This guest article by Brian Holland talks about effects and consequences, and theme-wise it seemed perfect to follow up our time travel bender. What was that crunch under my gnome boot? – John
When we hear “The Butterfly Effect” we conjure images of bad sci-fi time-travel movies, or maybe even recite the popular statement “A butterfly flapping its wings in Texas can start a tornado in Tennessee”. The effect is best summed up by the concept that small causes can have huge effects (you can read all about it here if you’re interested). However you choose think about it, it’s really cool, and that’s why it occurs so often in fiction. The fiction we read and see in books, movies and video games is very different than roleplaying games, however. A great example of a video game doing it well was the recent “Until Dawn” – a cabin-in-the-woods teen-horror game – where very small decisions could lead to major outcomes (as when NOT shooting a squirrel very early in the story with one character can lead to another character escaping the psycho… you’d have to play it to see how that plays out). A video game that uses the Butterfly Effect needs to be very meticulously planned out. A roleplaying game needs planning too, but not necessarily in the same way.
Butterflies Of The Past
Years ago I was in a game where our party was rushing along a narrow mountain pass to get back to our home town minutes ahead of a huge zombie hoard. We needed to rouse the town guard and possibly get some residents to safety before town was overrun. In despair, our wizard asked if he could use a fireball to cause a rock slide and slow the hoard down a bit. Sure he could. Some dice were rolled and – WOW – the slide was even larger than we could have hoped for. It took out a good portion of the hoard and hemmed them in for us. It was like shooting zombies in a barrel! We saved the town and everyone in it!
A couple sessions later, we desperately needed to find Captain Humli of the town guard. He had vital information for us! It turned out that the rock slide had completely cut off trade, and was causing riots in town as basic supplies were becoming scarce. The good captain led some of his men and a contingent of prisoners to clear the rubble and reopen the pass so that trade could resume. The prisoners escaped, killing all but one of the guards, including Captain Humli. We spent two sessions tracking down the information we needed, one of the prisoners became a semi-major NPC, and riots had ruined half our town – all because of ONE fireball!!
Sometime after that campaign ended I remarked about how cool that was that a single fireball had completely changed the story. Brad, the GM, laughed and said that all of that would have happened anyway! Humli would have been killed by zombies, an NPC in town was slated to become much more important, and zombies would have wrecked the town instead of rioting inhabitants. I was shocked. It had seemed so cause-and-effect while we played! Brad said he’d done things like that all through the campaign. He had big things planned, but could tweak and change the details based on our choices and actions, giving us the illusion of the Butterfly Effect.
Door A Or Door B
I feel like that’s the best way to handle the Butterfly Effect in a roleplaying game. Don’t play the “what if” game: What if they do this, what if they do that? That could lead to all kinds of planning that may never come to fruition! Instead, play the “so what” game: They did this, so what can happen because of it, and HOW CAN I USE IT? There are two keys to using it properly though. First thing is that you need to apply this to small actions and decisions. We (hopefully) already do that for the big “Door A or Door B” decisions, but it can be truly effective when applied to a minor decision or action. Second, you must let the players know that “Thing B” happened because of “Choice/Action A” that they made, or they may not even notice it.
A very simple example comes to mind: Upon character creation, a player is trying to decide whether his Wizard character will purchase a dagger or a staff. Make note of it. If the wizard chose the staff, then when the group of druids – whom you’ve already decided will be hostile towards the party – meets them they’re hostile because that staff is made from the wood of a tree that’s sacred to them. If he chose the dagger, then find another character-based action or decision to be the reason for their hostility (maybe the party forgot to extinguish their camp fire, which caused a small forest fire).
All that being said, it’s really up to you as the GM to track a whole bunch of little things that you normally wouldn’t, and after each session or so play the “so what” game with what you’ve got. Then weave those things into your campaign so that the players truly get the feeling that their everyday actions have affected the story. Make big plans, but let the small decisions add flavor and sense of the Butterfly Effect in your campaign.
I’d love to hear some fun examples or comments about using the Butterfly Effect in your games!