Wednesday, June 1, 2011

James Bond 007: RPGs I Like

Obtain the Coveted "00" Rank:
Your License to Kill

-back cover blurb


Mission Background
Bear with me- I have to do a little mental archaeology. I started with D&D in the brown box, then the blue box, then the other various TSR RPGs (Boot Hill, Metamorphosis Alpha, Gamma World, Top Secret), then Superhero 2044 followed by V&V and Champions, Tunnels & Trolls, Monsters! Monsters!, Empire of the Petal Throne...so early on I bought a lot of games. But what did I run? D&D, V&V and Top Secret mostly. Let me zoom in on one for a moment- Top Secret was, in its first edition was both cool and a mess. I tried to run it for our grade school group several times, but invariably it ended up like your standard dungeon crawl. Invade the base, kill the guards, look for loot. Investigation was completely out of the question. So I ended up coming up with various agencies and ideas in my head notes which never got played out.

Then James Bond came out in 1983 when I was fourteen. It was a boxed set, including an solo adventure in the book, Dr. No, of course- dice and some character sheets. Later came the GM screen which I loved and used for everything for years until I found a landscapes CoC one. I ran a lot of James Bond- a good deal from the modules, some adapted from other materials (my favorite being TS 005: Operation: Orient Express), and a lot from out of my head. I cringe more than a little when I think back about those games- but they were among the first I ran which were fully investigation and character based. My screw ups and mistakes gave me a foothold to later pull myself up. I enjoyed the game, but I won’t say that I adhered to the rules strictly- even then we ran things pretty loosely. The wound system seemed too deadly, though now it feels tame. The social interaction rules...well, I’m getting ahead of myself James Bond 007 is a game both ahead of its time and amazingly retro. So let’s look at what it offers.

Opening the Briefcase

I’m just reviewing the base book- which is probably the version you’d most likely find these days. A later version of the boxed set came with the Thrilling Locations. 007 came from Victory Games which had been a wargame company, affiliated with Avalon Hill. This was their first foray, and at first I worried that it would be like Powers & Perils released around the same time. The game makes a few interesting choices for its time. It is slightly smaller than the usual books, 8 x 10 ½. Second, it begins by emphasizing the power and skill of the PCs- that they are experts and professionals. While it doesn’t go all the way to a collaborative approach, it does suggest the relation should be one of storytelling rather than competition. Third, it has females in an apparently equal role on the front and back cover- well, close to equal and certainly better than most games of the time. The example of play in the beginning has a female GM and a male player. It does make me curious to check other books from that era to see if they were equally trying to be inclusive of female gamers.
That example of play is an interesting read- as it presents a somewhat clueless player getting irritated with the GM. The GM then has to explain why x and y happened. It may be illustrative of the rules, but it doesn’t make the game sound like a lot of fun. There’s a nice bit in the introduction which does suggest that players should expect that whatever the mission briefing, things will not fall out that way. And they shouldn’t go running back to M whenever any challenge occurs.

Recruiting Your Agent
James Bond has no classes, instead each player build their characters with points. With those points, characters buy the five basic characteristics, skills & skill levels, appearance, height and weight. Various choices affect a character’s Fame which can lead to being spotted- oddly female agents end up with a lower starting fame. The game has a handful of calculated characteristics and some other oddities.

The basic mechanics show their age a little. Basically any Skill has a Primary Chance (PC). That’s equal to the rating to the skill plus a characteristic (or two characteristics/2). The appropriate characteristic varies widely. Any action begins with an Ease Factor of 5. Ease Factor*Primary Chance equals the Success Chance. So a character has a Fire Combat rating of 5, which is based on PERCEPTION+DEXTERITY/2. Let’s say that’s a 5 as well. This gives the character a PC of 10 and with the Ease Factor of 5, a 50% Success Chance. Modifiers affect the Ease Factor, raising or lowering it to a max of 10 and a minimum of ½. Now just rolling under that Success Value isn’t enough. A successful roll is checked on the Quality Results Table. For a 50% Success Chance, the dice results offer: 01-05 Excellent (Quality 1); 06-10 Very Good (2); 11-25 Good (3); and 26+ Acceptable (4). That makes a difference in terms of resistance, time, effect, damage and so on. It takes some calculation and does require the GM to adjudicate each roll in two stages. In practice it actually rolls pretty smoothly.

