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.
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).
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).
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.