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.
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.
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?
CºNTINUUM: 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!