Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Friday, 18 January 2013

Time Terrifying Television


Primeval is that rare beast – a British Science Fiction television series that has received multiple series. Indeed, the series has even had a spin off in the form of Primeval: New World, a Canadian series made in Vancouver. What is so strange about this is that Primeval was made for ITV, the United Kingdom’s primary commercial terrestrial broadcaster, and ITV has a poor record when it comes to genre television. This is not to say that ITV has not broadcast some great genre television over the years – Sapphire & Steel, The Avengers, U.F.O., are all good examples – but in modern times, commercial interests and viewing numbers have determined the programmes that ITV has had commissioned and broadcast. So the commissioning of Primeval and its subsequent success was something of a surprise, and all the more surprising given that it was broadcast at a time when only the one Science Fiction television series mattered – the new Doctor Who!

Yet Primeval proved to be successful, becoming popular teatime viewing through all five series, primarily because its monsters or rather dinosaurs, not only looked as if they could exist, but they also looked and were scary. At least for teatime viewing, something that Doctor Who has not always achieved in its modern incarnation. The fearsome look of the dinosaurs was all down to the expertise developed by the programme’s makers on the earlier Walking with Dinosaurs series, not for ITV, but for the BBC. Despite being a success, Primeval had a problem all of its very own, because it could not quite decide what exactly it was. It began as a classic dinosaur hunting/monster of the week series, but evolved into a time travel/conspiracy series, and then a conspiracy/time travel series. Which at times gave it an odd tone.

Fortunately this sometimes odd tone is not present in Primeval – The Roleplaying Game published by Cubicle Seven Entertainment. Its author, Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan, has a done a fine job in setting a balance between the game’s three core elements – monster hunting, time travel, and conspiracy. The set up for Primeval – The Roleplaying Game is the same as the television series, roughly during Series 3. The player characters are scientists, researchers, experts, and soldiers, all working for the Anomaly Research Centre or ARC. This is a secret government organisation dedicated to investigating the Anomalies, preventing incursion of creatures from the past or least sending them back to the past if it can, preventing the public from becoming aware of both the Anomalies and the creatures that come through them, preventing the current timeline from being altered or erased, and investigating and preventing an apocalyptic disaster that will befall humanity and the planet in the near future. This set up provides the RPG with a surprising amount of depth given that upon first sight the series itself appears to be nothing more than a "dinosaur hunting" show.

The challenge in Primeval – The Roleplaying Game though, starts with the dinosaurs. Not only do the player characters have to prevent a marauding dinosaur from the deep past from snacking on the "all you can eat buffet that is the British public in the twenty-first century," they also have to prevent that public from becoming aware of the possibility of dinosaurs in their midst. Further, they have to do this without killing the dinosaur. The danger in killing the dinosaur is that its death will somehow alter the timeline that the player characters come from, as has happened in the television series. Worse, there are those from the player characters' timeline and from any number of different futures, who are not only aware of the Anomalies and the fact that they enable a limited form of time travel, but who actually want to alter the timeline to their benefit. The most notable example of this from the television series is that of Helen Cutter, wife of the main character, Nick Cutter. Missing for years, Helen Cutter wants to alter evolution itself!

The default setting or Campaign Framework of the ARC investigating the Anomalies is not the only option in the game. A GM could easily create his own Campaign Framework and organisation for the which the player characters work. Primeval provides rules for creating benevolent organisations like the ARC or those like Christine Johnson's secret government organisation which has more malevolent intentions in mind. Of course, the player characters could be working for such an agency. One of the sample organisations, Dinosaur Hunters, Inc., which provides secret safari trips into the past for the extremely wealthy, can be used as the player characters' employer, or as a rival to the ARC, but with far more commercial interests. The guide to creating a group also covers the players co-operating in choosing what their character roles are within the organisation so that everyone has something to do.

Primeval – The Roleplaying Game employs the same mechanics as the Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space – The Roleplaying Game and the forthcoming Rocket Age RPG, both also from Cubicle Seven Entertainment. To create a character a player divides a total of 42 points between six attributes, his selected skills, plus Good Traits. Choosing Bad Traits gains a player more points to assign, as does taking the Experienced Trait. This is a Special Good Trait which when selected grants extra points to spend on skills, but at the cost of Story Points. The latter are equivalent of Luck or Hero Points from other RPGs, but are used to gain clues and dice, to avoid failure, ignore damage or Bad Traits, to inspire others, or to alter the plot. Creating a character is an easy process once a player has a concept. Of course, a player could just roleplay one of the characters from the television series. Full write-ups are provided for Nick Cutter, Abby Maitland, Conner Temple, and the rest of the cast, allowing them to be taken as player characters or be used as NPCs by the GM.

