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Thursday 26 November 2020

Back to the future

David Bailey is a man who gives the lie to the notion that accountants are boring. An inventive and artful referee of Tekumel games, he’s also an imaginative author, creative problem-solver, passionate fan of comics and science fiction, gifted photographer (less well-known in that field than his namesake, admittedly) and one of the founders of game developer Black Cactus. During his career as an accountant, he wasn’t working out how to get tax allowance for business expenses, either; he was a forensic accountant, more Inspector Morse than Spreadsheet Phil.

So when David comes up with an idea for a roleplaying scenario, I listen. His latest was a doozy – to send his Tekumel characters back thousands of years from the relative stability of the Second Imperium to the high adventure of the Time of No Kings.

“What about getting back?” I said. “Reverse the spell, and risk ending up lost in time? Or get frozen by Excellent Ruby with the chance that posterity misplaces the docket saying when to unfreeze you?”

David: “Well, I think they have to hope to get back, but throw in some wives and children, and affiliations and a decade of work…?”

“OK, so they’d potentially be there for a long while? There’s even the implication they’ve been brought through time, Corum-like, for a specific purpose.”

“Perhaps they do finally find a way to get back,” agreed David, “but at huge cost to the new friends and family they’ve made in the past? Maybe returning to their time will potentially trigger a devastating A-bomb level event? Can we create a mature enough scenario that the players are genuinely conflicted about returning?”

That’s a fine goal to aim for, and typical of David that he would be considering the tone and nuance of the scenario right up front. It got me thinking: what might deter somebody from wanting to get “back to the future” and how would we achieve that kind of dilemma in a movie or novel?

The most obvious way would be to make our time traveller a nebbish, passed over for promotion, frustrated in his ambitions, or just an under-achiever who never got the breaks in life. Then he goes back to the past and suddenly he's feted as a hero. Naturally he'd be tempted to remain there rather than go back to a dead-end future.

A more challenging (and interesting) approach would be to start with unlikeable characters, maybe criminals or terrorists of the most unpleasant stamp. The authorities are closing in. Perhaps the characters are trapped and it looks like the only outcome will be death in a hail of police bullets, but then they stumble on a strange machine and are whisked back through the centuries, and there in the past they get a stab at redemption. Having saved the people of that time they also find they’ve saved themselves, so returning to the future is unattractive not only because they’d be jumping back into a deadly shoot-out, but because to do so would imply returning to an identity that no longer fits with who they are.

Or there's the hard SF approach. The time traveller realises she has changed the past, which of course means the billions of dice throws that lead to her original timeline are gone. She can't return to her future because it is not the same future as the one she set out from. All the people she knew there would never have been born. In a movie, you probably wouldn't have her realise that till after she got back ("show not tell") so the third act would be all about trying to return to the past where she at least still has friends and loved ones.

But those are all ways to pull it off through storytelling, and it's neither possible nor desirable to exert that level of authorial contrivance where player-characters are concerned. Instead all you can do is run the game with a mature tone in mind, and be ready to seize on the character arc moments that the players themselves provide.

For instance, in David’s campaign Jamie Thomson plays a jajgi (a form of well-preserved undead like a vampire, say, or Ardath Bey in The Mummy) so perhaps he could come face to face with his living self back in the past. Jamie is a good enough roleplayer to get something really interesting out of the conflict between an unending but unvarying existence and the full-blooded, breathing life in which the chusetl (dream-self) and pedhetl (passions) yet endure.

In his original premise, though, David wasn’t only looking for reasons why the player-characters might not want to go home to their own time. He’s hoping for a genuine conflict. They might want to return but now they have two lives, two sets of friends and families. Which do they choose? It’s hard (but not impossible) to make that bite just with attachments to NPCs, but I suggest that the best hard choice is an old storytelling classic: somebody has to sacrifice themselves, staying behind so that the others can escape, like Cavor among the Selenites.


  1. Figure one situation here is that a lot of the choice is going to be more player-centered than character-centered. In a group of five if three player-characters are going "back to the future" figure the other two will as well because the choice will generally be "go with the rest of us or roll up other characters." Most GMs aren't going to want to do extended episode with three characters in the present while two in are in the past (though it might be a cool thing for an adventure or two with the two in the past setting up situations for the three in the present).

    For my part I see the real "conflict" being settled outside the game with the players and the GM discussing the game's direction visa vi "do you guys want to keep playing here in the past or go back to the normal present day campaign?"

    1. When the players start talking like that they might as well be arranging a board game, because it's no longer roleplaying. But here's a solution: make the conflict apply in-game, that way they can play it out as their characters.

      So, if you think the players are not going to be willing to split the party or to roll some new characters, make it that the time travel only works if they all come back. Now there's a real decision to be made, as each faction has to convince the other.

      That said, I'd expect my players to act in-character and take the consequences. We've seen self-sacrifice and players writing their character out when he/she can't go along with the rest. We even had the Tsolyani civil war (described elsewhere on this blog on more than one occasion) when half the players fought the other half and most of the losers were sacrificed to the gods.