Publisher: Hamsterprophet Productions
Review Dated: 11th, December 2005
Reviewer’s Rating: 6/10 [ On the ball ]
Total Score: 6
Average Score: 6.00
If you’re in a gaming group who regularly discuss RPG publishers like Hamsterprophet Productions then you’re in an elite minority.
Roleplaying a hobby which attracts talented and intelligent individuals and its no surprise that some of these guru-gamers occasionally produce an RPG as a project of their own, as an artistic, scientific or intellectual experiment. Once and a while these intellectually spawned games make it on to the market too as the objective of either exploring the commercial aspects of the hobby, raising a writer or artists profile or the not unrealistic desire to re-coup on the vast effort that goes into each game.
Roll on Timestream RPG and Hamsterprophet Productions. This is a non-typical RPG by the artist and writer Nathan Paoletta. Paoletta uses Hamsterprophet Productions as a channel for his own creative projects.
Do not expect gloss and hardback publications. Although it is entirely unfair to describe Timestream as unprofessional I think it is fair to say that you can tell that tell Paoletta did not have Hasbro’s financial backing for this one. It’s tempting to day-dream on what might be achieved if original authors like Paoletta did have such support. Timestream, for example, is limited with its own illustrations and makes do with the occasional picture of a watch. Yes; Timestream is a time travelling RPG.
There are two types of time travelling RPGs; those which are hugely complicated and those which aren’t. Timestream is in the latter category of game. This is not a hard RPG to master.
It’s a plus for Timestream that it is different; with tokens as well as dice, Anchors as well as PCs and R-Maps as well as character generation, and yet easy to master. Unless you struggled to convert form Fighting Fantasy to rolling polyhedrals you will not struggle with Timestream.
The main drawback for Timestream is that it doesn’t engage. It’s easy to master but hard to relate to. I can’t quite work out why I would like to play Timestream. There are other time travelling RPGs (or rather, roleplaying games which either contain time travelling elements or which are dedicated to the genre). I suspect one of the weaknesses Timestream faces here is the lack of a compelling meta plot. The game says there are people who can travel in or manipulate time. We don’t know why. We don’t know what they do. There’s no secret organisation that we can get our teeth into or build plots around.
There’s two ways we can go from here; we can either look at why Timestream might have been designed without any central hook or we can look at the challenges the GM faces because of this.
Let’s look at “the why” for now – but keep the poor GM in your thoughts.
Character creation is different in Timestream as it comes in two phases. After working out names and numbers in the first phase – date of birth and age are important here (since both can change) we have a second phase for anchors and relationships. An anchor is a special sort of NPC, one who has a strong tie to two or more PCs. The anchor might be a ward or an enemy the PCs have in common (perhaps the ward of one and the enemy of the other…). The R-Map is the diagram which plots these NPCs relationships with the PCs. The idea is that it is these complex relationships are the centre of the plot rather than some comic-book secret organisation or sci-fi conspiracy.
The goal of the Timestream RPG is to create a collective narrative – to tell a story together. It’s the story and not an adventure game on paper which the Hamsterprophet wishes you to concentrate on.
One of the other differences between Timestream and many other RPGs is that here the players have a big say in the narrative. In Timestream the dice resolution focuses on the entire scene rather than an action; ie, you work out who wins the combat rather than working out whether the stroke thrust gets past the shield. In Timestream if the player succeeds in the conflict test then it’s the player who gets to describe, more or less, how the conflict goes and what happens to their character. Even in the most linear adventure players have the uncanny ability to derail the carefully plotted plans of the GM. In Timestream players can wreck plot plans in just one scene.
Here we can see how GMing Timestream can be a real challenge. GMing a time travelling game is especially tricky. We’re fortunate in that we’re told not to worry about paradox – just tell the story. Timestream does tell us that major historical events do tend to make themselves happen. Try and assassinate a young Hitler and discover that your rifle mysteriously jams. We’re not told how or why this happens, just that it does and I get the feeling that such questions are hardly welcomed and we should be concentrating on the story rather than awkward rules.
Another twist to Timestream to make the GM’s life extra tricky is that the characters do not seem to start off in the same decade as one another – at least this seems to be the default option. GMs will have to run a multi-strand plot, leaping back and forth between players, until everyone comes together. That’s if everyone comes together.
There are three types of characters in Timestream. The Travellers are people who can leap through time (so we’re dependant on these people to bring all the PCs together). There are Temporal Manipulators (or TMers for short) who are able to control time as it flows – such as slowing it down or speeding it up. Then there are the Thralls who can channel the powers of others but who have no control of their own destiny.
Mechanics are simple too. We have the tried and tested 2d6 basis from which to work on and a range from -6 to 6. This is a pretty logical stat range for the 2d6 model and it’s surprising we don’t see it more often.
Timestream does not go with the “big spell list” model. In fact, the PDF is only about 60 pages in length. The unusual game mechanic is the use of tokens. Characters swap Time and Strain as they use their abilities. This could have been recorded on the character sheet but the use of physical objects is kinder to gamers who hate rubbing holes in their character sheet (use a plastic sleeve and whiteboard pen). Nevertheless, the addition of tokens is probably alien enough to scare many traditional gamers off.
I must admit I do not like the sample of RPG play provided in the PDF. I find it to be snatchy and erratic. If I was the player who’s character is stuck in a hospital bed then I would be bored. It’s no fun having to watch the GM turn their focus back and forth between the two other players only then to tell you that you’re dreaming of falling before leaving you again. Another character is simply handed a note demanding their presence at the hospital bed of their Anchor NPC. I think it’s a pretty blatant example of how Anchors are simply going to be used to beat you with a large stick. There’s no subtly. There’s nothing thrilling in the example.
I quite like Timestream. I see what it’s trying to do and I value its clever kudos. Although I like the game; I don’t feel the urge to play it. I can tell stories and cooperative narratives from many of my other RPGs and in almost every case the point of entry is so much easier.
Perhaps the best bit about Timestream is Hamsterprophet Productions. I’m very keen to see what Nathan Paoletta does next.