posted by Zorak of Michigan Original SA post

James Bond 007: Role Playing In Her Majesty's Secret Service, Chapter One: Introduction

We start off with a quick introduction to the idea of role-playing, comparing the players and GM to the actors and director in a film. We're told that the GM creates an outline for the story but doesn't know how it will turn out until the players go through it. There's a brief note on sources explaining that while the authors have tried to be faithful to the novels and the movies, where they conflict, the movies have taken precedence.

Things get a little more interesting in the "note for experienced role players," where the authors specifically announce that this game is biased in favor of the players. Secret agents should be awesome people who do cool things and aren't constantly screwing up or running home to Q for more gizmos. That's a novel departure from what I remember of 80s game design, and I like it.

There's a glossary of terms and then an explanation of the basic game mechanics, which use the first results chart / matrix I recall seeing. In a few years they were everywhere (Marvel Superheroes, Zebulon's Guide to Frontier Space) and then they vanished again. Characters have five characteristics and a long list of possible skills. Each skill has its own "primary chance," which is calculated by adding a characteristic (or the average of a set of characteristics) to the skill value. Characteristics and skills both top out at 15, so the highest possible primary chance is 30. You multiply that primary chance by an ease factor, which varies from 1/2 to 10, to get a success chance. You want to roll under that success chance on percentile dice, so lower is better.

If you're paying attention and haven't seen this game mechanic, you're wondering why success chances can be as high as 300 when you're only rolling d100. The answer is that it doesn't just matter that you roll under your success chance. It matters how much better you roll. Results fall into five categories. From best to worst, they can be quality rating (QR) 1, QR2, QR3, QR4, or failure. There's a big chart where you cross-reference your roll with your success chance to look up your QR. You always fail on a roll of 100, but below that, a roll of 95 is failure if your success chance was 94, a QR4 if your success chance was 100, and a QR3 if your success chance was 181 or higher. Getting a QR1 requires an 01 if your primary chance was 10 or less, but only a 30 or less if your primary chance was 291 or higher. Thus, better skills and attributes don't just make it easier to succeed, they give you better successes. Other games of the era usually had separate rolls to hit and for damage, so this unified mechanic struck me as remarkably clever when I encountered it at age 12.

The chapter then gives a pretty clever version of the now-standard example of play. In the left column of page, we get a written version of the car chase in Goldfinger. In the right column, a player and a GM play through a similar scene. On the one hand it's a cool way to show how the game system can be used to make great chase scenes happen. On the other hand, the glossary alone doesn't entirely prepare one for the example's fluent use of the game system. I got confused in a couple places and had to just wade through it, assuming all would be explained in time. I also wonder whether the mirror gimmick that ends the chase is the sort of thing a good GM would use on their players.

Chapter one then winds down with a few example characters, including 007 himself, Anya Amasova, and Felix Leiter.

Character Creation

posted by Zorak of Michigan Original SA post

James Bond 007: Role Playing In Her Majesty's Secret Service , Chapter 2: Character Creation.

This chapter starts with an overview of the five characteristics: Strength, Dexterity, Willpower, Perception, and Intelligence. For MI6 agents, each start at 5. It then skims over the idea of skills while explaining that the big list is in Chapter 3, and that since there are so many, character creation is slow, and brand new players may want to just use a pregen.

Characters also have physical aspects. Unlike attributes and skills, physical aspects can't be changed with experience points. Your general appearance can't change during the game. The perfect secret agent is nondescript, so in this game, average height and looks cost the most points. Being especially tall or short, especially fat or thin, or especially ugly or hot makes you distinctive and therefore costs very little. This is the first mechanical introduction of "Fame Points," which we're assured will be explained in Chapter 8.

I have to say that putting character creation first before explaining some of these mechanics might have been a miscue.

We then get the points costs for skills and characteristics. As you'd expect, characteristics cost, while skills can be cheap. You start with 3000 to 9000 points available, depending on whether you're making a new rookie, experienced agent, or 00. At low level it costs about 100 points to raise an attribute, but that goes up as you get closer to 15. Buying a skill at all costs 100 points, while buying it up to a higher level costs only 20 points. It's going to be tempting to specialize, but on the other hand, most people will want a wide range of skills as well. How often does 007 have to back out of something because he just never happened to learn how to do it? Never. Brother can fly, hang glide, dive, ski, and look fine doing it. Oh, and you also start with a few mandatory abilities, some of which you can't raise. First Aid falls into this category. I'm not sure why it would be bad for the game to have a new character who can dress wounds proficiently. Doubtless all shall become apparent in time.

Once you get your skills and characteristics settled, you calculate your Fame Points, roll to see if you have a scar (not possible for rookies, but a definite risk for more experienced agents), speed, hand to hand damage class, stamina, running and swimming speeds, and carrying capability. Oh, and you choose your handgun. From a list in Chapter 11. It's funny now to read gun lists from the early 1980s. We all still shoot 9mm, but back then there were no Glocks, Sigmas, USPs, etc. The Browning Hi-Power and Walther PPK looked like good options back then, with the HK VP70 available for people who didn't mind having their weapon spotted a little more often.

