Are We Not Doing “Cloning” Any More?

The retro-clone craze seems to have died down a little recently, which most new OSR games emerging focusing more on providing a novel twist or different focus to the games they emulate rather than providing a more loyal transcription. This is probably at least in part due to most editions of D&D now having a decent corresponding retro-clone, since games with an SRD as expansive as the D&D 3E one are ripe for cloning due to the extensive safe harbour the OGL offers for borrowing text. Whilst game mechanics in the abstract aren’t protected by intellectual property laws, having to rewrite stuff to the extent necessary to avoid a copyright infringement lawsuit is the main barrier to cloning a game which wasn’t released under the OGL. Still, that hasn’t stopped people trying.

The James Bond 007 RPG by Victory Games was a classic of its time, and is believed to be one of the first RPGs (possibly the first) with a hero points mechanic. Unfortunately, it was a licensed RPG, and just like Ghostbusters (the other major 1980s licensed RPG which showcases a bunch of game design innovations) once the licence inevitably died it was shunted out of print.

Classified is Expeditious Retreat’s attempt to do the gaming scene a favour by retro-cloning the James Bond 007 system. It has a distinctly no-frills presentation; whilst it isn’t devoid of examples or detailed explanations, they aren’t exactly thick on the ground either, and the layout is rudimentary but functional. (It isn’t quite “straight into MS Word in Times New Roman, single column, clip art images added here and there as appropriate”, but it’s getting there.) That said, they do make sure important rules which intersect with other rules are repeated where said other rules come up and generally have a good understanding of the fact that reduncancy is not necessarily a bad thing in designing a rulebook if it is done in a way which helps participants find material quickly.

In terms of the game system itself, James Bond is one of those 1980s games which are fond of using cross-reference tables as a means of action resolution; you take your base chance of success as defined by your skills and abilities, you multiply it by a difficulty factor, and you get a number for the percentile roll needed to get a basic success. A second table allows you to cross reference that number with the range of numbers for which you get different degrees of success. It’s the sort of thing where I reckon once all the participants got used to the tables they would be able to use them extremely quickly, but there may be a bit of a learning curve and they are kind of intimidating.

Fortunately, this is about as complex as the game gets, and there’s plenty to recommend it. Character generation has a nice quirk where the more distinctive features your character has the higher their Reputation score is – which is a liability, because obviously in the world of espionage anonymity is a vitally important tool. This leads to such Bondian quirks as it being actually cheaper to be game mechanically attractive than it is to be average-looking. (I was glad to see that attractiveness does not mechanically require you to exist within a particular range of heights and weights, at that.)

Other Bond artifacts in the system include rules for seduction and gambling alongside more generic spy activities. That said, one of the ways that Classified turns its inability to touch Bond IP into an advantage is the way that it dials back on some of the more dated social attitudes of the franchise. Participants in the game are specifically encouraged to work out their group’s comfort level when it comes to such matters and stick to it, and so far as I can make out there is no game mechanical distinction between gay and straight characters. The artwork is also a bit more diversity-friendly than the Bond franchise has been in the past, and there’s a decent mix of characters in sensible clothes and Ursula Andress-emerging-from-the-sea-in-Dr. No getups.

Perhaps the most welcome change Expeditious Retreat have made is offering various levels of assumed starting character competence and a sliding scale of realistic-vs-cinematic gameplay. The first is simply achieved by varying the number of character building points on offer; the latter is more cleverly realised by tweaking the activities which allow you to earn hero points, neatly changing the tone of the game without resorting to extensive redesign simply by modifying the hero point economy.

The last thing Expeditious Retreat offers up is OSIRIS, a villainous organisation out to bring the world to its knees in classic SPECTRE style. (This is following precedent; Victory Games had to make up their own villain organisation for the RPG due to getting the licence during one of those periods when the rights to SPECTRE were unsettled.) The fact that OSIRIS is named after an Egyptian God immediately makes me want to see ISIS – the spy agency from Archer, not Da’esh – go up against them, and come to think of it Classified would work extremely well as an Archer RPG.

Expeditious Retreat seem to have recognised the potential of the system for handling any sort of modern-day adventures that don’t need to include any especially detailed supernatural components; just as Archer in recent seasons has dipped into other genres, so too does Classified suggest that its system could also be used for crime capers, detective stuff, special forces missions or other such things. Whilst I think the Reputation mechanic may need a look for some of those ideas (unless you are actually undercover being recognised as a cop isn’t quite the problem it would be if you were recognised as a spy or criminal), I think there’s a lot to that, and I’d certainly put Classified among the usual suspects if I were considering running such a game.

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