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The protagonist has the ability to reset themselves back to a place in time a limited amount of times. With that said, what other limitations can I place on the protagonist, so they are not consistently abusing the power as an answer to everything or a get out of jail free card that consistently deescalates the stakes I am trying to build in the story? If possible, I would like one of the limitations to in some way rely on the protagonist having to trust others since it would help in escalating conflicts and character dynamics. Thanks for your help.

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    $\begingroup$ They can entangle molecules of themselves with their past selves. ;D $\endgroup$ – user6760 Jun 21 at 9:47
  • $\begingroup$ Hello @stealth and welcome to worldbuilding.SE. Please rake the tour and have a look into the help center. $\endgroup$ – Charisturcear Jun 21 at 9:57
  • $\begingroup$ The X-Men House of X/Powers of X storyline revolved around someone with that ability. $\endgroup$ – Astrid_Redfern Jun 21 at 19:31
  • $\begingroup$ You have to tell us how you avoid the paradox of meeting yourself works in your story. This will determine whether or not they can get out of jail free. Also we need to know how much time passes in the present while they are away. Do they return to the same instant and the same place when they return. When they spend an amount of time in the past does an equal amount of time pass in the present? All of these facts impinge on a plausible answer. $\endgroup$ – chasly - reinstate Monica Jun 22 at 10:36
  • $\begingroup$ Maybe the protagonist can exhaust his power, and must wait for it to recharge? $\endgroup$ – alexgbelov Jun 22 at 14:21

18 Answers 18

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The Character is Taken Back to a Spot in His/Her History

In Edge of Tomorrow the character is set back to the first day of enlistment, several days away from where most of the action is. In Groundhog Day the character is sent back to bed at the beginning of the morning. In either event, the character has to re-win all the little victories between; and can find that tether a pain as the real action in the past is discovered to be happening more distant geographically (and socially in Edge of Tomorrow) from where the character is tethered.

The Future is Not Deterministic

Could be the butterfly effect, chaos theory, or a fundamentally quantum universe that works in probabilities, instead of certainties. Whatever the reason, each pass back through the past is not exactly the same: you might get into a car accident that you didn't run into last time, catch a stray bullet wading through the firefight, those super-lucky situations the first time might not play out exactly the same. In 'Primer' the world is deterministic, but interference of other time travelers subtly and grossly changes things.

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  • $\begingroup$ It's not just quantum effects; your actions in themselves change the future. Consider the example of a time-traveller arriving in 1939 wanting to help the Allies, succeeds in making them believe s/he is from the future, and has arrived having intensively studied World War 2. That helps initially since the Allies know what the Germans are going to do, but the very act changes what the Germans are going to do. Suppose the surprise advance through the Ardennes is stopped in 1940. Almost everything the traveller knows after that point is now useless. $\endgroup$ – Keith Morrison Jun 24 at 17:35
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Possible limitations for the resetting-ability:

Destination limited to special points
The protagonist can't use his ability to jump back to any point in time, there are some restrictions. For example it has to be any midnight.

Startingpoint limited to special points
The protagonist can't use his ability to jump back from any point in time, there are some restrictions. For example it has to be midnight to jump.

Distance is fixed
The protagonist can just jump a fixed amount of time back into time. For example it have to be exactly 30 hours.

Range is fixed
The protagonist can"t jump as he pleases, he has to be within a limited distance (for example 15 meters) from that point he was at the time he wants to jump back to.

Recharge time
Between two jumps the protagonist has to wait a fixed time at least (for example 5 hours) before he can jump a second time.

Jumping needs time itself
Before jumping back in time, the protagonist has to 'channel the energies' (or anything equivalent) so he has to enter a meditation-like state what makes him vulnerable (if he doesn't have someone who can guard him).

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Time divergence and human error.

Lets say you get into a fight and someone cuts your arm off because you are a worse fighter than your opponent. So the next time you know what your opponent will do! Unfortunately your opponent will not know what you will do, so your opponent will simply react to what you are doing. You wont return to the exact same spot at the start of the fight, you wont make the same moves, and this time around your arm might be cut off even sooner as you are focussed on that one blow that will come.