Nicholas Marsh
Awareness 4 Coordination 4 Ingenuity 4
Presence 3 Resolve 3 Strength 3
Animal Handling 3, Athletics 2, Convince 2, Fighting 1, Knowledge 2, Marksman 3 (Bow 5), Medicine 4 (Veterinary 6), Survival 3, Transport 2
Traits:
  • Animal Friendship (Good Minor Trait) – Nick knows the best way to approach any beast.
  • Anomaly Sense (Good Minor Trait) – Looking for a way back from the past gives a sense for when an Anomaly is nearby.
  • Authority (Good Minor Trait) – Nick is a skilled paramedic and an even better veterinary surgeon.
  • Experienced (Special Good Trait) – You do not spend two years in the past without gaining some life changing experience.
  • Sharpshooter (Good Minor Trait) – Practise makes perfect, especially if you have to hunt for your food.
  • Tracker (Good Minor Trait) – When you have to hunt for you prey…
  • Animal Lover (Bad Minor Trait) – Nick often seems to like animals more than he does his fellow man.
  • Emotional Complication (Bad Minor Trait) – Nick never knew he had a wife, until he got to this timeline.
  • Impaired Senses (Bad Minor Trait) – Nick needs spectacles as he is short-sighted.
  • Time Shifted (Bad Minor Trait) – He may have found a home with the ARC, but it is not his true home.

Story Points: 9

Our sample character is Nicholas Marsh, a veterinary surgeon who when investigating the strange deaths of a number of animals at a safari park fell into an Anomaly. Lost in the prehistoric past for over a year, he was forced to learn to survive and adapt in a strange new land populated by creatures that he only knew about from books and television. Their presence was the only clue that he was in the past rather than living after some apocalyptic event that changed the world beyond all recognition. In that time he became a proficient archer, marksman, and tracker, but expected to die in the past. It was only an encounter with an ARC team investigating an Anomaly that gave him hope, and he was not only able to help the team, but he was also able to follow the team back through the Anomaly. Unfortunately, the present that Nicholas returned to was not his own, but one that was slightly different. There had been a Nicholas Marsh in this present and he too had gone missing over a year ago, but that Nicholas Marsh had also been married whereas the Nicholas Marsh who had returned from the prehistoric past had not been. Now he has to contend with a present that is just not quite right – none of the books he had written seemed to exist and he is having to work on them anew – and a wife with whom he has no history.

To do anything in Primeval – The Roleplaying Game, a character rolls two six-sided dice and to the result of this he adds an attribute and a skill appropriate to the action. The total must beat a target ranging from nine for an Easy task to thirty for a Nearly Impossible one. The result is qualitative in nature. A result equal to the target or three higher is an Okay result with the "Yes, But..." effect in which a character succeeds, but at a cost; a result of between four and eight greater than the target is a Good result with the "Yes!" effect in which the character succeeds completely; whilst any result of nine or more is a Fantastic result with a Yes, And..." effect in which the character not completely succeeds with an extra benefit! There is a corresponding set of three types of failure if a player rolls badly, but all six results encourage a qualitative outcome, one that contributes towards the story that is being played and told. A player can modify a dice roll by spending Story Points, primarily by increasing the number of dice a player rolls when attempting an action. No matter the number of dice to be rolled though, only two count towards the roll.

For example, our sample character, Nicholas Marsh has accompanied his team to investigate an Anomaly in a cinema complex and reports of a publicity stunt gone wrong. Discovering some spoor, he suggests that the stunt is actually a dinosaur that has come through the Anomaly and discovering some spoor identifies it as a predator. He decides to track it to wherever it might have its lair.  Nick's player would normally add his Awareness attribute and his Animal Handling skill to a roll of two six-sided dice to get a result, but he also has the Tracker Trait so gets a +2 bonus to the roll. To ensure that Nick finds the creature as quickly as possible, his player spends a Story Point to add two extra dice to the roll (if he were to spend more Story Points, he could only add another die for each as he only gets two dice for the first Story point spent).

Nick's player rolls 3, 3, 4, and 6. He selects the 4 and the 6 as his best dice before adding his Awareness 4 and Animal Handling 3 along with the +2 bonus from his Tracker Trait bonus for a total of 19. The GM has set the target for this as Tricky or 15 as the lighting in the cinema is poor. The result is four is higher than the target, which is a Good roll with a "Yes!" effect. So Nick is able to track the creature to wherever it has gone...

