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d007: How the all-but-forgotten James Bond RPG changed roleplaying

Tomorrow Never Dice.

Perhaps it's wishful thinking that, were he real, James Bond could have stopped the wild ride that 2020 has been. Every day features a headline that feels like it could like it came out of one of his big action blockbusters, containing the potent mix of doomsday potent and ridiculous on-the-nose circumstances that can only be appreciated after a shaken, not stirred martini or two. With Bond’s next adventure, No Time To Die, delayed until next spring (or perhaps longer) due to the coronavirus, most fans will have to take solace in his previous adventures. But a lucky few can not only be Bond, but see how he changed the way game designers thought of creating RPGs.

James Bond 007: Role Playing In Her Majesty’s Secret Service was published by Victory Games from 1983 to 1987. The designers produced 16 supplements and two versions of the original core game. The majority of the add-ons were adventures based on various Bond movies that had been released, either directly or as thinly-linked sequels. While the game is no longer available, its influence can still be felt today in several ways.

In the 1980s, roleplaying game designers were starting to push against the design conventions established a decade earlier by Dungeons & Dragons. James Bond 007 was one of the first high-profile titles to challenge some of these ideas. The RPG sought to make players feel like they were in a Bond movie and able to pull off the same stunts he could. While many games in this era sought simulation, this game sought emulation.

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Released in the early 1980s, the James Bond RPG introduced a number of novel ideas to the relatively nascent genre popularised by the likes of Dungeons & Dragons.

The game also has an interesting angle on the challenges of licensed properties. Its adventures draw from films spanning different Bonds. The Bond portrayed in the books’ artwork is made to look unlike Sean Connery, Roger Moore or George Lazenby. This could be to keep a consistent appearance throughout the series or it could be that the license didn’t include likenesses for the villains or other characters in the adventures. The game also did not include SPECTRE, creating TAROT as an alternative way to deal with the ongoing legal battle over the evil terrorist organisation.

The RPG sought to make players feel like they were in a Bond movie and able to pull off the same stunts he could.

Each film-based adventure has a pivotal scene that’s changed from the movie to keep things fresh. In Goldfinger, his attack takes place on a diamond mine instead of an attack on Fort Knox. The villainous intent to drive up the price of gold is still the same. It’s a curious way to thread the needle between the fans who have seen these movies dozens of times and know these plots by heart and a licence-holder who is loath to create new content that might later cause confusion with fans of the film series.

The heart of the RPG is a percentile system. Players have scores in specific skills that secret agents would have, such as sneaking or gun combat. The GM determines the ‘ease factor’, which goes up if the roll should be easier and down if the roll is harder. This is the number the player multiplies their skill by and seeks to beat on their percentile roll. (For gamers who might have a heart attack with the idea they might have to do some spot multiplication, the character sheet has a space to write down all these possible scores.)

Rolls beyond 100 matter as well, because the further away from the target number the roll is, the more degrees of success the player has. Those degrees of success can mean the difference between dropping an enemy agent with a headshot and winging them but leaving them alive to get help. Degrees of success these days are common, but James Bond 007 still stands out because it had four, rather than the most common success/critical success state most modern games have. It was used to streamline combat into an early wound level system, but the adventures also suggested using the success levels as having narrative weight, such as searching a room before guards arrived yielding more clues.

One of the most satisfying applications of these rules are the chase rules. Participants in a chase try to outbid each other on the stunts they pull to either catch up or win a chase by lowering the ease factor number. When someone wins the bidding, everybody rolls based on the lowest ease factor and the chase segment is determined by the quality of successes rolled on those numbers. It’s an elegant solution to vehicle chases and combat that doesn’t require worrying about speed, and encourages chases that feel like the films - where Bond either has a risky manoeuvre or just the right gadget to one-up the baddies on the streets of Cairo.

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A number of sourcebooks were released for the RPG based on the Bond films of the era, with new scenes and changes to the original stories to surprise players.

The Bond RPG was also one of the first games to implement a meta currency. Hero Points could be spent to upgrade a player character’s level of success and, in some cases, flip a failure into a favourable result. These points were one of the easiest ways to feel like a superspy because they meant that you could succeed when it mattered most. Not every time - but even if a player was battered and bruised by the rest of the adventure, they could still hang onto a point to make sure to get to the bomb in Fort Knox on time.

Tabletop RPGs were often massive affairs at the time, but this game was built for small groups of two to four players.

James Bond 007 is currently available only in the secondary market and on auction websites. That highlights one of its most interesting innovations; a low player count. Tabletop RPGs were often massive affairs at the time, with up to ten people to a table that ran through a dungeon together. This game was built for small groups of two to four players, including the game master. Bond is a solo operative, so it makes sense his game would play that way or with small groups of less powerful agents working together. Solo rules have come full circle in tabletop today, but anyone looking for a great one-on-one roleplaying experience will find it here.

The resurgence in the popularity of RPGs means that there are probably some companies looking at bringing James Bond back to the tabletop. Until that day comes, James Bond 007 is a modern classic worth seeking out, since you’ll have plenty of time to (roll) die.

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