Saturday, August 31, 2019

Two Articles of Note

On this Labor Day weekend, we take a break from our hard-hitting, high octane analysis of TIMEMASTER™ in order to bring attention to a couple of articles regarding the early days of the hobby.

First, earlier this week, Kotaku posted a feature article about the beginnings of Dungeons & Dragons.  (TRIGGER WARNING:  Gary is described as having human flaws.  😧)  The article goes into Braunstein and Blackmoor and Arneson's “Creature Feature weekend inspiration.”  Eventually, it suggests that Gary may not have been as creative as legend indicates.  Of course, it was Gary who manufactured the legend.  Unfortunately, in bolstering his own role, he undermined that of Arneson.  The propagation of the Cult of Gary led to Dave's minimalization.  One of Gary's talents was promotion and absent that talent, there would not have been a D&D phenomenon.  Yet without the creative effort of others – most notably Dave Arneson – there would not have been a D&D for which to cultivate a phenomenon.

Another of Gary's talents was writing rules.  We should also be thankful for this.  Yet the Kotaku article provides this quote from Gary:  “Dave and I disagree on how to handle any number of things, and both of our campaigns differ from the ‘rules’ found in DandD.”  What's the point in devising rules if you're not going to abide by them?  On a previous occasion, I supplied a different quote from Gary:  “The secret we should never let the gamemasters know is that they don't need any rules.”  If this is true, why do I consider Gary's codification of the rules to be important?  In my opinion, a person doesn't need rules in order to play, but rules are useful in learning the concepts of the game.  Rules from a basis of understanding among the game master and the players.  Once there is such an understanding, the rules can be modified or even abandoned.  Without rules, the phenomenon of D&D would have been greatly impeded.

Speaking of rules, the second article was written by the editor of the blue book.  While most media focused upon the burgeoning satanic panic, the November 1980 issue of Psychology Today offered an educated perspective.  (I didn't state that both articles were recent.)  Apparently, we owe the presence of this article on the Internet to the Escapist.  In “Confessions of a Dungeon Master,” John Eric Holmes relates his experiences and observations regarding D&D.  Holmes admits, “my friends know that they can often persuade me to twist the rules...”  Holmes also states, “The Dungeon Master's world is sort of a giant Rorschach test.”  By this, he seems to mean that, within the context of the fictional setting, “the personalities of the characters turn out to be combinations of [the players'] idealized alter egos and their less-than-ideal impulses.”  Yet the “world” itself is a psychological reflection of the Dungeon Master.  Holmes recognizes that his style of play is distinct from that of other Dungeon Masters.  More to the point,  Dungeon Masters necessarily improvise, both in terms of reacting to the behavior of player characters as well as implementing on-the-spot rulings.  Holmes recalls an occasion where he decided that a “saving throw” was the appropriate game mechanic to determine if a player character had preserved her virginity.  Ultimately, Holmes professes that, “The Dungeon Master's job is to provide an interesting game.”  Such a thing cannot be achieved by wrote adherence to a set of rules.

Engaging in a role-playing game is a form of art, the rules are merely a tool to facilitate this endeavor.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Mass Combat in Timemaster

Charles Le Brun          La Bataille d’Arbelles (fragment)          1669

The chapter on 'Battles' in the Travelers' Manual is only three-and-a-half pages, but this belies the emphasis on mass combat in TIMEMASTER™.  Preceding the 'Battles' chapter is a six-and-a-half page 'Heavy Weapons' chapter providing essential information about mass combat.  Additionally, the Guide to the Continuum includes a page about military formations and each of the time period settings devotes a military summary of least a couple of paragraphs.

