Another idea for the Time of Unparallelled Darkness
Azalin could cause something entirely catastrophic for Ravenloft by screwing around with time travel in specific ways. It's well known that you can force time to snap back and forth in a logical loop by doing things that create paradoxes.
I'll go into more detail later, but if you assume a) that Azalin can send things or ideas or information back in time, then it's possible that b) he could influence his past self to do things in a different way that causes time to endlessly repeat itself in Ravenloft.
This would essentially create a closed loop where once the last time unit is used up, the Ravenloft Universe would snap back to where Azalin did his meddling and then progress from there as usual, then reach the end and snap back, repeating ad infinitum.
Plotwise, this fits in well with the idea of a lich who has gotten tired of trying to escape and has decided to break the Universe if he can't leave it. It's also one of the few things I can think of which is actually WORSE news than a Grand Conjunction.
An example: I go back in time to kill my grandfather before I was ever conceived. This will create a "bow-tie" snap, as the Universe infinitely alternates between two contradictory timelines:
T1: HMB is conceived and born. He grows up, leads a dissolute lifestyle, and then somehow commandeers a time machine in 2007 and goes back in time to 1940, when his grandfather is a young boy. HMB kills his grandfather and does not even think twice of the consequences. (He's a bit stupid that way.) He either uses the time machine to get back to 2007, or he stays in 1940 Taiwan and enjoys the whole Sino-Japanese war thing. It doesn't matter to the timeline - a paradox is born.
T2: The Universe progresses in a different way now. HMB's grandfather never grows up, never marries, and never sires HMB's father. HMB's father never does anything because he never existed. Then, come 1980, HMB is never born. The Universe goes on happily until 2007, when it needs somebody to go back in time to kill HMB's grandfather.
This is impossible now because HMB doesn't exist. Therefore, the relevant date in 2007 comes and goes with no time travel attempt, and HMB's grandfather survives an assassination attempt that was never made.
The Universe snaps back to 1940 as HMB's grandfather lives happily on, siring HMB's father who sires HMB, who goes back in time and ungratefully tops his grandfather. And so on forever alternating between the two contradictory timelines once the Universe reaches the relevant date in 2007.
Very good, HMB, but what's this got to do with the ToUD?
Azalin has already sent people back in time before. He's very careful about it. Consider From the Shadows, where he only sends the PCs' consciousnesses back in time (i.e. nothing material, which is a strict no-no in time travel). He also chooses a time and place where their actions don't disturb too much. They occupy bodies of people who will all die anyway.
Ultimately, when Azalin manipulates time in this way, he limits the possible aftershocks of what his servants do, so nothing contradictory happens.
So far, so good.
But what if Azalin decides to do something to himself in the past? Say Azalin decides to do something very drastic, e.g. prevent himself from ever becoming darklord of Darkon.
This would be very bad. Because Azalin has been darklord of Darkon for very many years and done lots of things, changing something so early and so fundamental means the alternate timeline will be vastly different. Worse still, in order to prevent the altered Universe from snapping back to the point of the contradiction, you'd need an Azalin or somebody else being around in 755 (or whatever the present day is) and being able to send changes back in time to prevent Azalin from becoming darklord!
This is very difficult, however. Imagine my grandfather analogy. Say HMB decides to tell a friend about his plan and asks his friend to use the time machine to send a barrel of lit TNT beside his grandfather's corpse after HMB has killed him.
Apparently, this would seem to prevent a loop, right? HMB kills his grandfather, then a TNT barrel destroys the remains. Then HMB is never born, and the grandfather survives, but then a lit TNT barrel comes through and renders him dead.
However, there is a fatal flaw in this plan. The friend's activities are still dependent on HMB telling him what to do. Thus, if HMB's grandfather died, HMB would never have existed to tell the friend what to do. Thus, we would still be caught in a loop.
As you can see, it is very hard to avoid a loop. The preponderance of the likelihood is that one will occur, and in order to make sure that one doesn't, you have to take special steps.
Now apply this to Azalin. Say in 755 he's feeling upset and decides to send magical energies back in time to 735 and kill his past self for good. (He does something bad to the phylactery and then something bad to his corporeal existence, destroying both.)
This is a classic bow tie snap. Azalin755 casts the spells and Azalin735 dies. Darkon progresses in mourning for the loss of their king for 20 years... whereupon the Universe checks to see if anybody can go back in time to 735 and kill Azalin, and it realizes that nobody can!
