Thursday, January 24, 2013
Time Travel in Fantasy Gaming
I've tried this approximately four times now, and each time it gets more interesting. Time travel as a plot driver is something I tried in the mid eighties on a lark once, and then grew interested in (but found difficulty pursuing) after TSR released the Chronomancer sourcebook (a tome I will definitely buy when it pops up at dndclassics.com). I loved the concept, but despite a lot of useful advice and a decent class it was hard back then to conceive of just how to make a time travel game that was significant or meaningful. So you time travel from "medieval fantasy land now" to "medieval fantasy land then." So what? Big Deal! How are the players going to feel vested in the event? This was something that I never felt comfortable with constructing back in the 90's when this book came out, despite my interest in the concept, so I kept it on the backburner and plowed on with more conventional plot structures.
The core conceit of time travel in a fantasy setting is ultimately one of contrast. "This is what the world is like now," vs. "This is what the world was like Way Back When." Or maybe a contrast with the future. As it turns out, I think I hit on an excellent formula for time travel as a campaign driver: player familiarity. This is a side effect of a consistent group with a devoted appreciation for the campaign world, but it can work well enough so long as you establish context. The most recent foray I've engaged in has successfully gotten my players massively engaged with the puzzle of figuring out why they traveled back in time, whether or not they should take advantage of this event to enact change on their world, and also sparked curiosity at the stark contrasts of where they come from compared to what has come before.
It helps to build a setting where there is an inherent assumption of "the different" in the past (or future) that is so distinct that regardless of a player's familiarity or interest in game history, they will still experience a sense of the strange or wrong by virtue of the environment itself. I my Realms of Chirak campaign, for example, there's a legacy of a near-extinction-level event in which the gods had their own final Ragnarok, involving all of the ancient advanced civilizations of man. For two decades Chirak's campaign focus has revolved around tales spinning off of the legacy of this past, so starting a campaign that leads to a time travel event to this lost era of greatness, putting the players in an ambiguous era that seems to be right at the tail end of the apocalypse, in which they know something apocalyptic is close on the horizon but the people of that lost time have no clue, makes for some fantastic role play and story telling. The fact that most of my players have a long-term investment in my campaign setting is helpful, too. Some of these players have been in my campaigns for many years now, so when I mention names and details that click with them from the "present day" era of the campaigns, it's especially intriguing to them to piece this all together.
I used time travel in my Warlords of Lingusia campaign to retcon some old plots that had spun my setting off into a strange direction, as well. It was a necessary requisite to that campaign that I be willing to accept whatever decision the players made....including making no decision at all!.....before I employed that story arc. In the end, the players made choices that were both different and favorable toward a new direction for the setting, causing me to revise and respawn the Warlords Era of that campaign, which went from a "glimpse of the future that changes the past" to the default permanent current timeline and location for campaigns in that world.
I think that I could have employed time travel in the mid nineties when I first considered the concept after the Chronomancer book brought the idea to my attention, but at the time I was still very much in a world-building mode with a heavy emphasis on my at-the-time studies in archaeology. My interest then was more about the experience of scenarios modeling the finding of relics and lost cultures, but it wasn't necessary to deploy a time travel trick to visit such cultures when you could make them real and contemporary in the setting. My campaign worlds were also a lot younger then, and lacked quite as much history as would spin out of the many scenarios I would later run. It is only with many years and editions later that my campaigns grew large enough and elaborate enough that the idea of different eras in the campaigns as actual locations for elaborate time travel plots, as opposed to props to add mystery of history to current era adventures, became more viable.