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Sunday 17 December 2023

1983: Timeship

1974 is an important year for the gaming hobby. It is the year that Dungeons & Dragons was introduced, the original RPG from which all other RPGs would ultimately be derived and the original RPG from which so many computer games would draw for their inspiration. It is fitting that the current owner of the game, Wizards of the Coast, released the new version, Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, in the year of the game’s fortieth anniversary. To celebrate this, Reviews from R’lyeh will be running a series of reviews from the hobby’s anniversary years, thus there will be reviews from 1974, from 1984, from 1994, and from 2004—the thirtieth, twentieth, and tenth anniversaries of the titles. These will be retrospectives, in each case an opportunity to re-appraise interesting titles and true classics decades on from the year of their original release.


Time Master: Adventures in the 4th Dimension from Pacesetter Ltd. was published in 1984 and it was fun, giving a good idea of what the Player Characters, or Time Agents, should do, a threat to face in the form of the alien Demoreans, and the Game Master support in the form of scenarios and supplements. If you want a classic, pulp action Science Fiction time travel roleplaying game, Time Master: Adventures in the 4th Dimension has a lot to recommend it and it is still in print. However, it was not the first time travel roleplaying game. That was Timeship: A role playing game of time travel and adventure., published by Yaquinto Publications in 1983.

Unfortunately, it has almost nothing to actually recommend it, yet is still in print. It begins on the back of the box with, “THERE ARE NO MORE BARRIERS!” and continues with, “Yesterday you travelled to 600,000,000ad and solved a bizarre murder mystery. Today you watch, amazed, as the merchants of Gomorrah trade in vice and corruption. Tomorrow you will stalk the war-torn streets of Berlin in search of Adolph Hitler. You are a time traveller, and there are no more barriers.” Which does indeed sound amazing—because time travel does indeed sound amazing—and those are all things that you can do in Timeship because they are the settings for its three scenarios, but to claim that there are no more barriers is wholly inaccurate, for there is one single barrier to all of this, and that is a roleplaying game called Timeship: A role playing game of time travel and adventure.

Timeship: A role playing game of time travel and adventure. was originally published as a boxed set (The version from Precis Intermedia is a sixty-two page book). Behind its garishly weird cover which combines floating figures with glowing eyes, a domed city, an eyeball in a planet, a red knight, a pocket watch, a dinosaur, and a never-ending blank scroll, the box contains a single rulebook, a thick sheaf of character sheets, a Timelord Screen, and a set of maps and a set of illustrations for the roleplaying game’s three scenarios. It all looks to be of excellent quality—and it is. The maps are nice, the illustrations are good, and the screen is easy to read. All that changes when you start to read the rulebook, because when you start to read the rulebook, it is difficult to work out whether Timeship is an operating manual for a timeship, a guide to worshiping a timeship, or just an oddly written roleplaying game which does involve time travel, but not an actual ship.*

* if you want to know what it, it is the third of these options. An oddly written roleplaying game which does involve time travel, but not an actual ship. Despite the title.

The rulebook begins in-game. It forgoes the traditional explanation of what a roleplaying game is—the nearest that Timeship gets to that is on the back cover, and instead explains that what the reader has in his hands is essentially the translation, by the author himself, of a collection of cuneiform writings on papyrus and leather discovered near the site of the city of Jericho and the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in Israel in the nineteen sixties. What the translation revealed was astounding. It was the ‘Great Ritual of the Timeship’, launched into space as the last, desperate act of an unnamed alien race to preserve its greatest achievement, that is, time travel, either as an interstellar probe or a mental message, which was then discovered by the ancient Sumerians and recorded. Then taken to Israel following the invasion by Israel. The ‘Great Ritual of the Timeship’ aspect will have a profound effect upon the writing of what comes next, the ‘Timeship Operating Manual’, of which the following are examples:
“The Group is gathered!

And as a Group, you all must now select a Timelord.

It is in the nature of a Timelord that he may not directly venture into Time. He may not seek the thrill of battle, may not taste the flower of bygone ages. Thus, to become a Timelord involves great sacrifice.

To compensate, a Timelord will eventually acquire the powers of a Creator. From his vast energies are whole worlds spun. The Timelord is the Judge of nations — and you all. He is your Guide, all you who now desire to venture into Time.

