Time Travel is My Bugbear (Or What Do People Think the Future Is?)


Every group has a type of adventure they don’t like. Every group has things that bother them, things that aggravate them, and things that annoy them. For most games, other than science fiction, the largest bugbear for most gaming groups is the time travel adventure. There are several main reasons for this:

One) No one likes to hear from the GM: “We’re sorry, you erased the Merovingians. Unfortunately, one of your ancestors was an important Merovingian. Your name is now Svetlana Obsobirsk, and you are a Muscovite.”

Two) Something that the characters previously did now never happened. This produces confusion, and likely aggravation.

Three) While such stuff provides good stories for novels and fecundity for the creative thinker, such as “The Grandfather Paradox” and “Who really invented the zipper?”, not all of these things make good gaming material.

Part of the problem also comes from really bad comic book stories like the X-Men’s “Days of Future Past” and “Days of Future Present.” One can only hope Marvel won’t make “Days of Future Future” and confuse everyone some more. Superhero gamers have an aversion to time travel stories, and after numerous stories with titles like “The Final Millennium Crisis On Infinite Secret Wars Dark Reign Earths,” who could blame them? Marvel even created a time travelling villain so ridiculously stupid that “Nimrod” became a derogatory term meaning “idiot.”

Who, indeed? I’m one of those people who had to put up with all that stuff, and didn’t like it one bit either. So how do we control time travel and make it not stink for the players of Legacies?

This involves some basic concepts:

One) Time Travel should generally involve the time travelling villain coming to where the heroes are. This allows the heroes to have multiple different futures or alternate timelines where different things can happen. Don’t let the heroes travel in time overmuch, unless you really enjoy messing with the heads of your players.

Two) Establish your time travel rules early and do not change them. This is one of the key principles of making your game fun. Time travel has to work pretty much the same for everyone, or the game will be a lot less fun.

Three) Make sure at least some time travellers can be defeated and their futures changed/altered/subverted so that they become ordinary villains in the timeline of the Player Characters. This gives them access to future tech without access to the ability to drop anvils on your players characters from ten thousand years in the future.

Four) Don’t do entirely what’s been done before. Your time travelling villains should not all be Degaton Clones or Kang/Immortus/Master of Time guys. Try this one on for size: What if Doctor Who had been created by the Shaw Brothers?

Look for that sourcebook; The Imperial Throne, in a couple of years. And wait for Doctor Hu, Servant of the Emperor of the Future! His calligraphy is perfect.

You’re going to love it.

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1 Comment

  1. I think that you hit it on the head with #2: CONSISTENCY. Knowing what your logic is for time travel and how it works is something that is key to any good genre–be it fiction or gaming. Are you in a universe where a changed decision or event creates a new dimension of reality? Is time one big stream that can be diverted from its course? Do past changes correct themselves naturally? These three (and others) are common memes in the time travel business, but that doesn’t mean that they’re the only ones. Any of them *CAN* work…but where they DON’T work is when they’re willy-nilly mixed together.

    Adding a time-travel motif to a game requires more than just an idea for a plot–it requires the GM to come up with an entirely new system. Just as any good GM knows where magic comes from in his game, or how super-powers work and how they can alter the laws of physics, so too does the GM know the mechanics behind the time-travel physics of their universe.

    Giving heroes the ability to travel in time should be rare–and difficult, even if you allow them to repeat it, in most games. The temptation to go back and “right wrongs” is a strong one and even the best-intentioned groups stand a chance of eventually doing something to your timestream that will require a lot of work to sort out, it leads to a neverending cascade of: PCs fix problem, Villains cause another problem, PCs fix that problem, Villians prevent the PCs from fixing it, etcetera. That’s not to say a one-shot trick for the PCs isn’t possible, but you don’t want the PCs pulling a Christopher-Reeves-Superman every time something goes bad to save their DNPC or whatever whenever something goes wrong.

    I like time travel stories a lot. Unless you’re playing in a game that is ABOUT time travel, though, Mike’s got some really good key rules here. I know, I’ve played in Legacies (his campaign) and even had a character from the past come forward, who was/is a time traveller–but while not stranded per se, there were some REALLY GOOD REASONS he wouldn’t move in time again, reasons that Mike built into his take on how time travel worked in his universe. The man knows what he’s doing, and I look forward to the book he’ll write about it.


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  • Upcoming Appearances

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