In a Nutshell: Exploring Deep Time with the Cepheus Engine (*cough* Traveller *cough*). 98 page PDF from Baggage Books. $4.99 from DriveThruRPG at time of writing.
This is what happens when I go on DriveThruRPG for one specific thing and notice something shiny for $4.99. That’s a couple of cups of coffee. What can I tell you, I’m a sucker for lightweight settings.
Much of the book is in the form of short briefing lectures given by NPCs; unusually, each such NPC is given a statblock.
Introduction: The premise of the setting is that in a parallel timeline very much like our own, Earth discovered time travel at the very end of the 20th century, as a side effect of figuring out antigravity. Instead of exploring different worlds across space, mankind explores different epochs of time on one planet, Earth itself.
This section also outlines how time travel works from an explorer’s perspective; most importantly, time is quantised so that one can only ‘jump’ through it in integer multiples of roughly 18,900 years – the effect of this in-game is that it removes the need for the referee to worry about the PCs changing events, say by killing Hitler (as is traditional in time travel); they can’t do it. Time travel also requires spacecraft, as you need to be in low Earth orbit to do it. Basically, you’ve got recognisable Travellerish starships, except the jump drive takes you through time, not space. There are stats for a couple of ships, and a deck plan for one class.
Quantum 0 – The Present Day: This discusses the nations, corporations, academic institutions and other bodies actively travelling through time, and their goals in doing so. Any of them could be a patron, a rival, or a source of help. By default, the heroes are from Quantum 0.
The Terminal Empire: This is the main bad guy in the default setting; a slave-owning oligarchy which becomes the world government in AD 20,100. This state also has time travel, and uses it to plant colonies elsewhen in the timestream; so far it has avoided open conflict with Q0, but it has covert agents on contemporary Earth. This section includes brief notes on generating Terminal Empire NPCs, its technology, and what it looks for in a time colony. Notes on a couple of typical NPCs and a typical time colony are provided, along with a colour map of the area near the settlement.
Other Human Civilisations: The setting assumes that humans can’t sustain a technical civilisation for more than one quantum; humanity may survive, but no civilisation lasts long enough to span multiple quanta. This gives room for multiple human societies in the timeline, some descended from the Empire, some from Q0 civilisation. Here you’ll find notes on the Turonians (who walk with dinosaurs), the Aleasak (who have struggled back from the stone age to Tech Level 5 and beaten off an Empire invasion), the Errekano (who were conquered by the Empire), and the Grenusheer (who are a stone age people and just hide in the bushes until the Empire gives up and goes away).
A Timeline of Earth: This is a high-level outline of Earth’s history from 4.4 billion years ago, when it develops a solid surface you can land on, to 1.1 billion years in the future, when there are hostile aliens which have moved the Earth somewhere else, and open fire on anyone who shows up. That gives you 300,000 Earths to visit, of which 80,000 or so are suitable for adventure in being habitable and having some sort of life to interact with.
The things I like most about this chapter are the maps of Earth in each major time period, showing the continents as they were at that point. (You could repurpose these as maps for alien worlds without too much difficulty.)
The chapter also details several non-human sentient races, with character generation modifiers in case you want to play one or build an NPC; the jingyi (mysterious dinosaurs), the tsantirrew (avian mercenaries), the chovu imoi (smart abalone-like gastropods), the dreiyari (giant tardigrades). Again, easy to repurpose as aliens in a more conventional SF game.
Characters: Here are notes on the kind of characters one might play, or encounter; barbarians, medics, nobles, scientists and whatnot. Surprisingly, there are no modifications to the character generation process itself. I suppose it’s not so different from saying “all PCs are from a TL 8 culture, generate them accordingly”.
Bestiary: Here we find a score or so of weird animals that have graced our planet, or might do so in future. Most have stats, most have pictures.
Other Aspects of Time Travel: A miscellany, this. Since you’re always on Earth, the local bacteria can usually eat you, and this chapter begins with a list of diseases you might catch uptime or downtime. Next we find a revised description of the familiar red-amber-green travel zones, and how they are policed by Q0 nations. Finally there is a short section on dealing with PCs that try to interact with themselves, say by leaving a message.
Adventures in Time: This chapter includes six adventure seeds in the familiar 76 Patrons format – a basic situation, followed by six different ways it could develop. This allows the referee to run very similar adventures several times, and protects the plotlines to some extent against players who’ve read the book.
Appendix A – Inverting the Empire: As mentioned above, the default version of the setting has our civilisation – Q0 – as the good guys, and the Empire as the bad guys. With a few tweaks, though, you can reverse this; and the reversed setup is quite convincing, except you have to assume that the 98% of the population who are slaves are happy with that state. I would suggest they have been genetically engineered and socially conditioned to prefer it, as in S M Stirling’s later Draka novels.
Appendix B – Suggested Reading and Resources: What it says on the tin. This is shorter than you might expect, because most time travel stories focus on interacting with events much closer together than the quanta in this setting, and are therefore of limited utility to the Empire of Time referee.
…and we close with the obligatory Open Game Licence.
Colour covers wrapped around single column black text on white, with colour or greyscale illustrations every page or so. Basic, effective, gets the job done.
I’ve often introduced time travel into a Traveller setting, but never really considered making the whole setting about time travel. I have toyed with the idea that jump drive actually takes you across parallel universes (as in Keith Laumer’s Worlds of the Imperium), and every planet is Earth in a different timeline, but never fleshed it out. Empire of Time is, in a way, a merger of those two ideas.
The idea of travel only being viable in large jumps is very clever, in that it allows you to have most of the fun of time travel (“Yay! Dinosaurs!”) without most of the paradoxes (“Sorry grandpa, but you must die – for science!”) and plot circumvention (“Tomorrow I’m going to travel back to yesterday and leave a gun here – oh look here it is!”).
Overall Rating: 4 out of 5. I could see myself running this, although not under the Cepheus Engine. It’d be easy to port to Savage Worlds or any other version of Traveller, though.