Tuesday, February 7, 2023

BRIEF: Timeship (1984)

Notice that the title screen image is of the Time Travelers' Guild dome. That's because there is no ship in Timeship.
United States
Five Star Software (developer and publisher)
Released 1984 for Apple II
Unable to play because of disk/emulation problems; would have been rejected for character development anyway
Timeship is an obscure game based on a more obscure tabletop roleplaying system of the same name. I heard about it for the first time because of the computer game, and I thought that after 13 years of doing this, I had a pretty good handle on early-1980s role-playing. I'm curious if any of my readers ever played it. The tabletop game came out in 1983, published by Yaquinto Publications of Dallas, Texas, a wargaming publisher whose titles included The Sword and the Flame (1979), Swashbuckler (1980), and The Barbarians (1981). Timeship was one of three RPGs it fielded in the early 1980s; the other two were Pirates & Plunder (1982) and Man, Myth, & Magic (1982).
The "role-playing" part is debatable.
The Timeship system was designed by James Herbert ("Herbie") Brennan, a prolific Irish author who has specialized in interactive fiction. The game shipped with three adventure modules: "Murder at the End of Time," "Destruction of Gomorrah," and "Assassinate the Fuhrer." A contemporary review in the December 1983 Dragon suggests that it's an enjoyable if somewhat silly game with rather soft rules. A more recent review on RPG.net suggests an interesting thing about the instructions: players were supposed to play themselves rather than created characters. Character sheets were meant to reflect an honest assessment of the players' attributes and skills. That must have led to some amusing conversations among groups of players ("A strength of 90, Dwayne? Really?!").
The cover of the tabletop version. Everyone is bald in the future, as it was meant to be.
The computer game is credited to Jamie Su, about whom I can find nothing, and published by Five Star Software, a joint enterprise between Yaquinto Publications and Poulos Publications of Midland, Texas, but for some reason headquartered in Elk Grove, Illinois. An announcement in a 1984 issue of Computer Gaming World says that Five Star's first game would be something called The Tarot Teacher, but either it was never issued or it's even more obscure than Timeship. Sources say that Yaquinto folded right about the same time that Timeship would have hit the shelves, which probably explains why information about both the tabletop and computer RPG is so scant.
The intent seems to have been to make Timeship like a science fiction Eamon (1980), with characters created and stored on a "hub" disk and then sent to any number of adventure disks. The only one that shipped with the game--the only one ever created, as far as I can tell--was an adaptation of "Murder at the End of Time."
The "hub" of the game world.
The game begins in a dome where the Time Travelers' Guild keeps its headquarters. Players can visit the Archive Dome, the Cubicle Dome, the Trade Dome, and the Ritual Dome, which serve the same functions as Gilgamesh's Tavern, Adventurer's Inn, Boltac's Trading Post, and the Edge of Town in Wizardry; that is, respectively: create and edit characters and form a party, view inventory and sleep, buy and sell equipment, and head off to an adventure. The heading-off-to-adventure part is presented as a "ritual," incidentally, and I don't see any mention at all of the characters using a ship.
The beginning of character creation. So few games accept a name as long as "Bolingbroke."
I wasn't able to find a manual posted online, and lacking such, I struggled through the character creation process. The game asks you for first and last names, age, sex, and whether you're right or left-handed. You're then shown your attributes--strength, dexterity, endurance, charisma, and intelligence--all of which start at 50, but can be increased from a pool of 60 points. That's easy enough. The next part takes you to a long list of weapon types and your skill with those weapons. Your "pool" here starts at -60, and it took me a few tries to understand that lower numbers are better on this screen, and you're thus meant to subtract from the skills of the weapons you want, not add. The variety of weapons reflects the varied scenarios in which a time traveler might find himself, I guess.
Making a ninja.
The weapons shop, oddly, lacks such variety. The only weapons are those found in a fantasy game. The armor shop does have a "reflective armour" in addition to more medieval-sounding armor and clothing. The equipment shop has things like torches, lanterns, ropes, and spikes, hardly the sort of inventory set you'd expect to need in a futuristic setting.
Hmmm . . . I missed the "arrow keys to switch pages" part until just now. That makes more sense.
I had one significant problem after character creation. The game tracks the "active" character while you're in the Guild, and only the active character can buy and sell in the trading post. When you create a new character, he or she becomes the active character, and I couldn't find any way to change to a different one. Hence, I was only able to purchase equipment for one character.
It didn't really matter anyway, as I couldn't get my party off to the module. I'm not even sure that the module disk exists online. The downloads I was able to find come with three disks, labeled "boot," "player," and "data." If "data" is supposed to be the module, it doesn't work. Although the game is discussed online, I see no screenshots of the module itself--just the hub disk--which suggests to me that it's not just an emulation problem.
I had a whole theme going and everything.
In the meantime, the best I can do is try to reconstruct the experience from reviews in the June-July 1985 Computer Gaming World and the January 1985 QuestBusters. It sounds pretty goofy. Based on the "Murder at the End of Time" tabletop module, it's supposed to be set in the distant future, which has experienced its first murder in 300 million years. Despite the setting, characters are limited to early-20th century equipment, and NPCs apparently talk like they're in a Raymond Chandler novel. Then, to quote QuestBusters:
You amble through clouds of grey mist and discover Count Dracula stretched out in a coffin, a stake through his heart. Dracula isn't the game's only monster movie character, for you'll find hunchbacked Igorr guarding an alien space ship. Then "Little Orphan Annie Oakley" shows up in a strange miniature forest, where a parrot whistles "Battle Hymn of the Republic." 
So . . . yeah. Perhaps it's good that I can't play it. Other tidbits from the two reviewers:
  • The game uses a complex full-sentence text parser with a limit of 35 characters.
  • Combat uses a system similar to Wizardry. You choose your attacks each round and then watch as they execute one after the other.
  • As with the tabletop game, the core statistic is "personal energy," which is an all-purpose combination of money, hit points, stamina, movement, and psychic energy. It's set at the beginning of the scenario, and if any character runs out, he dies.
  • If you type an obscenity, the game asks you to "say you're sorry" and then won't let you do anything else until you type SORRY.
  • The text has a lot of typos. Dracula was apparently killed with a "steak," for instance.
  • The game is largely linear and illogical and does not call to action most of the skills and attributes assigned during character creation.
About as far as I could get.
The reviewers also mention that characters get no experience or development, so I guess it doesn't meet my definitions of an RPG, although I know my definition isn't universally accepted. I understand the view that if you create a character and the character has attributes, that's RPG enough. Also, the game repeatedly calls itself a "role-playing game."
Both reviewers looked forward to Five Star's next module, which would have been based on "Assassinate the Fuhrer" but apparently was never finished. It's for the best; SilverFox316 probably would have shown up to ruin it.
Ed. Lanhawk found a version that worked and sent me a couple of screenshots:


