RPG Retrospective: Five Reasons Why James Bond: 007 is One Of The Greatest RPG’s Ever Made

007rpgSee that book? The one with all the cover creases and taped, frayed spine? Of all the game books I own, this one has managed to stay in my collection the longest. 34 years, believe it or not – through multiple moves, from one end of the country to the other. To say that it is special to me is an understatement. I have other copies of this game, but this is the one that holds the most meaning.

It was a Christmas present I received when I was 13. Bear in mind – when I was a kid, my parents handled Christmas presents a bit differently. My father would take myself and my brothers toy shopping a couple of months in advance and give us a budget. We would pick what we wanted and then my father would put everything on layaway.

I don’t recall now if I saw the game sitting on the store shelf (the mere thought that you could buy niche-y roleplaying games at a neighborhood toy store is pretty odd these days, now that I think about it) or read about it in Dragon Magazine…but regardless I enthusiastically added it to my stack of gifts for Christmas 1983 and endured the intervening weeks until I could tear into it.

The game blew my mind.

I’d been gaming at this point for five years. My introduction to roleplaying games was a stack of Dragon Magazines and some assorted 1st Edition AD&D adventures given to me in 1978 by a fellow my mom was dating. I remember being enthralled with the contents – clearly this was a form of gaming I had never experienced and the prospect of being able to engage in it somehow was magnetic. Not owning any of the books I ran a number of games for friends and my siblings by reverse engineering the rules from the adventures…I have no recollection of what those games were like, but I presume the sessions were something of a hot mess. But we had fun.

Eventually I got the books and learned how to play properly (well, as properly as anyone played 1st Edition at any rate) and as usually happens when the gaming bug bites I started consuming every single RPG I could get my hands on. Traveller was another big one – primarily because I’d read David Drake’s Hammer’s Slammers and Traveller Book 4: Mercenary was my ticket to re-enacting all that hot military sci-fi action.

Until that point most roleplaying games were, for me, a means of escape into one kind of fantasy world or another. Anyone who’s seen Stranger Things at this point knows what I mean; having grown up in the early 80’s the sight of basement carpeting and wood paneled walls brings back fond memories of rolling dice with my friends until the early hours of the morning. We even dubbed my friend Bryan’s basement the Basement of Justice because surely we saved the world enough times down there for it to have earned the title. And I can say with some pride that many of those world-saving adventures featured the M.I.6 agents my friends and I cooked up for James Bond: 007.

Published in 1983 by Victory Games, a subdivision of wargame publisher Avalon Hill formed entirely of ex-SPI staff – including designer Chris Klug (who had previously worked on Universe and DragonQuest Second Edition) James Bond: 007 eventually spanned a core box set, 11 adventures, and several supplements – even a hex-and-chit wargame called Assault which allowed you to recreate some of the film series big action scenes, such as the volcano battle at the end of You Only Live Twice.

When asked about my favorite RPG of all time I never hesitate to gush over 007. It’s one of those designs that is so wonderful and elegant that you ache to run it the way Bond must feel behind the wheel of his Aston Martin DB-V. There are few games in history that have done such a wonderful job at creating the kind of experience you expect from its’ subject matter, in this case high-stakes espionage action in the mold of James Bond. And – it must be said – the game features what I consider to be, hands’ down, the greatest set of chase mechanics ever designed.
Fine, you’re saying – give us the skinny. What makes this game so damn good?

For starters, 007 features a wonderful core mechanic that – almost without fail – is used to resolve nearly every task in the game. While this is commonplace today, in the early 80’s that wasn’t necessarily the case. In 007 all actions rely on determining a percentile chance to succeed. This is found by multiplying a character’s Primary Chance (often associated with a Skill) by the Ease Factor, which is anywhere from 1 to 10. Lower Ease Factors are harder, while higher ones are easier. After you roll, if you succeed you compare your roll to a chart which reveals your Quality Rating (1 through 4, with 1 being best and 4 worst). That’s pretty much the system in a nutshell.

