Friday, October 26, 2012

Span TwoPointFive... AKA expanding to Span Seven

In the Continuum RPG, PCs progress through 5 "character levels" known as Spans.  I have to come to conclusion that these levels are not divided correctly nor mapped ideally. The hurdles, jumps, and responsibilities of the various Span levels are not evenly distributed. In this post I will document the issues I'm finding with them as we move into the fourth year of my current campaign, and propose changes to the structure that I would happily implement if I had my campaign to do again. Adopting them now, mid-campaign, would be problematic, but they'd be a huge improvement if implemented from day one.

In the default rules, you start out as a Span One who can teleport up to 1 year into the future or past, and carry about 10 lbs of mass beyond their own body weight. Each "level" beyond that expands those limits by a factor of 10. (So a Span Two PC is exhausted and needs a good night's rest after traveling 10 years, and can carry 100lbs of equipment or wardrobe with them.) This works well in the early stages, and buys the GM time to get a handle on the setting and system before having to do a lot of historical research, or stat out 23rd Century Technology.

However, in my experience, players find themselves yearning for the historical exploration portion of the game long before their characters are technically accomplished enough to undertake it. When you sign on to play in a time-travel game, you're picturing visits to Ancient Rome, Elizabethan England, or at least WWII. Per a literal read of the rules and setting, however, you have no business investigating such places until you're Span Four, Three, or Two, respectively, at which points they are still several night's travel away and thus getting there is an adventure in itself. Promotion to Span Three in Continuum takes too damn long. Which is fine from in-character perspective (you advance based on merit, and self-control is a hallmark of the Continuum), but mostly annoying from an out-of-character perspective. If you pitch me on a time-travel game, I want to be hobnobbing with Shakespeare and Caesar within a few weeks at most, not only after years of play.

What's more, certain Spans have more going on within them than others. Span One is just about screwing up, surviving your own cluelessness, and eventually learning the ropes. There's a couple basic lessons that the Player (not just Character) needs to learn, then the flip switches and they're ready for Span Two. In Contrast, S2 starts out as "Span One, With Fewer Screw-Ups," but eventually transitions into "Visit the Nearby Decades" and/or "Split Up Into Different Fraternities".  The latter transition at the least feels like a major milestone and will heavily alter the tone of the campaign, but nothing within the game clearly demarks it's borders. Which means you have a lot of territory to cover before you reach Span Three, and players feel somewhat devoid of the status markers that other games have taught them to expect along the way.

While that does leave some maneuvering room for the GM to customize their game and it's pacing, it does so at the risk of making the players feel like they aren't progressing fast enough despite a string of successes.  "We keep winning, but we still haven't learned everything we need to reach Span Three."  A kind GM can hand-wave the mechanical/XP requirements (and the players are empowered to take the reigns on that part of it), there's not much you can do to gloss over the required setting familiarity.

You get to the point where you want to play S3 and S4 style adventures long before you could possibly have seen enough of the setting to justify such a promotion. My own attempts to accelerate this process have resulted in my roster of NPCs expanding to ridiculous numbers as I try to shoehorn in Fraternal NPCs into spare scenes as I can. For most games, if the players don't feel like reading the setting sourcebooks, you can usually make do as long as the GM (and maybe one player) know the world well, but over the past several years I've found that Continuum's many buzzwords, stratagems, and subgroups really do require an in-depth comprehension of the setting in order to advance. You reach a point where the player's in-character advancement is held back if they haven't read the sourcebooks.

Here's a break-down the current system, including major milestones and responsibilities at each Span, plus some estimates of how long it might take to reach this stage.


