Ode to the Random Execution Table: reflections on Top Secret

Reading this sordid tale of violence and depravity (in an RPG) brought back more than a few memories. Specifically, of TSR’s old Top Secret roleplaying game. Top Secret was a spy/espionage game in which players created secret agents and sent them on missions of dubious morality.
I did not own this game, but my friend Bill did, and he often loaned it to me since I generally filled the role of gamemaster in our little gaming group. I pored over the TS rulebook, reading through it again and again while I planned out missions and scenarios. The individual tables, charts, and illustrations in that book are burned permanently into my memory.
After reading the above-linked post, I hauled out the ol’ copy of Top Secret and flipped through it. (Bill, somehow it’s ended up in my possession. Should you desire its return, let me know.) Wow… the memories. And wow, does this game scream “I come from the 1980s!” For one thing, the book is absolutely jam-packed with charts and tables covering all manner of situations. There is actually a Random Execution Table you can use to determine how your spy meets his fate in the unfortunate event that he’s captured by the Bad Guys. I credit TS‘s massive weapons charts for giving me my first basic education in firearms and ammunition types. I could’ve sworn there was a Torture Chart as well, but I didn’t spot it in my brief skim through the book.
For all the fun we had flipping through that magical book, I only remember playing it once. It was actually one of my earliest attempts at roleplaying. Let me regale you with the tale:
I was the gamemaster. My friend Jason created a secret agent. I designed a mission for his character to undertake–something that would evoke the adventure and excitement of James Bond and Indiana Jones. The mission: break into a house (just a normal house) and steal some top secret documents from it. That was the entirety of the mission. The house was the best-defended house you could ever possibly imagine encountering in the suburbs: all sorts of redundant alarm systems, codes needed for getting through the front door, etc. So I got out my meticulous maps of the house, set up the GM screen, and we got to playing.
The adventure went like this: Jason’s character arrived at the house and managed to break in after snooping around for a bit. While breaking in, he unknowingly tripped one of the approximately 15,000 different invisible alarm systems I had installed in the house. The police showed up almost immediately. Jason decided to escape by jumping through a large window onto the lawn outside. Dice were rolled, charts were consulted… and the next thing we knew, Jason’s character was lying unconscious on the lawn, rapidly bleeding to death from massive wounds incurred while jumping through the glass window.
That was it. After months of daydreaming about high-speed chases, beautiful female spies, and nail-baitingly suspenseful action scenes, our first adventure had ended with the protagonist bleeding to death on somebody’s front lawn after jumping through a window.
Not the stuff of legend, you might say. But we had fun. And the next thing we knew, we had upgraded to the vastly superior Top Secret S.I., a “second edition” of sorts that took TS and turned it into a game that could actually emulate the spy-genre antics it was trying to portray. We loved it. We never really went back to the original TS, but played Top Secret S.I. for many many years.
I still look at the original TS with a funny sort of admiration and respect. It wasn’t my first exposure to RPGs, but it was one of the first, and even though it didn’t play out the way I imagined… well, I had done an awful lot of imagining in the course of reading and re-reading it, and that was something to be thankful for.
Top Secret, you rock. Random Execution Table and all.

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9 thoughts on “Ode to the Random Execution Table: reflections on Top Secret

  1. topher

    The first time I ever played a role playing game, it was classic D&D. I went with a group of friends who player together all the time. I was pretty excited. I loved fantasy, and I’d always been told I’d actually turn into a dwarf or something if I played those evil games.
    Someone loaned me a 9th level warrior, and we dove in. 4 minutes later I was dead. I went into the living room and watched cartoons with the kids while they played for another 2 hours without me.
    I haven’t looked forward to it again.

  2. jrau

    Wow… sounds like a pretty tacky group of players, to ignore you for hours while they played. But you must share the tale of your alarmingly rapid death!

  3. Bill

    I can honestly say I didn’t know you had that game. But I must quickly add that I wouldn’t have known it was “missing” if you hadn’t mentioned it. No worries (besides, I have plenty of books of yours to bargain with if ever I need to negotiate for its return).
    I wish I could say I bought that game out of some kind of mature recognition of its sophistication. But I hope you’ll not be too shocked to learn that I bought it because it had a sweet picture on the cover…and because I thought it was a board game, not a role-playing game. I didn’t even know what a role-playing game was when I bought it. All I knew is that it was a game with dice and no board. I was bummed. But it turned out okay in the end.
    My favorite TSOS (Top Secret-Old School, not to be confused with Top Secret-S.I.) chart has to be the chart for determining the chance to hit for every round fired from an automatic weapon. If memory serves, they actually had mounting negative modifiers for each subsequent round fired from an automatic weapon. So, you squeeze off 50 rounds of a Tommy Gun, you had to roll 50 times to see exactly how many rounds would land. Now that’s details, my friends.
    Personally, I preferred our countless hours spent playing TS-SI (or as my parents called it, “The Game”). You have to like a game where you can score a head-shot with no real difficulty, meanwhile your opponent must hit you four times in the face with 12-gauge slugs just to knock you unconscious.

  4. KDC

    Top Secret… wasn’t that a comedy from the mid-80’s? Hilarious stuff, especially the two guys sneaking in a fortress in a cow costume.
    Still haven’t gotten to play an RPG; waiting for Andy to trek to Boston to create a character for me I can kill in 4 minutes.

  5. Jim Zoetewey

    What I most strongly remember about Top Secret was the (at the time) confusing charts for sword and unarmed combat. Basically, the charts showed what blow would work against what defense or something. I remember staring in shock as I tried to figure out how to run combat. Eventually I figured it out, of course.
    Also, I remember being amused with the idea that a spy agency would give characters a limit of 400 dollars to equip themselves. Even odder, the equipment list included underwear (probably briefs) for one dollar a pair.
    Thus, not only would a spy agency require someone to equip themselves (up to $400) for any mission, but an agent could presumably buy 400 pairs of underwear for the mission (and no weapons) and noone would complain.

  6. Jim's Brain Online

    Role Playing Games: Killing Player Characters

    A couple weeks ago, I noticed Topher writing about his sole experience of playing role playing games. It was in the comments of someone else’s post about Top Secret. Basically what happened is that he died only minutes into the…

  7. Jason

    Hey, the right tools for the job. If 400 pairs of underpants are what it takes to get the job done then who is the Agency to argue. I don’t tell them how to do their job and they don’t tell me how to do mine.
    In retrospect, if I had purchased a pair of pants and a shirt to go along with the undies, maybe the lacerations that I sustained by jumping through that window wouldn’t have been so bad.

  8. jay

    The title of this post has to be one of the best ever. “Ode to the Random Execution Table” – ha! It’s impossible for me to read this and not chuckle.

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