Sunday, October 19, 2014

There Are No More Barriers!

So reads the first line on the back of the Timeship box – in a type larger than any other save for the title of the game.  “You are free to roam the ages,” reads the copy...
Journey from the days of the dinosaurs, to the mystics of the ancient world, to the glory of Napoleon.  If the past is not enough, adventure in the present with its political intrigue, and brushfire wars; or, for those more adventurous souls, you may transcend the present and visit the future where man's home is the universe, populated with all manner of strange and alien beings.
The Timeship makes all of this possible, but what is the Timeship?

The Timeship rule book has 48 pages, including covers.  Author Herbie Brennan uses fully three of those pages to disclose the 'background' of the Timeship.  Seeing as that the adventures (or 'time capsules') encompass half of the book, those three pages represent a significant amount of space that could have been used for rules or advice.  Instead, Brennan constructs a conceit that the Timeship is a method of time travel derived from earlier sources – much earlier.  (Note that in the book, 'Time Travel' is capitalized and TIMESHIP is spelled thus, with all capitals.)  Brennan presents himself as a translator of ancient scrolls (originating “somewhere between 5,800 and 5,600 b.c.” according to carbon dating) that are at “the centre of one of the greatest archaeological controversies of the present century.”  Written in “a particularly archaic form of Sumerian cuneiform,” Brennan supposes that the scrolls were copied from Sumerian tablets which may have been “as much as 40,000 years old.”

“There can be very little doubt,” Brennan states, “that the content of the TIMESHIP scroll manuscript points toward an extra-terrestrial origin.”  Brennan imagines that the alieTimeship culture launched an object into space with the intent of preserving the Timeship technique they developed.  This object eventually found its way to Ancient Sumer.  Brennan writes...
How the Sumerians came to understand these techniques, I do not know.  Perhaps some form of mechanical telepathy was involved.
So, the Timeship is not a physical object, it is a set of 'techniques'.  Presumably, the Sumerians chose to refer to these techniques as 'Timeship'.

Brennan does not claim that his 'translation' is entirely accurate.  Indeed, he takes care to mention that the scrolls are damaged and incomplete, the archaic nature of the script precludes definite interpretation, and the alien Timeship culture would likely have psyches different from humans.  Brennan provides a “practical approximation” and includes “certain additional material” resulting from experimentation.  Ultimately, he concedes that the Timeship techniques may not result in actual time travel (at least with regard to human perception) but nonetheless result in “an experience which many find fascinating, educational, virtually addictive and quite unique.”

Brennan sustains the conceit to the point of claiming that the presentation of the Timeship as a game is intentional.
Our experiments have shown that the best possible approach to the TIMESHIP is within a game context.  Such an approach avoids the initial tensions of other routes and establishes a frame of mind in which the central techniques have the greatest opportunity of operating effectively.
As discussed previously, engaging the Timeship necessitates a ritual.  Of course, a game – any game – is a ritual of a sort; some are more formal than others.

*** *** ***

Product placement in role-playing games?  The image to the left is one of the borders used on the front and back of the Timeship game box as well as the cover of the rule book (although not in color).  It demonstrates a progression from the ancient to the futuristic, indicating the variety of settings available in the game.  Our present, materialistic culture is represented by four readily recognized trademarks.  Kodak seems out of place among consumable products, but it fits within the theme of the entire border image which includes other information preservation artifacts such as cave paintings and hieroglyphics.

Rather than trademarks, I would have used an automobile, a television, a mushroom cloud, and a lunar lander.  I think my choices better represent our era (as of 1983) in terms of historical significance, but perhaps that wasn't the point.  Perhaps the point was to engage the audience.  Sure, a mushroom cloud and a lunar lander are symbolic, but they are not part of our daily lives.  The trademarks are emblems of our media-saturated civilization; they are embedded in our consciousness.  The viewer identifies them as his 'reality' – a single portion of the panoply of history.  Other times are no less real, merely apart.  However, with the Timeship, there are no more barriers – all times are 'real' and accessible.

Alternatively, I may have thought too much about this.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Great Ritual of the Timeship

In a room illuminated only be candlelight, four youths sat around a modest, square altar.  In a voice of grim determination, one of them spoke...

