Top Secret: New World Order™
Author: Merle M. Rasmussen (“The Administrator”)
Editors: Jayson Elliot, Allen Hammack
Game design: James Carpio, Jayson Elliot, Allen Hammack, Chad Parish,
Merle M. Rasmussen
Illustrations: Cory Gelnett, Hanae Ko, Satine Phoenix, Kristoffer Stout, Michael Wilson
Published by TSR, Inc.
PDF Available at DrivethruRPG
Top Secret / New World Order – $19.95
The White Queen – a Top Secret New World Order mission – $9.95
Box Set available at TSR Games.com – $60.00
Top Secret: New World Order is an espionage roleplaying game set in the modern era much like the original 1980’s Top Secret game from TSR. In this version player characters are agents in an organization called ICON, International Covert Operations Network. ICON is part of an international network developed by spymasters of many nations that act outside of government oversight to resolve problems covertly. The game uses a unique modern game mechanic called “Lucky 13”. Like the original, the game comes in a box with everything needed to get started playing. As an homage to the original TSR box set, the cover art is a photograph depicting a similar scene with a handgun prominently pictured, handgun not included.
What is Espionage?
Before we get into the game let’s get a clear understanding of what espionage is, for Top Secret: New World Order is an espionage roleplaying game. Espionage is the act of gaining information through the use of spies or spying. This can encompass clandestine activities. Clandestine is not hiding your identity or allegiance but using tactics to hide your actions to gain information. An example of clandestine information gathering would look like this. A military soldier stationed at a consulate in a hostile country is traveling along a public road. The soldier, dressed in the military uniform of his country, watches a local train transporting military equipment ride by. As it goes by the soldier counts and records what he sees and reports it back to his home country. The soldier did not hide his identity or country affiliation. The solider’s information gathering transpired out in the open. Another and more exciting way to gain information is through covert activities, which is the basis for Top Secret: NWO. In covert activities, the intelligence agent employs deceit to gather information. Lying, misdirection, and activities conducted in the shadows or hidden in plain sight as with implementing a dead drop are just some of the tricks spies use. These special trick or skills are known as Tradecraft within the spying industry. This is the most thought of form of spying and imagery depicted in movies. In each of these processes, it’s about collecting information that will be later interpreted by intelligence analysts.
The Birth of New World Order
Top Secret: New World Order is Merle M. Rasmussen’s updated version of the original TSR Top Secret roleplaying game which he was the author of and with Alan Hammock as the editor. I became privy to the concept in 2015 while attending the North Texas Roleplaying Convention. Mr. Rasmussen had recently returned to the roleplaying scene, attending GaryCon the previous year. At that convention and North Texas, he ran his original Top Secret game but modernized the setting. 2015 marked my first convention and first time playing Top Secret. I was lucky enough to play in Mr. Rasmussen’s game as well as sit down with him later and talk about the game. During our conversation, he confided in me the idea of developing a modern version of Top Secret. He wanted it just like the original but updated to the present day. He wished to present it like the original, in a box with a photographic cover that would include everything a player would need to play, even the dice. He asked me questions about his blossoming idea, gauging the interest level of his future project. Would that be something you think people would want? How much do you think people would be willing to pay? and so forth.
While at North Texas RPG and other conventions Mr. Rasmussen keep his project compartmentalized. He met with publishers and/or writers about his project. The names of which he would not divulge. Fast forward to GaryCon 2016 and Code Name: Acrid Herald made its début. Acrid Herald was the code name used for the newly developed Top Secret: NWO while under test play. Acrid Herald test played for roughly two years before finally successfully Kickstarting on Jul 27, 2017, under the name Top Secret: New World Order by the newly formed publisher TSR, Inc.
Top Secret: New World Order comes in a box. The thick and sturdy cardboard used in the box’s construction is a thicker material than the box set of the 80’s and in line with modern box sets of today. The cover features a similar scene to the iconic original. A spattering of passports mixed with bundles of foreign currencies, various spy equipment, and a handgun. Unfortunately when the box went to press the ink-saturated into the substrate causing the photograph to lose a lot of its detail; creating a dark and muddy image. On top of that, the box uses a matte finish coating which only intensifies the lack of contrast. To view the photograph as intended one must look at the PDF of the rulebook. The photograph is brighter, displays better contrast, and all the little details that disappeared on the printing press are back.
