Roleplayer #25, August 1991

In The Nick Of Time

Rescue Adventures for Time Travel and Parallel Worlds

by Steve Jackson

An adventure idea that works well in either the time-travel or alternate-worlds genre is the rescue. The player characters, either from the future or from some "reflection" timeline equivalent to the future, are attempting to save someone from their "fated" death. This can be played as a one-shot, or developed into a whole campaign; perhaps the PCs belong to a "Rescue Corps" which specializes in this sort of mission!

Why Bother?

If time is totally flexible, then time-travelers can do anything they like, and the answer to "why bother" becomes "Because we felt like it." But if paradoxes are impossible – or if they are possible and dangerous – then travelers will need a good reason to interfere with the course of history. The same is true in an "Infinity Unlimited" alternate-world campaign, in which any interference with a "reflection" timeline is likely to cause a catastrophic quantum shift. So there must be some reason why that individual is worth a lot of trouble.


The target might be interesting, not as an individual, but as a study-sample from his time period. In return for his cooperation, he might eventually be "resettled" in his own time or another, to live out a normal life.


Many historical geniuses had tragically short careers. What might Mozart have accomplished if he had lived past 35? The rescuers may be motivated by simple admiration, by need for a specific talent, or by profit . . . how much could Mozart earn his managers if he were alive today and writing heavy metal?


Perhaps the target's potential is, specifically, that he or she would make a good agent for the rescuing group. In that case, the Time Police might have agents like Julius Caesar, Wild Bill Hickok, Jim Thorpe, Rasputin . . .

But a crosstime force could do even better – recruiting from alternate worlds, they might have several Caesars, Hickoks and so on. If the available parallel worlds include fictional ones, they could even have Sherlock Holmes for a field investigator and a half-dozen James Bonds as troubleshooters!


Finally, there may be no economic logic at all behind the rescue. It just so happens that someone very wealthy – or someone who owns a time machine – wants to rescue that particular target.

Avoiding Paradox

To keep from interfering with the time stream, the agents mustn't just walk up to the target and say "How would you like to see the future?" Instead, they must remove the target in a way that doesn't change the time flow. This almost always means "at the target's reported death or disappearance."

Sometimes this is no problem at all. Amelia Earhart, for instance, would be easy to recruit. She vanished on a transoceanic flight, with no witnesses for hundreds of miles. Abraham Lincoln, on the other hand, would present real problems. He was shot in front of hundreds of witnesses, and his body was closely supervised every moment until its burial. But nothing is impossible! If a clone, a robot, a hypnotized dupe or volunteer martyr could be substituted before the fatal shot, the real Lincoln would be free to escape. However, many organizations will not have the resources, or the ruthlessness, to provide a believable substitute. Something else must be arranged.

The Last-Minute Snatch

If there are no witnesses to the target's actual death, something can always be arranged. Planning such missions should be half the fun – there is room for real cleverness here. A careful study of the target's last hours or days . . . or more . . . will be necessary.

The Advance Substitution

The more time elapses between the target's last inter-action with "important" witnesses and his death, the better. If he spends his last few weeks among total strangers, he could be whisked away and replaced by an accomplice days in advance. And arranging the getaway of a willing accomplice is always easier.

Of course, if the target can be recruited well in advance, he can cooperate. How many historical "celebrity suicides" were really covers for an exit to the future?

The Historical Fix

Finally, in some cases, it may be impossible to "fool" history before the target dies. In that case, the agents can try to fix it afterward. For instance, suppose the target is a prisoner of the Nazis in 1944. There's no way to contact him in advance, or to do a substitution; he's imprisoned with dozens of people who know him. There's no chance for a subtle last-minute snatch before he's taken out into the country to be shot. So the agents forget subtlety. They ambush the execution party, rescue the prisoner, and give the guards a choice: report what happened and be shot, or report that the prisoner was killed and buried as ordered. They'll play along . . .

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