Monday, December 14, 2015

Top Secret and Sprechenhaltestelle


Back in the day, TSR's espionage game Top Secret was, I think the second RPG I ever got after D&D. Mostly this was just due to its release date as I became aware of RPGs, and possibly the modern setting. I was a complete blank slate about the spy/espionage genre, and frankly I think I played/admin'd the game very, very badly indeed. At some point I boxed it up and it's probably the most rarely-looked-at game that I own.

Well, about a month ago the Hulu online TV service got rights to play most of the original James Bond movies, and during lunch breaks I started to watch them, for the first time ever, in the original chronology. I'd say it's delightfully loopy. The young Sean Connery is truly a pleasure just to watch move around a room. And the gestures in these movies echo throughout all later action and superhero movies and comics, so I feel a lot more learned about all those references now. And of course I was prompted to open up Top Secret again and view it through more informed eyes about the genre expectations. (One thing about the old games: they assumed that you had intimate knowledge of the outside genre, and in many cases gave pretty naked mechanics for these things they assumed you could recognize by name.)

One thing that's attractive is the dictum: "Unlike many role-playing games, TOP SECRET games are best with a smaller number of players... the simple, straightforward missions are ideally suited to a minimum of players; the Admin, of course, and perhaps one or two agents." (p. 4). Particularly so that I've been doing a lot of solo play at the request of my partner Isabelle lately; and this is again something that was very bent, in the opposite direction, when I played the game as a teenager with my D&D buddies. So then I opened up the sample adventure module (really a mini-campaign setting), Operation: Sprechenhaltestelle by game creator Merle Rasmussen, for more guidance on how to design an espionage RPG mission.

A few things: The map of the small European city is very clean and attractive, even while giving a very dense amount of content and places to explore. The format is the same as D&D Module B1: In Search of the Unknown -- locations are described with dressing, and then space is given to add extra unique characters and treasures from a list at the back of the module. The first four pages of introductory advice are in fact mostly copied from the B1 text and lightly altered for the modern-day espionage setting (it even talks about "order of march", etc.). The group size is somewhat larger than the core rules indicate; party size is likely four or more characters (bolstered by NPCs if needed).

I count almost 120 characters pre-stocked in the setting. Somewhat awkwardly, none are given names (which seems a bit against type; in the 007 films among the most important highlights is revealing the outrageous names of the characters, with the single best-known catchphrase of course being "Bond, James Bond"; but this could be due to space limitations in the publication). Characters each have a "Personnel Code"which keys to a big table at the back of the module with ability scores, skills, languages, contacts, secrets, and weapons.

The thing that mystified me is that the Personnel Codes have a prefix which is clearly non-random, but is not given any clear definition in the module itself. For example: there are characters A1 to A11; B1 to B6; C1-23, then C143, C144, C210, CC; D1-4; G1-7; L1 and R1; S1-21, followed by S72, S120, S0, and SS14; U01 to U15; W1 to W3 and WS1; X1 to X9; Y1 and Y2; HC, HD, HS0, NS0, WCS, Z1, and Z2. These NPCs are scattered throughout the setting, and don't not appear together in any recognizable way; for example, the Hotel includes characters C4, C5, C18, C143, C144, HS0, HC, HD, S2, S3, and NS0. I flipped through the book more than once trying to find an explanation for these seemingly-important prefixes.

Fortunately, I was able to get in touch with the creator, Merle Rasmussen, on Facebook, and he most graciously answered my question about it. He wrote:
Thanks for the question. I had to go find a 35 year old copy of OPERATION: SPRECHENHALTESTELLE. For A, B, and S, I cannot remember any underlying meaning to the Personnel Code Prefixes. CC refers to Cafe Cook which may have been added after the C codes were assigned. WCS refers to Homicidal Wino, but the underlying meaning escapes me. Although I cannot find UU, I am guessing the U stands for "Underground." B seems to stand for "Busboy, Barber, Beautician, and Butcher" G seems to stand for "Guard." Someone with more time may be able to figure out a pattern. Sorry to be so obtuse.
Of course, I don't that's obtuse at all, in fact very helpful (and quite beyond what some would do to  actually look up the reference in a work they published 35 years ago). This at least indicates that the prefixes are mostly job categories, and not necessarily, say, faction alliances or something like that.

