Your Past is Their Future: A Time Travelling Campaign Theme for D&D

rift coverThis year at GenCon 2011, the “swag bag” had some pretty awesome stuff in it, but probably the best item was the full retain copy of the relatively new MMORPG called  RIFT.  And like so many other attendees, I fired up my computer when I got home and installed the game to give it a try – afterall, the retail copy comes with a free month of play!

It turns out that RIFT is a pretty decent WoW clone, with a unique character creation process, and some really mind-blowing graphics.  It also has a mechanic for dynamic group play similar to the “public quest” sites found in the Warhammer MMO, where groups of characters spontaneously band together to close a rift to an elemental plane.

So overall, it’s a pretty decent game, but a review of the MMO was not my intent here.  What I was really inspired by was the way that the characters start their adventuring careers: witnessing the end of the world, and then sent back into the past to try and prevent it from coming to pass!

“Wibbly-wobbly Timey-whimey… stuff”

Even before I became a huge Doctor Who fan, I always found that time-travel and paradox plotlines really fire my imagination.  I blame my grandmother for dropping an anthology of H.G. Wells on me when I was a kid, which included the famed story “The Time Machine”, as well as a number of his odder short stories.  So I was pretty much hooked from a young age on the idea of traveling through time.  And movies, novels, and television shows which used any sort of time travel macguffin have gone on to reinforce the thrill I get fromtrying to wrap my mind around the whole cause-and-effect (or effect-and-cause) weirdness that could ensue whenever time was treated as someone’s “sandbox”.

It’s seems like science-fiction authors constantly want to fiddle around with time travel, and there have been some great tales about it, like Poul Anderson’s novel Time Patrol, and Robert Silverberg’s short story House of Bones.  Heck, even Mark Twain couldn’t resist the lure of time travel plots, and he toyed with those concepts in his novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court before H.G Wells did!

But certainly, if science-fiction authors can have a blast toying with the fabric of the space-time continuum, then why don’t we see more time travel plots in heroic fantasy literature?

Breaking the Heroic Fantasy Template

I think that one of the reasons we don’t see a lot of time travel in heroic fantasy is that there are so many great novels rift undeadout there which have somewhat formed a mental template for fans as to how a plot should unfold.  A great many epic fantasy plots revolve around the heroes discovering “the bad thing”, which could be an event or thing that is happening all around them, and entails some secret plot to conquer or destroy the world as they know it.  Perhaps a prophecy foretold of “the bad thing” in the past, and the current crop of heroes are the ones fated to stop “the bad thing” from happening.

So the chain of events unfold in real time, and the heroes march through quests and adventures which are all designed to get them ready to stop “the bad thing”.  Allies pop up to grant them aid and knowledge, quests are undertaken to recover lost whatsits of power, while evil forces seek to thwart the heroes to speed the endgame.  Finally, the heroes persevere through to the big confrontation with “the bad thing”, and manage to defeat it once and for all.  Applause, bows, curtain.

Admittedly, it’s true, this template has worked just fine for heroic fantasy heroes from the Fellowship of the Ring, to Conan, to Fafhrd and Grey Mouser, but maybe it might be fun to break out of this “rise of the heroes” template.  Maybe introducing a bit of time travel and paradox might be just the thing to really change the nature of a heroic fantasy campaign?

It’s not the end of the world… but you can see it from here

So drawing inspiration from some time playing RIFT, and the numerous time travel stories I’ve read, and not to mention some the “effect-and-cause” episodes from the most recent seasons of Doctor Who, I’m contemplating a different sort of campaign.  This would be a campaign where the heroes live their lives just a bit out of sequence, “back to front” if you will.  And this campaign would start at the endgame, with the end of the world happening all around them, and where the heroes must bear witness to “the bad thing” winning the day!

Potentially, I envision starting the campaign by having the players actually create epic level characters, and play them in a series of encounters where they learn about “the bad thing” which is destroying their world.  But even as they race to save their world, and defeat the encounters, they cannot prevent it, and the world ends or is conquered.

But then they are given a reprieve – a chance to transport themselves back into the past and try to stop the calamity they just witnessed from coming to pass!  But the process if not a stable one, and they arrive in the past – maybe a century or more before the cataclysm to come – but in the bodies of young heroes recently slain in battle.  They are stripped of their epic powers, their powerful epic souls regenerating the corpses at the cost of their knowledge, and they have only scanty memories of the history which will lead to the end of the world.

