Continuum Playtest Review by Colin Fredericks on 01/05/01
Style: 4 (Classy and well done)
Substance: 5 (Excellent!)
A well-thought-out and engaging game of time travel.
Author: Adams, Fooden, Manui
Page count: 228
Year published: 1999
Comp copy?: no
Playtest Review by Colin Fredericks on 01/05/01
Genre tags: Modern day Historical Far Future Other
What would you do with a time machine?
Well (say the makers of Continuum), the first thing you would do (if you were smart) is travel forwards in time until someone has made a better time machine. Then you would use that one, travel forwards again, and get an even better one, until finally you had the ultimate time machine: just think about going and you're there!
Then you start to think about what it means to travel time. How do you keep track of it? There's really no good reason you can't meet yourself, send yourself letters, etc. etc. All of the "laws of time travel" in this game follow one simple rule: causality must be preserved. Everything has to have a beginning and an end; no loops allowed. So what kind of societies would exist in this kind of world?
There you have the premise of Continuum.
All of the game mechanics for Continuum takes up about 50 pages. There are three stats: Body, Mind, and Quick, which for most people run 1-7 and for experienced spanners (time travelers) run up to 10 or more. Quick, in particular, can get obscenely high for the very experienced. All rolls are made on a d10. Rolling certain things allows for amazing failures, amazing success, and serendipitous luck (each of which happen only 1% of the time, so unlike many systems you aren't constantly screwing up or blowing the doors off the competition). There are skills based on your stats, which you can buy at character creation. You may also instantly acquire these skills.
Yes, instantly acquire skills. After all, you can travel through time at will, right? You need to know how to use a computer? Just travel somewhere/when, take a computer class, travel back to just after you left, and use the computer. All it costs you is a bit of your lifespan, which you'll have to keep close tabs on! Learn too much and you're going to end up old before your time (no pun intended).
There are a few rules for psychic powers, which are not of any huge importance until later in the game when your characters will need to learn telepathy in order to advance.
Most important are the rules for traveling time. If you've ever run an Amber game, you're probably familiar with the kind of power people have when they can instantly travel through time and space. There are very strict limits on what beginners can do, and as your character progresses (your advancement is approved by other time-travelers, by the way, occasionally including yourself!) these limitations will fall away. You'll also be allotted more lifespan when those of higher span consider you to be worthy of advancement.
Regular combat and injury are done with Impairment Points that reduce your die rolls on a 1:1 basis - very handy. Take enough impairment and you can't do anything - take much more and you die. Time combat is entirely different, and I couldn't do it justice in a review. Let's just say it's more abstract, and relies more on general strategies for "fragging" the other person (see below).
Other than the "instant skills" system, character advancement is handled in a manner similar to Call of Cthulhu. You don't get character points to spread around essentially at random - you advance in skills and attributes that you actually use. Anything you don't use just sits there. Very elegant.
The Continuum Itself
Let's take the old Grandfather Paradox. You travel back in time to before your parents were born and kill your grandfather. Therefore, you cannot possibly exist, seeing as how your mother or father wasn't born and thus you weren't born, which should make you not born. But then who killed Grandpa? Oops - you're in a loop here. Your personal timeline doesn't make sense any more. That means you've got Frag. Probably just a few points to start, but it's going to mount up and up. That paradox will start affecting other people who know you, and people who know them. If it mounts too much, it will destroy you and the entire universe, and all of spacetime will die.
Luckily, there's probably a way to fix your problem. You could travel back and replace Grandpa with a stunt double (preferably with a bulletproof vest), or any number of other tricks. And if you don't fix the problem, someone else will. They'll probably be pretty mad at you, because it isn't their else's job to fix your screw-ups, it's your job. If you don't do your job, someone else will do it for you, but you might not like how it turns out... and by the time they do it, you might be just a fragmented piece of sentience that has to be scooped up in a doggy bag. Responsibility is a big part of this game.
The Continuum is the name for the group of time travelers you belong to. They're the ones who make sure that reality doesn't go kaput. There are many Fraternities within the Continuum, which are groups you have to work for once you've been a spanner for long enough. Even as a time traveler you still have to go get a job. Some of them impersonate famous people. Others keep track of high-tech gizmos and make sure that things don't get invented too early. Still others hunt down Narcicists (see below), keep track of money, or any of a number of other jobs. They're generally a nice group of people, though you'll find them very, very insistent that history turn out the way it's supposed to and all of spacetime doesn't die. Funny, that.
Narcicists, on the other hand, are sort of renegade time travelers, who believe that creating paradoxes opens up pathways to other dimensions. These are the main enemy for Continuum players, and also the main temptation, since most people want to believe that that's true! This fall will bring the Narcicist game, and a major counter to the Continuum viewpoint, but there's room for both philosophies to be right without having a consentual reality.
What does it look like?
The book itself is rather nice for twenty bucks. It has a full-cover front and back, with black and white illustrations inside. The text is quite legible and arranged nicely. Headers look like headers, boxed text is nicely offset, tables don't overlap with text, etc. Some of the pictures are sub-standard, but anything that claims to be from the "blue shift" comic deserves a closer look. :) Each picture has a fake caption (some dated from 2008 or so) and a real caption in the footnotes, which is pretty cool.
My only major complaint about the book is that it really does seem to have been written by a time traveler - it could use a bit better organization. Information is often spread out across many chapters and difficult to find. This is why the style rating is a 4, not a 5.
Ah, now we're really down to it, right? This is where most time-travel games fall apart - either in believability or playability. The setting for Continuum is quite believable, and is at the very least no worse than any other time travel game. I happen to think it's one of the best, but I suppose it's a matter of taste. The question is, can you actually play out things like keeping track of where you've been, treating frag properly, and the all-important meeting yourself?
At the moment I'm running a play-by-e-mail game, and it's been going well. Meeting yourself is as simple as having the GM run the other you - who might be annoyed at having to make this meeting, or might have something important to tell you. Or who might just be there to hang out and snag the last beer from your fridge. The e-mail format makes it much easier to keep track of where and when everyone has been, since there's already a written record of it. During regular gameplay you fill out a card to do this. E-mail also makes it easier to conduct a gemini incident (meeting yourself), because you have a perfect record of what you're going to say to yourself.
Frag can become troublesome. Exactly when you feel the frag is a tough nut to crack... and sometimes exactly what causes frag is difficult to discover as well. Real paradoxes are not easy to resolve in this game... but I have to say that Continuum handles them better than any time travel game I've ever seen, without resorting to parallel universes or mystical temporal physics. There is a little bit of hand-waving - if you didn't know that something happened a certain way, then you might be able to change it to your preferred way, but what happens to other people that saw it happen? - but thankfully there isn't much.
In short, you'll have a confusing start, but people will catch on pretty quickly. It's all a matter of learning how to look at things.
I've left a lot out of this review, which you might not have guessed. Major plot-points such as where Narcicists come from, strategies for escaping death (at least the first time), why the Continuum always wins, and who's really in charge of it. There's a lot of information in this book, and I wouldn't want to underrepresent it. There are also supplements - a GM's book called Further Information, which I may review later, a Narcicist supplement coming soon, and various other means of supporting the game in the works. None are truly necessary, as this book contains a vast amount of useful info. There's even a perpetual calendar in the back, and of course a timeline.
All in all, I would recommend this game to anyone interested in time travel at all. Even if you don't play Continuum itself, this can be a great supplement to other games, and the background info will eventually draw you in.