Friday, April 9, 2021

Alternate Universe

In Tékumel, reality is likened to a great tree extending from roots at the beginning of time to the highest branches at its end. This Tree of Reality, as it's often called, encompasses all of reality. There are no other trees and everything that has happened, happens, will happen, or even could happen is found somewhere among its leaves and branches. 

The trunk of the Tree of Reality contains those worlds and planes that are most probable. The larger branches are bundles of worlds and planes that have split off slightly from the trunk at various decision points that differ slightly from one another. The smaller branches are similar but they tend to differ more greatly, making them less probable and thus farther removed from the trunk of the tree. 

According to the traditional interpretation of this metaphor, the branches of the Tree of Reality tend to turn and grow back into the trunk. In this way, even fairly aberrant branches will, somewhere down the timeline, converge into the main one. Those that do not become "shadow worlds" that eventually dissipate into nothingness.

While this might seem like a bunch of needless theorizing, the Tree of Reality metaphor serves two truly important purposes for those refereeing campaigns set on Tékumel. First, it frees each referee from worrying each and every detail of Tékumel and whether departing from any of those details in any way invalidates one's campaign. One might reasonably think this is a foolish concern and I agree. However, Tékumel, with its vast store of setting information, is a setting that intimidates many people, including its biggest fans. They fret about its minutiae and angst about "getting it right." While it's genuinely laudable to want to present Tékumel – or any detailed setting – as well as one can, there eventually comes a point where one must stop worrying and, to borrow a phrase, just do it. I know Tékumel pretty well and I nevertheless regularly do things at variance with what you might find in the Tékumel Source Book – and that's OK.

The second purpose is that it opens up the possibility of visiting these alternate Tékumels in the course of a campaign. In my own campaign, the characters are currently visiting one such place, a world that diverged from their Tékumel millennia in the past. An ancient empire that fell in their world never did in this alternate world, resulting in not only a different history but also a different religion, as some gods never rose to prominence and others took on even greater importance. The fun of the campaign right now is in watching the players, through their characters, learn about the ways that this alternate world differs from their own and navigating those differences in ways that advance their own goals. It's been a joy so far to watch and I'm curious to see how things will unfold in the weeks to come.


  1. These days, publishers would want you to worry about diverging from the published version. Hyper detailed settings with an advancing official storyline are a vital part of marketing fictional game universes.

    1. Which publishers would that be? The newer RPGs I've bought over the last twenty years or so (which is "newer" to me) have overwhelmingly been genre toolkits, with a few stabs at universal game engines to let you play any genre or setting (something Chaosium's BRP still does better than later efforts). Very few have had "hyper detailed" settings, with the rare exceptions generally being licensed IPs with pre-existing canon (eg Star Wars, Aliens, the Harry Dresden RPG).

      Most of the really detailed settings I can think of off hand are older work, with decades of gaming history behind them. Tekumel, obviously, Glorantha, Traveller's "official" timeline centered around the Third Imperium. And all of those actively encourage GMs to make their setting whatever suits your campaign rather than sweating the (extensive) details. Traveller even has core mechanics that work pretty well for a multitude of divergent scifi settings and subgenres - assuming you alter tech assumptions to suit.

      There are only a few recent games I can think of with elaborate settings where "playing right" from the publisher's POV would require getting the specifics of their world down pat - most notably Legend of Five Rings and Seventh Sea, neither of which leave much wiggle rom for a GM to make major changes. Or more accurately, if you did want to make major changes, you'd be better off using more versatile rule systems. Sure, Rokugan could theoretically be attacked by kaiju and your campaign could revolve around PCs empowered by the kami to fight them Ultraman-style, but L5R's rules wouldn't help much with that.

  2. The "Tree of Time" style of multiverse/alt-world model shows up a lot in scifi and fantasy entertainment, although Tekumel's a little unusual in the idea of "branches" sometimes rejoining the "trunk" - which makes it more of a messy "river delta of time" than any flora I know of, but that's not as pretty a metaphor. Still, it's been seen elsewhere - Discworld springs to mind, with a timeline full of patches, loops and side-currents.

    Myself, I've never cared for the "one tree" structure, and prefer the idea of a potentially infinite number of different trees that don't interact normally but can sometimes "graft" to each others' outlying (and outlandish) "branches" to produce truly strange alt-universes that resemble mashups of their parent "tree" trunk-lines. Shadowrun might be an example of a grafted timeline between a tree without magic and one with way too much of it, for ex.

    Stretching the metaphor, you might also have "vine" timelines, very alien spacetimes that don't branch themselves due to being inherently deterministic when isolated, but which seek out "tree" timelines to attach themselves to and parasitize. "Trees" might be full of potential for existence, with their "branches" letting them transform vague possibilities into concrete reality better than the strictly linear structure of the "vine" timelines. Your really, seriously incomprehensible metacosmic threats might come from (or just be) "vines" that have attached to the "tree" you call home.