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In the game that I'm currently running, the PCs have traveled to the Realm of the Fae to gather information on their (im)mortal enemy, a Lich. When they emerge from the Fae Realm, I was planning on them having age a year for each day they were there. The count is currently at three days, but could potentially become four or five.

While considering that, I also had the idea that instead of having them age, perhaps those years actually passed, and now it's actually years later than when they left. I feel that leaving a powerful enemy like the Lich unopposed for years would lead to a lot of "bad stuff" happening. I'm picturing him having built a powerful army, having destroyed or taken over the city the party uses as a home base, etc. While there would still be pockets of resistance, the world as a whole would be a lot unfriendlier place.

I've seen similar tropes to this one used in other media (comic books, movies, video games), but I'm unsure if it would work well in an RPG. The fact that the party's worst enemy acquired a ton of power without them being given a chance to stop it could be unpalatable to some players. On the other hand, I can see a ton of possibilities that this storyline could lead to that I really like

How do I use an in-game Time Skip (with no foreshadowing) without it seeming arbitrary and unfair to the players?

(This is related to this question: What should I consider when creating a time travel adventure?. However, I'm not really planning on having methods for the PCs to go back in time at all. This seems like a one-way trip, rather than "Let's jump back to the past and try to fix the bad future.")

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7 Answers

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Personally, I think this is a great idea. My players would be absolutely taken aback by such a development -- and they would love it.

I understand your being concerned about being unfair to the players. But I think the fairness of it has to do with what the players' expectations are. In other words, how story-driven is your campaign? How much of it is player-driven? If the world is intended to be a sandbox where the players drive most of what happens, then I could see them being displeased with this turn of events, because their expectations of the game differed from what you presented them with.

However it's important to remember that part of a story being truly great is overcoming challenges and struggle. Unforeseen events like this are huge and dramatic, and make for great plot twists. That's why you've seen it used in all the other media you've listed. They're breathtaking and dumbfounding. If your plot only ever does things that "pleases" the players... well, I daresay it would be a fairly boring game (at least, to me), and that they ought to go play something like Minecraft where they really are completely in control. The real world isn't fair. It doesn't always give you the chances you think you deserve. Neither should your world.

If you think about it, most plots have the arch-nemesis acquire a ton of power without the protagonists being able to stop it -- it just usually happens before the real "story" begins, before the first session. (Sauron from The Lord of the Rings, The Forsaken from Wheel of Time, Sephiroth from Final Fantasy VII... the list goes on.) Instead, the players have a chance to witness that rise to power firsthand. And I think that's awesome.

As @TimothyAWiseman mentions in the comments, a bit of foreshadowing might be appropriate in order to explain how it happened. This might even hasten their exit of the Fae Realm, which would heighten the tension and make it a still more memorable session.

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I don't see anything wrong on that approach. If you are fair and you base the amount of power the Lich has gathered based on the time your players spent on the Fae Realm, and you don't force the plot (that kind of "time-skip" is typical of fae stories), I wouldn't be upset as a player.

As Jeff says, overcoming challenges is what provides a satisfactory story for players. If the enemy has grown in power, tension and drama is gained in the story, and the players should feel more motivated. If the enterprise isn't hard, there are no heroes.

We played a very similar scenario in which we traveled to some dark fae world. The GM rolled a die for determining the time that had passed. It was only a month, but that meant we lost some plots and benefits. If more time was rolled, we could even have lost many of our possessions. We were ready for it, it was the price we should pay for what we came to search in the Fae World, even as we didn't know how that fairy time worked.

The one thing that I could find a bit unfair as a player is my character aging. If for him the time has been 5 days, he shouldn't age 5 years. He should remain the same, while the rest of the world has changed. It sounds like a common trope, and a good one.

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Sounds like an amazing idea. I'd say the best way to make sure it doesn't cause any undue friction with your players is to make sure they know in advance that the lich has these abilities; maybe they've heard stories about people who "ventured into his realm, and emerged decades later, utterly unchanged..."

If they are aware that he has the ability to do such a thing, it seems a lot more like an appropriate plot development than a deus ex machina for your villain. They might even be amazed to see that little story become a major plot point.

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In my view, the big thing here isn't so much the time-skip as what it represents — a series of large, unexpected changes to the world the characters are in. Instead of returning to find the "timeline" advanced a few years, it could just as easily be a fantasy apocalypse, or the PCs getting flung into another plane of existence, or even a smaller-scale plot twist like a war breaking out.

Do you need foreshadowing?