Aside from normal person-to-person combat, there are skirmishes and tactical scale battles.  In normal combat, each counter represents one character or item.  Each combat round lasts five seconds and the scale can either be 5' per hex or 25' per hex.  For skirmishes, each combat round is still five seconds, but the scale is ten yards per hex.  Why have two distinct scales that are so close to one another (25' versus 30')?  The distinction is needless.  Anyway, we learn that skirmishes “are battles that involve no more than a few hundred men on each side.”  In skirmishes, “each infantry or cavalry counter represents 10 soldiers instead of just one.”  (original emphasis)

In contrast to skirmishes, tactical scale battles “involve hundreds or thousands of troops.”  We learn that each infantry counter “represents from 100 to 900 men” and each cavalry counter “can represent several hundred cavalry.”  Also, “Each vehicle counter represents 3 to 6 vehicles.”  The ground scale is one hundred yards per hex.  Instead of five-second combat rounds, tactical scale battles are divided into turns of ten minutes each.  The rules explain, “A turn contains one complete role-playing round at the end of each step.”  (original emphasis)  This statement is less than artfully expressed.  The sequence of play for a tactical scale turn lists role-playing rounds as distinct steps, so “every second step is a role-playing round” would be a more apt explanation, but still not perfect.  There is no role-playing round after the last step.  As such, the best statement would be:  “There are 19 steps in a turn and every even numbered step is a role-playing round.”  The rules explain why only nine role-playing rounds transpire during a ten minute turn:
...this reflects the reality of the battlefield environment.  Men on a battlefield, PCs included, find themselves often bewildered and unable to act as they wish because of the bombardment of their senses by strange and unpleasant sensations:  smoke and dust clog the air, masses of men move by, explosions shake the ground, bullets fly everywhere, and the screams of the wounded and dying rise from the battlefield.  Just staying alive and finding out what is going on occupies most of a man's time.
Of course, if individual characters engage in personal combat during a tactical scale turn, “that combat should be played out round by round before the next step of the turn.”

As shown below, the capabilities of troops, vehicles, and armaments are indicated by values on the counters.
'Movement Rate' represents the number of hexes the counter can move.  If there are two numbers separated by a slash, the number on the left is used for skirmishes and the one on the right is used for tactical scale battles.  “Troop counters may never end their movement in hexes containing other friendly troops,” we learn, except when troops are “being carried in or towed by trucks or APCs.”

To resolve an attack by a unit of troops, a percentile die is rolled and compared against the 'Missile Value' or 'Melee Value' as appropriate.  Situational modifiers may apply to whichever value.  A result less than or equal to the modified value is required to affect the defending unit.  This is a specific check, so the difference of the die roll result from the value at issue is determined and referenced as the 'attack margin' on the Action Table.  On behalf of the defending unit, 1d10 is rolled to ascertain the defense column on the table.  Some units, like tanks, have a 'Defense Bonus' which is applied to the d10 defense column roll (to a maximum of 10).

A successful attack means the defending unit must attempt a morale check.  Technically, defending vehicles attempt a vehicle destruction check, but the mechanics are the same.  Depending upon how well the attack succeeds, the morale check may have a negative modifier.  'Morale Value' is equivalent to 'Melee Value' and the morale check is pass-fail.  Even if the morale check is successful, if the precipitating attack achieves a 'K' result on the Action Table, the defending unit must “move back one hex, facing the same direction.”  If the morale check is failed, the defending unit is “routed” or – in the case of vehicles – destroyed.

“Routed” means different things depending upon the historical setting.  Prior to the first World War, “routed troops turn around 180 degrees and immediately move back one full move.”  While routed, “troops must continue this retreat movement, taking no other action, including firing or melee attacking...”  If a retreat would causes a troop unit to enter “hexes occupied by enemy troops, or hexes adjacent to and in the field of fire of an enemy counter not involved in melee,” the unit is eliminated.  During WWI or afterward, “routed troops cannot take any action, including moving or firing.”  Such troops retreat if the precipitating attack was melee.  (Presumably, they still move one hex with a 'K' attack result.)  Routed troops are destroyed if they are merely melee attacked or if routed again by a missile attack.  Is it necessary for the melee attack to be successful?  The rules are not specific.  Routed troops can rally and relieve themselves of their routed condition with a successful morale check.  Such checks can be attempted at the end of a round (in skirmishes) or turn (in tactical scale battles).