So it snaps immediately back to 735, assuming that Azalin735-2 survived the nonexistent assassination attempt by Azalin755-1. This will continue infinitely. If Azalin735-2 then survives to 755, he'll go back in time to kill Azalin of 735, and the pattern repeats again. Ravenloft's Universe timeline would be trapped in a 20-year recurring cycle, never progressing beyond 755 - the year that Azalin Broke Time.
This already constitutes a Pretty Bad Situation. In order to break the cycle and restore the normal flow of time, not only do the PCs need to a) make sure Azalin of 735 is killed, but they must ALSO b) do so before 755 occurs. (Because the timeline snaps back at 755, any plan they might have that extends beyond that point is doomed to fail because it can never be realized before the snap.)
Assuming the PCs have some high level magic, they might be able to time travel too - but they'd have to be very careful because changes they make could automatically cause the pattern to disrupt. Given the best case scenario, they'd have a period of time equal to the difference between the earliest point and the latest point (in this case, roughly 20 years) to plan and execute.
In this scenario, a PC would probably want to enter the timeline shortly after 735, and preferably in the Universe where Azalin survives (but eventually plots to go back in time and kill himself). This is possible if they go to the timeline where Azalin died in the 735 assassination, but they will find it harder as a practical matter to create a situation that would kill him and his phylactery (because both would already be dead - although this is not fatal to an endeavor).
Azalin survives 735 and goes on to do stuff to himself in 755:
PCs should arrive in timeline at 735 and then figure out what's going on. They have 20 years to observe and plan and execute. It doesn't really matter what year they actually execute, as long as it's before the date of 755.
Execution: Go back in time and do whatever Azalin755 does to Azalin735, preferably after 735. (Technically, the PCs could actually go back in time before 735 and kill Azalin, but that introduces potential aftershocks.) They must kill Azalin, and the best way to do it would be to create an unavoidable death trap for him and his phylactery within seconds of the time that Azalin755 would have done so anyway.
That way, it doesn't matter whether Azalin755 exists or not. The task of killing Azalin735 has been accomplished by an outside force, and Azalin 755 is no longer needed to do it.
Time will flow naturally after the PCs destroy Azalin735, all the way to 755, and beyond, because there is no longer a paradox to resolve.
Very late edit: Of course, the PCs could ALSO disrupt the loop by interfering with Azalin755's actions so that Azallin755 never succeeds in manipulating time in the first place. This is much simpler than going back in time and trying to kill Azalin735, but it's an imperfect solution at best. Azalin755 could undertake to interfere with time at any point after 755 if he wants to, starting the whole process over again.[/i]
But wait, HMB, that sounds like a Time of Limited Darkness. Or maybe a Time of Unfortunate Inconvenience. What's so unparallelled about it?
Consider another theoretical situation. This is going to be very light on facts and heavier on hypotheticals, so I ask you to bear with me. I'm reasonably sure it works.
Say Azalin does something similar to the aforementioned paradox. It doesn't have to be killing his past self. But he does something, or makes another person do something, that creates an endless loop paradox.
Ravenloft alternates between two universe timelines, right?
Now, imagine this.
Azalin plans the same thing, with a hitch. Each iteration of the timeline snap, somehow (perhaps through judicious leaking of important information), Azalin contrives to occur earlier and earlier.
This is very dangerous.
Say the future Azalin, in addition to doing the paradoxical act, also encodes some information in the universe that will reveal the grand plan to the Azalin2 (i.e. his own self in the successor timeline). Azalin2 then has extra information as to what to do, so he himself undertakes to do the paradoxical act earlier than Azalin1 did.
Likewise, Azalin2 leaves information for Azalin3 to pick up, and Azalin3 gets to meet his milestones earlier, and so on.
Eventually, the time period involved becomes very very compact. Almost as though the final Azalin never needs any research or trial-by-error - he just knows exactly what he needs to do and does it.
This could actually shorten the bow-tie snap period into however long it takes to memorize, and cast, a VERY carefully-worded Wish.
Imagine the Demiplane of Dread, forced to alternate between ever-decreasing universe timelines, until it reaches equilibrium bouncing between paradoxes that are merely a few hours apart!
Chronologically, Ravenloft would become like a black hole. Anything travelling into it during that time would become trapped in the bow-tie snap, unable to get back out again. Any plan the PCs come up with would have to be executable within the few hours it takes Azalin to memorize and cast the Wish.
