A Comedy of Eras

I’ve wanted to use that as a post name forever.

There are a lot of “nevers” in conventional DMing advice, and I’ve been on something of an unofficial quest to violate all of them. Consider “never give the players wishes”, but when my players got on a genie’s good side their wishes fed into the campaign plot and basically wrote another campaign for me. Or “never railroad the players,” but the Zelda campaign’s incredibly rigid story structure helped make it one of my best campaigns. Or “never give a player in-character authority over other players”, but I’ve done this for more campaigns than I haven’t, and it’s always worked because the players aren’t petty about their characters’ power structure. Even “never let a player use an unbalanced option that makes them stronger than other players”, but I let a player have a deliberately overpowered version of a spiked chain* and nobody batted an eye. For the most part “never” doesn’t actually mean “never”, it means “consider carefully your intentions and any foreseeable repercussions before you”.

It is with this in mind that I consider the advice “never use time travel” and intend to spend my next campaign willfully ignoring it.

To be fair, this isn’t DMing advice. This is story advice in general. Time shenanigans are weird and disruptive whether you’re a mundane goblin or Dr. Manhattan, and if you ask five players to describe it you’ll get seven opinions on what it means. How does going back in time change, split, or damage the timeline? How strong is the butterfly effect? What can you change by introducing something advanced (weaponry, science, germs) to a place not ready for it? How do you maintain drama knowing the characters can hop back and correct any mistakes they’ve made? There are all good questions, and whole series have been ruined by bad answers to them.

But having the perfect answer isn’t as important to me as having a consistent answer. I need everybody to agree on what time travel meant and what effects it would have so we don’t get halfway through the campaign and collapse into an argument on why the players couldn’t kill the dwarf warlord as a baby. To do this I decided to point to a specific work of fiction and pretty much take its theory on time travel wholesale, and that work is Chrono Trigger.

In Chrono Trigger, there is only one timeline, so we have no parallel universes. Characters can’t jump to any day in history, only a few specific periods where time seems to progress even when they aren’t there, which makes far, far less work for me. Nobody bats an eye when somebody pulls out a laser pistol in the era of swords and shields, and an unarmed cavewoman is still relevant even fighting in a futuristic factory. The butterfly effect doesn’t exist and only certain changes have any lasting effect, which is great for a campaign; I don’t want players worrying about changing history whenever they kill an orc, I want them changing history intentionally by killing a single, specific orc. The game makes several other decisions that make a time travel story more palatable, like a very small world map, but I’m mostly stealing from its decisions about time travel itself.

There’s another issue that always gives me pause in time travel stories, and that’s the cognitive load of each new setting. A person traveling from today to the Civil War, or to the first Crusade, or even ten years into the future has to learn and parse a lot of information before they know enough about what’s happening and what’s not happening before they can get a meal, much less nudge history in a different direction. Most people don’t know that much about the history of humans, and we live here. A player who has legitimately never heard of the America Era of Good Feelings won’t be able to engage with it or understand why it’s a time about which they should care, and they probably won’t retain anything from that era unless they have a great reason. Especially coming off of my last campaign, I needed a way to get the players interested in the history of the setting, not just enough to know something about it but also enough to know how changing something might affect history.

Enter Microscope, a game about creating, developing, and role-playing a shared history. We skipped over the actual “role-playing” bits of it, leaving a system that gave everybody at the table a reasonably equal say into how the world worked.

