Time travel trippin’ up

omniusSeptember is Cosmic Zap month here at Doctor Xaos Comics Madness. With galactic dimensions in the balance, with insight battling it out with insanity, who can doubt that the very fabric of time would sooner or later begin to fray? All of which is to  say, time travel sucks so bad, oh my God. Nuances to follow.

This is about my second Champions game, featuring the superhero group Shield, played in Chicago during 1987-1989, set in Chicago. I had decided that I wanted a somewhat more creatively centered, same-page type game now, with more attention to both back-history content and more limited idea of what “our” superheroes were to be.

Modestly, my founding idea was pretty good: that a super-mondo-ultra villain named Omnius would take over a Central American nation, render it completely safe from nuclear or conventional attack, and issue a welcome to whatsoever super-characters would join him, for unspecified purposes. You can see plenty of Doctor Doom in there, I’m sure, particularly in the terms I discussed in The politics of Doom. I would refine and focus the concept better with Doctor Chaos, a more positive character, in the Force Five game. Doctor Xaos his own bad self is obviously my current version. The sketch you see here is my tracing of Mechanon from the 3rd edition of Champions, with added trimmings like the mane-mohawk based on an illustration (and the name) by John Hotchkiss, which unfortunately I don’t have. The Tao symbol was, uh, mine.

The starting players were some of the regulars from my first game which I discussed in Moses and the Mosquito: Matt, Ed, Maggie, and Kas. The later lineup added Simone, and still later, Chris F and Chris M. Or to put things fictionally:

  • more-or-less phase 1: Runaround, a super-fast blues guitarist, the Spectre, a spooky Egyptologist, PyraAquila, an MPD half-alien burning-bird lady, Firenza, a gypsy granddaughter of a demon-lord, and Coriolis, my supplement derived wind-elemental stand-in for Phoenix, doomed by railroading, with PyraAquila dropping out relatively soon and adding Golem later
  • more-or-less phase 2: Runaround, the Spectre, Tesseract, , my time-twisted NPC hit’em lady, Insecto, an absolutely classic and delightful “geez I have powerz” teen, and Zone, slightly-noir android tough-guy investigator.

This was a dedicated game, with everyone showing up, with scheduling always reviewed toward that end, with an agreement that everyone would bring food, and other social details made explicit. That’s something I learned from the initial sprawling game, which in retrospect is sort of charming as such, but at the time was mind-wrenching and frustrating. Tending to the social expectations was an unqualified success. Dealing with our social and romantic issues in the group was another issue that involves much drama concerning the lives of people between 20 and 23 years old, which I shan’t go into here. I hooked up the social coherence with creative content by having the starting players make up a shared power the characters could only use when together and which would define the team identity; they chose a defensive dome thing and dubbed themselves “Shield.”

Obviously this as a successful game in a lot of ways, but also a furnace in which I learned the lessons I applied later in the Force Five game (Snakes and hotties). You could say that once the perennial social hassles of role-playing found their proactive solution, we were free to discover how the content could go awry.

Here’s when I started using five-episode chapter plans and also adventure modules in a specific way: I’d choose exactly three almost at random (some Champions, some Villains & Vigilantes), then combine their characters and events as if they were supposed to be one big thing, discarding anything I didn’t like and substituting my continuing characters and organizations. It sounds neat, but at this point, it led to lots of problems with me railroading play, until I realized that the canned endings of the modules, and the content designed to engineer those endings, were the parts to jettison rather than to value. idea of shared group power. There’s also a fundamental conflict between introducing external content (i.e. the modules’ villains and backstories) and the character-derived conflicts explicit in their disadvantages (as discussed in Cloaky Spookydark), and basically, one has to become the other’s handmaiden or all becomes crap. I used this technique much more deftly in the Force Five game, two years later.

Add to this our much more scattered and badly-constructed genre expectations setup, resulting in significant ethics clashes. And finally, I was completely seduced by the lure of adding tons of generational history, and interlinked superhero pasts, very much in Thomas-Englehart mode, compounded by Watchmen. And too much of that is very much too much.

But I was talking about time travel, and tacitly, why neither jot nor tittle of any such thing would appear in the later game. Omnius unfortunately kind of expanded to fill the unstructured space, becoming a demon-lord as well as an alien-tech engineer as well as his initial hardcore-political role, and to add to that, apparently I had some previously-unforeseen need to work Kang the Conqueror out of my system.

kangbest

His best moment. Downhill from there.

You remember Kang, right? Not as entirely and unforgivably stupid as Graviton, my personal endpoint marker for the most useless and worthless supervillain in comics history (note: funny doesn’t count, for this metric), but right on that list of characters whom certain writers whose names are spelled Steve Englehart could apparently not abandon despite every screaming reason to do exactly that.

