Being a teenager is a difficult time. You feel that you know everything without realising how much more there is still to learn and not knowing how important experience is. You get a taste of freedom while still being forced to abide by the rules of parents and keep to a strict schedule.
You become increasingly aware how your actions affect how others perceive and judge you. Most importantly you realise how your actions at this stage in life can define your entire future.
Running a game in a high school setting is full of potential drama, as PCs navigate the tricky dilemmas of youth. Now add time travel into the mix.
Teen time travellers are less likely to try and assassinate history Hitler as they are to avoid embarrassing themselves in front of the cheerleaders, get revenge on a bully or find a way to cheat on an important test. With smaller goals and less experienced PCs a time travel game focused on a group of high school students can be more personal but no less exciting than a regular game of TimeWatch.
‘Donnie Darko’, ‘Project: Almanac’, ‘Back to the Future’ and the recent computer game ‘Life Is Strange’ all show the potential present in a high school setting.
The first thing to establish is how the PCs time travel. If a PC is an inventor or has a parent who is then this could be where they obtain a working time machine. They could test it by solving the problems in their own life, fixing problems with the time machine and the consequences of their actions as they go along.
They could travel via an illegal drug, allowing you to address the use of narcotics amongst teenagers. Their ‘out of body’ experiences could send them randomly into their own past. The drug could be addictive and they might have to do favours to ensure a steady supply.
It could be an unexplained mutant gift that the PCs all possess or the result of weird, outside influence (similar to how the group of friends receive their powers in the film ‘Chronicle’). This common bond gives a reason for a group of different teenagers to form a group, concealing their abilities while learning what they are capable of.
Teen PCs should have half the normal build points as normal. The use of certain investigative abilities (such as authority, bureaucracy and intimidation) should require a higher spend when dealing with adults. Similarly using general abilities like scuffling against an adult should be harder.
PCs will typically already be working to a schedule. Their parents decide when they get up and their school decides when they should be in their classes. Most teens will have a curfew limiting their free time. Some may even have a part time job. This does mean that a time traveller knows where and when their earlier selves will be as well as giving them a motivation to use their time machine to give them more personal time.
The setting become very important. PCs will be spending a lot of time with fellow students, teachers and parents. They won’t be going far from the school and their homes so their immediate surroundings will be limited, allowing you to make their city or town much more prominent. Time travel allows you to explore these elements past and future.
Each adventure should present the teen PCs with a problem that they should try to solve using time travel. This could be a minor incident but for a teenager it can seem like the most important thing in the world. Examples include;
- an important project is destroyed by the family pet, annoying sister or accident.
- a PCs love interest is asked to prom before the PC gets the courage up to ask them.
- the PCs are invited to a party where all the most popular kids are going to be but they have other commitments or are grounded.
- a PC ‘borrows’ the family car only for it to be damaged.
The incident could be a important event in their life which marks their advancement into adulthood. Examples include:
- the divorce of a PCs parents.
- the natural death of a elderly family member.
- their first love and subsequent break up.
- a friend moving away.
There could also be a real element of danger or the intrusion of harsh realities.
- a PC is the victim of crime, whether it be a mugging or their house being broken into.
- a friend is injured or killed by a drunk driver, possibly another student at the school.
- a student commits suicide.
- the PCs school is the site of a shooting.
The seriousness of a problem can change during an adventure. The PCs attempts to solve a minor problem could have the unforeseen consequence of creating a more serious problem. They might embarrass a bully only to find out that he commits suicide because he was being abused by his drunk father at home. They might attend the house party only to cause a fire which could injure others.
This encourages the PCs to keep time travelling, attempting to solve each problem and perhaps finding the initial event that started everything in the first place.
Teen PCs can find even the most minor of challenges difficult but time travel can give them the edge they need. Their lack of experience means that the solution isn’t always obvious, requiring several attempts to find the right solution. More than ever they will need the support of their fellow PCs to affect the outcome.
Choices are very important for this style of play. Time travel allows the PCs to change their choices but there will always be consequences, which are not always immediately apparent. PCs might alter history but find the outcome is worse or no better. They’ll have to decide what they can live with.
Regret is an ever present feature of teen life. PCs can take actions that they feel bad about in retrospect. They might have solved a problem but at what cost? They could find that they need to go back and put things right, even if that means that things go back to the way they were.
It is important that the players don’t feel like they are being punished for changing history. It should always be clear that their characters have grown through the experience even if the status quo isn’t changed for the better. The more time travelling they do the more adept they’ll become, gaining in both knowledge and ability.
Adults act as figures of authority. Parents and teachers will typically try to protect and support the teens but that doesn’t mean that they’ll help them or believe their crazy stories of time travel. PCs should always be aware that if they get on the wrong side of an adult they’ll find themselves in big trouble.
The fact that the PCs are accountable to adults can also be used to keep them in check. Teen time travellers could use their new gifts to become rich but they’d have to explain where the money is coming from and their parents might have control of their bank account. Time travel could also allow them to be in two places at once but what if someone sees them when they’re supposed to be in school and informs their parents?