The bottom of the box features a brief description of the game, a list of contents, and a repurposed illustration from TSR, Inc. product P3 – Operation Rendezvous Oasis which is part of their Pantheon Series. The items contained within the box are a 120 page softcover rulebook, a thick and sturdy three-paneled administrator’s screen, four player mats, nine vehicle sheets, 40 heavy cardboard markers for hazards, vehicles, and agents, a pad of 20 agent dossiers (character sheets), four orange clips and one blue clip, the introductory adventure “The White Queen”, and a set of six translucent red polyhedral dice.
The 120-page softcover rulebook features a clean and easy to read layout. The cover has the same full-color photograph used on the box set. Similar to the box cover the photograph is dark and muddy. The interior text and art of the book are in black and white. When picking up the rulebook one’s first impression skews to a negative reaction. The outer cover of the book uses a heavy coated paper which feels cheap. Even the interior pages inside feel lighter than most RPG book produced today. Though these may be seen as negatives having a lighter paper stock does have advantages. The book lays flat when open and can easily bend away from the previous read pages without damaging the spine or cover. Unlike other softcover books this books lives in the box, so a lighter cover stock is acceptable.
Once past the cover, the reader will find a well-organized table of contents and an index of tables. The book uses a two column grid layout mixed with charts and illustrations, all of which are very clean and easy to read. Key game terminologies are easy to find within the copy as each term when used is bolded. Having these terms bolded throughout helps tremendously when referring back to the book at the table. One simply needs to scan the book for the bolded keywords and the correct rule subhead to find the correct paragraph to answer the rules question.
Unfortunately, this clean layout is not without its’ issues. Numerous editorial errors slipped through the proofreading process. TSR, Inc. has already issued an errata sheet on their website to correct some of the issues. TSR, Inc. is still working on some issues so the administrator will need to get creative when encountering these situations. TSR, Inc. has updated the PDF to included the errata they have corrected.
There is one glaring issue I have with the rulebook. It has to do with its typesetting errors throughout. Most readers will not even notice them but as a graphic designer by trade, this was the first thing to catch my eye. A quick thumbing through the rulebook reveals at least two dozen instances where the beginning lines and last lines of paragraphs separate from the main block of text. These widows and orphans, as they are known in the industry, fall on neighboring columns or pages. Even though the overall design of the layout is nice and clean these simple errors and other minor typographic errors not mentioned could have been easily corrected.
The Administrator’s Screen
The administrator’s screen unfolds into a three-paneled letter-size landscape-oriented screen. It’s constructed of thick cardboard, similar to Wizards of the Coast D&D fifth edition Dungeon Master Screen. The player’s side is fairly plain with a monochromatic world map motif dominated by the game’s logo on one panel. At the top of the center panel on the player side is a section labeled “Tension Track”. It features eighteen equal blocks of color starting with green and slowly graduating to red. These blocks of graduated color and the numbers underneath represents the ever-growing tension within the game. A blue clip, provided with the game, tracks the tension for the administrator and the players to see. As tension starts to build and the blue clip gets closer to the red section of the scale, the greater the difficulty of tasks become in-game. Hence the tension within the game has risen. On the Administrator’s side of the screen, the necessary charts and quick reference rules are cleanly and clearly printed in black and white.
Player Mats and Vehicle Cards
An optional accessory for Top Secret: NWO is the player mats and vehicle cards. Both items are printed on sturdy cardstock with a high gloss finishes to them and treated to accept dry erase markers. The four player mats feature quick reference rules as well as sections for the players to write in or use die types to represent key statistics that are found on the character sheets for quicker reference. The vehicle cards also have similar areas to write in or use a die type to represent important vehicle statistics. There are nine vehicle cards, each representing a type of transportation. Each of the vehicle cards lists two speeds, the game’s mechanic speeds, and real-life speeds. The real speeds allow the players to better relate to real driving situations. Four orange clips act as the speed markers which attach to the vehicle cards to mark the speed at which the vehicle is traveling.
