When one deals with time, there are a lot of opportunities, a lot of ideas, and a lot of questions. Fear not, Duck and Roll is here to walk you through a few of everyone's favourite classic time shenanigans. This article takes a look at: Time Dilation.
For those not familiar with the term this is also known as fast time, compressed time, time inequality, asymmetrical chronology, or hyperbolic time. It essentially means a situation in which time flows at a different rate for some but not all people. This means that there's some sort of time ratio like "One day out here is a year in there" or "Every second is six seconds within the circle" or something to that effect. Time Dilation can also occur when something like say a spaceship moves at speeds that approach the speed of light. The faster you move, the less time passes for you relative to things moving slower. Someone moving at just under light speed may find that almost no time passes for them, while everything else seems to age and decay and evolve with incredible speed. Usually that sort of speed based time dilation belongs in sci-fi and does not have a set ratio, since naturally your vessel or whatnot may change speeds during a trip.
Time dilation is an excellent plot device that can be used in many ways. Firstly It can be used to allow something normally impossibly long in scale to happen over the course of a campaign or session. This could be for example to allow the players to have an adventure where they interact with a primitive species, and then return later in the campaign to see how they have developed into a medieval, modern or futuristic society, or even to return many times. Each altering the course of history and shaping how their people develop and change. It could be a case where a player wishes to construct a magical item, a vast machine, or even a fortress or ship, but still be able to both begin and finish construction in time for the finished product to impact the campaign. Another example would be a place where heroes could slip in and train or adventure and grow stronger and more skilled over days or years and then emerge back into the world far stronger in a short period of time.
Another use of time dilation would be to allow an entire adventure to take place in a single moment. Imagine the party uploads their minds into a computer to defeat a security system, and meanwhile in the real world their ally is walking down the hall, talking to a guard and having them look in their system. The players must complete their entire cyber adventure in compressed time in order to ensure the relevant data is in the system when the guard checks. One could even stack these compressed times on top of each other under the right situation ala Inception.
Time dilation can also serve to highlight a sense of surreal or absurd helplessness. The passage of time is inexorable, but we rarely feel it crush down on us all at once. But imagine the party stepping through a gateway to another place with a different passage of time. Before the last team mate steps through the entrance to the other time stream they bid their child and loved one a fond, final farewell. They know that they will die of old age in what seems like minutes to those they care about, but this is the only way to save all of reality. A long hug, some final words and sweet kiss and they step through. When they emerge they find their allies have already made a settlement, built their forces, armed themselves, and decided they could wait no longer, throwing themselves against the forces of the ultimate evil and already been defeated. Now only the last one through the gate remains to do what all the other's could not. Imagine those few seconds our last hero has to consider stepping back through the rift before it's forever too late.
Picture a sci-fi tragedy. A lone hero ventures to a far world to find a cure for their cryogenically frozen love. The hero pushes nearer and nearer the speed of light to reach a distant planet where the medical herb needed is found. By the time our hero has returned they find that the disease has already been cured through science, and the love has already remarried and long ago died of old age, leaving our hero, just days ago an eager excited starstruck lover with a top of the line ship, now alone, with an ancient vessel, out of touch with the entire world.
There are a thousand great ways to play with the passage of time as long as one pays careful attention and gives it proper consideration. This is an extremely powerful narrative element, and any GM should take care with it. Major battles will be very different In a fantasy game where a party can withdraw, teleport away, and then within minutes have a year's worth of preparation. And likewise, in a modern game is someone finds that they can spend a week in their wardrobe and only a day passes you can imagine the vast potential profit they could reap, and the monetary and tactical value of such a wondrous closet.