Constructing New Timelines

Sometimes, we find ourselves needing a new course of events. It might be for a counterfactual exercise, a chance to use new people in a pre-existing world (or to replay the same world with the same people but different characters), a way of answering somebody’s what-if, an alternate universe the characters have figured out how to visit, or of course a result of nasty time-travel shenanigans, but whatever the reason, we’re working with new versions of existing timelines. What do we do now?

The first thing to ask when constructing a new timeline is, “Where did it change?” A number of events may have gone differently between the new timeline and the original version, but there’s usually one big difference that all the other changes flow from: a certain battle won or lost, a certain decision made, not made or made differently, a sufficiently central person living or dying. From this comes all else.

The next step is to try to find an overall direction for the timeline. Some people write them as practically the same as the original timeline, with minor modifications to take into account the point of divergence, but I have a hard time believing in any changes in the timeline that aren’t at least the magnitude of the event that served as the point of divergence, particularly if one of the newly retconned events was a defining moment for one of the characters but her characterization doesn’t seem to have changed at all. One of the nice things about really big changes is that you don’t always have to worry about how the events they affect would have gone differently, per se; they might have just completely wiped the events in question and replaced them with others entirely. On the other hand, a minor change might leave some or all of the original decision points intact (whether the resulting decisions are left unchanged or not): in situations like this, I recommend simply looking backwards from each decision point, earliest to latest, to see what effect the changed events that came before had on it.

Where is everybody? Since people are in large part shaped by their lives, changing the events they’ve lived through will almost invariably leave people, well, changed. Where did they fetch up (if they’re even still alive), and how are they different? For a character-driven GM/writer, these considerations can provide extra inspiration if other timeline-alteration strategies aren’t working: take one person’s story, follow it for a while, switch to someone else, and so on. It’s tricky work, particularly on little lead time; I once had a GM who threw one of mine into a version of her timeline where none of the things that I considered necessary to her development had happened but that assumed she’d be in a similar place to where she’d been at that point in her own timeline, and the cognitive dissonance nearly threw me out of immersion entirely. Popular characters, ones well-liked on one side or another of the fourth wall, ones that have a strong impact on the story—you’ll want to make sure their chains of events make sense.

For that matter, who is everybody now? A change in timeline can kick people into narrative roles into which they wouldn’t otherwise fit; one timeline’s sympathetic side character might be another’s deadly manipulative villain, one timeline’s heroic ally another’s broken wreck.

There are other points to consider, but these are some of the most important, and certainly some of the best sources of inspiration. Think it through!

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