I hate time travel in science fiction stories, I really do, but apparently, lots of people like it. I initially started off having no time travel available at all, but people started suggesting the Star Trek method, slingshotting around the sun and all that nonsense. I resisted, saying it doesn’t work that way, but over time, especially after I introduced fold drive, I could no longer deny people going back in time.
Therefore, that’s what I’ll look at in this edition of Building a Better World Part 7.
Why? Because time travel is built into the physics of fold drive. Just alter your trajectory slightly and you’re going forwards or backwards in time. I put the immediate kabosh on going forwards, but back, I was sort of stuck.
Therefore, and my players knew this, I set about making time travel the most worthless, expensive, ridiculous thing I could. However, I didn’t want to be a jerk about it so I started working out how to avoid all of the traditional problems with time travel, while still keeping it reasonable.
At first, I simply made it impossible to change anything or interact with the past. In a game session, all of my players were playing Catholic priests, members of the badly failing Catholic Church, which offered to fund time travel research, with the caveat that they got to pick the mission parameters. Once the device was constructed, they said they wanted to go back and witness the birth of Jesus as a means of proving that Christianity is factually true. The first device cast the travelers in the role of observers, they were invisible to anyone of the time, they were entirely intangible and couldn’t touch anything, it was easier to do this than to figure out what might happen if someone stepped on the wrong butterfly, but they were all fine with it. Of course, they could never demonstrate that anything in the life of Jesus actually happened, in mission after failed mission, weeks and months in the past, without any sign of Jesus at all. Finally, the public pressure on the Church, as well as depleted funds, caused the research to be ended, just as the last bastion of Christianity came crashing down into a pile of rubble.
Time travel worked, but it wasn’t very satisfying. It was great for historical missions, but it was horrendously expensive and was little better than watching a movie. No, the players wanted something better and I complied.
Time Travel 2.0 gave them what they wanted, free range to interact with the past, to talk to the people, to be a part of the action. Of course, the rules strictly prohibited anyone from doing anything that might change the future, but who pays attention to the rules, right? Unfortunately for me, I played in a consistent, living universe. Whatever someone did, for good or ill, was part of the history forever. If someone went back in time and managed to blow up the planet, that was going to put a serious wrinkle in the entire game universe.
I was still struggling with the various temporal paradoxes. What happened when a player invariably went back and tried to put a bullet in his grandfather? Then it occurred to me. The universe ought to operate in a self-correcting manner to avoid paradoxes. If you went back and killed your grandfather, the universe would make a subtle shift to the person with the closest available DNA and suddenly, you’d be standing there with a gun, wondering why you killed this total stranger, your grandfather was actually in Detroit. The entire timeline would shift slightly, your grandfather would become someone else and you were back at square one. Time was in a constant state of correcting itself to avoid paradoxes.
This worked great, to a point. As I said before, what happens if someone blows up the planet? Or sets off a supernova? There are things that are really too big for a simple patch, what then?
So I decided it was time to stop screwing around and come up with an official concept of time travel that worked for all conceivable problems. My copy of that is still in one of my notebooks, printed on a dot matrix printer and quite faded, but I’ll retype it here.
Theories of Temporal Relativity:
The Theory of Temporal Homeostasis:
The “current” of the timeline will resist and readjust for temporal disruption. This is to say that a creature which exists at this point in time could not be wiped from existence were it to be killed at some point prior to this time. This would create a temporal sideline which may or may not rejoin the “normal” timeline.
The Theory of Temporal Inertia:
The “current” of the time-stream tends to resist the disruptive influence of temporar discontinuities. The degree of this resistance is dependent upon the coefficient of the magnitude of the disruption and the Uncertainty Principle.
The Principle of Temporal Uncertainty:
The element of uncertainty expressed as a coefficient of temporal inertia represents the “X factor” in temporal continuity. Absolute determination of the degree of deviation from the original, undisrupted scenario is rendered impossible by the lack of total accuracy in the historical documentation and research (see Heisenberg’s Principle of Uncertainty) and by the presence of historic anomalies as a result either of temporal discontinuities or adjustments thereof.
The Fate Factor:
In the event of a disruption of a magnitude sufficient to affect temporal inertia and create a discontinuity, the Fate Factor, working as a coefficient of temporal inertia, and the element of uncertainty both already present and brought about by the disruption, determine the degree of relative continuity to which the time-stream can be restored, contintent upon the effects of the disruption and its adjustment.
The Time-stream Split:
In the event of a disruption of a magnitude sufficient to overcome temporal inertia, the effects of the Fate Factor would be cancelled out by the overwhelming influence of the resulting discontinuity. The displaced energy of temporal inertia would create a parallel timeline in which the Uncertainty Principle would be the chief governing principle.
Heisenberg’s Principle of Temporal Uncertainty:
In the event of an improper adjustment, or temporal disruption, one of several things will happen.
1. Time will cease to exist, in the event of such a disruption which would result in such. A parallel timeline is created wherein the timeline is terminated, while normal time remains unchanged.
2. there will be a temporal split, which will remain split, thus creating a new temporal timeline. Again, a large-scale disruption would be necessary.
3. There will be a temporal ripple. This creates a minor sideline which quickly rejoins the main time-stream due to temporal inertia. This would be the most common type of temporal discontinuity.
Time has been likened to a narrow river. Dropping a rock of small size into it will create a small side “river” which rejoins the larger river, thus resulting in situation 3. Also, a large object, such as a log or other similar item could be dropped into the river, thus creating a new “river” which will not rejoin the main river but will chart a new course, such as in situation 2. The third occurrence would be dropping a large enough boulder into the river to stop it altogether. Eventually the river would manage to move around the boulder, such as in normal time, but the water which is stopped would create disruption, and a stop to the river, such in situation 1.
Eventually, people started to realize that making large-scale changes in the past would just result in an alternate time-stream with no way to get “home” because moving forward in time will put them into an alternate future and their original time-stream would be unchanged. It really ended up doing exactly what I set out to do, it gave people who really wanted to muck around in history the ability to do so, but at the same time, they essentially wrote themselves out of reality and we could all come back the next week and keep playing in our pristine universe, unaffected by the machinations of crazies in the past.
So I guess it all worked out perfectly.