We're told that the game has no money system because agents get what they need from MI6 and live well though not immensely well when off duty.

The book then provides a few optional rules. You can take a weakness to get more points, which frankly strikes me as a poorly thought out nod to the conventions of the era. I can't imagine a successful secret agent with a genuine weakness, but the allure of more points has to encourage people to take them. It seems to me that pushing PCs to take weaknesses that the GM can and will use against them goes against that "this game is stacked in favor of the players" business from Chapter One. Sadly Fate Points and Compels hadn't been invented yet.

The next optional rule is for fields of experience. It's meant to fill out life before MI6. You get more points for your character, more Fame Points, and officially declared areas of knowledge you can use going forward. It's a reasonable system but it again seems odd to me that they make all this optional. I'm not sure why they're trying to hard to make it possible to play an unknown agent with no rep and hardly any mojo when the appeal of the game comes from the license: you get to be 007. I again suspect the conventions of the era. It may have been unpalatable in the early 80s to have a game where you couldn't start at the moral equivalent of first level.


posted by Zorak of Michigan Original SA post

James Bond 007: Role Playing In Her Majesty's Secret Service , Chapter 3: Skills.

It starts off describing how skills work in play. Basic stuff, but they take the time to offer up the option of secret rolls for skills like Disguise. It also clarifies that the abilities shared by all members of intelligence gathering agencies (ie, PCs) work like skills but can't be improved during play at all.

It then provides a chart showing the formula for calculating the primary chance for each skill. The publisher used a two column layout, with primary rules text on the left and GM notes on the right. The GM note for the skill formulas reminds the GM that all players start with Driving and Charisma at 1, and points out that some formulas are more complicated than others.

It talks about base times (listed in each skill description), provides a chart showing how different quality levels correspond to % of truth gained when obtaining information from someone, and reminds the reader that a roll of 100 is an automatic failure and means the agent's equipment may be damaged.

After that, it's just a laundry list of skills. The use of the GM notes column helps a lot in clarifying the rules. My big criticism is that the existence of some skills seems to negate that "the players have the upper hand" principle identified in chapter one. Players use the cryptography skill to decode messages from HQ and are only allowed one chance. Granted that the ease factor ought to be high when you're decrypting a message meant for you, what kind of GM would allow even a 1% chance that James Bond would accidentally let a message from M self-destruct and miss out on a mission update? That's an example pulled right from GM notes. Argh.


posted by Zorak of Michigan Original SA post

James Bond 007: Role Playing In Her Majesty's Secret Service , Chapter 4: Combat

The book sets out combat timekeeping (casual compared to many other games of the era), the option of trying to do multiple things in a round, and breaking ties in who should go first. It then covers movement and specifies that characters can move in a straight line (for speed) or a zigzag (to be more difficult targets). Moving in a zigzag makes it impossible to attack - the character is focused entirely on not getting hit.

Next comes the mechanic for quickdraw contests, referred to only as "the draw." There's some hidden cunning here in that weapons have a speed rating that gets included in resolving draw speed. The concealable pistols preferred by secret agents have better draw ratings than common thug weapons. Having to draw from a holster slows one down a bit, but these rules still mean that a secret agent using a PPK will almost always get his shot off before a thug with an Uzi.

The book then covers damage. Weapons have lettered damage classes. You cross reference the quality rating of your hit with your weapon damage class to get a wound level. Wound levels are fairly abstract, which was innovative at a time when most games had hit point mechanics. Yet another matrix explains how wounds stack up. Wounds can also cause scars, which in turn can add to the agent's Fame points and become a long-term problem.

Rules for HTH combat, area effect weapons, "spray fire" with automatic weapons, and optional moves round out the chapter, but I think the real cunning is at the end. The book comes right out and says that agents who get into prolonged firefights with tons of goons get killed. That's exactly how Bond functions. Prolonged firefights generally feature friendly goons to round out the odds. Bond, solo, generally uses his pistol while escaping from goons. He only stands and fights small numbers of adversaries. The designers did a very nice job making the lethality of the game mimic the depictions of combat in the source material.


posted by Zorak of Michigan Original SA post

James Bond 007 : the hurried conclusion. I'm through the meat of the book anyway and I'd like to wrap this up before the thread closes.

Chapter Five: Chases

The chapter opens with a reminder that chases rock and it would be a poor James Bond adventure that didn't feature them. The book reminds you of the skills used for chases, then goes into the sequence for chases:

1) Determine range. If this is the first round, the GM sets it, based on the situation in the game or by rolling a d6.

2) Bidding. The GM bids for all NPCs, while each player who can control their own maneuvers bids independently. PCs who are passengers don't bid. Whoever bids the lowest ease factor can decide who goes first.

3) Announce which side goes first.

4) Decide actions.

5) Resolve maneuvers.

6) Maneuvers take effect and the first side can shoot at the second side, if it chooses.

7) Second side chooses and resolves maneuvers.

8) Second side maneuvers take effect and second side can shoot at the first side.