And this will happen continuously. If you've ever done Martial Arts or Fema or whatever then you've already done this exact scenario a million times: you get ready to do one particular move, your opponent does his attack and you do the move. Each time you reset by walking back to your starting positions so you get better at it. Sometimes, oftentimes even, you'll make mistakes even though you know exactly what is going to happen, because each time the details are different.

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It's not a reset, it's a recall.

Instead of their power letting them say "I will now send my consciousness back in time by 3 hours", it instead lets them say "In 3 hours, my consciousness will be sent back to now". They can't cancel it, and they can't set a new reset point until their memories have been sent back, in either timeline.

When their memories are recalled, they also get a number of mental conditions (e.g. tiredness/mental fatigue) recalled with it. This is in some ways an advantage - your character can "burn" their recall to get most of the benefits of a good sleep - but also a disadvantage - your character can find that they suddenly really need a sleep. No one knows what the effect of dying would be on their mental state, but rumours persist that people with this ability have been known to fall into unexplained comas...

Because the recall can't be cancelled or aborted, this means anything that required the character's surprise or ignorance to occur, or just pure luck, may not work out the same way. It also means that they may have to suffer through undesirable events that they are unable to prevent... twice.

The final question is, of course, whether the time-travel is real, or is it just an elaborate simulation which the ability places into their head. And, if so, is there anything immune to its predictive abilities which could blindside the character.

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The TV-Show "Rick and Morty" did something similar recently in "The Vat of Acid Episode". It seemed to be a reset device as you suggest, but since the main protagonist considers himself to be above needing time travel, it wasn't really a reset divice.

Instead the device transports the users consciousness into one of the many parallel universes. It just needs to find one of the infinite universes out of the set of infinite universes that is similar enough to the users original universe and currently at the exact moment in time where the quicksave was made. Upon reset or death the user transfers their consciousness to another themself in that universe.

So were does this leave us? Well your device could do the same. It transports your protagonists consciousness to parallel universe where he just stepped into the device.

This it turn, offers a lot of plot and character development potential. Say your protagonist initally believes that the device is in fact a time maschine. A bit of foreshadowing after he used it first could hint at the fact that he has really shunted between realities instead of traveled back in time.

Then, maybe even in a later story it is revealed to them what the device really does. That they killed many other versions of themselves. That they saved noone with the device but instead just abandoned everyone they knew and loved originally and then again and again everyone the version of themself they murdered coming into this reality knew and loved. Well, if they saved people they could at least tell themself that they saved one of the infinite versions of this person, which otherwise would have died or been saved from their fate in that moment an infinite amount of times in an infinite number of universes.

Thus the cost and constraint on using the device is phylisophical in nature. The protagonist knows that any use of the device will only benefit themself and even altruistic uses of the device mean committing murder and overtaking someone's life. Thus there is the guilt about the many people they killed and the fact that using the device benefits only themself.

Fun Fact: All this means that there are infinity many versions of your protagonist currently killing and assimilating the lifes of infinite versions of themselves.

PS: This has also the nifty benefit that you don't have to worry about time travel paradoxes. Although this benefit comes at a slightly gruesome cost.

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  • $\begingroup$ The Rick & Morty device didn’t “transport the user’s consciousness”, it transported the user itself and killed the version that lived on the target universe. $\endgroup$ – user137369 Jun 24 at 1:48
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Alright, so first off go lookup the plot of Avengers Endgame and SOMA. I’ll wait here....

Alright, here we go.

So in Endgame, the characters are able to travel through time quite freely, (as long as they have fuel to do so) BUT, any changes they make to the past will create a new timeline instead of changing the one they are in. This is because when you travel back in time, the “future” becomes your past, and you cannot change your past by doing something different in the present. Seriously watch the scene where professor Hulk explains this because it’s one of the best ways I’ve ever seen anything handle time travel.