The Mechanic
The whole game takes a streamlined approach. The emphasis falls on interaction and quick resolution. You have only twenty-four possible skills. Everything else falls under Fields of Experience which aren’t rolled, but just represent the obscure knowledges the agent has picked up. The combat system works pretty simply, with players declaring actions from slowest to fastest and then resolving in reverse order. The only roll for combat is the attack roll, though the defender can affect the ease through movement and circumstance. The Quality of Success for the Attack determines the Wound level done- and there are effectively only a few wound levels: Stunned, Light Wound, Medium Wound, Heavy Wound, Incapacitated, Killed. If a character already has a Wound then the effect will likely increase (based on a chart look up of course). The effects of wounds are pretty deadly- requiring players to make pain resistance checks, getting stunned for multiple rounds and so on.

Other Systems
However PCs do have access to Hero Points- one of the first times I recall that mechanic being in a game as written (rather than being a house rule). Hero Points can be used to modify one’s own Quality Result levels or those of NPCs. Mind you, players have a fairly small pool- given out at the start of a mission. There’s no mechanic for recovering those during a session or gaining them for dramatic action, which feels like a missed opportunity.

The game offers chapters dedicated to some of the other classic aspects of the spy genre. Chases get their own sub-system, with some simple maneuvers and choices. I like chase systems and this one still seems more workable than most (especially compared to the craziness and minutiae of something like Spycraft 2.0). There’s the obligatory weapons and equipment chapter (later expanded with the indispensable Q Manual). There’s a chapter on Gambling, a common element in the Bond stories. Then there’s a chapter just on systems for interacting with NPCs. The game has a little split personality here- on the one hand it wants to be narrative driven, and on the other it wants to have some fall-back crunch. So you get a Seduction system with its own table and five stages of increasing difficulty (ending in the "When and Where?" Stage...Ease Factor 3).

Behind the Scenes
All of the player material takes up the first 90 pages of the 160 of the book.
The next thirty provide some detailed discussion on how to run a game- and in particular how to run a James Bond spy game. That’s a different beast from a Mission Impossible, Bourne, Avengers or the like game. The advice is interesting and useful. It stresses the player involvement. The book them moves to the classic 'bestiary' providing an enemy agency in the form of TAROT- because (as the book mentions) a certain Bond organization was tied up in contractual matters...which seems weird. There’s presentation of the other, classic non SPECTRE characters, and a nice cross section of cities to set adventures in. Finally, you have a solitaire adventure based on the Island of Dr. No.

So What Do I Think?
I have a great fondness for this game. I got many hours of fun out of running and planning for it. No one else in the group ran spy games, that was always in my court. I’ve gone back to look at some other games I liked from this era and they haven’t held up as well. This one has- it presents innovative mechanics tied to the genre it wants to present. There were other spy games around during that time: Espionage! (which became Danger International); Mercenaries, Spies and Private Eyes; and Top Secret. But all of those had a kind of gun-bunny approach to them- more focusing on Special Ops and the like. At least that was the vibe I got off of them. Bond does what it sets out to do- perhaps a little literally at times. Amusingly, every module (with one exception) was based on a film or book. They all warned that the situations would be changed up so that players would not be able to walk through it- which was pretty much a lie. Live and Let Die, for example, stuck right to the script, right down to the "secret" traitor. Goofy.

On the other hand, the game's more than a little dated. Other systems have come along to handle streamlined mechanics without having to resort to several math stages. The game’s also from the era of no cell phones, bulky computers and the like. In the same way that Casino Royale rebooted the movie franchise, this game would need a serious reboot in equipment and skills.

I should also mention that the game looks great- the graphic design, layout and colors all work really well. It is one of the most accessible and professional looking games from that era. It helps that they chose a single artist, James Talbot, to illustrate everything. That consistency raises the game up a notch.

Overall
Worth buying to play? Perhaps as a resource to do some nostalgia gaming. Worth buying to read or to use as a resource? More likely. I think it is a great game to collect and give at least one read through.

Portability
The James Bond mythos could be ported over to another system pretty easily- and the book does provide some background. However that’s pretty out of date and doesn’t sell itself just for that. You can find other, more recent Bond books to give you the background you might get from this. Could you use this system for other games- probably, but I think there’s a lot of other good stuff out there. For example, I’m looking forward to Ken Hite’s forthcoming application of Gumshoe to the spy genre.

I do love this game- and perhaps this year I’ll track down a module and give it a whirl with a small group.