Of Dice and Men: The Story of the James Bond OO7 Role-Playing Game
The fate of secret agent James Bond tumbled into the hands of thousands of game fans in 1983 with the release of the “James Bond 007 Role-Playing Game.” Victory Games, a subsidiary of the wargame company Avalon Hill, brought Bond and M.I.6 into living rooms and onto kitchen tables nationwide with what would eventually become one of the most successful releases in its history.
For the uninitiated, role-playing is essentially a game of “Let’s Pretend” with rules. Players step into an alter-ego defined on paper by various statistics denoting the character’s strength, dexterity, intelligence, etc. All the action takes place in the minds of the players, with dice being used to resolve any actions and conflicts. One person presides over the game as a referee, and guides the players through play sessions, or “adventures.”
Role-playing games were some of the hottest items on the market during the early eighties. Dungeons and Dragons – easily the most popular role-playing game of all time – had been formally released several years earlier and the newly-formed Victory Games elected to pursue a role-playing title as their first official release. It was obvious that a game based on a recognizable character stood the best chance of surviving in the then-turbulent marketplace.
“Our marketing director felt strongly that it should be a licensed product,” game designer Chris Klug said, “We investigated several licenses and the Bond people were the most receptive.” Design work began in the summer of 1982, as it was absolutely critical for the game to be released in time for the 1983 Christmas season.
Thousands of faithful Bond fans dictated a need to deliver a product that was true to thirty years of character development. Consequently, Klug called in fellow designer and “Bond Savant” Bob Kern. “They kind of called me in as a consultant,” Kern remembers, “I had seen all the films, read all the books – I had literally grown up with it. My function was to adapt the world of James Bond to a role-playing system, expand on it where necessary and make sure that the flavor stayed true to the character.”
But which character? The literary Bond and the cinematic Bond are quite different, and the question of which conception the game would emulate was critical. Klug and Kern didn’t want to alienate fans of the books or fans of the films, so the game mechanics had to strike a balance somewhere in between. Kern explains, “We wanted to capture the grittiness of the books and the glitz of the films.”
“It’s a real design issue,” Klug said, “Trying to design a system that would allow you to simulate the Baccarat game from ‘Casino Royale’ and at the same time do that sort of weird combat stuff that happens. It was hard trying to take the best of the fantastical stuff, without taking the worst of it.”
“We had a problem where the books portrayed one kind of world, and the films portrayed another, and we tried to straddle the two so that you could do either style. But there’s no question that when I was designing the original game, it was the books I was trying to emulate. I would read the books, and come upon an incident and it would strike me that this moment had to be in the game. I would attempt to design the system to handle that moment, and when I was confident that the system could handle it, I would continue to read.”
Working with the companies that owned the rights to the James Bond franchise was the next great challenge. Ultimately the game was licensed through two entities: Danjaq S.A./EON Productions (which holds the film rights), and Glidrose Publishing (which holds the literary rights). Approvals, which were sometimes excruciatingly long, had to be obtained from both companies before any work could proceed.
“We knew they were going to be a demanding group,” Kern said, “They looked at everything we wrote, they looked at our outlines, they checked and double-checked everything. But for the most part, their suggestions were very helpful.”
Inevitably there were times when their lack of experience with role-playing proved to be an obstacle. Both Klug and Kern remembered an incident involving the adventure for the film Goldfinger. Following an explanation of how the adventure supplement would be organized, a representative from EON inquired “So, why does the adventure have to be any different from the movie?” He just didn’t understand that the players would then simply go to Fort Knox and wait for Goldfinger.
In fact, creating adventures for fans who had already seen the films proved to be something of a challenge as well. Eventually, nine films were translated into adventure supplements, including Dr. No, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, For Your Eyes Only, and A View to a Kill. Two original adventures were also written as sequels to films: “Goldfinger II: The Man with the Midas Touch” and “You Only Live Twice II: Back of Beyond.” The latter was written by current Bond author Raymond Benson, and has many parallels to his first novel, “Zero Minus Ten.”
The designers tried to “shuffle the deck” and rearrange the elements of the film so that the characters couldn’t depend on any prior knowledge to guide them. “But if the plot was so linked and linear that we couldn’t do that,” Klug said, “then we needed to change things. And thus if we changed three of four things at the beginning, we might be able to keep the rest of it very similar, but the player is still doubting that this is the case because we already changed something.”
The design issues eventually resolved themselves, and the resulting game captures the flavor of James Bond remarkably well. Included in the 160-page basic rulebook are rules common to most role-playing games – fire combat, hand-to-hand combat, experience points, etc. Amid these, however, one also finds numerous devices that would look out of place in any other game but are right at home in the context of 007. Players can employ rules covering gambling (six pages with different rules for each game), chases in vehicles or on foot, the effects of fame on how easily one is recognized, and a section on seduction complete with five stages of increasing difficulty: The Look, Opening Line, Witty Conversation, Beginning Intimacies, and When and Where?
