Twelve Monkeys, released in 1995, is a mesmerising, dark story of time travel. Directed by Terry Gilliam (who had previously explored time travel in the much lighter ‘Time Bandits’) and starring Bruce Willis (not his last involvement in a time travel film) and Brad Pitt.
At its core it is an investigation, illustrating how to run an adventure that isn’t focused on changing (or restoring) history but just solving a mystery. It is also useful as an examination of the mental stress placed on a time traveller and how others might come to understand their nature.
Spoilers From Here On In!
In 2035 the last of humanity hides beneath the surface of the Earth after a viral outbreak in 1996. James Cole is offered a pardon for his crimes if he agrees to travel back in time and acquire information about the virus, believed to have been released by a terrorist organisation called the Army of the Twelve Monkeys.
His first trip sends Cole to 1990 where he is placed in a mental institution where he is diagnosed of Dr Kathryn Railly and meets fellow patient Jeffrey Goines. Eventually retrieved he is sent back again, this time to 1996 where his paths again crosses with Dr Railly and Goines, now founder of the Army of The Twelve Monkeys and claiming that it was Cole who gave him the idea.
Increasingly disoriented and with doomsday approaching Cole begins to hope that he is mad while Dr Railly begins to believe that he really is a time traveller. The Army of the Twelve Monkeys put their plans in motion and Cole’s reocurring dream of a man shot dead in an airport seems to seal his fate.
THE TIME TRAVEL
The time machine in the Twelve Monkeys projects travellers into the past. It is imprecise sending subjects to distant locations and decades off target. A subject can be recalled remotely but this requires the operators to know where they are. Eye witness reports, records and possibly implanted tracking devices are needed to get a lock on them and recall them.
Travellers experience disorientation and can be placed in distressing situations. At one point Cole is thrown into the middle of World War 1 where he is shot. Another time traveller volunteer Jose ends up even more badly injured in the conflict and spends some time in a hospital before he is retrieved.
Time is presented as being inflexible. You can’t change the past because it has already happened. As such there is no chance to prevent the release of the virus. Indeed, much of the time travellers actions seems to help create the situation in which the virus is released and leave misleading information in the future.
TIME TRAVEL TRICKS
From their position in 2035 the scientists running the experiment are able to put together bits and pieces of what happened in the past. As their agents gather information they are to investigate other areas and find further clues. The biggest time travel advantage they have is the knowledge when and where the initial outbreaks occurred.
They set up message drops for the agents. Doctor Railly is able to leave a message on an answer machine which is eventually deconstructed by the scientists who despatch their agent Jose to the airport. This process takes decades but to Railly and Cole it seems almost instantaneous. This can make time travellers appear all-knowing and swift to act when in fact they just have lots of time to research and investigate.
With someone remotely operating the time machine travellers can expect to be rescued, as long as they leave enough evidence to confirm where and when they are. Cole is able to vanish from locked rooms or be plucked out of chaotic scenes of battle. The downside is they never know quite when this will happen.
Cole’s knowledge of how the new story about a missing boy will turn out (that the boy is just hiding) begins to convince Dr Railly that there might be something to his story of time travel, especially when the bullet pulled from his thigh is confirmed to have come from world war 1.
These are examples of how PCs can influence NPCs through their experience of time travelling. Recalling even a minor incident can persuade others. TimeWatch agents aren’t supposed to inform others about the existence of time travel but having NPCs come to their own conclusions can give them allies.
Early in the film Doctor Railly displays a photo of Jose in World War 1 at a lecture in 1996. It is not until she examines the same photo later that she realises the outstretched arm in the photo belonged to Cole (something foreshadowed when she finds him familiar in 1990).
This illustrates how the same record of events (whether it be photos, film, audio or text) can reveal additional information to the examiner. Unless the GM is going to go into detail about everything the PCs examine there is always some leeway to reveal some more information. This is handy for PCs who want to integrate themselves into those events, revealing they were there all along.
DANGERS OF TIME TRAVEL
Dr Railly gives a lecture about various figures who prophesied doomsday (later either explicitly revealed as time travellers or implied to be) comparing them to Cassandra who was doomed to know the future but be disbelieved when she revealed this knowledge.
In doing this she explicitly states one of the central themes of this film and its view of time travel; the agony of foreknowledge, plus the impotence to do anything about it.