There are only five maneuvers and they're pretty straightforward - double back, quick turn, etc. Each vehicle has a performance rating, which can make the maneuver easier or harder, and a redline. If you bid an ease factor below the redline of the vehicle, then after the maneuver, you make a safety roll against an ease factor determined by the maneuver you chose. If you failed your roll to make the maneuver, you make a safety roll for that too. That means that if you exceed the redline and then fail, you make two safety rolls, which means you can trash your car in a great hurry.

I haven't played this game since the 80s but I remember this system being pretty fun - the ease factor bidding process loads the scene with a certain extra tension, which only escalates as the results come in, but the overall number of rolls is fairly small compared to other games of the period. (Chases in Hero System could be... um... prolonged.)

Chapters 6 and 7 contain rules for dealing with NPCs (seducation, manipulation, interrogation, etc) and gambling, respectively. The social rules are straightforward and workable. The gambling rules are cool in that they don't assume any player knowledge. The book lays out the rules of common games and then gives you charts showing how a given level of success on a gambling roll translates to a game result. Each game includes a hidden gambling skill roll, a round of betting, and then a second round. The ideal is to have a player whose character isn't in the scene referee to ensure that all participants can roll and bet blind, but if that's not possible, you just have to trust the group. There are also some (80s vintage) notes on common gambling locations like Vegas, the Bahamas, etc.

Chapter 8 gives the rules on fame. It's a simple system - you get fame points, meaning you become famous, for killing people (more points are given for major villains and their henchmen), finishing missions, becoming a 00 section agent, and having scars. You can reduce Fame by spending XP, you can use disguises to avoid being recognized, and you can fake your own death for a short term reduction, but in the long run, surviving agents eventually become so famous that just turning up in the wrong city will cause thugs to start chasing you. It's expected that you'll eventually need to retire a character if he or she lives so long.

Chapter 9 is about Hero points, which let players alter the outcome of a die roll. You can optionally use them to tweak the situation as well. If you're getting the crap beat out of you in someone's office, maybe you can spend a Hero point to see a letter opener on the desk and turn the tables. You earn Hero points for rolling qr1 (best) results for rolls other than hand to hand or ranged combat. One of the easiest rolls in the game is for the initial stage of the multi-step seduction process, basically just to catch someone's eye across the room. As a teenager we exploited that and felt slightly guilty. As a grownup, noticing the way Bond never misses a chance to chat up a pretty girl, I'd have to say the system works nicely to encourage players to act like James Bond secret agents.

Chapter 10 is about experience. It suggests a base award, which gets modified depending on your rank (00s earn more, but then they also need more to get anywhere), role-playing, and mission outcome. The cost to up a skill or characteristic is based on the level you're increasing it to. You can also spend XP to remove fame points or request special equipment from Q. Getting stuff from Q requires a Persuasion roll as well. It's implied but not clearly stated that you don't have to pay if you can't convince Q that you need the goodies. It's clearly a bit of a gamble, since equipment that makes the difference between mission success and failure pays for itself. Cool Q stuff can also be an end in itself.

Chapter 11 provides basic gear info, which is hilarious now because it's so 80s. The DB-V is the listed Aston. The stats for the Lotus Esprit reflect the respectable 8.4 second 0-60 time, which of course means modern family sedans could out-drag that Esprit handily. In the guns section, there are 1911s and Hi-Powers but no Glocks or M4s. Glocks were a brand new pistol used only by the Austrians back then. Whoa. Anyway, it's a functional list that covers guns, cars, boats, planes, helicopters, the cool mods from the Goldfinger Aston-Martin, and a few spy gadgets. You could certainly play the game with just the rule book, but if you wanted to make a proper campaign out of it, you'd owe it to your group to buy the Q Manual. It has not only a larger selection of goodies but the guidelines for statting out new gear. I remember with pleasure the places where the guidelines were fudged in favor of the players. Since spies usually have small, sporty cars and pistols, while bad guys have huge sedans, trucks, and big guns, they deliberately made pistols better than they ought to be and large cars less efficient at bashing than they should be.

The remainder of the book covers GMing. It includes stock NPCs (some original but most from the books and movies) and a bad guy organization called TAROT, a cheap substitute for SPECTRE. Apparently they had a licensing problem with SPECTRE and felt like they had to include something, so they came up with something that makes a decent substitute assuming you're comfortable with a slightly twee Roger Moore vibe for the whole thing. There are also tips on running combat, and a random encounter system to help the GM through those occasional moments of total brain lock. It wraps up with large scale maps of neat cities and a starter scenario designed to be played as a "Choose Your Own Adventure" experience. It's a little odd but frankly I wish all games did that. It's obviously not a good model adventure since it's by necessity railroaded, but it means a prospective GM can get a feel for the system by his or her self and have a little fluency when the time comes to GM for other humans.

All in all I still think this was a great game for its time and reflects a fairly sensible design team trying to do their best for the players. It's about the best adaption of old school mechanics to spies than I can think of. Today you might please movie fans even more with something based on FATE or whatever, but it's only to be expected that 30 years later, there are more interesting ideas for structuring a role-playing game.