Thoughts On Time Travel Game Mechanics

By Max Woerner Chase

In this post:

I was reading over an attempt to devise RPG rules for generic time travel shenanigans, and I ended up thinking about how to formalize the rules that Homestuck has. (This is ignoring the retcon abilities.)

This is probably not going into Demiurgent Business, unless I can generalize the ideas away from strictly time travel shenanigans.

Characters have a Primary Dharma and a Secondary Dharma. The Primary Dharma is the core of a character's identity, and influences how they can shape their Secondary Dharma, which is the details of how they relate to the world.

A character with access to time travel can react to unacceptable events by Rejecting the Secondary Dharma associated with the events. This is accomplished by traveling back in time and interacting with their past self. From the perspective of the past self, they can see Future Dharma from their future selves, and Accept them by becoming that future self, or Reject them by not becoming the future self.

Rejected Dharma leads to a swift death, or some form of fundamental transformation, to acquire a new Primary Dharma.

Setting things up to rely on personal paradox like this kind of implies that the resolution to the grandfather paradox is "sometimes angry futurebabies pop in out of nowhere". Either that, or it's impossible to travel to before you were born, because that would deny your past self agency in reacting to your actions.

So, if you hire a time traveling assassin who is older than your grandfather, then the assassin ends up with a choice to make about Dharma, but you still never existed. But if the assassin took the job from you, then they must Reject the Dharma, because they are incapable of Accepting it. Or, I guess they could try, and that would form a closed loop that doesn't involve you.

Maybe I need to consider some way of thinking about Dharma entanglements. Like, time travel on someone's behalf, and you're pulling their Secondary Dharma with you. Which could act as a tether of some kind.

I think I may have been missing the fact that this stuff relies on the quality of self-interaction. Like, if you travel back in time and hide, that doesn't change your Secondary Dharma, because there's no contradiction.

So, moving away from looking at the broader timeline, and focusing on the Age and the Yet. We want to consider techniques that allow Yet Dharma to interact with Age Dharma. In typical "linear" causality, Yet Dharma is a function of Age Dharma, but if they interact, then it becomes a more elaborate system.

Two means of change are through true time travel, which influences Age Dharma with a concrete Yet Dharma, and precognition, which allows a selection of Age Dharma based on Yet Dharma.

In game-mechanical terms, the latter corresponds to choosing from a set of Yets, and the former two having two abilities: to sacrifice the current Yet to undo an event from the Age, gaining a new Yet, and to place an arbitrary event in the Yet, and then later pay it off.

Thinking about that puts me in mind of, like, a deck of cards, where each card has some kind of associated resource, and associated costs. So, a Seer can choose from a set of target cards that somehow have different costs associated, while a Traveler can discard their hand, using the discarded cards to somehow pay to undo a move, or tutor a card that they then have access to when they can pay for it. So, each player's Yet would be their Hand, and the players are all constructing some kind of Age structure on the board, out of cards. To have these varied distances of interaction, I'm kind of imagining now a card-based wargame.

So, if what's on the table is the Age, then to attack someone at a point in time, you have to declare the attack right after the card goes down, then figure out in subsequent turns how to accomplish it. Cards could come into play with resources on them, and any left over would be available to claim later. Possibly some resources would only go on the next card. It should probably also be possible to "steal" declared attacks, converting them into feints of some kind.

I'm going to have to put this overall concept of "collectible card miniatures wargame about time battles" on the back burner because I have no idea how to design it. But it's undeniably a heck of an idea.