One day after being recruited, we get told we're meeting with the Imperator in half an hour for a mission of "no particular urgency", so we get our first encounter with an Extremely Important NPC.
Capitalized because they're a class, really. Every NPC in charge of anything Marty thinks is cool or classy has exactly the same personality, down to the speech patterns. They like to...lace their speech with...pregnant pauses, and will even type frequent...ellipses; most of their speech is in an oily...condescending tone to match.. This is intended to make them sound...sophisticated, even...refined, and they'll usually supplement this by speaking in...euphemisms about how everything is...under control when they aren't...musing idiotically about pseudo-philosophical nonsense or making vaguely threatening...allusions to their power with the most...forced, obfuscatorily sesquidipalian locquaciousness and...needlessly circumlocutious sentence structure known to man. This would be almost...bearable if not so...ineptly and randomly done, except the GM likes to...go way off script at random, and it takes them so long to...say anything that the GM will...forget what they were saying halfway through, but ardently refuse to...shut up until he...runs out of things to say, which...usually means he ends on a topic completely different from the one he...started with, having effectively...filibustered his own...short-term memory. Then he...returns to the next sentence of his original...point and this goes on for...pages and pages while we're all...forbidden to do anything other than listen. The end effect is reminiscent of... William Shatner reading...The Eye of Argon while...high off his ass on morphine.
And that's how we get our mission briefings, folks! This one comes with a bonus explanation of how the organization works, a lecture on chaos theory, and another lecture on the nature of time and space.
Over two freaking hours of exposition, we learn that, as Green-level agents, we're only going to be assigned to canon-insignificant missions without much chance of armed resistance. In short, we're to take down tourists, merchants, and refugees. I blanched at the thought of killing defenseless, harmless people to preserve some author's canon, but I was (of course) wrong on two counts. First, we don't necessarily need to kill them; nonviolent perpetrators can simply be memory-wiped by what's effectively a neuralyzer limpet mine, then dumped back into their home universe. There's no real prohibition against killing, though, and we're promised that we can totally turn our mission areas into an abbatoir as long as we don't touch anyone canon-important. The phrase "by any means you may see fit to...employ" sees frequent use. Almost as frequent are assurances that our mission is utterly unimportant. As level is used to stop us doing anything potent, so is our rank used to stop us doing anything significant. Now, I don't mind the PCs starting low and working their way up. That's one of the most common kinds of growth in an RPG. What I do mind is being constantly told how insignificant the PCs' actions are, totally unprompted, over and over. We're literally greeted with "so obviously this won't be an...important mission" when we step into his office. It's hard to care more about the adventure than the GM. Then, too, when we object later, we get the following:
Us: "We're tired of being stuck at low level doing insignificant things."
GM: "This is a story-driven game with more measures of the significance of your actions than just level. Quit powergaming."
Us: "Well, we'd like some way to do more significant things, then."
GM: "You're too low level to do anything significant. Quit overreaching."
Us: "Then we'd like more XP per session so we can level, please."
GM: [repeat statement 2]
The GM is just so good at logic.
The second way I'm wrong is far more irksome than that, though: we aren't preserving the canonicity of anything. See, there's no link back from a universe to its creator. Their universe can diverge from what they write all they want, and they'll never be bothered one whit about it. Furthermore, once someone or something has moved through a portal, she,he,or it is forever immune to whatever their creator should see fit to write about them. The MIC only ever detects people by tracking travel through those portals.
This is futility on a level previously unknown to man. We aren't in charge of beating dead horses, we're in charge of beating cubist paintings: the problem is impossible and our solution has nothing to do with it. Except we don't beat them, we shoot them. I can hear our battle cry now: "For no concievable reason!" There's just nothing whatsoever to be gained here, and no matter what we do everyone we apprehend is never going to go back into the system. They have nothing to do but reoffend, over and over.
It won't matter, though. Time is inevitable. "The butterfly effect is not only false, it's the exact opposite of what happens." Now, an exceptionally credulous mathematician might read that and presume complex systems will somehow change to conform to mathematical models of them. Instead, what he means is that you can't fight fate as defined as 'whatever is written for your universe'. No matter what happens, no matter who leaves or arrives, the plot of the fiction will happen. If it's written that today the Death Star blows up and you sneak in and tape a screen door over the thermal exhaust port, it will still blow up, just for some other reason. Kill the protagonists and the rest of the plot will happen in their absence as a series of increasingly improbable events. As the GM put it, "if you slaughtered the crew of the Enterprise, the ship would fly itself from planet to planet, where diplomacy and exploration would happen on their own. If you destroyed the ship a new one would spontaneously assemble." Just...remember that inevitability for later when Marty takes over and 'fixes' everything.
In the meantime, though, the sheer futility at work here is staggering. The MIC, and therefore the PCs, could all retire and nothing would change; everyone they stop could do whatever they want and the remnants of the story would happen anyway, pushed around by the omnipotent hand of Canon. We're at the bottom of a heap of people all valiantly trying to ensure that as many people as possible are trapped in a canon that doesn't matter to anyone but us. Our actions don't matter. The problems we solve with our actions don't matter. The universes that have these problems don't matter. Psyched for your mission yet?