“I am the Maze Controller; the god of this universe I created; the absolute authority. Only I know the perilous course you are about to take. Your fate is in my hands...[setting description]...Thus warned, shall ye enter?”


“Let the journey begin...”
This is a scene from the TV movie Mazes & Monsters, broadcast near the end of 1982.  (Interestingly, this scene does not appear in Rona Jaffe's book upon which the movie is based.)

When I first played D&D, it was in the lunch room of my elementary school.  The only associated ritual was the Liturgy of the Pudding Cups.  (Admittedly, we performed the ritual with less than pious solemnity and, occasionally, ignored it altogether.)  The way role-playing games were presented in the media was embarrassing, but I was young.  For all I knew, some people actually played the game in candlelit rooms, reciting strange phrases, wearing robes and/or funny hats, and perhaps even roaming through tunnels.  No one I knew played that way and the adults who worked at the game store scoffed at the notion.  Still, there had to be some basis in truth, right?  Like I said, I was young.

While some role-playing game rulebooks provide mood-setting advice for sessions, Timeship – published the year after Mazes & Monsters was broadcast – actually incorporates a non-optional ritual as a component of play.  Among the preparations for the Great Ritual of the Timeship, lights should be dimmed and a lit candle placed on the players' side of the Timelord's screen.

Scenarios in Timeship are called Time Capsules.  Players (i.e., Voyagers) enter a Time Capsule via a Gateway.  Each Time Capsule has a drawing (approximately 8½” × 11”) that represents the Gateway and displays the scene in which the Voyagers will appear.

After the preparations are complete, the Timelord and the Voyagers engage in the following litany.

Timelord: Now begins the Great Ritual of the Timeship. Is it your will to travel through the timestream?

Voyagers: It is!

Timelord: Are your preparations made to your utmost satisfaction?

Voyagers: They are!

Timelord: Is your equipment ready?

Voyagers: It is.

Timelord: Are your souls at peace?

Voyagers: They are.

Timelord: Are you ready?

Voyagers: Aye!

Timelord: By my authority as Timelord, by the arts of the TIMESHIP, I hereby bind you within the timestream, subject to its laws!

Voyagers: We are so bound.

Timelord: Behold the Gateway!

The Voyagers now stare intently for a moment at the Gateway, then, closing their eyes briefly, attempt to imagine the scene depicted on the Gateway as if it existed before them in literal reality.

Timelord: Let the adventure begin!

Here ends the Great Ritual of the Timeship.

Timelord: Step through the Gateway!

Herbie Brennan, the author of Timeship, stated that he based the Great Ritual of the Timeship on “an esoteric technique known as pathworking.”  Is such a ritual necessary to play Timeship?  Technically, no; however, Brennan devotes one of the forty-eight pages of the rulebook to describing the ritual.  For Brennan, the ritual is an essential part of the game; it effects the transition from the reality of the players to the experience of the Voyagers.  Since the players are the Voyagers, this transition is perhaps more useful in Timeship than it would be in games where players adopt the roles of fictional entities.

*** *** *** 

Bonus Thoulish Trivia:  The television production of Mazes & Monsters was “fully sponsored” by Procter & Gamble.  In 1985, P&G 'retired' its logo (shown below) because they were unable to dispel rumors that it was a satanic symbol.

Coincidence?  I think the reader already knows the answer.

*** *** ***

Sunday, October 5, 2014

The Player Character in Timeship

Signed by “C. A. Millan”

Timeship is one of those role-playing games where players are expected to portray themselves.  Since players are not adopting roles, it is more of a 'hypothetical situation' game than a 'role-playing' game.  However, 'role-playing' has fewer syllables and the Timelord certainly adopts roles during the course of the game.

Defining famous real or fictional people in terms of a specific game system can be entertaining if not instructive.  Yet famous people tend to be famous for a reason, usually due to one or several accomplishments.  Such accomplishments are typically the basis for translating a person into a set of game statistics.  Most players, however, are not famous and their accomplishments are of a more modest nature.  More to the point, many players (your humble host included) are not well-suited to a life of adventure.  After all, escapism is a major reason players turn to role-playing games.  Players are more-or-less “average individuals” most of the time and “average” is that which they seek to escape.  In a player-as-character game, the escapism takes the form of the extra-ordinary circumstances of the adventures in which the player characters partake.

