Recently I listened to the System Mastery episode about Continuum, a time travel game that they panned deliberately and ruthlessly. The main issues that came up were twofold: first, the game’s metaplot involved characters joining a group of time travellers who fought to maintain the timestream. The problem with this was a combination of more powerful NPCs continually providing deus ex machina moments and the fact that the entire game ended up being completely inconsequential/railroaded based on the physics assumptions about the timestream. The other one was that the game devolved into note-taking, with each player having to meticulously track their ‘age’ and their ‘yet’ and every time they went back and helped themselves or something of that ilk.
The other thing about this review that stands out most clearly to me was that through the course of the podcast both Jon and Jef continually bemoaned the fact that there wasn’t a good time travel game out there. This is largely true; the most recent Doctor Who RPG came out in 2009 but is a very specific type of time travel story. Beyond that, there are attempts at time travel RPGs like Continuum (most are bad), and some “many-worlds” type RPGs that use time travel as a mechanic, like the GURPS Infinite Worlds setting (many are bad).
Now call me weird, but I actually thought the most promising part of Continuum (not to mention the part that really has never been done well in an RPG) was the past self/future self interactions and the paradoxes. If you think about good, famous time travel fiction, paradoxes and mucking with your past are always part of them. While Doctor Who is probably the best type of system for Jon and Jef’s ideal of “go back in time, chill with Shakespeare” (because Doctor Who de-emphasizes paradoxes and assumes a robust timestream), I would want to play a time travel game more like Back to the Future: things got messed up and you must now fix them.
The basic idea: a Powered by the Apocalypse time travel game. At the beginning of the game, after character creation, there’s a game creation session where the players determine what the paradox is and when they have to be to go fix it. Your time machine has tags: portable, vehicle-mounted, activation sequence (like, I don’t know, getting up to 88 mph), and so on, which limit how you address the paradox. A game with portable, instant time machines may have characters going back and meeting themselves multiple times, or trying and retrying things, while a game where the time machine is in a warehouse and can’t be moved would be more restrictive.
The game would de-emphasize actions being difficult, per se, but instead certain actions could cause paradox. Talking with your own father may cause you to roll a paradox move, killing your own father would give the GM permission to make a paradox move against you, including ending up in an alternate timestream, being uncreated, or warping back to the beginning of the scenario and having to start over. While something as obviously dumb as killing your own father would cause a hard paradox move, most other paradox actions, even severe ones, would merely cause “ripples” which would eventually manifest as the next paradox down the chain that the characters would solve next session. The idea is to balance the fact that paradoxes are bad with the impossibility of avoiding them if you’re travelling back in time in the first place.
Character playbooks would mix two parts: the character’s role and their time period. The time periods would be past, future, and present, with present being defined as the time when the time machine was first invented (the assumption being that the amount of time a time machine can exist before someone goes off and causes paradoxes with it can be denoted by a chi-squared distribution with one degree of freedom). The roles would be things like inventor, traveller, and bystander for the present (Doc, Marty, and Jennifer, if we were in Back to the Future 2), historical figure for the past, and time police for the future. There’d also be the option to include past (or future) relatives of other PCs, and even past and future versions of other PCs…I would think three people playing three different versions of one character could be amazing given the right treatment.
I have a lot of ideas for moves, stats, and other gameplay elements, but this is very much still in the brainstorming stage. The reason I think this game could work and be fun is that you have to accept going in that paradox is unavoidable. Once you go down that path and then have the three-result PbtA mechanic to emulate your attempts to fix it, making things even more screwy can be fun, instead of indicating that you’re playing the game wrong. The advancement mechanic can even emulate your timestream slowly collapsing to one stable vector, so you can either spend points to undo paradoxes or eventually save up enough points to go home and have it actually be home. Maybe a bonus option for the Back to the Future ending where your present actually ends up better than you left it.
This would be a very specific type of game, mixing unconventional problem solving with a good dose of Fiasco’s chaos for chaos’ sake. I think that PbtA is a good match, both because straight unmitigated success in a time travel scenario would be very difficult, and because the system de-emphasizes statistical progression, which is not an important part of the time travel genre at all. The next step is to build a more robust mechanical outline, and start getting feedback as I build it out. The working title, if you hadn’t guessed from the name of this post, is Paradox.