Choose well. By secret ballot, mortal combat, or whatever system is most favored by your culture.

Choose wisely. For the Timelord henceforth holds your lives within his hands.

Choose quickly. Already there are stirrings in the grey depths of the timestream.

When you have chosen, honour your new Timelord by the gift of this, his TIMESHIP. It is not lawful for others to read further.

…And then:

Your Group must generate its ENERGY.

Within the TIMESHIP are two coloured spheres of many facets. One is the Greater Sphere of Color. The other is the Lesser Sphere of White.

Each member of your Group must now engage upon the Rolling of the Spheres.

By our arts we have embodied in the Spheres energy sufficient for each time trip.

he digits on the coloured Sphere each represent 10 units of the ENERGY. The digits on the White Sphere each represent one unit of the ENERGY.

The Spheres must be rolled together for the ENERGY to generate.”
This last quote is, essentially, an explanation of the dice. The whole four pages of the ‘Timeship Operating Manual’ is written in this fashion, which beggars belief. And this follows the four-page introduction to how the ‘Timeship Operating Manual’ was found and this in a forty-eight-page rulebook, half of which is comprised of the roleplaying game’s three scenarios. Which leaves twelve pages to explain how the game works. Now fortunately, the next section, ‘Commentaries on the Timeship’, is easier to understand, but not by much. In effect, the following description is of is a translation of what the Timelord—as the Game Master is known in Timeship—and the Voyagers—as the players are known in Timeship—are meant to be doing in Timeship. And remember this is a translation from the English.

As Voyagers, the players in
Timeship do not create characters. Indeed, there is no means of creating characters in Timeship.* Instead, they play themselves. This is not an unusual concept. Fantasy Games Unlimited’s superhero roleplaying game, Villains and Vigilantes, did it, as did another time travel roleplaying game, Timelords, from Blacksburg Tactical Research Center. Rather than create stats or skills, a Voyager is measured by four factors: Personal Energy, Group Energy, Combat Reserve Energy, and Permanent Energy.

* Technically, this is not true. See below.

Personal Energy is rolled on 3d100 at the start of each scenario. First, it contributes to the Group Energy, and then in play it is expended to purchase personal clothing equipment at the start of the adventure, to shape change the Voyager so that he blends in with whatever historical period he is visiting, make an attack or dodge an attack during combat, heal Combat Reserve Energy, take damage when Combat Reserve Energy is exhausted, power a transportation vehicle when Group Energy is exhausted, power ‘Wild Talents’ or psychic powers (although what these psychic powers are is not described in the rulebook), and to move. Should a Voyager ever have his Personal Energy reduced to zero he is dead. Fortunately before that happens, a local physician can attempt to heal the Voyager. The physician has a seventy percent chance of healing the Voyager, a one percent chance of not being able to help the Voyager at all, and a twenty-nine percent chance of doing the Voyager further injury.

Group Energy is a shared resource. Its value is combination of each Voyager’s Personal Energy. It is expended for three things. First is to active the ‘Gateway’ to a Capsule—‘Capsule’ is what Timeship calls an adventure or scenario, second is purchase group equipment, and third is to generate movement of vehicles that the Voyagers have brought with them into the Capsule. Each ‘Gateway’ has an activation cost and this is paid for from the Group Energy pool, the Game Master determining the cost based on the number of Voyagers, the difficulty of the adventure, and any limitations upon equipment that can be taken with the Voyagers. However, since the players are allowed to roll for their Personal Energy until they are happy with the result, neither the need to roll for Personal Energy nor the need for sufficient Group Energy seems to matter that much.

Combat Reserve Energy represents how much damage a Voyager can suffer during an adventure. It is rolled on 2d100 at the start of play, but unlike Personal Energy, is only rolled the once. Permanent Energy is earned through successful completion of a Capsule and acts as a bonus to a Voyager’s roll for Personal Energy at the start of each adventure. However, death or failure during a Capsule can lead to the loss of Permanent Energy, including being reduced to a negative number. Essentially then, the last thing that Permanent Energy can be described as being, is ‘Permanent’.

