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I'm DMing a D&D 5e campaign that has pockets of "weird time" (areas where time runs faster or slower than normal). It seems like I shouldn't pass up the opportunity to have an area where time is running backward, but I'm not sure how to do it.

The challenge the PCs will be trying to complete within the backward-running "time pocket" is to collect a certain type of mushroom that grows around a certain tree. Hidden among the desired mushrooms will be malevolent Violet Fungus, and there will also be someone hiding outside the time pocket who is trying to sabotage them (perhaps just shooting crossbows at them).

My initial thought was that:

  1. upon entering the time pocket, they will find that they have already collected the desired mushrooms, but also have suffered necrotic damage from the violet fungus and a few have taken crossbow bolts.
  2. If they leave the time pocket without doing anything, the damage will be undone and they will no longer have the desired mushrooms;
  3. in order to keep them, they will have to complete the causality--essentially, put the mushrooms back (and to avoid taking the damage, they will have to avoid the sources of that damage).

    Does that make sense? Am I missing any gaping plot holes that this would create?

If anyone has tried this before, what worked?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Welcome, fellow Moose! If you have a moment, please take our tour to find out more about us. Hope to see more of you around! :) \$\endgroup\$ – Rubiksmoose Feb 6 at 14:40
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    \$\begingroup\$ How do other pockets look like? For instance, what happens where the time runs faster? \$\endgroup\$ – enkryptor Feb 6 at 18:38
  • \$\begingroup\$ @enkryptor For the other pockets: from the outside, things within the pocket appear to move in fast or slow motion. I had not yet decided whether those within should be conscious of the change until they leave the pocket when I realized I should solve the most difficult one first (the backward running pocket) \$\endgroup\$ – Moose Feb 7 at 1:51
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If the time is running backward, it is weird that the players start in a "future" state. They should be as they are when they enter the pocket. But well, it's a backward time pocket so don't have to be consistent on that !

Playing a full scene with the time running backward will be pretty difficult. Because it mean that everything the players will do, they already did it. So if a player start with a mushroom in his hand, at one time the mushroom will be in his hand. Even if the player does nothing it should happen. You have a high chance that the players just do nothing and wait.

And for the players point of view, doing an action in a reverse time world will be near to impossible. What are they going to do anyway ?

I walk backward to the tree and fix the mushroom where I can

If their goal is to get that mushroom, there's no way a player will do that. Because nothing is saying to the players that if they play the scene backward they'll leave that time pocket with the mushroom.

Here's some suggestions:

  • The players enter the time pocket as they are. The time is running "normal" for the players but the time is running backward for everything else in the time pocket (the tree, the mushrooms, ...). Because of this, if they want the mushroom, they'll have to get it and leave before the mushroom just stop existing anymore.

  • The players has to guess what happens during the scene and they really have to play the scene backward. If they fail, the time pocket is broken and collapse.

  • The players can't move and they have to look at a scene running backward. Then the scene start again and the players can move.

I tried the first mechanic in a game. The players goal was to recover an old artefact (destroyed many years ago). They found a specific spell which can copy the artefact and then a powerful mage helped them. The mage sent the players in the past at the creation of the artefact during a battle between 2 armies.

The players appears near the artefact location but the world was still "running backward". So they had to reach the artefact, dealing with a running backward world, to copy the artefact because it was never created.

There was some specific mechanics for this scene:

  • Dealing damages to a soldier is "useless" because the soldiers are going backward in time. So anything you do to a soldier will just be "erased".
  • In my scene, the world can't see the players. You can decide to do otherwise. The reason behind was that I didn't want to modify the past. So the players can't change anything. But the world can hurt them. In your case, you are in a magic time pocket, you can do as you want.
  • For this reason, it was also impossible to "block" an arrow or a hit. The arrow just goes through the player and destroys his body and armor with a perfect hole.
  • The challenge for the players was to progress into a battlefield running backward unaware of their presence. Have you already tried to avoid a backward sword slice or a backward arrow ?

The players understood fast that the world was still running backward but no them. So they should act quickly before it was too late (or too soon).

