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It's About Time
The Dungeon Master Experience
Chris Perkins

This regular column is for Dungeon Masters who like to build worlds and campaigns as much as I do. Here I share my experiences as a DM through the lens of Iomandra, my Dungeons & Dragons campaign world. Even though the campaign uses the 4th Edition rules, the topics covered here often transcend editions. Hopefully this series of articles will give you inspiration, ideas, and awesome new ways to menace your players in your home campaigns.

If you’re interested in learning more about the world of Iomandra, check out the wiki.

MONDAY NIGHT. The heroes have traveled to the Feywild in search of a knowledgeable archwizard, only to discover that a lamia has taken over the wizard’s tower in his absence. Having seduced the wizard’s apprentice, she’s convinced him to help her locate a talisman hidden somewhere in the tower.

The heroes defeat the lamia, break her spell on the apprentice, and wait for the archwizard to return, whereupon he calls forth a Leomund’s secret chest and offers them the talisman inside as their reward.

With it, he says, they can travel back in time.

This week, I’d planned to discuss the dramatic impact of bringing back long-lost characters and NPCs. However, a question posed by Khilkhameth concerning last week’s article has prompted me to veer off on a tangent. The question is:

How do you keep players involved in the game once their characters are killed off?

My stock answer is, “Have them play something else—anything else.” Have them play an NPC companion, hand them a monster stat block, or have them return as ghostly apparitions that haunt the party until Raise Dead rituals can be cast. Anything is better than having the players fall asleep at the game table. In the case of one Monday night player, I decided it was time to bring back an old character that the game group had all but forgotten.

The Monday group recently lost two characters: the genasi swordmage Yuriel (played by Nick DiPetrillo) and the eladrin warlord Andraste (played by Michele Carter). They fell prey to a death knight with a soul-eating sword. Fortunately, Nick had a backup character among the crew on the party’s ship, the Maelstrom. Michele's situation was a bit more complicated. She didn’t have a ready-to-play back-up character—or so she thought.

Earlier in the campaign, the heroes used the archwizard’s hourglass talisman (a single-use wondrous item of my own invention) to travel back in time and “meet themselves” in the past. It was a great way to escape their present predicament, and afforded them the rare chance to team up with themselves and effectively play twins for a session or two. The two identical parties joined forces to face a common threat—but Andraste was the only character to survive the adventure with a living twin. Michele didn’t want to play two identical characters for the rest of the campaign, so “Andraste Prime” stayed with her companions while “Andraste Past” conveniently left the group to pursue other quests and interests.

Andraste Past was absent from the campaign for over a year of game time (about ten levels of play), so even Michele was surprised when her character’s temporal twin reappeared shortly after Andraste Prime’s demise. The trick for me was concocting a situation that would logically reunite Andraste Past with the other heroes. To my credit, I had previously set up a major quest to rescue Andraste’s father, an eladrin wizard of some repute who had been arrested for conspiracy. It made perfect sense that Andraste Past would learn of her father’s incarceration, particular since the news had been delivered to her temporal twin via sending stone. (I decided it was possible for Andraste Past to overhear messages intended for Andraste Prime.)

You’ve seen this trick used many times in TV shows and movies: Having suffered a great loss or setback, the heroes are drowning their sorrows when a familiar face appears out of the blue. It might be the face of salvation or a harbinger of worse things to come. Either way, it’s a tried-and-true cliché that can be surprisingly rousing, particularly if the character is beloved or reviled. (I used a similar trick once with a villain who’d cloned himself. As I recall, his sudden reappearance was greeted with gasps of “Oh, no!” followed by shaking of fists.) Remember the scene in J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek when Spock Prime first appears in the ice cave? Yeah, you know what I’m talkin’ about.

Andraste Past filled the hole left behind by poor Andraste Prime, but not perfectly. In order for Michele to effectively play Andraste Past, she needed a quick download of that character’s recent accomplishments—just the highlights. This required some prep work on my part, and the information I provided gave Michele a sense of the experiences that had shaped Andraste Past once she’d left the party. Of course, she was free to swap out her old gear for new stuff, as appropriate. For Michele, these events afforded her the opportunity to redefine Andraste’s relationship with the other heroes and play a version of the character with her own agenda and aspirations.

