GMs: Our Best Tips For Handling Time Travel In Your RPGs

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GM Tips Our series to help Storytellers and Game Masters improve their craft and create memorable roleplaying experiences. Last week, deviously tackled overpowered or broken characters and this week let’s try and fix broken timelines with time travel!

Going back in time to fix grave mistakes is an imagination playground. Everyone has had the thought or seen it in a medium of their choice, and most often, with a healthy amount of nerdy critique over broken universes. Let’s move beyond the obvious Dr. Who and Back to the Future references and fall into more Looper territory with this article where I’ve got some tips for running games based on time travel.

Fixing mistakes is only one way to approach time travel in a tabletop games. A critical character has died and without a means of resurrection, they race back in time to save their companion. Or even rewind time by a few rounds in an epic combat. Yet you can also use time travel to gain power, or even exploring history of your setting—and revealing untold legends. Before the characters destroy your setting and break the universe with time paradoxes, here are some tips to make GMing time travel easier.


Start With A Fixed Point

In one of my recent campaigns, designed to stretch out over a thousand year dynasty, I knew upfront that time travel was going to be a focus. Rather than start at year one, and jump forward, I started in year nine-hundred and ninety five and had the players constantly go backwards (along with many antagonists who were doing the same). The goal was to change the outcome of this thousand-year period in its final years, and after each adventure the characters would return and see what changed.

By having a fixed iconic point for your time-traveling storytelling you reduce the strain on all the note keeping. By trying to keep track of both the past, and the future time hoping you’ll drive yourself insane after only two or three adventures. Going forward in time, witnessing the outcomes, and returning to change it is also viable. I prefer going backwards myself as a narrative, but in both cases there is a fixed point and your characters are going in one direction. Keep it that way. You need at least one grounded point in order to drive home any storyline impact.

Time Protects Itself


Once players start flinging around wish spells and meddling with past events, you may find yourself struggling to keep certain major plot events always in place. If the Fire Nation never attacks, there is no campaign to play in the first place and characters will probably end up being farmers. You can get around this with a bit of GM handwaveum. Time isn’t a hard fast set of events, but rather more like a rubber band (daylight savings time anyone?), so it’s okay to write in a few fateful events that pass one way or another.

Let’s say that the City of Stars needs to fall for your campaign to launch, for one reason or another, it’s just that vital. If the City of Stars is sacked by an opposing army, and the players go back in time to stop the army before they march, have the city fall by economic ruin months later, or a great plague. Chances are your players will see this as a challenge, and even try evacuating everyone in the town and relocating them… and maybe you say as a GM that counts for what you need, and thus is the canon event going forward. This doesn’t mean the future outcome doesn’t change drastically, losing a city to a siege versus a great plague sweeping the land will have a great impact on the future, but in both cases the triggering event will still happen.

Breakout The Chalkboard

Once you are fully mired in the campaign of time travel, it’s time to break out the tinfoil hats and chalkboard. As a storyteller, this is the time you sit back and let your players theorycraft their own storylines to great effect. If you’ve done your job well, you’ll be equally invested in mapping out various time-break points and an alternate plot scenes. Like many Final Fantasy games, you’ll figure out just how many ways you can throw Wedge and Biggs into every place they travel back or forward to.

Get an actual chalkboard or dry-erase board and create a visual map of the storyline for both you and your players. There are a handful of writer tools on the internet available for digital pin-boarding storyline ideas, and even a public bullet list in the D&D Beyond Campaign Manager tool will work. As long as you and your players can sit around and visualize the board the theorycrafting will flow. Add in some gaming cocktails and a bottle of wine, and perfecto! Just don’t ever try to explain your crazy game in a public—without your tinfoil hat.

So how have you broken your world with time travel before? Let us know in the comments below!

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Featured Image by: Hyperlanes published by  Scrivened LLC

Image Credits: Rifts Board Game by Rogue Heroes

Rick Heinz is the author of The Seventh Age: Dawn, and a storyteller with a focus on LARPs, Wraith: The Oblivion, Eclipse Phase, and many more. You can follow game or urban fantasy related thingies on Twitter or Facebook.

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