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What techniques(or systems) can be used to deal with a game (or even a single session) where time travel is a heavy part of the game?

For example, I have a player whose character concept has the ability (or an item) to travel back a short period of time. They can do this a few times over, with a limit, but I also don't want to make the ability useless with an excessive "cool-down" or other penalty/limitations.

What are some ways in which I can manage this ability?

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Whoa. Does this include traveling back into the combat that just happened? It makes my brain hurt. – F. Randall Farmer Dec 4 '10 at 22:42
How short is "short," by the way? Is this going back weeks, days, hours, minutes, or seconds? – Jadasc Dec 4 '10 at 23:11
@Jadasc - I think it's more of an "hours" thing – LeguRi Dec 5 '10 at 1:07
@F. Randall Farmer - If there are game mechanics to make that work, then yes :D The brain hurting is exactly why I ask... I feel you pain! – LeguRi Dec 5 '10 at 1:07
Watch Primer - [I'll make this an answer...] – F. Randall Farmer Dec 22 '10 at 15:57

10 Answers 10

up vote 19 down vote accepted

C°ntinuum, a game from the 1990s, is about this very thing. Player characters are time-travelers who range up and down the timelines of their existence, having adventures and trying to avoid or resolve paradoxes that arise. Complicated, but fun.

If you're not looking to add a new game system entirely, consider giving your time traveler a certain number of re-rolls each game, representing "this time, I'll get it right!" playing out while the time-fixed are unaware of the changes.

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+1 for useful time-travel mechanics. By grafting on span and frag to any game system, you too can give yourself headaches. From a combat perspective: spanners always win. Make sure you're OK with this before introducing time-travel into your game. – Brian Ballsun-Stanton Dec 4 '10 at 23:03
Sadly, it's out of print. – okeefe Dec 4 '10 at 23:53
There are ... resources... available. The concept of span and frag is actually simple enough that it can be its own question. It'll just have a looong answer, and won't cover combat between spanners. – Brian Ballsun-Stanton Dec 5 '10 at 5:46
voted this up for the second paragraph. just what i wanted to say. :) – OpaCitiZen Dec 31 '10 at 11:44

Time & Temp is a role-playing game about temp workers being sent through time to fix problems. (They use temp workers because they're not historically significant should anything bad happen to them.) It's very much a Bill & Ted-style time travel than anything super crunchy.

T&T has a special mini-game mechanic for handling creative uses of time travel. As the players roll for their actions during the course of the game, their results get added to a sudoku-like grid which can be manipulated in various ways. When certain numerical alignments are achieved, they can do all the cool time travel stuff, like get help from a future version of themselves or promise to come back (in their future) to sometime earlier and leave themselves a helpful item that they can now find (where they left it).

Although they can travel through time, the players have to work toward being able to use that travel to usefully manipulate things for each mission/session.

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Using time-travel to go back in time to set up something useful for the now, but leaving all the time-travel off-screen, is probably the easiest mechanic to graft onto a system. Perhaps a rule of time-travel is that you can't be seen by yourself (or the other PCs?), which would make it easy to merge into the current timeline, and also gives the players a challenge to figure out how to have already changed things without having run into themselves in the doing. – SevenSidedDie Dec 7 '10 at 20:19

Specific Time Travel Games

There are several, and most are out of print. Pacesetter's Timemaster, BTRC's Timelords, FASA's Dr. Who, Cubicle 7's Dr. Who, Time and Temp.

I can't honestly recommend any of them, as I've only played Timemaster, and didn't much enjoy the game itself.

Cubicle 7's Dr Who is getting decent reviews, tho'.

And Time & Temp is still in print and PDF

Time Travel is mentioned as a key setting element in the Army of Darkness RPG, by Eden, and is a recurrent issue in the Red Dwarf setting, and so is mentioned in the Red Dwarf RPG. Both OOP, but still available in some channels.

There are at least two other Dr Who derived RPGs which I have no experience with.

Time Travel Supplements for Generic RPG's

BTRC's EABA has a conversion of Timelords to EABA. EABA's current settings are mostly fantasy and post-holocaust... or blends, and won't be too much help.

SJG's GURPS has a Time Travel, Infinite Worlds and Timeline worldbooks available. If you like GURPS, you have lots of worldbooks available to do the ends of the jump right...

My personal recommend is EABA, but in all fairness, I playtested EABA. If you need worldbooks to get the endpoint flavors right, do GURPS.

