There is a fifth dimension, beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man's fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call The Twilight Zone.
If you’re familiar with the words above, you’ve probably seen at least one episode of the stalwart classic The Twilight Zone. (Or maybe you remember them from our previous Twilight Zone post where we reviewed a few episodes and the series itself? In which case, we hope you went and watched a few episodes afterwards.) The 2019 series revival may have been cancelled this year, but that doesn’t mean we can’t welcome these newer entries into our strange home. While some of the new Zones may have been rehashes of old material, a number of new episodes can join the ranks of that "middle ground between science and superstition" as classics in their own right for you to include in whatever Twilight Zone binge you decide to go on. If we’re lucky, maybe they'll start getting intertwined into the annual marathons. In the meantime, here at Never Say Dice, I’ve dissected one of the newer episodes with a tabletop bent.
Beware, spoilers will follow.
The episode I'm talking about literally involves a tabletop: episode eight from season two, titled “A Small Town” and starring Damon Wayans Jr. The town of Littleton is struggling, and the death of the mayor seems to be sending it down the drain. Things seem to be steadily getting worse, and the town is plagued with problems from a lack of business to mundane potholes. That is, until Wayans, playing the deceased mayor's husband, finds an old, long-forgotten table in a church attic with a model of the town on it. Powered by a crank and a little bit of Twilight Zone magic, whoever sits at the table can play God and change the real-life town. Wayans starts out righting little wrongs and fixing the town's issues by filling the potholes and generally helping people - anything to help improve the place. It isn’t long, though, before the current ne'er-do-well mayor takes credit for these accomplishments and Wayans gets fed up. Frustrated, he uses the table to take revenge on the mayor. In the end, in typical Twilight Zone fashion, this power is too great for any one person to hold, and the table is ultimately destroyed. We, however, can
steal borrow this power for our own tabletop games in a number of different ways.
The immediate problem you might see in including this as part of a tabletop game is the power level such a device grants. Unless you’re playing a game that relies more on plot and storytelling than traditional rules (or is specifically designed around extreme high-power scenarios), this is an immense amount of power to put into your game. The first thing to do is to decide on some rules of engagement. Can living things be placed on the magic table? Do items need to be below a certain size or value? Perhaps there are only a limited number of uses over a given time period. Setting limitations can make the table useful without being all-powerful. You could also set up a price for use. Be it blood, prematurely aging a character, a loss of magic essence, or a plain physical monetary cost, setting a price for the power will make players have to consider how and when it should be used. With specific rules/limitations or costs, the inclusion of a device like this becomes much more manageable, and can open up a number of avenues for adventure. Perhaps the players find it in a dungeon that they can then alter into a new base of operations? Maybe they stumble onto a scam where a group of “heros” keep “saving the town” from threats they've made themselves.
However you decide to enjoy The Twilight Zone, I hope you can find a way to include its peculiar panache into your own stories, at the table or elsewhere. There are many places in the Zone to visit, and any of them deserving to be used in expanding your own dimensions. Choose wisely and remember to put your own spin on these classic tales (even if some are newer ones.) Of course, your journeys aren’t limited to the fifth dimension.
When I decided to go in a different direction than Andy, and discuss an episode that could only have been made in the era of the original Twilight Zone, "The Obsolete Man" came instantly to mind. At first glance, it's an obvious product of its time, made by and for people who remembered the horrors of Nazi Germany, who lived in fear of both the USSR (as it was seen by Americans in 1961, anyway), and what the US might well become under the guidance of finger-pointers like Joseph McCarthy and Richard Nixon emboldened by the cold efficiency of modern technology. But it's also a masterwork in crafts since lost to time, of black-and-white cinematography and theatrical staging in a television studio. And it's this theatrical element that makes "The Obsolete Man" resonate seventy years later, that keeps it timeless and unnerving, rather than a quaint dated relic.
"The Obsolete Man" is a parable, a fable that makes no pretense to realism or prognostication. Even before Rod Serling's narration declares this "not a future that will be but one that might be. ... not a new world ... simply an extension of what began in the old one," a clever camera trick makes it appear that he is a giant towering over the set, foreshadowing the themes of observance that will underscore the episode: the eyes of the State, of the mass television audience made up of its subjects, and even of a watchful and caring God, the kind of deity that cares for the small and helpless when humanity has forced itself to forget how to.
For being about an entire society, the plot and scope of "The Obsolete Man" is small - there are only two sets and most of the screentime is dedicated to a long dialogue between only two actors. But what actors they are! Burgess Meredith, in the third of his four Twilight Zone appearances, plays a character who acts as an inversion of his character Henry Bemis from the episode "Time Enough at Last." Where Bemis used books as a form of self-centered escape to avoid dealing with the rest of humanity Carpenter and former librarian Romney Wordsworth (his name both a pun on his dedication to literature and a reference to the Romantic poet whose work emphasized the significance of individual experience) treats texts as extensions of humanity, unifiers that uphold the significance of each and every one of us. But Wordsworth lives in a State embodying very different values, where "obsolescence" is a crime punishable by death... a crime of which is accused and quickly convicted. His tribunal is presided over by an unnamed State Chancellor played by Fritz Weaver, who draws on his theatrical experience to deliver a performance that is both extreme and deeply personal, the latter part helped greatly by director Elliot Silverstein's close photography.
The plot is simple, the specifics vague, the sets stark and terrifying, and they all make it easy to to slip into the experiences of our own time. I found myself expecting Weaver's Chancellor to borrow a modern alt-right phrase and go "facts don't care about your feelings, Mr. Wordsworth." But that's the power of parable, as well as that of fantasy (and one of the reasons Serling created the show in the first place, after all). And while some of the original viewers may have seen the godless, all-powerful State as a stand-in for the Soviet Union, those same people would demand that children across the "land of the free" start every school day with a literal pledge of allegiance to their own state.
At the end of the "The Obsolete Man," the State has not been overthrown. It's not that kind of story. But the lives and deaths of Romney Wordsworth and the Chancellor aren't meaningless within its world, either. By being witnessed in those critical moments, they have become stories themselves - again echoing the immediacy of theatre. And their world is changed through having their stories told. That's why Rod Serling told his stories to us through a tiny screen and across the decades, and why we tell ours, everywhere we tell ours, to everyone who listens. If we take anything back from that Fifth Dimension, from the wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination... may it be that.