Time Travel Blues

Today, I’m going to talk about why things like the Sword of Yesterday from Gods of the Fall will never see the light of day in any game I run. Time travel is one of the worst in-game things a GM can do to themselves, even more when it turns out to be unrestricted time travel that can potentially change the course of history.

Let’s start by making a distinction here: I’m specifically referring to forms of time travel that permit ventures into the past with the power to change things. Restricted or not, this is an absolute headache for a GM. It doesn’t matter how carefully you plan things out, your players will find a way to change something you failed to anticipate, and this will make your life harder than it should. Games deliberately set before significant eents with the knowledge that the major events can’t be changed are different; games where fact-finding missions into the past are possible but alterations aren’t are different. One-way time travel is different.

Let’s take something relatively simple; you want to run a game with three or four linked points in time, where the idea is that the players need to fix broken events in the past to save their current time or a future point in time. Intervention is a given, and it’s Chrono Trigger style era-hopping. You plan out the plot, which will lead players between the different eras after those responsible for all the dangers, with a final culmination in some extratemporal zone for the fate of Time itself.

You will think you’ve covered your bases, that you know your players, and that you can keep things rolling along the rough course of your plot without too much trouble. You’ll have planned for the troublemaker in the group trying to kidnap the paladin’s grandmother before she gets married, and for the wizard trying to set himself up as a god with the hunter-gatherers of the deep past. They head into the past… And the next thing you know the ranger is trying to teach ancients who barely know about fire how to make recurve bows and the cleric is preaching the True God of the Sun to the local tribes when nothing but animism should exist for the next ten thousand years.

And then the rogue decides to murder the chieftan they’re all there to help save their own bloodlines and tries to take his place. Now, even if you have a plan in place for “They change things that threaten their own bloodline and it doesn’t erase them from existence”, you have to figure out the result of having a tribe of sun-worshippers with a huge technological edge potentially being led by time-traveling adventurers with an even greater tech edge.

This is the rub of why I don’t do time travel games. It isn’t the problem of players doing unexpected things; it’s the stupid amount of work them changing things produces as you have to adjust each future era for what the players have done in the past. Even if time ‘damps out’ changes – which can take away player agency in a hurry and is a crime to be avoided – you’ll eventually get all kinds of fascinating schemes to manipulate time coming up. A favorite is when players get wealthy, go back to before their birth, and try to arrange for their younger selves to eventually get a treasure trove well ahead of when they got anything even remotely close.

So the question becomes if I think all time travel games are bad because of the work it entails. The answer? No, not all of them. Most, yes, because of the problems I list. A few, though, can be workable.

Specific events can be added to nearly any game where a method of time travel can be devised; the caveat is that the method is unstable, and players get to choose between returning to their own time quickly or being stranded in the past. If they choose to remain in the past, you can keep the game going and not have to care about the effects, because their very existence means all their future knowledge can quickly become useless as they act on it.

Two-party campaigns are a weasel around time travel; the group has two different sets of characters, with one set in the past and one set in the future. You play them out alternately, with the past group going through an area first, and the future group following their trail. This allows GMs to set up many of the effects of “We were here in the past!” without any major struggle to compensate for players deciding to hare wildly off-course and do outlandish things. Their past-party is literally already part of history, and has no knowledge of the future.

Limited games come in two flavors: limited scope, where the time travel is split into such far-flung eras that nothing can reliably have an impact across the gulf of time and the players themselves are the method of interaction between the different time periods, and limited duration; a one-to-three session campaign can cut loose with the wildest temporal nonsense, because the GM will never have to worry about anything beyond the immediate scope of the events.

Finally, Single era games technically have time travel, but the players aren’t the ones with it; they exist in a single era, having either been put there by a previous time travel events (the scenario of the upcoming Predation setting for the Cypher System, where the players are stranded in the deep past) or someone else is using time travel to send things to the players, leaving the players to decipher them and figure out what to do to either cause or avert what they’re being given foreknowledge of. The latter is a reasonably common trope in certain kinds of stories; a newspaper from tomorrow, a camera that photographs things a week into the future, and so on. This can be just as exciting as a full time travel game, as the players get to meddle with events that they have prior knowledge of, but it takes most of the load off the GM because they can just sketch out the results of the players’ actions without needing much detail.

And that wraps it up for today; I’ll leave it on the note that if you’re the kind of GM who has the time and desire to let players run rampant across time and work out the results each time they change things, more power to you. There’s no such thing as Wrong Bad Fun if everyone at the table is having a good time.

Come back next week, when I have a surprise thanks to the folks at Monte Cook Games!

Time Travel Blues

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