Whoa! I know you aren't going to believe this, but I just traveled in time! That's right, just after my last post on April 25, 2015, I got a call from my buddy Doc who wanted me to come down to Twin Pines Mall and film him testing out his new Time Machine. Of course I agreed and headed on over. But the next thing I knew we were running from Libyan terrorists, had an amazing adventure through time, and ended up two weeks into the future!
So, naturally, I'm sure you'll now forgive me for not posting during the last two weeks. Because its not like I was super-busy at work, or experiencing some phase of blogwriter's-block, or any of those weak excuses other bloggers make for not keeping up with posting. No, I was, in fact, traveling through time, so did not exist in your perceived ribbon of space-time when this was going on. You can trust me to tell you the truth. I mean, I'm on the internet, so of course I'm trustworthy.
..."Why did I not travel back to when I left the timestream two weeks ago," you ask? Well, that's obvious! ...Its because...uh ....because the Time Machine's quantum temporality crystal processor matrix was damaged by a rampaging dinosaur, so now I can only travel into the future. That's best, really, its probably safer that way for the timestream anyway if one can only move into the future. You'd be impressed with the Time Machine's efficiency, too. With the current power of the Mr. Fusion I've installed, on just one banana, a turkey sandwich, and two beers, I can move into the future at a rate of 1 day per 24 hours, which is a pretty good clip.
I'll get back to the painting guide I had started in the last post soon enough, but all this Time-Traveling has got me thinking about using time-travel in our rpg games. Its a concerning thought, adding in a time-travel element. If you're like me, you like to have iron-fisted control of your players and adventure at all times, so somewhat balk at the idea of letting them galavant through time, causing all sorts of time-paradoxes willy-nilly.
There are three ways I've experienced/used time-travel in an rpg game:
1) Time-Travel purely as a narrative bookend for plot purposes, or "Plot-Only Time-Travel."
-- This is how I run a number of games featuring time-travel, and I even have a standard Macguffin to explain it all away. I call it, The Chronostone. When my long-time players encounter the Chronostone nowadays, no matter what system/adventure, they immediately groan and roll their eyes. Which I love, because it shows they're paying attention and they know that they are soon going to be thrown far in to the future or into the past at the breakneck Speed of Plot!
I use the Chronostone in my He-man/Cthulhu mash-up game for Cons, in fact (and which I will be running at Nexus Game Fair this Summer!). The He-man/Skeletor party gets sent 20 years forward in time at the opening, and the players therefore get to experience Eternia after having been taken over by Cthuloid monstrosities. This way I can hand-wave away any objections to Man-E-Faces running a Cult of Hastur, or why Beastman has become a high priest of Sub-Niggurath. Why, its because you've been transported into the future by the Chronostone, that's why! Then if they do the right stuff at the end and recover the Chronostone/defeat the big-bad/complete the ritual, then they have the opportunity put right things that once went wrong. *poof!* Back in time to stop the Cthulhu evilness from ever happening (in a perfect scenario). Doesn't always happen though. I've had an overzealous He-Man straight-up eaten by Cthulhu in one of the games. The Skeletor player was particularly pleased (and subsequently took over Eternia once they locked the portal to Cthulhu's realm).
While Narrative Bookending is the weakest way of using time-travel in your rpgs, it is also the most accessible and can make for a fun storyline. Its good if you just want an excuse to make the setting weird or different than normal. Fantastic for one-shot games.
2) Time-Travel to change the setting between encounters, or "Limited Time-Travel."
-- This is how I run my Back to the Future game (and which I'll be running at GameHole Con in November). Basically, you limit the eras in which the players can travel, and minimize any chance of player-introduced paradox. Basically, you let the players travel in time, but they can only travel decades or more into the past/future, and each era is a different setting that moves forward in real-time. For example, they may start in modern year of 1985, but then once they get the time machine they only have the input codes for the years 2049 or 1492. They can travel to either, but can't travel +/-1 day or that sort of thing to interact with themselves. Once they get to one time they find further input codes for different eras (that, as the GM, you've already planned out/painted miniatures for). Its kind of how that second Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Arcade game, Turtles in Time, worked. Each 'level' was a different time period. For Raveloft officianados, this is also how the boxed set campaign, Castle Forlorn, worked with its time-travel elements. This way you can fight Pirates one day and then Terminators the next. Maximum fun with zero paradox headaches for the GM. Everyone wins!
The Limited Time-Travel is a little more interesting than the Narrative Bookending, and it does give the players a little more flexibility (i.e., they could bury something in 1492 and possibly retrieve it in 2029). However it doesn't make for a true, no-hold barred, time-travel game.
3) Time-Travel willy-nilly, or, "Full-On, Paradox-filled Time-Travel"
-- This is the insane idea that you allow for time-travel within the same day/hour. As in, players can interact with themselves from previous time periods with their time-travel capabilities. This, for obvious reasons, can lead to abject session failure if things get too out of control, because you're opportunity for serious paradoxing, and if you aren't ready to rule on the temporal catastrophies that will result, well then, your players will just stop listening to you. Until recently, I figured this kind of game should be left to the imagination, as it would be too difficult to run as a Game Master.
But I was proven wrong, as I hadn't considered that if you kept things contained spatially, you could go nuts temporally. I played in a game called "HG Wells High School," (run by a mysterious character who goes by "J.C.") where each player played a famous time-traveler from cinema. Jon Connor, Bill S. Preston Esq, Marty McFly, Wesley Crusher, etc. (I played Wesley Crusher, for obvious reasons). We were all brought to a mysterious Time-Traveler's High School (as High School students) and expected to find our classes and complete our class schedules. Of course we didn't know where the classes were and our schedules were mysteriously incomplete, so we had to explore a map of the high school we were given. Only thing was, there was weird stuff going on in each of the rooms, monsters and whatnot we had to fight, and all of it was associated with Dr. Who episodes. As a non-Whovian (I know its a good show, but who has the time?), I was at a distinct disadvantage as far as figuring out the plotline. However, occasionally one of us would stumble upon a time-portal and be wisked back to various points in time based on a random die-roll chart. It could be to the beginning of the day, to just an hour before. This meant that for a significant portion of the game we were separated and the GM dealt with us individually, and I vaporized no fewer than two other Wesley Crushers in an attempt to be the one Wesley Crusher remaining, not to mention knocking out a Biff Tannen with a baseball bat (yes Biff is a time-traveler. Think about it...). Point is, in this case the Game Master minimized the Area we could explore (we were locked in the High School), but let time run wild in the High School. He had already determined what happened in each room if we didn't enter it, so if we saved someone in one room the first-time around, and then moved past it the second time then that person would be dead now. It worked out a lot smoother than you'd think, and opened me up to a lot more flexibility on using time-travel in my games.
I'm now convinced that Full-On, Paradox Time-Travel is a viable game session option, and especially works and is run-able if you limit the areas in which the players can explore. In this way, while you're ensuring paradoxes occur, you can prepare for the most likely ones. This way you can have crazy time-travel without worrying about the players going one day back in time and winning the lottery over and over, so they can all buy flamethrowers, or somesuch hyperbolic effect.
So that's the three forms of Time-Travel in running RPGs I've experienced. If there's one I'm missing, or one you've played in that was rad to the max, let me know. I'm always looking for cool time-travel ideas to abjectly steal from smart GMs and shoehorn into my own games!