This post is dedicated to Sir Terry Pratchett. My first PC was named Rincewind, and it’s safe to say I wouldn’t be writing this post if it wasn’t for reading his books in middle school and high school.
The March 5th #rpgchat discussion on Twitter focused on alternate history in campaigns. One particular element of the discussion, what pieces of the timeline to change, didn’t sit well with me, because it assumed that the DM was making conscious choices about how the world was formed prior to the campaign, and I’ve always been a fan of establishing a broad present world and filling in the history when it became relevant. Additionally, I felt like I wanted to see an option for “random” generation of a timeline.
Then my board game brain triggered. Chrononauts.
Time travel board games are pretty hard to come by, and most of them deal with history either very specifically (your timeline is limited to an event, like in Tragedy Looper) or very broadly (you deal with ages, not events, like in Legacy Gears of Time). Chrononauts, on the other hand, deals with specific events in history in one of a number of established real-world timelines:
-1865-1999 (original Chrononauts)
-1865-2008 (original Chrononauts plus The Gore Years expansion)
-1770-1916 (Early American Chrononauts)
-1770-2008 (everything put together, aka uberChrononauts)
I suggested that a game of uberChrononauts might be a good way to run a “first session” of a game using real-world alternate history. It would get the DM and players on the same page about what the “new” timeline looks like, involve the players in world-building, and it could set up a metaplot for the game itself.
This probably works best for a d20 Modern or Fate game (actually, this would make a really interesting Dresden Files game, as the influence of magic in the world could be why the timeline ended up differently), but you can make it fit in any system where you’re able to use real-world history.
Here’s how it works:
Step 1: Decide what era you want your game to take place in: Post WWI USA (early American Chrononauts), recent history (standard Chrononauts or uberChrononauts without Gore Years), or modern day (standard Chrononauts or uberChrononuts with Gore Years).
Step 2: Get your game group together for the first session. If you can’t get the players to participate in this (or if you don’t want to), that’s totally cool; there is a solo variant called Solonauts.
Step 3: Play a game of Chrononauts. Try not to invoke the 13th Paradox (which ends the game by destroying all of time) or the UberParadox (which ends the world in 1962 with World War 3), unless you’re ready to include these results in your RPG campaign later.
Step 4: At the end of the game, record the end game state: final timeline, which players have which IDs, and anything else you want to make relevant in the campaign (possibly what Artifacts are in play if you want to give your PCs toys early on).
Step 5: Do character creation.
The game of Chrononauts you’ve just played sets up two very important things: metaplot and character backstories. There are a number of ways to approach these, but one way that stuck with me and is especially relevant this week is outlined below. Helpful reading in fleshing out this idea is Thief of Time by Terry Pratchett, as many of the ideas below are more or less directly stolen from this book or other Discworld novels.
Metaplot: Something very bad has happened to history. Not only is it not happening the way it’s supposed to, but there are literal holes in the timeline, as though events just vanished and there’s nothing to replace them with. Someone has to do something about this. Those someones are the Order of Wen the Eternally Surprised, better known as the History Monks.
-The Timeline: The end game state of your Chrononauts game probably left you with a number of years that used to contain historical events but now contain weird swirly artwork (Paradoxes). You can resolve the Paradoxes either by saying that nothing important happened that year (that is, if you prevent Lincoln’s assassination in 1864 but don’t patch it with Lincoln’s impeachment in 1868, then 1868 is just a relatively boring year, history-wise). You can *also*, if you want to have some fun with things, make that an actual hole in history, a place where cause and effect broke down, the event between Collecting Underpants and Profit. Something *should* go here, because in 1867 Lincoln was President and in 1869 he isn’t, but nobody’s sure why he stopped being President. This is where the PCs come in.
-The Event: At some point, somewhere in history, The Event happened. The Event threatened to destroy all of history, but due to some intervention, history was merely irreparably damaged. Through the efforts of the Order of Wen the Eternally Surprised, most of history wasn’t lost per se, there just ended up being some very creative anachronisms and parts of history that nobody really remembers that well. Which is necessary and acceptable losses; not that much actually happened in Europe the 13th century, so time could be wicked off of there and sent to where it was actually needed.
