Time and Time Again

If I had it to do over again, there are books I would or would not write, and creative and educational effort I would put elsewhere. Women I would have been braver about talking to, others I’d have avoided. So many dumb arguments avoided entirely. Traveled when I had the chance, cultivated more friendships, perhaps saved a friend lost far too young.

In the gaming circles I move in, time travel as a genre is either a fetish or despised. Nobody seems to be neutral on the idea of it, either as fiction or as gaming material. Me? I love it. Love. It.

It’s easy to psychoanalyze why time travel is appealing. It’s like poking at why we have favorite superpowers: invisibility if we feel guilty or ashamed, super strength if we feel weak, and so on. Probably bullshit, but still fun to poke at. So time travel? My psychoanalysis angle is that it’s about regret, setting things right, second chances. On the other hand, as gamer grist goes there’s no more interesting, challenging logic puzzle out there. And history is always a great excuse to fall down a research hole.

The reason I bring all this up is that Zinequest 2021 was a heaping serving of time travel gaming. So many projects, apparently out of nowhere! And not just zines, but full-length RPGs. I went all-in on every project I could find, and had a chance to play a couple of them at an online convention the Indie Game Reading Club put on in December.

Genre Rules

Time travel basically comes in four flavors:

This isn’t how it looks…

To my mind, what makes a time travel game unique to other genres is the tension between known outcomes and the protagonist’s efforts to change them. I know there’s room for argument there: does anyone actually know any outcomes in Primer? Or Timecrimes? I think they do, or at least the protagonists think they know the outcomes. Of course the outcomes are hidden from the viewer under logical puzzles and unreliable witnesses. And there are other, weirder exceptions that are genre-adjacent (The Fountain) – it’s rich territory, seductive to a certain kind of gamer, and easy to forget that it’s human needs that drive the best stories.

Human-Centered Time Travel Is Hard

Time travel is a tough genre to play in a human-centered way, I think. Most times I’ve tried time travel in roleplaying, I’ve found player brains get too full of causality and logic and problem-solving. This happens despite the fact that all the best time travel fiction is about human needs and impulses, not logic. Yes, sure, the Primer flowchart is very fun to look at, amazing work, but the movie doesn’t work without regret and greed and humans being human. Same with Timecrimes and Outlander and Looper. Heck, it’s pretty vital to The Terminator and 12 Monkeys and The Tomorrow War, all action-y stories, but also grounded in human needs. Same as it ever was: gamers love to gamify their favorite stuff, and they end up gutting what made their favorite stuff work.

My first go at time travel gaming was Pacesetter’s Timemaster, way-back in 1984. It was all about fun, fast causality tricks – jumping back to before a fight started to cache a weapon or set a trap, leaving notes for yourself to create causal loops, looping investigations over and over, T.I.M.E. Stories style. There was an evil alien presence invading Earth’s timeline all through the past, present and future. It was great trad fun (beat up bad guys, elaborate battles, chits on maps) with some amusing logical toys to play with. After that, time travel games were few and far between: Continuum created an amazing future civilization built on time travel and gave us a game nearly unplayable due to being so very tightly designed around the logic of time travel; Feng Shui sort of, entirely about the elaborate battles and fighting over control of time-travel junctures, very little about changing the future; GURPS Time Travel, one of my last forays into GURPS but very GURPS-y in its execution.

EDIT: Jonathan Walton has an excellent adaptation of Mouse Guard available to play Continuum on his Itch page.

Then we get into indie territory, and the games get more human-focused: Spectrum, where your “party” is comprised of versions of each character from different parts of their own timelines – you may play your super-advanced self one time, a total time travel noob the next, it’s very clever. See also Epidiah Ravachol’s Time & Temp, where you play temp employees whose job is to fix time travel problems caused by other travelers. There’s also Nathan Paoletta’s older game Timestream, an early indie attempt at a character-forward universal time travel toolbox.

Causality Shenanigans

This is the most logic-intensive form, and very hard to get right. The Zinequest game Infinite March is a very bare-bones setting and game in this vein by Stephen Whitehead. The setting is the “Temporal Empire.” Feels like a minimalist take on Continuum, essentially fixated on maintaining the status quo against outside influence. Hardly any game at all to this, not sure what to do with it. Right now I would categorize it as unfinished.

Beyond that? Kevin Kulp’s Timewatch is a GUMSHOE-based cinematic adventure game very much in the vein of Pacesetter’s old Timemaster game. It uses the GUMSHOE trick – avoid investigative stall-outs by simply giving the players basic clues – to bypass figuring out what has changed and what needs to be done about it.