So far then,
Timeship appears to be a resource management game, with players expending their Voyager’s Personal Energy to equip and alter themselves before expending Group Energy to travel in time and once at their destination use Personal Energy to do anything bar talking. However, that changes when it comes to combat, which is surprisingly more detailed than Timeship would initially suggest. The expenditure of Personal Energy is still required to attack, dodge, and move, but to successfully make an attack, the percentile dice must be rolled. Combat adds a fifth factor—only mentioned when it comes to the combat rules—to a Voyager and that is the Speed Factor. This is a straightforward percentile roll and like the other factors, is rolled at the start of the adventure. Speed Factor represents both combat speed, a combatant with higher Speed Factor going first, and the number of attacks a combatant can make, a Speed Factor of sixty and above indicating that he has two or more attacks. So, a combatant with a Speed Factor of eighty will make three attacks before a combatant with a Speed Factor of fifty can do anything other than dodge.

Every Voyager has a personal ‘THN’ or ‘To Hit Number’ for the weapons that they want to use, from fists, slings, and swords to automatic pistols, grenades, fifteenth century cannon, and bazookas. Again, this ‘To Hit Number’ is not defined in
Timeship.* This ‘To Hit Number’ is modified by the location targeted—every attack is a called shot, range, weapon type, and so on. If the roll is equal to, or higher, than the resulting ‘To Hit Number’, the attack is a success. Every weapon has a damage modifier, which is added to the difference between the ‘To Hit Number’ and the number rolled if successful. Any armour worn, will reduce the damage suffered.

* Technically, this is also not true. See below.

The combat rules are surprisingly straightforward and in a marked change of tone from the earlier ‘TIMESHIP OPERATING MANUAL’ are easy to read and understand. Similarly, so are the list of items of equipment that a Voyager might want to take into a Capsule and their costs in Personal Energy, including a Marvel comic. However, besides whatever equipment a Voyager wants to purchase to take into a Capsule,
Timeship advises that any physical items that a player has on him when he comes to the table, can also be taken with the Voyager, but at no cost in terms of Personal Energy. The roleplaying game also notes that this is open to abuse and that the Game Master should say no to anything too ridiculous. The example given is of a player actually turning up to play Timeship, “…[W]earing a World War One gas-mask and carrying a sword!”. It is an amusing aside in what is otherwise a very straightlaced roleplaying game.

Then the tone of
Timeship shifts again when the author settles down to chat to the Timelord in ‘THE TIMELORD’S BOOK OF SECRETS’ about how best to run the roleplaying game—such as the advice on handling of personal equipment given above—and extoll the virtues of Timeship over any other roleplaying game on the then market. Constantly, the author derides other roleplaying games for their comprehensiveness and complexity, and offering Timeship as an alternative, saying that, “TIMESHIP has been very carefully designed to make things easy for the Timelord – and to make play as interesting for the Timelord as it is for the players.” It is a very bold claim given that Timeship has very clearly, very much not been written to be easy for the Timelord, let alone for the players. For example, it is also here in ‘THE TIMELORD’S BOOK OF SECRETS’ that there is any suggestion as to a resolution mechanic. Essentially, everything that each player knows and can do, his Voyager can do in the game. If the Voyager attempts an action that is difficult or the Timelord thinks that the Voyager’s player has limited capacity to do, the Timelord simply sets a difficulty value and if the Timelord—not the player—rolls equal to or above that value, the Voyager succeeds. This may be modified by the expenditure of Personal Energy, but there is no guidance on this, which is a pity, since it might have given the player some agency.

What follows ‘THE TIMELORD’S BOOK OF SECRETS’ are the three Capsules, or adventures, in
Timeship. Yet, Timeship has not yet finished explaining its rules, but to be clear the presentation of these follow the three Capsules and are either on the Timelord Screen rather than in the rulebook or on the back of the rulebook rather than before any other explanation of the rules. So, first, on the back of the rulebook, there are actually rules for creating a character or Voyager. A Voyager has eight physical attributes—which are only given on the Personal Data Sheets, or character sheets, for the Voyagers—and these are Speed, Endurance, Intelligence, Strength, Dexterity, Agility, Running Ability, and Jumping Ability. Of course, what they do and how they work is never explained. The base value for each is fifty and a player is allowed to distribute another fifty points between them. Also on the back of the rulebook is an actual resolution mechanic using these physical attributes, which is rolling equal to or less than the physical attribute to succeed at an action. Every other mechanic requires the player to roll high rather than low to succeed and the inclusion of the Speed Physical Attribute is incongruous given both the lack of explanation of how it works in the roleplaying game and that there is already a Speed Factor that a player has to randomly roll for, for use in combat, at the start of every adventure.

