Timescape: a sketch of a D&D campaign

Dungeons and Dragons is weird in terms of how they lay out adventuring locales.

Parallel worlds (alternate histories, other dimensions, foreign planets) seem like a rich vein to me, but leaving your world in D&D almost always means traveling to another plane. The problem with this is that it suggests a geometric ordering between planes in a way that alternate worlds do not: in a sense, Bytopia is clockwise from Heaven along the great wheel, the Abyss is diametrically opposite, Hell is between them. The Ethereal Plane is “behind” the World; so is the Shadowfell and so, too, is the Feywild.

Contrast that with, say, Doctor Who or Star Trek. Some places are linked by geography (“Heading one-oh-two-mark-five. Engage!”) and some are linked by chronology (“Where are we? No, my dear, the real question is when are we — and the answer is the Court of Louis XV!”), and some  are not linked at all (“The TARDIS overheating/Tachyon bombardment flung us into the Pudding Dimension!”). Adventures take place in locations set within a single twisting rubric which relates adventuring sets to each other; call it the Known Universe. While some of the directions are exotic (like “the Court of Louis XV” or “the Pudding Dimension”), others are prosaic (Doctor Who’s penchant for modern day aliens attacking Cardiff and London has been noted), and still others are only exotic because of their juxtaposition (like “mostly the Court of Louis XV but every human is a robot because the metaplot intruded”).

Why, WHY doesn’t any form of D&D embrace this?

I actually think it’s literally better in every single way.

Want a land of the dead, to interrogate the shades of those who have passed? Travel to a quickly atrophying time bubble where the echoes of historical figures are thrust together on a doomed world.

Want a hellscape? Visit the future, where some asshole lich has started raiding the souls of their ancestors to drive some Immortality Engine. And they’re nuclear powered.

Want an arcadian heaven? Visit Steampunk India (Kaladesh, I’m looking at you), or the Mechanical Utopia, or the Elf Home World or whatever. You do not literally need the Plane of Beauty to have the Adventure In The Place of Perfect Beauty; indeed, it is easier if you don’t.

It’s not like you ever ran an adventure where the players leveraged where you can- and cannot- plane shift freely: there’s a magic gate anyway. And it’s not like “it’s on a different plane” was ever going to be usably enforced; the cleric plane shifts and the wizard teleports at the same level, so at most you’ve speed-bumped things.

I feel like you could replace the planes with:

  • Land Before Time: when everything was dinosaurs and Flintstones, and geology was still making up her mind. The land of ice and fire.
  • Mythical Court: A prehistory with bigger-than-life mythological figures (the Founding Fathers, King Arthur, Jesus), but close enough in time that you can recognize the nations and some of the elven NPCs.
  • Fifty Years ago: You can fight/fuck your grandmother/father and make Back to the Future-style plot swings.
  • Bad End: A dead timeline shortly in the future where the terminators win (or undead, or demons, or Hitler).
  • Utopian Timeline: Far enough in the future that you can see your legacy, it’s all super-magic and the second coming of the mythical court, but your descendents kind of don’t get it.
  • No Magic: The real world during WWI or maybe WWII. It’s traditional.
  • Mirror World: Everyone has a goatee; the virtuous are wicked and vice versa.
  • Gallifrey: Why dance around it? The End of Time.
  • The Inn at the World’s End: The location where those unmoored from time wind up for a drink.
  • The Infinite Staircase/River Styx/Etc: Various pathways through time, with windows into stolen moments that make certain adventures work correctly.

and have a better game than the usual set-up.

Think about it! All those exciting things like lightningfalls and soul dances you’d been saving for the Outer Planes you don’t NEED to save. Put them in the real world. Adventure there. But when you absolutely need to add another edge to the map for your adventure, time makes a better escape valve than space.

Plane Shift is “Time Travel”, and you wind up where you are now, but then, within the named locations (the others are under Chronological Storm and so destroy anyone who tries to reach them, save through the slow path). And you’re not the only one who can cast it, so time is criss-crossed with travelers. Yes, there are paradoxes, and the fun part of the game is how you resolve them: I think it’s best if anyone who’s unmoored themselves from time witnesses major events as they should be, and that (like Planescape’s Factions) there are a bunch of factions who guard the timeline and war over suggested edits and how things should be steered.

Dilettantes: Only the current time traveler’s perceived timeline matters. It’s dangerous to make changes, but there’s no real moral weight to it, because time is plastic, so you might as well use personal morals and aesthetics to determine how you act as a guest in a foreign time.

Narrativists: History should make sense, and timelines that follow tropes are stronger and harder to change than those which struggle against the weight of history. They have a unified body of historians and scientists based at the end of time (like, I dunno, Gallifrey) who send agents to maintain the timeline, and regard all other meddlers as madmen at best.

Utopians: Prophets and Scientists can predict the results of historical actions, and they have a preferred end. They’re extremely active, but some of their outcomes go against the natural course of history, setting them at odds with their otherwise nearest ideological allies. They specifically want the Utopian Outcome to happen, so it’s unfortunately easy to lock them out of the timeline.

Rorrim: The timeline that exists now is Jeckyll-and-Hyde-style accident, missing its twin the Mirror Universe. It’s hard to argue with the Dalai Hitler about the relative merits of his timeline, albeit quite offputting. The mirror faction is less active than the others and much more subtle, acting to bring the timeline about in a million small and counter-intuitive ways, using knowledge they have from their shadow world, and of course their agents can pod-person anyone anywhere.

Eschatologists: Madmen and saboteurs who believe that, if the timeline can be driven to certain extreme conditions (forced into a closed loop, destroyed via total paradox), a good thing will happen. As Utopians to Narrativists are Eschatologists to Utopians, since their methods are quite dangerous and unfounded. They draw their members from the dispossed across all of time and have no central base in time.

The Respectful: Time is a museum, made to look and not to touch. Any modification to the timeline which isn’t aimed at another time traveler can have small, trickling effects. They’re based out of The Present, since they’re aware of how fragile things seem. That every action they take in the present affects things is a paradox with which they struggle.

Inheritors of Worms: As Eschatologists, but actually driven to wind all of the timelines into a single unending hellscape, filled from end to end with worms feasting upon the dead. They’re probably based out of the Bad End, but maybe you have more than one Bad End if your game.
Imagine a table at the Sigil-like Inn at the World’s End. Imagine getting all of these guys around a table. Eh? Eh?
The irony is the placeless, timeless pseudo-medieval nature of D&D. Why isn’t the set point noir detectives, instead of men-at-arms? Or why not fighter pilot aces? Still, we bridge from the known to the novel; maille alongside plate — isn’t that anachronistic enough?

Note to self: Could call it Anarchronistic, if I keep kicking its tires. See also: to measure something is to rule it (obviously: pun intended).

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About lackhand

I was born in 1984 and am still playing games, programming computers, and living in New York City. View all posts by lackhand

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