I know I’ve been talking a lot about Faith lately, and that’s unusual for this blog. I rarely give updates on my current campaigns because I expect readers will find them boring. A session-by-session recap is more for the creative types who can turn them into a proper narrative, while my style of gaming really lends itself more to the live presentation. When I do talk about my campaigns it’s usually in the context of gaming advice in general. But from my conversations with other players and DMs, I got the impression that there was some appetite for information about this campaign, not least because of its premise. Time travel is a messy, complicated mechanic, and giving it to several creative, free-willed players intensifies its most dangerous aspects. People wanted to know how it would work, either for their own campaigns or out of morbid curiosity, and I thought it would be a fun idea to write about how I manage time travel in a tabletop campaign.
So it’s with some embarrassment that I admit after a dozen sessions I’m still not sure what I’m doing myself, but I contend that this is a good thing.
Remember this chart?
I fall pretty solidly in the “loose design” section, with dips into “standard process” or “improvisational” depending on what a campaign needs and how much time I have to prepare in a given week. My general approach to adventure planning works like this:
- Three weeks before adventure begins: Come up with an adventure concept based on the campaign, characters, players, and any implications for the ongoing story. In this context an “adventure” is a story arc, usually one that lasts several sessions.
- Two weeks before adventure begins: Flesh out that concept with tangible information like key NPCs and interesting set pieces. Consider ways the players might approach the adventure, mostly to get a feel for pacing and make sure I haven’t accidentally created something impossible.
- One week before adventure begins: Start on actual numbers and stat blocks for NPCs and monsters. Work on the maps I need and, if necessary, build them in MapTool.
- Day of the session: Shore up anything I still need to do. Decide what parts of the session I plan on improvising based on what I can’t get done in time and what I think will benefit from a more dynamic approach. Often, find art for character and monster portraits.
- During the session: Flail wildly as the players do something completely unexpected. Try to point things back to what I have prepared if that will benefit the session or my mental state, and come up with something new if it won’t.
- Day after the session: Consider what happened during the session and adjust the adventure plans accordingly.
- Repeat steps (3) through (6) until the adventure ends. At some point, restart from step (1) for the next adventure
There are variations on the above. The Zelda campaign required a lot of pre-campaign planning; before the first session I knew most of my dungeons, I had my world map, I’d written and placed half of the special items, and I knew the name, personality, and role of each NPC in the world. This was specifically to distribute things properly so I had a lot of things in the early levels, where players could go back and explore, and few things in the late levels, where players had a lot less time to think about them. But Battles of the Saber Knights is my full-on improvisation campaign and I intentionally don’t do a single bit of planning before I start the session. I’m flexible even in my inflexibility.
One might assume a time travel campaign falls into either rigid design or improvisational, and I understand that mindset. The DM either has everything planned so he can know exactly what happens if the players kill a critical NPC in the past, or he has nothing planned so he can make it up as he goes along. Both of these approaches are surprisingly tense because they drastically increase the cognitive load of the DM. He’s trying to run not one world but two or more, at once, in such a way that they can affect each other in one direction but not another, while giving the players enough freedom to make the gimmick meaningful but not so much that the campaign shatters under the strain, along with all the normal stress of running a game. He either has to do all the work beforehand, knowing anything he misses can bring the game to a halt, or do all the work by the seat of his pants, knowing a bad decision made in the moment will have the same problem.
Which is why I’m approaching Faith the same way I approach most campaigns, with loose session design dipping into its neighbors on occasion. Consider the first real arc of the campaign:
- Three weeks before adventure begins: Decide to send the players to the city of Kells, Liam’s hometown. Since this is supposed to be an anime, use a Japanese trope to give the adventure some direction: the players have to destroy the Sword of Kells, the Jewel of Kells, and the Mirror of Kells, or else the city will fall.
- Two weeks before adventure begins: Figure out what the sword, the jewel, and the mirror actually are. Respectively, they’re a race of monsters who kill most of the city’s people, the nature spirit who created them for revenge on the city, and the doppelganger assisting her by loosening city policies to make it easier for her monsters to thrive. Consider how time travel would help the party, like letting them into the spirit’s forest before she comes to power or giving them access to high-tech devices that let them survive against the forest’s natural defenses. Intentionally don’t come up with a full “go to X, get Y, use it on Z” plan, because there’s no way that would survive contact with the players. Oh, and make side quests for individual character growth, including the NPCs those quests need.
- One week before adventure begins: Design the actual monsters, including stat blocks for the nature spirit and doppelganger. Think about how the side quests might tie into the overall plot, but don’t decide for sure, because it’s better to give them to the players when an opportunity presents itself.
- Day of the session: Create maps and get portraits for any character who need them.
- During the session: Drop the characters in Kells to see what happens. Become disappointed but not surprised when they spend most of their time in the library. Send monsters to the library so the characters can interact with the plot instead of just reading about it, but let their research bear fruit without spelling everything out for them. Solve some mysteries and leave others open-ended for later investigation.
- Day after the session: Given the information the players now have, reorient what plans I had for the arc. Toss out anything that definitely won’t happen (for example, the party showed no interest in returning to the fallen Kells of the future) and push things toward the paths the players want to take. Based on those paths, see where there might be some change to the timeline and loosely prepare for that.
We are still at the beginning of the campaign, so the party’s actions have few long-reaching implications. Yes, they saved the city and that’s a big deal, but this isn’t an arc where they have to kill the king in one age then travel to the future to see how that assassination affected the local laws and culture. Most of the changes occur as a result of the adventure, not during the adventure. That will change as plots get more complex, dangerous, and broad over the course of the campaign. Remember, I’m ramping up on this as much as they are. Everything they’re doing is just barely beyond my comfort zone, and as that comfort zone expands so will the impact of time travel on our game.
I don’t have a grand unified theory on how to run a party of time-travelers. There’s isn’t one, probably. I’m just doing what I can to make sure the campaign runs and the players are happy because of, not despite, a time-travel mechanic. So far that’s actually my biggest problem, trying to come up with adventures that only function because the players can visit different ages. The actual campaign plot, in which the party tries to enhance the standing of their deities by felling their enemies and doing good works in their names, is somewhat secondary. I guess that’s fine, because it means I’m not assuming I have time travel under control. I’m still working on balancing it, making player actions meaningful but not so meaningful they accidentally destroy a country. The longer I work on it, the better I get. One day I hope I’m good enough to teach it, but until then I’ll just have my players suffering along with me.