There are usually two components to any great tabletop RPG. You have a system comprising all the rules you’ll need to run the game --and you have a setting, a description of the world you and your players will explore.
In the case of Imaginarium Game’s ‘The Secret Files of Section D’, the system is handled almost entirely by Pinnacle’s Savage Worlds ruleset – a modular one size fits all ruleset reminiscent of old-school, fan-favourite GURPS. Whilst Section D offers a few rule tweaks specific to the game world, for the most part, the 242-page hardcover book provides all the material you need to run a thrilling campaign set in the world of 1930s pulp-fantasy espionage.
Which is, what, exactly?
An expedition into an ancient ruin where Nazis scheme to uncover artefacts of malevolent power. A desperate escape from an alien ship armed only with your wits and a few precious gadgets. A trek across the windswept plains of Tibet in search of the mysterious Yeti. An amalgamation of James Bond, Indiana Jones, and X files, then?
Ok, well, that’s new.
Setting The Scene
And yet it all feels kind of familiar.
When people cast their minds back to the early days of roleplaying games, one game dominates the zeitgeists; Dungeons & Dragons was first, and its popularity has never waned. But whilst the earliest mentions of the roleplaying hobby focus around TSR’s fledgling homebrew gaming circle, the 1980s saw an explosion of content from all four corners of the earth. Suddenly, games were everywhere. Some games latched on to licences from film, literature or comic books: Call of Cthulhu creators Chaosium took cues from HP Lovecraft and Thomas Mallory. Mayfair Games snapped up the DC Comics licence. Games Workshop dabbled in everything from Judge Dredd to Golden Heroes, whilst Palladium Books did its own thing and released a dizzying number of games at breakneck speed.
There was a sense of eclecticism. Gamers thought about whom they wanted to play, relegating the details of how they might facilitate that wish to secondary importance. A dashing knight in King Arthur’s court, the captain of a Federation starship, a Samurai warrior in medieval Japan? If you could think of a genre, the chances were somebody, somewhere, had cobbled together a ruleset, players guide, and GM screen to help get your campaign off the ground. It is hardly surprising that the aforementioned and Indiana Jones both had roleplaying games of their own back in the day.
There were preferred systems, of course, and many publishers used the same mechanics over multiple games, but the lure of the carefully curated worlds drew people’s attention.
The industry contracted, coalescing around a few legacy titles and leftfield sleeper hits; the age of the indie developer looked like it might be over. During the 1990s, the industry barely grew, and by the time the 21st century arrived, pundits were all but predicting the death of the genre.
Then the Renaissance hit.
Although it’s hard to say precisely when the renewed interest in tabletop RPGs began, the mid-2000s brought the concept of ‘geek chic’. The internet normalised (and then capitalised) on the phenomenon; the age of Marvel, Comicon, and Stranger Things-inspired all-nighters had begun.
Savage Worlds rode this tide with the best of them, releasing their first generic rules system in 2003, and quickly moved to licence the rules for multiple settings. Players could battle the ever-perfidious Ming the Merciless, fly through the skies at the helm of a manga-inspired Veritech or navigate the pitfalls and mysteries of the Weird West in Deadlands. The possibilities felt endless.
It was tempting to think they had all bases covered.
In the Secret files of Section D, players take on the role of spies working for the Secret Intelligence Service (today known colloquially as MI6) or, more specifically, a subsection of that organisation known as – you guessed it, Section D. As far as civil servants and a few select public officials know, Section D’s job is to gather intelligence on – and confront—threats to the British Empire.
It’s a nice cover story.
The pulp fantasy world of Section D is set against the backdrop of a world on the brink of war, but one that is one step removed from its historical base. Magic is real; pseudoscience is real. Section D’s most secret files contain credible evidence of alien visitations. Agents in the field have encountered sasquatch, toyed with technology from Atlantis, thwarted the evil machinations of sinister organisations, and destroyed relics capable of Biblical destruction. Over in Germany, Hitler’s insane henchman, Heinrich Himmler, scours the world for mystical artefacts. The Soviets comb the forest of Tunguska, seeking advanced technology from a crashed alien mothership. The Italians are in Africa looking for an edge in a war that everyone knows is coming, whilst the Japanese seek to harness the power of ancient Chinese magic in the occupied province of Manchuria.
