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In the cosmology of Awakening, some entities - primarily Archmages, but also some more abstract forces - can retroactively rewrite huge parts of the world as we know it. We're talking about changes which erase major deities and their religions from the past, retrocreating an ancient worldwide conspiracy that has existed since the dawn of time, or altering high cosmological facts like the existence of Watchtowers and Realms (which have since that point always been so).

While I'm impressed by the grandeur of such possibilities when viewed 'from above', I also have a series of concerns that make it harder to be invested in the 'ground level' events in such a setting (such as those related to non-Archmage PCs), and they mirror some of the concerns I've seen my players state about large retcons done by big movers and shakers in general (i.e. in other franchises):

  • The cosmic retcons have wide-spanning consequences that invalidate pretty much everything the PCs did throughout a campaign, to a degree even more drastic than an archetypal Butterfly Effect from eponymous films.
  • The retcons come with no or at best very little warning.
  • There's unlikely to be anything the PCs can do to prevent or reverse invalidation of all their prior achievements; if they even continue existing after the retcon, they're likely unrecognisable as people and neither know nor care to even try.
  • For all the talk of how a small person can make a huge difference by influencing the opinion of an Archmage at some important-in-retrospect moment, there doesn't seem to be a way for said small person to make a meaningful and informed choice of what to shift the next iteration of the world towards when 'performing' such an influence.
  • Unlike, say, a nuclear apocalypse, not only does such an event put a full stop on the future ('Today I die, but at least I lived a good life!'), but also the past ('This person never existed in the first place, and thus didn't live a good life before dying!').

Yes, I know that the characters are largely unaware of these things and so can lead lives of blissful ignorance. But I'm asking about the attitudes of players as influenced by the knowledge that all they do is likely to be 'rebooted' many times afterwards. I also understand that a typical character already has a hard time significantly influencing the big world, but in Awakening, the ability to exercise agency over the long course of existence seems even more diminished.

Is there a way to prevent the apathy that commonly accompanies the realisation that most efforts and achievements are pointless and fleeting in this setting? So far the only solution I see is connected with maintaining an 'optimistic nihilist' mentality, and that's not a mentality for everyone. Are there other ways to prevent apathy and maintain player investment?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Is this a concern actually voiced by your players? Or a potential problem you are worried about? \$\endgroup\$ – Kieran Mullen Apr 17 at 17:00
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    \$\begingroup\$ I believe that the Signs of Sorcery supplement will address this somewhat, once it is eventually released. \$\endgroup\$ – nick012000 Apr 17 at 21:57
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    \$\begingroup\$ @KieranMullen The full context would spawn a discussion unsuitable for comments, but in short, yes but not in an MtAw context; so this question is in an attempt to do pre-emptive research about how people handle an issue that has been raised in a different context, because I know it will be relevant if/when I try GMing MtAw or something with similar possibilities of cosmic retcons (and while I find them worrisome, I also find them fascinating). \$\endgroup\$ – vicky_molokh Apr 18 at 7:15
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Reframing the question

First, you might point out this is similar to the world you live in right now.

A rogue state might set off a nuclear bomb. A terrorist group might harvest Ebola and spread it at a football game. There's global warming. There are lots of things beyond your control that might ruin everything you hope for. What are people's reactions to these now?

  • Some people give in to despair.
  • Some people ignore the possibility and go on with their priorities.
  • Some people do what they can locally to make things better and try to move groups of all types to address larger scale problems.

Players might fall in the first category but that provides an interesting dramatic hook when they are confronted by someone who needs help right now. Will they ignore the pain and suffering of an innocent because someday history might get re-written?

Second, think of the issue from the point of view of those you assume are making these changes. Why do they bother to try to re-write history? After all, someone else could just come along and change it back. Their motivations might be immediate ("I want to restore my loved one and it is important to me.") or longer term ("I want to make it impossible for me to ever be deposed.") The PC's should have similar flipped motivations ("I do not want anyone to erase my loved one," or "I want to make sure that X does not come back".) The possibility that good things can be undone means that they should be fought for, not abandoned.

Third, there's Pratchett's response: the you that is dealing with some possible re-written history isn't the you dealing with the problem now. You are responsible for the decisions you make in the world as it is now.

Finally, by claiming that it's not worth doing X because it might someday be undone simply guarantees that X never gets done at all. It's self-fulfilling.