I’m going to toot my own horn here and hype Palimpsest, a small time-travel game I submitted to Game Chef 2018: check it out, it’s legit fun! Characters pass through a loop of events over and over, making changes to assert their desires the scene before the moment collapses and nobody else can change anything.

Punitive Loops

This turns out to be a pretty easy slice of time travel to tackle.

Procrastination Day is a deeply weird “time loop comic book rpg zine” from Bomansa Studio in the Groundhog Day vein: you play Mario, a 29 year old slacker with a cat and a fish trying to finish something called “The Project.” Doesn’t actually matter what The Project is, but Mario only has nine tries to get it done. Meanwhile, the character is trying to balance out his resources (energy, needs, motivation, karma and days), gather objects necessary to get things done (food, battle, special, and DVDs you can watch after dinner…it’s a weird game, not kidding!). And then his day begins, and the first thing he has to overcome is his own procrastination. Bonkers, solitaire, highest recommendation.

Thursday, a reference to Russian Doll, perhaps the greatest time loop story ever told, is a No Dice No Masters (think Dream Askew or Wanderhome) game by Eli Seitz. The goal is straightforward: escape the time loop you’re in. It’s specifically a one-shot game with a tight narrative arc, not as free-wheeling as other NDNM games. As with other NDNM style games, each player takes responsibility for various setting elements – time travel weirdness (responsible for ending scenes), the city itself (responsible for setting scenes), friendly NPCs (offer a way out of tough situations) and unfriendly NPCs (provoke conflict). Then you play through a Thursday, ending when the protagonist dies. Over and over, until the players end the loop through a coin toss. It feels like the game could last literally forever, or be over in an hour. As with every other NDNM game I’ve read, the meat of the game is in the playbooks and the moves one makes (sometimes by cashing in a token). Of the time travel games in my not-yet-played pile, this one is highest on my list.

Tourism & Dramatic Irony

Echoes of Chaos is a zine-sized game by Tom McGee based on Trophy Dark, which is based on Cthulhu Dark, and shares those games’ underlying simplicity. Mechanically they’re very simple: when faced with something “dangerous,” add d6es to a pool you roll based on just doing the thing, and whether you have any special professional or personal skills that would help you. Then you add d6es of a different color based on whether you’re using advanced technology or are deliberately screwing with the timeline in the past to get what you want. Outcomes are based on the single highest die rolled and whether it was a light die (cool, you got what you wanted, probably with a complication) or a dark die (not cool, you just added a Ripple and possibly an Echo – you’ve changed time yay/oh no).

Echoes of Chaos does one thing well: showcasing the players changing the future by going into the past. You’re fun-loving criminals bullshitting your way into a very expensive rich-person tour of the past: think Westworld, but actual history. Besides pursuing your personal goals – everyone has a focus on stealing a thing, doing a thing, changing something and so on – you’re having to do it all within the structure of a package tour, with a tour guide keeping an eye on the characters. It runs hard into Fiasco territory pretty quick, at least among the players at my table: they know the point of the game is to watch the future change, so they make no effort to keep that from happening. It’s very one-shotty that way, mostly getting into gonzo crime capers and racking up the Echoes throughout time.

The game could have used one more pass with an outside editor. It’s playable but there’s some ambiguity around the rules, and the setup is never quite explained all at once. But, like other whatever-Dark games, there are tons of fun tables to generate everything in the game. Specifically, the short-term changes (results of Ripples in prior capers) and long-term changes (results of Echoes throughout time) give you good ideas about how to play out the changed future.

In our game, the criminals each owed a major mafia boss a debt that could only be paid via this time travel scheme. After traveling to ancient Egypt, then the Roman Empire, then the French Revolution and finally the Wright Brothers’ first flight, they returned to a future of Stargate-style cyber-Egyptian technology run by the mafioso’s family, whose reputation is now repaired.

Cute game, very much about spending a bit of time in “the past” rather than jumping around creating causal chaos.