Similarly, on the back cover of the rulebook, there is the means to create the ‘To Hit Number’ values for various weapons. These values start at sixty and a player can lower the ‘To Hit Number’ values by assigning a total of forty points based on his expertise or experience with a particular weapon. What though, does a player do if he has no expertise or experience with any weapon? There the limitations of the rules and the concept behind the play of
Timeship come to a screeching halt up against reality. In addition, the Timelord Screen has actual modifiers for actions on ‘The Anything Table’ and actually explains how Shape Changing works and what the ‘Wild Talents’ are in Timeship. These are Telepathy, Psychokinesis, Pyrokinesis, Precognition, and Empathy. However, how they manifest, is entirely left up to the Timelord to decide.

Lastly, then, there are the three Capsules in
Timeship. There are two types, the ‘Adventure Capsule’ and the ‘Task Capsule’. In an Adventure Capsules, the Voyagers are free to explore the period they are visiting before discovering one or more pre-existing EXITS and make their way back to their own time. In a Task Capsule, the Voyagers must fulfil a task or complete an objective before an EXIT will and allow them to return to their own time. The first is ‘Murder at the End of Time’, set in the far future and taking place in artificial world that mixes fact and fiction within a closed environment. The Voyagers arrive to find themselves in a seemingly empty world except for a table laid for a children’s tea party and a coffin. In the coffin, stabbed to death is Dracula, and then a factotum will turn up to tell the Voyagers that they have to solve his murder. There is a determined sense of unreality to the Capsule as if the Voyagers are being played with, and as the Voyagers move around the area, bounded by forcefields, encountering Jeeves the Butler, Little Red Riding Orphan Annie Oakey, and a mafia boss from the seventies done up as an organ grinder, and gathering information and clues, they are also likely to become frustrated. This is primarily because there is no obvious or even unobvious way to solve the murder. Nevertheless, it is engagingly silly and absurd and with the addition of some clues as to the identity of the culprit could be quite fun.

In the second adventure, the Voyagers travel into the ancient past to discover how exactly one of the most notorious cities in all of history was destroyed. ‘The Destruction of Gomorrah’ is quite open-ended, with the Voyagers left to their own devices to wander around, from building to building, without any real sense of direction, looking for anything of interest. The inhabitants go about their daily business without any interest in the Voyagers, although a time traveller from the twenty-eighth century (who uses a different form of time travel*) might pop by to tell the Voyagers that their presence is a danger to the city. The details of most locations are randomly determined. Those that are not consist of the slave market where the Voyagers arrive, a guard house, the parkland (which has its own encounter table), the city palace (which immediately erupts into flames and burns down if the Voyagers gain entrance), and the ziggurat temple to Moloch.

* One can also hope that this form of different time travel is served by a better roleplaying game.

It is at the temple of the Moloch that the Voyagers will discover what happened to the city of Gomorrah, or rather what is going to happen to it within hours whilst they are there. Aliens have planted a nuclear bomb beneath the statue of Moloch and are going to detonate it because the city’s inhabitants are not going to evolve into better human beings. And even if the Voyagers do manage to find the bomb—despite the lack of clues—and do defuse it, the aliens are going to destroy the city anyway. So, the actions of the players have been to naught and in the meantime, their Voyagers will have wandered a city which lives up to its reputation as a den of vice and iniquity in all its glory. The good thing though, is that if a Voyager does catch lice from sleeping with a prostitute, it only takes the expenditure of three points of Personal Energy to kill the attacking lice.

