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A Superheroic Theory of Time Travel

23 December, 2021

prague-astronomical-clock-112917440026rDOr Time Travel on Earth-H!

The best works of time travel fiction generally have a clear and compelling structure for time travel, perhaps it is:

Linear Time, time moves in a straight line and where changing the past will change the future (such as in Poul Anderson’s Time Patrol stories or, mostly, in the Terminator movies).

Branched Time, where changing the past causes an entire new timeline to appear following the branch, but the events (and timeline) of the original version still exist as the original starting point for the time traveler who changed the past.

Parallel Timelines, infinite or limited, usually this means that travel in “time” is just traveling to a different timeline that seems identical to the past of the person traveling.  With enough Branched Time and you get close to the sme effect.

Immutable Time, the past is fixed, either you cannot change the flow of history or anything you did is alreadt accounted for in your present.  A variant of this is, you change the past but someone/thing steps into that hole and make the the future turn out pretty much the same.  Immutable time can be good for fiction but not much fun for roleplaying games.

There is also what might be termed “Monkey Paw” Time, which has been showing up in time travel stories recently.  Where any change to the past will cause increasingly disaterous alterations to the time traveler’s present (“the darkest timeline”) and further attempts to fix the timeline will just accelerate that downward trend.    Again, good for fiction, not so much for roleplaying games.

So, setting aside those last two, which form of time travel do the comics usually use? 

Well, all of them of course!  Just as the big comic universes are mixes of magic, technology, weird science and who knows what else, the approach to time travel tends to be anything goes as long as it makes for a good story.

Equally, in the comic, there is not just one way to time travel, there are many: technological and scientific means (Time Machines!), magic (Chronourgy?), natural abilities, including psychic projection to your past self (the centerpoint of the X-Men “Days of Futures Past” storyline), perhaps even natural phenomon that generate time portals.  Whatever is needed to make the story work is available.

The one “pure” time travel adventure I ran for Heroes Inc assumed linear time but much of the current Freedom Five (Heroes of ’67-’68) campaign is functioning more on a paralelle timelines (aka multiple dimensions) model.  But if a story would be better served by another model of time travel, that is exactly how it would work for that story with no cosmic or continuity implications.  Superheroic time travel is much like that in Doctor Who, it works is a way that is coherent, fun and interesting for the current story but can be totally different next issue.  Consistency is only important within each story, which is a good rule of thumb for superheroic stories anyway as they are true kitchen sink setting, full of competing and clashing ideas.

Go with what suits the story you want to tell and sort out the details later, if at all.

Really, the only time you need to have a coherent idea of the rules of time travel is if you are unfortunate enough to have a character with time travel powers.  In that case, to be fair to them and to you, you should at least sketch out how time travel will work most of the time but with the caveate that it may chages for certain stories but they will be informed when they need to play by different rules (and what those rules are).  After all, that is pretty much how time travel works in Doctor Who, and it is the supposed center point if the show:

“People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually, from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint, it’s more like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly… timey-wimey… stuff.” -The Doctor

While I do not recommend using time travel as the main driver of a superheroic campaign (though it seems to work for Legends of Tomorrow), a good time can be had with the occasion jaunt into the temporal realm.

Notes: My friend Brandes posted about Time Travel stories for RPGs on Tribality (worth a read if you want to run a time travel adventure or two) which got me to thinking about Time Travel in the Sea of Stars and thus in my superhero campaign, and in the superheroic genre in general, thus this article.  (See linear cause and effect!)

Image Petr Kratochvil has released this “Prague Astronomical Clock” image under Public Domain license.

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