The 40 one inch full-color double-sided counters printed on cardstock offer a great accessory with their thick and sturdy construction. The counters included hazard, agent, and vehicle tokens each wonderfully illustrated. The use of these tokens in-game is optional. But once again we have evidence of an inexperienced or non-attentive graphic designer. On the agent tokens, one side features an illustrated portrait of an agent and on the back a full-figured illustration of that agent lying dead. Though that was the original plan, it didn’t come out that way. On the reverse of the agents’ portraits, they do have illustrations of dead agents, just not the same one represented on the other side. The reverse side with the dead agent illustrations was not laid out properly so when printed they would align to the correct portraits on the reverse. Only two agent tokens are correct. Those being a fluke as they are the third tokens in a row of five.
Included with the box set are 20 double-sided letter-sized “Agent Dossiers” a.k.a. character sheets bound together in a pad. All sheets are clean and easy to read. The overall design of each sheet mimics manila folders filled with detailed information about the subject enclosed. The agent dossier sits inside an open manila with its tab showing on the left. The multiple generations of photocopied papers inside show dust spots and imperfections. Placed in the upper right corner is a blank Polaroid photograph for players to sketch their character’s portraits. In the lower right corner, another piece of paper that tracks the character’s health features an illustrated paper clip holding it to the character sheet. On the reverse side of the sheet, the illustrated theme continues.
To get administrators and players started with a bang Top Secret: NWO, TSR, Inc. included the introductory Adventure “The White Queen” authored by Chad Parish and Jayson Elliot. The full-color heavy cardstock outer cover features black and white maps in the interior. The outer cover is not attached to the 36 paged saddle-stitched booklet like modules from the original game. The accompanying booklet is laid out in the same fashion as the main rulebook, with similar issues with widows and orphans. Being an introductory adventure, throughout the booklet administrators will find boxed text to read to the players and special game mechanic notes for the administrator. The adventure can accommodate between three to six player and an administrator. Use the adventure as a stand-alone adventure or as an introduction into something larger.
Yes, it comes with dice. Not too many publishers of roleplaying games include dice with their games anymore. Back in the early 80s, just about every roleplaying game that came in a box had dice. It was Merle’s wish that dice would be included with the box set just like the original Top Secret. Six red translucent dice round out the rest of the material in the box set. The dice are of the same high-quality construction as major dice manufacturers. They have a good weight to them, and each is clearly marked in bright white.
When creating a character, players have two options. Follow the character creation rules or use one of the pre-generated archetypes found at the rear of the rulebook. When choosing the character creation rules the player first starts with assigning their character’s attributes a die type ranging from a d4 for a weak attribute to a d12 for an élite attribute. Players can note the attribute scores on the optional player’s mat with a dry erase marker or the correct die type in addition to recording it on the Agent Dossier. Attributes in Top Secret represent the statistics found in most RPGs, but their titles have a freshness to them. The attributes are as follows: Nerve, Suave, Pulse, Intellect, and Reflex. Some of the titles of the attributes are quickly understood but some are not. Nerve measures how much stress the character can handle under pressure. Suave represents how charming or adept their social skills are. Pulse signifies the overall physical health of the character. Intellect is the measure of the character’s intelligence or natural talent to figure things out. And finally, there is reflex, a measure of how quickly the character reacts to situations.
The player’s next step in character creation is figuring out their Clearance Level and Reputation. Starting characters start at the lowest clearance level and gain higher clearance through time by successfully completing missions and gaining Mission Points. Since Top Secret is all about covert actions character’s reputations might not come into play that much. It all boils down to what style of play the Administrator runs. A game where stealth and covert activities are high, NPCs would not have knowledge of a character’s reputation if the characters are good at their jobs. On the flip side, if the Administrator is mimicking a more cinematic James Bond feel, then reputation will have more of a role. Clearance Level and Reputation use die types as representations of the level.