My only reactions are: 1) "Saturnine," assuming that's what the author meant, means "depressed" or "gloomy." I would expect most corpses would be at least a little somber. 2) If I were 300 million years in the future and found a corpse, even in a Victorian cloak, I doubt I'd say, "Undoubtedly, this is Count Dracula."


  1. Well, this was an interesting artifact to learn about! I've read that same rpg.net review of the pen and paper game, but otherwise had never heard of Timeship. I also roll reasonably deep in the Interactive Fiction world and have never seen Herbie Brennan mentioned -- from his Wikipedia page, I see some gamebooks that look to be part of the post-Fighting Fantasy boom in the UK, but nothing that seems like a text adventure; IFDB and CASA searches for his name or the titles of the gamebooks likely come up empty. Probably you just meant "interactive fiction" as general pen-and-paper RPG stuff, but figured I'd mentioned this in case anyone else was confused!

    1. I've also dabbled in IF and gamebooks and I know about J. H. Brennan, mostly from his GrailQuest gamebooks that I read umpteen times when I was a kid in the 80s. An odd duck with a weird sense of humor, he's still around and responsive to emails. It's not computer IF but I think gamebooks are IF.

    2. Oh wow, GrailQuest. Pretty unbalanced books but ten yr-old me loved the eerie, quirky writing.

  2. The game is largely linear and illogical and does not call to action most of the skills and attributes assigned during character creation.

    GAAAH! WHY DO THEY KEEP DOING THIS!!@#!#@!$!$%!$@#!@#

    Yeah, we know why. They're incompetent. They start off with grand ideas that they're going to make the Best Game Ever[tm] that encompasses every skill in the world and then only create content that uses the combat skills. When confronted with the gigantic waste of everyone's time, they giggle and say something like "LOL our reach exceeded our grasp, tee hee! But it was a great learning experience for us! We had so much fun making that buggy pile of mess LOL!"

    1. In defense of Timeship, as I understand future modules could have been added to the game. Those could have been utilizing the rest of the attributes.

    2. I would like to say this is a 80s proto RPG phenomenon with developers still figuring out and experimenting with what makes a good RPG. But then we have Paradox well into the 90s...

