I recently finished BioShock Infinite. I know an army of people who loved everything about this game, especially the story. I enjoyed it, but the ending left me a little flat. I’m not going to discuss the details here other than to say it got all wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey (well, sort of) and I found myself frustrated in the same way as when I watched the last two Doctor Who season finales.
I’ve started to notice a trend with time travel stories: they frequently don’t make a great deal of sense. I find it endlessly strange that nerdkind loves time travel stories as much as we do, because we also love to pick things apart and argue endlessly about how it would really work. It starts getting all sticky when someone changes history. Typically, it’s up to the writers to decide how these situations get resolved:
- There’s only one timeline, and it gets changed.
- A new timeline gets spawned.
- They create some other option, a technique which I shall dub “The Moffatt”. These frequently make zero sense.
And then you have paradoxes, like when you go back in time and push yourself off a cliff before you could have time traveled so you could never have done any of it. I’m not sure why one would do that, but that’s what I’m going to go for if I ever get the chance because at least then I would know why. There’s usually a few ways these go as well:
- Terrible Consequences for Space and Time, where everything gets all explodey and nonexistent.
- The Cosmic DM Intervening every time someone is going to cause a paradox. These are fun because you always get to watch some poor guy’s wife die horribly in a dozen different ways, like the saddest game of Dragon’s Lair ever.
- The Moffatt. In which it’s OK for paradoxes to happen, except if it’s a fixed point in time. Then you can still have a paradox but you just think of a weird idea for the consequences and run with it.
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With all these things in mind, it seems DMing a time-travel based campaign is tantamount to self-immolation. Or maybe those two just go together well. Regardless, if you do decide to go this route in your game, here are some suggestions to keep things from getting too wibbly-wobbly:
Set Up Rules Beforehand
You’re all-powerful. It falls to you to define the laws of space and time in your universe. Decide well in advance what happens if someone changes history or causes a paradox.
Make Sure It Makes Sense
As previously stated, gamers tend to think things through, so make sure you map out the villain’s evil time-plot so you can sanity check it before sending it into battle.
That being said, this is all either theoretical or imaginary (unless one of you knows something I don’t), so it’s entirely possible someone’s still going to disagree with you. Getting to an amicable outcome at this point will require some rapport with your players. Asking them to play along, especially if it’s not something vitally important, is not a crime. Otherwise, communicate your understanding of the rules for time travel as you’ve laid them out, and compromise if you have to.
I don’t necessarily recommend performing The Moffatt and coming up with a nonsense outcome to a time travel event. These feel very arbitrary and are not subject to reason. They’re frustrating enough in a TV show. If an attempted Moffatt results in serious consequences for the PC’s, you could have some angry players on your hands.
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I’ve heard it said that the day the PCs gain the power of flight is the day the DM loses control of the plot. That person was wrong. That day came a hundred years before the day they learned to fly because somebody gave the the PCs the ability to time travel freely.
Having time travel happen to the PC’s might be a safer bet. As much as I prefer to let the PC’s drive the story and try to prepare for the unexpected, writing out complex genealogical charts to determine the end result of the time-hopping PC’s start killing ancestors “just to see what happens” is not my cup of tea. Of course, you could simply wing it, but you’d better write down what happened. Winging it is hard enough when there aren’t ripples through the space-time continuum (the rules for which you have no doubt already defined).
Avoid Contact With Your Former Selves
Over the years, I’ve seen a few attempts by DM’s to revisit old campaigns by having the PC’s time travel there. Admittedly, the allure of recapturing some old glory is strong. However, I’ve seen this go badly a few different ways.
- The PC’s get in the way and ruin everything somehow — thereby retconning one of the group’s treasured memories together. (A real crowd pleaser!)
- The group has had some shift in players since the events of the campaign being relived, and those who weren’t there then are much less excited to be there now.
- One of the PC’s accidentally becomes his own grandfather.
- A PC touches his former self and melts into a gross ooze. Because that made complete sense, TimeCop.
In short, the best paradoxes are the ones you don’t have to clean up twice as DM.
The Moffatt Has Left The Building
Hopefully, with some careful planning, you will be able to avoid one of your players giving you a Glenn Beck-style chalkboard rant regarding the space-time continuum. I hear they’re going to have him replace Matt Smith. I just threw up in my mouth a little and now deeply regret that joke. I take it all back. I must travel back to 2 hours ago and stop myself from writing this article. Let’s hope our universe’s rules for paradoxes aren’t the ones where everything explodes.