Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Non-D&D ‘March Madness’ Blogarrhea Day 5

Other blogs can be found HERE.

The questions can be found HERE.

Question 5 - What other old school game should have become as big as D&D but didn’t? Why do you think so?

I’m gonna come out of left field here and nominate another TSR game – Top Secret from 1980. Not that it was the greatest game, but that it had two pop cultural factors working for it that should have but failed to make it The Next Big Thing.

Consider the evidence:

1 – There was a movie about the game. No, I am not talking the 1984 Val Kilmer slapstick spy comedy that shared the game’s title, although that popular movie could also be considered a factor in the game’s favour. I am instead referencing another film from the same year, Cloak and Dagger. The film starred Henry Thomas – you know, the kid who was HUGE at the time for playing the main frickin role in ET – as Davey, a boy obsessed with the Cloak and Dagger video and roleplaying games. Davey stumbles upon classified information hidden in a game cartridge and goes about finding out who put it there and why while taking advice from Jack Flack, his imaginary friend based on his character in the roleplaying game. There is even a scene where Davey and friends play a suspiciously Top Secret-like RPG and Davey’s figurine of Jack Flack is crushed by a giant d20.

Talk about product placement!

2 – It caused an FBI visit to TSR headquarters because of a presidential assassination reference in its material. Just as D&D’s ‘Satanic Panic’ would conversely steer kids toward the game in droves by giving it an unwarranted veneer of danger, FBI attention should have created some controversial buzz for TSR and Top Secret. Fortunately or not, TSR downplayed the investigation and nothing came of it. Ditto the brouhaha about the original cover, which featured US money but had to be scrapped after it was discovered that printing photos of American currency is illegal.

Conversely, when Steve Jackson Games was also investigated by the US Secret Service due to hacking references in their GURPS Cyberpunk sourcebook, they rode the free publicity for all it was worth, putting a sticker proclaiming the book ‘confiscated by the US Secret Service!’ GURPS Cyberpunk was one of SJ Games best selling sourcebooks of the 90s.

What a lost opportunity for TSR!

Then again, Top Secret also had a few points against it. First and foremost, its main competitor was Victory Games’ James Bond 007 RPG. The Bond franchise is the grande dame of spy fiction, and its name recognition factor would have been hard to beat. Even TSR couldn’t help mimicking Bond iconography – the tuxedo clad spy on the cover of the Admin’s Screen could only be 007.

Second, the 2nd edition of the game, entitled Top Secret SPI, is generally perceived as  having better setting information but inferior mechanics.

Finally, maybe Top Secret in particular and spy games in general were just too real to be popular. People play games, and RPGs especially, to escape their reality. Top Secrets’ scenarios were all more plausible than James Bond stories, with hijacking terrorists and cold war spies instead of monocled megalomaniacs. Maybe the ‘lightening in a bottle’ that was D&D could only have been a fantasy game, as far removed from our reality as imagination would possibly allow.

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