In other role-playing games, there are various ways to treat large scale combat.  Such combat can merely be a backdrop without the player characters and the battle necessarily affecting one another.  In other situations, the player characters have an objective which can alter the outcome of the battle.  Here, the focus need only be on those aspects of the battle with which the player characters interact directly.  The TIMEMASTER™ approach is holistic; the entirety of a battle is composed and resolved.  These mass combat rules are necessary because:
Demoreans are drawn to human battlefields; many of their plots against Parallel T-0 are attempts to change the outcomes of important battles (or little known skirmishes that are deceptively significant).
We learn, “In most battle situations, the PCs take one side or the other:  one or more of the PCs may even impersonate a military commander.”  The Continuum Master plays the opposing side.
In other cases, the players may not wish to control any troops.  The CM may then control all the troops in the battle, but should still have the players make all the dice rolls for one side or the other.
Really?  If the players don't want to control troops, they're supposed to sit around and roll dice while the CM plays a solitaire wargame?  Why bother?

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Experience and Significance in Timemaster


As indicated previously, player characters rise in the ranks of the Time Corps as they successfully complete missions.  They can also gain Success Points which can be used “to raise their Basic Ability Scores and skill scores, or to acquire new skills and paranormal talents.”  Contrary to the notion of success, player characters do not necessarily receive Success Points upon successfully completing a mission; they only get Success Points if they don't change history.  Whether or not player characters change history is tied to the notion of “significance.”

Historical figures and events – as well as certain items of Time Corps equipment – have significance ratings reflecting their potential to affect history.  We learn that “each human NPC has a significance rating of 1 to 500.”  For instance, the Guide to the Continuum tells us that Cleopatra has a significance rating of 275.  According to the introductory adventure, Manfred von Richtofen (sic) has a significance rating of 100.  The Paranormal Talent of Significance Sensing “allows characters to sense how important an unknown NPC or event is to history . . . with an accuracy of plus or minus 25 points.”  During the course of an adventure, player characters may make “mistakes” which have a significance rating value.  The premature demise of an important personage would be a mistake with a “cost” equal to the significance rating of said person.  Losing a piece of Time Corps equipment “costs” the significance rating of the item.  (A medical kit has a significance rating of 500, a Time Corps stunner has one of 300.)  Various events in an adventure have “costs” if player characters do not prevent them.  For example, in the first encounter in the introductory adventure, a meddlesome Demorean attempts to steal military plans being delivered to George S. Patton.  If the Demorean succeeds, there is a “cost” of 75 points.

At the end of an adventure, the Continuum Master tallies up the values of the “mistakes” and rolls a d1000.  This is called a “significance check.”  If the result of the check exceeds the “mistakes total,” then the course of history is preserved.  Otherwise, history is altered and the player characters are not awarded Success Points.  In this circumstance, the significance check value is subtracted from the “mistakes total.”  This difference is compared to the adventure's Historical Changes Chart; the greater the difference, the greater the deviance from 'original' history.  Such a deviance is never for the better.  The Historical Changes Chart for the introductory adventure (which takes place in the first World War) describes the following conditions:
Difference 01 – 99:  The ancestor of a Time Corps agent dies, meaning said agent never comes into existence.  “Fortunately, the agent was only a Trainee/5, so only five missions will have to be redone.”
Difference 100 – 199:  The German High Command becomes paranoid about saboteurs and spies.  “The Army arrests hundreds of innocent Germans, and executes them.”
Difference 200 – 299:  An American soldier (who should have died in the war) becomes a financier and the stock market crash occurs in 1927 rather than 1929.  “Herbert Hoover solves the problems of the Depression by 1931; Franklin Roosevelt is not elected President, and American entry into World World II is delayed until 1943.”  Eventually, “Communist China becomes the major world power by 1960.”
Difference 300 – 399:  The Allied Powers become discouraged with tank warfare, causing the war to continue longer than it would have.  Somehow, “this works to the benefit of Soviet Russia, which becomes the major power in Europe by 1940 . . . [and] nuclear war occurs in 1984.”
Difference 400 + :  “The Allies lose badly at Cambrais [sic], but realize the significance of air and rocket power to their defeat.”  World War II begins sooner than it would have.  “Europe is devastated; the United States is badly crippled, and Japan conquers most of Asia.”
If the player characters utterly fail in their mission, “The Allies still win World War I, but the lessons learned at Cambrais [sic] give the Germans a significant technological edge before the beginning of World War II.”  As an eventual result, “The Nazi Third Reich dominates Europe until the Holocaust of 1984, when America and Nazi Europe destroy one another in a nuclear war.”