And one small section of an already overstretched British Intelligence Service is all that stands in its way.
Boffins & Baddies
After opening with an overview of the pulp-fantasy world of 1936, Imaginarium switches gear to game mechanics. Character creation comes with an overview of some of the setting-specific rules you’ll need to incorporate and offers several archetypes to choose from. These archetypes – which include Boffins, Femme Fatales, Saboteurs, and tomb raiders – help further set the tone of the game.
An equipment section follows --roughly subdivided into two sections – the first of which details all the everyday items you might find in the late 1930s. Indeed, it offers a surprising level of detail; vehicles and weapons common to the era rub shoulders with charts letting you know how much money an agent might need to spend to replace a suit or rent a hotel room for the night.
The second section focuses on the Quartermaster Division popularised as ‘Q’ in the James Bond movie franchise. Whilst many of the inventions presented are historically accurate, super science gadgets are also available for use in the campaign. Caveats ensue; the use of the term ‘super’ is relative. In the world of the 1930s, a two way-radio small enough to fit inside a helmet is in no way as pedestrian as it sounds. How far you want to stretch this concept of super science is up to you; during playtesting, a ‘Stealth’ Zeppelin that ran silently thanks to appropriated U-boat technology was sufficiently advanced to lead players on a globetrotting adventure to secure (or destroy) the technology.
With character creation and equipment taken care of, the book launches into a deep dive into the world of 1938, divided into two sections. The first section provides players with some historical background on key world powers neatly subdivided by country and continent. What follows is a GM eyes-only overview of what’s really going on. The level of detail here is impressive. Country profiles include information on multiple agencies allowing GMs to distinguish between the Abwehr (the real-world intelligence arm of the Wehrmacht) and the GFG -- a fictional super science agency headed by a suitably melodramatic evil genius. Advice and rules on how to create your own master criminal/spy/genius are most welcome, giving GMs control over everything from memorable idiosyncrasies to the creation of their secret lair.
The need to differentiate between historical truth and reality comes into play later in the book via a section on campaign styles. There are three to choose from: Pulp, Espionage and Military, all of which offer unique playstyles designed to meet the demands of those players looking for something a little different. Blending is possible, but irrespective of your chosen campaign style, each comes complete with its own missions, enemies, plot seeds and rules suited to the genre in question.
The book concludes with a bestiary of bad guys, hairy-beasties and bug-eyed aliens to challenge and confound players alongside more mundane information such as the ranks and insignias of military units from around the globe, alien tech and sinister organisations.
It all adds up to a deliciously unique, rich setting that forms a fantastic base to build a tasty campaign. Imaginarium’s decision to offer multiple play styles seems to have paid off. Like a DJ fiddling with the EQ settings on his deck, the GM can tweak the world to maximise player engagement. A little more Bond here, a little less Jones there and a between-game note to ask a certain player to stop channelling Dana Scully quite so egregiously.
Negatives Are Few & Far Between
The book lacks a starting adventure; one can be found online via the (free to download) taster edition though it lacks the polish of the finished product. Comprising of three main sections, the narrative is not particularly easy to follow, and the prose is a little heavy on the schmaltz (an evil god called Muahaha, and an Italian Stunt pilot called Barellirolli? Thanks, but no thanks), but is great fun regardless.
The artwork throughout the main book is competent, and, at times, it really shines, but the book does suffer from that ‘Kickstarter’ ‘needs to get this one out of the door’ feel from time to time.
But none of this detracts from the sheer amount of fun found within its pages. The world is unique, the rule set tried and tested, and after playtesting, the consensus around the table was unanimous.
They wanted more.
The Secret Files of Section D offers a masterclass in presenting gamemasters with all the agency they could ever ask for. World-building feels both authentic and absurd; navigating a path between those absolutes feels like it should be problematic, and yet, somehow, Imaginarium managed to make it feel deeply intuitive. When paired with the streamlined nature of the Savage Worlds system, Section D offers more than just a break from the usual RPG fantasy tropes.
It might just wind up becoming your go-to Friday night regular.