And this does given us a Rosetta Stone to start decoding those Personnel Codes. Looking at the Hotel area, for example (area 1. in the adventure), the hotel staff seem to mostly have the "H" prefix, while others must be guests -- HS0 is the hotel switchboard operator, HC the hotel cook, HD the hotel dishwasher, NS0 the nighttime switchboard operator, C5 the front-desk clerk. In the outdoor Cafe (area 3) -- CC is the cafe cook, W1 and W2 are waitresses, while C7 and R1 are waiters, B1 a busboy, and WS1 a wine steward. On the other hand, there's a sniper on a rooftop with personnel code of B6 (definitely not a busboy). So there are some suggestive patterns, but it's not totally consistent.

Is there any other decryption that you can accomplish on the Sprechenhaltestelle Personnel Codes?

Edit: More here.

40 comments:

  1. @ Delta:

    I seem to remember seeing a key for these folks somewhere, but I'd really have to look through my books (7000 miles from my current location) to do so.

    Funny thing: as a youngster, I thought Sprechenhaltestelle was a little too small in scale to be an actual town (especially one where so much was going on). After visiting Europe several times, I'm now much more comfortable with its size as a "realistic" scale.

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    1. That was my expectation, but I really can't find it; I even searched the Dragon magazine archive with no luck. Separately, there is an indexed list of known "code phrases", which I think mangled my memory (and does not explain the personnel prefixes).

      One thing I glossed over is that the mapped-out part of the module is just one "district of town" where local police stay out unless something really extraordinary happens (which further justifies the limited extent).

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  2. I played Top secret back in the day. Our administrator was "Reg" and cut out face shots from GQ magazine to use as characters we would encounter. He never ever wrote anything down and pretty much winged every game we ever played. It was amazing and I remember we had a blast. You should check out "lady in distress", probably one of the best modules ever written.

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  3. "Green Grocers are senior to Insurance Salesmen"
    "Cool it, I'm an Ice Cream Salesman, I'm senior to both of you."
    "You're an Ice Cream Salesman? I thought you were a veterinarian."
    "I got promoted."

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A9ynJlsDvaM


    (Jump to 8:55)

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  4. I don't actually own this product, so I can't make any definite contributions, but a thought did occur to me. The codes with rather high numeric components - 144, 72, et al. - is it possible those are room numbers or addresses or something?

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    1. Good guess, but no; the highest-numbered area is #54 (and no "real" addresses are given).

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  5. I loved Top Secret back in the day, and when my parents wanted to try this "roleplaying thing" I spent so much time on, it was Sprechenhaltestelle that I ran them through. I had NO idea what I was doing, and, in hindsight, Top Secret is in many ways a terrible game (having a "skills list" essentially cribbed directly from a college course catalog was a peculiar choice). But it remains a favorite, and one that I hope to run again someday soon, albeit with my own extensive set of house rules.

    But to your original question, after MUCH searching, I pieced together some of the codes, or at least my theories about them:

    *I think "G" is "gangster" (areas 45, 51-54)
    *Is "C" often "civilian?"
    *Is "S" often "spy," given the equipment and activities listed?

    I dunno. This is going to keep me occupied.

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    1. Ooh, those are good hypotheses.

      "... having a "skills list" essentially cribbed directly from a college course catalog was a peculiar choice..." -- LOL!

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    2. And I also wonder about running it again to see if I could do any better with it as an adult. I wonder if Rasmussen still runs these rules, or some later variant?

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    3. I've played several games of RD with Merle at GayCon and North Texas RPGCon, and he runs the games using 1e TS.

      Allan.

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    4. That's great! I was kind of hoping that was the case; thanks for the info.

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  6. I wouldn't rule out typos or editing mistakes for some of them, but could the sniper on the roof be disguised as a busboy?

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    1. I don't know, he actually lives in a lean-to on the rooftop of a warehouse and I don't think he has any job or appearance elsewhere.

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    2. And it's probably not a typo, because his code does correctly synch with multiple indexed tables at the back of the book.

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  7. What an odd title. "Sprechenhaltestelle" has "sprechen" which means "to speak" and "Haltestelle" which means "stop" as in "bus stop" or "train stop" or whatnot. Does that have anything to do with the actual adventure?