In Combat, better Quality Ratings means more damage. When using skills better Quality Ratings reduce the amount of time the attempt takes (useful when Safecracking, for instance). It determines how easily targets of Seduction resist your efforts. How much information you gain from interrogating captives.

While there are sub-mechanics for determining things like the aforementioned Seduction and Gambling, they all extend from the same core rules. If you grasp how to arrive at a Quality Rating, everything else is easy. While many get a little cross-eyed when presented with tables these days, I find that designer Chris Klug’s system is fast and efficient at the table – not something that could be said for a lot of games of this era.

Where does the ‘Bond’ feel come from in all this, however? What is it about this set of rules that makes it – in my estimation – one of the greatest examples of genre emulation in the history of roleplaying games? And what makes it worth playing over three decades after its’ release – and three decades after its’ demise?

To answer those questions, here are five things I absolutely love about the James Bond: 007 system.

Those Chase Rules

Live-and-Let-Die-Boat-Scene

Bond leaping over a hapless J.W. Pepper in ‘The Man With the Golden Gun’

Yes, I’m putting the chase mechanics front and center. And it’s the right thing to do because, even if all else about this game were forgotten, the chase mechanics are so gorgeous and clever that they’ve yet to be surpassed. And given the necessity for any good Bond game to feature a robust and dynamic set of chase mechanics, I think it can safely be said that James Bond: 007 nails this perfectly.

The heart of the chase system is the Bid mechanic. During a chase, each side bids the Ease Factor at which they want to attempt a maneuver, with each successive bid lowering the Ease Factor. This goes back and forth until one side or the other concedes. The winning side chooses which side goes first, maneuvers are chosen and resolved, then (if both sides are still in the chase) gameplay continues.

This is brilliant as it perfectly mirrors the way chase participants push each other towards ever-increasing mayhem. It’s tense, it keeps the players and GM on their toes, and best of all it’s easy. To represent the handling of various cars, boats, etc. each vehicle has a ‘Redline’ statistic which is the lowest Ease Factor you can safely bid while operating that vehicle. Bid lower and you automatically have to make a Mishap roll after your maneuver, whether you succeed or not. The GM is also encouraged to narrate the various events that occur during the chase on the fly. There are a small pair of tables to give the GM some ideas for various Obstacles, like a festival parade that suddenly blocks traffic, etc but any resourceful GM could conjure a host of suitable bits of narration. This keeps the action flowing without the need to refer to a map, figure out topography, and whatnot.

It’s worth mentioning that the chase mechanics, while built around Klug’s rock-solid foundation, were actually crafted by designer Greg Gorden who many will remember as the architect of the DC Heroes RPG for Mayfair Games, and thus what is called today MEGS – the Mayfair Exponential Game System. I don’t have the space to delve into a full-discussion of MEGS, suffice to say it’s clear that Gorden’s knack for elegant system design is on full display here.

Hero Points and Survival Points
These days roleplaying games which feature some kind of narrative currency through which the Player Characters can influence the plot are a dime-a-dozen. Bennies, Fate Points, whatever. James Bond: 007 was doing this in 1983. When you garner a Quality Rating of 1 for a roll (outside of combat) you are given a Hero Point. You can then use this Hero Point to affect the game in various ways; you can increase the Quality Rating of a roll by one, or decrease the Quality Rating of a GM roll if that AK-47 burst is about to cut you in half. You can also use Hero Points to directly affect the world around you, such as placing a piece of wire suitable for opening handcuffs within reach. As you increase in rank, and thus increase the chance of attaining Hero Points, you become a more heroic character – which models Bond’s crazy-good luck throughout the film series.

Likewise the GM has access to Survival Points, which provide the means to pull various strings to keep heavyweight baddies alive. How else does Blofeld keep showing up time and time again? Again – while games featuring currencies for narrative stuff are commonplace nowadays, they were were rare (if not non-existent – I’ve been trying to think of an earlier example of ‘bennies’ and am coming up empty) in 1983.

The Adventures

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Clue hand-outs for the ‘Goldfinger’ adventure.

