Sunday, 27 March 2016

Further Information: A Review Of C°ntinuum: Roleplaying In The Yet

A lot of the artwork for this game is weird.

C°ntinuum: Roleplaying In The Yet has a bit of a reputation in RPG circles - and not just because spelling the game "Continuum" would have been so much easier.  Comically out of print, getting a hold of an official hard copy was a years-long adventure for me that was only completed successfully with the help of a very nice German chap on RPG.Net.  It's considered something quite unique, a Time Travel themed RPG with a fleshed out post-time-travel society at the heart of it.

In an era when every product bar licensed RPGs tends to live on in electronic format years if not decades after production stops, the sad fact is that most of you will never be able to read the insistently titled C°ntinuum unless you find a pirated PDF on the interwebs.  How are you supposed to determine from the scant information online as to the merits of the game and whether it's worth investing in or, god help us, agreeing to play it with me?

The back cover says very little to really explain this bonkers game.

Hopefully the following post will provide some of you with answers, or at least a foundation on which to pose more detailed and relevant questions.  These are very much sought as I'm skimming a LOT of details here.

No really: the art is WEIRD.  Tony DiTerlizzi of Planescape fame offers up the chapter heading art pieces.

First released around 1999, C°ntinuum's core premise has more than a dash of White Wolf's World Of Darkness to it.  Consider the following elevator pitch:

"This game puts players into a conspiracy of enhanced beings wandering the modern day disguised as ordinary humans, beings who have been there since time immemorial and whose politics & battles are the real reason behind a host of historical events.  The enhanced beings have a gentlemen's agreement that their presence must be hidden from the rest of the world, though there are villainous individuals who may seek to jeopardise that.  All members of this transhuman group are bound together in a society that polices their own, some of which is wrapped up in quasi-religious trappings.  They have only a few rules but breaking them can be fatal.

The first page of text in the game: the five main laws of time travelling society.  Like faithful little boy scouts, aspiring time travellers are supposed to memorise these five laws.

That description could easily be talking about the undead of Vampire: The Masquerade but we're actually talking about the Spanners of the Continuum.  The title "Spanners" comes from their ability to span Up and Down time - that it, into the relative Future and Past - where those who can't time travel are "Levellers" who are forced to take the slow path through time.

All Spanners are born as normal humans who are at some point in adult life inducted into the Continuum, usually because  they witness other time travellers and are considered to have too much promise for the usual Men In Black style.  Such neophytes are taken away for training - rather than use a vehicle to travel through time, the Spanners of the Continuum undergo some sort of initiation (their minds wiped of the details) and end up able to Span innately, simply choosing their destination and transporting their in the blink of an eye.  Time travel technology is in fact mostly forbidden, since it runs the risk of letting Levellers hijack a vehicle!

Player characters are assumed to start the game as recent inductees belong to the same "corner" where they will be trained by a senior Spanner in how to use their powers successfully and responsibly.  At the start their skill will be limited and they'll only be able to jump a year and a mile in one go - over time and with practice, senior Spanners can go further and further until they're leaping centuries or even millennia in one go, but at the start they'll struggle to jump from 2005 to 2010 without doing it over the course of several jumps.  Your maximum temporal range is refilled with a full day spent resting and not spanning - trying to jump further or too far without resting is dangerous, so 1783 is probably off-limits to a first time Spanner from 1985.

From the character generation rules, an example character sheet filled out for Cynthia - a character whose story is expanded on in prose sections scattered throughout the book.  Being a time travel game, the sections aren't always in chronological order.
Mechanically the game isn't anything too out of the ordinary - the stats are rated 1 to 7 but the split of three categories and the sub-points to earn before advancing reminds me a lot of Old World of Darkness.  It's a fairly generic 90s big book game system and it didn't leave much of an impression.  Characters spend points, taking some disadvantages if they need them and there's a guideline on creating advanced characters if you're joining a pre-existing game.  Advanced characters also join timeline-spanning organisations called "Fraternities" where they might specialise in hunting enemies, policing time anomalies, recovering lost artefacts etc.

