“La boîte de base est nécessaire pour jouer chacun de ces scénarios, qui peuvent être joués dans l’ordre que vous souhaitez”. This is straight from Space Cowboys’s website. Thank you SC… if only you had made it clear that the game actually contained an evolving mythology we would have enjoyed it more.
We started playing the Italian version of T.I.M.E. Stories in late 2017. The choice of modules was more limited but wide enough for us to play the scenarios in order of publication… if only we had done that! At the time I guess that the White Cycle wasn’t really a cycle yet or at least its existence wasn’t apparent.
Asylum was the first, but that’s a given. Then we played The Marcy Case… and I hated it! (zombies as a narrative device are really not my cup of tea and this might have influenced my enjoyment of the scenario). As a consequence, and I have to admit at my insistence, we lined up the subsequent scenarios based on appeal, rather than order of publication.
*** spoiler alert ***
*** HEAVY spoiler alert ***
So we skipped A prophecy of dragons and dove into Under the Mask (because the fantasy hook sounded out of place and I really like Egyptian stuff)… and right away we felt like something was amiss: that (“double”) agent stuck in time, the things he/they say, we clearly didn’t know who the Syaans were! Guess what?! They were introduced in Prophecy, along with all the other major players in the story: Elois and the Consortium. Not having played that, we brainstormed a little bit coming up with a few theories and marched on… and skipped Expedition Endurance to play Lumen Fidei… Because, hey, I LOVE the crusades!
Let’s just say that playing Lumen having missed all the previous stuff was a little puzzling. Here all the clues left in the previous scenarios really start to come into play and the ending of the story is all about choosing a side and, as a consequence, your take on future stories. The various NPCs (and vessels that you can inhabit) represent the three factions: Michel D’Ailly is The Agency (created and controlled by The Consortium), Yasmina Wa Khalaqa is Saayan and Saul Kalhula is Elois.
As a side note, I think that the online expansions (the logs, the debriefings) are a really cool was to complement a physical tabletop game with digital elements (and the leaflet under the lining of the box is genius!).
At this point we realised we had to go back and fill in the blanks. We played Prophecy which, as I thought, was bad (4th ed. D&D anyone?!), extremely mechanical, inevitably grindy and repetitive. But it integrated Lumen and helped paint a clearer picture of the ethical construct of the story: the Elois seem to be the real bad guys (they are the ones who stole the time-traveling technology from the Syaans) and they are trying to change reality (or returning it to its natural state of chaos) by manipulating the various timelines. The Syaans are some kind of benevolent but highly enigmatic force, trying to do the same thing we are but for different reasons. They have this “grand plan started well before the Consortium’s” and have a machiavellian approach to it (the scenario Under the Mask pits us right against them). The Consortium seems to be in the middle of this, neither inherently bad (they created the Agency to guard the timelines, didn’t they?!) nor entirely wholesome (very early in the saga we understand that, through us agents, they are “extracting” stuff from the space-time continuum, the cubes, the stones and even people – Marcy!). The question is… why? I think that a particular word, used by Saul at the end of Lumen, might be revealing: according to him we (the Consortium/Agency) are “post-humans”. And what could the needs of post-humans dictate?
With all this in mind we played Expedition Endurance… which didn’t really add anything to the mythos. Well, there was an encounter (location 666) which contained some references to future scenarios (Lumen Fidei), to conditions that should be met in the future (“collect 9 cubes“) and, more interestingly, to the very nature of us time-agents (“You don’t live… only the Syaans can release you”)… are we really humans?! Are we really alive?!
And then came Estrella Drive. I had BIG expectations: the 1980s, Hollywood, cinema. Unfortunately it was disappointing. Obviously inspired by real-life events (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood… Ah, the synchronicities!) but without any “commentary” on it, not much trace of the 1980s, somewhat unnecessarily gruesome. Not much in the way of connections with the mythology apart from a couple of in-passing references to established lore. The structure wasn’t bad but the characters felt flat and neglected. Furthermore the story lacked in role-play hooks… or did it?! To be completely honest, at this point I felt like our approach to the game had changed. When the stories worked (like with Asylum) role-playing came naturally but when they faltered we would fall back on this “optimisation mode” where everything would be reduced to strategising about routes, objects to take, encounters to tap and numbers to roll. Very drab. And it invariably felt like wasted potential.
One final cause of disappointment was visiting the website (www.thetimeagency.net) and finding out that the section relative to Estrella contained nothing (the section was probably planned, there is an icon for it, but no related pages). Shame.
But with Brotherhood of the Coast came a much needed advancement of the overarching plot (I understand, it’s like a tv series… standalone, mythology, standalone…). A very long scenario (it took two sessions and four jumps to finish it), well written and entertaining, it dwelt deep into the lore and finally gave us some answers regarding the relationship between us, the Agency, the Syaans and the Elois; although the revelations only come if you do specific things or rather if you follow a specific… creed! And that’s where I found the real strength of the scenario. Finally a story where what has happened, or may have happened, in the previous stories totally affects the scenario and, most of all, the way you play it. The choice you made in Lumen influences what you do here. Obviously it totally depends on the player’s sensibility. You might choose to ignore what has gone before and play it “like you should” or consciously follow that diverging thread and stick to your new found ethos. And the scenario rewards you for it. There are two types of successes, “mission complete” and “critical mission complete”, and it’s in the latter that the revelations start coming (mostly in the form of extra dialogue and a secret archive entry at www.thetimeagency.net). Obviously you might just decide to “diverge” here and/or you might not have played Lumen but if you have and you chose to do it then there is a nice feeling of narrative continuity and accomplishment that you get at the end. it’s not just the extra tokens, it’s really a good story.
Needless to say the hopes for Madame where pretty high… and it was pretty of disappointing. The scenario itself was really long, tedious at times and somewhat frustrating. But the way they had planned it, that was kind of inevitable. How can you tell the story of what is happening in the “present” unless you force the player to fail again and again? Collecting characters was fun… unless you end up like us and collect the one that will unlock the end of the story for last! I think we went in something like 26 times, and we even had time bonuses.
But the end of the story and the cycle were the real problem. Obviously a big cliffhanger, coherent but maybe too light on its feet (it felt like the end of Back to the Future part 2!). But I loved the way they made Bob the sacrificial lamb of the Revolution. The war is on and Bob is the first victim. The agency, and the “order” it represents, kind of dies with him. And to us is left the quest of honoring that and, in the case of us Saayans sympathizers, to go beyond that.