Another example of the genre from Zinequest is What Once Went Wrong, basically Quantum Leap, the RPG, by Craig Campbell. It’s two player only, one doing the leaper and the other doing the GMing (present in-game as the hologram assistant). The setup is entirely Quantum Leap, with the leaper tasked with fixing a problem they don’t start out understanding. Actual gameplay is a pretty trad die pool versus target number thing, and is the least interesting bit of the game. The leaper also tracks a value called Destiny, which goes up every time you roll dice and gets spent later to succeed at other tasks. The GM is also secretly tracking Leap points (rolled randomly, successful rolls generating more than unsuccessful ones), the counter that tells you when you’ve finished the adventure. No sense as to how much this Leap Point economy really drives play. It feels to me like a signal to the GM that it’s time to wrap up. There are a few story hooks at the end of the zine, looks pretty easy to jump into.

Set End-Points & Fish Out of Water

Brian St. Claire-King’s game End Times, a full length game and not a zine, was the other time travel game I ran recently. It was funded in the middle of the Zinequest that produced so many other time travel games. The setup here is that you’re playing modern-day time travelers who can swap with your own consciousness precisely 10 years ahead or back. Having jumped 10 years ahead, you’ve seen there’s an impending apocalypse. Then you jumped 10 years back to let your childhood self understand they must get ready now to fight the future. The game begins with the characters gathered to try and stop what they’ve seen.

The 10-year limitation does away with most of the logical fixation you get when you’re trying to Bill and Ted your way through problems. Rather than jumping into your immediate past or future, your timelines are fixed: every day that proceeds now, a day has proceeded in the future and the past as well. And you can’t ever directly meet yourself, since you’re swapping consciousness with your future and past selves. But you can leave notes, which is the main way time changes. And past and future characters can each one another in the present while the PCs are swapped, which is great fun because your past/future selves are the GM’s NPCs.

End Times is more human-facing than Echoes of Chaos. One bit I wasn’t sure what to do with was that every character has a “pit,” an unhealthy way they deal with the stress and anxiety of knowing the end of the world is coming. You might be a drug addict, or depressed, or otherwise self-destructive. A more interesting bit of humanity in the game is when you create characters, you also define a series of scenes from your own past and how they led your character to be how they are now. And sure enough, in our playthrough someone arranged for their past self to not do something that would get them in trouble. The net result was that one of his roleplaying keywords changed to reflect his character’s different past. Neat!

The game comes in two versions: Vajra Enterprises’ in-house ORC system (very trad skill + stat thing) and a PbtA version. The PbtA version is not a tightly constructed little tone poem of a game that achieves its goals in, you know, 6 basic moves and some playbooks. It’s the other kind, where more typical skill-based rules are rendered in the language of moves. There are sixteen “basic” moves as well as the moves each of a dozen playbooks provides. I created a character keeper for the game if you’d like to look through it. For the PbtA fans, you have a Hx-like value with your own past and future selves, which is very cute. It’s how you leverage your knowledge of yourself to get things done in the past and future, where you might become, literally, your own worst enemy.

The actual game plays pretty well, I thought, although it’s unclear to me how much long-term playability there is. I suspect you need to dial your time travel impacts up/down. The core method for determining the effects of time travel is a move called “Change History.” You roll this when changing history is either the point or the inevitable outcome of your activities. The result is that the player and/or the GM choose from a (very) long list of possible outcome categories, with the GM filling in the details of how each element changed. So like if you’re targeting an NPC in the past to change their mind about something in the future, you might change their religion, or their sexual activity, their politics, who knows?

PbtA being what it is, though, things can snowball into chaos pretty fast. I think this is where playing it as a one-shot versus a campaign pivots: slower and more thoughtful changes in time, rather than big zany changes.

I think End Times is a very smart structural approach to the genre.

The last time travel thing I backed last year is Nightfall GamesThe Terminator RPG. There’s only a quickstart PDF available, but I’ve received communication from my future self that it’s going to be a very trad approach to the material: elaborate combat rules, a subsystem for hacking, mostly gunfights with robots from the future. I guess you can either play rebels from the future sent back to save their targets, or the targets themselves. Will there be rules about changing the impending future? No idea, but based on reading the quickstart my communications from the future, there will not. Honestly this was pure fan-bait backing for me, and I do love the Terminator franchise, but I suspect the best part of this will be the various robot opponents.

No Do-Overs

If I had it to do over again, would I still have the good parts of my life today? Would it be worth risking the good to mitigate the bad? Did going through the bad make the good possible? Maybe this isn’t our first time through, and we’re already revisiting our choices. Or we’re running all possible choices in parallel, somehow communicating with ourselves. Are we experiencing our own best timeline? Scary thought: how much worse could it be? It’s A Wonderful Life is a classic for a reason, after all.

Who wouldn’t want a do-over?

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