Top Secret

Espionage: Lethality


As I discussed in my previous entry, the real problem with modern day espionage games began when we attempted to move over from a dungeon crawling mentality. The early spy games (Top Secret and James Bond, for instance) were certainly designed for a realistic feel, but this was actually what caused the massive body count that ultimately led many groups to stop playing them.

Fortunately, as the hobby grew and different styles of gaming emerged, it became easier to craft games around an evolving outlook. This is why I’m inspired to go back to Top Secret and see if I can’t design a game that is old school by design, but using a more modern gaming method.

For this particular project, I’m using The Bourne Identity as a model. As you probably already know, this is in reference to the book (Robert Ludlum) and film (Doug Liman) of the same name. In this case, I’m using it as a way of dissecting the elements within the espionage genre in order to see how I might be able to craft a fun, enjoyable, and dare I say even survivable adventure.

Let’s get the really big problem out of the way right up front. Playing with guns is dangerous. If I wanted to design all my adventures around elaborate gun fights, I’d probably shift my focus to something like Shadowrun or Deadlands where magic could be used to save the party.

Is it possible to tone down the lethality level of a modern game and still retain all the excitement? If you watch The Bourne Identity, you find the following elements (let me know if I’m missing something):

hand-to-hand combat,
chase scenes,
investigative work, and
social conflicts,
all pinned on a frame of conspiracy and betrayal.

And yes, there are a few encounters with guns as well; however, they’re crafted in such a way as to put the protagonist’s skills front-and-center. This, in essence, is what I think good game mastering should do as well.

So, using The Bourne Identity, it seems the trick to survivability lies in toning down conflict to concentrate on hand-to-hand encounters. This has the added benefit of making “real world” sense as well. Since the group will be playing some form of covert operatives (governmental or otherwise), this means that even if they don’t get killed in a gun fight, getting caught by authorities during a hail of bullets will likely mean incarceration and the end of a career (i.e. character retirement).

With that in mind, I’m starting to create a setting where these elements can be used in a seamless manner. As I work through this, I’ll be talking a bit more about this model and how I’m using it to lay out each of the elements I listed above. By the time I get to the end, I’ll hopefully have a decent adventure/campaign. And who knows, I might even learn a little something about how to run a modern game.

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2 thoughts on “Espionage: Lethality

  1. I think the problem with lethality is that many GMs didn’t understand how the damage system was supposed to work and what damage was supposed to represent. For example, in AD&D if your character has 50 HP and takes 25 points of damage it doesn’t mean he’s half dead. HP wasn’t meant to be a percentage of overall health. In real life if you take a sword strike that half kills you it means you’ve been stabbed severely or had something hacked off. And chances are you aren’t going to be able to continue fighting. But in AD&D anything that didn’t push you down to zero HP was assumed to be a minor wound of some sort. So your total HP was simply a way of keeping track of many small minor wounds which would collectively kill you eventually. It was that final sword hit that ran you through, the rest were just “flesh wounds”. And then of course there were always clerics afterward to fix you up.

    Mind you, the rules never specifically stated this but as a DM I figured it was the only way to explain why someone could take 95% damage and walk away.

    Top Secret embraced that idea. It realized people wanted to play the game in order to be the hero, and heroes don’t get fatally shot in one or two hits. So it likewise assumed a lot of grazing shots and such, especially since you didn’t have magic to get you back on your feet after every firefight.

    But Boot Hill…ah, now that was entirely different. They wanted to make it a very realistic combat system and boy did they get it! Most characters could be taken down with just one or two shots, and there was even a hit location system. Kind of hard to call a direct shot to the gut a “graze”. Plus it mandated lengthy recovery times for gunshot wounds and there was no magic to speed things up.

    Boot Hill always struck me as a game you played spur of the moment for just one night, not in a campaign setting. Sort of like many of the more humorous games like Macho Women With Guns or Teenagers From Outer Space. Who cared if you died because you probably wouldn’t play those characters ever again anyway. Plus it fit in with the classic Western movie format where you have a couple of small skirmishes and then one big final shoot out at the end where all of the bad guys and at least half of the good guys die. Fun as long as that’s what you’re expecting when you go into it. But we were always more long-term kind of players and that just didn’t sit well with us.

  2. I can think of no better example of this display of the actual lethality of firearms than that Millennium’s End one-shot we did. Knowing what I know now, I can better appreciate the sensibility of avoiding gun play and employing sneakiness where at all possible.

    Pity that we didn’t explore that system further

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