Outside observers observing Ravenloft would see the Demiplane never progressing ever beyond 735 (plus a few hours).
Internal meddlers trying to stop Azalin must do so within a few hours, or they can leave the Demiplane (never an easy task) as long as they either thwart his plans or leave the Demiplane within those few hours' time.
Theoretically, PCs who have a lifeline to another plane could judiciously jump into Ravenloft again and again during the timeline to try to stop Azalin. Of course, they'd have to deal with their leftover previous selves from the previous time trips...
Wow. That's pretty hard core
Indeed it is. But wait! A plan that has a core far harder awaits!
So far we've just talked about Azalin condemning Ravenloft to eternal time-paradox-snaps.
During a brief period of time in Roots of Evil, Ravenloft expanded to include every Prime Material plane, and quite possibly other planes of existence as well. If Azalin times his paradox start point carefully, he can narrow the hours' worth of snap time to occur during the Grand Conjunction.
What does this mean?
It means the earlier Quote: Outside observers observing Ravenloft would see the Demiplane never progressing ever beyond 735 (plus a few hours) is now entirely wrong.
Outside observers looking at Ravenloft would see nothing. Because THE ENTIRE MULTIVERSE would be within Ravenloft, and thus would be trapped in the few hours' snap-loop created by Azalin.
Because there's nowhere else for you to retreat to, it doesn't matter what your home plane is. You literally have only a few hours to stop Azalin, otherwise you're stuck in the time paradox loop. This goes for whether you're Hazlik of Hazlan, or Hazlik of Thay, or even Elminster of the Twin Towers (also: Forgotten Realms). Anybody anywhere is affected by Azalin's malicious intentional tort committed against the Smooth Flow of Time.
This is, as you can imagine, entire orders of exponents harder than the situation where you can jump out of Ravenloft and recover to the safety of your home plane if things go wrong.
There's a lot of science fiction here, and discussion of time travel, but I *think* the logic holds up. It's just a fun little digression as to what the ToUD might be, especially for a lich who's given up any hope of escape and now just wants to "pee in the rice cooker" (Cantonese expression meaning "to spitefully make things bad for other people").
If you accept the premise (questionable) that deities are also affected by timeline changes, then Azalin could very possibly break the entire multiverse, gods and mortals included, by a Brief Manipulation of Time.
Either way, I am going to do some thinking and see what it is that Azalin 755 can get an earlier Azalin to do. I have thought about "streamlining" the process by having A755 send a detailed message back in time to A735 during the Grand Conjunction, and then A735 going on and triggering the paradox.
However, this has problems. One very big problem is at the very end of this post, and I'll own up to it right now that this current plan that follows does not work. (I'm still working on it.) It all boils down to the fact that once A735 does whatever paradox he wants to do, then A755 won't exist. This could potentially be disruptive if A735 isn't careful.
Say, A755 decides to send a message back to himself specifically at the moment of being "slain" in battle at the end of From the Shadows. This is convenient for A755 because a) he knows exactly where he was, b) very shortly thereafter, the phylactery breaches the Misty Border, triggering (or at least cementing) the Grand Conjunction, and c) A755 has time to send a fairly lengthy message if he needs to - A735 doesn't have much else to do except hang around in his phylactery.
A755 probably will want to disguise his true identity. If he wants to literally send a "Psst! Hey! Here's a fun secret! Do this, that, and the other and you will become the ultimate ruler of the Multiverse!" then it's a problem. A735 has no reason to trust him.
Even if A755 nakedly says "I am your future self speaking from a reconstituted Ravenloft created because you screwed up. Take these steps", there's no guarantee that A735 would believe him or trust him.
One possibility is for A755 to tell A735 honestly (but incompletely) that the Grand Conjunction is reversible, AND that this Wish spell is the only way he can ensure it lasts forever. ("Lasts forever"... geddit?!?! Bwaha-ha-ha-haaah! *ahem* Sorry.) This type of honesty is possible but A735 would still be very skeptical. The usual response might be "evacuate?! In our moment of triumph?!"
Another possibility is for A755 to insinuate his plans to A735 as though A735, in the phylactery, was thinking them to himself. This would mask the whispers as though they were A735's own ideas.
However, there is a problem. A755 must tell A735 in great detail what to do and when. A735 has a long time to follow the commands, and if he's smart (which, being Azalin, we're fairly certain he is) he will eventually be able to figure out what it does. A735 has a chance of realizing that these instructions will collapse the Multiverse into a closed time loop, with him on the inside. If he realizes this, A735 is almost certainly not interested in following them when he could just ignore them and escape the bounds of Ravenloft instead.
