Sunday, June 19, 2016

Role Playing In Her Majesty's Secret Service

Art by James Talbot

In the early 80s, TSR issued a loan to Simulations Publications, Inc.  However, in less than a month, TSR called in the note, thereby dooming SPI.  TSR acquired SPI's assets, but not its people.  Some SPI alumni were hired by Avalon Hill and a subsidiary (or “sister”) company was formed – Victory Games.  Rather than in Avalon Hill's Baltimore, Victory Games was based in New York (just as SPI had been).   Victory Games published a variety of games in the vein of SPI; they also obtained the RPG license for the James Bond franchise.

James Bond 007 was published in 1983 and it won that year's H. G. Wells Award for best role-playing rules.  It also won the Strategist's Club Award in 1984.  In his Heroic Worlds, Lawrence Schick recommended James Bond 007 as the top espionage system.  He described the game as having “a smooth, fast-playing style and was well supported with scenarios for one, two, or several players.”

Interestingly, the last three digits of the ISBN are 007.  The game is dedicated to (Aaron) Eric Dott, chairman of Avalon Hill's parent company.  (Dott passed away earlier this year.)  Gerald Christopher Klug is credited with “game design, development and project coordination.”  Klug's other role-playing credits include work on SPI's Dragonquest and Universe.

Klug discusses the creation of the game in the third issue of Heroes, Avalon Hill's RPG magazine.  In the early 80s, Klug felt that an “area of role-play which...hadn't been adequately covered was the world of espionage.”  His gaming group wasn't satisfied with the “only game available at the time.”  Although Klug avoids mentioning the name of this unsatisfying game, it could be none other than TSR's Top Secret.  (Even Schick describes Top Secret as “competent but unimpressive.”)  “I knew I could design a better game,” Klug reminisces, “going so far as to start tinkering with a game system.”  Klug's rules were generic – not geared toward any licensed property.  The newly created Victory Games wanted to enter into the RPG market but decided against a fantasy game given the crowded field.  Klug proposed his espionage game, but instead of a generic setting, Victory Games “decided to base a game on the only spy character really worth doing – James Bond.”  I can appreciate that James Bond was the only spy character with a currently active franchise, but surely not the only spy character really worth doing.  Mission: Impossible and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. are worthwhile possibilities; even The Avengers would make a decent basis for an RPG.

The Bond license required Victory Games “to support the James Bond movies, so the characters, backgrounds, and plot lines made [in] the game would be drawn from the movies.”  According to Klug:
This would please some Bond fans and displease others, so the latter would have to be appeased by having the game system designed to support both the books and the movies...Since I was designing the game systems to emulate the books while giving the players information from the movies, that would satisfy fans of both genres.  And, as long as I made the game essentially simple to play, the young fans would by it and be happy with it.
As mentioned previously, scenarios for James Bond 007 were based upon the various Bond films, but the details were altered so that the plots were not predictable.  Even 'original' adventures were marketed as a type of sequel (for instance, Goldfinger II and You Only Live Twice II).  Not all of the Bond films were given a scenario treatment, although there seems to have been an intent to do so.  An early James Bond 007 advertisement included the following:

A 'playtest' version of From Russia With Love appeared in electronic form in 2003, but Moonraker, Diamonds Are Forever, and The Spy Who Loved Me never appeared.

I find it interesting to compare and contrast The Adventures of Indiana Jones with James Bond 007.  One was celebrated and the other scorned.  Yet both were released within a year of one another and both were based on the films of pop culture icons.  Even the basic game mechanics of the two games are similar.  The Indiana Jones game compares the results of a percentile roll against some multiple of an Attribute Rating for purposes of task resolution.  In James Bond 007, a character has a Primary Chance associated with some task.  The Primary Chance is multiplied by an Ease Factor to establish a number to which a percentile roll is compared for determining success.  (There are eleven Ease Factors:  one through ten as well as ½.  Lower numbers represent more difficult tasks.)  There are four “levels” of success with regard to checks in the Indiana Jones game and, in James Bond 007, there are four Quality Ratings that represent different levels of success – from 1 (excellent) to 4 (acceptable).  I'm not suggesting that either game copied the other, but both games used a similar mechanic to appeal to entry-level players.

Although Indiana Jones was developed into another role-playing game, James Bond has not returned in RPG form.  However, an approximate simulacrum of the Victory Games rules system has been produced under the name Classified.  The name leaves much to be desired; I would have gone with something like 'Agents & Assassins'.  (You can't go wrong with alliteration and ampersands.)


  1. Sean Robert MeaneyJune 24, 2016 at 8:54 PM does this setting cope with a Brexit future where london is planning to join the EU as a city state? Just which faction does james side with or does mi6 evolve into a new era of secret governments beholden to no one.

    1. MI6 is beholden to someone now?

    2. Sean Robert MeaneyJune 27, 2016 at 6:39 AM

      It was the prime minister through ministry of defence...hence millitary intelligence six (mi6)