Conditions and jumping timeframes: A temporal conundrum

I ran a play test of Packing Heat, my nascent game about buddy cop movies. In the rules, when a roll goes bad the character takes a condition (known as a temporary hardship). In our session, a roll went bad during the initial scene – a shootout – and the character took “wounded”. In the fiction, we decided to go back in time to explore how the characters got into the shootout.

So, in this case, the character had the “wounded” condition but it shouldn’t count against him in the flashback.

In fact, we decided to play the denouement first, and the rest of the session was a series of nested flashbacks to how we got to the shootout. So, any conditions earned in that first scene shouldn’t have been present in the rest of the session.

Do other games have a means for dealing with mechanical effects while jumping time frames in the fiction? I’m also open to changing how characters mechanically experience set backs.


A lot depends, I think, on how the temporal jumping is structured in the fiction – what triggers going to a flashback versus moving forward?

The thought that comes to my mind is to think of the mechanical outcomes of the rolls not so much as fictional consequences as fictional causes. That is, in your example, you make a roll at time 1 in the fiction, and the result is acquiring a condition at time 2. That leads naturally to moving forward to time 3 to see what further effects the condition has. What if, instead, you thought in terms of making a roll at time 1 in the fiction, and the result was to reveal that you’d acquired a condition at time 0 in the fiction. Then you play the flashback to show how you got that condition.

For example: The player goes to shoot the bad guy, and rolls. The roll is a 5. The GM says “you try to shoot, but nothing happens – turns out you were out of bullets.” Then you do a flashback to see why the character ran out of bullets before arriving at the shootout.


My thought on the issue - you probably suspected I’d have one :wink: - is identifying a way to mark it on the character sheet to indicate that it doesn’t affect flashbacks. Italics? Shading?

Where it gets complicated is additional temporary hardships that occurred in the past/flashback sequences that then carry forward to the present IF those hardships compound the hardship inflicted in the present. It might be necessary to fictionally alter hardships to avoid, for lack of a better term, double jeopardy.

In the case of taking damage in the present, then also taking damage in the past, either that damage compounds and adds up in the present, or perhaps the character has an opportunity to heal damage in the past - going to a hospital, getting stitched up, etc.


Conditions are character debts. In some fringe cases they can be player debts, then the solution depends on what is valid at the table. That’s where you need to look at the game intent or principles, and other games.
But as long as we are considering conditions as character debts, the answer is in the fiction. So it’s a valid and good move to avoid that debt with a flashback ! And the table has to get to the wounding scene sometime with a set of constraints (no visible change). That’s a very good set of rules already, intuitive, robust, productive, etc. Keep it !


As an aside, I think this would be a fascinating idea for either a campaign using an existing rules system, or maybe even a new set of rules or a hack. At the start of the session, there’s a method for determining what the outcome of the session will be, and then you go back in time and play the game with everyone nudging the game towards that outcome. What restrictions you put in place when determining the ending-- for example, if you can specify that all the characters are alive at the end, or whatever-- would be fascinating, I imagine you’d get different games with different restrictions.

Carried to the extreme, I could see starting with the end of an entire campaign. Then, every play session you start with the end of that session, but not only do you need to steer the outcome to that ending, you also need to overall be steering it towards the campaign ending.


Thanks @DeReel, @Stentor_Danielson, @Puckett, and @andrewgr for the thoughts so far!

Here’s one thought I had:
The character sheet has three spaces, one for each timeframe: Now, Then, Before.

Now = The present timeline
Then = Anything that happened earlier in the timeline, but after the start of the case
Before = Anything that happened before the pair became partners

Players can record conditions (or “debts,” as @DeReel described them) in the relevant space.

As the fiction jumps around the timeline, any conditions from an earlier timeframe are still relevant in a later timeline. (If I get wounded Then, that wound shows up Now.) That is, those conditions affect the character or can be cleared.

The biggest flaw: When we jump back from Then to Now, a character may have new conditions that should have been relevant. Perhaps the rules require that in such a case the characters have to make a play to clear the condition before moving the fiction to the later timeline.


Depending on how often you plan on jumping around, I don’t see conditions carrying over as being something worth worrying about. If from time to time a character gets a benefit out of it, #1 that’s not a big deal, presumably they could have avoided whatever it is in the first place with a better roll of the dice at some point, and getting hung up on a single roll doesn’t seem worth it; and #2 that might very well be counteracted by the times they lose out on some advantage that they have.