Reference resources include statistics and background information for Bond’s allies – Anya Amasova, Kerim Bey, Mary Goodnight, and Quarrel among others – and his enemies, which include such famous figures as Sir Hugo Drax, Jaws, Red Grant, and Odd Job. Conspicuous by his absence is perhaps the most famous of villains, Ernst Stavro Blofeld. The rights to Blofeld and SPECTRE having been challenged by Thunderball producer Kevin McClory, they have been neatly replaced by the criminal organization TAROT (Technological Ascension, Revenge, and Organized Terrorism) and its leader Karl Ferenc Skorpios.
Not to be without sufficient weaponry or transportation, statistics and rules are included for numerous firearms and vehicles including Bond’s trusty Walther PPK, the Lotus Esprit, and his beloved Aston Martin DB5 (which appears to have been souped up a bit for its appearance in this game, as it’s remarkably easy to run roughshod over your enemies with the car no matter what they’re driving).
Presentation for the game and the subsequent supplements is exceptionally high. Artwork is abundant, both black-and-white pencil images and full-color covers for the different books and adventures. (In fact, you could buy several adventures for the cover art alone and be quite satisfied.) Supplements such as “Thrilling Locations” and the “Q Manual” also have photographs of different real-life locations and vehicles being being described, as well as a few stills from the various films.
Background information and details are provided for everything from a lowly Honda Accord which may change lanes in front of Bond during a chase (“the Accord is powered by 1751c, 75 bhp engine…” Q Manual, page 54), to multi-level criminal organizations and the officers and personalities with them “(“The Prosinski family has been in the shipping and iron industries for three generations…” Villains, page 58). Some details are so obscure as to seem extraneous, but the level of detail is still to be admired.
After more than a year of design and testing, “James Bond 007: Role-Playing in Her Majesty’s Secret Service” debuted on schedule at several gaming conventions in the summer of 1983, including GENCON and Origins. Commercial release quickly followed and the basic set hit hobby store shelves in September of that year.
The game was a success from the start. While the role-playing market as a whole was quite competitive, espionage games were just being pioneered in 1983. TSR’s “Top Secret” was perceived as the only serious competition. The appeal of the world’s most famous secret agent tilted the playing field markedly, however. “We outsold Top Secret a lot frankly because of the license,” Klug admitted.
Numerous awards followed the game’s release. The basic rules won the prestigious H.G. Wells Award for Best Role-Playing Rules of 1983, and the adventure “Live and Let Die” won a second H.G. Wells Award the next year. “Goldfinger” and “You Only Live Twice” were likewise nominated (“They kind of split the vote,” Klug said.) Dragon Magazine awarded the game the Strategist’s Club Award for Outstanding Role-Playing Game of 1984. Additionally it was one of four role-playing games named to the Games Magazine Top 100 list for 1984, and again in 1985.
Critical acclaim continues to this day. Lawrence Schick, author of “Heroic Worlds: A History and Guide to Role-Playing Games” said James Bond 007 “was an immediate hit. [It had] a smooth, fast-playing style and was well-supported by scenarios for one, two, or three players.” Schick named it Top Espionage Role-Playing Game.
In the years after its release, the game sold almost 100,000 copies and spawned several additional adventures and supplements. Required materials for any hard-core fan included the exotic casino, hotel and restaurant descriptions of “Thrilling Locations”; the 32-page description of SMERSH included in the “Villains” supplement; and the weapon, vehicle, and gadget lists of the “Q Manual” (because what secret agent could ever do without a “Seismic Intrusion Detector”?).
Nevertheless, the credits would begin to roll in 1987, four short years after the game debuted. Despite financial success, critical acclaim, and a broad fan base, Danjaq and Avalon Hill failed to come to terms in negotiations to renew the license. As a result, the project was terminated, and no new supplements were authorized. Avalon Hill retained the right to sell its remaining inventory.
“We were in the middle of coming up with an adventure for Diamonds are Forever and I was excited about that at the time,” Kern said, “but the plug got pulled right in the middle of it…if the contract had been renewed, I’d still be working for the company.”
The actual details of why the contract ended are still up for debate. The designers believe that Danjaq wanted to re-negotiate the contract for a larger royalty share. Danjaq, however, disagrees. According to John Parkinson, Vice-President of Marketing, “it was really they (Avalon) who decided it would finish, not us. We didn’t particularly want it to finish, were we very pleased with it. It was one of our most successful licenses.”
Would Danjaq consider re-licensing the game and allowing future products to be released? “If they thought there was a market out there, I wouldn’t be averse to continuing [the license],” Parkinson said.
Avalon Hill President Jack Dott seems to agree. He stated that Avalon Hill would certainly consider bringing the game back “if the opportunity presented itself.” Indeed, Avalon has just recently re-packaged its remaining inventory of the game and has bundled the basic rules with several adventures. The set sells for just under $30.
One would think that with the success of GoldenEye and the re-appearance of James Bond in the theaters, the stage would be nicely set for an encore presentation of the game. Kern seems to think so anyway: “This would probably be a great time to renew the game…the Dalton films wouldn’t have been too exciting role-playing-wise, whereas GoldenEye had a kind of glitter about it.”
- Paul Landry lives somewhere in the Upper Midwest, where he hides from SPECTRE and diligently guards James Bond’s missing hat.
- Deane Barker is a co-editor of MKKBB