It can be an excellent guide to a gritty, semi-realistic portrayal of time travel and its inherent dangers. The science fiction is minimal and there are no supernatural elements. Everything that happens occurs because of the inherent flaws in human nature.
Spoilers from here on in!
Primer concerns two engineers, Aaron and Abe, who accidentally stumble upon a simple form of time travel. In an attempt to reduce the weight of anything placed within a box they instead unmoor it from time, causing anything within to cycle back and fore between the present and when the machine was turned on.
Once they realise what they’ve got they can charge up the time machine in the morning, check the stocks and then travel back several hours (with an oxygen tank so they can breathe) and then buy shares, knowing exactly what will make them money.
While they begin by taking steps to avoid paradoxes and influencing themselves things start to go wrong when they attempt to influence their own timeline or re-do events. The relationship between Aaron and Abe fall apart, as they discover they are hiding things from each other, not least of which is a failsafe box that can undo everything.
THE TIME TRAVEL
The time travel involved here is gruelling on the traveller. If you want to go back 6 hours you have to stay in the box for that length of time and climb out at the right moment. Disorientation or panic can mean you get out too early or too late. This test of physical and mental endurance limits how long someone could travel back, not to mention that they can’t go back further than when the machine you were using is turned on.
Once you do turn it on you should leave immediately, so you don’t cross paths with your future self. This danger can be eliminated if you have someone else turn on the machine.
Conceivably you could look in an active box to see if it was occupied but this could result in interrupting the journey of the traveller (which might be you). This would result in a nasty case of chronal instability if you were to emerge from the machine and then try to pull a slightly earlier incarnation of yourself out a short while later.
You can bring other things within the box, including other collapsible time machines. This can allow you to go back to when one time machine was turned on and set up a second time machine, allowing you to return to roughly the same period without using the ‘occupied’ machine you’ve just used.
Extended use of this means of time travel could require the use of Athletics or Health. Preparedness could ensure that you’ve brought along enough supplies to keep you going, especially during long trips. A travel test ensures you get out at the right point.
Preparedness and Paradox Prevention are crucial with this type of time travel. Abe and Aaron have to ensure that they bring two forms of transport to the location of the machine, one for their present selves to leave in and one for their future selves to use once they emerge.
They attempt to cut themselves off from the world by isolating themselves in an hotel room before they use the time machine. They aren’t supposed to bring their cell phones, something which Aaron forgets twice. They do as much as they can to remove themselves from the world so that the actions of their future selves don’t affect them, at least at first.
The world only remembers the latest revision of events. This allows you to change events how you like, including your own past. If you disrupt your own history, effectively preventing your younger self from getting into the machine when they were supposed to you don’t vanish. There are now additional independent versions of yourself.
This can be scary, especially when you realise that your actions have been altered by a time traveller. At one point Aaron and Abe realise they are being followed by Thomas Granger, the father of Abe’s girlfriend Rachel. He is clearly from the future but becomes comatose before they can find out how he discovered the machine or why he has come back.
Abe and Aaron can only speculate why Thomas was there and what he had prevented them from doing. Might they themselves have sent him to avert something terrible? Under what circumstances would they make that decision? They, nor the viewer, ever find out.
This can be very effective in a game, with the PCs experiencing their own history being changed, even if it is their own unknown future. It can also lead them to speculate that this is a result of their own future actions and guess at what the goal was. Do they try to put things back on track or do they decide that the change was for the best?
TIME TRAVEL TRICKS
Much of what Aaron and Abe do is based on being prescient. They are using the fact that they can experience the same events multiple times to their own advantage. Aaron goes so far to record conversations so he knows exactly what was said in previous timelines.
Not only can this be an effective way of passing on information to younger versions of yourself (so they can predict what will happen) it can be used to get a conversation back on track. An example of this is shown when Aaron fails to make a basketball shot which diverts the flow of events from the timeline in which he succeeded. All he has to do is repeat a line from the recording to get an expected response and put things back on track.
An extreme use of this foreknowledge is the ability to drug your former self, since you know exactly what they will be drinking or eating. This extends to anyone that you know the schedule and actions of.
This can all be represented with Preparedness but you might also want to lower the difficulty of challenges when the PC has knowledge of how things turn out. Obviously if they disrupt things too much this information will be useless.
DANGERS OF TIME TRAVEL
Chronal Instability is represented by physical maladies. This begins with minor bleeding (for example from the ears) and can progress to a coma. The extreme fate of Thomas Granger could be due to the fact that once his presence is known by Aaron and Abe his potential timeline is erased and so he can’t survive.