Foreshadowing is a very convenient narrative technique. I don't think it's ever required, but it can make big transitions much smoother. This is because foreshadowing creates a feeling of natural progression. You don't have to "give away" the impending setting transformation, but creating a general feeling of impending change makes it easier to accept. Good foreshadowing creates opportunity for positive feelings, since now the event itself will feel like a promise fulfilled. Without it, you risk players reacting more like you've pulled the rug out from under their feet.

In your case, you can play up the alien and dreamlike nature of the Fae realm. Make the PCs feel disconnected from their own world. Have a Fae being tell them something cryptic about time and change. You don't need to lay a trail of factual breadcrumbs or explain the temporal mechanics of their journeys, but it pays to establish a mood.

Mind the side plots

Players will often have "side plots" that they care about, typically involving characters' personal goals or relationships with NPCs. Abrupt changes to the setting can cause the players to become anxious or annoyed when those side plots are invalidated.

In this case, in particular, nearly all of those side plots are going to get twisted up pretty hard. Friends, loved ones, and rivals will have changed a lot. Many people will have likely assumed the PCs are dead and gone, and moved on with their lives in surprising ways. Their resources and power bases, such as guilds and strongholds, may not be available to them anymore. Maybe the reputations they used to have are long-forgotten. Maybe they've been declared legally dead. Maybe their homeland is a smoking crater. Some of this is tough stuff, so much so that it's like a punch in the gut to hear it.

It's good to sit down for a moment and explicitly identify the most important "side plot" stuff before you introduce the big thing. That way you have a sense of how the PCs will actually experience the change in play. You can also identify "side plots" that you want to explore before you actually do the big change.

You can use the time-skip to put the characters' resources and relationships in jeopardy, but I would avoid outright destroying them all. When the setting has changed a lot in one fell swoop, the players will be looking to reliable and familiar connections as anchors to help them understand and care about the new world they're in; they still need reasons to fight on, after all.

Raise the stakes, but don't turn a victory into a failure

More often than not, the big new twist involves a setback for the PCs. That's part of raising the tension of the story. An event that makes the PCs' lives harder, brings suffering to supporting characters they care about, or empowers the villains will feel like a major defeat. What's worse, it can feel like an arbitrary defeat they couldn't avoid. Thus, you'll usually want to mitigate the setbacks with an important victory.

In your case, the heroes have gone to the Fae realm to gain something they can use against their enemy, right? If they return to find their enemy is more powerful than ever — well, that information better be worth it! Otherwise your time-skip is turning a modest victory into a terrible defeat — not a great way to use a concept that many people will be naturally a bit wary of from the get-go. So, make that secret knowledge from the Fae really, really count!

Summary

Big world-breaking events you can't control feel disempowering to players. That doesn't mean you shouldn't use them. But be mindful of the details so you're not making that disempowerment excessive or pervasive. Give them plenty to do in their new environment and make sure they have some touchstones to reconnect with the old one.

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I think this would be a great time to give the players a little more agency and to do some collaborative storytelling. Here's a blog post I wrote on the topic: http://gm.sagotsky.com/?p=265. (As a bonus, my story also involves a Lich.)

My use was a little different. I was fast forwarding past some travelling and some levels and I wanted the players to explain how they crossed several hundred miles and how they earned a few levels in the process. Basically I gave them an end point and let them fill in the blanks. Sometimes I threw in a monkey wrench just to see them dance.

I think it would work just as well for you. However, I would suggest leading them a little more than I did. Ask them what their enemy did in the mean time? Did anyone try to stop him? What lands did he conquer? Etc. Let them fill in the blanks and then take their answers and run with them.

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I think it's an excellent idea, but...

First, it requires that the players are aware that time passes weirdly in the Realm of the Fae. This is, thankfully, rather well-established through folklore.

Since the players are already there, it may be time for a new arrival to come in and ask about something time-bound that "should not have happened yet" (next Presidential election, the Winter Olympics in Russia, ...) that signals that something is not right.

Personally, since I prefer a Fae that have a variable rate of time to "the outside" instead of a fixed "1 day in Fae" <> "1 year in Normal" rate, I would probably roll a die every two hours and do something like:

  1. One minute passed in Normal
  2. One hour passed in Normal
  3. One day passed in Normal
  4. One week passed in Normal
  5. One month passed in Normal

That would, typically, end up with less time passed in Fae, but that could probably be tweaked by adding further units to the random table.

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I find it hard to believe that noone had mentioned the order of the stick.

Its more an answer to what happens outside the fay world, you can see in the order of the stick when the party are runnng anroung being players doing hero things how the evil imortal lich is doing his thing.

It works great with you time skip idea and could be a grat inspiratuion of what direction the lich goes in and provide you responses to possible player questions.

you can find the story here, well worth a read anyway

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