While the rules themselves are wonderful, the game was supported with a truly marvelous selection of adventures that give the players an opportunity to thwart evil plans across the globe. Most of these were adapted from existing movies / books, although a couple were wholly original (or rather, followups to previous adventures – namely Goldfinger and You Only Live Twice). Every time I take one of these off the shelf to give it a read-through, either in preparation to run it or just for pleasure, I’m taken aback with just how well constructed they are – delivering in spades on the promise contained in the game rules.

Most of the adventures, being based on well-known story lines, served a dual purpose – to provide an experience that feels like the source material while also providing a challenge to those who know it back and front. Goldfinger, for instance, gives players the opportunity to engage Auric Goldfinger in the centerpiece golf scene from the film – while also including a lengthy jaunt to South Africa to investigate one of Goldfinger’s mines. Indeed, players who try to mirror Bond’s footsteps would often trip themselves up, requiring them to play the adventure as if they knew nothing of the film or book. And yet – each one captures the spirit of Bond’s original adventures perfectly. One touch I was fond of: every adventure came with a manila envelope (thoughtfully stamped to warn that the contents are classified) stuffed with prop clues to be handed to the players at the appropriate time. These clues contained key information which could be used to direct them towards solving the mystery at hand and were always a pleasure to pass out. Not only did they reinforce the player’s sense that they were on the right track, they also were a source of great fun to try and figure out what information would guide them to the next clue. There’s even a solitaire adventure, based on the Lazenby film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. I have yet to delve into that one but when I do I’ll be sure to blog about it here.

Fame
Remember that scene at the beginning of You Only Live Twice where Bond fakes his own death to throw off his adversaries’ continual interest? James Bond: 007 plays with this idea, giving each character a Fame score. Indeed, during character generation you can gain points back for being very attractive (thus increasing your initial Fame score) or paying extra points for being nondescript (thus lowering your Fame score). A character’s ongoing exploits will add to their Fame score, as will being scarred due to an injury. All those points add up, eventually, making it harder and harder for them to wander into an enemy-owned casino for a game of Baccarat or to not be recognized in a crowd. A character can attempt to use disguises to mask their identity, but eventually a character may want to lower their Fame, and the game provides a number of ways of doing so – including faking their own death or, in dire circumstances, retiring them from the field and making a new character. It’s a nice way of modeling the effect the character is having on the world around them, and is completely consistent with the way Bond is portrayed in the films. It’s not uncommon for him to approach his prey in full knowledge that they know who he is, often as a means of unsettling them.

Gear

ppsh

Ahhh – the PPSh41g…

While the main rulebook contains a solid selection of equipment players can use in the field, the Q-Manual is by far one of the coolest accessories ever written – 137 pages filled with exotic cars, explosive-filled watches, surveillance equipment, firearms, and more. Every entry is properly statted out for use, but the real kicker is Q’s commentary. Every single item is accompanied by a ‘Q Evaluation’ in which M.I.6’s acerbic quartermaster gives you the skinny. Take, for example, his description of the Japanese Taisho 14 pistol:

“A pistol which tested well against the Walther PPK, but rejected due to its heavier trigger pull and bulkier shape. 003, shot when trying to draw the weapon, would still be an active agent had he been using the easier drawing Walther PPK at the time – Q”

Honestly – the book is a total joy to read, and is worth owning even if you’re simply a fan of the movies or books. The Q-Manual is also liberally decorated with tons of lovely artwork, rendered in a technical yet descriptive manner. Again, Greg Gorden took the reins on this book, displaying an ample flair for translating Bond’s world into game mechanics.

