How to run time travel in D&D

After 20 years of DMing, I’m still coming across things I’ve never done before. Two weeks ago, it was time travel. My friends’ 18th-level characters were pulled back 10,000 years into the past. They not only had a chance to learn some of the world’s lore: they got to change the past. It was fun – but it wasn’t simple.

In this article, I’m going to share some of my experiences of running time travel in D&D and offer some advice to DMs looking to introduce it into their games.

Why time travel?

For me, I wanted to use time travel for three main reasons:

  • Depth and scope. Time travel gives the players cosmic significance and context. It puts their actions within a much bigger picture. The adventure isn’t just about what happens in the present: it’s suddenly much bigger than that.
  • Power escalation. It’s good for players to see how mighty their characters have become. They’re not squashing giant rats in a cellar any more. Time travel, like planar travel, is a way of showing the players just how far they’ve come.
  • A new challenge. At high levels, it’s easy to feel invincible (‘If it’s got stats, we can kill it’). Time travel challenges players in new and unique ways. It’s a new toy for them to play with (and, probably, break).

Writers keep coming back to time travel because it’s fun. But then again, some people hate time travel. From a narrative perspective it can be messy, inconsistent, confusing, or frustrating. If you’re in this boat, you might not like this article. Hey, I have others.

Where we’re going, we don’t need rules

Watch Back to the Future | Prime Video

First off, it’s worth pointing out that time travel is not covered by the rules of the game at all. It is very much a case of DM fiat. The only ability in the game that comes to close is the 9th-level spell wish, which also brings with it a lot of DM interpretation. To the best of my knowledge, time travel is briefly alluded to in two official 5e adventures, and in both cases there’s no explanation as to how it happens.

If you want to run time travel in your game, you can do it however you choose. That said, time travel comes with all sorts of story consequences. It might not be covered by the rules of D&D, but it has its own internal ‘rules’ which vary from table to table.

I prepped for time travel in my own game by reading an excellent Chris Perkins article from his DM Experience series. I highly recommend it. I also spent a lot of time on Wikipedia and TV Tropes reading about temporal paradoxes. Be warned: this will make your head hurt.

If you’re going to run time travel, here are some questions you need to think about.

Changing time

Three solutions to the grandfather paradox

Is time immutable? The big one, really. Can the players change time? You may have heard of the grandfather paradox: if I go back in time and kill my grandfather before he had children, what happens? There are three main ways around this:

The parallel universe. Changing the past creates a new timeline. I think of this as the Rick and Morty solution. You kill your grandfather and return to an alternate timeline: a copy of the original timeline where events happened differently. This option gives your players the most scope to change history but potentially creates the biggest headache for you as a DM.

The past cannot be changed. A variant of this is ‘the past has already been changed’. This is the approach taken by J K Rowling in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. It might be the most logically pleasing solution, but it runs the risk of making the players feel like the choices don’t matter: in effect, a kind of railroading.

Somewhere in between. I call this the Doctor Who approach (‘wibbly wobbly, timey wimey’). In essence, time is unfathomably complicated, and sometimes you can change it, and sometimes you can’t. It’s essentially a big handwave, which some players will find frustrating. For you as a DM, though, this option gives you the most control.

However you do it, you need a solid understanding of your world’s history and the order of events. Time travel is all about causality: x happened because y happened, and so on.

Here’s a tip: you don’t actually have to decide until you see how your players respond. Some players will throw caution to the wind and try to meddle as much as they can. Others will want to play it safe and watch from the sidelines. I went into the session expecting the former, but ultimately the players chose to make very changes to the established timeline – and as it happens, the change they made was such a cool idea that it made more sense than the storyline I had originally planned, so, in the end, I was able to go with the Rowling model after all.

How does it happen?

You have a lot of freedom here. The only limit is your imagination. Is time travel a divine gift? Is it powered by an artifact? Is it linked to a specific location? Or is it completely mysterious and inexplicable? You’ll need to give it some thought and come up with your own answers.

DM-controlled or player-controlled? If you give players the scope to travel wherever they like within the game’s timeline, be prepared to do some serious improvising. Anything can happen and probably will. If you keep hold of the reins yourself, be careful not to create too much of a railroad. Roleplaying games have an unwritten social contract, and collaboration is a big part of this. If players don’t get to shape the story, you’re essentially writing a novel and dragging everyone along with you.

One-off or unlimited usage? In my campaign, the time travel was limited to a single session. It’s a fun diversion, but it runs the risk of becoming a real headache if it goes on longer than that, and you can end up completely overwhelming yourself. If you want time travel to be an ongoing part of your campaign, I would talk to the players first and check that it’s something they’re into.

In-game effects. Does time travel cause exhaustion? Are time travellers ethereal in the past? Does time travel require any kind of ability check or spellcasting? You don’t have to do any of these things, but it can add flavour and further challenges.

Visuals. This might be more of an aesthetic choice than a mechanical one, but it might matter, so it’s worth thinking about.

  • Video tape. Time is something you can rewind or fastforward through. You can speed up, slow down, pause. This is how it works in The Time Machine by H G Wells.
  • Wormhole. Going back in time involves a going through a portal into another dimension, or something equivalent. This is the Bill & Ted approach, and my own.
  • Instantaneous. There’s a flash of light, and, boom, you’re in the past. Or the future. This is how time travel works in Back to the Future, Ocarina of Time, The Time Traveller’s Wife, and About Time.
  • Unseen. You don’t see the time travel happen – it just happens. This is how time travel works in Groundhog Day. It is also how ‘mental time travel’ occurs: you close your eyes, fall off to sleep, and suddenly you’re in the past.

Final thoughts

Whatever happens, be prepared for the unexpected. As Perkins says, if improvisation isn’t one of your strengths, it’s probably best to forgo time travel for noow. Loosen your grip on the reins and be ready to fail forwards. Be ready for temporal paradoxes: they will happen even if you try really hard to prevent them. Time travel is bonkers, but it can also be an awful lot of fun. 

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