Now, as for SOMA, it doesn’t deal with time travel but rather the transfer of consciousness. In the game, whenever someone “transfers” their mind to a new body what happens is that a copy of their mind is created and uploaded to the new body, while their current mind remains with their old body. It raises all kinds of moral quandaries and metaphysical questions and really has some excellent ideas and terrifying implications.


How can we apply this to your story? Excellent question I’m glad you asked. What if your character can’t send himself/herself back in time per say, but rather they can send memories and knowledge back in time to their past self. From here, you could make it so that any changes that the past self makes will cause an entirely new timeline to form. This bypasses those pesky time travel paradoxes that the internet likes to point out. In addition, this prevents time travel from being an instant reset button because your current character still has to deal with his/her timeline, but they’ve just given a version of themselves from the past the chance to do better. This also opens up lots of narrative possibilities, such as exploring the consequences of foreknowledge of events, how small changes can have far reaching and often unpredictable results, and if your character can use this form of “time travel” in both directions, it can allow you to explore the relationships between different versions of the same character. Endless possibilities!

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Your protagonist's biology doesn't reset.

This means that if they wipe out on a motorcycle because of loose gravel on the road and break their arm, going back in time 2 minutes before the crash will lead them to "spawn" on their motorcycle with a broken arm. It keeps them from using it as an injury-avoidance technique.

It also means they keep aging! If you follow your protagonist through their childhood or teen years that can have a huge effect. If they abuse it, someone will eventually notice "hey, this 9 year old kid looks like he's 12!". It can also be a deterrent, because many children wish to be older for activities like driving, legally drinking, etc.

It also puts limits on how far back they can go back and be "passable" as their past self. Some things are reversible: if they've gained weight they would have to lose it, if they started showing some white/grey hairs they would have to dye them etc. But some things are not reversible, there's usually noticeable changes between a person in their 50's and that same person when they were in their 30's.

It would shorten their lifespan relative to everyone else. For small jumps back in time (a week or two, once a year) it won't have a huge effect, but if your protagonist makes a habit of going back in time too much they will age faster and might not get to enjoy seeing some of the pleasures in life, such as seeing their grandchildren grow.

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Two Suggestions drawing inspiration from Re: Zero - Starting Life in Another World and Steins Gate (both great stories involving very similar premises)

Re: Zero - Starting Life in Another World

Re: Zero - Starting Life in Another World is a Light Novel/Anime you could take inspiration from. The protagonist has a similar power with extremely large drawbacks. Quick Summary:

  1. Protagonist (involuntarily) resets whenever he dies.
  2. Dying is extremely unpleasant.
  3. Protagonist can't control the save point at all.
  4. Protagonist physically can't tell anyone about this power.

Restriction (1) is the most unique feature of this story. You could replace it with any other trigger you like, as long as it is involuntary, and is tied to an action that is unpleasant for the protagonist.

Restriction (2) is taken very seriously by the story: no matter how badly things go for the protagonist (short of death obviously), he has chosen to voluntarily die in order to reset only once, in order to undo the death of a close friend--no other method of revival exists in this universe, at least so far. Nothing else was sufficient motivation to voluntarily die, despite several very negative experiences such as his love interest and self-professed reason for existing breaking things off with him and other events with similar emotional impact. He would rather regain trust and try to win her back over over the following days/weeks than reset to wipe out the events of the last day. You need to take the psychological cost similarly seriously or readers will stop taking this cost seriously as well.

Restriction (3) is something you can decide to adopt or not based on whether it fits your story.

Restriction (4) --oddly enough-- actually increases the trust required between him and his companions for him to effectively leverage his ability. They have no idea he has foreknowledge, and he can't present any evidence to convince them. The plot sometimes dictates that he has to resolve multiple problems at the same time or near the same time in different places... He has to trust his companions to help him, because he physically can't resolve it all on his own, without being able to be open and honest about why. Saying "Do XYZ, Just trust me" only works if you are super close and have a great relationship with someone.