Spies are not born but plucked from various professional fields, be it military or civilian outlets. Their past experiences and skills in their former occupations can come into play in their new calling as spymasters. Players can pick an earlier career for their character from a chart or have a die chose for them. Players may further embellish their character and gain an extra skill at the cost of picking up an impairment. A healthy list of impairments is available in the rulebook. Players can select their impairments but it’s more fun to roll them randomly as some of them are very challenging to roleplay. At this point players also choose their character’s native language and extra languages if applicable. An extensive list of languages is given in the rulebook.
Once selected to become a spy, candidates find themselves at “The Farm”, a name used by CIA recruits for their training facility, to receive special training where they can learn about Tradecraft and other skills that will aid them in their new career. There are four primary fields that fall under Tradecraft: Signals Intelligence, Human Intelligence, Technical Operations, and Combat Operations. Signals Intelligence – SIGINT – is the collecting of information by intercepting communications between two parties, be it electronic ease-dropping or conventional means. Human Intelligence – HUMINT – gathers information from human observation, conversation, or interrogation. Technical Operations – TECH – is the use of mechanical machinery and technologies. Combat Operations – COMBAT – is the character’s fighting ability and observational awareness. Each branch of Tradecraft gets assigned a die type by the player character and linked to an attribute as directed in the rulebook.
Each field of Tradecraft has further specialized skills associated with it that players can choose for their characters. Each character begins with five specialized skills, six if an impairment was taken. Characters can gain new specialized skills past character creation with acquired mission points. When utilizing a specialized skill it enacts the related Tradecraft die to step up one position. Within the specific specialized skill, a number of proficiencies exist which will also raise in time through gameplay. The rulebook has an extensive list of Specialized skills to completely flesh out the player’s character.
The last step in character creation is outfitting the agent with assets. An asset is a physical item or a person that can help your newly created agent. An assigned die type for each asset determines the level of quality or effectiveness of that asset. The higher the die type the more the asset has to offer or functions better. An asset can be as simple as a pair of binoculars or a human contact which can offer intelligence. Within the main rulebook, agents have a wide array of equipment at their disposal. Agents may buy, request, or be assigned equipment assets by the administrator. For an agent to have human assets requires in play interaction. Top Secret: NWO divides equipment assets into three categories: Common, Specialty, and Restricted. Common asset equipment is just that, common equipment an average citizen can legally buy. Specialty assets equipment encompasses items purchased through underground markets. Super top-secret or experimental items fall under the category of restricted asset equipment. Agents receive funds from the administrator to buy equipment to use in missions. Anything over that amount comes out of the agents pocket. Luckily agents don’t work for free. Each agent receives a salary and bonuses for successful missions.
Playing the Game
Top Secret: NWO uses a mechanic known as dice stepping. Dice stepping is stepping up or down along a chain of die types. Similar to Goodman’s Games Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game without the use of funky dice. The die types start at the d4 and progress to the d6. d8, d10, and d12. You can step up or down in die types. The higher the die the better the assigned Attribute, Tradecraft or Asset.
The main game mechanic of Top Secret: NWO is known as the “Lucky 13” system. 13 being the base target number a pool of dice must reach for a successful roll on non-opposed rolls. There are three type of rolls within the game: Tradecraft, Attribute and Opposed. A pool of dice will always consist of at least three dice and one of those dice will be an Attribute. There are instances where a player will only have two dice to roll. In those cases the administrator adds a decision die, one of the five stepping die types to the dice pool. Depending on the difficulty of the task the agent wants to do determines decision die type.
Adding drama to the game, Attribute dice when rolled within the pool can Burst or Blowback. When a die Bursts, or more commonly known as exploding, the player rolls that die again adding the result to the existing total. A burst occurs when the result is the highest number on the die. In addition to extra rollings, players receive a boon that allows greater success on future rolls. A player can only get two boons within a single string of bursts. Rolling a Blowback is the opposite of Burst. When a Blowback occurs, a natural one on the Attribute die, the tension increases and is tracked on the Administrator’s Screen. With each Burst die rolled the tension Track reduces by one space.