It probably gets a little more complicated than it seemed to me on the surface. Let’s take an extereme case: a character has lost a limb. Now you want to go into ‘flashback’ mode and tell an adventure from earlier in that character’s life. Clearly they should have the limb back, right?

But then by using the same logic, let’s say in the ‘now’ a player has built their character up pretty far-- for simplicity, pretend we’re using a system with character levels, and now they’re level 20. You want to go back in history and have an adventure from the early years. That character should be level 3 or something. It doesn’t make sense for them to be level 20, because they were young and inexperienced at the time.

Tough problem. If you keep the past scenarios to something within the recent past (months), I think you can just disregard conditions and other temporary modifiers and play without them, and I don’t think you lose anything important from the game. Going back further than that does seem problematic.


What if you don’t learn what the debt is until the present? So you gain the wound or whatever in the flashback, and in the present you show the wound you were hiding from your partner before.

You’ve seen the scene.

Cop 1 “I thought you were only grazed.”
Cop 2, “Worse than that I’m afraid”, showing a bleeding bullet wound and now unable to move


This is quite an interesting topic. To the best of my knowledge, there is no game out there which has a robust and workable system for handling this. Which is surprising, in a way!

How complex will the time travel be? If it’s just two moments/timelines, it wouldn’t be too hard to remember (“Hey, Jim’s not Wounded yet, in this timeline, is he?”). If it’s more, then some kind of tracking can be useful. It could be as simple as notating each Condition or effect with a timestamp ("Scene 5, takes Wounded condition), perhaps on a visual tracker (showing a timeline).

However, it depends on what your Conditions model. The more they simulate fictional logic (like the “Wounded” Condition), the more you need to track these things. The more they are used to do other things (like create a certain story arc or other abstractions), the less you need to worry about that. For instance, perhaps your story takes place out of order, but the scenes are always in order of ascending desperation and tension… in that case, applying all Conditions all the time might be just the right thing to do.

There is only one game I’m aware of that deals with reverse chronology (although I don’t believe it has any special considerations for mechanical impact from events, since it is a variant of the Pool, and things like Wounding don’t matter) is Alexander Cherry’s Snowball. It’s old, but it turns out it’s still online!

The Adept Play site also has some interesting discussion of non-chronological play here:


While it’s not something in any game I’ve seen (I could imagine it could get…very confusing), when I run into something that doesn’t quite fit into the established system, my first reaction is to abstract out the meaning of the tags, tokens or rolls as they exist. For example, you could allow players to at any point declare that they have something that they acquired earlier (e.g. a shotgun), then as you chain down the flashbacks they need to, at some point, “find” the shotgun, giving it up for the deeper flashbacks.

Interestingly, harm could work with very little change, but with a sudden jump to the present. If they get enough harm to kill them, you jump to the present, to the last time they were hurt, and you could show how that injury is the straw that breaks the camel’s back


The first thought that jumped to my head is to treat conditions like Motifs Epidiah Ravachol’s from Swords without Master. In that game, players keep track of images and phrases they love from other people’s narration, write them down, then try to transform them into ‘rhyming’ images in their own description: So one player’s description of the silver-scaled helmet of a lizard-warrior gets rolled into another’s description of the Lost Moon as a shattered carnival mask. It’s a really cool way to create thematic unity.

In Packing Heat, maybe if your character has the “Gutshot” condition in the present, it stays on your sheet when the game flashes back into a past timeline. You or the other player can receive a bonus by ‘foreshadowing’ that condition in the flashback in a metaphorical or thematic way, with bonus points if it facilitates a hard cut to the present.

In a flashback, for instance: Officer Schmidt gets a bonus to befriending Officer Jenko by sharing a secret family recipe for hangovers, assuaging his fellow officer’s apocalyptic headache from partying the night before. Jenko thanks Schmidt while holding his head, Schmidt puts his hand on Jenko’s shoulder and says “I’ve got you buddy.” Hard cut to Schmidt crouched over Jenko, putting pressure on his wound, shouting “It’s gonna be OK, I got you buddy!”

Packing Heat sounds great, @brownorama!