Never mind what-all Kang did when, or who-all he was supposed to be, and also never mind any cartoon or whatever he was supposed to be doing in Ultimate if anything (who can tell?) or is supposed to be doing in the latest reboot/re-imagining/cinematic bullshit. I rightly threw up my hands in 1977 or so, long before anyone tried to ‘Verse the sense into (and the soul out of) Marvel content.

I name the offending issues. Avengers #128, with Kang in the final panel, 1973 or 74, was among the last issues of the Avengers in my brother’s collection which I inherited, and my purchasing began in the middle of later versions of this same mess a year or two later. You are talking to someone who was deeply committed to this very storyline with every quarter in his possession.

avengers129Right, so Kang is this 41st-century dictator, who according to a footnote in Avengers #129, had prior to this point been “thwarted, arrghh” three times. This time, he explains why he’s always focused on the 20th century and the ass-pull reasons he simply didn’t already know what happened in it. Did you know there was an incipient Celestial Madonna around here somewhere? Jesus stuff again! At this point “around here” = Wanda the Scarlet Witch, Mantis, or, wait for it, Agatha Harkness (possible grannybanging in 70s Marvel? And why not?). He takes them to Rama-Tut’s pyramid, another low-rent baddie who’d troubled Marvel titles for about a decade at this point. Why? He’ll tell you! He was born in the 31st century, found a time machine which happens to be the Sphinx, traveled to ancient Egypt to be Rama-Tut, built this selfsame pyramid, then ended up in the 41st century to become “Kang” via cockamamie retrofitting events in the Fantastic Four. (I don’t know how much of this connection was established in prior stories and how much of it was Englehart stitchin’ fast.)

Fine, I can follow that, but now Rama-Tut himself appears, having been preserved in some mummy case or something, so … wait, let’s note that Wanda smugly assumes herself to be the Madonna and Mantis privately likes that idea fine so she can score the Vision. Class, ladies! When they bicker, I find myself rather in sympathy with Kang’s bellowed “Silence!” Where was I … oh yeah, this Rama-Tut is actually an older Kang, who returned to Egypt, and then he’s been in that mummy case ever since, waiting for this moment to jump out and oppose his younger self. Some plot speedbumps later, they clash – and hooboy Bob Brown opens the zap on us, and guess what? Mantis is the Madonna!

mantistrippyRama-Tut and Kang have the “I’ll never turn into you” vs. “I remember you saying that” conversation which may have inspired the later similar scene in Warlock, and which is pretty interesting actually, as you can see R-T gets under Kang’s skin. A convenient accidental ass-pull removes Kang and Rama-Tut from the story until #131 … as they struggle in time-voids, they get grabbed by a third (fourth?) time-travel baddie, Immortus, master of time, ruler of Limbo, previously known only from Avengers #10. This, uh, time though, he’s now before that appearance and is planning that very attack. Of course Kang takes over the whole deal and several ridiculous issue-filling Avengers-traps later, including one rock-solid comment about time-travel storytelling from Rama-Tut. Annnnd, sure ‘nough, Immortus is yet another version of this same damn guy, from far in the subjective future of his lifetime (and all of a sudden grave and wise instead of spit-spraying stupid, from one panel to the next).

[Am I now explaining everything about Wonder Man’s brainwaves and the original Human Torch’s android body relative to the Vision? Or about Mantis’ origin, now unfolding? Or how all this is nominally tied to the Kree, which means hello Moondragon, and just to keep this all straight, it’s right after the Thanos war in Captain Marvel? I am not! But it’s all in here too. Steve and Jim were blazin’ all this out as they went along and neither minded just writing directly into one another’s scripts.]

Oh! But when it’s time to finish up the Celestial Madonna story, Kang appears (Dormammu too, but at least he’s not the same guy, thank God for small favors) (ooh, there’s “the Earth goddess” involved too, somehow), ah-hem! This Kang being the still conquest-crazed guy on his third Englehart try to kidnap and rape find the Madonna, and even the main characters groan “him again,” which should tell you something. Suffice to say we learn that he is too dumb to consider a potential gas attack or to spot the Space Phantom pretending to be Mantis, and Immortus seems to become more Gandalfy with every panel.

All that in issues #129-135, with an Annual and a Giant-Sized special included. And that’s the coherent part … a year later, yet another Kang-a-riffic time travel jaunt would begin. This would be marked by much less mystic content, absurd amounts of reprint and fill-in issues, George Perez art (whoa, who is this?), a Wild West sequence involving a shirtless and wavy-blond Hawkeye, the Serpent Crown, the Squadron Supreme or Sinister, and lots to talk about … but in a later post, I think. It’s perhaps the perfect example of the logistic and creative mess Jim Shooter gazed upon in horror upon entering the Bullpen, and although I loved it, only a twelve-year-old could.