A mission, by the way, which is incredibly stupid. Someone from Star Wars has been selling shield generators to the United Nations Space Command of HALO in return for wagonloads of gold, and we have to go stop them. What. So not only are the shield generators perfectly compatible with UNSC spaceship design and repairable but not replicable by their engineers, but gold is also so rare in Star Wars it's a valid means of exchange. By my calculations it's worth around a tenth of a credit per gram, assuming the prices in Starships of the Galaxy are being used; they trade one military-grade capital ship scale shield generator for seven and a half cubic meters of gold, and then proceed to wheel 145 metric tons of metal back home. By hand. In a cart with tiny little wheels on it rolling over concrete sidewalks.
I wish we had recorded our sessions. The GM was describing this so enthusiastically like it's such a brilliant plan, and we're working through the math mentally and just facepalming over and over.
GM: "Yes...despite what the elegance of their scheme would indicate about their...intellect, their brazenness in thinking we wouldn't track them down would...indicate otherwise. Even you should be capable of...dealing with them."
Which is not to imply they were prompt in their efforts to intervene. The Pillar of Autumn was fully shielded, and they had "warehouses full of generators" ready to install on the rest of the fleet. We were also assured that these were the 550-point, colossal-scale-only kind of shield generator--and despite this they fit in a little wagon pushed by six guys. I just can't get over this; you don't tell your players they're playing a totally logical game where you can play with physics and then pull crap like this with no explanation. I mean, how many more convenient ways are there to move that much wealth around? Why would you integrate technology that awesome into your flagship without studying it first? How did none of the technicians and engineers and military guys involved ever question why this new wonder component works nothing like the rest of their stuff, and how are they powering it? Why didn't they put a little motor on their cart?
I know it's nitpicky, but the whole campaign hinges on this sort of stuff being believable and it's just so not; there needs to be a reason for crime to take place for criminals to exist for us to stop. I promise I'm not this grognardy about most games. If you tell me it's magic, I will try to exploit the hell out of it but I won't question it. If you tell me it doesn't work but needs to exist, fine; I can live with that. It's just the whole insistence that everything makes logical sense that breaks immersion for me, especially when it's treated like it's so obvious I'm a fool for not getting it. I react poorly to being scoffed at, I suppose, while the GM reacts poorly to having holes poked in his wish fulfilment.
Anyway, we also get our equipment. We get ODST Ballistic Battle Armor suits with military police markings on them; I'm beyond objecting to the weirdness on many levels. We also get assault rifles. Then we get kicked through the portal because we're low on time.
This conflicts significantly with our mission statement covering all of time and space; if we can time travel, we ought to be able to just leave whenever and arrive before the problem starts, yes? Apparently not, because of portal shenanigans. While a universe is left alone, all of its time occurs simultaneously, but when you link a portal to it, it's immediately "aligned to absolute time" and it's impossible to portal into any other time than the one linked. This solves absolutely none of the problems with time travel in a setting, but it does mean we can't just access useful things in other times and places later. My inquiries into the mechanics of this are basically brushed off; we have no control over our alleged time travel, and we're to accept that. Mind, these mechanics will cease to exist when they become inconvenient for Marty, but here we are for now: anything from any time can ruin our day, but we can't take advantage of that in any way.
And with that, believe it or not, in we go. We look like some bizarre kind of police paratrooper, one of our number (Igor) is extremely short, and Rick is loaded down with a bunch of grenades and backup guns because he wants to play PnP HALO. I'm just kind of there with the gear they gave me, trying to figure out how the gun works, let alone the armor. "Most of its systems are deactivated so you don't wreck anything by trying to use them untrained." You may detect a certain absence of mission-critical information, like how HALO or Star Wars works, or how we're expected to intervene, or how we'll recognize our targets, let alone where they are. The list goes on. Our mission briefing consists of repeated exclamations of how worthless we are and a basic explanation of the problem; our omnipotent organization can't muster so much as an informational pamphlet on who we're supposed to be.
This is a constant throughout Act 1. We're not given any information whatsoever about how our destination works, and we're expected to blend in perfectly to avoid errant timeline ripples ("not that anything you guys do could really mess anything up"). It's weird in-character just because this is the most ludicrous way I can imagine to run a bunch of secret agents, and out of character, this was pitched to us as a way to play in a bunch of different settings. If we know nothing about these settings, we aren't really in them; they're just pretty backdrop to a generic story rooted in nothing and a source of equipment we can't use. I wish that were unintentional.
Anyway, that was a whole session. The briefing and arming-up was its own complete session; we sat down, got talked at, and that was it. He had the gall to ask us afterward how we liked it, noting how well it ran. Why, yes, non-interactive storytelling does go faster.
In that spirit, then, (and so I can get through exams) the mission itself is coming next.