Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Some thoughts on a Time Travel RPG

I've been thinking about how a time travel tabletop RPG for some time now, wondering how it could be put together in a neat way without being burdensome in terms of rules. noisms is responsible for two provocations that started me thinking about it. The first was introducing me to Microscope, which works really well in terms of role-playing and world-building, and which has the neat mechanism of populating a worldline with cards that put things in historical places.

While playing it I thought about how the end result was really neat, but that if you took a picture at the end you might not have a clear picture of the timeline of the player actions (i.e., the order in which the group put things down). A simple way around this would be to just number the cards as they come in to play. That was the first seed which went in to my mind.

The second thing that noisms did was talk about Continuum on his blog:
Part of [what makes Continuum compelling] is all the talk of time-travel combat: trying to "frag" your opponent by making him cease to exist due to historical discrepancy. And undoubtedly, a large part of the attraction was the air of enigma surrounding this apparently excellent but impossible-to-possess gaming grimoire.
But he went on to say that there were plenty of reviews and notes out there from people who had played the game that it inevitably lead to a kind of railroading. Not so much Doctor Who as the Time Tunnel by the sounds of it: instead of exploring the whole of time and space to explore you have to contend with a "mission" at a particular instant. Again, I have not played Continuum, but having played RPGs that have been presented to me more as "story games" the idea of this described game doesn't appeal all that much.

But it did spark a couple of ideas... (continued after cut!)

...as I mentioned in the comments:
After reading these last two posts of yours, and after playing Microscope on Thursday, I wonder if that might be somehow used to tell a time travel story. Microscope has that core idea of "what happened, happened" and while I do like Back To The Future style "You've changed history!"-shenanigans, I also like the Twelve Monkeys, Bill And Ted approach to time travel.
I was thinking about an idea that I had picked up studying philosophy in university, about a static block universe. Time travel is possible in a static block, but you can't "change history" - you can't go back and kill Hitler in 1943, because Hitler didn't die then. You have total free will over your actions at every point, but as with when you are in your normal frame of reference you can't always get what you want.

I was still thinking about a time travel game while I was on holiday in April. I was thinking about hacks and the like; Apocalypse World looks like it might be good for a hack, but then I think it would be good as a basis for most game settings that I think of. Different classes might be based around the way in which people time travel (and there might be limitations placed on them in that way as well). Does someone travel because they are a mad technologist, they have found a way like H.G. Wells' Time Traveller? Do they travel because they have no real control over it, they just shift - perhaps their consciousness landing somewhere like Sam Beckett? Can they only travel in time and not space, or do they have a machine that takes them anywhere in time and space, like the TARDIS?

When I looked again at noisms' post I saw that Deadstop had made some comments that followed on quite nicely in the discussion:
A lot of Continuum depends on what GURPS calls the Observer Effect. You don't really know exactly how something happened unless you were there -- and you can't always be sure that what you are directly observing/experiencing is what you think it is. The job of the Continuum is...to make sure that everyone they care about has one coherent set of memories and experiences. Hypnosis and impersonation are totally allowed in the course of making this work.

Even if it appears your elder self left you a phone message about a terrible disaster that happens tomorrow, that doesn't mean the disaster definitely happens -- it only means that the message is left. As long as you leave that identical message, no matter what actually happens tomorrow, you're golden.
This really resonates with what I would look for in a time travel game. So the question then is how do you combine a free-form story game with the idea of keeping history consistent, allowing people to travel freely and act freely, and move things so that the GM doesn't necessarily have to railroad campaigns, setting up scenes because that is the "only" way of keeping a handle on time travelling PCs.

And this is why I think that the bedrock of Microscope might be a really good way of generating and keeping track; here are some highlights of what I'm thinking.
  • Cards track scenes only, and are numbered in the top corner based on the order in which they occur. If the party of time travellers split then perhaps you switch to different colours of pen to represent characters present. So a series of 5 cards (left to right) indicate the objective timeline, but the numbers in the top corner indicate the sequence as experienced by the characters, 3, 5, 1, 4, 2.
  • Characters can remember things which they have not experienced yet or which have not been introduced; perhaps the GM and the other players can collaborate to decide whether or not this is something that really happened, whether they were there and saw it, whether they will be there to cause or influence it, or whether there is some flux in the event (e.g., Bill is told that something happened, and believes it to be true, but actually something else happened - as he was not a direct witness). These introduce potential for later scenes (but which occur objectively earlier in time).
  • Conservation of History applies: characters can run in parallel, but they cannot changes events. What is, is. They can go back in time, but whatever happens cannot change what happens later. But they can change a perception of it. Consider:
    • Carter sees Bennet pick up a gun from a rack in temper and fire at his lover Abi at point blank range. "Nooooo!" he cries and immediately leaps back seven minutes in time to an empty room.
    • Carter knows that he cannot stop Bennet from firing the gun, and he cannot stop Abi from being hit. He can ensure that the wound is not fatal maybe...
    • Carter searches around for ammo boxes, and switches out the live ammo for blanks in all of the guns.
    • Carter returns to the present, his personal chronometer having advanced a few minutes, and sees the result of the action, Abi is shocked but unharmed, Bennet is confused and enraged, and now moves to strike them with the gun.
  • Perhaps GHOST/ECHO style rolls for some things: two d6s, where you assign the results to goals and dangers as appropriate, choosing narratively what an outcome is.
Like so many things that I am interested in - dice maths, zombie RPGs, Wicked Wednesdays - this is a work in progress, a collection of half-thoughts and inspirands; if you have any thoughts or ideas that you want to share, please do!

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