The GROGNARD Files

Table-top RPGs from back in the day and today.

Nick Edwards has previously given us a tour around his collection. In this piece he looks at some of the Time Travel games that are on his shelf. There’s more from the GROGSQUAD coming soon.

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The success of the rebooted Dr Who has seen a mini resurgence in roleplaying games based on time travel – Cubicle 7 do a range of rulebooks and supplements for its official Dr Who game and Pelgrane Press recently published Timewatch.

In the ‘golden age’ of rpgs (1974-1984, I say, arbitrarily) it wasn’t a popular genre – which is strange in a way because you’d think it was a handy way of throwing lots of diverse settings at the players. Perhaps that was the problem – too much variety, not enough anchoring. 

Anyway I have come across only three time-travel games – all very different: the original Dr Who RPG from FASA published in 1985; Time Lord from Doctor Who Books (Virgin) from 1991; and Timeship, published by the little known rpg company Yaquinto in 1983 (they also did the marginally more successful Man, Myth and Magic and a bunch of boardgames).

The first official Dr Who game, with Michael P Bledsoe as lead writer, comes boxed with three books (one for GMs, one for players and a sourcebook). I also have a standalone scenario, The Hartlewick Horror, set in the 1920s (the cover features an odd looking Tom Baker brandishing the universe’s biggest sonic screwdriver). A loose products page lists four other published scenarios and a small range of minatures. 

Although Colin Baker had just taken over from Peter Davidson by the time the game was published, it focuses firmly (in content and art) on the era of Tom Baker. Quite right too. (There may exist photographs of leather-clad companion Leela which the publishers did not use to illustrate the books but there must be very few…)

The game mechanics are fairly standard for the era (there are a lot of rules) although the interaction matrix you use for judging successful use of skills seems more complex than necessary. But there are some pretty nifty mechanics for creating planets and alien civilisations. You can play timelords but the game advises to start out as companions because they are simpler to play. The conceit is that they work for the Celestial Intervention Agency (the volume of middle initials involved in the various author credits is another giveaway that FASA is a US company). The sourcebook is quite interesting for fans of the TV show as it runs through the various races, organisations, planets from the series – including a timeline of the universe and Earth in terms of TV episode events.

All in all, the game is no disaster but just a little dull (something that could be said of FASA games generally). 

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Time Lord, by Ian Marsh and Peter Darvill-Evans, is unusual in being published in book format (cover art depicts a sinister looking Sylvester McCoy and a very camp cyberman) and is clearly aimed at people new to roleplaying. It starts with a 20-page snippet of a Dr Who story to give a flavour of the show for people who hadn’t seen it, which seems an odd decision (although to be fair the series had actually stopped by the time the game was published). There is then an intro to roleplaying (which mentions in passing that there was once a rpg based on The Beatles called Yellow Submarine!) and a very short solo adventure to spell out basic gaming concepts. The mechanics themselves are concise and neat, in less than 40 pages – it is pretty similar to Gumshoe in fact (which seems more in keeping with the series than the more combat-oriented FASA game). 

The bulk of the book covers details of possible PCs/NPCs and advice on running games – it ends with a substantial and interesting introductory scenario. Overall it’s really well-written and evokes the feel of the series much more successfully than the FASA product (how successful it was sales-wise I don’t know – the game doesn’t seem entirely ‘official’ despite BBC Books being involved).

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The final game, Timeship, is also completely different and has its own special bonkers charm. The concept is that the rulebook is a translation of an artifact written by a dying race from the future. It is therefore written in a cheerfully cheesy style as the authors (lead author is Herbie Brennan) pretend they are futurenauts – in the future people use a lot of exclamation marks and desktop publishing has degenerated. 

The box has one 48-page rulebook, a strangely thick set of character sheets (as per below, you basically play the same character every time), some maps and handouts for scenarios, and the two smallest d20 dice ever recorded in human history. 

Brennan strings out his playacting for all its worth. There is even a wonderful ‘ritual’ to start every game (the GM always facing east, lights being dimmed so losing any chance of seeing what the tiny dice rolls are, and so on) with the GM (a “Timelord”, copyright fans) and players reciting a litany. This involves all sorts of fantastic nonsense (Timelord: ‘Now begins the Great Ritual of the Timeship. Is it your will to travel through the time stream?” The voyagers: “It is!”) that is worth the price of the game alone. (Although it misses out the essential part of any game, Timelord: “And hail, the person who always misses the beginning of the game and blames the Northern Line even though we all use the tube and they should have left a bit earlier but everyone’s too polite to complain!”