Span Rating Lessons Learned Experiences, Scenarios, and Accomplishments Minimum Duration (per the rulebook, even an experienced player should not advance faster than this) Actual Duration (how long it took my campaign)
Span One The Maxims. How not to frag yourself in day-to-day mundane events. Screwing up again and again. Wrapping your head around spanning in general. Briefly visiting each year of a single decade. 12+ hours of play, across 2+ months 70 to 100 hours of play, across most of a year
Span Two Self-reliance. The finer points of solving your frag when it does happen. Master Rank in at least two skills from a particular list, Journeyman in four others from that or another list. Your first real adventure, and several more thereafter, each with subsequently less coaching from your NPC mentor. Your first Time Combat. Trips to nearby decades. Some sort of meaningful interaction with each of the 10 different Fraternities. Picking one of those 10 Fraternities, and joining it. Leaving the nest and joining some other established Corner. Possibly making your own new Corner. Taking a part one or more missions or adventures for your new Fraternity and/or Corner. Wrapping up any loose ends in your mundane (pre-spanner) life so you're not a missing person's case. Acquiring a huge list of skills required to qualify for Span Three. 16+ hours of play, across 3+ months (plus 2+ months as Span One) 140 to 200 hours of play?, across nearly two years (plus a year as Span One)
Span Three A tiny bit of Hypnosis skill. (Out-of-character, the play group learns how to juggle multiple plotlines and split the spotlight in an equitable way.) Finally getting to explore places and times more than a decade or two from where the campaign started. Your first real Time Combat without your old Mentor being there as back-up. Probably more Fraternity missions/adventures.  Creating several new Corners of your own. Acting as Mentor to a whole pack of Novice NPCs. Successfully running a Corner of your own for 100 years of Age. 20+ hours of play, across 4+ months (plus 5+ months as Span One and Two) This is roughly where we are now (some variation among characters). It took us just shy of 3 full years to get Here.
Span Four Many more levels of Hypnosis skill. Photographic memory. First trip to Atlantis... which takes a minimum of around 15 teleports (and full night's rests) just to get there and is thus a major adventure in itself. This is the most likely earliest Span to accomplish a trip to any of the juicier bits of the setting (Atlantis, Vielavayana, The Engineers Crisis, The Midwives Crisis, The Hunt Of The Sun, or various real-world cultures of antiquity such as Rome/Greece/Egypt/Sumeria/3 Kingdoms China), so you can bet there'll be a lot of sight-seeing and tangential adventures. At least one of the following: Scoring 200 points in the Greatest Game. -or- Successfully running a major Fraternal Corner for 250 years of Age. -or-  Going all the way Down to Antedesertium to act as a deep cover agent. 20+ hours of play, across 5+ months (plus 9+ months as Span One/Two/Three) We're aren't there yet.
Exalted (Span Five+) Crazy stuff that blows your mind. Telepathy. The Atlantean Councils. At least one major mission against The Enemy, which could range from War in the Geminid to deep cover work inside Antedesertium. Probably a trip Up to the Hour of Inheritence. Any of those things mentioned under Span Four, but dialed up to 11. There is no guarantee your character will get to this stage. Within the setting, most Spanners don't.  The authors of the game specifically request you not even attempt this level of play until you've had (at a bare a minimum) 14 months of experience playing Continuum. Seriously. We're aren't there yet.
That's right, I've been running a Continuum RPG campaign ongoing for about 36 months now, and we've only just recently (2 or 3 sessions ago) promoted most of the PCs to "Span Three".  If that seems like slow going, it is. I am thrilled to have them ascend to this level, but I'm honestly rather annoyed how long it's taken.

Partly that's because my plots are convoluted. Partly it's because I've allowed friendly NPCs to transport the players Down into history, so they haven't _had_ to advance in order to get to the plots that interest them. Partly it's because we're playing over Skype, and sometimes lose most of a session to technical difficulties. Partly it's because we're all 30-something adults with lives that sometimes prevent us from playing for a week or two. Partly it's because the players are in 3 different timezones, which restricts the length of our sessions a little.

But mostly it's because there's a lot of ground to cover before you get to Span Three. Players, as well as characters, need to get really familiar with the setting and all the mind-bending ramifications of time-travel. After all, Span Three represents the transition from Novice to Master/Teacher.

And I think that's kind of a problem. My players haven't been further down than the 16th Century, and that only because friendly NPCs were willing to take them. You're really not equipped to travel the length and breadth of history until Span Four.


It's too late for my campaign, but if I had it all to do over again, I would completely rewrite the breaks for what happens at which Span rating, so that there were more but smaller milestones and a more rapid escalation in PC teleportation range. The chart would look something more like this:

Span Rating
Lessons Learned
Experiences, Scenarios, and Accomplishments
You Can Teleport This Far
Span One
The Maxims. How not to frag yourself in day-to-day mundane events.
Screwing up again and again. Wrapping your head around spanning in general. Briefly visiting each year of a single decade.
4 years, then you need a full night's rest
Span Two
Self-reliance. The finer points of solving your frag when it does happen. Master Rank in any one Skill.
Your first real adventure, and a couple more thereafter, each with subsequently less coaching from your NPC mentor. Your first Time Combat. Trips to nearby decades. Wrapping up any loose ends in your mundane (pre-spanner) life so you're not a missing person's case.  Your first brief interactions with most of the 10 different Fraternities.
16 years, then you need a full night's rest
Span Three (More or less equivalent to the second half of Span Two under the existing system)
Master Rank in a skill relevant to your Fraternity, Journeyman in some number of other skills useful to anyone spanning outside their century of origin. (Out-of-character, the play group learns how to juggle multiple plotlines and split the spotlight in an equitable way.)
Some sort of "Career Day" to introduce any of the Fraternities that didn't rear their heads in Span Two. Picking one of those 10 Fraternities, and joining it. Leaving the nest and joining some other established Corner. Possibly making your own new Corner. Taking a part one or more missions or adventures for your new Fraternity and/or Corner. Acquiring a huge list of skills required to qualify for Span Three.
64 years, then you need a full night's rest
Span Four (Equivalent to the first half of Span Three under the existing system)
A tiny bit of Hypnosis skill.  Master Rank in a skill relevant to anyone spanning outside their century of origin, such as History, Anthropology, Acting, Etc.
Finally getting to explore places and times more than a century or two from where the campaign started. Your first real Time Combat without your old Mentor being there as back-up. Probably more Fraternity missions/adventures.  Creating several new Corners of your own. 
256 years, then you need a full night's rest
Span Five (Equal in prestige to Span Three under the current system. However they have access to centuries much more like a current Span Four.)
Many more levels of Hypnosis skill. Photographic memory. Telepathy is a possibility, but not  required.
First trip to Atlantis... which takes a minimum of around 15 teleports (and full night's rests) just to get there and is thus a major adventure in itself. This is the most likely earliest Span to accomplish a trip to any of the juicier bits of the setting (Atlantis, Vielavayana, The Engineers Crisis, The Midwives Crisis, The Hunt Of The Sun, or various real-world cultures of antiquity such as Rome/Greece/Egypt/Sumeria/3 Kingdoms China), so you can bet there'll be a lot of sight-seeing and tangential adventures.  Successfully running one or more Corners of your own.
1,024 years, then you need a full night's rest
Span Six (Equal in prestige to Span Four under the current system, because we're valuing teachers more, and acknowledging that not all PCs are up to running a Novice/Mentor Corner of their own. )
Master Rank in Teaching.
Acting as Mentor to a whole pack of Novice NPCs. Between "shifts" teaching the NPC scrubs, you have more  adventures of the sort mentioned for the previous Span, but getting there and back again is much easier.
4,096 years, then you need a full night's rest
Exalted (Equal to the current system's take on Exalted. There were more steps to get here, but each step was a little smaller.)
Crazy stuff that blows your mind. Telepathy, for starters.
The Atlantean Councils. At least one major mission against The Enemy, which could range from War in the Geminid to deep cover work inside Antedesertium. Probably a trip Up to the Hour of Inheritence. Any of those things mentioned under the previous spans, but dialed up to 11.
16,384 years, then you need a full night's rest. Which means you can go from the Hour of Inheritance all the way Down to the Atlantean Councils in a single teleport.

That's my proposal for a smoother version of the game. If I were designing Continuum 2.0, that's how I'd break it up.

From Span One to Exalted is 6 promotions instead of 4, but each promotion has less of a barrier in terms of xp requirements and familiarity with the setting. The largest barrier to PC advancement, which is the sudden redirection of the campaign to the PCs being mentors themselves, is pushed to very late in the campaign, and becomes a natural divide between those that do or don't advance to the final rank. The somewhat less-daunting barrier of picking a Fraternity, which tends to split up the campaign into more subplots and less screentime per player, is delayed a tiny bit, and becomes the focus of it's own milestones in-character.  Over all, character progression should be faster and cleaner. Players have more clearly defined goals, which are spread out more evenly across the ranks.

The x4 instead of x10 spanning range at each level isn't quite as clean or easy (the same can also be said about having 7 levels instead of 5), but I think that's a fair trade off for getting to actually visit other centuries before you have to start thinking about Mentoring for a gaggle of NPC Novices.





P.S.: Sorry for the ugliness of the tables. Blogger ate my original HTML, and the process of fixing it was much easier if I just stole someone else's code (in case blogger ate it because of some error I had made.)

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