I am not opposed to the notion of players portraying themselves.  (I once ran a campaign where some of the players played themselves as described in Hero System terms.)  The conceit can be entertaining in ways playing a different persona cannot.  I merely opine that quantifying players as characters can be difficult; especially so in achieving an objective, 'realistic' representation.  Depending on the game system, there may be few means to distinguish 'average' characters from one another.  On the other hand, depending upon gamemastering style, codification of players-as-characters may be of little importance; interaction may supercede game mechanics.

Nowadays, we have tools that can help define our game-selves; in the old school era, we were left to our own devices.  In Villains & Vigilantes, players are encouraged to play themselves.  This requires the gamemaster to assign scores on a 3 - 18 scale to Strength, Endurance, Agility, Intelligence, and Charisma.  “Smaller people tend to be more agile than larger ones” and “accept high grades in school as evidence [of Intelligence], but not as proof” are examples of the meager guidelines provided to assist with this task.

It's possible to learn something about a role-playing game through an examination of its character sheets.  Of course, in Timeship, players are represented by themselves – not 'characters'.  Therefore, Timeship has 'Personal Data Sheets' instead of character sheets.  For the reader's edification, an official Timeship Personal Data Sheet is presented below.

There is no name field.  It's easy enough to scrawl a name at the top of the sheet but a virtue of playing one's self is that one is intimately familiar with one's name.  However, the most prominent portion of the sheet is the 'To Hit Numbers By Weapon Type' section.  (Readers may recall that Man, Myth & Magic also uses 'To Hit Numbers' and they function similarly in Timeship.)  All Weapon Types have a default THN of 60; meaning that the result of a percentile dice roll must equal or exceed 60 in order to hit an opponent.  Players can reduce the THN for specific Weapon Types by distributing (at most) forty points.  No THN may be reduced by more than fifteen points; however, players may allocate up to thirty more points among Weapon Types (including Weapon Types that had previously reduced by the fifteen point maximum).  There is a cost for the (up to) thirty point allocation; every reduction point for a given Weapon Type requires a point be added to another Weapon Type's THN (thereby decreasing the player's chances to hit).  With the (up to) thirty point allocation, no THN may be raised or lowered in excess of ten points and “[n]o less than 3 points may be added to a single category so long as 3 or more points remain to be allocated.”

The next section of the sheet deals with tracking “energy” and the third – and largest – section is reserved for an inventory of “Weapons and Equipment.”  The position of “Physical Abilities” on the sheet is marginal (literally).  Perhaps they were an afterthought.  The instructions for filling out the Personal Data Sheet are presented in their entirety on the back cover of the Timeship book.  The section about Physical Abilities consists of a single paragraph.  The 'Speed' Physical Ability (sometimes called 'Speed Factor') is discussed in the parts of the rules having to do with movement and combat.  However, none of the other Physical Abilities are even listed in the rules, much less described.

So, the Personal Data Sheet identifies the Physical Abilities as:  Speed, Endurance, Intelligence, Strength, Dexterity, and Agility.  Intelligence is not typically grouped with 'physical' characteristics and – in a players-as-characters game – player intelligence would be manifest; it need not be expressed in game terms.  Anyway, each Physical Ability starts at a value of fifty.  Unlike THN, rolls that regard Physical Abilities succeed when the result is less than or equal to the ability value.  Players have up to fifty points to allocate among the Physical Abilities without restriction (beyond “an honest and sincere evaluation”).  The sheet also lists 'Running Ability' and 'Jumping Ability' in the same area as the Physical Abilities but they are derived attributes according to the “Time Lord Screen.”  (Timelord is usually treated as one word.)  Running Ability is the average of Speed and Endurance while Jumping Ability is the average of Speed, Strength, and Agility.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Man, Myth & Magic versus Timeship

Art by Clyde Caldwell

The contents of Dragon #80 (December 1983) offer a glimpse into the state of gaming as it was three decades ago.  The “Dungeon Master's Familiar” article provides the entire code for a program intended to facilitate AD&D combat.
This program was written to run on a Radio Shack TRS-80, but it can be used easily in any computer that uses a variation of Microsoft BASIC.  To use the automated combat segment, you need a disk drive...
In his introduction to the issue, Kim Mohan presents submission guidelines for computer programs.  He explains that programs should not be extensive...
...even if they're good, because most people couldn't cram them into their 16K or 32K systems.  We'll look at programs for 48K or 64K systems, but they'll only be accepted if they need to be that long.
What a difference 31 years makes.

