Time Travel in Dungeons & Dragons
Updated: Mar 24
How do I run Time Travel in Dungeons & Dragons?
You don’t have to look hard to come across a story involving time travel. We find the plot device in many genres of books, films, and comics. Although science fiction leans heaviest on time travel—killer robots sent back to terminate the mother of a dangerous revolutionary are certainly a well-known example.
A Problem of Time
Fundamentally, time travel already exists in D&D. Time passes in the game. The DM controls time flow to manage the story, speeding it up and slowing it down. But time travel is more than watching sand fall through an hourglass. Time travel, in the fantastical sense, is the ability to travel from one point in time to another, either forward or backward, without changing physical location. For scientists out there, we aren’t talking real physics, so leave that at the dungeon door.
Branching Timelines and Fixed Points
One way to think about time is to imagine it as a braided line with no beginning and no end. The braids are all the objects in reality woven together to form the line. The line represents all the moments in time. Though, it’s worth noting that some worlds treat time more like a wheel where ages return as the wheel turns. Though this is not the approach we will be discussing. Although there is a sequence of events on the timeline, all moments occur simultaneously. People perceive time flowing in a single direction, but past and future are relative to one’s position on the timeline.
Loki and the Avengers time heist are great starting points for building out your story and adventures to involve time travel. They handle the explanation of branching timelines and the design of the multiversal timelines. Each decision a person or creature makes creates new branches. Meaning it is likely infinite possibilities. This mixes very well with the direction Wizards of the Coast is going with the Multiverse too.
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As DM it's highly recommended to create a large timeline with what you determine are “fixed” points in time. These events unfold no matter what changes happen. This ensures you have a bit of control over the lore of the world and events that happen. A great example would be a major war between factions. The war is a fixed point, it will happen. But, the characters making changes in time may alter who wins and how. So be flexible when creating fixed points.
More importantly, the timeline provides interesting moments where you and the characters can set an adventure. If you have several points like the “Great Cataclysm” or the “War of the Realms”, you can use these to ask your players where they want to play. Allowing them to experience those huge world-defining moments firsthand.
The point on the timeline that the group chooses to explore becomes the present, and everything that happens in the game adds definition to that period and, perhaps, future times.
Causality add Paradoxes
Events have causes. One event causes a second, which causes a third, and so on, building a chain of events. This is commonly referred to as the butterfly effect. All dependent events transform, perhaps disappearing altogether. At best, this activity alters the future. At worst, it creates a paradox that breaks the timeline.
For example, Strahd von Zarovich is Toril’s first vampire. After killing his brother the city was sucked into a demiplane. But, if a clever character delves into Strahd’s past and convinces him to pursue a life of peace, then he never becomes the first, which means there are probably no vampires in the world now. If so, why did the character go back in time, if there are no vampires when they choose to go back in time? Fixed points can help reduce events such as these from happening, or at the very least help you maintain control of the result.
As touched on before, you can use the branching timelines in a more controlled manner to help mitigate the risks to the campaign world as a result of time travel. Rather than create fixed points, when characters jump to another point on the timeline, they create a fork, with one branch extending into the future as it always has. The other, on which the characters find themselves, goes to a different, changeable future. A character could change Strahd in the previous example without fear of creating a paradox. The character would not be preventing Strahd from becoming a vampire on his timeline but would create an alternate reality starting at the point the change was made. (Great example is Trunks in Dragonball Z).
Whether it’s possible for the characters to return to their original timeline is up to you. It might be that whenever a character travels through time, they create a new timeline that moves in parallel with their own. In such a case, any return to the “present” places the characters in the alternative timelines present. On the other hand, the characters could return along the forked path and move back to their usual present. They would be in a world unchanged by their actions in the past.
Moving in Time
Knowing the risks and complications of time travel is just one step. How the characters travel through time is another. This can really set up the core of the story in a fun and interesting way. For example, a campaign where a powerful God has tasked you with correcting a disturbance that may lead to the end of the god. Rules might keep them from interfering directly, thus sending the characters. Or in a world full of powerful wizards experimenting with magic. It’s not uncommon for the magic to go awry. During a battle with a dark wizard, the characters could interrupt the ritual and the side effect tosses them into a different point in time. Now their goal is to get home, without any real understanding of how they got there in the first place. These two examples will play out entirely differently, and honestly, is a great way to experiment with new worlds and mechanics in your games.
Despite all the problems time travel can cause, it’s a powerful storytelling device, and it opens your campaign in ways you might never have imagined. With the push of the multiverse and access to new planes, the types of stories and adventures will be endless.