One possible workaround is for A755 to plant the idea but give A735 a sense of urgency. There are strict milestones that have to be fulfilled and he can't dally. (In fact, depending on how long the GC lasted in your campaign, A735 may have only a few days, literally. Given that the Wish that he must cast is so complicated and convoluted, it's a good chance that he may well feel he must cast it now or lose it forever.)
So A735 will be lying in state inside his phylactery when - zip! - a thought enters his head. A755 will be giving him information about how the GC is reversible, and making it seem like this is his own thinking. Then - zap! - A755 will start the thought process as to how A735 could make it irreversible.
There will be several more thoughts, including - zorp! - the PCs could reunite Azalin's phylactery with the Barovian holy symbol(s) and thus reverse it, as well as - zuffle! - Azalin's trapped inside his phylactery right now and is at the mercy of the PCs... who even NOW MIGHT BE BRINGING HIM TO THE HOLY SYMBOL(s) !!!111eleven111!!!
These thoughts will doubtless trouble and disturb A735, allowing the rest of A755's carefully-Wished suggestions to take root. By the time he's out of his phylactery at the start of Roots of Evil, A735 has no intention of killing Strahd so much as finding a place where he can put together a Wish to lock open the Grand Conjunction forever. (Drawing, of course, upon A755's suggestions.)
What can A755 say to A735 that makes sense under the circumstances?
Telling A735 to do something clearly self destructive is likely not going to work. No matter how pressing the affairs sound, A735 is going to prefer to return to Ravenloft rather than send a spell back in time to nuke himself and his phylactery.
However, it's possible that A755 could prepare two simultaneous alterations of time. The first could be to send this message to A735 a few hours after his "death" in From the Shadows. The second could be to place some sort of magical contingency Wish that waits to shunt any incoming death spell going to a few minutes after the "death", to just before the "death".
This is very complicated but the reasons why this works will become apparent later.
It's in A735's best interests to actually kill the PCs as soon as he can after leaving his phylactery. The fact that he does not is based on two shortcomings: a) he's physically weak upon emerging from the phylactery and has no chance to recover any spells to beat them with, and b) he'd really rather kill Strahd.
A755 must overcome reason b) by persuading A735 that there are really much more important things to do than wreak vengeance. He must cement the GC, and then he can pursue Strahd at his leisure once he gets his magic use back. (Preferably with the benefit of new magic!)
A755 must then persuade A735 to send a spell back in time to just after his phylactery crosses the Mists and Ravenloft opens. That spell must kill all the PCs. That will allow A735 to emerge using a corpse (any PC corpse will do), and then he will hear the message from A755 as usual, and then make a mental note to himself to make sure he sends a spell back in time to kill the PCs a few seconds after his phylactery crosses the mists. This will look like a self-perpetuating "happy" ending for A735.
At this point, there's still a chance of the GC unravelling, but it's very very remote. The PCs' death means that the only group of mortal beings who a) knows what's going on, and b) actually wants to do something about it is now dead. Strahd holds the Holy Symbol on one plane, and Azalin holds his phylactery on another plane. Azalin could ensure the GC remains open (and the Dark Powers of Ravenloft get to play in a much larger playground) by simply never going near Prime Material Barovia.
(And even if he did want to kill Strahd, he could do so by hiding his phylactery on another plane before going forth to do so.)
So far, so good. A735 gets to hang around on Oerth or wherever and the GC is left open.
We have a paradox already! A755's original message is not accounted for! Because A755 doesn't exist in this alternate timeline, the original message is lost. Which means that we have a bow-tie loop.
He *might* be able to counteract this by telling A735 to include in his death spell to the past, a similar message to himself in the phylactery.
"Oh, by the way, don't forget to tell your past self what to do, i.e. everything you've just learned now. Important piece of time travel insurance to make sure everything goes as planned."
This above sentence makes perfect sense and A735 would know it's in his best interests to do this.
Thus, it doesn't matter, with this safety catch built-in, whether A755 exists or not. Even if his timeline is entirely bypassed, each A735 will make sure to send a message back to himself detailing what to do, as well as killing off the PCs around his phylactery to prevent the GC from unravelling.
