Rewriting History Is More Difficult Than It Seems

One of the choatic elements to come out of a recent D&D session was one of the players gaining the ability to get the answer to a question his character focused on, along with the knowledge required to use it in a way to solve the problem the question related to (essentially knowledge and the wisdom to use it as intended) along with the ability to change one event from the past, specifically by causing that event to not happen. This power was earned fairly early in the evening’s chaos, so while everyone else was laughing and joking about powers gained and reacted to how many times we drew specific cards despite the unlikelyhood that they’d keep showing up after I reshuffled the deck, this player was busy thinking about how to use this specific combination of powers. As much fun as I was having with the chaos happening to the other players, I was more excited to see what this player would come up with since he’s usually the one to push the envelop and come up with things that surprise me.

For instance, the first thing he suggested as a potential use for his reality-altering power was to prevent the death of the god whose name had been granted to the world in honor of her sacrifice. This god, according to the history the players learned, chose to save the mortals around her form a raging elemental titan that would have otherwise destroyed them. The titan wound up destroying her in its rage, but her death spurred all the other gods to action, thereby starting the creation wars between the gods and the elemental titans, the results of which directly lead to the initation of the godswar an unknown (by them) time later, which resulted in much of the damage and scarring the world bears in the present day of the players’ characters. Not to mention, of course, that the elemental titans had been killed but also left in the world for reasons unknown, which was causing real problems for the people in the time of the players’ characters. Preventing the death of that one god could have changed everything!

Except, of course, that it really wouldn’t have. As my players and I discussed, prompted by that idea and a few other ideas floated by the other players in response to that one, wars typically happen as the culmination of many events. Systemic problems frequently can’t be solved by the alteration of a single event, even if you have been given the knowledge you need to understand what event needs to change to prevent the outcome you know. An abusive and dangerous empire isn’t made by a single event. You can’t dethrone a godking by making one of his supposed miracles fail. You can’t stop a war by preventing the death of the first victim in one specific moment. The empire might falter or lose a step, but it’s inertia will carry it to victory eventually and nothing short of another series of events with a similar amount of inertia will properly topple it. A godking with a failed miracle will merely find a scapegoat and then prove their power via a new miracle since anyone willing to believe in a godking will believe that a godking’s enemies were out to make them look foolish in that momemt. If someone chooses not to sacrifice themselves to save others, thereby sparking a war, on one specific day after a long series of watching people they care for be hurt, they’ll probably do it eventually and the only real change will be that more people were lost before the war began.

I tried to provide as many examples as I could of how our world’s history could change with one or two events being shifted. It can be difficult, though, because there’s no way of really knowing how things would play out with a minor tweak. People are fond of saying that Hitler getting into art school would have prevented the rise of nazism and the second world war, but I think it would have just looked different. I mean, the US is a pretty good example, what with Trump and US facism. All the elements were already there, the situation was right for the rise of authoritarianism and reactionary politics and the fascism that seems to always show up after those do. The orange menace just gave it a kickstart and launched it into the open. It might have taken more time to get where we are today without the travesty that was the 45th presidency, but we probably would have. The shithead turtle leading the conversatives in the senate was already using the playbook, so it was just a matter of time. The rise and fall of movements, power, and societies aren’t quick or easy things, nor do they reduce down to single tipping points as often as we’d like them to, so changing one single event in a massive chain like that wouldn’t have a huge, drastic effect on the world.

What the player wound up doing was changing events so that his character was in a position to start a chain of events that would change the world. In ways that are both significant and that, from the perspective of the other players, won’t have any visible change until they start digging into things. It is entirely posssible, given what the player and I have discussed, that I’ll be able to pull a “the world was always this way.” I think I can even incorporate it into the side-campaign that gave the player the knowledge necessary to attempt something like this, though even that might have been a retroactive thing he only realized once he’d used his single answer to gain a bunch of information that wound up being connected.

It’s a little difficult to parse from where I am, if I’m being honest, since it has been so many years since I made this world and started the first campaign in it. I’m not sure I’ve kept all of the details separate, but I’m sure I’ll figure that out as I go along. After all, no one but the player and I know what his character did. No one but I knows what the future originally held that will now no longer come to pass. The campaign might be radically different, and the future might change again because of what the player might still do, but I’ll figure all that out as we get to it. That’s most of the fun, anyway, having to scramble to make everything fit as my friends and I roll dice while joking about how everyone got a card from the Deck of Many Things that granted them one or more levels except one player who drew a card that gave him a servant who was given card draws that then put him at a higher power level than the player character he was supposed to be serving. Good times.