    3. I wouldn't call it incompetence, but rather inexperience. Creating an inbalanced list of skills where some of which rarely ever get used is an easy trap for fledgling RPG designers to fall into, the consequences of which only becoming clear in hindsight. I say that because that's what happened to me: About 20 years ago a a few friends and I created a table-top system of our own (we even managed to sell about 1000 copies at least, which admittedly isn't much but felt like a big deal for us self-published freshman university students). You start out looking at the systems you know and love and the ways you think they could improve, and create a list of essential skills and attributes you feel are necessary in a game. Then you playtest it, and - for example - send your party into a mountain range... and sure enough, eventually a player will pop up and, say, argue that clearly climbing a mountain ain't the same as climbing a regular wall. There's some debate about realism, some to and fro and consultancy with your fellow creators and other playtesters - and eventually, you end up with a skill like "mountaineering" on the character sheet. And since you want to make sure it belongs there, your next few sessions will feature a mountain range in one way or another, to balance any eventual modifiers needed and to determine what skill level seems useful or whethe ror not it just deadends the game. So after a while, you're satisfied, and it feels balanced and right.

      And then the next five or six GMs who master a session based on your system prefer urban settings and never lead a party even close to a mountain range at all. (The same can happen in quite the opposite direction as well: One GM prefers social settings for example, and after several rounds of playtesting, it feels good and "right" to include skills like etiquette, dancing or carousing in your setting. And then the next GM almost exclusively does dungeon crawls...)

      That's the main problem if you want to create an RPG that tries to encompass as many situations as possible (exploring, combat, research AND social activities), because not every DM - or in this case, not every CRPG adaptor and/or module creator - puts the same emphasis on the same individual aspects. In our case, we also ended up with useless skills, but couldn't quite agree on how to rectify this situation for a more balanced character sheet (personally I prefer a "less is more" approach with relatively few skills and attributes, allowing storytelling and character play to cover up "special" situations like e.g. mountaineering and such; but we also had a Rolemaster fan and active software developer in our design team, who argued for a more detailed and versified skillset - codifying these things into concise rules, even if they are hardly ever used in practice, made it easier for him to apply them (especially when he tried creating a computerized version of our game; otoh he also ended up creating computer tools to assist with things like character creation, which to my sensibilities means: If you need an external tool to create such a basic thing as a starting character, you've already failed your design. :p ).

      Since Timeship was created in the early 80s where dungeon crawling still mostly ruled the scene and things like "storytelling RPGs" didn't really exist outside of a few exotic exceptions, it would seem obvious that the creators also used this "kitchen sink" approach to skillset creation, and without the practice and experience of former attempts - well, having useless skills is pretty much a given result. Nowadays we have many more RPG systems and CRPGs in existence to show ho it can be done better, and it's still an easy trap to fall into.

    4. Nothing wrong with criticizing games but consistently attacking developers as if making a bad game was a personal attack is a pretty irritating facet of modern discourse. I’d like to see Harland’s list of perfectly-executed productions that gives him the standing to know exactly how these things went down.

    5. Can't you argue that having more skills than are usable in game, is actually more immersive & reflective of real life? I have skills/knowledge that might not be used every week, or even every month... it adds colour & personalisation to the character, if nothing else

    6. It's a faithful implementation of a tabletop system. Of course it includes all the skills. In a tabletop adventure you don't use 90% of your skills either in a single adventure.

      More modern games (I'd say, mid-90s plus the latest) don't do this anymore, as gaming has outgrown tabletop and the concept of additional modules sold later never worked out (until the age of DLCs I guess). But this is a 1984 game and closely sticking to the tabletop roots was a sensible decision. I would probably done exactly the same had I created a game back then.

      You see this in D&D games, too, with charisma often being entirely useless, and other stats having no use e.g. for a fighter. It's less prominent because of the lack of a skill system.

    7. @Chris Of course you can always argue that way, and plenty of game designers of RPG systems of old and (albeit to a lesser degree) new still do. The challenge there would be: can you do it in a way that it's still fun, and not entirely superfluous outside of flavor (and even outright disadvantageous as opposed to optimizing/min-maxing your build, which, for many RPG gamers, is actually half the fun)?

      For example: of course it's realistic that a secret service agency would employ specialists with skills in accounting. Those might be useful in certain occasions. But it could be tricky to make such a character fun, especially when the seeing encourages that 90% of the game play would be James Bond style field work. It's great when you get your chance to shine, not so mich so when for months in a row you are relegated to hanger-on status because everyone else is better than you in those skills that are required way more often. (Not that you can't have fun with such a themed character as well. I'll always fondly remember the time when, in a group with two mages and three fighting type characters, I played what essentially amounted to an overconfident con artist - foppish, utterly useless in combat and completely out of his element whenever the group left any urban environment. But whenever there was a party going on, that was his time to shine).
      So yeah, you can have fun with that, as long as setting, game and/or GM give you the opportunity to apply that skill every once in a while - and even then, it's not everyone's cup of tea to play something that most of the time feels like a "weaker" character, even if it's more realistic. (Also, to get back to my earlier "mountaineering" example, how realistic does it really feel in the end when, if all is said and done, your performance still hinges on the result of a dice throw? One way or another, abstractions have to be made.)

