Time Travel Tips From RPT Readers

Time Travel RPG TipsRPT readers had a few things to say about the recent Time Travel Tips. Here is their great advice and ideas.

Five Other Options To Limit PCs And Problems

From Lee Barklam

Hi Johnn,

As ever, I voraciously consume your bulletins but only rarely contribute. However, time travel is a subject close to my heart and there is always an innate paradox with time travel:

If Time Travel is possible then it is conceivable someone will eventually invent it and go gadding about through time. Even if that inventor dies without passing on the secret to time travel, someone else will eventually just come along and invent it again.

Regardless of how many false starts time travel technology has, someone will eventually come along and invent time travel who doesn’t meet a sticky end before his secret gets out and then time travel will become ubiquitous within that future society.

So, assuming time travel is possible, we have to imagine a future society where everyone can gad about the timelines. With time travel, there is no such thing as being the first to have the technology, as anyone else with the technology in the future could travel to an earlier point in time.

This conundrum requires any GM (or creative writing author) to come up with a reason why the whole of the future aren’t visiting the past for holidays and educational trips.

  1. Time travel is one way: forward only. You can return to the point in time you make your first trip, but you can only trip forward.
  2. There is a force that prohibits time travel and will eventually destroy any time traveller or time-travelling device.
  3. Travel into the past is possible, but the traveller is, at best, an observer – invisible and insubstantial to non-time travellers.
  4. Time travel used to be possible but someone in the distant future invented a device that emits a radiation throughout the whole of time that now prevents it to all but a select few people with souls that resonate on a certain frequency.

Forward Only

Option 1 creates interesting investigative stories. Characters witness an event in the future and have to try to understand what they have seen and prevent it when they return to their own time. Works best if the PCs can only time travel to a point in time once and only for a short time (a few minutes).

Opposing Force

Option 2 keeps the players on their toes. They have to travel without alerting the sentinel force that is seeking to keep the timelines smooth. This naturally keeps the PCs from being too destructive, and any action will eventually result in the attention of the sentinel force, destroying their time travel mechanism. The more they abuse it, the fewer trips they will be able to make.

Knowing a resource is strictly finite will keep the players’ use of it down. Isaac Asimov once wrote a great short story about a space explorer who found a functioning time travel device built by an advanced culture that seemed to have just been wiped out. He dialed his home planet to report his finding and after a few minutes, his connection was terminated.

The explorer discovered the universe had set his home world’s sun nova, so they would not be able to use the time travel device.

Remember that such cosmic forces may not think the same way people would and just destroy a time travel device once invented. Nor may it be limited in the resources it can bring to bear to stop someone travelling through time.

Observation Only

Option 3 makes time travel into the past little more than watching a video and not very exciting for role-playing (without interaction with NPCs, much of what makes RPGs great is lost).

PCs could use time travel as just another tool in an investigative campaign.

As with option 1, there should be strict limits about revisiting a certain space-time point and for the duration they can watch events unfold.


Option 4 enables a PC party full of characters from other time periods – brought together by an eccentric scientist looking to open up the timelines again. He has assembled the PCs from all the souls in creation throughout all of time for a special mission into the future to destroy this inhibitor device.

[Comment from Johnn: a neat idea. Readers, check out the Riverworld books for inspiration.]

It can be difficult to find a single rule system that will enable this mix of characters and it is a challenge for any GM to sculpt scenarios in which all characters play their part, but it would make for an interesting campaign!

Baggage Limit

A fifth and more complicated option would be to consider a limit on the number of people that can be displaced at any one time and a limit on the number of displaced people that can travel within an event radius.

(An event radius is a radial measurement from an event point in the Universal Timeline along both spacial and time axes.)

For example, we have two time travellers, Bob and Margaret. The laws of time require that only one time traveller can exist within one day of each other.

Bob travels to Thursday and stays until Saturday before returning home. Because Bob was there from Thursday until Saturday, no time traveller can travel to that location between Wednesday and Sunday.

However, after Bob returns to his time, Margaret travels to that same location on Monday and wants to stay until Friday, meaning that she would be there when Bob arrived on Thursday.

Instead, what happens is that exactly one day before Bob would arrive, Margaret skips to exactly one day after Bob leaves. If Margaret made her journey before Bob and stayed until Friday, when Bob attempts to travel to Thursday, his attempt would fail completely (i.e., he would not skip to a day after Margaret leaves).

What should happen if time travellers get too close (physically) is that one who has been displaced for the least amount of Personal Time will return to Universal Time.

The Universal Time Ratio is also something the GM needs to define.

For example, Bob leaves his present at 3:30 p.m., travels somewhen else, stays for an hour and returns.

  • Does he return at the moment he left (so it might even seem to onlookers that he never left)?
  • Or is there a delay (does it seem like he momentarily blinks out of existence before almost instantly reappearing)?
  • Or does he reappear at 4:30pm (or some other multiple of the time he spent at the otherwhen)?

The ratio between the time that passes in Universal Time and the time that passes in Bob’s Personal Time determines when Bob reappears. Typically, Universal Time would pass slower than Personal Time, but remember that Margaret cannot travel through time until Bob returns. There may also be a cooling off time between Bob reappearing and Margaret being able to travel, too.

This kind of solution can make for a confusing game (the GM needs to prepare when each NPC villain visited an eventline). The PCs can end up skipping past certain scenes and not knowing what’s going on each time they land somewhere.

Plus, PCs are easily blocked by NPC time travellers arriving at an event first.