The “How many coins in a coffer?” article goes into profound detail about numismatic dimensions, metallic impurities, specific gravities, and – for some reason – the speed of light.  Regardless, the author concedes that – for the sake of playability – “all coins are the same size (diameter and thickness) and weigh a tenth of a pound each.”  This is acceptable because AD&D™represents fantasy, not reality.  Good to know:  “...the figure for a loose coin is 110% of the effective volume of a stacked coin...”

One article, “Five keys to DMing success,” has the sub-title, “Reducing the work, increasing the fun.”  Huh?  Less work?  More fun?  How baffling!  Must be old school.

In any event, the purpose of this post is not to analyze old issues of gaming magazines; your humble host surrenders that task to bloggers greater than himself.  This post compares and contrasts the games Timeship and Man, Myth & Magic.  It just so happens that Dragon #80 contains reviews for both games.  It just so happens that both reviews were written by the same person – Ken Rolston.  (The same issue has another review by Rolston as well as an article he wrote on how to write game reviews.)  Here is an opportunity to see how a (professional) reviewer perceived both games at a time when those games were still in print.  In short, Rolston's verdict was:  MM&M, thumbs down; Timeship, thumbs up.  These are similar games from the same creator, yet the assessments were contradictory.  Why?

Rolston did not consider Timeship to be without flaws.  He recommended the game “[d]espite its weaknesses in game design” and notwithstanding his contentions that “the organization of the rules is confusing and the style is occasionally unpalatable.”  Rolston expressed similar misgivings for MM&M but was unable to overlook them when establishing his opinion of that game.

With regard to rules, Rolston wrote:
The term used locally to describe the level of sophistication of the mechanics of Timeship is “goofyworld,” a generally positive term suggesting wild and crazy action, with fast-and-loose judgements left pretty much in the hands of the referee, under the assumption that there is little competitive pressure and that the referee is basically out to show the players a good time.
Herbie Brennan expressed similar sentiments in the advice section of Man, Myth & Magic.  While Rolston commented that Brennan's advice was “practical and intelligent,” he did not believe it was “successfully translated” for MM&M.  Still, Rolston stated with regard to MM&M, “In fairness, I suspect a skilled gamesmaster could make the rule system and scenarios work...”

Rolston felt that the time-travel premise of Timeship reflected “the stuff of thousands of daydreams and fantasy adventure stories.”  Man, Myth & Magic, on the other hand, did not conform to any “literary adventure genre models” nor was it an “historical simulation game [although] it makes no claim to be.”

Was premise the deciding factor in Rolston's opinion?  He wrote:
Whatever reservations I might have had originally about Timeship were dispelled when I playtested the game with our local weekly gaming circle.  I don't believe I've seen FRP gamers have so much fun in years.  Everyone was quite enthusiastic about the concept of the game, and the players were quite willing to overlook any faults in the rules...As a gamesmaster, I was surprised at how smoothly the session ran, despite my original impression...
Regarding Man, Myth & Magic, however, Rolston “never felt tempted to playtest the game...”

Ultimately, Rolston praised Timeship for simple mechanics, accessibility to non-gamers, and the “marvelously fertile” genre of time travel.  He faults MM&M for poor execution (“not up to industry standards”) and a lack of innovation.  Perhaps if Rolston had the experience of playing MM&M – especially with a skilled gamesmaster – he might have been more inclined to forgive its flaws as he did with Timeship.  Perhaps not.  If a game lacks sufficient appeal even to want to play it, then it has failed on a fundamental level of engagement.  Evidently, a game with “historically implausible party composition” did not appeal to Rolston, nor did it particularly appeal to RPG consumers of the time.  As Rolston queried, “[W]hat would a Hebrew priest, a British apothecary, and an Egyptian warrior be doing together in the first place?”

Well, they could try walking into a bar.