Prolonged use causes a degenerative nerve disorder in both Aaron and Abe, preventing them from writing. This could be a purely physical condition or a way for time to prevent information from being carried backwards. It is possible that further use would cause further degeneration.
Representing Chronal Instability in this way links it with Health. You may decide that no amount of medical treatment can cure physical afflictions caused by instability. It also raises questions whether it is the time travel that has caused the condition, the long hours spent in the machine, a side effect of the technology or just something that was inevitably going to happen to the PCs body.
Using this method can bring a stronger horror element to a game. PCs don’t fade away or become other people if they cause a paradox. They bleed, feel pain, lose basic co-ordination skills and eventually have their body shutdown. Time with devour them if they aren’t careful.
PCs will also have to worry about their future selves, who will think nothing of drugging them, knocking them out or worse in order to take their place. If Chronal Instability or even just prolonged use of time travel can cause madness they have to worry both about what their future self will do but what they will become.
AARON AND ABE AS ANTAGONISTS
The main characters of this film represent the potential danger of engineers who stumble across time travel. Even something minor as being able to travel back a short time can cause problems and reinforces that time travel technology is within the reach of anyone.
Their manipulation of the stock market might not have had a major impact on the timeline. It is possible that TimeWatch might never detect their actions. Still, over time, the changes could have impacted the economy or affected the fate of the companies they buy stock in. Their purchase could have been the difference between success and failure.
It is their attempt to engineer the perfect moment that could cause real problems. Repeated trips to the same events, to create a specific outcome, could degrade time or cause chronal instability to those involved. TimeWatch could become aware of a time loop and discover that it is brand new time traveller.
Things get worse when you have two time travellers in close proximity, revising the same period of time, over and over again. Factor in the multiple copies they create as they create divergent younger version of themselves and you have a rapidly escalating situation for the PCs to handle.
The actions of the engineers illustrates how even someone with the best intentions can be corrupted by the temptation of time travel. Even the thought of doing something and then erasing it is enough to let the genie out of the box.
At the conclusion of the film Abe sets out to sabotage the efforts of their younger selves, so they give up on the machine and move on to other projects. This could be an example of time working itself out and a way for PCs to nip the problem of troublesome time machine inventors in the bud.
The problem is that there is still a version of Aaron out there planning to create a much bigger time machine. The consequences of this could serve as the basis of a TimeWatch adventure.
AARON AND ABE AS TIMEWATCH AGENTS
Characters who invented their own time machine could be very useful to TimeWatch. It removes them from their own timeline, where they might have caused problems, and puts their technical skills to use. The autochron might be superior technology but it is always handy to have someone who can create their own machine from scratch.
A pragmatic approach an engineer can bring as a field agent can help minimise problems. They are far less likely to suffer chronal instability if they think through the consequences of their actions. In addition they can reverse-engineer events to locate their cause.
Such characters would also thrive within the Citadel, where they can dedicate themselves fully to constructing and repairing time machines. TimeWatch might even allow them time to engage in their own projects in the hope that they can refine the autochron or create something even better.
PRIMER AS A CAMPAIGN MODEL
Basing a campaign on Primer requires a much smaller scale. PCs aren’t going to be travelling very far into the past or engaging in chases through the eras. If TimeWatch exists it is also likely to be smaller, less official organisation. It could be just a group of concerned engineers, worried about the implications of other people having time travel technology.
The campaign could focus on the PCs personal lives. What do they want and how can they use time travel to achieve it? If they need money they can play the stock market, if they want to impress someone they can use their foreknowledge to resolve a dangerous situation or if something bad happens they can attempt to prevent it.
Drama can arise when the interest of the PCs and NPCs with time machines conflict. If achieving their goal will prevent someone else from achieving theirs (and vice versa). Adventures focus on working out what you need to do or who has changed your timeline.
The repercussions of the time machine can be explored, as well as the ethics of using them. What if someone is using them to kill people but always makes sure to undo those events? Would the PCs challenge them or is this acceptable? What if a big company or the military gets hold of the technology?
For a larger scale PCs could be tasked with preventing tragedies, whether they be accidents or terrorist attacks. They have a small window of opportunity to go back and stop it, as long as they have time machine charged up and ready to go.
To open up the scope of the game the PCs could find a way to travel back at a faster pace, so they don’t have to spend hours or days in the machine. They could find that others have already cracked the problem and that there are machines out there that were turned on years ago. If they can only find them.