Other Generic Systems Notes

In general, if you have a favored generic engine, adapt your favorite paradigm to it, and go forth. You'll have more fun that way, I believe, because you'll not be fighting the engine... at least not too much. The important elements are that it have sufficiently good melee rules and language rules to account for the time travel issues, and robust enough character generation to enable you to generate target-time locals as well as prime-time-point characters. It really helps to have good vehicle rules if the 20th C or later are potential target times, and a good natural critters bestiary including riding beasts.

Hero System by Hero Games is quite capable of doing a time travel game right out of the core book. The Hero System Bestiary is exquisite, and the core includes vehicles and common enough mounts; the medieval weapons are thin, but Fantasy Hero provides plenty, as does the Martial Arts book.

BTRC's CORPS and EABA are both capable of doing the time travel game right out of the core, as well. CORPS is PDF Only, and no longer actively supported. Both are short on worldbooks.

GURPS should work fairly well right out of the core books, too, but lacks vehicles in the core. Low Tech is also a great choice to have. The core has some riding beasts, and the Bestiary book many more. This is probably the best supported system.

Masterbook can do it, quite well, but lacks a vehicle design system. TORG setting books are fully compatible, providing a good source as well. (TORG is essentially Masterbook 0.5, and Shatterzone is Masterbook about 0.9, with the released Masterbook being 1.0...) TORG also works; TORG is a game of invading realities, and ranges from dinosaurs to space cruisers in one game...

FUDGE and FATE: I'm not aware of any specific timetravel versions of these engines, but neither takes much more work for time travel than any other multi-book system. Fantasy and Sci-Fi versions for both have seen print, and many variations of FUDGE are available online for free.

Cinematic Unisystem - BTVS, Angel, Ghosts of Avalon, Army of Darkness - enough medieval crunch factor in all these to do the primitive well. None of them does vehicles well... but all do combat really well, and have short enough skill lists that it's easy to generate characters for either end of a time jump.

Mongoose Traveller - MGT has a surprisingly decent medieval weapons list, and if one buys the 3rd party career books, plenty of low-tech careers. It's due to some setting artifacts (namely low tech worlds in a space opera setting, and use of blades to avoid damaging hull integrity), so the list is minimal but functional, and varied, including spears and halbeards...

D6 system, given the current, free-in-pdf, three cores, can do easily a wide range, provided that one can cope with the different labels. d6 Fantasy can do fantasy and archaic and medieval quite well. d6 Adventure is tailored for moderns, but it can be jiggered easily for post-renaissance as well. D6 Space can handle most of the future tech. All three use the same system mechanics (tho' with different options as default), but with different attribute sets and skill lists. They're actually fully compatible.

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I didn't see it mentioned, but I think the Time Lord system by Ian Marsh did the best job of bringing Dr. Who to life. – neontapir Mar 7 '11 at 5:35
I've never seen a copy, @neontapir ... so I can't add it to my answer, per the rules here. All the ones I've mentioned I have at least read, and all the generics I have mentioned I've played and GM'd. Experience with a given game is a prerequisite for answers in recommendation questions. As a further aside, I'm not a whovian. I have read the C7 Dr Who... but won't play/run it. I was reading it for system comparisons. – aramis Mar 1 '15 at 10:13
@neontapir I decided to obliquely mention that there are more Dr. Who games. – aramis Mar 1 '15 at 10:33
by the way, the rules are free and available: – neontapir Mar 2 '15 at 15:43

Watch Primer and, after unwinding your brain, consider the interesting time travel mechanism in that film: you can only return to a point you pre-planned to return to. Limited overlap with your previous self. Still brain-bending, but appropriately limiting. It could be adapted to any game system.

Time Travel in Primer - from Wikipedia

In D&D-4e for example, it could be an implement-based power to "Set a Mark" in time, leaving an implement somewhere in space-time. Revisiting it removes you from the current timelime as you "wait" to return to the past. This suspends the current time -line for all players and you replay the previous time line from the return point (the traveler(s) age appropriately). The power to set the time-mark could require an expensive ritual, the power to activate it is a Daily (Perhaps two Dailies? One to start the trip backward, and one to emerge in the past. That'd mean that the setting ritual would burn that timeline's Daily.)

As to "player knowledge" - that is going to be a problem if the time traveler encounters his former self and/or comrades. Something that might be fun to roleplay.

