When I mention tabletop role-playing games, you might think of corporate behemoths like Dungeons and Dragons, and long, sprawling campaigns lasting many sessions – in some cases, years and even decades. If that sounds too expensive or time-consuming, I’d like to introduce you to Maschine Zeit, a game that happily tosses those ideas out the airlock.
TL;DR Machine Zeit is the perfect game for when you want something that is fast, specific, and focused enough so that all the players can learn the system, create characters, start playing, and finish a story in one sitting.
So what’s this game about, then?
(Cover art for Maschine Zeit by George Cotronis.)
Concept, setting, and genre
The concept is simple: you’re all playing characters in a horror movie set in space. Most of your PCs will suffer horrible torments, and then they’ll die. And that’s if the game goes well.
In most games, you spend a lot of time trying to keep your character safe and protect them from the GM’s dasterdly traps and cunning machinations. In this system, self-preservation is a distant, lesser priority. Instead, you focus on creating the best story you can, which makes it a great exercise in collaborative storytelling.
Think of it like a slasher movie set on an abandoned space station. Going in, you know that most of the characters are doomed. If they were a bunch of invincible, invulnerable heroes, the story would never go anywhere.
Likewise, in Maschine Zeit, the purpose is to scare yourself – and each other – instead of buffing your characters to hell and gone. That frees you up to tell each other ghost stories about the ideas that really haunt you.
Of course, being a sci-fi game, the book does provide setting information to set the scene. It takes up about one and a half A5 pages in the book. Fortunately, the designers have allowed me to record an audio version for it.
Imagine, if you will, that you found an old flight recorder and are listening to the last recorded message from an alternative timeline.
The entire rulebook takes up 52 pages, including the cover and the character sheet, and half of that is GM advice to the GM. There is only one table in the whole book. (You wouldn’t need more.)
This also means that you don’t need much to play. To roll, you need two ten-sided dice (d10s). You also need 6-30 tokens, which can be anything from paper clips to poker chips, as long as they are tangible and preferably non-edible.
In the rules, the the storyteller or GM is called the Director and the players are called Actors. To simplify things slightly for this review, I’m going to stick to the more conventional terms.
Creating a PC in this game is gloriously simple. Your character is determined by whether they are driven by id, ego, or superego, and you can choose words or phrases to describe them, what they do, or their link to the world.
Characters can be as varied or as familiar as those in any horror film. For example, in one game I ran, one PC was a widow who wanted to find the ghost of his wife, and used his job as an engineer to be selected for a mission to the station. (They got a happy ending, mostly because they sacrificed themselves by the end of the game and everyone else had their worst fears realised.)
At the start of the game, the GM hands each player a number of tokens, called “Dramatic Elements”, based on the total number of players involved. Players then either spend them to buy special abilities, called Plot Elements, or save them to modify dice rolls during the game.
The book includes a list of Plot Elements you can use for your characters. Many of them veer towards cyberpunk rather than full-on horror. But the system encourages players to come up with their own suggestions, which they can suggest to the GM.
The clarity of character creation is reflected in the character sheet, which has room to note down the full description for any special abilities your character might have. Note that when you use a Universal Element like Id, Ego, or Superego, you end up spending – that is, scratching off – one of the remaining values on your character sheet. So you will eventually run out of superego. (That is the one part of the rules that could be spelled out a bit more.)
Of course, you could create perfectly ordinary humans with no special abilities and just use your tokens to make things happen in game. But you could also gain additional tokens by choosing to take damage, or do something stupidly heroic or self-sacrificing, or otherwise behaving in keeping with horror tropes.
What’s unique about this game
Games will often try to bite off more than they can chew, so to speak, by trying to appeal to as many people as possible. So they will try to convince you that you can use it to tell any kind of story you like.
By contrast, Maschine Zeit is designed with a very specific goal. It’s not meant for long campaigns. It’s not trying to support every conceivable genre. But what it does, it does superbly.
The rulebook does contain hacks of its own rules, which let you tailor it to your group’s tastes. But however you choose to modify it, you’ll always use it to tell some kind of horror story. It’s less about trying to make it suitable for a fantasy game, and more about choosing a sub-genre of horror movie.
Another thing that sets Maschine Zeit apart from other systems is that the GM is supposed to make themselves obsolete halfway through the game. In other words, by the end of the game the player who started the story should stop ‘running’ the ghosts and should instead be an Actor like the other players.
So far, it’s the only system I’ve encountered where the third act of the game doesn’t devolve to being “Players vs. the GM”. By the end of the game, everyone around the table should have a good idea of how everything is going to end, and why that will be bad and/or terrifying for everyone involved.
I have run this more than once, and I’ve had a lot of fun every time – and so did the players. That said, I seriously urge you to use the X-Card system if you’ve never used it before, though, since you don’t want anyone at the table to regret being there.
It’s my new gold standard for game design. Seriously, I can’t recommend it enough for horror GMs who want to focus on the fun of playing and creating creepy stories, or for aspiring game designers who want to see what the medium is capable of.
Even if you never end up playing it, I would recommend reading the rules to see exactly how simple games can be without sacrificing complexity. I can happily imagine playing endless sessions with these rules. Who knows, I may still publish a few scenarios and Plot Elements of my own.
About the creators
Maschine Zeit was developed by Olivia Hill and Filamena Young, who publish games and books under the name Machine Age Productions. They are indie game developers who have worked for several well-known properties, and they are active, founding members of the San Jenaro Co-Op.
In the interests of full disclosure, I have worked with both of them as part of the Co-Op. But I also sincerely loved their game and I really do want more people to know about it and try it for themselves.
The background audio in the SoundCloud file above was kindly provided Plate Mail Games. They produce amazing sound effect tracks for RPGs that I use for most if not all of the games I run, which you can buy directly from DriveThruRPG or subscribe to via Battlebards. I highly recommend the featured track, “Derelict Space Station“, for any Maschine Zeit games you would like to run. They also run an Actual Play RPG podcast that you can support via Patreon.