The writing style is very funny, often unintentionally. There are repeated waspish comments to the effect that Timeship isn’t like one those ‘run-of-the-mill” RPGs (you know, the ones that people actually bought and played). The conceit is that players play themselves but as time-travellers (rules are mostly about equipment as characters are basically un-statted). The main effect seems to be that most PCs aren’t much good at anything and the GM is supposed to guess their chance of doing things and associate a 100% roll to it (if you have eyes like a hawk). The rules themselves cover only a few pages – you expend ‘personal energy’ by doing things and getting hurt and that’s about it. One further oddity is the occasional ‘wild talent’ superpower (Arc Dream’s Wild Talents superhero game presumably borrows the term for a common source – I don’t know enough about the genre to know what it is) created randomly by time travel. This has effect of further unbalancing the game (“so the party is three nerds who can’t climb without getting out of breath and a guy with telekinesis…”) 

The fun continues with the three scenarios, which are all odd in their own way. The first is set at the end of time and is a cod-Moorcock, fairytale-based murder mystery. The second is set in Gomorrah and ‘may be unsuitable for children’. Too right, officer, given the preponderance of naked slave auctions, threesomes, brothels and so forth involved. And we finish with the old favourite of assassinating Hitler in the bunker – a scenario where torturing information out of NPCs is an essential element. 

I had never heard of Timeship when I was a kid playing RPGS in the 80s. I only bought it again a few years ago for my collection based on its obscurity value – and I didn’t even have a good look at it until today.

But I’m glad I did – it’s a genuine oddity.

Nick Edwards

10 thoughts on “Now&Then: It’s about time … Time Travel RPGs

  1. Marc G says:

    Yes, same Ian Marsh (who was also White Dwarf assistant editor and then editor). Peter D-E was ex-GW too, and at the time head of the Dr Who books line at Virgin.

  2. Dale Houston says:

    Tom Baker might have been the only Doctor to American audiences at that time. We didn’t get the show until sometime around 1982 or ’83, starting with Tom Baker. I watched until probably the summer of 1983 when Leela left.

  3. oozlumgames says:

    As Marc G says, the Ian Marsh who wrote Time Lord is the same Ian Marsh who edited DragonLords and White Dwarf – i.e. me. 🙂 I was also editing Doctor Who novelizations at the time for Peter Darvill-Evans (Target Books, then Virgin Books)

    1. Nick Edwards says:

      I didn’t want to assume. Let me take the chance to thank you for Dragonlords in particular – what inspires you when you are a kid stays with you all your life.

      1. oozlumgames says:

        I’m always delighted when someone tells me that what Mark, Mike and I did with DragonLords had a positive effect on someone

  4. There is another time travel rpg called ‘Timemaster’, published by Pacesetter and also from the Golden Age. I never played it but I did use their horror rpg Chill a lot, which was very easy to play. Both were reviewed in White Dwarf at the time, and this website has a pretty good run down of the rules and modules: http://www.waynesbooks.com/timemaster.html

  5. Mark Hides says:

    Timemaster was one of the best and omitting it is a bit of a neophyte mistake. And what about Avalon Hill’s Lords Of Creation?

    It seems some folk have weak Grog-Fu

    🙂

    1. Nick Edwards says:

      I knew as soon as i wrote it, there would be others I had missed. To be fair, I didn’t care that much – anything which shines light on obscure games is good by me..

  6. Wayne Peters says:

    I agree with you on the FASA Dr Who. Far too crunchy and granular and preoccupied with combat. If I recall correctly it was pretty much the same rules as the Star Trek game, which itself was far too cumbersome for the license. It didn’t feel right for Dr Who at all.
    I only discovered Timelord via a fan site once it’d been put online for free and I much preferred it. A rules-light system that seemed to really get Dr Who as a concept. I haven’t looked at it for years but I seem to recall the only turnoff for me was that it seemed to rely heavily on that odd offset-squares battlegrid and had a peculiar movement system that made it feel a little too close to a boardgame for my tastes.
    I think Cubicle 7’s range has done a terrific job with the franchise. I grabbed the whole range from Humble Bundle a short while back but here’s the odd thing. I’ve no desire to run it or play it. The problem with a Dr Who game for me is simply that, whilst I’ve enjoyed watching the Doctor interact with that universe all my life, I’ve no desire to interact with it myself (in the way that I do Star Trek or Star Wars). I wouldn’t want to play the Doctor – I don’t think you should – but I equally feel that playing any other character (like a Celestial Intervention Agent) – is a bit, ‘bargain bin’. So I’ll leave Dr Who to the TV, I think.

  7. Nick Edwards says:

    For me it was the same problem as games like Indiana Jones – a game/genre based almost solely on one character just didnt seem compelling in a game which is about group play..

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