Unearthed Tips and Tricks for Dungeons & Dragons
Character Concept: Ootah Tatum, Female Half-Orc
Description: She is scrawny and has patchy silver stubble. She wears a robe, a symbol of magic around her neck, and a greatsword on her belt. She has a hunchback. She has wavy silver hair. Her violet eyes are desperate and heavily dilated. She has the appearance of someone under the heavy influence of drugs.
Personality: She has always had a great fascination with Gnomish culture. Energy-wise she seems alert and responsive.
History: Born in the east her family was never financially stable. Before the accident, she was one of the most outspoken anti-Gnomish activists. She was mortally wounded, saved by a kind and fast-acting Gnomish doctor. Recently a tribe of gnolls attacked the village and all able bodies who could hold a blade were quickly armed and sent to the walls. Ootah fought at the side of some of the regions greatest heroes but was never overshadowed.
Motivation: To fight the greatest warriors and to fight in the greatest battles ever, and a strong sense of loyalty to gnomish people
Monster Variant: Crocolisk
Origin Statblock: Minotaur
Lost Features: Labrynthine Recall, Gore
Tainted Blood. Everytime the crocolisk takes piercing or slashing damage, a spray of caustic blood spurts from the wound toward the attack. This spray forms a 10-foot cone. A creature in the area must make a successful DC 14 Constitution saving throw against disease or be infected. The creature is poisoned until the disease is cured. Every hour that elapses, the target must repeat the saving throw or reduce its hit point maximum by 5 (2d4). The disease is cured on a success. The target dies if the disease reduces its hit point maximum to 0. This reduction to the target’s hit point maximum lasts until the disease is cured.
Encounter: A Leap Through Time
The characters are tasked with searching for a local archeologist who has gone missing. Dayana Fushe a female commoner is concerned for her husband. He went out seeking the truth behind his great grandfather's disappearance some years ago. Dayana can share her husband Dorin's notes. A character that succeeds on a DC 13 Intelligence (Investigation) check confirms that he delved into the Halaluya Mountains. A character that succeeds on a DC 17 Intelligence (History) check recalls reading a tome regarding the lore that the Halaluya Mountains may contain a fountain that grants eternal life. To locate the cave, the characters must succeed a Skill Challenge, gaining 5 successful skill checks related to locating the cave before gaining 3 failures. Should they fail, they spend10 days searching, but never locate it and must start their search all over again. Every failed check should lead to a combat encounter with wandering monsters.
The truth is much more dangerous. The cave is a temporal distortion. While inside the cave time outside the cave is accelerated by 10,000 times.
Magic Item: Death Blossom
“The death blossom only grows on desecrated grounds. Places where necromantic magic has been used in a ritual to raise the dead. The black leaves with red spatterings are reminiscent of blood.”
When you cast the animate dead or a similar spell or feature that creates an undead servant. You can add the death blossom to the material components of the spell. If you do, the creatures summoned by the spell have their AC, attack bonus, damage and saving throws increased by an amount equal to the caster’s proficiency bonus.
Dungeon Master Tip: Small Economy
When adventurers swagger into town, they carry more wealth than most families see in a lifetime. Characters purchase expensive equipment such as weapons and armor and blithely pay top silver for rooms and meals. Unless a community is regularly experiencing an influx of adventurers and their massive bags of gold and gems, so much wealth wreaks havoc. ON a simple level, such wealth could either harm the town’s economy or bolster it significantly. As a guideline, if the characters spend more than three times a community's gold piece limits, assume they impact the town or village’s economy with their largress.
How could money be bad? INcrease in commodity prices and labor costs. While the few who got the adventurer’s wealth can afford the spike, nobody else can. Increased bandit attacks and raids just to name a few.
Player Tip: Brutal Bite
There lots of different ways to deal damage in Dungeons & Dragons. But, sometimes we just want to get the most out of a single feature. Today, we are going to discuss building the brutal biter. First, we want to start with the lizardfolk race to get access to the bite racial skill. This does 1d6 + Str piercing damage. Next, we want to delve into fighter champion to give our bite an increased critical hit range. Then we want to multiclass into monk to get access to flurry of blows. This will allow us to tear into our foes and ravage them like a hyena ravenously tearing into a dead carcass. Then we want to pick up the piercer feat. This will allow us to reroll 1 damage die per turn. This will help increase the average damage of our bite attack. Now enjoy watching the reaction of your adventuring party member's faces as you put the savagery of a barbarian's rage to shame.
RPG Phatloot Giveaway: Into the Fey Lands: Unearthed Spoils Volume II by Grim Press
Each volume of Unearthed Spoils is to be roughly 20-30 pages and packed with full-color art (lovingly created by Bob Greyvenstein), illustrating different types of 5e compatible content surrounding a central theme: Magic Items, Classes & Archetypes, Magical Spells, Monsters & NPCs, New Ancestries, and Short Adventures.
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Keep your blades sharp and spells prepared heroes!
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