Now cue me a decade later, preparing and GMing the Shield game, clearly having withdrawn some portion of my psyche into a self-dug savage hellhole of betrayed readership, as why else would I inflict Tiiiime Trrrravel! into my otherwise innocent and rather nicely political Champions game. Exhibits to the fore! These files were written for The Clobberin’ Times late in the history of the game and most of the historical material had been established in play, meaning, made up by me as preparation as sessions went by. Here’s the “public eye” overview, here’s the fairly coarse-grained summary of events in play with a nod to the many adventure modules I’d adapted into my weird little history, and this more-or-less insider backstory summary.

Now, if you can make sense of the time-travel mess from those, you’re a better man/woman/other than I. I have helpfully summarized it in a new diagram. Also, events from late in play showed that Omnius had been a prehistoric person who’d time-jumped to the twentieth century, although I don’t think I have those details on record.

There are some neat ideas in there, especially now that I review Tesseract, who was a pretty good character. But that’s also part of the problem: nothing about the time-travel has anything to do with any of the player-characters, but only with the material I imposed into play by myself. My self-centered ideals of late-80s role-playing are all too obviously on display: (i) look everyone, see what a master watchmaker I am! (ii) alternate history, causality version, i.e., it turns out the same “after all!” and (iii) drrrrama! This attitude directly generated two of the glaring problems that emerged right out of the time travel:

  • I violated one player’s sacred space by using the genocide during WWII as part of a fictional villain’s scheme
  • I had literally nothing to contribute about Omnius originally being a pre-historic human when the players – interested! – sought for such information

In other words, I had constructed the clockwork and troweled it onto the role-playing experience at the expense of player agency, but with no content beyond, See look it’s time travel. Go me! “So what, Ron?” Uhhh …

I’m sure Science Fiction Fandom Assembled will call for my blood for this, but frankly, I think there are three kinds of time travel stories, each with its own single and fixed thematic content. I’m not gonna include the 500+ film references; put’em in yourself.

  • Deterministic, “closed loop” if you want to call it that, basically saying time happens once and the “travel” is merely funky physics in a working universe, and fuck your free will. (It’s my favorite of the three)
  • Labile as hell, in which doing a thing changes the future radically, and that happens for time-travelers as well as for anyone in the subjective “now,” and everything is delicate and matters greatly, and people just aren’t careful enough with the future especially when they’re ideologues; ideology is the enemy of free will (Ray Bradbury’s “The Sound of Thunder,” Fritz Leiber’s Timewar stories, and everything that rips those off)
  • All the others which are nothing but confusions between the two, and which suck so bad it’s not even funny.

adamwarlockdeathThe thing is, once I looked at it this way, I stopped being seduced by it. It’s like MCI; once you see how it works, it becomes a tool, and ill-considered uses of the tool are obvious, annoying, and way too common. And the ones which subvert the framework typically rely on doing something else entirely, like one of my favorites, “Time Travel for Pedestrians” by Ray Nelson. But again, like MCI, there does appear that rare usage which is not only a skilled tool-use, but genuinely something new. Like “The Death of Adam Warlock,” in which killing yourself in the future is both impossible (deterministic model) but also possible, if you can wiggle the concept of the In-Betweener, which no one has ever done.

It’s not just time travel, it’s about time travel in a way that breaks open new ideas. As far as I’m concerned, this story is a visitor from some other dimension where time travel stories are not either 100% fixed in theme and do not suck.

I sure as fuck couldn’t do that, and at least in my defense, I don’t know of any “masters of science fiction” story which did it either.

Next: Spawn of Zap

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About Ron Edwards

Game author and publisher via Adept Press / Biology author and former professor

Posted on September 24, 2015, in Storytalk, Supers role-playing, The 80s me and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. Forgot to add a reference, although it’s mentioned in the linked file: The Coriolis Effect, by Aaron Allston, which I followed pretty faithfully except for a gender switch. The scenario encourages a romance between the nominal character and a player-character (paralleling Scott Summers and Jean Grey).

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  2. Very fun game, great memories.

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    • I have all the stuff still! Your Spectre sheets look like when they go into the guy’s place in the TV episode and the viewer needs to learn “wow, this guy is crazy,” so there’s all these notes & scribbles on the walls.

      Someone needs to come up with a useful conceptual framework and vocabulary for reflecting on decades-old role-playing experiences.

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  3. Santiago Verón

    I’m a sucker for time travel (I was born in 1987 so, one of my first memories of learning to read was reading the subtitles on the first Back To The Future, the only one from the trilogy that wasn’t dubbed in my country). There’s this writer, qntm, who made this classification I really liked. Like yours, he approaches time travel as a fictional device. It’s pretty much the same three bullet points you just did, done thoroughly. I thought you’d like it:

    http://qntm.org/models

    Liked by 1 person

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