Steins Gate

Steins Gate is a visual novel/anime where the protagonist is a scientist with the ability to send information back in time (including directly to his old self's brain, effectively time jumping backwards). It's much more sciency and less magical, which may or may not be what you want. There are a couple of interesting concepts that restrict his ability to exploit this to obtain whatever his heart desires:

  1. Different timelines are woven together (think like you're following a single fiber in a rope. Even if you switch fibers, you're going to stay parrallel to the original fiber no matter how long you follow the new fiber) in a way which means "nearby" timelines all lead to similar outcomes, even if (superficially) there are large differences between them. A kind of anti-butterfly effect if you will, where nothing you do actually matters. Protagonist abuses this to make things better and better for him and his friends without radically affecting the world. Great!
  2. It is possible to achieve radically different outcomes in only certain circumstances. To continue the rope analogy, imagine that you're following a rope fiber, and can only jump to other rope fibers that are in physical contact with that rope fiber. Usually that's another rope fiber within the same rope, but in the case where two ropes are laying across each other, you can actually make huge changes by jumping to a fiber in another rope. The drawback is that not every fiber in your current rope touches every fiber in the new rope. You may be forced to make lots of small tweaks you don't like in order to set yourself up to make the big jump you want to make. (This is actually the main problem facing the Steins;Gate protagonist, he has to undo all the positive things he's done for himself and his friends in order to get back to a place where he can achieve an important outcome).
  3. The limitation on how far back he can send information is based on biochemistry: Humans change over time. Our brain is continuously changing (not just by storing new memories and such, but also in response to long term trends in emotions: a depressed person's brain looks very different from a health brain). In order to do anything productive with a "jump back", you need your current memories. Writing your current memories onto your brain from 15 seconds ago is fine; they're so close physically (biologically and chemically) that they're effectively 100% compatible. 5 days ago is starting to get iffy, and 2 weeks ago is right out (the physical structure is too different). At best you get nonsense you can't make sense of instead of accurate memores, a middle outcome is that the new memories write successfully but wipe out something important--either an emotional feature or other memory--and at worst you just break your brain completely.

Points (1) and (2) only really work together, and also get really handwavey. It only works in Steins;Gate because of the strength of the writing outside these restrictions, it could easily be used to justify a lot of BS that would lose you the readers' trust.

Restriction (3) is the really interesting one for you. It justifies a physical limit on how far back you can go: past brain has to be sufficiently physically similar. Protagonist can really push the envelope if there's a reason worth the risk, and it allows you to write in some really interesting consequences if he does.

Most importantly though, is the interaction with trust. You can easily say it is plausible to safely go farther back if you write less data... but that means that you can't take all your memories with you/have perfect foreknowledge anymore. If you want to take a lot of data far back, you need to split it among multiple people. The further you want to go, the more people you need to trust. Because of the inherent risk in time travel (even short jumps aren't totally risk free from side effects on your brain: your true self), there's an easy explanation why the protagonist could not just find 1000 people to jump as far back as he wants all the time. Even risks he's fine taking for himself he may not be ok making his friends take, and he's also got to trust the ones he takes back as much as they trust him.

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    $\begingroup$ " he has not chosen to voluntarily die in order to reset even once". At the end of episode 7 of the anime Subaru jumps off a cliff in order to reset and do things differently. $\endgroup$ – Barry Haworth Jun 24 at 4:55
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the correction; it's been a bit since I watched it! I've updated the answer to include that detail. $\endgroup$ – stevenjackson121 Jun 24 at 13:49
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    $\begingroup$ Not a problem. I thought I remembered the "jumping off a cliff" bit, but I had to check the episode synopses on Wikipedia to confirm which episode. $\endgroup$ – Barry Haworth Jun 25 at 22:57
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    $\begingroup$ Re: Zero is a fascinating series and as you point out a lot of the story revolves around how Subaru establishes trust with the people he is with. He cannot tell them what he know or how he knows it, and if he achieves a level of trust in one iteration he has to establish it over again if he dies and gets reset. The writers are very clever in the way that unfolds. $\endgroup$ – Barry Haworth Jun 25 at 23:00
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The protagonist does not reset, they get reset

To prevent the protagonist from resetting at will you could make it so that instead of resetting time themself they can allow someone else to reset time (and only the other person keeps their memories). You could further restrict the number of uses by only allowing the protagonist to give someone the ability to reset once. Perhaps with further tension derived from what actually happens if someone resets twice.

