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Worlds Enough and Time


Updates: Life continues apace for your favorite science fiction gaming columnist. The past few weeks have been busy ones for me, for a variety of reasons –– so busy, in fact, that I have still to get around to reviewing Dream Pod 9's Tribe 8 game (not to mention Taiga, which Burger Games kindly sent to me). I apologize most profusely for my lapse, especially to Philippe Boulle and the other swell guys at the Pod. In my defense, I can only say that I've been busy working on GURPS Traveller: Starports for Loren Wiseman at Steve Jackson Games. Despite my best efforts over the years to rid myself of Traveller, I have failed utterly, having been seduced by the siren song of fame and fortune. Besides, Traveller was my first SF RPG and, in some ways, still my favorite. That I would return to it eventually is not at all surprising.

I'm also hard at work on another top secret gaming project that developed from a column I wrote a little while ago. I can't go into details yet, because there's a possibility that it could fall through. Once everything is in place and contracts are signed, though, you can bet I'll make an announcement in this space. In the meantime, you can content yourself with the knowledge that your humble columnist has recently experienced success outside the gaming world (is there such a thing?). My first academic publication, "A Possibility Avicennian Precursor to Leibniz's Theory of Individuality" has been published in a collection of philosophy essays entitled Meeting of the Minds. And you wonder why I spend so much time in a fantasy world?

Finally, I've seen Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace three times already and love it more each time I see it. To think otherwise is utmost heresy in my view, so I'll have none of the foolish criticisms I've seen even on this very website. To the naysayers, I can counsel only this: put aside your expectations and the belief in your ability to out-Lucas Lucas. George didn't make a bad movie just because he made a movie that is different than the one a rabid Boba Fettishist would have made. Heck, in my opinion, that's why the man's making billions of dollars and we're just stuck here carping about it on the Net.

Time travel has been a staple of modern science fiction from the beginning. His classic, The Time Machine, was published in 1895, making it an established part of the genre for over a century now. Just a decade later, Albert Einstein's Theory of Special Relativity suggested that the flow of time was not uniform and thus was born a "scientific" basis for time travel that has been used and misused every since.

To be honest, I have only a minimal interest in time travel per se. Instead, I've always found the related idea of alternate universes much more fascinating. You know what I mean –– Rome never falls, the American Revolution fails, the Nazis succeed, etc. Not only do such scenarios appeal to my peculiar cast of mind, but they make bases for roleplaying games. What could be more compelling than playing in a world where some of the things you don't like about ours never happened?

Naturally enough, there have been a fair number of alternate history RPGs. One of my favorites was GDW's Space: 1889, which postulated a history in which 19th century physics was correct (with ether, etc.) and that Thomas Edison invented a craft capable of journeying to the (already-inhabited) worlds beyond Earth. It was a really inspired concept, melding the best of the pulp genre (John Carter of Mars, Professor Challenger, and so on) with the Age of Empires. You'd have to be a really boring type not to want to play a steadfast soldier of Her Imperial Majesty Victoria defending her Martian colonies against the machinations of evil servants of the Kaiser (not to mention those dastardly Belgians!). Space: 1889 was a really cool setting that was hampered by some of the worst rules GDW ever produced. Perhaps inevitably, it failed.

R. Talsorian's Castle Falkenstein is a more recent example of an alternate history RPG. It too is set in the 19th century and the great Age of Empires. Unlike 1889, its history diverged from our own far in the past. Magic exists, as do various magical creatures and items. Germany is still the Bad Guy, of course, but it is allied with the dark fairies of the Unseelie Court in its efforts to dominate Europe. I wanted to like Falkenstein, but couldn't. While its core idea is a good one, I think it was poorly executed and the game suffered for it.

What do I mean? For me, the key to a good alternate history is that, whatever its point of divergence, it follow through on the logic of that divergence. That is, things should unfold genuinely differently. I mean, Edison inventing a spaceship in the 1840's would make the world a very different place. That's why Space: 1889 was a good alternate history RPG in my view. Its world was different from our own; history unfolded to take the divergence into account. Moreover, because GDW placed the divergence so recently in the setting's past, it allowed them to use most of our real-world history and change only the latest turns of events. Castle Falkenstein, on the other hand, diverged far enough back for Aristotle to have written a treatise on magic. If that were true, wouldn't its version of the 19th century be very different from ours. Well, I didn't find it so. The nations, the cultures, the politics are almost all the same as our own world's but with magic. That didn't do it for me. It showed a lack of imagination that I found disappointing. Too bad too, since the game system was quite unusual.