Alas, despite all the quality of the game, James Bond: 007 lasted a mere four years with no subsequent revisions to the system. Largely the game is a fond memory for gamers who encountered it during its brief lifespan in the early to mid-80’s. Frankly I believe the game was incredibly innovative and deserves credit for many of its innovative features. Any nitpicks I have with the system are minor: being a point-buy system, character creation is a bit time consuming. And the game suffers a little from a lack of SPECTRE, the villainous organization that gave Bond so many runs for his money. The latter problem stemmed, of course, from Kevin McClory’s legal shenanigans regarding his hand in writing Thunderball and his running legal battle over ownership of SPECTRE. (It’s this same concern that would see Bond unceremoniously dumping Blofeld down a smokestack shaft at the beginning of For Your Eyes Only as kind of a fuck you to McClory.) I thought the replacement organization, TAROT, was kind of cool – but I sorely missed Blofeld and all his cronies.

I still play 007 now and then. Indeed, one of my all-time favorite gaming memories occurred about ten years ago while re-visiting the game with some friends. We were playing the Goldfinger adventure and the villainous Auric Goldfinger had captured the PC’s. He was threatening to kill one of them in the fashion you probably remember from the film (the bit where Sean Connery’s Bond is strapped to the laser table). The PC in question, being played by my friend Bryan (yes – this occurred in the aforementioned Basement of Justice), was trying to convince Goldfinger that they were better off as prisoners and he had to roll absurdly low to convince him – if I recall he had a roughly 10% chance to succeed. So Bryan rolled.

This anecdote is better if you know that the percentile dice Bryan was using were the kind that displays the tens as two digits on one die and the ones as a single digit on the other. You know what I mean – so a ‘33’ reads ‘03’ on one die and a ‘3’ on the other.The dice clattered on the table and…Bryan rolled a 7. A ‘00’ on the tens die and a ‘7’ on the singles die. With that ‘007’ roll Auric was convinced.

Do you blame him?

(A Couple of Notes: Mr. Klug was gracious enough to guest on my old podcast, Geeky and Genki, where we discussed his career and the 007 RPG at length. You can hear that episode here. It was an absolute blast to speak to Chris and I believe you’ll enjoy it.

Also – a retroclone of James Bond: 007 exists. Designed by Joseph Browning, Classified is available on RPG Now. If you can’t get your hands on the original game via the secondary market, Browning’s game is a wonderful re-creation of 007 and is recommended).

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6 thoughts on “RPG Retrospective: Five Reasons Why James Bond: 007 is One Of The Greatest RPG’s Ever Made

  1. What a great game!

    You pinpointed all the things that this game did so well, and that gave players the feeling that they had stepped into a Bond movie. It’s a shame that most people I know have barely heard of this game.

    Thanks for putting a spotlight on James Bond: 007 and posting those links.

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  2. Great piece on a fondly remembered and fantastic game. For some reason, my main recollection of playing it is when my agent was clambering up a steep snow-covered slope (heading for a bad guy’s crashed snowmobile), missed a ridiculously simple roll for the climb and I spent a Hero Point to not stumble – since that would have just looked stupid and unheroic in the movie. I think I used a homebrew Hero Point system in every RPG I’ve DMed since.

    (also, little editing note: neither “its” nor “hands” has an apostrophe after it)

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  3. Great revue, thanks! I remember always wanting to get this game but couldn’t!

    Greg Gorden went on to design the great Torg RPG for West End Games!

    This article coincides w/Sir Rog Moore’s passing – more than a coincidence to remember his great Bond saga.

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  4. My 12-year old nephew came and stayed with me for a week, found my Q-manual in my bookshelf, spent the entire week with it, went skiing with the family and kept them “entertained” on the drive out there by explaining as many of the weapons and gadgets from memory.

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  5. Excellent! It’s definitely one of my favorite games, and I’d recommend anyone interested pick up the core rules, the Q Manual, and Thrilling Locations, as those three are probably the most generally useful. The adventures are all well worth getting, too. Also, I recall that SPECTRE was finally allowed for use by VG, but too late to save the line.

    Top Secret, an earlier espionage roleplaying game, had Fame and Fortune points that were possibly the earliest instance of plot points (or at least an early instance of such), but their uses were very limited compared to what can be done with such things in games now, or in James Bond 007.

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  6. Unfortunately, the only time I played 007, the GM tried to use it to run something resembling LeCarré. Sigh. But I still have the rulesm

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