      In modern P&P RPGs there are many different approaches to that issue. I personally enjoy the way the Shadowrun tabletop handles such "special skills": you can freely define a few "special knowledge and/or physical" skills not covered by any rulebook that represent a hobby, special training or maybe even just a deep interest, without any cost that would detract from more "important" general skills, and you can add one or two dice to your dice pool whenever that certain specific specialty comes into play - even if it's such an oddball thing like "Korean manwha series from the 1990s". Of course, given that the range of possibilities (and the ways those could apply) is sheer incalculable, this is very hard to implement in a computerized version of the rules. Best you could do there is to offer the opportunity to optionally select a few items from a predetermined list. And the longer the list goes, the harder it gets to apply potential consequences into your game... Ad infinitum.

      Finding the right balance between "realism", "accessibility" and "fun" is and always has been the trickiest challenge of any RPG system designer (I would argue even more than coming up with a unique idea or an unique twist to an established one in the first place).

    8. re: accounting. I ran a 7th Sea campaign once where one of the items they players found was a ledger from a secret organization. It was actually a central clue but when I designed it I had already a sidequest to find an NPC with the right skill.

      I completely neglected the fact one of the players had actually picked Accounting on their skill sheet. They were able to pull out all the important revelations right away. Oops! At least they had a moment to shine (there were a decent number of research moments in the campaign so a lore-master type actually worked pretty well, I just didn't expect accounting).

    9. Jason, that sounds exactly like this xkcd strip: https://xkcd.com/208/
      "Stand back! I know Accounting!"

    10. Oh boy, I wanted to say Paragon above, of course...

    11. If in a tabletop adventure you don't use 90% of your skills, then you have a bad DM and/or adventure writer. It is entirely fair to call them out on that, and likewise to call out a computer game where 90% of the skills go unused.

    12. This comment has been removed by the author.

    13. Good points here. The game is early in the chronology, so I'm not sure Harland's "keep doing this" applies. It may have been the first to do it. And as others have pointed out, it was meant to support multiple modules. Keep in mind that we don't have the documentation, which might have been quite explicit about what skills were likely to be used in the included scenario.

    14. This comment has been removed by the author.

    15. Had to delete my last post since editing still isn't possible...

      @Radiant , I see you are someone who likes a challenge. Well, here's a list of the 500+ skills available in Rolemaster Standard System, which is widely considered to be quite a good RPG: https://www.icewebring.com/docs/SkillbySkill.pdf

      Now have fun coming up with a session or a computer adaptation that sensibly uses at least 90% of them. 😊

    16. @Jason Dyer A similar thing happened in our old "Vampire: The Masquerade" campaign. The GM had us stumble across an old artifact written in Aramaic, with the intention that we had to do a favor for the Lamia so they would translate it for us, with plenty of options for misdirection and double-crossings...

      Unfortunately he had forgotten that my character had many sessions back started to pump points into languages, explicitly specifying that I was intending to study the Kabbalah and take Aramaic as one of my specialties... 😝

    17. I was playing in a Warhammer campaign where our Gamemaster gave us a map entirely labeled in runes (I think specifically Lord of the Rings dwarf runes? Are those the ones similar to Ultima runes?). Having learned all of the runes to read signs in Ultima IV, I was easily able to translate it immediately. Surprised, the Gamemaster simply gave my character the skill Read Runes.

    18. We used to play pretty crunchy systems like Shadowrun or Arkania, but also resolved a lot of situations by role playing. The 90% were a hyperbole but probably not that far off. And we had fun.

      I agree that a GM should find way to employ the players characters skills (and challenge their weaknesses), but I'd say you do this selectively and over the course of multiple adventures. Otherwise you risk it becoming a cliché.

    19. Man, Rolemaster was awesome. "Weapon stuck in foe"

    20. GURPS 4E has a few hundred skills - this becomes very manageable in actual play because genre and scenario constrain which ones make sense, but if you were trying to build a CRPG engine that could handle any scenario you would need to include them all.