Assuming that player characters are successful in a mission (as defined in the Time Corps' briefing at the beginning of the adventure) and they do not alter the course of history, they are entitled to Success Points.  We learn that, “Every TIMEMASTER adventure has a significance rating from 1 to 1000.”  (The introductory adventure has a significance rating of 500.)  The “mistakes total” is subtracted from the adventure's significance rating.  The result is the number of Success Points to be equally divided among the player characters.  Success Points may be saved, but can only spent between adventures.

If agents violate Time Corps regulations, they may be demoted and “earn no Success Points until they regain their original status.”  So, if there are five player characters and one has been demoted, is the pool of Success Points divided by four?  Or is it divided by five and the fifth portion is lost?

At the conclusion of a gaming session, the Continuum Master may award up to fifty bonus Success Points “to reward outstanding play.”  The rules explain that, “Outstanding play includes things such as playing the character almost as well as an actor would, coming up with a particularly good plan to solve a problem, risking the character's life for the benefit of the group of characters, and so forth.”

In TIMEMASTER, each skill has three levels:  Specialist, Expert, and Master.  When a character first learns a skill, it is at Specialist level.  A new skill costs 50 points.  Raising a skill from Specialist to Expert costs 100 points; from Expert to Master is 150 points.  While player characters can purchase any number of skills, a given skill may only be raised one level at a time.  For example, a skill may be raised from Specialist to Expert, but that skill cannot be raised to Master until at least one adventure has passed.  Also, player characters receive a new skill upon attaining a new rank in the Corps (i.e., ten grades or successful adventures).

New Paranormal Talents cost 200 points each.  For fifty Success Points, a Basic Ability score may be increased by one, but such scores cannot be increased beyond a value of 80.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Meet the Trainees

“Red Ace High,” the introductory adventure included with the Timemaster boxed set, provides eight pre-generated characters.  Original characters may be played; however, the pre-gens “are specially designed for” the adventure.  By examining these characters, we see how the game's designers intended beginning characters to be crafted.

Much of the art in Timemaster consists of woodcut illustrations from the Dover Pictorial Archive.  Given the time travel theme, this is perfectly acceptable.  However, the quality of the character portraits varies to a distracting degree.

Alan Anderson
(Date of Birth:  May 18, 1964)  Anderson's “good grades and athletic ability in high school, combined with his experience flying the family crop-duster, made [him] a natural choice for appointment to the U.S. Air Force Academy.”  Anderson's listed age is 20, so he must have been recruited by the Time Corps before he completed his studies at the Academy.  In any event, his elective skills are Pilot and Martial Arts.  (All trainees start with four skills:  A specialty in the regional history of the trainee's pre-recruitment life, use of the Time Corps stunner, and two elective skills.)  Each character has two paranormal talents; one is Paranormal Memory and the other is chosen.  (Paranormal Memory “allows characters to remember what 'should' have happened in history after history has been changed.”)  Anderson's chosen talent is Memory Restoration which “allows agents to 'restore'  the memory of a historical character 'remembers' what he or she is 'supposed' to remember.”  It also causes the subject to forget any time travel shenanigans to which he or she was exposed.

Dmitri Yurovich Boruskov
(Date of Birth:  March 23, 1881)  At the age of 35, Boruskov was recruited by the Time Corps in October, 1916.  (We are not told if these are Julian or Gregorian dates.)  After enlisting in the Tsarist army, “he saw action during the Russo-Japanese war of 1905.”  He managed to survive the Battle of Tannenberg in 1914.  Finally, he participated in the Brusilov Offensive in 1916.  Boruskov “retains a strong dislike for Germans in uniform and officers of any nationality.”  This might be problematic during the course of the introductory adventure.  Anyway, Boruskov's elective skills are Long Barreled Gun and Machine Gun.  His second Paranormal Talent is Time Shift.  We learn that, “Characters with this talent can 'shift' the time around them back to the beginning of the prior round.” [original emphasis]