It’s also difficult to keep in mind the Universal Time Ratio to know where each NPC (and PC) is in Personal Time, Universal Time, and Reference Time (the latter being the displacement event timeline).

Be Careful

I would steer clear of any form of time travelling story or campaign because unless it is clearly delineated in scope and properly arced. It is all too easy to tie yourselves in knots – unless the GM has full control over the time travellers, and the PCs are just unwitting victims of their paradoxes and not actually the time travellers themselves…but that’s another campaign in itself!

Time Travel: Consider The Environment

From Jeremy


I enjoyed the time travel article. One thing to consider in time travel scenarios, besides obvious cultural or historical changes, is environmental changes.

In a linked group of fantasy campaigns I ran, the first party was forced to put the god of magic to sleep, and the other gods took him out of the world and placed him on what became an asteroid that orbited the creation.

However, as a logical consequence of this severance of magic with its source, the world became slowly more mundane.

In the second campaign, the children of the original heroes were kidnapped by a cabal of mages who wanted to stop this situation. They were forced to travel thousands of years into the future where magic was almost gone, because this was the next time that was right to open a portal from the surface of the planet to the asteroid.

This provided a number of fun moments such as placing fantasy characters onto a college campus that was having a medieval festival. It was fun roleplaying the cultural implications for the game.

However, all of the players’ supernatural or magical abilities did not function, and the characters who were from non-human races gradually became sick as their internal reserves of magic were drained. Each lost a point of constitution every hour they stayed in the future or when they attempted to use a non-mundane power. This was brutal, but I wanted to put across the seriousness of the mission.

Similar issues can be dealt with in other games. This could be as drastic as a post apocalyptic world desertified and covered by acidic glass storms. Alternatively, it could be as simple as a world where oil has run out: plastics become a major recyclable resource, vehicles perhaps have returned to animal power, nuclear, hydro, solar, wind, and other forms of alternative energy are used to better or worse effects.

The change doesn’t have to be as game changing as the one I outlined above, but environmental changes could be an interesting issue. For instance, for players coming from a pristine, or relatively pristine, medieval or ancient setting, what effect would pollution in the air have on them? It could be treated as a disease that slowly impairs them. A minor change, but something that would be a twist on encounters.

Another issue you brought up was the idea of paradoxes, timelines, and blackout periods. One can regard paradoxes as an opportunity to take the game in a completely different direction. In Robert A. Heinlein’s story “All You Zombies” a time operative is sent back to recruit him/herself (read the story it’s too long to discuss here) and when he/she returns to the future is plagued by the idea that there are “other selves” running around the universe.

In a scenario such as the classic paradox of killing your own grandfather, what if the character is born anyway by another grandfather, finds out about the interference through the ramifications of the paradox, and vows revenge? Characters having to deal with villains with their exact abilities and skills would make for a challenging adventure.

While the intricacies of time travel are difficult, they’re no worse than what do I do when the PCs kill my main villain in the first encounter. There is often a way to drop back 10 yards and punt.

Inspired By Doctor Who

From manfred

Hallo Johnn. Reading the tips on time travel after seeing some Doctor Who, allow me to add a few more notes:

  • Make time travel unpredictable. Even the Doctor doesn’t always end up where he wants to be, sometimes missing the target by hundreds of years, and sometimes drawn off target completely.
  • At the same time, the Doctor tends to be attracted to key locations and events, changing history in the process. What if that is part of the nature of time, that time travelers end up where they should change something?
  • There is always a bigger story. It takes a while to notice, but characters will be haunted by symptoms of something larger converging on them across worlds and epochs.

Continuum: Roleplaying in The Yet

From Stuart


I highly recommend Continuum: Roleplaying in The Yet for more information on time travel.

Time is uncertain. If you don’t know an event to be true, or if an event is not widely known, it’s up for grabs (you can’t kill Hitler, but you can probably get away with killing Steven Morgan of Denver Colorado from 1970).

If you do disrupt a widely-known event or something you know to be true, you get “frag.” Frag slowly accumulates as paradoxes get worse. At low levels, you feel sick as reality starts to reject you. At higher levels, you start to fade away like Marty in Back to the Future.

Oh, and there’s a time-spanning body called the Continuum. You’re part of it. If you can’t clean up your own messes, they’ll do it for you. The outcome may result in your death or your transferral to Cold Storage — slang for whatever they do with paradoxes too bad to unravel. As such, the universe will continue existing. Your existence is more uncertain. Don’t mess up.

Since time is uncertain, fixing your messes is easier than it appears. If you do kill Hitler (and it’s happened several times), then it’s somebody’s job to study his life, get makeup or surgery to look like him, and take his place. If you screw up, maybe that’ll be your job.

I don’t think it’s still supported, but if you can find it, it’s worth a look.

Time Wars Series

From Kate Manchester

There’s an excellent series of time travel books from the 1980’s. It’s called the Time Wars series written by Simon Hawke. It’s a series of 12 books that combine real history with literary history and spans a range of time periods. In addition, it explores the science of time travel and provides a time line. Better yet, they’re entertaining.

Sadly though, they’re out of print, but they can be found lurking about bookstores (like Powell’s in my hometown) or ebay.

But in any case, as far as time periods, look to some of the classic periods of literature. A mystery with Sherlock Holmes? Jousting with Ivanhoe? There is a realm of possibilities….

Addition References And Resources

Thanks to Sean Holland, khael, TheRandomDM

Time Patrol, Poul Anderson

Paratime, H. Beam Piper

Change War series, Fritz Leiber

D&D Blackmoor modules and supplements


Time Travel TV Tropes

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