From the start Cole is informed that his mission is not to prevent the release the virus. The scientists wish only to learn about it and obtain a pure sample so that they might create an antidote and reclaim the surface of the planet. In the beginning Cole accepts this but is increasingly tormented, having experienced a world that hasn’t yet been blighted.
PCs tasked with not interfering can be tormented by the temptation to make things better. From major events to small tragedies they know that they have the power to help people and save lives but can’t in order to preserve history.
Taking further a PC can’t change history as much as they would like. Either something will prevent them or they’ll find they were responsible for the very event they were trying to avert. Free will is shown to be an illusion and time travellers prisoners to fate.
This element can increase the feeling of horror the PCs experience. You don’t need eldritch horrors when time is an immutable force and the PCs are responsible for everything terrible in history.
The dislocation that the time travellers experience almost consistently leads to a loss of sanity. In this case it is understandable, as it is better to believe that you are mad than to accept that the world really is going to end in 1996. This would work well with a Sanity rules, frequent travellers losing their grip on reality as they are sent to different eras. Eventually they too might be living on the streets, with only a dim memory of delusion that once consumed their life.
Chronal instability isn’t a constant threat, since paradoxes are impossible. Worse is the fact that the imprecise time machine could send them to hostile environments or distant times from which they might never be recovered. Remember that in order to get a lock on them some information about where they are must survive until 2035 and be found by the scientists.
COLE AS AN ANTAGONIST
In a normal TimeWatch campaign Cole could be from a divergent timeline, one in which the viral outbreak occurred in 1996. His presence in our timeline (along with the other time travellers) is ensuring that this event occurs. The very fact that he is unaware of this makes him more dangerous, as he believes that the event is inevitable.
Cole should not be under-estimated. Already a convicted criminal in his own time he is often violent, willing to kill. Coupled with his increasing insanity Cole is unpredictable and lethal in combat. The one advantage TimeWatch agents have is that he is not in control of when the time machine is activated.
PCs will need to find a way to prevent Cole from learning more about the outbreak and prevent him from interacting with those involved that could make it happen. The problem is that in order to do so the PCs will need to learn about the outbreak without also accidentally making it happen.
Once Cole is dealt with the PCs can turn their attention to the other time travellers, spreading their doomsday prophesies to different eras. This clean-up operation could be the focus of a whole campaign.
If he is a TimeWatch agent Cole could become dangerous when he goes rogue. If he believes that TimeWatch is a symptom of his mental illness or that they have hostile intentions towards him it can be difficult, if not impossible, to reason with him. PCs could be tasked with bringing him before he can harm innocent people or damage history.
COLE AS A TIMEWATCH AGENT
Cole can be seen as a victim. He could be rescued from his service to the scientists in 2035, if the PCs can find a way to prevent him being recalled. They might try to avoid his death in the airport or find a way to resuscitate him (his gunshot wound need not be lethal).
The very talents and skills that made him a good candidate for the mission to 1996 also makes him a good candidate for TimeWatch. Observant, able to think quickly and capable of protecting himself with minimal resources. Psych examinations should be regularly scheduled to ensure that he is able to cope with the stress placed upon him.
In addition (or alternatively) Doctor Railly could be recruited. Not only does this remove the problem of her possessing knowledge of the existence of time travel she showed equal powers of deduction, skills at negotiating with dangerous individuals and brings her knowledge of mental illness and psychology.
TWELVE MONKEYS AS A CAMPAIGN MODEL
This film provides a perfect template for an investigation centred adventure. The main character is tasked with finding out more about what caused the outbreak, with a few clues to guide him. This is a good way to start, giving PCs avenues to investigate.
The Army of Twelve Monkeys proves to be a red herring. It is eventually revealed that they were only responsible for releasing animals from the zoo (which is why exotic beasts are encountered in 2035). This provides the twist in the 3rd act as Cole and Dr Railly realise someone else is going to release the deadly virus.
Most importantly there is a connection between the Army of the Twelve Monkeys and the actual release of the virus, namely that the leader of the organisation, Jeffrey Goines, is the son of the scientist that has the virus and it is his assistant, the doomsday obsessed Doctor Peters, who will steal and release it.
If you do introduce a red herring PCs should still gain valuable information that puts them on the right track, once they realise they’ve been looking in the wrong direction. In doing so you ensure that they don’t feel like they’ve been wasting their time.
There are plenty of mysteries to be found in history and to be explored in your projected future. This can allow the PCs to understand more about your setting, so that if you eventually introduce attempts to change history they know where to look.