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Time scars.

The first time, you reset, it's easy. The second gets harder. The third, harder yet.

No, this doesn't involve the trust issue, unless perhaps the character has to learn to trust the people who figure out the problem.

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Limitation 1: This is not a get out of death free card! Using this power takes concentration and time. If they get shot they will not have that time.

Limitation 2: There is a time limit. They can only go (say) one hour back. They can't go around this by multiple jumps. If they have seen some version of ten o'clock, they will never be able to go back before nine o'clock.

Limitation 3: Pain. After returning to the past, they will collapse from severe headache. The time limit can be determined by how much pain they can tolerate. So, if it is really really important, they can push it a few more minutes, but at a terrible cost.

This is perhaps the part where trusting others comes in. If going back one hour makes them an invalid for an hour or more, it will be very hard for them to get anything done. Instead they go back, gasp a few words to a helper who is the one to actually use the future knowledge.

Limitation 4: Keeping things straight. They have problems keeping their memory straight. What have actually happened, and what has unhappened?

Limitation 5: Random events go differently. If they return to before the lottery is draw, the numbers will be different.

Limitation 6: They aren't just resetting themselves. They are resetting the universe, and that has some consequences. Maybe the bad guys can detect it and track it? At this point all they really want to do is collapse in the nearest bed and recover. They need helpers to make sure they get away from the bad guys.

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  • $\begingroup$ Something like limitation 1 happens in the Murray Leinster short story, "Time to Die". In that one a criminal on death row uses a meditation technique to send his consciousness back in time to alter the circumstances of the crime. This done his consciousness returns to the present moment (he cannot remain in the past), only to discover that he is still on death row. He makes a second attempt while being taken to execution but is unable to achieve the necessary mental state, and is executed. $\endgroup$ – Barry Haworth Jun 24 at 5:03
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Just some ideas :

  1. An entity that guards the flow of time / fate, like if someone can alter fate, depending on how huge the effect, it might be ignored, once or twice, but repeated use, the user might feel something or get some kind of warning, until they meet with the entity itself the rest is up to your imagination.
  2. The protagonist think the only one stepping back through time is his/her unique power, little did the protagonist know, someone or something, has it too and silently judging his character in each repetition that he did.
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    $\begingroup$ +1. Using the power draws the attention of the ancient Kraken of Space and Time. $\endgroup$ – Michael Jun 22 at 16:48
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Rick and Morty had a good limitation.

Essentially you had to explicitly press a remote designating the destination, and could only travel to that destination (unless you designated a new one).

this effectively creates three zones of time, the past which is set, the time between the present and destination point, and the future.

(don't forget about the remote for years, and accidentally hit the go bad in time button).

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This is probably too out-of-the-box but ... they are limited by the conservation of information. If they take information back with them, they must give up another memory to make room for it - and as the process is not 100% efficient, the memory must be of greater scale than what they want to take back.

They can also send information back in other people's minds if they volunteer to give up a memory significant enough to make room for it.

If they use the ability on themselves too often, they will end up losing so much of their memory that they lose their sense of identity. If they use it on other people, the other person has to agree to a sacrifice of some important memory and coping with the sudden and unexpected change in their own mind when the information arrives from a possible future, and then convince the protagonist of the validity of their information.

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Have time travel use something that the protagonist must gain

Maybe instead of having a literal number of uses of time travel left (ex. The Girl Who Leapt Through Time), have it use up some object of importance that the protagonist must gain first throughout the story.

For example in the game Life is Strange, the protagonist can only rewind time by using a photograph. In addition, the destination is limited to the time and place the photograph was taken.