(Actually, this scenario sounds pretty triumphant. I'm not sure why A755 would even want to go beyond creating this sort of thing - he gets to Live Happily Ever After and study magic or perhaps kill Strahd or whatever without the risk of the GC collapsing. If I were A755, I'd definitely consider doing this and no more... but - to keep with my earlier idea of a despondent Azalin, we have to consider the next chapter.)
Azalin Screws It All Up For Himself and the Entire Multiverse
A755 has, as we have mentioned earlier, put in some sort of magical shunt that waits for any incoming death spell that would normally arrive a few seconds after he enters the phylactery. The spell that A755 puts in basically catches the incoming death spell sent back in time by A735, and then does something wickedly evil with it.
It thrusts the death spell to just a few minutes earlier instead.
This, as you can imagine, crudely copulates with the entire timeline. A755 in one fell swoop has indeed killed off the PCs, but kills them off just before they knock A735 into his phylactery.
Thus, the GC never solidifies and A735 never leaves Darkon.
This causes a major paradox in time. The GC is still going on, but A735 is trapped in Darkon. He thus never hears the messages sent to his phylactery, and is unable to get out of Ravenloft.
More importantly, he (meaning A735) never casts the spell that kills the PCs to begin with!
Thus, the Multiverse only goes as far forward as the time when A735 would have cast that spell (which presumably happens either in Prime Material Barovia or on Oerth, if he's homeward bound) - which would be about a few days, maybe. At this point, A735-2 (the one who never made it into his phylactery) is probably moping around in Avernus, cursing the "Dark Powers" that suddenly struck his PCs dead.
A735-2 will survive only for a few days. His timeline is inherently unstable, because the two Azalins who meddled with killing the PCs no longer exist.
Then the timeline has nobody to send the Death Spell back in time, or to shunt it a few minutes earlier. The timeline then jumps back a few days to just before the end of the PC/Azalin conflict in A735, as the PCs survive and "kill" A735. He goes back into his phylactery, receives the messages from A755 (if it's the first time), or A735 (if it's a subsequent time, and A735 is merely rehashing what he was told by A755 the first time anyway). Then he goes ahead, and sends a Death Spell back in time to kill the PCs just a few minutes after they've carried his phylactery into the Mists. The spell from A755 rebounds this Death Spell earlier in time and kills the PCs before the combat ends.
The Universe is now officially broken. It will continue to alternate between the time of the combat, to just a few hours or days later when A735 normally would send the Death Spell back.
(Aha. Ahahahaha. Well, not quite.)
Here is the problem: Three sentences up, I have typed: "The spell from A755 rebounds this Death Spell earlier in time and kills the PCs before the combat ends."
The question is: what spell? A755 has been written out of existence, therefore his spell is too.
Set this way, A755's spell fizzles because there's nobody to cast it, and A735 triumphs again. And there is no time loop because, as in the "Happy Ending" above, he merely goes on to send a message back to his past self and then goes his merry way.
Problem: How do we ensure that the spell shunt still works?
Meta-Problem: Do we even need to do so? If Azalin escapes anyway and the GC is rendered permanent and practically irreversible, hasn't Azalin already triumphed?
Meta-Meta-Problem: But that's boring. Basically the Time of Unparallelled Darkness is just a re-run of the GC. Yawn.
Conclusion: I haven't figured out the details yet, at least not without some serious fudging, but in the end a ToUD that merely parrots the GC (or, in this case, rectifies it) is a little trite. Rather like the second Death Star in Star Wars. It's been done before, right?
So we need to do something really big, and I think locking the entire Multiverse in a never ending recurrence of alternating possible timelines wherein Ravenloft's Dark Powers rule the roost is the way to go.
Expect more work from me on this.
Much of this idea came from a dream I had a few years ago, where my father was a scientist wanted by the Chinese government. In the dream, he had been doing research of a sort that manipulated quanta matter such that it could resonate differently. One such manipulation could force quanta to exist simultaneously on more than one place, which created macrocosmic effects somewhat akin to freezing time.
What this boiled down to was that a person could create a temporal stasis but would be powerless to stop the strange quanta from expanding and converting others to strange status. This would essentially be an infinitely recurring time bomb that would eventually encase the entire Earth in stasis.
The dream ended badly. The Chinese government found him, but not in time to stop the detonation of the time bomb. As I recall, Wuhan froze entirely but the implication was the rest of the world would follow before long.
To contribute to the DM's Vault, send your ideas to Joel@fraternityofshadows.com