The players can choose to advance their characters toward the heroes they created at the beginning of the campaign for the “endgame” story arc, or they can try different feats and paths and destinies, hoping that their new abilities might be more useful when facing the apocalypse to come.

Now and then, they might remember a tidbit or scrap of knowledge – a name of someone important, a place, or some item – but might not be sure how it fits into the overall scheme of the events which will end the world.  river song and diaryI think it would be a lot of fun to drop these half-memories and ideas into the campaign to see how the players react.

For instance, how will the heroes react to a memory of a king’s, who was said to betray the forces of good, when they are confronted with a little boy prince bearing the same name?  Will they go all “terminator” on the poor kid?  And will the memory of a powerful artifact in the hands of an evil villain make them want to seek it out and destroy it, or will they hide it, or even claim it for themselves?

And what would happen once the armies of darkness which follow “the bad thing” find out there are heroes in the past with foreknowledge of the future?  I can imagine all manner of interesting plots arising from them dispatching assassins and hit squads to prevent the heroes from stopping their inevitable victory!

I have to admit these ideas are quite intriguing, and I’ve already started fleshing out some of the plot lines for a campaign of this type.  I think it brings a certain science fiction element into heroic fantasy, but that’s not necessarily a bad mix of genres.  Time travel and a “terminator” plotline can offer some real dilemmas for players to have to face, especially if a Dungeon Master challenges them with choices which are filled with hope for saving the future, but will perhaps have terrible ramifications in the present.  Only the DM will know if the heroes’ conundrum will rescue the world from the apocalypse, or plunge it into an even worse paradox – and that will certainly make for some great role-playing moments!

So until next blog… I wish you Happy Gaming!

About The Author

Michael is an Adept of a Secret Order of Dungeon Masters, and dwells in a hidden realm with his two evil cat-familiars, deep within the Vale of Wolverines, called by some "Michigan". He has been esoterically conjuring D&D Campaigns for nearly a Third of a Century, and has been known to cast ritual blogs concerning Dungeons & Dragons every few days with some regularity. Michael has freelanced for Wizards of the Coast, and writes reviews of D&D and other Role-Playing Game products on EN World News.


5 Responses to “Your Past is Their Future: A Time Travelling Campaign Theme for D&D

  1. Siliconwolf says:

    While I didn’t think to have the players start out Epic and go back, the idea of witnessing the end of the world and going back, I hadI kind of a similar idea with my current campaign when Dark Sun came out. The PCs would during the Paragon tier go into the far future, in one way or another, to the post-apocalyptic world using the Dark Sun setting. They would then learn about how their absence allowed the big bad to destroy their world bringing about the blasted desert, deadly magic and dead gods of Dark Sun. But as the PCs passed into the Epic they would find a way back to the past just after they left and then the Epic would be trying to stop what they know will happen using the knowledge they gained in the future to change events and prevent it from happening, or just taking advantage of the situation as as the case may be.

  2. Svafa says:

    I would be terribly tempted to become the Big Bad… >.<

  3. Have them play the big bad then and be at each other’s throats. Have them fighting people that are presented as the good guys, and be sure to present them the idea that this can all be changed.

    Near as I can figure, the events of Terminus were undone by capturing the fire squirrels in Freemarch. It’s the only thing that makes sense.

  4. @Svafa & Nicholas – I think that’s what makes this campaign appealing to me – seeing how the players choose to react when confronted with the end of the world scenario, then being sent back with the chance to avert it. I think the mind games you could play with your party would be tremendously fun as a DM, making each action they take to change the outcome of the future have serious effects in other ways. It’s the “Butterfly Effect” campaign, and it’s a real role-playing mess for the players to have to deal with!

  5. Nstar says:

    The campaign frames you outline seem to be a variation on “The Mobius Trippers,” in DM 1. My campaign has the heroic tier set in Athas, and as the PCs advance, they go back in time, not forwards. The climax comes when they can set the universe right as epic characters by becoming the gods and defeating the Primordials to prevent the Athas scenario from happening in the first place. That arc has some good rules to follow regarding time paradoxes, and introduces a story element that a cult develops over time to thwart the PCs, i.e., God-Killers. As you likely know, the Planescape lore has a faction in Sigil devoted to that precise outcome.

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