Elaine Desmond
(Date of Birth:  June 27, 1954)  Desmond “earned an academic scholarship to Penn State, where she majored in English literature.”  Because “academic life proved too tame for her,” Desmond discontinued her efforts to obtain a doctorate.  (Was she expecting the study of English literature to be anything other than tame?)  Because she is a fictional African-American, she is naturally “street-wise.”  She eventually became a pilot, so one of her skills is Pilot.  As a result of Desmond being “a semi-pro class [softball] pitcher,” the Time Corps taught her the Grenade skill.  Her second Paranormal Talent is Adaptation, which allows characters “to become social 'sponges,' absorbing all the intangibles of the culture and lifestyle around them.”  They can “soak up sights, sounds, manners, customs – things that natives to a culture may not notice until they are missing.”

Sarah Little-Bear
(Date of Birth:  July 17, 1868)  We are told that Little-Bear “could perform the typical duties of an Apache wife...”  This statement implies that Little-Bear is an Apache and that she was married before she was recruited.  No comment is made concerning the fate of her husband or any children they may have had.  She “compares the Corps' secret struggle against the Demoreans to her own people's struggle against the white man; to Sarah, the two are very much alike.”  Little-Bear's elective skills are 'Dagger/Knife (melee)' and Stealth.  Her second Paranormal Talent is Telepathic Probe, which allows a character to “probe the mind of another character and establish that character's true identity.”  We read that, “Agents often use this talent in the field to discover Demorean or renegade infiltrators.”

Ferdinand Rivera
(Date of Birth:  October 17, 1480)  Rivera is the oldest of the trainees, both in terms of his date of birth and his age relative to the other trainees.  Rivera's Strength score is 80, the highest possible value.  The formula for determining Basic Ability values is:  20 + (2 × 3d10), for a range of 26 – 80.  Rivera “took part in the Cortez expedition to Mexico,” but the “Time Corps recruited him from the year 1520, just before Cortez overthrew Montezuma.”  Rivera's elective skills are Long Barreled Gun and Sword.  His second Paranormal Talent is Ignore Pain.  Normally, when a character suffers a critical wound, he or she must attempt a Willpower check.  If failed, he or she cannot engage in further activity until he or she receives medical treatment.  With successful use of the Ignore Pain talent, a character can forgo post-critical wound Willpower checks.

Deborah Schwarz
(Date of Birth:  December 18, 1959)  Schwarz “was born to an American Jewish family who emigrated to Israel in the early 1950s.”  We learn that “she joined a kibbutz and was soon recognized as a natural leader.”  Also, “The wars and terrorism that plagued the Middle East motivated her to study the history and cultures of the region...”  Her Historical Specialty is described as “Israel and the Middle East, 1859-1974.”  However, this would seem to be in error.  Having been born in 1959 and recruited at age 25, the time range should extend to 1984.  Her elective skills are Long Barreled Gun and Military Leadership.  Her second Paranormal Talent is Significance Sensing, which “allows characters to sense how important an unknown NPC or event is to history.”

Konrad von Streicher
(Date of Birth:  November 19, 1730)  When the Time Corps recruited him at age 30, von Streicher had attained the rank of captain in the forces of Frederick the Great.  Von Streicher is tied with Schwarz in having the highest Luck  value (50) among the trainees.  Among other uses, a successful Luck roll allows a character to survive when, “according to all other rules of the game, the character should be dead.”  Only player characters have Luck.  Also like Schwarz, his elective skills are Long Barreled Gun and Military Leadership.  Von Streicher's second Paranormal Talent is Telepathic Sending.  This talent permits a character “to send a short message of no more than 10 words per round to another character” at any distance.

Amanda Weston
(Date of Birth:  September 6, 1934)  We learn that, “Her family's wealth and position enabled her to study medicine in both England and France during the 1950s.”  Although Weston is the only child of a wealthy family, she “has remarkable and selfless concern for the welfare of others.”  Weston has the highest Agility of any of the Trainees.  Her elective skills are Medical and Pilot.  Weston's second Paranormal Talent is Ignore Pain, just like Rivera above.  Depending upon how well a character succeeds with an Ignore Pain check, the effect can last from as little as one minute to a maximum of twelve hours.