The only really weird mechanics section is Time Combat which addresses how two rival time travellers can make each others life misery, causing paradoxes for their opponent which gives them Frag and slowly makes them fade out of reality.  You acquire Frag if your history ends up tangled in contradictions - if you remember getting the last beer out the fridge but I span down five minutes, take the beer before you do and drink it then I've just Fragged you.  Time Combat can involve doing some fairly innocuous things like that to slowly rack up Frag - too much and a person goes all...

Time Combat is possibly the weakest section of the whole book, being charged with the toughest job and having to explain something that is a lot harder to wrap your head around than "rules for punching a guy in the face" - it's trying to explain how tactially drinking Budweiser across time and space can kill a man.  I think it's telling when I posted about this game on RPG.Net a year ago how several people who owned the book commented on how incomprehensible they found it.

There's an example combat in the book which shows both the story and mechanics behind a sample combat, two people versus two people.  This should be useful, but said example has no-one ever fails a roll so there's no practical advice for what it looks like when things go wrong.  It ends because one guy racks up more successes and uses better strategies than the other guy, but no clues are provided as to what it looks like when you roll poorly.  According to the book you can Frag yourself - I would appreciate some hints as to how to describe that happening in story

...and if I can't follow it and I'm a hardcore RPG nut, what chance do my players have?

Who are you attacking, anyway, you may ask?  I've not really mentioned who adversaries are and of course non-Spanning foes are of comparatively little threat to people who can just phase out and reappear three months later.  Those foes are called known as Narcissists or Crashers - rogue time travellers who do not accept the Continuum's stance that there is a single timeline which must be protected but instead seek to use their powers to change time for whatever reason.    The Continuum insist such changing is impossible because only one timeline exists and any change Frags other people, but Narcissists have their own agendas - whether it's shoot Hitler, save the Library of Alexandria or just finally have sex with Stacy from high school before she marries that asshole Todd.

All this messing around in history big and small inevitably causes time paradoxes and leads to Frag to other Spanners.  Therefore their schemes need to be stopped by the local corner - and if they fail then arrivals from neighbouring decades, centuries and even millennia will be drawn by the chaos until the problem is nipped in the bud.  From a certain point of view, the Continuum always wins - but that doesn't mean you personally can't end up Fragged out.

Most of the game art has in-character credits - that is, it claims the drawings herein are from across time and space.  The background even mentions that the game book exists in the game's world.

This idea of neighbouring Millennia is one of the things I find most inspiring about Continuum - rather than just being people who invented time travel last week, it suggests that time travellers are all over history for thousands of years before and after our present day.  There is a complete society built up that services time traveller specific needs - prison facilities and nature preserves in distant times, social codes for meeting your past and future selves, a Spanner council who have issued laws that apply across time and space and Fraternities to deal with Spanner-specific problems like "can someone replace Hitler for us, another time traveller just shot him when he was six and it's getting really irritating". The spanner argot used - terms like Up and Down, or the use of Gemini to refer to meeting yourself - is quite cool as it shows the sort of technical language you'd need to come up with if your grasp on the fourth dimension was transformed.

Historical eras are grouped together into zodiac-sign-named eras which to outsiders looks - the Piscean era runs from 1AD to 2000AD and while that covers a huge amount of change, to someone sitting in 4000AD it all looks as similar as an American person might consider all of Europe even though Germany, Bulgaria, Slovakia and Denmark all view each other as very different.  The zodiac symbols have relevant to the character of the eras - Pisces is the symbol of fish and the fish is the symbol of the early Christian church which will define this era, for example.

A whole host of things.... that you can't really play.

However, I must confess that on my first read I was a bit put off by huge chunks of space being spent on explaining what an imaginary 8136BC looked like.  Starting characters can only jump a year at a time and are required to stay within their time frame and be a good obedient Spanner if they want to get promoted - so it'll be ages till even travelling a century in a hop is useful.  What the Leonid or Geminid Eras look like is mostly moot in the same way that a Pendragon game set on Britain mostly doesn't need to know what's happening in China.

