Time travel is a staple of genre fiction.
It appears in sci-fi, fantasy, steampunk, horror - practically every non-realistic genre you could ever think of. The ability to move through time, to see the future or experience the past, has captured the human imagination for centuries. You can see it in media from Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, all the way to Star Trek and Quantum Leap.
Tabletop games are hardly an exception to this! It’s a great concept to utilize in your campaigns, but it can be a little difficult to wrap your head around. Here are some simplified timeline theories, and how complicated they might be to implement in your own tabletop campaign:
In a fixed-timeline world, the events of history are set in stone. Travel within the timeline won’t make any permanent change – sometimes because travelers’ actions are already accounted for by the timeline, sometimes because the characters aren’t really traveling (such as dreams, hallucinations, or curses making them think that they’ve time traveled), or because the laws of time find ways to restore the timeline to its original form.
Fixed Time Travel in Your Campaigns
For GMs and players, this is usually the easiest version of time travel to understand and play through.
Fixed-timeline time travel is great for brief interludes that allow your characters to experience the history of a world rather than simply being told it. To show instead of tell.
I wouldn’t recommend making a full campaign in a fixed timeline if the focus is on the time travel aspect of the story. It’s likely to feel pointless to your players if everything they’ve been doing for months turns out to be for naught.
A dynamic-timeline world is one in which any actions taken during time travel will affect the timeline. If your players go back in time and kill their parents, they aren’t going to exist anymore. If they plant enough trees, they can go forward and find a forest.
Dynamic Time Travel in Your Campaigns
This type of time travel is the most variable, and one of the harder ones to map out in terms of plot. It can be hard to guess exactly what actions your characters are going to take, which in turn makes it difficult to plan ahead. And even if you do manage to predict your players decisions (miracle-working genius that you are), keeping track of all the little changes can be rough on a GM. Especially if players can time travel more than once.
Despite the difficulty, dynamic time travel is the most obvious option for a campaign based entirely around time travel as a concept. Fixed timelines are easier to work with and keep track of, but they don’t really give the true science-fiction, grappling-with-time experience that a fluid timeline provides.
A multiple-world universe, or multiverse, is a sort of combination between fixed and dynamic timeline universes. Instead of one timeline which can or cannot be changed, a multiverse timeline creates a new universe for each different choice that could be made in history. If characters go back in time and make a significant change, they aren’t actually altering their own history, but a new timeline altogether, which manifested when they made their trip.
Multiverse Time Travel in Your Campaigns
If you’re a fan of comic books or alternate universes, this is probably the time travel theory for you. It’s what a lot of comics have gone with for their continuities.
Furthermore, it can allow your players to experience worlds in which alterations to history have already been made, rather than requiring them to make those changes themselves.
A multiverse timeline might theoretically include an infinite number of alternate universes, with one for every slight difference in choice ever made. That’s amazing, but difficult to keep track of and properly GM. If you want to run a ‘dimension-hopping’ style campaign, I’d recommend choosing a few major events to create alternate timelines from and sticking to those as steadfastly as possible.
Most time travel can go both ways – forward or backward – through time, and players are assumed to eventually return to their original time so that they can see the result of their actions or make it safely home. Frozen travelers are people from a given time period that are brought forward in time, often through light speed travel or cryogenic freezing, who travel into the future a little more literally than most.
These travelers often can’t go back to their own time, they’re stuck wherever they are, and since they’re going forward (usually) without an option to return the emphasis of the story usually isn’t on alterations to a timeline. Instead, it’s usually on the travelers’ reactions to their new circumstances, and the way in which society might have progressed from where they came from.
In this set-up, the way that the timeline works doesn’t really matter, unless they’re going to make it home. In that case, take your pick of timelines!
Frozen Travelers in Your Campaign
Frozen travelers aren’t always considered ‘proper’ time travel, but for the purposes of GMing tabletop games, they work pretty much the same. It’s easy to keep a handle on, and generally doesn’t require a lot of last-minute planning.
This type of time travel works excellently for individual or party backgrounds – bringing them forward in time into a new world is a great way to unite a party with a shared goal, or to make a character that is guaranteed unique to the setting.
Whatever TTRPG you’re playing, time travel can absolutely make for an excellent and engaging addition to your campaign. If you have any unique time-travel ttrpg stories, please feel free to leave them below! And if you have another method of laying out timelines and time travel, let us know those too!