When the tension increases within gameplay the tasks the agent wish to carry out also increase. Once the tension Track gets past the first three colored boxes and falls on the fourth, the target number signifying success on 13 increases to 14. The target number continues to increase with every three moves on the Tension Track. Getting a Burst on the attribute die or letting things cool off are the only ways to lower the Tension Track.
As the Tension Track increases, agents may find themselves in need of help. There a few options the player may do to aid their agent. First is to use a Fortune Point. Fortune Points allow the players to roll again on any die in a Tradecraft roll. In a more dire situation, a player may use fortune points to escape death. But players are not told how many Fortune Points are in play. At the start of each session, the Administrator secretly rolls to see how many Fortune Point are in play. If players are out of Fortune Points and in a non-combat situation they may do an “Asset Swapping”. To carry out this the agent must “Burning an Asset”. When an agent burns an asset they are eliminating permanently a piece of equipment or human contact for an advantage. It’s up to the Administrator to determine if the asset picked to burn is an acceptable sacrifice.
Combat within Top Secret: NWO uses “Round Time”. A round lasts for three seconds, with that round being further divided into 12 segments. Each segment represents a quarter of a second. Each action an agent wishes to do needs a number of Action Points spent. Each segment represents one action point spent. Various combat actions need more than one action point used. The number of points an agent has to spend per round depends on their Reflex attribute. The agent or NPC who chooses to use an action that spends the least amount of Action Points is the first person to act within the round. The rulebook lists examples of action and their costs, but the Administrator is welcome to develop more if needed.
The rulebook features detailed hand-to-hand combat fighting styles as well as rules for ranged combat. Rules for cover and concealment, suppressive fire, automatic weapons, explosion radius, body armor, and underwater combat. A large section of the combat rules covers car chases. The car chase section has its own rules for declaring and resolving chases. The rule for car chases is quite extensive right down to how to measure the gap between cars, closing that gap, driving within a city, avoiding highway hazards, performing high-speed maneuvers, and crashing. When conducting car chases players can use the optional Vehicle Cards along with the orange clip to track their speed.
More rules round out non-combat situations like NPC reactions, conducting surveillance, hacking, tailing/shadowing, and interrogation a subject, healing, receiving medical treatment, and death. As well as there are rules to help the administrator adjudicate for different environmental factors such as drowning, electrocution, falling, poisons, and weather. The last section of rules covers allocating mission points, improving skills, raising attributes, gaining reputation, and salary raises.
Hits and Misses
- It comes in a box. The biggest hit for me is it comes in a box. Call it nostalgia, I just enjoy having a game come in a box with lots of goodies filled within.
- Poor editing and lack of clarity. There are numerous editorial errors, some of which have since been corrected in the PDF as well as in some places rules contradict themselves or just vague.
- More love to an ignored genre. Out of all the genres of games to play, spy games are poorly underrepresented.
- Poor organization. Though I have not given the game a proper run through some people have reported having difficulty locating rules during play and attributing it to the rulebook poor organization.
- Clean and easy to read. Even with the mentioned layout issues, the rulebook is very clean and free of distractions that can plague roleplaying books.
- No description of ICON. Outside of a brief description, there is no other information about the organization given in the rulebook.
- An exciting new and simple game mechanic. The Lucky 13 system is a simple and modern game mechanic that will entertain the modern roleplayer.
I was a Kickstarter backer and had been looking forward to this new edition since I first learned about it in 2015. From what I’ve read I believe I can run a successful Top Secret: New World Order campaign. Notably, I will have to do a little work in developing areas that were left out but I’m that kind of gamemaster who would do that normally. Currently, TSR, Inc. is only selling the PDF of the game and has not announced when the physical product will be released to the market. Two new licensed Top Secret: New World Order missions are in production from New Comet Games called “Operation: Deep Freeze” and “Operation: Arctic Blast“. Both were Kickstarter projects and more information can be found there. I am very happy with the finished product that TSR, Inc. produced and look forward to any support products that come to market.
~ Stephen Pennisi