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    1. I was looking at that, myself. Without owning the module, the only meaning I could think of would be "a place to stop and talk" - like a secret meeting spot.

      It's also very possible it's just a nonsense phrase; a made-up compound just to evoke East vs. West, the Berlin Wall, the Iron Curtain, etc.

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    2. In my memory, the module itself translates the phrase as "the speaking stopping place"--and it is indeed a place where spies of all stripes network with one another.

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    3. desmondwarzel recalls correctly. Here's the quote (listed as the first, true, entry in the rumor table):

      "The name of this district is Sprechenhaltestelle. Literally translated this means 'the speaking stopping place'. It refers to all the secret information that is exchanged here often by word-of-mouth only." (p. 7)

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  8. Replies
    1. {Had a hard time signing in?}

      Top Secret was the first RPG I bought and ran, with all the subtlety and intrigue a 13-year-old could muster. Mutliplayer gunfights galore! Someday, I hope to give this module the light touch that it wants.

      As for the NPC codes, they seem to cross locations and affiliations willy-nilly. There was a rather good thread on RPG.net last year that collected the networks together. http://forum.rpg.net/showthread.php?734257-Top-Secret-Module-001-Sprechenhaltestelle-Analyzed

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    2. Thanks! My problem with Sprechenhaltestelle has always been that it is a terrible, no-good, very-bad presentation of information. It requires intense study to figure out who knows what and who is connected to whom, when the author could have, you know, just told us in a succinct summary.

      Unfortunately, the analysis in this thread doesn't seem to correspond to the actual reality of the module. I've been trying to reconstruct the networks, and I've run into numerous places where the author imputes links that don't seem to exist. So I'm basically back to square one.

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    3. I looked at my copy of Top Secret (and some of its modules) this past year. The terrible presentation of information is a through-line throughout the game, not just this adventure area. There seems to have been a fascination at the time with using short codes instead of actual names for things -- witness the weapons table for example. I don't have it in front of me, but really the ONLY way that "P3" is superior to "Colt M1911A" or whatever is that it is slightly shorter and thus easier to fit in a table where space is at a premium. I wonder whether problems of typesetting in the pre-computer age weren't really behind a lot of "design" decisions made in that period. (Aftermath, from the early 80s, used similar weapon codes, I know.)

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    4. Given that no other games to my knowledge had this sort of compulsion to use short-hand, I suspect that it was just a quirk of Rasmussen's. But even that isn't the worst of it - for instance, I was going through the contacts list in Sprechenhaltestelle, and found that, for instance, a particular character is listed as having a two-way radio connection with some other character. In that character's entry, however... no two-way contact is listed. However, for other characters, a two-way contact is listed on both. Not only were the various networks not explicitly explained, the notation for who is connected to whom isn't even consistent!

      I'm working on a rectified contacts list, but it's an involved project.

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    5. > no other games to my knowledge had this sort of compulsion to use short-hand

      No, this was definitely a trend in the early 80s. In addition to Top Secret and Aftermath, the Avalon Hill wargame Firepower (1984) did pretty much the same thing. It's especially understandable when you look at the Firepower force lists for various scenarios -- each one is compressed down into a short paragraph through the aggressive use of equipment codes. For example:

      ALONG THE IRON CURTAIN (Germany, 1980s?)
      West German Jaeger Squad (-): 4/2; 1S, 1A; 1xLMG5, 1xMPL6, 5xRFL11; 7xBDA, 1xBNC, 13xHGN1, 1xRGN1, 1xRDO, 3xMPL6AMO
      East German Panzergrenadier Squad: 4/2; 1C, 1S, 1A: 2xLMG4, 1xMPL20, 1xPST4, 2xRFL1, 1xRLF19, 1xSMG11; 16xHGN3, 1xRDO, 3xMPL20AMO

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    6. I sort of expect it for wargames, though I didn't know about the use of codes in Aftermath. And besides, Top Secret's codes are particularly arbitrary.

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    7. Lee, thank you so much!! That's exactly the kind of work I was hoping someone had done so I wouldn't have to redo it myself. But I couldn't get an internet search to show it up.