Such investigation missions can be more of a challenge, since the PCs must take care not to interact directly. They can’t fight their way out of a situation or influence others without leaving their fingerprints on history. If they do change things they will need to put things back on track so that the original timeline isn’t corrupted and they can still recover the information they need.
If you want to use a remote time machine, rather than giving PCs their own autochrons, you can whisk them about as needed. PCs might not always get where they are supposed to be or remain in close proximity. In addition to carrying out their mission they also need to survive and find each other.
PCs could be redirected at the time machine operators whims or they could leave messages that set their next destination. They could be recalled and brief their supervisors, so that they can decide together where they need to be sent (whether they get there is another matter).
If you want to model your campaign more directly on Twelve Monkeys the PCs aren’t the best of the best, just convicted criminals desperate to earn a pardon. They are at the mercy of the scientists, who may or may not be competent in operating the time machine.
Their point of origin could be similarly dystopian, whether it be post-apocalyptic or just dark. This can increase the temptation to try to change events. Your campaign could have a turning point where they stop investigating and begin fighting against the future and their masters.
You could pick up your campaign after the events of the film. Now the scientists have a pure sample of the virus are they able to find a cure? It could be that they need further information or resources in the past (maybe the initial research and attempts to stop the virus during the outbreak in 1996). In the chaos that followed valuable assets might have been lost and the PCs could be sent to find out where teams in 2035 should look.
Doctor Railly would know what was going to happen from the accounts given to her by Cole. Would she be able to help stop the virus or would she concentrate on finding out how to replicate the time travel technology (now that she knows how it works)?
The mood of the film can be captured if you invite the PCs to question their own sanity. Cole’s coming and going can be both dreamlike and nightmarish. Whether it be the muddy battlefields of World War 1 or an opulent room in the future where the scientists sing to Cole there is a general sense of unreality.
People and things can be encountered in multiple timeframes, such as Cole encountering a bear in 2035 and being frightened by a stuffed bear in 1996. Similarly Cole’s dream incorporates more details that suggest Doctor Railly was there but is his memory becoming clearer or is he simply adding elements from the things he experiences?
There should be a sense of doubt and uncertainty, with a logical explanation available for the foreknowledge the PCs possess. PCs must question not only what is reality but make a choice about what they want to be real. They could be tempted to think that this choice will actually impact on what is true.
This can be enhanced by exposing the PCs to absurd situations that are none the less real. A prime example of this is the weird sight of flamingos flying in the sky. History is full of odd situations that the PCs can encounter to make them wonder if they are imagining things.
Not only is there a sense of madness (reinforced by Cole’s stay in a mental institution) but paranoia. Cole is variously watched, harassed and kidnapped. He hears voices but is there actually someone there or is it just his mind?
If the PCs can’t trust their organisation they can begin to question everything. Have they been told everything they need to about their mission? Can they believe others? Are they being monitored? Is there any way to escape without being forced to return to the dystopian future?
Time travel makes such conspiracies more complex, as agents can be encountered before and after they’ve been betrayed or gone rogue out of order. They can give the PCs information which the PCs tell them later, which distorts the truth.
Twelve Monkeys explore the notion of changing identity. We encounter Jeffery Goines as a babbling mental patient in 1990 while in 1996 he is playing the role of a upper-class son of a powerful man. Doctor Railly views Cole with sympathy in 1990, fears him when he kidnaps her and eventually views him as a tragic saviour. By adopting disguises in the 3rd act Cole and Dr Railly are almost unrecognisable.
PCs and NPCs will change, both in the roles they play and the relationship they have with each other. Time travel can emphasise this. Leaping through time they can see the huge changes that occur. The fact that they could encounter past and future versions of themselves can also make PCs realise that time makes you a different person.
This can help keep your supporting cast fresh. NPCs can change dramatically, essentially different versions of themselves. The consequences of these changes aren’t as permanent as they might be in a campaign in linear time. Here PCs can encounter NPCs in all different stages of their lives.
For example the PCs might know a friendly cop. The cop could become corrupt or do something terrible. They might continue their descent into crime or find a way to redeem themselves. Time travelling PCs can travel up and down his time line, meeting the good cop, the bad cop and help determine his ultimate fate.
Not only will this keep games interesting and create endless possibilities with any NPC the PCs encounter but it reinforces the nature of the passing of time.