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    \$\begingroup\$ The question is not similar to the world I live in. A rogue state may set off a nuke and obliterate my city, but they cannot alter history so that the city never existed. "Why should I fix this when it can be broken again in the future?" is a fundamentally different issue than "Why should I fix this when the past can be changed so that it was never broken (or never existed to be broken/not broken) in the first place?" \$\endgroup\$ – Dave Sherohman Apr 18 at 9:23
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    \$\begingroup\$ "Obliterating my city" and "Re-write history so my city never existed" are pretty similar. The idea that there are forces beyond your control that eliminate everything that matters to you is the common problem in the two cases. \$\endgroup\$ – Kieran Mullen Apr 18 at 16:58
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In practice, it is rarely a problem.

I have never encountered this as a problem either as a storyteller or a player. The players focus on the problems presented to their character and rarely worry about such overarching, global concerns. It is a game, and the players are generally happy to play the game.

Of course, that changes if you are playing an apocalyptic game where the final fate of the world is precisely the point, but in those games the players are often given agency, or at least the illusion thereof, to actually make a meaningful impact in the final result. In such games, it is expected that the players either are powerful beings themselves capable of interacting on such a field or they are specially positioned at a pivotal point where they can make a difference even though being generally less powerful than the other players. In that case, the problem doesn't arise because the game is set up specifically to allow the players to make a real difference. (Of course, you could try to make a philosophical point about how powerless they are through the game, but that tends to not be fun).

Consider banning that portion of the rules.

It would change very little in the setting to simply declare that such large scale re-writings of time are impossible in your version of the game. While it is hinted at occasionally in the setting description, I have only seen one book (Imperial Mysteries) that actually tries to present rules for anything more than minor changes to very recent events (which don't present the problems you are alluding to). Personally, I refuse to use Imperial Mysteries in any game where I am the storyteller anymore because I can never find a way to make those rules work.

Outside of Imperial Mysteries, there are several portions of the lore that refer to the possibility of history being rewritten, but at least as I read it, it seems to imply the last large scale revision to history came shortly after the Exarch's ascended. After that, it didn't happen because the few beings with that kind of power were held in check by other beings of equal power. With that already in the fluff, it is a very small step to state that it absolutely will not happen in the course of your game and only a slightly larger step to declare that in your version something about the ascension of the Exarchs made further major changes to history impossible so the metaphysical possibility is no longer even there.

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Consider why your players would play your game.

As written, your requirements are for a story that involves making all choices the players make pointless, and all investment they may have in the setting meaningless. Going by that, there is no intrinsic reason for the players to invest themselves into a setting at all.

How is the player's experience different if their character gives a bum ten thousand dollars versus shooting them in the head, if the narrative flows on the same way regardless?

If the players choices simply do not matter, at all, then why should they care at all? Why should they play the game at all?

A close analogue for the situation you are proposing is where a story ends with "it was all a dream." That is usually a very unsatisfying ending.

If you cannot answer this question, you should reconsider the situation entirely.

Consider what you are trying to achieve.

You don't elaborate on why you would do this, or what goal you are trying to fulfill.

But doing it just simply because it fits in the world's background, and for no other reason, is very close to the Storyteller version of My Guy syndrome -- it doesn't matter how much sense it makes in the context of the fictional setting if it involves everyone, or everyone but you, not having fun.

You, as the Storyteller, are in complete control of the setting of the game; you decide which elements to include and which to leave out. Doing something "because that's what makes sense in the setting" is just trying to disclaim responsibility for a decision that you are still the one making. If you run a game where player's choices ultimately don't matter, that is because you are choosing to do so, not because of the setting.

If you cannot answer this question, you should reconsider the situation entirely.

Possible solutions

  • Don't do it.
  • Do it, but relax the guidelines: perhaps the characters are not affected by the retcon for whatever reason (perhaps they can even interact with their retcon'ed selves).
  • Do it, but relax the guidelines: make the player's choices matter. Maybe they play entirely different characters in each iteration of reality, but there is an overarching, but cohesive, story that the players can interact with. Perhaps the player's choices influence what the next iteration of reality looks like, and over time that builds to some narrative event that shapes the setting outside of the retcons. The players can then enjoy and become invested in the cohesive narrative.
  • Do it, but relax the guidelines: make it part of the plot instead of an event that happens without warning at any time. Allow the PCs to have an effect. Maybe it is difficult to do and could be stopped. Maybe it can be prepared for, allowing one to avoid being retcon'ed themselves, or keep "past life" memories, or escape to another realm. The point here isn't that the players have to win -- maybe they are as relevant to an archmage as an ant is to a human -- but they should at least be able to do something of relevance.
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