The Doctor makes time travel seem like such an easy thing. All you have to do is jump into the Tardis, press a few buttons, and before you can say allons-y you’re having tea with Queen Elizabeth and saving Shakespeare from a coven of actual witches. He’s hardly the only one jumping from one era to the next though. Wizards armed with enchanted hourglasses, the crews of advanced starships, deloreans, mad scientists, cyborg assassins, superheroes capable of traveling at incredible speeds, metahumans, and gods all seem to think that the timeline is their personal playground. Employing time travel in a role playing game can be a unique challenge though, and it’s certainly one that is worthy of discussion.
Before jumping into a discussion on how to employ time travel in a game I think it’s important to talk about the first time traveler. In many ways the origins of the idea can be traced back to H.G. Wells’ aptly titled book The Time Machine, in which an English scientist living in Victorian England known throughout the book as the Time Traveler invents a device that allows him to travel through time. During his travels into the future he encounters the child-like Eloi who enjoy leisurely lives in the crumbling ruins of the old world, and the savage Morlocks who lurk underground working to maintain machinery that keeps the Eloi so comfortable and devouring them in the darkness. The Time Traveler returns to his own era and relates what he’d seen to his dinner guests, only to use the time machine to vanish once more. The Time Machine has captured the imaginations of countless people over the years and inspired countless adaptations, retellings, and new ideas. It also frames the pillars of any such story perfectly those being a means of travel, a discovery, a threat, and a realization. The means of travel is exactly what it sounds like, a method for moving through space. The discovery is something the party uncovers in the future and there can be more than one. The threat could something like the Morlocks lurking in wait or it could be something else entirely such as authorities charged with arresting time travelers for their own safety. Lastly the revelation is the big reveal when the party uncovers what makes the time period their in kick.
This is one version of the time machine that H.G. Wells dreamt of, but there have been several different interpretations over the years.
The first thing you have to consider about using time travel in a campaign is who is using it and why does it matter? Does your party consist of a group of adventurous time travelers like the Doctor and his companions? If that’s the case than why are they drifting through the time stream? Are they explorers? Adventurers? Bored tourists from the future looking for a cheap thrill in the past? If that’s the case than I’d suggest adopting a very Whovian approach to their adventures, try not to focus on paradoxes and disruptions to the timeline. Instead allow your players to revel in the novelty of standing shoulder to shoulder with noteworthy notable figures and in witnessing history as it happens. You can also slip in a few unexpected surprises to keep things interesting. Transform Mary Queen of Scots in Mary Queen of robots and have her launch an invasion of steampunk robots to claim the throne of England. I’d advise keeping things lighthearted and try no to worry about the timeline too much. On the other hand if your party is being sent back into the past to correct some tampering that has altered the history, or to change an event to undo an apocalyptic event than they’ll definitely want to weigh every decision carefully. War stories are the exception to this rule as they force the characters to take up arms in a major conflict and work to ensure the outcome occurs as it did in history. The players still need to feel as though what they’re doing matters and it should, let them influence events and if an important figure should happen to be caught in the crossfire so be it.
The second question is how are the characters moving through time? Whether they’re doing it with a magic spell or a time machine there needs to be a clearly defined method of travel. It could be something exceedingly rare and difficult to use, or it could be commonplace in the era when it was created. Whether there’s only one time machine in the world or a hundred there should be a finite number and some protocol in place to get your hands on one. If the time travel occurred as the result of an accident then of course recreating the events that caused that accident to return might proved very difficult. One thing I’d advise against doing is dumping your characters in the past or the future without any idea of how they got there or what to do upon their arrival.
During their third year at Hogwarts Harry Potter and Hermione Granger illegally employed a time turner to save the lives of the wanted Azkaban escape Sirius Black and the condemned hippogriff Buckbeak.