      That said, I'll take Landon's word that there's some deficiencies (or made-up additions) there. If you can construct an updated contact list, boy, that would be great!

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  9. I'd love to adapt that vintage TSR Sprechen map to Portown/Saltmarsh/Restenford etc. I was going to mention that same rpg.net thread that Lee posted above.

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    1. I used the map & a little bit of the keys in a D&D coastal game once that was only two rogue PCs.

      I'm still a Twilight:2000 addict, and I have a hankering to slide the whole module, networks and all, into the Free City of Krakow and run a spy-like game in that setting.

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    2. I've been thinking the same thing; adapting it to an urban thief adventure that I seem perennially stuck on constructing. I really like the layout. Supposedly Rasmussen spent time sneaking/studying the tunnels at his college; I must say, Sprech. has the most realistic sewer system I've seen in an adventure.

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  10. Further reflections on Sprechenhaltestelle: I finally got frustrated at the "Personal Language Knowledge and Usage Chart," which includes the key to how the various characters are connected with one another, and created my own list (http://tinyurl.com/ot8evyq). Here's where I run into the fundamental problem with Sprechenhaltestelle. The list is useless, because it doesn't even come close to describing the ACTUAL relationships of the characters in the module.

    Here's an example. S120 is described by the chart as having a one-way, outgoing face-to-face contact with S12, who has a similar relationship with S13, who has a similar relationship with S14, who has a similar relationship with C210. Fair enough. Looking at the chart, it's easy to imagine how the network works: S120 knows where to find S12 (though the reverse is not true). He passes a message. S12 passes it to S13, who does not know where to find S12. S13 passes it to S14, who passes it finally to C210, no one link of the chain able to work backwards at all.

    Which is TOTALLY NOT how it is described in the module. S12-14 all LIVE at the flophouse operated by C210, so presumably they all know where to find each other, and the text (Street Level 29) indicates that S120 visits with C210 at night!! In other words, the contacts chart is not just badly organized, it's simply bad.

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    1. Thanks for that work! Really excellent observation. Obviously thousands of us have glossed over that table unable to see those problems.

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    2. My pleasure. I see from your most recent post that both of us have been a little consumed by this, albeit with different aspects of the mystery. ;) Maybe together, we'll finally solve the real puzzle of Sprechenhaltestelle! Hahahha.

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  11. Also, I should point out, my "Rectified" Contact List only "rectifies" all the times cross-contacts were left out. For instance, in numerous occasions, someone will have a two-way face to face contact with someone else, but it's only listed under one character, or the like. This contact list makes clear ALL connections indicated in the original.

    What it DOESN'T do is represent the relationships as they are described in the module text. The example I gave above about S12-S14 would require a whole different chain of connections than what the chart shows. I haven't done that. That's a whole OTHER project!

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    1. I was 22 years and 8 months old when TS was published. TSR wanted a module in the box. They sent me D&D Module G1: Steading of the Hill Giant Chief as an example. The rest is history!

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    2. Merle, thanks for that insight!! I bet that was a busy and exciting time.

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  12. Hey, Merle, I wasn't bagging on you, please believe me. I'd hate to think what my game notes looked like at 22 - or would look like if I didn't have the ease of electronic desktop publishing at my fingertips, either.

    Sprechenhaltestelle IS a mess, but it's a lovely mess, and we're still talking about it as we close out 2016, so you did something right, my good man, with both the adventure and the game. We wouldn't spend this much energy trying to figure it out if there wasn't something compelling about it.

    All the love allowed by my clearance level!

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  13. Merle, it also bears mentioning that one of the reasons I love Sprechenhaltestelle so much (and probably the reason most of the rest of us do, too) is that it does something that virtually no espionage adventure does - it provides a naturalistic, ongoing setting with several "embedded" adventures that can be adventitiously discovered by players. If it needs a little clean-up before its usable... well, nothing's perfect. But it is honestly the closest analogue to B2 in a modern-day game that I can think of. So, seriously, good work, man.

    Think anyone would go for a "cleaned-up" version, written with better information presentation and more up-front explanation of what's going on? Like for nostalgia, if nothing else? 'cause, frankly, I think Dan and I are halfway to writing one right now...

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