Roleplayer #27, February 1992

Making Time Travel Live

How To Research, And When To Stop

by Paul Paquet

Putting together a solid, long-term time travel campaign takes a good deal more care and ingenuity than most other roleplaying campaigns. Game-masters need to continually create new and exciting environments for their players, while players must define personae for characters who change identities at a drop of a hat. And without familiar people and places, campaigns risk becoming sterile and lifeless, a problem aggravated by the unavailability of some of the more interesting disadvantages.

But fear not. With a little tinkering, even the wildest time travel campaigns can come alive. There are just three simple rules. Do a little research, give the PCs lots of recurring NPCs, and let them loose.


As anyone who has labored through a term paper can tell you, research can be dull. But creating an adventure is supposed to be a lot more fun than writing a term paper – and it will be, if you remember that the GM is supposed to be an entertainer first. Do the best you can, but don't lose sleep if you can't fill in every detail. Nobody expects you to know everything about the time frame you have picked . . . and when in doubt, make it interesting! Besides, so much of what we know as history is either unknown, untrue or uncorroborated, your "error" may have been the historical truth after all! And if you do let slip a minor anachronism, don't expect the Historical Police to come knocking.

With that load off your mind, you can begin designing adventures. Plan for periods that are well-documented and interesting, and therefore easy to research. Colonial America would qualify. Fifth-century Poland would not. Once you have picked a time-frame, see if there is a GURPS supplement. If there is, start by reading it!

The next step is to visit your local library, find a book that gives a good overview, and try to get the big picture. Even a good encyclopedia article can get you started. Before you work out an adventure, you'll need to be straight on the surrounding timeline. Minor anachronisms are one thing, but having Julius Caesar throw Christians to the lions would be embarrassing. (Julius died several decades before Christ was born).

Once you have a basic outline, flesh it out with the sights, sounds and smells the players would encounter. Remember that you don't want to load your game down with lots of unnecessary detail. Telling players what it's like to fly high in a rickety World War I fighter plane will be far more interesting than a discourse on early German industrial techniques.

Ask the reference librarian for general books about your topic, preferably ones about daily life at the time. Avoid weighty academic tomes. Illustrated books are best for two reasons; they are generally easier to read, and you can use the maps, photos and pictures as visual aids for the players. This is especially valuable for costumes, terrain and architecture.

Get about a half-dozen books and skim them for more detail. Keep an eye out for information about law enforcement, medicine, available weapons, the political status of nearby countries and general technological development, particularly in transportation and communication. This is the kind of information that players tend to ask about.

Inevitably, though, unless you become a genuine expert in the period, the players will ask questions about the background that you may not be able to answer. What's a poor GM to do?

Why, cheat, of course. After all, if the players don't know, and you don't know, what difference does it make if you roll randomly to find out whether they had local anesthesia in Victorian England? And if the players' lives depend on the answer, does it hurt to make assumptions in their favor?

Of course, if you're near the end of the evening's session, you can break, research the question, and get the right answer . . . or ask one of the players to do it. It all depends on the amount of detail you and your players want in the campaign.


In real life, familiarity may breed contempt, but in roleplaying it creates context, and that makes for good gaming. Over time in most campaigns, the GM can weave a rich web of intrigues, enmities and alliances that can be plucked whenever the action is slowing down, or whenever new ideas are needed to juice things along. But time travelers never get to build up the kind of relationships with NPCs that breathe warmth and reality into a campaign. Another epoch, another batch of faceless NPCs. Yawn.

But take heed. It doesn't have to be that way.

One way to provide more NPCs is to have longer, mini-campaigns in different periods, or to keep coming back to favorite periods over and over again. Sure, you may have kept Custer from winning at Little Big Horn, but that same year Wild Bill Hickok was killed in Deadwood, just across state lines. And over in Philadelphia, Alexander Graham Bell was showing off his new "telephone."