The third thing you should decided upon early in your campaign is the legality of time travel, and who is charged with enforcing those laws. What are these laws, how strict art they, and how are they enforced. The reason these things need to be established from the onset of your campaign is to avoid misleading your party. If there aren’t any laws associated with time travel in your campaign that’s fine, but if there are everyone needs to be made aware of them. You should also carefully consider whose enforcing these laws and how mange to accomplish such a daunting task.
Time travel occurs so often in the Star Trek universe that Starfleet has established the Bureau of Temporal Investigations. Two of their investigators can be seen here questioning Benjamin Sisko aboard Deep Space 9 after a foray into the past.
Characters like The Flash, Rip Hunter, Booster Gold, The Legion of Superheroes, Superman, Chronos, Kang the Conqueror, Cable, Bishop, Hope Summers, the X-Men, and many more all demonstrate that with the right equipment or circumstances time travel is a relatively stable science in comic books. They usually adopt a clear cause and effect relationship that is easy enough to understand. For example if Wolverine travels back in time to save Professor Xavier’s life than events that occurred following his death will be altered. The snag is knowing what other alterations to the timeline will occur as a result of this change. Perhaps rather than giving up his dream of mutant supremacy and helping the X-Men protect a world that hates and fears them after following the death of Professor Xavier, Magneto continues his efforts to ensure the survival of his species. Unforeseen alterations to the timeline and the threats of the past could play a major role in any campaign taking place in a superhero campaign, whether you’re playing Mutants and Masterminds or the Marvel Heroic RPG. The method of time travel is also pretty uniform throughout comics, more often than not there’s a time machine of some sort rather than an individual with the power to move through time of its own accord. The Flash has his cosmic treadmill which he’s used on numerous occasions to travel back in time and counteract some disastrous event unfolding in the past. I think time travel works best for superhero campaigns when such devices are employed, and when there’s a clear reason that the characters are displaced in time. For ideas on how to run a superhero campaign employing time travel you might want to take a look at X-Men: Days of Future Past, Age of Ultron, or Booster Gold.
Rip Hunter’s Time Sphere once had an unfortunate collision with the Cosmic Treadmill while both were in use. That probably took a bit of explaining and I’m sure the insurance claims were interesting to say the least.
Long before there was an RPG based on The Dresden Files Jim Butcher had already written in a perfectly good reason to explain why Harry Dresden doesn’t jump back in time whenever things don’t go his way. The Laws of Magic, the governing rules which are enforced by the White Council and their sword-wielding Wardens, strictly forbid time travel. Specifically the Sixth Law of Magic which states “Thou Shalt Not Swim Against the Currents of Time.” Even trying to glimpse the future through divination or other magical means is frowned upon. Only the Blackstaff is allowed to violate this or any of the Laws of Magic. However according to some of the learned minds of the Dresdenverse the threat of a paradox is somewhat overstated as time itself seems to work to ensure that events occur the same as they already have. Anyone attempting to alter past events to change the future might very well find themselves thwarted by time itself. The Dresden RPG book Your Story also makes special mention of time travelers and the Sixth Law of Magic discouraging anyone from attempting to make a so-called chronomancer as they would be certain to run afoul of the White Council. That’s good advice for any players looking to play it safe and avoid the animosity of the some of the most powerful spellcasters in the world, but I think a campaign centered around a chronomancer could be very interesting. A group of young characters just coming into their powers find one of their number sentenced to death for violating a law they didn’t even know existed, and they take steps to save them. On the other end of the spectrum perhaps the characters must always ensure no one on the White Council discovers their friend has this power, leading to a lot of deception and misdirection.
For anyone who is curious, yes there is in fact a role playing game based on the adventurers of the Doctor. It’s called Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space and it’s published the UK based company Cubicle 7 Entertainment. The game employs some interesting mechanics to encourage players to adopt a non-violent as the Doctor and his friends are known for outsmarting their adversaries rather than outshooting them.
I hope that this helps other GMs to employ time travel in their own games, and gives them a few ideas for possible campaigns. Try to keep I fun and avoid paralyzing your party for fear of creating a temporal paradox. Let the story unfold and if things don’t turn out for the best just hop back into your time machine and try again.