As a spitball idea, since you want to link it to trusting others, perhaps have time travel only work if know of a memory that somebody else experienced. First, the protagonist needs to get somebody else to share whatever memory they experienced. Second, the memory they share has to be true. Third, using the memory won't work if they lied to the protagonist about it.

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Imperfect reset

What psychological effects will there be from experiencing the same time twice? The more time folds in on itself the more the mind does too. We're only meant for time to flow through us once, doing so more taxes the brain. The more frequently its used without rest (like in times of desperation) expect symptoms of PTSD, psychosis, hearing voices, seeing things. The madman on the corner that raves about how he used to be able to travel back in time, well he may just have been right. Time doesn't belong to him anymore, though.

Something always gets worse

Alternatively, it could be that jumping between your own timelines doesn't always improve things. You may improve your immediate situation, but the universe doesn't like being taken for granted. This affront to the natural order is punished, for the universe doesn't like being exploited. You may go back in time, but you'll find that this time around something is sure to be worse off. You may have saved the damsel in distress, but a town burned down, killing a dozen innocent people. Can your protagonist live with this? If you push fate, fate pushes back.

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Simple power requirements are an obvious limitation. It takes a lot of magic to use and takes a lot longer to recharge what's used than the size of the jump. Eg. Your character might have enough magic for a maximum jump of 12 hours, but it takes two days to recharge if not using any magic, and they'll probably be using it for other things, thus extending the recharge time.

Another obvious limitation would be that the spell is difficult to cast. Only those willing to spend a lot of time learning magic would develop the necessary skill to be able to cast the jump-back spell.

Combining the two, a weak-but-skilled mage might be able to manage a 30-minute jump and would spend the next couple of days recharging afterwards (so you can bet they'd make it count), while a powerful-but-untrained one wouldn't be able to cast it at all, and the best and most-powerful in the world might not be able to manage more than a day's jump and still needs a week to recover afterwards.

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Ripples in Space-Time

We think of space-time as a sort of fabric with indentations where mass is, the gravity well. What if every time somebody time travelled, they create a ripple both at their origin point and their destination point.

As a visual reference, it is akin to taking a pebble out of water in one place and dropping it back into the water in another place. Both incidents create ripples that will fade in time, but disturb the surface while they do so.

The Protagonist's power can compensate for some of these ripples, meaning that some repeat trips in a short period can be acceptable, but once the ripples get too large, unwelcome effects of using their reset powers can happen. Mostly involving jumping to an unintended point in space/time due to interference, but the consequences are yours to explore.

The idea here is to limit the number of times a rest can happen in one area, creating a tension in that a problem has to be solved in a limited number of tries. That number may not be constant if they have been spamming the reset power to solve the previous problem.

Self-Awareness

Given that your powers deal with time, and the magic tag is there, another option is that your temporal reset power is at least somewhat aware. It might not be aware to the level of a person, but it is aware enough to know if the protagonist is abusing it. It is also aware enough to know that just because a specific jump is what the protagonist wants, it is not always what they need to do what they want to do.

It is because of the inherent unpredictability of this power that the protagonist has to learn to trust others. This goes double if they end up in a situation where their powers have done something especially unpredictable to them and they have to figure out why it happened.

While this restriction is a bit more arbitrary than a hard limit, it could work if the awareness of the ability is consistent.

Galaxy Brain Protagonist

The unwritten assumption is that the protagonist will attempt to abuse their powers in order to solve the plot. It is not an unreasonable assumption, and it is likely what a lot of us would do at least once.

But what if the world gave your protagonist these power exactly because they would not abuse them? Or conversely, they did this cycle of abuse once and it horribly backfired on them, making the protagonist vow to themself to never do that again. A third option is that the protagonist has zero idea what the potential consequenses of their powers are because they do not know how they work and as such do not want to use them save in the case of a dire emergency because they have watched one too many time travel movies to know all the bad things that could happen to them when travelling through time carelessly.

Regardless of the underlying reason for it, the result is that the protagonist just doesn't want to do that time loop abuse thing. It is a personal decision that they stick to, though the temptation to do so will always be there.

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