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D&D General An Experimental Dual Timeline Campaign?

Kobold Avenger

Adventurer
As a narrative experiment how would one handle a dual timeline campaign where it's the "same" characters in both timelines, that are roughly 20 years apart. In the earlier timeline they start as 1st level characters, and in the later timeline they're 10th level or higher. It's the same characters and there's a bunch of ambiguous details of events over 20 years that get filled out as things happen, some things from the past timeline can certainly effect things in the later timeline.

I feel the later timeline for example needs to be more narrowly focused, as something that happened in the past one will become "Remember that time we did this?" in the future timeline, and things mentioned in the later timeline might steer the direction of things in the past timeline. And then there's the question of what happens if or should a PC die in the past timeline, which might need some narrative work to explain why someone like them is still around in the future.
 

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Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
You're thinking bouncing back and forth between times? One session in the "past" and the next session in the "current" timeline?

It's an interesting idea and certainly one that can work in fiction. But why would the "current" group not remember something that hasn't happened yet in real life? Also, how do you maintain a sense of player agency in the "past" campaign?

I mean, PC death can be reversed with a spell but there are other decisions the group may make or want to make in the "past" that they may feel they cannot based on the "current".
 

Kobold Avenger

Adventurer
I guess for the "current" timeline at the start the players need to fill out a few details about where they're at in their lives. Like maybe one is a king with a family of his own, another is running trading company with his husband, the third just came out of jail and is looking for her estranged daughter, and another just recently came out of hiding. But the details how they got to those points over 20 years will be filled out by the "past" timeline.
 

jgsugden

Legend
With the lack of control we have over PCs (as DMs), there are a lot of pitfalls here. They may feel constrained so as not to change the future, or they may feel an urge to mess with the timeline.

To avoid this, consider the Journeyman concept of time travel to have a similar experience. The PCs start off at first level. Then encounter a temporal mechanic of some sort (Artifact, Portal, Monster, etc...) and get pushed 20 years into the future. They find themselves in a difficult situation, right off the bat, and are have to deal with it, but can pick up a few clues about their past while they do it. Then they get ripped back through time to the moment they left. Then the time shift repeats later, and the adjustments they made impact the future and when they jump to the future, they find themselves in a changed future. If they die in the future, they die in the past due to the magic.
 

tetrasodium

Legend
Supporter
As a narrative experiment how would one handle a dual timeline campaign where it's the "same" characters in both timelines, that are roughly 20 years apart. In the earlier timeline they start as 1st level characters, and in the later timeline they're 10th level or higher. It's the same characters and there's a bunch of ambiguous details of events over 20 years that get filled out as things happen, some things from the past timeline can certainly effect things in the later timeline.

I feel the later timeline for example needs to be more narrowly focused, as something that happened in the past one will become "Remember that time we did this?" in the future timeline, and things mentioned in the later timeline might steer the direction of things in the past timeline. And then there's the question of what happens if or should a PC die in the past timeline, which might need some narrative work to explain why someone like them is still around in the future.
I wouldn't use 5e pf or any other similar system for such a campaign as the characters are very much fully defined. You could do it in a game like fate without too much trouble though & in a way timeworks even has some structure to support it but more from a time travel perspective & tbh I think the only way to do it successfully without too many snags like @jgsugden mentioned is to use time travel where you have the now & the past where you play the now PCs & have the past NPCs running around rather than now & future both in pc hands.
 

This would be a very hard concept to pull off, but it has potential. I'd suggest you and your players watch Arrival (2016) before you approach them with the campaign. It has concepts in it that are relevant, and this would give them an idea of what it would be like, so they know what they're buying into. Short version is:

Time is circular, allowing someone to experience events that haven't happened yet, but at the cost of being unable to change it (since it already happened). For a campaign, I'd have the players put in this situation by an unknown element, and the goal is to figure it out before the two timelines meet.
 


el-remmen

Moderator Emeritus
I think it could work with some assumptions, one being (permanent) death being off the table. Or, if a player chooses, maybe their character did die and no one talks about the tragic circumstances b/c "it hurts too much." In the future, he plays a different character or a reincarnated version of himself. The point being the players can not know what the PCs know but won't address.

I think knowing how it will end up is not an obstacle to fun and engagement, since how something happens is infinitely more interesting. It is like watching Avengers: Infinity War knowing that half the world and its heroes are not gonna stay dead. Knowing they'll come back is not a spoiler (nor would knowing the Death Star is destroyed in the original Star Wars), but how could be.

I forgot to add that whenever I discuss spoilers, I like to bring up how the audience for Oedipus trilogy by Sophocles in Ancient Greece already knew how it ended, but it was the most popular play anyway. 🤣
 
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Lanefan

Victoria Rules
One possible answer if you don't want to death-proof the low-level group: clones. Another is that at about the 18-year point some effect happened (a Wish, maybe) that revived or reset the original group as 1st-levels, and they've spent the last two years gaining the levels that make them the higher-level crew they are now.