Much like Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space – The Roleplaying Game, which uses the same mechanics, combat in Primeval – The Roleplaying Game is slightly different to that of a traditional RPG. In the former, initiative always favours those who want to talk first, then those who want to do something, and lastly those who actually want to attack. In Primeval – The Roleplaying Game, initiative is handled according to your speed – fast creatures go first in order of Coordination, then humans and other creatures of a similar speed in order of Coordination, and lastly slow creatures in order of Coordination. Further, as in Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space – The Roleplaying Game, taking damage in the Primeval – The Roleplaying Game is deadly. This because damage suffered is levied directly from a player or creature’s attributes, which impinges on a player’s ability to act as reflected in lower attribute numbers to add to skill rolls.

The danger inherent to combat in Primeval – The Roleplaying Game only escalates when it comes to the game’s fearsome monsters. Terrors like the avian Phorusrhacid and the ferocious Utahraptor, not mentioned the mysterious “Future Predator,” are capable of killing human beings, as indeed are the numerous insects, infections, and other biological dangers that exist on the other side of the Anomalies. Although the RPG’s various monsters use the same attributes, and similar skills and traits as player characters, the monsters have their own special stat – Threat. This is a measure of how aggressive a creature is, the higher it is, the more aggressive it is. If a creature is hungry, in fear, injured, or displays aggression, its Threat rises, whilst its Threat will fall over time, if it feeds, or a successful Animal Handling skill roll is made against it. When playing a monster, the GM can spend Threat to give it bonus dice, lower the damage it suffers, or to activate its Threat Powers, such as the “Leaping Attack” of the Utahraptor.

As much as Threat is mechanic to help the GM, it is one that can be manipulated by the player characters. Do they need to calm a scared Scutosaurus in order to herd it through an Anomaly? Then good fodder and an Animal Handling skill check might be the solution. Or do they need to get an Utahraptor to chase them into an Anomaly? Then they should be aggressive towards it in order to attract its attention. Almost thirty monsters from the past are described in Primeval – The Roleplaying Game, and that in addition to the various humans from the past and certain dangers from the future. Beyond that, guidelines are provided to enable the GM to create his own threats, and the soon-to-be released Primeval Companion details another forty-five or so.

A similar mechanic handles cover-ups, one part of the ARC’s remit, but instead of Threat, this is Exposure. By sealing Anomalies, capturing creatures, and creating cover stories, an ARC team can reduce Exposure, but witnesses, victims, physical evidence, imagery, nosy investigators, journalists, and conspiracy theorists all work to raise Exposure.

Since the television series and thus Primeval – The Roleplaying Game involves time travel, it is no surprise that both this and the means of achieving time travel as well as its dangers – the Anomalies – are discussed in some detail. This includes the possibility of changing the time line and all of the hazards that entails. Again, a mechanic similar to that used for Threat and Exposure is used to assess the possibility of Temporal Damage, which if it gets too high, can lead to the current time line actually being altered.

A quarter of the book is written specifically for the GM, although a good half of the book – the latter half of the book – is really intended for his eyes only. This quarter includes an excellent chapter on gamemastering. It not only covers the basics, but provides a very useful description of the various types of player from power gamers and butt-kickers to storytellers and casual gamers, including their benefits and foibles. It takes the GM through the process of creating a single-session adventure, then a longer two or three session adventure, thus building up to campaign. Although the advice is written for Primeval – The Roleplaying Game, it would fit well with many other RPGs. More specific to the setting, the GM’s advice covers its secrets as they are known by the end of season three of the television series. This includes conspiracies, supported by details of those seen on screen and those created for the RPG, both of which are pleasingly inventive; and details of the future and its inhabitants. To be honest, this section does not go into too much detail, keeping it vague much like the television series. Rounding out the Primeval – The Roleplaying Game is a solid scenario for use with an ARC based campaign. It is written with the neophyte GM in mind, having clearly marked separate sections for both him and the GM who has more experience.

Physically, Primeval – The Roleplaying Game draws on the television series for its illustrations – so lots of photographs of dinosaurs along with various members of the cast. The book is cleanly and tidily laid out, using quite an open layout.

Primeval – The Roleplaying Game feels very complete. It not only provides everything that a player and GM needs to start a campaign within the setting and more, especially with the given examples. It serves as thoroughly researched sourcebook for the series, matching this with rules and mechanics that support most obviously the action of the television series, but also just as effectively its storytelling aspects too. Away from the television series, if you wanted a dinosaur-hunting, cross-time conspiracy RPG with an understandably British restraint, then Primeval – The Roleplaying Game is your answer to said wont. It does all that and it does it well in an engaging fashion. So not only is Primeval – The Roleplaying Game a fine adaptation of the television series, it is a fun dinosaur-hunting, cross-time conspiracy RPG that stands on its own.