Running a backward battlefield is weird for the GM, but it's fun.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Great! Having actual gameplay to back up ideas is what turns bad subjective answers into good subjective :) \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Feb 6 at 16:41
  • \$\begingroup\$ My initial idea when I read the title was also broadly the same as yours. There is an event in time that happened, and the players are racing (rather literally) getting back to it. In your case, it's to get to an artifact while it still exists. I was thinking of a slain villain that, if the players do nothing, will be un-killed due to backwards running time. But it's the same framework in both cases. \$\endgroup\$ – VLAZ Feb 7 at 8:41
  • \$\begingroup\$ As a sidenote. I really like the 2nd option. Not as a skill challenge, but as an impro-roleplay-time setup. \$\endgroup\$ – 3C273 Feb 8 at 2:13
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Backwards going time can be very difficult for the GM, because he has to know what's going to happen in advance. It requires a bit of buy-in from the players, and either railroading, or obfuscation of information from the players, so the GM can "bend" his intentions of what is happening to suit what the players end up doing.

As for how these time pockets would work:

It kind of stands to reason that time always appears to move forward at a normal rate, because the PCs' brains and bodies are synchronising with the time in the pocket, so:

If a PC enters a slow pocket, then even though time is slowing down, so is the PC himself slowing down at the exact same rate, so he thinks time is moving at normal speed, but the outside world is speeding up!

Likewise if they enter a fast-time pocket, the outside world appears to slow down

And of course, if they enter a backward pocket, then the outside world appears to move backwards, while they feel like they are still moving forwards.

As the PCs approach the pocket of backwards time, they will see themselves inside it, appearing to replant the mushrooms, walk backwards, speak Bulgarian to each other, etc. They'll then enter the pocket with empty hands and start to pick the mushrooms. When they leave it again, they'll have traveled backwards in time by however long they spent in the pocket, hands full of mushrooms. They'll be able to once again observe themselves in the pocket, putting the mushrooms back into the ground. If they wait around long enough they'll see their "past selves" arrive from wherever they originally came from.

As for the guy firing a cross-bow at them, this is a tough one. What happens to a crossbow bolt's momentum once it enters a pocket of negative time? You could argue it continues its trajectory and potentially hits one of the PCs. But it would have an interesting look:

To the outside observer, the bolt would fly out of the crossbow, while a duplicate is still stuck in the PC. Then as it gets close to the edge of the pocket, the duplicate would pull itself out of the PC, and fly out towards the attacker. The bolt and its duplicate would "join" together at the edge of the pocket and vanish.

To the inside observer, the reverse would happen - A bolt would appear at the edge apparently out of thin air, duplicate itself, and while the pointy end of one of the bolts would stick into the PC, the other duplicate would fly backwards into the attacker's crossbow!

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Have you tried these mechanics out yourself? \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Feb 6 at 16:02
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    \$\begingroup\$ That's a very insightful description of how to narrate "weird time" in a film or a story - specifically, the treatment of the crossbow bolt is excellent! However, this answer (and others too TBH) are missing practical details on how to handle the reversed time in a table-top RPG - without negating players' agency. If the players hear a detailed description of their actions inside the pocket (in reverse, but still), will it be interesting for them to then try to play out the exact scenario? How should the group handle paradoxes due to not "sticking to the script"? What about combat? \$\endgroup\$ – G0BLiN Feb 6 at 17:39
  • \$\begingroup\$ @colmde in your mushroom picking example, the scene starts shortly after the event (just long enough for the initial and postuous characters to annihilate at the barrier), but that's paradoxical. Seeing their future selves back up towards them may not trigger then to walk into themselves (unlike the crossbow example which is causal). Also, why does the bubble revert to the old "time loop" of them picking mushrooms when they reach the other side and not to the inversion of the next collision with the bubble? \$\endgroup\$ – David Coffron Feb 6 at 19:46
  • \$\begingroup\$ @DavidCoffron All the time they spent in the bubble they were going back in time, so they'll be able to see the same things after they leave as they saw before they entered (at least until they watch themselves enter, after which anything further they watch will be new). \$\endgroup\$ – Brilliand Feb 6 at 22:39
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Time based narratives almost always have inconsistencies. And that's O.K.

We're used to time running in a specific direction in linear fashion, at least that's how we generally perceive it. When a narrative doesn't follow that expectation we're often left saying, "Wait a sec, how did ...?"

That's just the nature of warping time in narratives. The path to figure out apparent inconsistencies in warped time narratives can be a long ponderous retracing of events, sometimes to fabulous conclusions, or it can be, "Yeah, time sure is weird."