Pinnacle's Deadlands seems to have learned this lesson well. Their version of the 19th century (funny how everyone keeps returning to that era) is indeed different from our own. The Civil War rages on after more than ten years. Most of the western part of North America remains wild and unclaimed (by humans anyway). California has fallen into the Pacific Ocean and evil lurks around every corner. This is how alternate histories should be done. At the same time, I'm not very impressed with Deadlands: Hell on Earth, the sequel game that advances the alternate timeline two centuries into the future or so. Maybe my disdain for apocalyptic games got the better of me, but I don't think so. One of the reasons I don't care much Hell on Earth is that it's now too far removed from the things I liked about Deadlands. I mean, what's the point in playing in this setting, really? It's some bizarre, techno-horror western monstrosity that just doesn't have a coherent feel. Deadlands took the very cool Western aesthetic (an atavistic appeal to most red-blooded Americans, even Philosophy students) and mated it with brooding Lovecraftian horror. Well done.

A similarly appealing use of alternate history is FASA's aerial combat game Crimson Skies. Set in a world where "the planes are faster, the engines are bigger, the guns are more powerful, and the women more beautiful," Crimson Skies provides a wonderfully pulpy backdrop. In its version of 1937, there are giant aircraft-carrier zeppelins and a fractured United States. While the game isn't completely serious (the Nation of Hollywood?), its designers knew well enough to set its fantastical dogfights in alternate timeline. To do otherwise would have shown them completely unaware of the benefits to be gained by doing so.

For alternate histories to work, they've got to pack some emotional punch for their players. That may be why the 19th century is a popular time period for these RPGs: 20th century folks have a better sense of how things did unfold then than they might for say, the 6th century B.C. Consequently, there's greater interest in seeing a cowboy face down Venusians than there might be in seeing Socrates debate Venusians not merely because it's more exciting (well, for most people anyway), but because we have a better sense of how things should be for a cowboy in a way that we don't for Socrates. Alternate histories are about juxtaposing our sense of how things should be with how things are in this revised timeline. For games to work properly in this sub-genre, I think they've got to do that to some degree or face the curse of Castle Falkenstein.   

A related problem is what I call "wannabe alternate histories." These crop up in games that use settings that, strictly speaking, aren't alternate histories. They're "distant cousin" settings that use a thinly-disguised version of our world instead of our own. Sometimes, I really wonder why this is done, as it makes very little sense. The recent release of AEG's Seventh Sea is a perfect example of this. Seventh Sea, as you probably know by now, is set on the world of Thah, a world not at all unlike our own. In fact, Thah is so much like our own that I wonder why its creators didn't simply use an alternate Earth. I think the game would ultimately have been more satisfying if it had been set in an alternate 17th century, one with magic and horror lurking at its edges. On my first viewing of the game, I don't see much to be gained by using a "fictitious" world like Thah. Perhaps that will change with future releases of the game. If it doesn't, AEG will have wasted a good opportunity to have used an alternate history.

Similarly, game designers shouldn't recoil from alternate histories in the belief that using a variation on the real world binds their hands creatively speaking. That's just nonsense. Space: 1889 benefited greatly from riffing off of real world history, but, because it was set in a world with ether and Martians, there was no reason for GDW to feel bound by it. I sometimes hear the argument that "using the real world constrains the development of a setting." Hogwash. Why would an alternate setting have to unfold the same way as did our world? Until the point of divergence, sure, they're the same. After that, all bets are off. Who can say what effects magic or Lunarians or air pirates would have on history?

Some games, like Twilight: 2000 or 2300 AD, among a host of others, may not explicitly be alternate history games in their conception, but their timelines are now so outpaced by real history that there's no other way to use them. That's one of the reason why I can't play 2300 AD in any form anymore. I like the setting a great deal, but its history depends on too many highly implausible elements. On the other hand, Star Trek clearly exists in an alternate universe and I don't find that as bothersome. Unless I was really lost to the world, I didn't notice the seizure of Earth's governments by genetically-engineered supermen during the '90's. Perhaps it's because there's no pretense about Star Trek's being an attempt at genuine prognostication. Star Trek is (in theory) about timeless qualities and virtues. That its history is thus implausible bears little impact on my ability to enjoy it.

In the end, I'm still a very big fan of alternate universe games. I'd like to see more of them done well. Like everything, though, doing them well requires forethought and hard work, something not always in evidence in the gaming industry. Maybe I should try my hand at it someday . . .

James Maliszewski

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