Saturday, 18 February 2012

Continuum: Bleary Friday Afternoon Thoughts

Continuum: Roleplaying in the Yet was, for a long time, a bit of an obsession of mine. Well, when I say it was "a bit of an obsession", I suppose that implies that I was actually playing it. I wasn't. In fact, I've never owned a copy, and I've never even read it. And, since used copies start at US$325 on amazon, I'm unlikely ever to do so - at least legally.

I wanted to, though. Reading through the scattered resources that are available now on the internet, the game itself feels like some sort of lost artefact, some Necronomicum from a distant past, knowable only through vague and unconfirmed rumour. What strange property of the internet is it, that makes cultural items from recent history feel so ancient? Continuum was released in around 1998, but it almost feels as if it was created in 1498 for all the information you can get your hands on about it nowadays. (Old geocities sites have this same quality. But I digress.)

Anyway, some combination of factors made the game compelling to me. Part of it is the mysterious artwork, which really doesn't look what you would think of when somebody says to you "It's a game about time travel". Part of it is the assumption that time travellers would ultimately create their own societies and culture, which is something that I think is genuinely unique. Part of it is all the talk of time-travel combat: trying to "frag" your opponent by making him cease to exist due to historical discrepancy. And undoubtedly, a large part of the attraction was the air of enigma surrounding this apparently excellent but impossible-to-possess gaming grimoire.

Now I'm less interested in some aspects of the game, because reading through the Wikipedia article makes it sound in retrospect like its core assumptions would make it fall prey to that problem which Zak S once wrote an entry about that I can't find: it seems to assume that players are supposed to be the "good guys" who go about reparing problems in time - which seems like a recipe for GM-led railroading if ever there was one ("Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to solve problem X").

But Narcissist on the other hand, is something I could really get behind. Tell me you don't like the idea of this:

NªRCISSIST:Crash Free is the roleplaying game of alternating histories– Players take the roles of crashers, people who have discovered the means to traverse the multiverse, tweaking timelines and triggering gates in pursuit of their best destinies.
NªRCISSIST is the long-awaited sequel roleplaying game to CºNTINUUM.
Appearing only briefly as a pre-release in 1999 and 2000, the game was originally envisioned as a way of playing the opponents of the Continuum, weaker and more vulnerable at first, but with the chance to escape the Continuum's "clutches" and see other worlds.
But in many playtests extending over the last six years, NªRCISSIST itself has changed and evolved into a game of exploration, of success and loss, and of transdimensional intrigue. A new, completely revised edition of a NªRCISSIST pre-release, based on half a decade of notes, is planned for 2008.
Barring any unforseen changes, that is.


  1. Part of it is the assumption that time travellers would ultimately create their own societies and culture, which is something that I think is genuinely unique.

    I've probably misunderstood your meaning, but do the Time Lords from Doctor Who not qualify?

    I have never heard of this game, and I was still quite active in gaming in 1998 too.

  2. Sorry Kelvin, I make a point of knowing as little about Doctor Who as I can and, preferably, behaving as if it doesn't exist insofar as it is possible to do so.

  3. Between the artwork and the 'tweaking the past to optimise the future' thing Narcissist sounds like a Grant Morrison or Warren Ellis comic: very relevant to my interests.

    What strange property of the internet is it, that makes cultural items from recent history feel so ancient?

    Internet years = dog years. I keep having the "Steampunk? Are people still into that?" moment...

    TL;DR: Generic comment #17


    You should keep an eye out on eBay if you still have any inclination to pick up a copy of the Continuum rulebook. Looks like a copy just sold for around $20.

  5. I got a copy of Continuum from a used book store years ago, I think for about 10 bucks. I had no idea those books are that rare. I've read the Narcissist book and It's pretty good, but just as daunting as Continuum is. I think either way, it's going to be a game of tedious note-taking and railroading, but it's got great ideas in there.

  6. I own a copy of Continuum, and I've read through it a couple of times, but I never thought of it as being actually playable, as it seems like the others here have said. Actually, I'm a guy who never really actually got too deeply into the White Wolf games, as my friends were never really into the intensity of the Storyteller games. For instance, I always wanted to play Mage but my friends couldn't get into it. I bring up the White Wolf games because Continuum seems to have been created in that 1990's era of "high-falutin'" story games like Vampire, etc. Some cool ideas but just a heavy game to play. The word "play" actually seems too frivilous when it comes to those sort of games. Anyway, I didn't know about Narcissist until now. Very interesting...

