Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Nuts & Bolts #77 - Time and Again Part 6 - The (In)Finite Tree

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This feels like deja vu ... unless of course you haven't read Parts One, Two, Three, Four, or Five yet.

What was done is done, and what will be will be ...

A single timeline of events that cannot be changed means that the setting will not change no matter what the players do in the past or learn about the future. What is written is written, but what is known may not be truth. In a game such as this characters may still have a role in shaping the past, and may yet find that their role in the future is not as clear as they believed. Going back the characters may find that they have always been an integral part of the history of events. Likewise seeing the future means being bound to the events they have witnessed, but possibly not in the way that they think.

Consider 12 Monkeys (the movie moreso than the TV show, although the show is pretty great). James Cole has seen his future, but isn't aware of it, and the scientists in the future end up causing the plague instead of helping to prevent it. Causation is a funny thing, and traveling through time just makes things complicated, but doesn't actually empower you.

If you plan your time travel game to feature a fixed timeline of events that unfold no matter what is done you'll need to lay a very strong foundation and have a very good grasp on cause and effect. That's not saying it can't be done, but it's going to be a lot of work to pull it off and have things turn out as planned.

An (in)finite multiverse

Pretty much the opposite of a single immutable timeline. Essentially every decision, every random occurrence that can happen does happen, and with divergent occurrences come divergent branching timelines. This can be taken to a logical and extreme end where everything is possible and there are infinite parallel worlds each slightly different. At that point traveling backward and changing something just creates a new timeline starting from the point of the change and moving forward. The actions of the characters don't change events in the grand sense, but they do create a new universe (or merely act to allow them entrance into said universe) where things are different. At this point time traveling is just a complicated version of dimensional travel, and worse, one where the things you sought to change still exist objectively, even if you no longer have to deal with them subjectively.

This can be really fun if the game is about exploring these other timelines and multiverses and the players don't have expectations that they can actually alter history "for the better." On the other hand, if the players want to try and go all Quantum Leap and "put right what once went wrong" this kind of setup is probably going to piss them off because they can't. Sure they can keep tweaking their multiversal location to end up living in a "better" timeline, but out there, somewhere and somewhen, all of those bad things will still exist.

The bright side of all this is that these kinds of games are pretty easy to run, because you don't really need to keep track of complicated loops in the timeline, instead its all just a new branch on an every growing tree of time. The complicated part might be the heavy lifting of history and alternate history you'll need to generate.

Alternately a multiverse can be finite in size and scope. Yes, there is huge potential for variation here, but there are also finite possibilities and finite worlds. These worlds could spin off in various ways from the "prime" world. Perhaps there are certain focal point events that are major enough to cause a new branch to the timeline to account for multiple paths. Or maybe these branching points are less significant and more arbitrary; perhaps there is only a schism point every 100 years regardless of the events in the meantime, or new timelines can only spring from acts of true and pure random chance.

This will require some degree of the above bookkeeping, but the limited nature also means that players have the ability to affect real change to the various branches of the timeline, and that may make for a better game for everybody involved.

You can't go home again ...

What about a single mutable timeline? You go back, you change something, and you return "home" to find everything different. Or maybe just small things. You go to the future, witness something horrible, and then resolve to return "home" and ensure it never comes to pass, and with effort, skill, and luck you can! For the characters these stories will offer them the greatest opportunity to feel as though they are creating meaningful change. Being able to go back and change the course of World War 2 should create a massively different present, for better or ill, based on the actions they took. Likewise staving off some horrible future event should result in a outcome, but that outcome may not always be better than what was previously seen.

Personally I think this is the most interesting form of time travel. It allows the characters to "play god" and allows the GM to really twist and alter the setting accordingly. It is a lot of work however, as each change means rewriting some portion of the setting's "history". Changes need not be good however, and even the most careful change can spin out of control due to the butterfly effect. You can engineer a situation where the PCs need to return and undo the changes they made, or possibly even become their own opposition in the past. 

Null Time

What about null time? Null time regions are usually outside of the normal space-time and exist in perfect stability regardless of what happens to the timeline(s). These spaces make good bases of operations for characters and groups dealing with time travel. It ensures that they won't accidentally erase their home during an excursion, and often provides proximal access to all parts of time with equal ease (instead of having shorter time jumps be easier than longer jump, or some such). The other great thing about null time regions is that they are paradox free, which means characters can meet themselves and all kinds of wackiness can occur within.


These are of course the most general concepts. There are likely continuums where there is a "strong prime" that resists change and many offshoots and loops that were strong enough to form "spurs" but not strong enough to force a change to the primary timeline. These "spurs" may eventually loop back to the prime to simply dissolve as they diverge and become increasingly more unlikely to have ever occurred. Or perhaps a setting where a limited multiverse is the result of a paradox "breaking the timeline" and the characters need to fix things so that the timelines will merge and prevent some kind of catastrophe.


I'm considering a home-brew setting (blog-brew?) time travel based setting using fragments of timelines that remain static alongside a mutable timeline. It's still in the brainstorming phase, but with time and effort it may well come together and make appearances here on the blog.