Here’s the basic structure of a Microscope game:

  1. Come up with a rough idea of what you want to talk bout. For us, this was “The history of a world with developing magic”.
  2. Create a starting period and an ending period. For us, each period was an era in history, and we started with “Primitive peoples discover magic” and ended with “Magic causes an apocalypse”.
  3. Go around the table and let each player add something to a list called “stuff that you might not expect to be here, but is” or one called “stuff you might expect to be here, but isn’t”. I’m paraphrasing. This is how we got a world with a shared language so characters don’t have to worry about speaking the local tongue (a very smart idea) but also got a civilization on a moon with a giant doughnut hole.
  4. One player chooses something everybody should focus on for a while. I went first, and I picked “transportation”
  5. That player creates a new period or an event within that period that has something to do with that focus, like “mammoth riders rule the islands”. Other players may ask questions about it, but they are not allowed to challenge it in any way. The player’s word is law. Spontaneously inventing proper nouns is encouraged; if a player says “Archmage Heino publishes his atlas”, the archmage and the atlas suddenly exist and they may be part of other players’ events.
  6. Go around the table, repeating step 5 for every player.
  7. When play comes all the way around, the player who picked the focus goes a second time.
  8. The player who went right before that player picks something that was created during this round of player and highlights it, saying essentially “this is a cool thing and I don’t want us to forget about it”.
  9. Repeat steps 4 through 8 with the player right after the one who last picked the focus.
  10. Continue until you’re bored. We stopped after everybody had a round picking the focus.

By the time we were done, we had seven eras and a total of thirty-nine events across them, and every player knew about the destruction of Kesesemo University, the Aberion and its power over tidal waves, and the researcher Janelle Rogers. When we reference those in our campaign, everybody will know what we’re talking about. We still have a lot to fill in during play, but we have touchstones because we created the world as a group. Microscope has rules and guidelines for diving even deeper and acting out specific scenes in the history, so if this sounds like your sort of thing give it a look. I might suggest starting with the I Podcast Magic Missile play of it.

With a stable concept of how the campaign’s core mechanic works, a shared understanding of how the world works around it, and a way to limit the freedom it provides so we can focus on gameplay rather than pedantry, we’ve addressed what I see as the biggest problems behind a time travel campaign. I may change my mind a few sessions in when everything collapses more quickly than I expected, but for now I’m on stable enough footing that I think I can deal with any future potholes. Even if I blow it I trust I’ll find a way to correct it and try it again. The point is that there’s no such thing as “never”, and I’m hoping this campaign becomes more evidence to prove it.

Oh, “never have an overpowered GM PC”. That’s one I haven’t done…

* — When I was on the Wizards D&D boards in the 3.0E days, one frequent poster had a signature that said something to the effect of “The spiked chain is a secret test of character to see which DMs are brave enough to ban Core material”. I couldn’t even understand it. Why are you so upset by a single weapon, forum poster? Who hurt you?

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4 Responses to A Comedy of Eras

  1. Sempiternity says:

    Using shared setting design to jumpstart player buy-in seems like such a good solution to the problem! Looking forward to hearing how it goes.

    I’ve always shied away from even limited time travel powers in my campaigns for fear of narrative overload – sometimes I feel like I have enough trouble keeping straight what happened in play last week, let alone remembering which sequence of events “really happened” in the character’s “primary temporal position”, and which has been “overwritten”.

    PS: What do you plan to do if player’s “split the party” across temporal positions? That seems like it could be fun, and also confusing!

    • MssngrDeath says:

      They won’t. I decree it.

      It helps that they can’t actually travel through time. Rather, they have a guide who creates time portals for them. If the players aren’t all present he can simply refuse to open one.

  2. Blake says:

    Don’t ask why I was rereading this, but doesn’t The Patron from the unnamed monster campaign count as an overpowered GM PC?

    • MssngrDeath says:

      No, because he wasn’t a PC. He didn’t act with the party, participate in combat, or do other PC things. Because he sat in his room for most of the campaign he didn’t have an opportunity to subvert or overshadow the players in the day-to-day sessions.

      If I’m going to do an overpowered GM PC, he or she has to be part of the party, not a quest-giver in a high tower. The campaign concept would be something like “there is a hero who has to accomplish some incredible task, but they’re comically inept/way out of their league/a blithering idiot. It’s up to the party, as the hero’s support team and followers, to make sure things stay on the rails.”

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