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Tabletop RPGs

Setting information is telling me about your character

Jack Shear’s blog, Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque, is always a great read (it’s been one of my RPG blog staples for years), but World-Building: When is Enough Too Much? is an especially good post.

It made me think of a scene in Game of the Year (paid link), where the GM uses the game session as an excuse to inflict his “exquisite storytelling” on the group while riding roughshod over what they actually want to do: play. It was painful to watch,[1] not the least because I’ve been there (I’d bet many — most? — gamers have), and I’ve been that guy.

My setting bible has its own lectern

Here’s Jack’s thesis:

I think I understand why people aren’t interested in page after page of fictional history and paragraph after paragraph of world-building: it’s the DM version of “let me tell you about my character” magnified without a sense or proportion or boundaries.

And, a bit further on, the stinger:

Dear DM: if you would roll your eyes at a five-page character back story that a player wants you to read, you should roll your eyes at your own expectation that the players will read five pages about the history of the Cult of Paradoxis and their war with the fire giants too.

That analogy is perfect. Once in a blue moon, I enjoy hearing at length about someone’s character, but blue moons are vanishingly fucking rare. And these days, reams of setting information turn me off at least as much as great walloping rulebooks thick enough to serve as body armor.

Some types of setting, or kinds of book, or mixes of the two, will require more words than others. But even a beefy, lengthy chapter on the world can be long without being long-winded.

But for fuck’s sake, if Time Corps — one of the settings in the superb GURPS Time Travel (paid link) — can frame an entire, enormously compelling time-travel campaign in just 13 pages, how many pages does the average campaign setting write-up really need?

Concision is king. I wish more gaming books used the absolute minimum number of words necessary to convey setting information.

[1] Not the movie — I enjoyed it. But oh man, that scene.

Categories
GURPS Tabletop RPGs

Time Corps: A brilliant time travel setting in 13 pages

I’m plowing through the most excellent GURPS Time Travel (paid link) at a good clip, and its Time Corps setting is just too good not to share here. (I wrote about the overall book in yesterday’s post.)

 

 

Six settings

GURPS Time Travel includes six settings:

  • Time Corps, the default time travel setting, which is about Timepiece agents vs. Stopwatch agents
  • In the Cube, which has the PCs lost in the past as part of an early time travel experiment
  • Eternity’s Rangers, a military campaign
  • The Order of the Hourglass, about time-traveling mentalists in the 1920s
  • The Horatio Club, a dimension-hopping campaign featuring free-agent PCs
  • Infinite Worlds, a full-blown dimension-hopping setting with two opposing organizations (like Time Corps)

Time Corps gets 13 pages (one is essentially the “cover,” so it’s really 12 pages), while the short ones get 2-8 pages apiece. Infinite Worlds gets a whole chapter, like Time Corps, and runs over 30 pages. It also got expanded into its own book, GURPS Infinite Worlds (paid link), which should be landing in my mailbox today.

Timepiece needs you!

Time Corps packs a mind-boggling amount of goodness into its handful of pages — more than enough to get a campaign off the ground.

 

 

Here are my five favorite things about Time Corps:

  • The hook. The Time Corps, and its Timepiece agents, are opposed by Stopwatch, agents of The Hive (an uber-bureaucracy that spans the globe) — classic “time war” setup, right? Right, except that the two agencies exist in different versions of the present. There can only be one present, so both Stopwatch and Timepiece are trying to make sure it’s their version that survives.
  • 49/49/2. The ground state at the start of the campaign is a 49% chance the good timeline (Timepiece, us) wins, a 49% chance the bad timeline (Stopwatch, The Hive) wins, and a 2% that one of a myriad of incredibly unlikely alternatives wins. Every mission either agency sends into the past — each from its own version of the present — has a chance to move the needle, changing those probabilities. After every mission, you roll dice for each side and change their respective probabilities. If either falls below 8%, they lose and their timeline is wiped out — it simply never comes into being. If both of them added together fall below 70%, one of the previously-unlikely alternate timelines takes over, wiping out both realities, Timepiece and Stopwatch. Talk about player agency and meaningful consequences!
  • Clever temporal physics. Time travel can only occur through “windows” into the past, and the windows are always about 8 months apart. Want to foil a Stopwatch plot? You might have to go back to some time long before the plot and wait for the appointed hour. This also gives real weight to using local agents — folks “embedded” in a local time — for support.
  • Snap-back. Agents can trigger implants to snap themselves forward to the present, but anything they brought with them automatically snaps forward if it gets more than a few feet away from them.[1] Need to send a message to HQ? Drop a “notecard” and it’ll pop into the present; HQ can then send help, assuming a window is available and useful to you. Don’t want your ray gun to fall into the hands of a medieval peasant? It won’t, because as soon as it leaves an area a few feet around you, it’s zapped forward to HQ.[1]
  • Observation equals reality. A quirk of this setting’s temporal physics is its approach to the Observer Effect: If someone from either present, Timepiece or Stopwatch, observes an event in the past and returns to tell their tale, it becomes unalterably true — that is how How It Happened. This creates marvelous incentives to do things like sacrifice yourself if things have gone badly, so that your screw-up doesn’t shape history — or, much more often, to be extremely careful about what you don’t see, so that you have a shot at changing it down the line. Information is a double-edged sword.

