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Time Travel in RPGs: Impossible or Merely Tricky?

Posted By Scott Martin On August 10, 2012 @ 1:00 am In GMing Advice | 14 Comments

I’m looking around and planning interesting ideas for new campaign pitches. Many of the ideas fit one common theme… but there’s another that keeps creeping in the side. I love the idea of time travel adventures.

Photo credit: PatriciaEGreen from morguefile.com

Does the complexity introduced by time travel doom any game? We experienced an increase in complexity, in our Time Preservers game–while part of the adjustment was to the system, another part was the complexity of plotting in time travel. It pays to be clear about your setting or system’s limit on time travel. In fact… let’s break it down a bit.

Affecting the Past

In almost every movie, book, or TV show about time travel, the limits on affecting the past are often laid out early. In many ways it’s how much you can alter the past that defines “how time travel focused” your game is.

  • Immutable Past: The past can’t be changed is often intriguing in a novel, and introduces interesting ideas like time-travel tourism. Unfortunately, these ideas are often at a remove–why play a character who goes to the past to watch it, when you can play a character from that past (to live it)?
  • Limited Access Past: Often the “time travel” is inadvertent–you get sucked into the past as a consequence of falling into a black hole, or an enemy banishes you to the future. If your destination’s not under your control, a lot of the complexity of time travel doesn’t develop–you probably won’t be able to really alter your character’s past, at least not consistently. Old Star Trek episodes where they find themselves trapped in various historical situations are often similar to this, as is Sliders, or the old TV show Voyagers.
  • One Universe, protected by paradox: In this world, altering the past is possible but insanely dangerous. Characters should carefully research even the slightest alteration; failure to do so can have far reaching, unexpected consequences. The universe itself prevents your efforts, somehow. Connie Willis’s Fire Watch universe is an exemplar of this (if it isn’t actually Immutable). Mage: the Ascension makes travel to the past difficult–and suggests that any but the most light-footed visit shreds the offending mage in the process.
  • Inertial/Dense Universe: These universes are strongly biased towards reverting to history as we know it. Altering the past in small ways is easy, but time travelers tend not to have large or long lasting influence. This is common in fiction, as a way to explain how time traveler’s minor actions don’t undo everything.
  • Flexible Universe: What you do in the past matters; if your book of the next century’s gambling results is plucked from the trash, you might wind up in Biff’s world. Or if you smuggle AK-47s back to the civil war, you might preserve the confederacy. This style is almost limitless–fascinating, interesting–and often very complicated to GM. What does happen to the 20th century if Hitler dies young? Chrononauts is a fun take on this.
  • Many Universes: Change what you want. Anything you do creates (or moves you to) an alternate universe containing that change. Go ahead and nab dinosaurs and release them in 1512, just to see what happens.

An independent but related dial that you can twist in creating a time travel rich setting are destination restrictions. While the above are all about “what can you do in the past”, destination limits reduce the GM’s overhead a bit, by limited when you can go to. Some common limits are listed below.

  • Characters can only travel within their own lifetime.
  • Characters can only travel back as far as the invention of time travel
  • Characters can only visit a time once. (Or can only visit a specific time as a time traveler once.)
  • Only one time traveler can ever visit a moment.
  • Only information can travel backward, not people. (Props to Thrice upon a time for that interesting twist.)
  • Characters can only travel in time, not space.
  • Characters can control the destination time, but not location.
  • Time travel requires continuous expenditure to prevent a character from “springing back” to the present.
  • Time travel has side effects, like rapid degeneration.
  • You can only travel forward in time

Nice categories. Now what?

Neither category was meant to be exhaustive–you can come up with more interesting examples for each category. Books alone offer many interesting ideas and combinations of ability to affect the past and destination limitations.

Photo credit: beglib from morguefile.com

If the game you’re designing involves time travel, you should first decide on how much the campaign revolves around it. For a humorous game, getting to pop back exactly one hour to give yourself advice makes for a fun TV show style plot–interesting, but not something requiring a grand theory of time. (Hopefully, the one-liners are worlds better after the character has an hour to think them up!) Similarly, if time travel tops out at “Time Stop”, a power only the greatest wizards can control, an it just lets them get a superior version of haste… then it’s not the focus of the game. You can worry about its exact effects once your wizard starts playing with that power, fifty sessions from now.

