And so 2009 begins, and with it the countdown to the third most popular date in Science Fiction (behind 2000 and 2001). Funny, it doesn’t look all that different to the tail end of 2008.
That shouldn’t be surpising, since it takes the passage of several years and quite a bit of hindsight to be able to characterise a given decade.
Again, this is not surprising; decades are accidental groupings of years dictated by our calander, it should be no surprise that it takes a substantial period of time before the human habit of recognising patterns (and imposing them if there aren’t any) can isolate a common theme in a particular random grouping of years.
In some ways, it used to be easier. The pace of technological change was slower, and that meant that a single technology could be isolated and identified as characteristic of the era. The 1990s have to be characterised as the “internet boom”, as a related series of technologies came together to forge a social tsunami that affected almost every aspect of the human condition. Perhaps the 2000s can be characterised as the “Blog Era”, or the “YouTube era”, or even “The Hubble Era” – but my preferance is “The Google Era”, in which information became easier to find then ever before. But they are all artificial summations of an artificially-defined period of time.
And yet, in many respects, I can’t help feeling just a little cheated. The future those science-fiction writers promised us simply hasn’t materialised. The Concorde has gone, we still don’t have commercial space flights, flying cars and personal rocket packs don’t exist, we can’t debate philosophy with sentient computers, and where are the Lunar Colonies?
In 2000, this feeling was everywhere. We were entering the “age of tomorrow” but it looked just the same as what had come immediately before. The news just seemed so trivial and mundane in comparison to our hopes and expectations. Even giving reality an extra decade to get its act together hasn’t helped – the sense of wonder just isn’t there.
It strikes me that this expectation is one last, lurking, perspective of the Victorian Era. They must have held similar perspectives on the turn of the century in 1900, but their hopes of a new era were perverted into the First World War. Nevertheless, the 20th century was an age of wonders. Mass Transportation, Air Travel, Space Flight, Instant Communications, Atomic Energy, Thinking Machines, even Mobile Telephones, the list of wonders goes on and on and on. Have we become jaded?
A DM experiences similar feelings whenever an RPG comes to a premature demise. There is a sense of unfulfilled potential; the plot threads carefully cultured and grafted by the DM will never bloom to reveal the beauty and wonder as everything comes together into a big finish, as the hidden secrets are revealed.
In 1998, I ran an asteroids-exploration camapaign which quite deliberately had an Indiana-Jones-ish pulp rollercoaster feel to it. The campaign background was made up on the spur of the moment, as was the rules system. The first session brought the PCs together on earth, filled in a fairly colourless political background lifted largely from Alien, as it might have looked in the 2050s, and got the PCs as far as the Lunar Base from which they were supposed to get their ship. The context flavour was very Twilight Zone meets the X-files, full of misunderstood phenomena that were not “officially recognised”. Originally intended to be a fill-in campaign that would last only for the day, the players were full of enthusiasm and insisted that it continue – after all, they hadn’t even reached the Asteroids yet!
And so the game went to a second session, in which the PCs discovered that aliens had inflitrated the Lunar Base, emerging from great eggs that had been brought back by a previous asteroid mining expedition. Meanwhile, rumblings in the Middle East were slowly escelating towards Nuclear War; with officialdom having more urgent concerns, the PCs couldn’t interest anyone in “luridly paranoid fantasies”. In desperation, they managed to set the self-destruct on the Lunar Base (or, more to the point, cobbled one together), took the best of the asteroid mining ships on the launchpad and got the heck out of there.
And then came the third session. One of the eggs was discovered on-board – one that had hatched. A game of hide-and-seek ensued, as the alien sought to sabotage the ship and rebuild its systems to suit itself in response to a ‘homing call’ that only it could feel (grafted in from John Carpentier’s “The Thing”). NPCs were killed off, one by one, and the PCs had a couple of close calls; in at least one case, was seemingly killed (but could have been rescued) – the player had to leave early. Everything was proceeding splendidly. And then one of the PCs blew up the ship.
I did my best – I rewrote the operating principles of the ship on-the-fly to change an immediate explosion into a countdown to disaster. I managed to get one PC into a space-suit and headed towards the engines while the others played games with ET. Tension mounted as he reached the engineering compartment, only to discover that there wasn’t one alien, there were two – and he wasn’t alone. Combat ensued, as the clock continued its relentless countdown. Finally, he reached the controls – and turned them the wrong way. Assuming that he had misunderstood how these things (theoretically) worked, I went over it with him again, slowly, and then asked again if he was sure this was what he wanted to do. I had the other PCs get the radio working to enable them all to contribute. I gave him skill rolls to figure out what “didn’t seem right”. I dropped hint after hint.
The Player proved impervious to it all, and stubbornly insisted on taking his action as he described it. I even gave him a DEX roll to set the controls “incorrectly”, but he had decided it was better to blow up the ship and everyone on board than to take the chance of these things getting loose, and that is exactly what he did.
And so the campaign came to a premature conclusion. The PCs never discovered that the ETs were actually survivors from Minerva (a world that had been blown up to create the Asteroids) who had colonised a Jovian Moon, and Phobos & Deimos, had a primitive star drive, had been using earthly cattle as breeding stock for centuries (cattle mutilations), had a ship shot down at Roswell, had experiemented with Humans for decades to determine whether or not a more effective hybrid could be developed, that those hybrids were behind the nuclear war that was about to begin and sputter out, and so on and on and on. As the PCs learned to fight back, they would have exposed the aliens and ultimately driven them from the planet.
All I can do now, over a decade after the fact, is look back and mourn the missed opportunity. It’s one thing for a game to be terminated through mutual consent because no-one’s having fun any more; it’s quite another for a game being enjoyed by all to come to a crashing halt because one player decided to be “noble” and “self-sacrificing”. What do you do when this happens?
You dust yourself off and start another campaign, that’s what. And for some time to come, you ask yourself if there was something more that you should have done or could have done.
Which brings us back to the beginning of 2009. In many ways, it feels like 2008 has finished prematurely. Too many of the problems of the last year have not been resolved – we have conflict in the Middle East, we’re still entangled in Iraq, we still have an economic crisis to manage, oil supplies continue to shrink because we havn’t started exploiting the pools of petrochemicals in the Jovian Atmosphere. But all we can do is dust ourselves off and tackle the new year, with its’ new opportunites and hopes and dreams. Happy New Year, everyone.