Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Love for the James Bond 007 Roleplaying Game

With the recent release of Skyfall, the 50th anniversary of the birth of the James Bond film franchise, and recent screenings of classic Bond movies at the local film archive theater, I pulled several books off my shelves related to Victory Games’ classic James Bond 007: Role-Playing In Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

JamesBond007RPGI have a great affinity for the James Bond 007 license; while I wouldn’t consider it one of my core fandom realms, it certainly remains one of my earliest and one of the more eclectic ones in a field of colorful fan obsessions over the years. Part of my interest caters to the teenage boy that still gleefully resides somewhere in a deep, hidden vault within me, and finds such fare entertaining and not too deep. Some of my attraction to the 007 license developed later as my interests matured and broadened to include World War II espionage, history, and the literature behind the films.

My favorite James Bond actior has, of course, changed through the years. As a kid I found Roger Moore’s smarmy portrayal and the campy plots of his films appealing; later I enjoyed the earlier Sean Connery movies -- particularly From Russia with Love -- for their connection to espionage tradecraft and the original literary material. These days I still favor Timothy Dalton for his grittier portrayal of Bond, though Pierce Brosnan comes in a close second for his first two films.

 Thrilling Locations

I discovered Victory Games’ James Bond 007 rolepalying game in a backward fashion toward the end of my high school years as I sough other gaming settings beyond Dungeons & Dragons, Top Secret, and Star Frontiers (and Traveller, with which I occasionally dabbled). Before I discovered the James Bond 007 Rolepalying Game I picked up a copy of the Thrilling Locations supplement (where I can’t recall), which fueled several Top Secret missions with friends.

The supplement itself deserves high praise, though some if its information is extremely dated given its publication date. It offered information on specific and generic settings relevant to an espionage campaign: casinos, hotels, restaurants, trains, boats, and airplanes. Each chapter provided overviews of two specific locations, a few pages with other notable locations throughout the world, maps and diagrams, and several gamemaster characters. The real gems here were the encounter descriptions. Tables offered six randomly determined encounters for each location to customize by involving different gamemaster characters broken down into stereotypes, such as beautiful foils (allied, neutral, and enemy), fellow secret agents, major villains, shady contacts, and privileged henchmen. For instance, while dining in a posh restaurant, the waiter brings an unordered, expensive bottle of champagne with a note: “Meet me out back in 10 minutes....” If the agent keeps the rendezvous, he might encounter a beautiful foil meant to lure him into a trap; a fellow secret agent with vital information for the mission; a henchman waiting to ambush him; or the major villain himself seeking to dissuade the agent from meddling in his affairs.

The Roleplaying Game

After enjoying Thrilling Locations in running 007-style missions for Top Secret, I found the actual James Bond 007 roleplaying game, bought it, consumed it, and replaced it as my primary system at the time (and my go-to game for running espionage scenarios). The rulebook and Thrilling Locations supplement offered lots of artwork and a writing style evocative of the secret agent genre; though they strangely contained no film images, the original line art sought to reproduce scenes from the movies with a James Bond combining physical aspects of Sean Connery and Roger Moore (with artist renderings of popular villains from the films to date). At the time I was veering away from class-and-level systems like D&D in favor of skill-based systems like Star Frontiers and Traveller, so I found the James Bond game’s skill-based mechanics intuitive and easier to grasp, despite some mathematical and procedural complexity. It introduced to me several new elements future games would further refine:

Quality Rating: Although calculation of one’s success chances involved some complexity factoring a difficulty level with an agent’s abilities and skills, it also allowed for a varying degree of success called the Quality Rating, which ran the range from Acceptable and Good to Very Good and Excellent. Quality Ratings helped determine one’s degree of success, most often tied to combat damage and intelligence gathering.

Chase Bidding: The chase rules used a bidding system to determine which side determined who resolved and implemented their chase actions first. Each side in turn dared to increase the task difficulty in the chase (driving, piloting, etc.) for everyone involved. Going second often allowed the winning bidder to react to the opponent’s actions and capitalize on their success or failure.

Hero Points: During the course of missions agents earned Hero Points they could use to affect the outcomes of future actions. Spending a point immediately after rolling a skill would allow the player to improve the Quality Rating of his result -- changing a Good result to a Very Good result, for instance, or even changing a failure to an Acceptable result -- or alter the Quality Rating of a gamemaster character’s roll.  

The rulebook also contained a solitaire adventure which allowed me to test drive the rules system without waiting to assemble a group of players; although the solo mission was at the back of the rulebook and not really a “tutorial” adventure meant to introduce the rules, it still served the purpose of letting the reader dive into the action without hesitation. At one point I even started writing my own solitaire adventure for the game based on the opening scene from The Living Daylights (the airborne assault on Gibraltar) though, alas, I never managed to complete it…. 

I picked up a few supplements for the game -- the Q Manual (absolutely necessary), the Goldfinger adventure, and the massive solitaire boxed set adventure On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, perhaps among the largest and most ambitious solo scenario efforts in gaming history. I recall running several missions for friends, though nothing as lasting as campaigns for subsequent games in which I’d immerse myself. The James Bond franchise still resonates with me, and both the game and older films still occupy a warm, nostalgic spot in my boyhood gaming memories.