It’s very easy for Time Travel to take over a game, even if it’s intended as a minor accent to a game offering lots of changes. Being unable to undo mistakes often trumps super science and incredible sorceries–if not the first time, on rematch.

Pay careful attention to the limits and make sure that your players know how flexible the universe is. You don’t want them getting frustrated by having WWII run on schedule even after they remove Hitler–or get him into art school.

Games about Time Travel

I haven’t played in a system focused on time travel, though I’ve seen a few in stores. They’re always interesting to flip through… in fact Time and Temp sounded interesting enough that I picked it up. Who could resist Office Space + Time’s Fix-it People?

C┬║NTINUUM: Roleplaying in The Yet, looked interesting, but I wasn’t considering a time travel game when I flipped through it. The time battle mechanic seemed like a very interesting way to handle all of those “I left it for myself, later” coincidences. Plus it slowly rolls out the span–the times that a character can visit–so the GM doesn’t have to be ready for anywhen on day 1.

Time Travel and You

Has anyone run an interesting time travel game? Care to share advice and pitfalls? I’d love to hear about how you overcame some of time travel’s challenges–did you have to incorporate strict limits? Did you spawn multitudes of parallel universes?

People had fun time travel ideas in New Year, New Game. How has your game gone? What type of special prep are you doing for a time travel game?

I look forward to hearing about time travel in your games… maybe even before the article goes live!

About  Scott Martin

Scott is an engineer turned gnome and game store owner. He lies awake at night building intriguing worlds and plotting your character's demise.




14 Comments (Open | Close)

14 Comments To "Time Travel in RPGs: Impossible or Merely Tricky?"

#1 Comment By Ian Houlihan On August 10, 2012 @ 6:38 am

As horrible as this sounds, I did a time travel series of adventures in a Star Wars RPG campaign that worked really well. The main villain of the plot was a Dark Jedi that the PCs rescued from an evil tyrant (they didn’t know he was a bad guy at the time because he was frozen in a stasis chamber). The Dark Jedi was called Nar Tomar (No Tomorrow) and there was no explanation as to who froze him or why. When woken up, he took a bitter disliking to the PCs for some reason, escaped and started making a device to send him back in time to rectify the situation. The PCs found an ancient artefact which they established came from a planet called U’Tan (named after one of the PCs) an dso decided to travel there. The artefact created a bubble around the ship which protected the PCs from when Nar Tomar activated his artefact and changed time. In a nut-shell, the PCs used the Sith artefact to travel back in time to where the Nar was, defeated him and, you guessed it, had him frozen in a stasis chamber, thus rectifying the time line. The PCs then returned to their time, and destroyed the Sith artefact to prevent any further tampering.

#2 Comment By shortymonster On August 10, 2012 @ 8:17 am

Many moons ago, I tried my hand at a time travel adventure in a Deadlands campaign. I have to note that this was some time before Hell on earth was ever mentioned as a new campaign world.

The posse had made some monumental cock up due to the interference of an NPC named Ash. Long story short, they really shouldn’t have trusted anyone with the last name ‘Toreth’. The problem they created was so extreme, people with the know how dragged them forwards through time to show them the wasted earth they had created through their actions. Again, this was before I had ever heard of HoE.

They then had to go back just a bit further to change the course of their time line without it being known to the past versions of themselves. The players did great, but I was very careful indeed to lay out the consequences of screwing around with the time line to keep them focused and not give myself any huge continuity problems to work with. I honestly don’t think I have it in me to run an actual campaign based around temporal travel, as it would make my head meat hurt…

#3 Comment By Scott Martin On August 10, 2012 @ 8:31 am

That doesn’t sound terrible at all! Did you suggest tossing him in the stasis chamber, or did your players come up with that themselves?

#4 Comment By Scott Martin On August 10, 2012 @ 8:35 am

That sounds like an interesting scenario–and, I suspect, a smart way to avoid being overwhelmed by temporal travel.

#5 Comment By Riklurt On August 10, 2012 @ 8:05 pm

I once ran a mini-campaign of the “Limited Access Past” variety, where the idea was pretty simple. Each time the PCs confronted the bad guy – an ageless immortal creature – they were shunted back in time and had to face it again in an earlier era. My plan was that eventually they would go back to its origin, learn its fatal weakness, and travel back to their own time to defeat it.

