Friday, December 2, 2011

Information Is All - and sometimes that drives me crazy!

As some of my readers know, I'm running this time-travel game two nights a week. It's the setting of the out-of-print Continuum RPG, but with mechanics derived primarily from the Gumshoe system (Trail of Cthulhu, Esoterrorists, etc.)  It's a game where PCs can teleport and time-travel at will, in a deterministic universe where the past (and future) is unchangeable and set in stone, but you can often reverse-engineer alternate explanations to the events that have already been witnessed. (Sort of like when Doc Brown puts on the bullet-proof vest to survive that time when Marty saw him get gunned down by the Libyan terrorists. You can't stop the established events from happening, but you can finesse the unknown details.)

1. Information Is All

Upon whether I know or not know a thing, depends my existence. If I know a thing is to happen, it is my foremost responsibility to see that it happens. This is my Yet, or Required Future, and it is the price I gladly pay to span time. Change of the known is resisted by the Continuum ceaselessly so that our greater liberties and lives will be fulfilled.

- The First Maxim, CoNTINUUM: roleplaying in The Yet, by Adams / Fooden / Manui

I'm constantly working on the myriad small details of this campaign. It's got a huge cast of NPCs spanning centuries, and multiple interwoven long-term plotlines. While Gumshoe is a pretty rules-light system, converting the very heady and esoteric concepts of Continuum's "Time Combat" (not to mention Narcissist's "Mnemelos Scale" of "Map Coordinates") into Gumshoe has also produced a fairly lengthy body of text. I'm really proud of the hard work I've been putting into it for the past two years.

And yet I am continually frustrated by my inability to share most of that work Here. The bulk of the mechanical conversion work would push the boundaries of "fair use" to just post it on the wide-open internet. More to the point, the plot- and character-related material often runs into spoiler territory. Given that it's a game where the PCs can hop down to 1518 on a whim (as they've done recently to check out the dancing plague), the GM has to spend a lot of time prepping things that may or may not get used, any of which would totally wreck the mystery (of a very-much puzzle-and-mystery-driven campaign) if they were leaked to the players out of sequence. I'm sure all GMs of mystery-based games get a certain amount of this "keep the plot to myself" anxiety, but it is most definitely intensified by the non-linear nature of time travel (the PCs can pursue plot threads in any sequence and with no time-pressure to keep them on-task) and the particular deterministic wrinkles of the way Continuum's in-game consensus reality is formed. There's never really a moment where you can definitively say that a specific piece of unrevealed plot twist is no longer relevant. Every piece of information the characters have determines things that are set in stone and cannot be altered except by fiddling with the details that they clearly didn't observe. This means spoilers don't just undermine dramatic tension, they also force the wave-form of the universe to collapse into a particular resolved quantum state. Disentangling in-character vs out-of-character information is harder than in most other games, which provokes a paranoid degree of caution and silence when discussing the game other than in-character and "at the table".

Sometimes that need to play things close to the vest makes me feel like I'm going to burst at the seams. That's my recurring bugaboo that nags at me no matter how much fun the game is -- in fact this specific frustration gets worse when the sessions and plots are at their best. Despite two years of continual experience with it, I still haven't grown comfortable with the feeling, and the growing body of work I can't really share without ruining future surprises just about gets the better of me at times.

I really need to figure out ways in which I can share a larger portion of the data, work and writing without undermining the ongoing campaign. I've been saying that for two years now - it's about damn time I make good on it.

1 comment: said...

Yeah, I wish you could share that information as well. But, yeah, a time travel game can be a major headache and other games that tried either threw in the towel and let you create paradoxes or they wimped out and let you create an alternate timeline off of the main line.

If you ever get the chance, check out Steins; Gate, it's an anime that revolves around time travel and the problems associated with this ability. I got a copy if you want to borrow.