This entry is part 1 in the series Time Travel In RPGs

Extract from 'The Persistence Of Memory' by Salvadore Dali

When writing my submission to the June 2010 Blog Carnival, A Medley Of Inspiring Media, I said that Time Travel was a special case. This article started off as just another section of that Blog Post, but quickly showed signs of growing into another of those monster subjects requiring a multiple-part post to completely contain the discussion. Rather than obscure the message of the first post, I have chosen to excerpt the subject completely. The subject title I’ve chosen anticipates that, in fact, this discussion is going to grow beyond any reasonable limits.

We don’t usually tell players, but we GMs know that a lot of the time we can decide the basics of a subject and fill in the blanks as we go along without it making a lot of difference. Combat, plot, characterisation, politics – this is true of all of them to at least some extent. The more experience we have, the more easily we can create a lot of soup from some fairly bare bones. Naturally, it’s not the best way to go about our craft, just as a great cook will do even better with some top-quality ingredients – but if we were able to take as much time as we wanted/needed in game prep, we might only play once or twice a year! Possibly less often.

Inherantly, game prep is a compromise between the ideal preperation and no preperation at all, usually dictated by external factors (which dictate how much time we have available to use) and the remorseless approach of a deadline. Something has to give, in such a situation; the artistry of Gming comes in making sure the cracks don’t become evident to the players.

Time Travel is not like that – at all. There are so many questions of a critical nature that the subject raises immediatly to which the GM needs answers – so much so that the temptation is always to fall back on a prepared set of stock answers and fudge around with the inevitable compatability issues some other time, unless Time Travel is central to the game itself.

Questions like: Can you travel into the past? Can you travel into the future? Can you come back again? Can you change the outcome of events? Can you come back again? Will you remember anything that you learned? How does random chance operate at a cosmic level? How does free will work? Is there any such thing as destiny? What does it feel like when someone changes the past? How can you be protected from the event? Can you undo the change? Can you use time-travel to evade inconvenient facts of real-world physics like the speed-of-light limit? How can your answers provide challenge and plot for the PCs? And how can they avoid the PCs rorting the system ahem exploiting time travel to gain a game-wrecking advantage?

If you are going to rely on stock answers, having a broad repetoire of them at hand is always a good thing – and that’s where the connection to the Blog Carnival comes in. But having those answers on-hand also provides a short-cut to creating your own unique set of answers, and that can be invaluable.

Why Do It?

Why would you do it? Why permit time travel in the first place?

There are a lot of good reasons. First, it gives the GM another source of interesting challenges for the PCs to overcome, and permits a different type of scenario, always good for breaking up a monotony. It gives a repetoire of interesting characters for the PCs to interact with. It’s frequently a staple ingredient of a genre. It permits a ‘holiday’ in a different environment, enabling the GM to utilise plotlines that simply don’t fit the mood of the contemporary game. By providing a contrast, it can enable the GM to shed expository light on key aspects of that contemporary game without a lot of exposition. And, lastly, it’s just plain fun a lot of the time!

Simplistic Answers: The Superman Solution

This stock answer stems from DC Comic’s Superman in the Golden and Silver Age. It states that the past is immutable, and a time-traveller is essentially a disembodied spirit who can only observe events and never interact with them. On the face of it, this is a solution that marks a lot of those difficult questions as ‘out of bounds’ and hence makes the GM’s life easier. If the past can never be changed, the GM never has to work out the consequences of those changes, there can never be any paradoxes for him to unravel, and he can just get on with the main plot.

It won’t take long for the shortcomings of the solution to manifest themeselves. There’s no drama, no conflict, no story. That’s a massive negative all on its own. But wait – it gets worse. It provides an easy way for the PCs to gather information at no risk to themselves, undermining one of the central sources of adventure in the PCs contemporary era.

Adopting this answer brings other unwanted baggage. It implies that it is possible to go into the future and interact with events, and DC had Superboy doing just that, by becoming a member of the Legion Of Superheros – even learning the outcome of events in the future of the contemporary era. But no member of that future era can ever come back and change events, according to the basic answer – and that means that the PCs can never go home again.

Unless the PCs are somehow priviliged – perhaps they carry their own temporal framework with them. But that logic, in effect, undoes the entire premise of the basic solution because every time traveller is coming from their contemporary era.

The longer you think about this particular solution, the more holes and problems become aparrant with it; this is not a simple answer, it’s a simplistic answer that will eventually leave the GM up a creek without a paddle. For example, think about the free-will-vs-destiny debate in this context for a moment. Since the past is always past for someone, there can be no such thing as free will, and everything is predestined. Nothing sucks the life out of a game faster than making the whole thing an immutable plot train. Even stating that everything that happens is predestined to happen, and neither you nor the PCs know what is predestined – which avoids the plot train problems – is less than satisfactory.

In fact, every possible permutation of exceptions to the basic restriction ends up raising the question of why this person or these persons gets an exception.

Ultimately, in the interests of taking all the hard work out of Time Travel for the GM, this saddles him with all the problems of time travel and none of the benefits. It’s not just a Simplistic solution, it’s a Bad Solution.

Simplistic Answers: The Marvel Answer

The first refuge of GMs who confront the shortcomings of the early DC solution is to go to the opposite extreme, and adopt the Marvel Answer – which (in essence) states that History is fluid, the past can be changed by anyone with both the ability and the will to do so, but which provides no physics to describe the capability.

That works to some extent in a comic book, because the writers can simply not have the primary characters exploit the advantages that time travel offers, filing it under ‘things man was not meant to know’, ‘knowledge too dangerous to use’, or ‘didn’t think of it at the time’. In fact, it works so well that DC have virtually adopted a variation of it themselves, in more modern times. This was also used, in a slightly more sophisticated way, in the Back To The Future trilogy.

Can you really picture PCs exercising such self-restraint? I can’t.

Before you know it, you will have PCs dropping off to some other point in the time stream to put in a few extra days/weeks/months/years of study and planning. This answer completely negates the tension of the game; any PC who is caught unprepared for anything has not been doing enough time travel! The moment a PC feels a need to know how to do something, he putters off to some past era and a safe location to put in a few day’s hard study – and then expects this to be reflected in his character’s skill levels.

If the GM doesn’t meet that expectation, the ability of the players to suspend disbelief is massively undermined. If the GM does, it sucks the challenge out of the campaign.

And it still leaves the GM with those hard questions to consider. In virtually any modern-day campaign that enables time travel, one of the first questions is ‘Why don’t we go kill Hitler before WWII’?

How about the introduction of modern technology into the past? This issue has been at the heart of many time-travel stories, starting with A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court, to such an extent that the time travel capability itself is just a vehicle to enable the story to take place!

What happens if the PCs change their personal histories? Do their abilities instantly change as a result? Can you see PCs – heck anyone – not taking advantage of that?

Unfettered time travel is just as big a curse as the first Simplistic Solution. It evades the questions by not asking them, not by providing solutions.

Wanted: A Game Metaphysics

Clearly, what’s needed is something in between. Time travel needs inherant consequences that limit its usefulness and its impact on the campaign. We need some sort of metaphysics that is at least rigorous enough to answer some of those tricky questions, because it will ultimately be more work not having one.

In part 2 of this article, I’ll start to discuss – in detail – the game metaphysics that I came up with for my superhero campaign, Zenith-3, back in the early 80′s, and which has been robust enough that it’s still in use today. As I do so, I will extract the requirements of any good solution to the general problem, and suggest some alternatives. Ultimately, the goal will be to develop a ‘road map’ for GMs to follow that will take most of the work out of creating their own solutions to the questions of time travel, unique to their campaigns.

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