If ‘The Destruction of Gomorrah’ proves to be both prurient and pointless, the third and final adventure, ‘Assassinate the Fuhrer!’, manages to be equally as unpleasant and also a bit of a slog. The Voyagers find themselves in Berlin in the final days of the Third Reich at the end of World War Two. They must get across Berlin to the Führerbunker, get inside and ensure that Hitler commits suicide or kill him to ensure that history runs its proper course. Whilst there is a lot of historical detail to the scenario, the majority of that detail is unpleasant, whether that is encountering avowed Nazis and their reprehensible views, actual historical figures trying to escape, or simply civilians trying to survive. Plus, there is the constant chance of death, whether from bombs and shrapnel, or making a mistake when interacting with the vile NPCs. The likelihood is that the Voyagers will need to take desperate measures to learn of the defences and internal details of Führerbunker, including possibly torture. Overall, interesting in its detail, but again, unpleasant from start to finish.

Physically, Timeship: A role playing game of time travel and adventure. is actually very nicely presented. The rulebook is cleanly laid and the artwork in both the rulebook and the illustration handouts is good, as is the cartography. Unfortunately, it is badly organised and badly written to the point of frustration.

Timeship was reviewed by Ken Rolston in Dragon #80 (December 1983). Rolston noted that he had “…[S]ome reservations about the style of presentation for the rules. Herbie Brennan has tried hard to create a sense of presence and atmosphere for the game, maintaining the fiction that this is not a game at all, but a powerful ritual discovered in ancient scrolls; this effort seems strained at times. What Brennan intends as a humorous and informal tone is often irritatingly cute and self-indulgent, and the rules of play themselves are difficult to read and reference because of the idiosyncratic style.” Despite reservations about the style of the roleplaying game and the silliness of one of the some of the scenarios, he was positive in the end, saying, “First, it is a distinctive example of simpler, rather than more complex, FRP game mechanics. Second, the central idea of the game, time travel, is marvelously fertile soil for FRP gaming, and this is the first game to attempt to cultivate it. Finally, I believe this game may be more accessible to those not already addicted to games.”

However, William A. Barton was decidedly more critical in his review in Space Gamer #70 (July-August 1984), dedicating a whole three pages to the review instead of the usual capsule review. He began with, “Timeship is – at least to me – the ultimate disappointment. While it does indeed involve time travel, it a roleplaying game only in the loosest terms. Not only that, it can be called science fiction only by stretching that term to it limits. What we have instead of hard—or even soft – SF is SF couched in terms of mystical mumbo-jumbo. Even the term “science fantasy” would be generous if applied to this game. Maybe “pseudo-science fantasy” would be closest one would come to describing Timeship. I cringe to one of my favourite subjects treated so.” Barton was scathing in his criticism of Timeship from start to finish, ending with, “As much as I enjoy time travel and would like to role-play such journeys into the past and future, I can hardly recommend Timeship. Unless you’re prepared to do a lot of work rewriting and making up rules, you’re best off waiting for someone else to take a shot at a time travel RPG.”

What becomes clear from the design of
Timeship is that it is not traditional time travel roleplaying game like that which would follow and succeed where it fails. Instead, the Voyagers—or even possibly the players—are performing a ceremony to cast themselves backwards or forward in time via a portal or through a mental process rather than stepping aboard any type of vehicle. Consequently, this is a roleplaying game called Timeship in which there is no ship. Instead, it the players as themselves who travel through time and have adventures without all that needless mucking about with time travel and temporal causality. The aims of its designer are laudable—simplicity and ease of play versus the complexities of the roleplaying games he saw on the market at the time, but by enshrouding the text of the roleplaying game in an unnecessarily mystical and irritating style he obfuscates his aims over and over. Really, some of the writing in Timeship is laughably po faced and self-righteously pious in its attempt to turn the roleplaying game into a ceremony. Then when the rules are found and they are decoded from the author’s irksome religiosity and the book’s risibly rotten organisation, they turn out to be simplistic and barely up to any task, let alone that of time travel.

Yaquinto Publications released three roleplaying games—Man, Myth & Magic and Pirates & Plunder, both in 1982, and then
Timeship in 1983. Timeship is the worst of three by any measure, excruciatingly overwritten, astoundingly underexplained, and mindbogglingly hindered by its own author. Timeship is an exemplary example of how not to write a roleplaying game and that is what it deserves to be known for, that and the fact that as the very first time travel roleplaying game, Timeship: A role playing game of time travel and adventure. has made every single time travel roleplaying game since look brilliant.

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