I applaud your courage - this sure ain't something I'd want to try! :)
 

aco175

Legend
I was trying to think of events in the 1st level game that need to come to light in the higher level game. Say the low level game finds a map or symbol or even a location that they cannot gain entry because they need a key. The higher level party can encounter the answer the next week in gaming. I did something like this several years ago, but the party was high enough level 6 months later and I had to remind them of the past clue.
 

Honestly something like this is a great idea although it would probably work best if the flashback was played with a set of different characters compared to the present timeline's set of characters.

For example: Imagine you had a campaign prologue sequence where the PC's party were level 20 characters and the plot twist of the campaign reveals that said PC party, in the Prologue sequence, were actually the BBEGS of the campaign in the current present timeline that the main PCs are fighting against.

If you wanted to, you could have the campaign switch back to said group at certain points. Then once the revelation happens, there would be no more switching as the past story of the BBEGs have been told and how they came to be. The pro to this approach would be that you'd avoid any complications with a PC death if somebody "died" and it has no affect upon the present timeline's PC party.

The Con, if you can call it that, is that said past timeline PC party is basically exempt from death. The story still enforces the possibility of it happening, but it technically doesn't otherwise, you have no BBEG unless they all became a group of Lich Lords at the very end due to plot related thing happening. But said event is what causes them to become the group of Lich Lords or whatever. Course I think that's only an issue if your gonna complain about it being a walkthrough or telling a story the DM prepared.

In Breath of Fire IV by Capcom, you had moments in the game where you switched from the Main Character Ryu and his party, to literally playing moments/segments as the final boss of the game pre-final boss form.[/ISPOILER]

Yeah it's videogamey in a way, but so what? It's less upkeep and avoids potential headaches.
 
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Tonguez

A suffusion of yellow
I’ve tried to run parallel games in the past - one involved two parties, one a group sent to steal an artifact, the other heroes trying to catch them, the problem is that things quickly get out of whack and it becomes a nightmare to reconcile without railroading or having to find diversions until one side ‘catches up’ with the other. It might be possible, but I couldnt do it.

That said I didnt do a parallel story but in one random session I did an adventure in which the PCs were forced through a oneway portal to an unknown world, where they found a group of decomposed skeletons. Examining the remains the PCs notice that the rusted armour, broken weapons and holy symbols are identical to their own property and thus the PCs realise that the skeletons are their own - the PCs now need to find a way out and discover what happened to themselves.

I didnt do it but I suppose you could do regular flashback scenes at different adventure points, let the players play themselves in the ‘past’, and then use any information gained to inform their ‘current’ decisions
 

There are certain issues with doing things this way of course but it's not impossible.

It's easier if you are playing different characters and can have huge benefits for information. I've run games when characters need to explore a ruined city and then they find a journal written by people who visited that city at it's height and then they actually play a one off with those characters, before visting the city with their regular characters in its present day environment.

With the same characters - barring some device which means the characters have lost their memory of previous events (not too hard to do in a fantasy game). You need to structure things very carefully.

I'd approach it with something like this: At the end of the session Kurlog the Half-Orc arrives on the scene. Leave the session with a kind of cliffhanger - you all of course know Kurlog the Half-Orc.

Then the next session going back in time is about defining their relationship with Kurlog the Half-Orc in the past. This is meaningful as if affects their so far undefined present relationship with Kurlog. Based on the past time line he might be there to assist the PCs in the present day or he might be seeking revenge.

But I think it's key that it be structured in such a way as the events in the past timeline have meaningful choices that influence the present day.
 

I love it.

I'd start them as high level characters and run an adventure and then do a 'flashback' to an important time/adventure that, maybe relates to what they're doing now: "Do you remember coming here many years ago but we couldn't get through these magical wards?"

Then play out the flashback with Lower level PCs - like 3rd leve.

Then flash forward, and then back again to when they're 5th.

Every flash back has them a few levels higher.

I wouldn't worry about character death because, if a character dies, when you flash forward to the high level PCs, you can ask the players to discuss - in character - maybe ad libbing - how they brought the character back. "OMG, and Tordek got killed by that Bodak. Do you remember the druid we had to find in order to bring him back!? The crazy favour he asked almost got us all killed!" Which could lead to an interesting lead-in to your next flash back.

Do. it.

Edit: So the high level characters might be on a single adventure but their flash backs encompass a multitude of adventures.
 

The difficulty of flashbacks are that the players are trying to inhabit their characters rather then just watch them as the audience.

Flashbacks are about revealing things to the audience for the best dramatic effect.

Where you run into trouble if is players feel like flashbacks reveal things that might have led them to make different decisions previously based on what they're characters would have known, or where players feel like they don't know what there characters would do right now - because important information about past events hasn't been revealed yet.

The way to avoid this is to make sure that information in flashbacks is not important until it is revealed, and that it is revealed as soon as it becomes important.

You still need the players to buy in to it to a degree though.
 

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