That didn’t happen. The game started in modern times, and the very first thing that happened was that the characters instantly killed him. A sneak attack to the neck in conjunction with some truly crazy die rolls meant it died before it could even do anything. I didn’t expect it, but sent the characters back in time anyway because they had technically confronted it – and now the game suddenly got a completely different tone. Now the PCs knew for sure that the monster would eventually die. Suddenly it became all about returning to their own time, instead, which required them to seek out the monster solely for the purpose of time traveling. When they eventually made it back to the creation of the creature, I modified the story so that they were responsible for it – thus running the entire campaign backwards! It began with the bad guys’ death and ended with his rise to power, all at the hands of the PCs.

All in all it worked out pretty well. I relied on two things to keep from snarling the continuum too much: Firstly, each time the PCs traveled back in time they also traveled in space. They were never at the same location in two different times, which greatly reduced the amount of contradictory things they could accomplish (like leaving items for themselves to find or things like that). Second, the players worked with me. I plainly informed them that I wouldn’t allow the monster to die twice, and had their characters come to that realization. So from there on, they simply never tried. That latter part is important, I think – if the players are aware of the problems and don’t go out of their way to cause them, you save a lot of headaches.

#6 Comment By Knight of Roses On August 10, 2012 @ 9:28 pm

The only time I used time travel was in a superheroic campaign and that is already a genre with rubber science. The heroes had to travel back in time and prevent a supervillain from altering the course of WW2 so that the Axis won. So, if the heroes won, the timeline was . . . just like it was. Worked out perfectly.

#7 Comment By shortymonster On August 13, 2012 @ 3:09 am

The entire thing was done in only three sessions and then time travel was never mentioned again. Mainly because the characters would almost certainly be thought of as being a bit shy in the mental facility area…

#8 Comment By Scott Martin On August 13, 2012 @ 10:34 am

That sounds like a pretty compelling thread–even with you having to make the adjustment on the fly!

Getting your players to clearly understand the limits, and embrace them, really saves a lot of headaches. I’m glad it worked so well for you.

#9 Comment By Scott Martin On August 13, 2012 @ 10:36 am

I do like “time’s fix-it men” as a concept. Keeping things on track is rewarding–and gets player buy-in that they’re trying not to disrupt things, since that’s how you defined success.

#10 Comment By BryanB On August 15, 2012 @ 9:55 am

I vote for tricky instead of impossible.

If you disagree with that, I will go back in time over and over again and keep changing the answer until everyone agrees with me. :)

Time Preservers would have run more smoothly if we had brainstormed the specfic limitations and/or risks with time traveling and how it could be utilized.

Our game certainly suffered a bit from the players adopting the Rinse and Repeat Tactic or, “That didn’t work like we wanted, so let’s just go back in time a few minutes before things went badly and try it again!”

Limitations and restrictions on time travel of some kind will certainly cut down on using time travel itself as a sort of primary plot solution device to any and all challenges faced in the game.

#11 Comment By Scott Martin On August 15, 2012 @ 10:40 am

Yes, that was exactly my experience. A slightly more concrete definition might have smoothed things a but, but it was a fun game that we all remember fondly. While tweaks to the specifics (like clear limitations) might make it easier, it was a great experience even with our fumbling.

#12 Comment By wjohnson On August 15, 2012 @ 11:39 am

One option that I think would be interesting is a bit of a tribute to the Amber series, while being a variant of the time fix-it men:

The players understand that their timeline has been fouled and must attempt to repair it. However, reality is a multiple universe model of existence. With each mistake they make, new universes are created. With every correction, universes collapse.

Corrections and mistakes can have real ramifications as reality becomes more or less stable. The PC’s may even find that alternate versions of themselves are working against them as they attempt to make their own timeline the prime.

#13 Comment By BryanB On August 15, 2012 @ 3:28 pm

It was certainly a TV show production that I would have watched. We must have been doing something right. :)

#14 Comment By ggodo On August 16, 2012 @ 11:35 am

I had my Time Police bump into a recurring villain who wasn’t experiencing their adventures in the same linear order. As an escape clause my Carmen San Diego rip off could timetravel without the macguffin, allowing her to escape capture a couple times. They also ran into her after she had served her sentence in Time Jail, more than a little bitter that they left her in an accelerated time box.I loved that campaign so much. I miss it a bit.


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