I've run a couple campaigns with limited time travel and one time loop. What I have found is that time traveling narratives really capture the players' imaginations. There are also a lot of possibilities! Overall everyone thoroughly enjoyed it, but there was one incident when I did not allow the players to use time travel to save an NPC they had established a close friendship with, and that did not go over well. I had to make a spur of the moment decision and it felt like the right decision, but in retrospect I should have let them do it.

Keep your approach narrative based, don't worry about logic too much

Sure the story should make sense, and it should be really fun. Just remember you're warping time, so "make sense" is a relative term.

The backwards time pocket sounds particularly tricky (and particularly fun). As a GM you'll need to guide the players to establish what is allowable and what works in the time pocket. You can do this in or out of game, though in-game might be more fun. Visual cues would help, for example "you see a squirrel scamper backwards up a tree and a nut pops out of it's mouth and reattaches to a small branch."

Do the characters have to move backwards in all their actions? Can they speak normally? Will a perception check allow them to figure out what's going on? Can they somehow shoot arrows back at the hidden sniper? Can some of them leave the time pocket while others remain? Think through these and other scenarios because the PCs will definitely try at least some of them and you'll want to be ready with answers.

Remember the rule of cool.

While the time pocket will need some ground rules, this is an excellent opportunity for the PCs to think creatively and come up with some fun solutions that are really cool. My suggestion is to let the PCs be creative and don't hamper them too much with overly aggressive rule-keeping related to the time pocket. Let them try solutions and reward them for creative thinking. This is one of those challenges that could be really difficult, but fun and rewarding, or it could be really difficult and tedious and no fun at all. It's going to come down to (no pressure) how you, the GM, play it. Answer their questions as best you can, but remember if there's an inconsistency, that's O.K. and, "Yeah, time sure is weird."

What does failure look like?

Lastly, you may want to decide ahead of time what constitutes a failure and what that looks like. If they do something wrong can they recover in the time pocket or do they have to get out and start over? Can they start over? Is this do or die? Can they only leave the pocket if and when they succeed in the task? Will the sniper be out there when they come out? Will the sniper reappear if they step back into the time pocket? Think these kinds of questions through because I guarantee you the PCs will want to know or will try at least some of them.

To sum up: Does this make sense? Of course not, you're warping time. And that's O.K. Time based narratives open up a lot of possibilities and contingencies not usually present in the game. Be prepared as a GM.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Are you trying to say time is all wibbly wobbly timey wimey? \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Feb 6 at 18:38
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    \$\begingroup\$ @nautarch Did your timey-wimey detector go ding? \$\endgroup\$ – lightcat Feb 6 at 23:23
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Player Buy-In

As others have mentioned, this is more of a narrative issue than a mechanical one. And any time your game hinges on a specific narrative choice you need to make sure that all of your players are on board with it. If they are then it can lead to some of the coolest and most memorable scenes in a campaign. But all it takes is one person to throw the whole story off and then it will be some combination of un fun and frustrating, which no one wants.

Game Design 101

If you think your players will be onboard with your little narrative exercise, the next step is to introduce them to the general mechanic/concept that it is focused around. In your case, you need to make sure that your players are familiar with the idea of walking into a bubble of reverse-time and having to figure out how to get through it. At this point you can think of your time bubbles as little mini-puzzles that the players need to solve.

Think about any videogame you might have played where a new ability was introduced, and how the developers went about doing it. Very rarely will you be thrown into the deep end and just expected to figure it out. Much more often you will be given a very basic intro to the mechanic and walked through a simple example of it. Later on these can be built on until you get more complicated puzzles to solve. Your reverse-time bubble should follow the same kind of design.

Baby Steps

In the case of your reverse-time bubbles, I would introduce them by giving your players the least complicated scenario possible. Something like this should give a good basic understanding of the mechanics you are going for:

The party needs to cross a bridge over a fast running river. Part or all of the bridge is covered by one of these time bubbles, and is visibly obvious. Once the party enters the the bubble they find themselves immediately at the far side of the bridge.

However, if they try to walk forwards to finish crossing the bridge they instead find themselves back at their original starting position outside of the time bubble. The only way to proceed is to enter the bubble and walk backwards across the bridge (towards their starting point). Once they reach their original position they find themselves on the far side of the bubble and can continue. While inside of the time bubble there are obvious visual clues that time is running in reverse (birds flying backwards, river running in opposite direction, etc.)