I could go on, but at some point I’d just be reproducing this delightfully brief chapter, so I’ll stop there.

I look at those features of Time Corps and see fodder for a sandbox campaign — or at least a sandbox-adjacent one, with lots of options for the players and real fallout based on what they do. You might look at those features and see the seeds of a mission-based, GM-driven campaign — something that looks a lot like an episodic TV show, for example. One of the strengths of Time Corps as a premise is that it’s a strong foundation for a variety of play and campaign styles.

The Time Corps setting on its own is a good enough reason to buy GURPS Time Travel (paid link). Doing a lot with a little is one of my favorite design goals, and this setting is bursting with possibilities.

[1] And yes, if an agent eats a meal before they leave, and then takes a dump in the past, guess what snaps forward to HQ?

Categories
GURPS Tabletop RPGs

GURPS Time Travel is neat

I’ve got time travel gaming on the brain, and haven’t yet found a time travel RPG that hits exactly the vibe I’m after.

Epidiah Ravachol‘s Time & Temp is at the top of my shortlist to play, with the excellent Timeworks setting from Fate Worlds: Worlds in Shadow running a close second. But those both do specific things (nothing wrong with that!), and I’m after something more open-ended. It may become more specific as I think about it more, but for now loosey-goosey is good.

I want to pack my brain with interesting, RPG-oriented time travel stuff, and whenever I’m that mood the answer is usually GURPS. In this case, GURPS Time Travel (paid link), by Steve Jackson and John M. Ford.

Like GURPS Warehouse 23 (paid link) and GURPS Illuminati (paid link), which I’ve written about on Yore, Time Travel is a toolkit.[1] It takes one huge enchilada of a topic and comes at it from several angles, teases out the best bits from each angle, and gives you the stuff you need to put it back together how you like.

The book provides a default campaign setting, and it’s a good one: Timepiece agents vs. Stopwatch agents, each group trying to ensure the survival of their own timeline, with lots of clever details. For example: Time travel “windows” are always about 8 months apart, so sometimes you need to go back too far and wait for your moment; and whether history can be changed depends on whether an agent observes it, so there are delightfully perverse incentives to walk away from problems so you can take another run at them later on.

In a (parallel) world . . .

One of those angles, dimensional travel/parallel worlds as an alternative to time travel, wasn’t even on my radar until I started looking into (and then bought) this book. It features many of the best bits of time travel — alternate worlds, ahistorical elements, fish out of water — without all the brain-burning paradoxes and temporal physics.

There’s a whole setting in Time Travel, Infinite Worlds, which delves into dimensional travel, and the topic gets quite a bit of attention in the book. It also got blown out into a much bigger book (which apparently also reprints some of what’s in this one), GURPS Infinite Worlds (paid link). That one’s on the way, and I’m excited to read it.

TPS reports

One of the tools Time Travel offers is a form: one for time travel games, one for dimension-hopping games. Here’s the time travel version:

That’s just handy! It covers a host of common questions — the stuff everyone at the table will ask — while also rounding out some corners, establishing a solid baseline, and piquing the group’s interest.

It also makes me want to know more. What’s the Recency Effect? What’s a Temporal Snarl? Those both sound awesome! (And yes, they’re both covered in the book.)

I’m not sure what I’ll do with it yet, although that Fate bookmark peeking out the top isn’t an accident. I think Fate (paid link) would be a great fit for a time/dimension travel game, particularly since I can lean on what’s already in Timeworks.

Whatever I do with it, Time Travel (paid link) is a great starting point. It’s my favorite kind of GURPS book: the kind that fires my imagination, gives me new ideas to chew on, and provides the tools to implement them — all in a tidy package of reasonable length.[2]

It’s also dirt cheap, at least at the moment — I paid $6 for my copy, and it’s in fine shape.

[1] All of my favorite GURPS books are toolkits.

[2] Nope, leaving that one alone. Noooothing to see here.