Lessons Learned

Time travel is a great storytelling tool, but like a chainsaw it comes with a warning label. Used unwisely, it can mutilate your campaign, as it demands a great deal of forethought and caution. I once subjected the Monday night group to the effects of an arcane contraption that teleported them into the future—the specifics of which are discussed in my blog. It was shocking and fun, but it took weeks of preparation since I needed to figure out all the ways in which Future Iomandra was different from Current Iomandra. (In general, the farther into the future you travel, the more gaps need to be filled.) Also, there are many complex factors to consider, such as determining which characters are still alive in the future, and what tragic fates befell the ones that aren’t.

My dalliance with time travel in the Iomandra campaign has taught me a few things:

  • If you use time travel, be ready for the unexpected.

  • The past is easier to navigate than the future.

  • Keep the “rules” for time travel as simple as possible.

Don’t introduce time travel if you’re worried about players altering your campaign’s history or acquiring items or information normally beyond their reach. Just as I view time travel as a fun way to mess with my players, they see time travel as a fun way to mess with my campaign. As for the “rules” of time travel, you need to determine how to handle temporal paradoxes and the extent to which the heroes can affect change. When I decided to give the Monday players the hourglass talisman, I did so with the full understanding that the heroes could go back in time, meet themselves, and change the course of history. But imagine if a character travels back in time and kills his parents before he’s born. What happens next? Does the character suddenly disappear, having effectively erased himself, or is he a separate entity from his unborn self and therefore unaffected? Probably best not to overthink it, but there needs to be an underlying logic that the players can follow; otherwise, you’re playing a game without rules, and that will cause your campaign to crack and fall apart.

My own rules for time travel are simple:

  • A character traveling through time is removed from play in the present timeline.

  • A character traveling to the past or future is not affected by the changing states of creatures around him, including older and younger versions of himself. He can be wounded and killed as normal, but nothing adverse happens to him if his younger or older self is injured or dies.

  • Time travel effects have durations. No matter how far into the past or present a character travels, he only gets to stay there for a finite amount of time before the time travel effect ends and he returns to the time and place whence he came. In this way, time travel is like an elastic band; eventually, the time traveler gets pulled back to the exact time and place he left, minus any gear he left behind or resources he expended. This is true even if the character dies in the past or present.

  • If a character acquires an item in the past or future, he still has the item when he returns to his normal time. So, if the character travels to the future, kills an evil wizard and takes the wizard’s staff back to the present, the character now has the staff and the wizard (who is technically still alive) does not.

These rules don’t address every corner case that comes up during play, and thoughtful players might discover (and exploit) a few loopholes. If they do, you’ll have to improvise. If improvisation isn’t one of your strengths, it’s probably best to forego time travel for the time being rather than let it disrupt or destroy your otherwise spectacular campaign.

Until the next encounter!

—Dungeon Master for Life,
Chris Perkins

Poll 06/30/2011 Results:

Which of the following classic AD&D dungeons is the easiest to talk your way through?

  • The Tomb of Horrors (S1 Tomb of Horrors): 19.0%
  • The Slave Lords' dungeon (A4 In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords): 17.7%
  • The dungeons below the Temple of Elemental Evil (T1-4 The Temple of Elemental Evil): 17.2%
  • The Demonweb (Q1 Queen of the Demonweb Pits): 8.5%
  • A toss-up between Nosnra’s steading, Grugnur’s glacial rift, and Snurre’s hall (G1-2-3 Against the Giants): 7.7%
  • White Plume Mountain (S2 White Plume Mountain): 5.8%
  • The troglodyte caverns and kuo-toa shrine (D1-2 Descent into the Depths of the Earth): 5.8%
  • The Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun (WG4 The Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun): 5.2%
  • The Tomb of Amun-Re (I3 Pharaoh): 4.8%
  • The dungeon below Maure Castle (WG5 Mordenkainen’s Fantastic Adventure): 4.8%
  • Lost Tamoachan (C1 The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan): 2.2%
  • The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth (S4 The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth): 1.3%

The Dungeon Master Experience: Poll 07/07/2011

What is your favorite time-traveling movie? (This is of course a partial list. Any favorites you’d like to mention in the comments field?)

What is your favorite time-traveling movie?
Back to the Future
Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure
Donnie Darko
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Hot Tub Time Machine
Star Trek (2009 film)
Time Bandits
Twelve Monkeys

Christopher Perkins
Christopher Perkins joined Wizards of the Coast in 1997 as the editor of Dungeon magazine. Today, he’s the senior producer for the Dungeons & Dragons Roleplaying Game and leads the team of designers, developers, and editors who produce D&D RPG products. On Monday and Wednesday nights, he runs a D&D campaign for two different groups of players set in his homegrown world of Iomandra.
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