Well Designed Puzzles

After you have gotten your players familiar with the concept of the time-puzzles you can slowly start to ramp up how complicated they are. The scenario in your question is actually a really good medium to hard puzzle, depending on how you design it and how much practice the players have solving them. If they don't know that taking damage can be part of the solution then that might throw them off. You can also use some of their other resources as part of the puzzle, like saying that the Monk is down two Ki points or the Wizard used up a 2nd-level spell slot. Then figuring out how they lost those resources is part of the puzzle as well.

You will also need to have a very good idea of what the solution to your time puzzle is before you start, or be comfortable with your players winging it and letting them get away with things. That really just depends on how strict you want to keep the rules for the reverse-time segments. I would suggest having a fairly good idea of what the original sequence of events is either way, if only because being consistent with your rulings will prevent players from getting frustrated if things don't work how they expect.

Story Time

I would also suggest running these parts of your session with little to no dice rolls. Focus on the narrative aspect and the puzzle solving. Your players don't have to worry about actually rolling dice to fight the Violet Fungus because, causally speaking, everyone knows that they are going to beat it. Instead have them just state what actions they are undoing as part of the fight. If you can get your Fighter to say "I swing my axe backwards and un-cleave the killer mushroom" then you know that you have done everything right.

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To complete the challenge I would instruct the players they need to move backward in the backwards-time pocket to the location of each dangerous Violet mushroom and bump into them, while NOT placing the desired "good" mushrooms back in their places despite an unavoidable compulsion to do so. (All this logic stems from them being forward-time beings who traipsed into a magical backwards-time pocket.)

The mechanics for this would just be one Dex save (since moving backward is awkward with no practice) plus one "willpower" save (maybe each character's best of Int, Wis, or Cha - to refrain from putting back the very nearby "good" mushrooms) for each dangerous Violet mushroom you think the group bumped into.

As for the crossbow, you could just give them a good AC bonus from moving backward in time, which the enemy also isn't experienced at shooting at and further may be visually distorted by the boundary. (You can visualize that to the players in the disjoint time segments they see of their enemy loading, aiming, and firing the crossbow in fast and slow bursts and jumping around in different places, and the enemy's confused and annoyed expressions.) The AC bonus disappears for any character who stops moving while in the pocket. With a diagram you could work out that the tree could provide cover for one of the phases of the challenge.

If the players don't want to do the challenge (i.e. just continue straight past the time pocket) it seems like a straightforward Con save for the poison.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to RPG.SE! Take the tour, and check out the help center for more guidance. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Feb 6 at 23:34
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In the real world, the laws of physics are thought to be time-invariant: they should work the same way whether time runs forwards or backwards. Although D&D is not a realistic simulation of physics, this particular bit of scientific weirdness is a convenient excuse to not change the rules very much.

Here's how I would run something like this: When they first enter the time pocket, give them limited information about what's in it, and ask them what happened when they were inside. In this particular case, you might tell them that there are trees and mushrooms in the pocket, but some of the mushrooms are really violet fungi. They have to tell you how many mushrooms they got, and how long it took to get them. The script they set up is deliberately very vague, to allow them reasonable freedom to move within what happens next.

Within reasonable limits, the players can say whatever they want, but it would be a bad idea to say they found something that they can't be sure is in the pocket to begin with (no walking out with 1000 pounds of mushrooms unless there actually are that many). Because after the explanation, they then play the time "forwards" to make it happen, and failure to follow their own script risks creating time paradoxes. Spending more time in the pocket lets them pick more mushrooms, but it also gives you more opportunities to attack them. Spending less time is safer, but means they can't pick as many mushrooms. The players also have to consider what margin of safety they want to add, to account for the possibility of failed rolls. They can say other things happened, but they'd better be able to bring them about. This is the check against their narrative power within the pocket: they shouldn't write reality checks that their characters cannot cash.

In essence, the players are betting on how well they can do. Minor paradoxes (say, getting only 9 mushrooms when they bet they could get 10) should probably just be handwaved, or cause nothing more than a bad headache. In some cases a minor paradox might even be beneficial (walking out with 11 mushrooms instead of 10). But the consequences of a truly egregious paradox should be suitably dire: time does not like being messed with.

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