Not only does this allow favorite NPCs to interact more often with players, but it greatly reduces the amount of time GMs have to spend researching new periods. Find out what the players like and give them more of it! There's no point bouncing around in the ancient world if all the players prefer 20th-century adventures.

Another good idea is to let the PCs spend more time in their "native" periods. This allows them to interact with family, friends, and enemies. They can even have regular, full-time jobs completely separate from their secret time-traveling lives. With a little cleverness, you can mix adventures in the base period with time travel adventures. For example, the players hear of a flood of rhino horns coming from India, even though the Indian rhinoceros is near extinction. They travel to India, and discover that Stopwatch has set itself up during the Raj, and is poaching there on a wide scale.

But even a footloose campaign can have plenty of continuity. If the PCs aren't the only time travelers, they'll run into many of the same people over and over again. For example, nothing spices up a campaign like an evil master-mind who works through legions of subordinates. Every plot traces back to this nefarious individual, who only seems to show up in person when his foes are captured and helpless. And when the PCs turn the tables, just when they have their hands around his throat – blam! – he clocks out.

Recurring characters don't all have to be villains, of course. What would the players do with a renegade time traveler on a crusade to exorcise history of evil? What would they do, for example, with an Israeli trying to kill Hitler?

And there are all sorts of people who might time travel for purely personal reasons. Merchants, thieves and collectors might be moving through time looking for rare finds. In one campaign I was in, I played a time-traveling tourist who liked getting himself photographed with historical figures.

Dependents and Enemies are another source of continuity. A PC might be in love with another agent, or may have incurred the special wrath of one of the opposition. Let your imagination run wild. Suppose a character's daughter had been kidnapped, and was being hustled from era to era, just one step ahead of the rescuers.

Then there are the amateurs. Set up situations where people accidentally travel through time. Did the players really enjoy that bumbling prison guard they escaped from in Tudor England? Well, imagine their surprise when he shows up again in Victorian London, full of wonder at his newfound surroundings. And, it should be added, back in the same line of work.

One very interesting, very weird, alternative is to have your characters interact with immortals, or to have multiple adventures within a single person's lifetime. If the characters keep going back in time, they can meet the same people again and again, for the first time each time. But be warned: this is a situation that breeds paradoxes.

Let 'Em Loose

Let's be honest. What's the fun about visiting 19th-century Germany if you can't give Beethoven a few pointers about that pesky Ninth Symphony he's trying to write? Sure, it creates anachronisms. Sure, it creates paradoxes. But it's soooo much fun.

Time travel campaigns really excel when players feel as though they are fully part of the history around them. They have tea with Genghis Khan and beat Napoleon at chess. They attend the fanciest balls at Versailles and dance the night away at the most exclusive clubs in modern Manhattan. Let them rise to the occasion. It would be silly to find yourself at Sherwood Forest and not get a chance to shoot an arrow at the Sheriff. If you have a Wild West adventure, end it with a shootout.

One immediate difficulty with this approach, and with time travel in general, is that characters must be able to function with a variety of skills at a variety of tech levels. The skills needed to survive in cyberpunk Los Angeles are decidedly different from the ones needed in ancient Sparta. As a result, players are tempted to pick a disparate range of skills, rather than a set that matches character conception.

There are two ways around this. First, you can use a system of time travel where PCs can "borrow" skills. Examples of this include psionic time travel, and campaigns where players have access to cyberpunk implant chips.

Another possibility would be drastically increasing the number of points allowed for beginning. This has the draw-back of requiring an artificial limit on the number of points that can be put into characteristics, but if you like cinematic campaigns, this solution would be ideal.

In fact, if you really want to let your players loose, a cinematic campaign may be your best bet. After all, paradoxes are easier to work around if everybody's tongues are planted firmly in their cheeks. Cinematic time travel campaigns, especially ones that allow martial arts, psionics or cyberwear, are buckets of fun.

And that's the whole point!

(Back to Roleplayer #27 Table of Contents)

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