting (ORION vs. WEB) which seemed to take place at the end of the agency's covert war. Each issue also contained a miniature game and some issues included character stats for the role-playing game.


Warhawks was a four issue comic/module series that took the Top Secret/S.I. game to a time traveling setting where characters derive powers from tattoos. The four issues featured character stats and served as a campaign book in addition to the comic book adventures.

Top Secret: New World Order[edit]

In June 2017, Merle Rasmussen announced the release of a reboot entitled Top Secret: New World Order, a completely new iteration in the series. He had been running the game at conventions and events for two years prior to the release, adjusting the rules and user experience in real-time. The game has an updated rules system to appeal to more modern role-playing gamers.[7]

The Kickstarter page for Top Secret: New World Order went live on June 27, 2017.[8] The game began shipping to backers in March 2018.[9]


In Issue 29 of Space Gamer, Jerry Epperson reviewed Top Secret and commented "I liked the game, despite its faults. The system is new enough that the situations will not become blase (as with other role-playing games) for months or years. And it would be a sound investment for any fans of the James Bond, Executioner, or Avenger stories. Others would be wise to stick with fantasy, if they cannot associate with the heroes of the present."[10]

In Issue 67 of The Space Gamer, W.G. Armintrout compared Top Secret to rival spy role-playing games Espionage!, and Mercenaries, Spies and Private Eyes and commented "Top Secret is a good game, though I think both of the newer games slightly eclipse it. It has the best combat system of the three — being neither too simple nor too complicated — and the widest variety of 'fun' devices. Adventures are readily available for it. On the other hand, Top Secret is pretty lame when it comes to non-combat situations. If I were TSR, I'd be thinking about a new edition of the game to stay competitive."[11]

In his 1990 book The Complete Guide to Role-Playing Games, game critic Rick Swan called Top Secret "The first espionage RPG of any consequence" and thought the game "holds up amazingly well even a decade after its release." Swan admitted that most of the character generation system had been borrowed from Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, but thought this was overshadowed by the "gadgets galore" as well as "a first-rate combat system." Swan concluded by giving Top Secret a solid rating of 3 out of 4.[12]

In the same book, Swan also reviewed Top Secret/S.I. and liked it even more than its predecessor, calling it "not only an improvement in every respect, it's also the best espionage RPG on the market, a masterful integration of elegant mechanics, evocative atmosphere, and sleek graphics." Swan concluded by giving Top Secret/S.I. a top grade of 4 out of 4, saying, "Beautifully packaged, meticulously organized, and thoroughly entertaining, Top Secret/S.I is a near-flawless balance of playability and realism. This is secret-agent role-playing at its streamlined best."[12]

In a 1996 reader survey conducted by British games magazine Arcane to determine the top 50 role-playing games, Top Secret/S.I. was ranked 38th. Editor Paul Pettengale commented: "Top Secret is inspired more by The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and the lighter James Bond movies than real life. Players belong to an organisation of 'good guys' pitted against the 'bad guys' — a thinly veiled analogy of the Eastern Bloc. Gadgets and manners are more important than combat skills, and there are rarely nasty deaths."[13]


  1. ^ a b "The History of TSR". Wizards of the Coast. Archived from the original on 2008-09-24. Retrieved 2005-08-20.
  2. ^ a b c Rasmussen, M. W. (1981). Top Secret Espionage Role Playing Game, second ed. Lake Geneva: TSR, Inc. ISBN 0-935696-16-4
  3. ^ "Top Secret". Wayne's Books RPG Reference. Retrieved 29 October 2021.
  4. ^ Appelcline, Shannon (2014). Designers & Dragons. '70-'79 : A history of the roleplaying game industry (2nd ed.). Silver Springs, MD, USA: Evil Hat Productions. ISBN 978-1-61317-075-5.
  5. ^ "TS007: Top Secret Companion". RPGnet.
  6. ^ (1987). Top Secret/S.I., Doug Niles, TSR 7620, ISBN 0880384077, Lake Geneva: TSR, Inc.
  7. ^ Elliot, Jayson (24 June 2017). "Top Secret: New World Order: Merle M. Rasmussen reboots his 1980 RPG classic". Boingboing. Retrieved 24 June 2017.
  8. ^ "Facebook Event Page for TS:NWO". Top Secret:New World Order Kickstarter. Retrieved 24 June 2017.
  9. ^ "Update 35: First batch of orders are going out the door · Top Secret: New World Order - the espionage roleplaying game". Kickstarter. Retrieved 2018-03-29.
  10. ^ Epperson, Jerry (July 1980). "Capsule Reviews". Space Gamer. No. 29. Steve Jackson Games. p. 26.
  11. ^ Armintrout, W.G. (Jan–Feb 1984). "Spy vs. Spy vs. Spy: a comparative review". The Space Gamer. No. 67. Steve Jackson Games. pp. 11–16.
  12. ^ a b Swan, Rick (1990). The Complete Guide to Role-Playing Games. New York: St. Martin's Press. pp. 217–220.
  13. ^ Pettengale, Paul (Christmas 1996). "Arcane Presents the Top 50 Roleplaying Games 1996". Arcane. No. 14. Future Publishing. pp. 25–35.

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