Recursion 2: Time travel and gaming


The book was structured so the reader discovers the sequence of events out of order, and so only slowly is the gains a global understanding of what is going on. This discover was also mirrored in the experience of the protagonists, helping the reader identify with and care about them. Tricks like this are common in fiction (e.g. LOTR books 3 and 4), but I find hard to present in a game-session. I think playing with time like this helps keep the reader interested and engaged. Do any games you play present ways of doing this? Let us know how they work, and if you have tried to do anything like the time travel presented in this book.


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    Time travel is of course a favourite story device in film/TV series SF, and the various star trek series have done this lots of times - sometimes well and sometimes not so well. I especially liked Farscape's Different Destinations as a twist on the idea.

    I'm curious - for those who game regularly, how would you stop a group of players trying to deliberately make radical world changes if you sent them back to the plot? Asimov (End of Eternity) had a cool idea about temporal inertia, so that the effect of changes tended to decay and disappear rather than exponentially multiply. Would this be a way round a game problem?

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    I think there's a couple of aspects to this question. One is about time travel, and the other is a wider point about narrating events out of order.

    The book could have followed Helena's subjective timeline from the start, only introducing Barry when Helena first meets him. Helena's subjective timeline is entirely linear, so there's no need to get hung up on the paradoxes of time travel.

    I now use flashbacks a lot for planning sessions, following the lead of Blades in the Dark and Leverage: we don't bother narrating scenes that may not have any relevance on the final outcome, such as planning for eventualities that don't come up.

    I've also done flash-forwards, where I've presented a scene and then cut to "24 hours earlier...", with the hope that play will move towards the flash-forward scene.

    In the novel, the opening chapters of Barry are a sort-of flash forward, where Barry is uncovering the mystery of false memory syndrome, interleaved with the historical story of how it came about.

    How would I introduce time travel in an RPG? I'd probably reach for something like the structure of Microscope, where the timeline is laid out and we can pick and choose different parts to explore. I think that's something that could work well to play out a story like Doctor Who's Blink, which I think is a fantastic example of how time travel can be exploited to tell a very distinctive story.

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    Generally, in terms of narrative structure for tension, the freedom of gaming with everyone contributing means the central narrative has to be quite straightforward, for me at least. Flashbacks are fun though, whether for character moments or in some games for setting things up. I don't use them all or even most of the time, but I like them sometimes. Gumshoe, Leverage, and Blades in the Dark do a good job.

    In terms of time travel, I've used it in one of my best games ever. But it was set up as a once only, never to be repeated in the world, event, and that was the trick. I probably couldn't pull that trick again. I quite fancy running TimeWatch or a similar time travel RPG, with the player characters agents of the "correct" timeline, with other forces trying to alter it. One day...

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    I mostly run linear timelines, but @NeilNjae 's post is really interesting and I should try to use flashbacks more often. As for time travel, it's actually never been something that has interested me much, even in novels. Every time travel story seems to be about the same thing - what happens if the change the past and/or can you change the future. It's a bit of a one-trick-pony of an idea, isn't it? There's one execption, though - I love one-way time travel into the future (in the vein of Forever War or Marooned in Realtime).

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    I often use Flash Forwards and Flash Backs. Sometimes I use reverse time, in which I present an end state and ask the players to step back point by point and tell me how it came about. I have done full on time travel, for instance once where the players were playing 17th century characters and their descendants in the 21st century in parallel, and at one point, they unwittingly use magical means to swap places. So, yeah.

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