Friday, November 30, 2018

Weird Revisited: Variations on a 4-D War

This post originally appeared in November of 2013 after the theatrical premiere of the Dr. Who episode, "Day of the Doctor."

I enjoyed "Day of the Doctor," but the last battle of the Time War seemed a little--prosaic--for a protracted conflict between two ultra-powerful, reality-spanning powers. It got me to thinking about the gaming potential of a Time War, or as Alan Moore had it Doctor Who Weekly: A 4-D War. I've got two ideas.

Version One: 
"'Nowhere' was run by an old sasquatch named Lukashev. Found as a baby at 25,000 feet, he was captured and trained. His youth was spent as part of a super-naut space program along with a chupacabra and a dinosaur from the future."
- Brandon Graham, King City
This version goes full Kirby and quite possibly layers on the gonzo. The Time War is strange and fought by strange combatants with stranger weapons. Lords of Creation probably has some inspiration for this version.(It might even provide a system if you could figure out how to play it! I kid, LoC fans.)

The combatants might be as starkly good and evil as Silver Age super-beings, or they might be painted in shades of gray with the protagonists (the PCs) cheerfully unconcerned with their superiors' ultimate goals--or even possibly their identities.

Version Two:
"Just remember this: All agents defect, and all resisters sell out."
- Naked Lunch (1991)
Maybe there's no need to be that cynical, but this version is Philip K. Dick by way of John le Carre. The time war is more of a cold war with brief flashes of violence. The weapons are still strange; they just get used less often. Individual agents might be a bit like 007 for a bit, but ultimately they may discover they've become Number 6 and all of spacetime is the Village.

The Agency is shadowy--and may in fact be the same as the Enemy, just at a different point on their timeline. All of this can be grim or even horrific, but it can also be played for satire (think G vs. E, and the relative amorality of Good and Evil in its cosmos).

Version Three:
Or, you could dial both of them back a bit and crash the two together. This is probably the Grant Morrison version (The Invisibles and The Filth would be good inspirations, here). Time agents are eclectic and flamboyant, but not usually Yeti's from alternate timelines. The weapons and battles are psychedelic, but the stakes can be grim, and the moral fog never dissipates--even in higher order dimensions.


JB said...

There have been multiple RPG attempts at the cosmic-time war genre over the years...Torg and Feng Shui pop come immediately to my mind. Strangely, while I've owned FS for years, I'm not sure I've ever finished reading it, let alone ever played it; the game concept and setting bored me, to be honest.

Here's what I DON'T find boring: your Version 1 and Version 2 concepts. Don't give me something lukewarm...give me over-the-top gonzo or seriously dialed-subtle Cold War style mischief (where one can't even be sure they're really fighting a "4-D war," and may in fact simply be crazies, or working for nut-jobs). Both of those are games I'd like to play or run, though design might be a little rough (especially for V1).

The middle-of-the-road, V3 though? Nah. I've seen it before.

Anne said...

Charles Stross's novella "Palimpsest" and of course the movie "Looper" both have a time war, and both insist on a particular theory of time-travel that is super-non-intuitive.

I don't even exactly know how to explain it. I guess it's an idea that when you change something, the changes ONLY radiate forward in time from that point, but nothing further in the past will be changed. (Even if "the past" includes a time traveler who came from the future.) Think of the gangsters in "Looper" cutting off parts of a young guy's body, so that the guy's older self's body parts just start vanishing while he's running to try to save himself.

I don't really know why they both insisted on this one, hard-to-understand version of time travel. Maybe it's too hard to write a time war otherwise? Certainly, the "temporal cold war" in Star Trek Enterprise made no sense to me. I thought Star Trek Voyager's "year of hell" scenario DID make sense though, perhaps moreso than any other "time war" I've seen or read.

Trey said...

There was a short story in The Magazine of Science Fiction & Fantasy back in the late 80s called "Another Dead Grandfather" or something to that effect that had as it's conceit that time was like beads on a string. Changing one moment in time didn't really effect the beads after it, so killing you grandfather didn't wipe you from existence.

S. P. said...

I always dug how the Continuum RPG did it — there is one timeline, and slipping outside its bounds causes paradoxes to accumulate until you eventually phase out of existence.
(There's a group that believes this represents you phasing into another timeline, but that's a totally different discussion.) Combatants in a time war try their best to trick each other into paradoxes, until somebody gets so fragged that they either surrender or phase out.

There's a time combat subsystem if you don't want to fully play through this affair. My favorite feature is that you can just time travel to well after the conflict is complete and see how it turned out, then use that to inform what actions you're going to take in the present. But if you do that, there's a chance it turned out badly for you, or you even died during the conflict, and now you have to deal with that turn of events.

It... gets a little trippy.