If I have a big beef with C°ntinuum, it's that it does a pretty shitty job of letting you play any time travel fiction that has ever existed.  Like some other games it has a bibliography of inspiring films, TV and books to help whet your appetite - and those lists can be really useful, as I didn't know about The Hunger until I read Vampire: The Requiem and said film gave me a lot of non-Anne Rice cues to follow for such a game.  Having a movie night or a reading list for your games beforehand can really help to set the tone - I've given out graphic novels between sessions of my superhero game to put my players in the right mood.

However, pretty much every major time travel story is a no-go because of some key element of C°ntinuum.  The obvious thing is that most stories don't involve jumping just a year or two but decades if not centuries at a time - and they usually allow for "bad futures" to be generated, requiring people to try and undo their own accidental damage or the maleficence of others.  Nor is there much chance to interact with people from the future in C°ntinuum, due to some background details which kinda draw a big line between the present day-ish and the magical world where everyone is a Spanner.

The end result is that meeting JFK, kissing medieval princess, saving your granddad in World War 2, shooting cowboys, arm-wrestling Cleopatra and discovering you're a god in 2269 would seem like standard fare to a time travel story but C°ntinuum throws that all out the window.  What do you do instead?  Um, hunt Narcissists mostly if the sample adventures are to be believed - so you'd better hope that Glasgow 2003, London 1991 or Berlin 1961 are getting a lot of villain traffic or the game is going to get a bit dull.

An example of how temporal mechanics works in Continuum.  Why not print out this picture and try the exercise?
Truth be told, while I'd love to give this game a go, I still am not entirely sure what a campaign looks like.  The lower level sections struggle from sticking you too closely to one time and place for easy use of normal time travel tropes - the higher sections, in contrast, obsess over temporal society politics so all that century/millennia spanning power you now have seems a little pointless when there's less wide-eyed wonder about just joyriding about time and space.

In contrast, the sister game Nªrcissist: Crash Free gives the eponymous time-altering villains the starring role and immediately seems much more playable and understandable to me. While the different universe assumptions and moral implications between old World of Darkness games just got confusing - especially when rules didn't always port between them well - but here the fact that two books have some different explanations is addressed when the Narcissist book specifically mentions sections from the Continuum book and claims it's propaganda rather than fact. 

"The last book had art which was too surreal, we should probably try and tone it down this time...


The Crashers of their game perceive the Continuum as a Swarm, as a horrible cult stroke disease that is devouring all of the universe.  The laws of time aren't physical laws but behavioural laws and said laws are being policed by people who have a lot invested in keeping them that way - the emotionless transhuman freaks of the future trying to keep humanity in the old days docile and obedient, training it's time travellers to do what they're told.

Crashers want to actually use their gift to make the world a better place and so try to Crash Free into other universes.  If they make lots of small changes in time they can store up Crash Points and build gateways into alternate universes.  They have to do that while avoiding detection by the Continuum, who will seek to destroy them - or, worse still, brainwash them back into their fold.

Crashers can also try to find a way to travel back to the earliest eras, the Scorpiod and the Saggitarian.  Here they can find the dawn of time travel, eras ruled with Narcissists who seek to undermine the Continuum and whom have secrets denied to loyal Spanners.  Time machines, weapons built from mishmashes of technology and even Frag-powered "magic items".

A representation of the universe: the Royal Road is a chain of universes in which ours, Swarm Prime, is a key part of.
Sounds great, right?  Well, the problem here is that Nªrcissist exists only as a scanned ashcan edition with no legal outlet and even less chance of finding a copy on eBay/Amazon - so it's even rarer than C°ntinuum!  Fat lot of use that is.  If ever there's a case for saying pirating PDFs is sometimes understandable, this would be it.

I'm very glad my chum finally got me a real copy of C°ntinuum because it's a great game to have on my shelf.  Finding the time to run it is definitely on my bucket list... but I do wonder if I might be better using another game engine and if I might need a lot of patience from the group as I try to wrap my head around it.

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