Hmm. This could be used to set a resurrect-like power. Set a time-marker at some point and create a power that would activate the time-travel as an immediate interrupt a failed third vs. death savings throw.

Ooh! For my main villain!

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What happens if the double somehow prevents his original from entering the box during their overlap in the new timeline? No problem? – Dronz Mar 1 '15 at 6:48

You could try the desperately unprincipled but fun Back to the Future mechanic: as the backwards-travelling characters get closer and closer to a temporal paradox, they gradually stop existing. Either they fix their timeline-threatening behaviour, possibly causing a better future,or they will only exist as a temporary, mysterious presence in the past.

You may need to announce disciplinary measures to handle players who spend too long complaining about the incoherence of the game mechanic.

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Although the system is not to everyone's taste, if I remember correctly there are GURPS advantages that describe pretty much exactly what you are talking about. While you may not want the "number heavy" portion of the system (or the squishiness of the characters, depending), they do have some pretty good ideas about mechanics for such abilities.

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Having thought about this a bit, one problem is that although this PC would experience the events that were replayed several times over, presumably the other PCs would not. Once you got to the "true" timestream, it would be as though it had always happened that way, from their point of view.

So perhaps the easiest way to handle this is to accept a fixed number of "resets" per day where your player can freeze the action and say how he or she would have done things differently a few hours ago, and how they think that would have turned out. That counts as one use.

As GM, you then say how it would actually turn out if they had done that, perhaps with a roll or two for the most crucial points. If they don't like it, they can spend a second use to revert to the current time stream.

If they accept your offer, the new version of events is established as "what really happened" and play picks up from there, probably in an entirely different location.

That won't work for every group, but it seems like a possible approach to me. If it's not clear, comment about what doesn't make sense, and I'll edit until it does!

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To me this brings to mind a often used in many rpgs/scfi literature the mention or deal with as "shattering the time line." (example: repercussions of changing the future, even small things such as combat.) (See StarGate Atlantis Season 4x20 deal directly with what I am speaking about).

I would be opposed to seriously damaging your world or timeline quickly let him see how this can occur. If it were me wait till he goes back hours in time changing something pivotal in history, and before causing a world changing event the Gods of Time (pick one of your world) or a Time Traveling archmage in charge of integrity of time(like an appointed station), show him what would have happened if he had done what he was going to do.

Books to help with story of Time wizards world of Krynn (Raistlin). To have a time traveling character without a story attached the DM would lose many chances for an awesome game PC would come back to. And DM personal-system-rules, house rules almost have to be brought up with with time traveling PC, as it can be too much of a game changer have to work with it. Must state to player upfront this is a work in progress.

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Please edit this. – Brian Ballsun-Stanton Dec 31 '10 at 5:04
Not with a down vote / comment, skip it at this point, thanks. Its clear. – IrqJD Dec 31 '10 at 5:15
It's entirely likely that the downvote is because it badly needs editing before it's understandable. Consider too that whoever downvoted can change their vote if you edit your answer. – SevenSidedDie Jan 2 '11 at 2:54
Ok there is my go at editing it since no one really said what they disliked just downvoted and said edit. Any direction tends to make people more agreeable. This is why I so scared to even post. – IrqJD Jan 6 '11 at 16:55
Hi @IrqJD! Thanks for the update! I'd recommend making sure you use complete sentences and break it into two or three paragraphs that each contain a specific idea. (i.e. one for the "shattering the timeline" idea, one for the "Gods of Time" intervening, and one for "things to watch out for" and resources.) – yhw42 Jan 6 '11 at 20:26

In a different way than my previous answer, you could limit time travel to only be able to go backwards, and only as far back as the character who has the item has had the item.

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You could always limit the traveling so that they can't travel to a point in their own personal history that they have a strong emotional attachment to, and you could also make the item self-aware in a way that it can't permit the hero to commit any acts that would cause a paradox of epic proportions.

You could even create an adventure where the item malfunctions and returns the hero and their friends to a really stressful situation from their past and they have to attempt right the wrong, or slip out of the even unnoticed.

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That ... mostly removes the beauty of time-travel. Moving into your own past, causing gemini incidents, and handling the as/as-nots that result makes for a time traveller. If you can timetravel without consequence, there is no real point. – Brian Ballsun-Stanton Dec 5 '10 at 5:47

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