  7. Wow, this is probably the last RPG I own that I ever expected to see a post about. I wish I could remember where I got my copy. It was only a few years ago, too, and it was reasonably priced. Or maybe it just showed up on my shelf one day?

    I bought Continuum on the strength of its recommendation in a GURPS book's bibliography (probably Infinite Worlds or Time Travel). Like the other owners, the game strikes me as almost too high-concept to run properly. I think Drance nailed it: it belongs to that strange era of 90s game design that put theory above practice, sort of proto-indie games that were still trying to figure out how to be accessible.

  8. Years and years ago I almost got Continuum from Forbidden Planet in Liverpool. It was right there on the shelf.

    I like the idea of a time travel game, and haven't read much about this one, but everything I have heard about this sounds a bit fiddly.

    After reading these last two posts of yours, and after playing Microscope on Thursday, I wonder if that might be somehow used to tell a time travel story. Microscope has that core idea of "what happened, happened" and while I do like Back To The Future style "You've changed history!"-shenanigans, I also like the Twelve Monkeys, Bill And Ted approach to time travel. I think that Microscope could be used for that somehow.

  9. Sorry Kelvin, I make a point of knowing as little about Doctor Who as I can and, preferably, behaving as if it doesn't exist insofar as it is possible to do so.


  10. The Time Lords are similar, but follow a more traditional "top-down authority" view of time travel. Continuum is interesting because you can see how its society was created bottom-up and is integrally influenced by time travel itself.

    (Doctor Who, you'll notice, has always been essentially linear. I adore it, but it's always used time travel as a method for delivering a new story. Even Moffat's timey-wimey stuff still doesn't really dig in.)

    Continuum isn't quite unique, but it is very, very clever.

    There are a few difficulties with Continuum, however:

    (1) It's a game that requires the GM to completely master the material before play even begins. And it probably requires the players to really dig in and do their homework, too. But finding players who are willing to make that kind of commitment is tough.

    (2) It's very tough to prep scenarios for and the designers don't actually give you much help or guidance in doing that.

    (3) The concept of "frag" doesn't actually stand up under scrutiny. The game system tries to cheat around it by using a highly abstract system for "time combat", but the way frag works simultaneously says "the Continuum is full of shit and time travel doesn't work the way the game says it does". This makes a game which is already a bit of a mind-twister even more difficult (if not impossible) for a GM to run.

  11. Continuum is actually *both* "What happens, happens" and "Bill & Ted" style. The slogan is "The Universe IS," from beginning to end. The key is that no single individual knows everything that happens in the universe. As long as you don't *know* that you-after-this doesn't come back and leave you a note or piece of gear that helps you get out of the present situation, then you can find the note/gear hidden exactly where you plan to put it. Of course, if your enemies find out about that and can stop you from doing it, they can frag you (at least until you or your friends manage to get the note/gear into place after all).

    A lot of Continuum depends on what GURPS calls the Observer Effect. You don't really know exactly how something happened unless you were there -- and you can't always be sure that what you are directly observing/experiencing is what you think it is. The job of the Continuum is not to undo "changes" to time (because the Universe is), but to make sure that everyone they care about has one coherent set of memories and experiences. Hypnosis and impersonation are totally allowed in the course of making this work.

    Continuum members always have to keep track of *what they actually know*. Even if it appears your elder self left you a phone message about a terrible disaster that happens tomorrow, that doesn't mean the disaster definitely happens -- it only means that the message is left. As long as you leave that identical message, no matter what actually happens tomorrow, you're golden.

    1. Interesting. I might have to track this down after all. I'm really interested in the idea of a time travel RPG, and Continuum is the only game I've ever heard of that does it (admittedly, I'm quite new to RPGs) but everything I hear about it is that it is a bit rule-heavy.

      At university I did some metaphysics (of time and space) so am totally onboard with the idea of "the Universe IS" - sometimes called the "static block" model. Time travel is totally possible (or at least, the universe doesn't implicitly prevent it) and people have free will. Perceptions are all relative.

  12. I torrented Continuum and Narcissist v. 0.7 and placed them both on scribd for online viewing. You're welcome! :)

  13. A very late comment, but here goes:

    CONTINUUM doesn't hand out missions to repair the timeline. As a time traveler, if another time traveler does something to disrupt your personal timeline, you feel it as fragmentation, or "frag": pain, confusion, physical warping. Since you like existing, you go find out who did this to you and deal with him and the situation he caused.

    CONTINUUM is all about trying to live the life of a time traveler—and this involves butting against all the other time travelers who have their own agendas. Where conflicts occur, where people just can't live with the way the universe is, you get adventure.