-Gathering the Party: Some say that the Order of Wen the Eternally Surprised is dedicated to making sure that history follows some sort of pre-written narrative. While this is true of some monks – Lu-Tze in particular was a fan of guiding the progress of history in a desirable fashion, both in Small Gods and in Night Watch – the purpose of the Order is more elementary than that. Their purpose is to make sure that history happens at all. The PCs, either by upbringing or by the circumstances of The Event, find themselves associated with the Order of Wen and its efforts to preserve the existence of history.
PC generation: The game of Chrononauts gave each player a valuable tool in character creation: their ID card. The ID card the players ended the game can give them a basic starting point for any or all of the following: who their PC is, where they came from, and what they want (speaking of which, unless you want super wacky fun during your campaign, try to make sure nobody ends up with Crazy Joe or Squa Tront). It also gives most of the PCs two histories to work with – the history they knew before The Event, and the history the monks were able to establish after The Event. These differences could give the PCs clues as to what happened during The Event if the campaign goes in that direction.
Campaign Direction: Speaking of which, where is this campaign going, anyway? That all depends, I suppose, on what direction you or the players want to send it in…
-The Order’s Mission: The Order’s mission is to preserve the existence of history. There are Things outside reality that want to destroy history out of malice, and humans who are stupid enough to destroy history just because they can. Sometimes the former guide the latter. The PCs, working with or for the Order, strive to preserve the best history they can.
-Things Are Coming: More than once in the Discworld novels, the fabric of reality is weakened and Things try to get through. If The Event weakened the fabric, the PCs could start out as the Order’s damage control team, travelling across the world to keep the Things out.
-Undo The Event: While history needs to be patched all the time, what happened after The Event wasn’t a patch. It was a Revision. While it’s working to keep time flowing now, the Paradoxes are leaking time, and eventually time will run out. The PCs need to work their way back in time to The Event, figure out what The Event was, and patch the timeline there and then to make sure The Event never occurs. Unfortunately, they’ll face resistance, both from the Order of Wen, who believes they’ve solved The Event the best they can, and the forces that were responsible for The Event in the first place.
Antagonists: Who stands to oppose the PCs as they support the Order of Wen the Eternally Surprised? The Discworld novels provide us with some ideas for this as well:
-The Auditors: The Auditors of Reality are the scariest villain I’ve ever encountered. They are, metaphorically, responsible for the universe remaining stable, and they resent anything chaotic in the universe. Humanity is the most chaotic thing ever. In the Discworld novels, they’ve tried to end humanity by removing a sympathetic Death from power, killing mythology, and trapping Time in a glass clock (the second time; the first time was just a mad scientist). They loathe taking a direct hand in matters, and use humans as catspaws in their plan – you have to love a species that can be persuaded to shoot itself in the foot.
-Humanity: Humans are, to put it kindly, more selfish than intelligent and more near-sighted than visionary. They also have a tendency to push big red buttons that say “End of the World Button. DO NOT TOUCH” just to see what happens. Sometimes humans like this even get into positions of power, learn things they shouldn’t learn, and try to bend the world to their will. To the point of breaking it.
-Bureaucracy: Even an organization as serene and guided as the Order of Wen has people who forget that the organization is there to serve people rather than the other way around. Rules often get in the way of getting things done, and if the PCs are trying to do something that puts the Order’s carefully crafted history at risk – any risk at all – the Order could be an adversary rather than an ally.
-The Gods: As shown in The Colour of Magic and Interesting Times, the gods of the Discworld do not play dice with the universe. They play a miniatures-based wargame with real people as unwitting miniatures, and they do not play fair. Direct or indirect intervention on behalf of their favorite pieces (hi, Rincewind!) is not unheard of. Some gods, like Fate or The Lady (do not invoke her true name or she will forsake you), have enough power and subtlety to control the destinies of other gods. They should not be messed with.
-(Seemingly) Random Chance: It’s said that in the Discworld, million-to-one chances come up nine times out of ten. But sometimes Chance itself conspires against the denizens of the Disc, and if The Event was created out of Chance, it may use its 999,999 casting votes against the PCs’ million-to-one shot.
So, there it is. Seeds of an alternate history campaign using Chrononauts to establish the alternate history timeline and a combination of Chrononauts and Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels to establish the story. I hope this inspires your games half as much as Sir Terry’s writing has inspired mine.