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Same Earth, Different - You Know the Rest...

 

Last month James Maliszewski discussed his feelings on Alternate Earth games. It was a finely written piece that concurs with most of my views. He did not, however, touch on one of the staples of Alternate Earth games - the dimension travel game.

These games are a combination of time travel and alternate earths. For those who might have missed out, think of the TV show Sliders (now shown on the Sci-Fi cable channel). Dimension travel games are in the top ten of the types of games I most like to run. However, dimension travel games are often the worst conceived games on this earth. And like the aforementioned show, without a good hook the dimension travel game gets dull, quickly.

The most common failing in dimension travel games is they often become games that focus on the setting(s), rather than the characters. The GM spends hours constructing his alternate earth(s) and wants nothing more than to show each world off, letting the characters wander through them or pushing them to figure things out that are world related. And while it can get interesting for the first few worlds, just to wander around realizing what the world is about, eventually the players will want to play their characters.

Another failing often seen in dimension travel games is plot. In many dimension travel games the characters are 'just trying to get home.' While there is nothing wrong with this to begin with, eventually the characters will simply find places they can live with, turning the dimension travel game into a different type of game. To combat this, many GMs turn a dimension travel game into a missions-based game. The characters are sent on missions within different dimensions, only to return to their 'home' dimension at the end of each mission. This is fine, if you like mission/objective games. But as I discussed last month, this is only one out of many types of gaming.

There are only a limited number of systems capable of dealing with all the dimensions without too much fiddling. The omniversal systems (GURPS, CORPS, etc.) are built to suit any type of game, and as a dimension travel game is really every type of game, they work well. The trouble with omniversal systems is the work that goes into every world designed - weapons may have unusual effects, humans may be genetically different (including the use of magic/psionics/etc.), the dominant race might not even be human. This either requires a large number of supplements to cover every type of world, or just as much design time as fiddling with another system would take. There are a few systems that are built for dimension travel games, such as Multiverser, Maelstrom storytelling, and Amber DRPG. Oddly enough, though, the systems often have just as many or more faults than fiddling or omniversal systems.

The largest problem of the dimension travel game systems is the exact opposite of fiddling or omniversal systems, the rules for so many variations is crammed into a minimal amount of books, sparing detail for cost-effectiveness. Secondly, as in games such as Amber, the multiple worlds usually are still of the same genre. While an Amberite could shadow-walk to a futuristic city, the flavor of the game would still give the city more a magical feel rather than a technological feel a GM might desire. This solution might stifle some of the creativity of the GM, but it does allows for a single type of mechanic, thus allowing for a higher focus on play and character development.

Stifling creativity in favor of a flavor of mechanics is not the only solution, though. If the worlds are customized to help the game center around the characters, then mechanics will never be a problem. Also, while a heavy plot-based game is not necessary, there must be something that keeps the characters from just relaxing and staying at the first livable world they find. This can be accomplished by giving the characters a hook to the next world, or a 'home-base' that the characters want or are forced to return to.

It's not the environment that's important, it's the characters. So long as the game is centered around the characters rather than the scenery, there's always a greater chance for enjoyment. And that holds true for all genres. Dimension travel games offer the unique ability to place characters with choices they would never come across on their home world, thus allowing for more er... dimension to be given to the character.

Need ideas for your next multidimensional game? Check out these (non-game) fiction resources. The Castle Perilous series by John DeChancie, well written and very RPG-esche, includes one of the best ways to keep the game from being a 'trying to get home' game. While the Myth series by Robert Asprin is more of a tongue-in-cheek fantasy, it also incorporates dimension travel, and reasons why to use it. Despite the fact that I'm not a fan of Roger Zelazny, I'd be remiss (and lynched) if I didn't mention the Amber series, which is a story of how to power-game throughout the dimensions. Sliders which plays nightly on the Sci-Fi Channel, might not be the best idea in and of itself for a game, but it does have a new world each week. And if the topic of dimension travel can be turned into successful (or semisuccessful) T.V. Shows, and series of books, then dimension travel surely can make for a good game!

Roll Saving Throw Vs. Bad Gaming
Erich S. Arendall
sprite@rpg.net

Gaming Quote of the Undisclosed Time Period:
One character talking to another:"Have you ever noticed how the universe seems to form around us? I mean, I pick up a rock that wasn't there until I thought about it, and I throw it and everything seems to take focus around it as I focus on the rock, until it hits that...."
GM: "Car"
"...Car."

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