Adults won’t always let teen know the whole truth. Teens are also very good at keeping secrets, meaning that a high school setting is perfect for mysteries. ‘Veronica Mars’ is a good example of how to combine film noir tropes with high school drama. No one is telling the entire truth and PCs will need to use their time travelling abilities to find out what really happened.
PCs can find themselves as outsiders. High schools are filled with cliques and social clubs that they’ll need to befriend or infiltrate to further their investigations. Social standing and economic background could also determine who they can interact with. The interactions of these groups can also create drama and be the source of plot seeds.
Inspiration can come from your collective memories of high school. Drawing from real life can also allow you to explore important issues including abuse, cyber-bullying, sexting, depression and narcotics. Teens often feel powerless in these situations but here time travel gives the ability to make a difference, even undoing tragedies.
One of the things that the PCs might have to learn to accept is that there isn’t always a perfect solution. For example no matter what they do their parents might still split up and they can only dissuade a student from suicide for so long. Part of growing up is accepting that some things can’t be changed. They can only make choices that they don’t regret.
Time travel means that the high school setting could be in any time period. If you’re a big John Hughes fan you could set your campaign in the 1980s or if you want to capture the feel of ‘Back To Future’ set it in the 1950s. The era will dictate the concerns and fashions of the setting.
You might explore a scenario in which adult PCs (with their full allocation of build points) find themselves mentally transported into their teenager selves (as in ‘Peggy Sue Got Married’). They now get to relive their school days, knowing what happens to themselves and everyone else at the school. You could allow them to transition back and fore, allowing them to see how the changes in the past alter the reality of their present day (for better or worse).
A high school campaign could conclude with the PCs leaving school and maybe putting their time travelling behind them or they might find that once they’ve graduated a position at TimeWatch is waiting for them.
- A childhood friend is moving away and this is the last weekend the PCs have with them. No matter how they choose to spend what times remains it never seems enough. Using time travel they can find out what their friend really needs so they’ll always remember their shared history.
- A random check finds drugs in a students locker, although they protest their innocence. PCs can go back in time to establish that there were no drugs prior to the check, meaning they were placed there by a corrupt local cop. He needed the students finger prints to be taken to link him to a number of crimes the cop committed so the student can take the blame. PCs have to go up against the law to ensure there isn’t a miscarriage of justice.
- Someone is setting fires in the school and everyone is wondering who the arsonist is. PCs could be motivated to solve the mystery when a fire places them in danger or injures someone they know. The culprit is the student who dreams of being a fireman, hoping to impress others as he rescues them from the fires he is setting. If the PCs expose him it’ll ruin his life but they can’t allow him to continue his pyromania.
- It always seems like people are raising money for Emily Chousin aka ‘the sick kid’. Thin and perpetually deathly pale she is frequently off school for a variety of undiagnosed illnesses. It doesn’t surprise the PCs when she doesn’t go to school and it isn’t unexpected when she dies. Only later does it turn out her mother was secretly poisoning her own daughter for attention. The PCs can go back to find the evidence to reveal what has been happening but even Emily has hard time believing her mother would do that to her.
- A PCs younger sibling goes missing just when the worst storm in a century hits the town. Clues to the siblings location doesn’t turn up until after the chaotic weather passes, by which time it maybe too late. Luckily the PCs can go back into the storm and use what they’ve learned.
- At a big game with a rival school someone breaks into the lockers, stealing property from other students including something important from the PCs. Going back in time to find the culprit reveals plenty of suspects including the shifty janitor, suspicious visitors from the other school and a student with heavy gambling debts. Yet the PC’s presence in the past, lurking around the lockers, makes them prime suspects in the present.
- The school digs up a time capsule from 30 years ago only to find a message from the PCs. They must travel back in time to when their parents were students to find out what happened in the past and stop a paradox.
- During a house party a student is drugged and ends up in hospital. PCs must find a way to get themselves invited to the party so they can infiltrate the celebrations and find out the culprit. Was it the jock she was fixated on, her ex-boyfriend or the jealous love rival?
- Someone knows the PCs are time travellers and is blackmailing them through social media. PCs must find out who it is while following their black mailers demands or risk exposure.
- A teacher beloved by the PCs stops coming to school. Investigating they find out that very serious accusations are being made against the teacher. The PCs can use time travel to clear the teachers name but what if they find out that the teacher isn’t as perfect as they thought.
- A student apparently steals a teachers car, only to die when it is hit by train when the vehicle stalls on the tracks. PCs find clues to the student’s innocence and using time travel find out the student was having an affair with the teacher. The student was going to reveal the truth and in an attempt to silence them the teacher accidentally killed them, staging the collision with the train to cover their tracks. Will the PCs settle for revealing the truth or can they save the student?
- A masked assailant is stalking the high school. Investigation indicates that the mysterious stranger could be time traveller with a grudge against his victims. Evidence suggest that it is one of the students maybe even one of the PCs. Can they find out who the attacker is and what set them on this path?