    21. I just started playing 'Solasta: Crown of the Magister', which is the most faithful rendering of straight D&D tabletop rules I've seen in a game, and during character creation they flag the skills you won't actually use in the starting campaign. So you can put points into Sleight of Hand or learning Goblin if you want to, but the game explicitly tells you there's no immediate point.

  3. Weird, but/and therefore interesting. So no long-haired blond avatar(s) here, everyone's bald in the future "as it was meant to be", he, guess that worked well for you. Unrelated piece of trivia: the word "bald" in German means "soon".

    I appreciate your themed character names / parties even if I don't always get the references. This one was pretty obvious, though, even without knowing much about 'Doctor Who' - the tabletop review you linked does make quite a bit of fun of the "Timelord" subject.

    Had to look up 'SilverFox316'. Time travel... .

    1. Interesting! The English word "bald" has a neat very-long-term etymology because it's one of a bazillion words that can be traced back to an indo-arian root that means "shining". Bald="shiny head" is pretty obvious, but other words derived from that root include blue ("shiny like the sky"), blind ("what happens if you stare at the shiny sky-orb"), blonde ("shiny hair"), and black ("What color things turn after you make them shiny by setting them on fire")

    2. AlphabeticalAnonymousFebruary 7, 2023 at 1:03 PM

      I still remember having the darnedest time in high school German class: our teacher kept telling us that "Der Weihnachtsman kommt bald!" and we kept thinking that Santa Claus was losing his hair...

    3. I always used to wonder why Germans want everything to die.

    4. Hehe and Germans often wonder why receiving a 'gift' (= poison/venom/toxin in German) is usually considered positive.

      Coming full circle back to baldness, someone thought a hairdresser was killing off locks for good when hearing/reading about "dyeing your hair".

      I also remember school age confusions in our class about a 'genie' (genius) in a bottle, 'eagle' which is pronounced like 'Igel' (hedgehog), 'mist' (manure or "crap!", depending on context) and -cue early teenage giggle- the necessity to sometimes use 'preservatives' in food ('Präservativ' = condom).

      BTW, your 'Brief' means letter in German.

    5. "I always used to wonder why Germans want everything to die."

      Just the feminists ;)

    6. I guess Baldr is then the Shining one

    7. "I always used to wonder why Germans want everything to die." - Oh, Chet, Germans only want one third of things to die. They want other third to der and the third third to das. =)

  4. [i]Had to look up 'SilverFox316'. Time travel...[/i]
    Me too. Good read, though, I'd recommend it. ;)

  5. 'Dracula was apparently killed with a "steak"'. Probably not the last one to choke badly on one of those

    1. This is morbid, but technically my father was killed by a steak.

    2. Ironically my grandfather's first job was killing steaks - he worked on the killing floor of a slaughterhouse.

    3. `Dracula, in this game, was killed by a "wooden steak". A wooden steak would certainly cause serious digestive distress and possibly death for me!

    4. Yeah, a wooden steak, worst of both worlds there.

  6. I really like the artwork for the tabletop version with its heavy 70s influence, inspired arrangement, and flawless execution - those covers were a selling point in the past.

  7. I can't get over the fact that you can apparently spend yourself to death in this system.

    1. It's one of the oddities that comes up when you conflate resources that are usually separate. Not so different, I suppose, from Elden Ring, in which currency and experience are the same thing.

    2. Also the means to upgrade your weapons and armor!

    3. Er, weapons anyway. Technically you can't upgrade armor although you can "alter" it.

  8. AlphabeticalAnonymousFebruary 7, 2023 at 9:17 PM

    > If I were 300 million years in the future and found a
    > corpse, even in a Victorian cloak, I doubt I'd say,
    > "Undoubtedly, this is Count Dracula."

    OK, that one made me laugh out loud.

  9. "Saturnine," assuming that's what the author meant, means "depressed" or "gloomy." I would expect most corpses would be at least a little somber.

    "Saturnine" has been used so often to describe Spock and/or Leonard Nimoy, I almost wonder whether the author had some misunderstood "Spock-like" definition in mind, incorrectly thinking he (?) knew what the word meant from context.

    (It can also, apparently, mean lead poisoning. Which would not be an effective way of killing Dracula.)

  10. The folks over at the Save For Half podcast reviewed the tavle top RPG some time ago. They also were stopped short by the lack of a ship in Timeship.

  11. I was floored by the extent to which this game's author (a luminary in gamebook circles at least -- I must own at least a half-dozen of his Grail Quest and Demonspawn books) and pen-and-paper sources were documented extensively at Wikipedia. It looked like a real obscurity but actually the path is wide and well-marked with signage and handrails.

  12. It looks like this game is still marked as unplayed on your master list.


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