Originally posted at: http://diehardgamefan.com/2011/12/15/tabletop-review-timespan-rpg/
TimeSPAN deals with a subject that I like very much in concept: time travel. What don’t I like about time travel in practice? Well, I think standard RPG sessions (i.e. those that involve killing stuff) can have trouble fitting the ramifications of time travel in. After all, the potential for mind-boggling consequences is huge; unless you’re planning a session that ends the world as anyone knows it, the characters are going to be constrained by rigorous guidelines. In this game, the guidelines are set forth by the organization that the characters belong to: the World Security Commission, of which the agency TimeSPAN is a part (the acronym stands for Time Stream Protection and Normalization). As an agent, your job is to protect the ethical ideals of time travel, basically ensuring that it is never used to alter the past in significant ways. Generally, any change in the time stream is bad. The introductory explanations in the book describe such things as the snowball effect of one soldier being killed instead of the one next to him or the “Grandfather Paradox” where if you go back in time and kill your progenitors, you would cease to exist. Furthermore you would never have existed to go back in time to kill anybody at all! Mind-twisting to be sure. Of course, later in the book, the harsh effect of errant events is tempered by an explanation that the time stream does heal itself somewhat … but I digress.
The agency exists in the year 2102 or thereafter (the typical game in year 2120). Mankind has suffered a devastating war with an aggressive alien species that had sought to take over the planet. In the wake of the war and nursing wounds from a narrow victory, humanity was eventually able to use the alien technology that it had captured to engineer new devices, some of the most fantastic being devices capable of time travel. One key to the breakthrough was a mineral called Chronosite, and this in turn allowed for the discovery of Tachyon particles, the radiation that essentially opens time up for review or travel. A significant portion of the book is dedicated to explaining the history of the organization and how time travel works in this setting, including the specifications of the various “degrees” of time travel; they range from simply being able to see the immediate past to bona fide time travel to the murky, unproven possibility of jumping not only through time and space, but to other planets as well. Of course, later in the book, cross-planetary/-dimension jumps are confirmed in the mechanics. But I digress.
Should something go wrong in the past, there are rules for how to handle it. The GM will rate the disturbance (the “discontinuity”) and then calculate how many years pass from when the disturbance occurred, to when the agent left on the mission. Through a few more quick calculations and dice rolling, the table will find out if something has gotten really screwed up. This part of the book kind of shocked me, to be honest; basically, if an agent messes up in the past, it’s possible something drastic will happen to your character, from a sex change to erasure (you’ll be rolling a d20 to find out)! While novel and a fun idea, the consequences handed out to players who might have to deal with this seem quite tedious. For instance, several of the consequences involve re-rolling stats or choosing entirely different skills. I can’t think of something more off-putting than having to change your entire character around because of a die roll, even just for the time it would take.
In the setting, the TimeSPAN agents deal primarily with “time terrorists”, those who have access to time travel technology and seek to alter the past for their own reasons, be they good-intentioned or not. As I said before, any alteration to the time stream is generally bad, and so the agency works to preserve (maybe to explore as well in cases of cross-planetary jumps). Also included are guidelines for using the system with general sci-fi games and some loose rules for space travel. The sci-fi guidelines mainly talk about alien races, planets, and gravity, and I see them as mostly unnecessary. The space travel rules are similarly superfluous, except detailing a little more about how chronosite works with space travel. By the way, in the chapter describing time jumps it states that the chronosite used in a jump to the past is destroyed. However, in the space travel rules it states that when chronosite is used to travel immense distances in a short time, it simply requires 24 hours to recharge. So is chronosite destroyed under intense strain or is it destroyed because of the jump in time? This is just a small taste of some of the inconsistencies in this volume, not that there are a ton, but there are enough to make the reader stop and shake his head a few times.
I could also do without pages of rules tacked on to the end about using the system with different settings and options. Space ships? More than 2/3 of the book is specifically geared toward time travel on Earth some time after a cataclysmic struggle, and the space travel rules seem like an afterthought and like they belong more to an intergalactic war RPG than this setting (it discusses space battles and moving large numbers of troops). It would be best if the book stayed within its scope and additional rules were released as a supplement. A chapter dedicated to the prime enemies, the time-terrorists, is near the end of the book. I think I would have understood a lot more about the game if I had read it sooner instead of much later (it comes AFTER the space travel rules). OK, enough nitpicking.
Now, I have gone on all this time without discussing two of the most important aspects of an RPG: character creation and core mechanics. The character creation is interesting as you roll a d6 for your attributes, which is random (but you can switch or re-roll attribute scores), and then you use a point-buy system based on your chosen class for skills. A character’s attributes seem to have a rather small effect on the mechanics, as they give you a brief range of modifiers to a roll that involves them, nothing more. For instance, if a character with a 3 (out of a maximum score of 6) Intellect is trying to determine the viscosity of an alien substance, the GM will set the difficulty and the player will receive +1 to their roll from his or her Intellect, in addition to any other modifiers. Your class choices are standards: soldier, scout, spy, medic, etc. The one stand-out is the psychic, who has a chapter dedicated to psychic abilities (many of which function like spells essentially). Each class has certain skills available only to them, they are called “master skills” and are basically special powers the character can use.
The mechanics are straight-forward, familiar to anyone who has used a d20 system: the GM decides a target number based on the difficulty of the task, the player must roll higher than that number on a d20, adding any modifiers. Nice and easy, but plain. In combat, targets will have an Armor Value (AV) that determines their difficulty to hit. Much like Armor Class in D&D, it is an amalgamation of armor, dexterity and any applicable skills; the higher the number, the harder to hit. Damage is also similar to classic RPGs, the character has a number of hit points (Vitality in this game) that are determined by their Endurance score.
Overall, I find TimeSPAN to be uninspiring. It seems shallow and thinly spread, trying to cover a lot of ground with a meager amount of material. Furthermore, there are no innovations here, except possibly the novelty of having d6 attribute scores instead of 3d6; most things are in keeping with very familiar d20 systems. The use of classes lends a stodgy feel to character creation, but I understand why they are there. After all, TimeSPAN is an organization where it makes sense to have specialized personnel. As I mentioned earlier, the space rules and rules for using the game with other systems are annoying to me, and detract from the feeling of the game as an integrated whole instead of a collected series of thoughts. Why would I use your system with other, fully developed systems when there is nothing new in your system, nor does your system expand any aspect of well-established, familiar RPG systems? I don’t want to be overly harsh, but these questions come up when one is reading the text, still looking for reasons to play it in the first place, and the book presumes to move on to other systems! The setting is the best thing here, and could well provide the foundation for a solid game as long as the focus is kept. The mechanics are interchangeable, and character creation is mildly interesting. It might be suitable for younger players, but anyone more experienced in RPGs is going to be left scratching their heads.