Time travel as an RPG genre is one with infinite possibilities, but really hard to do right. For my money, Timewatch is the best example out there today, and I’m going to tell you why.
At the heart of my favourite time travel stories is alternate histories and the unravelling of a mystery. I’m not so interested in a simple "go to trafalgar and sink the Spanish ships with ray guns". What makes it interesting to me is the idea of alternate histories, and what might have happened to make history ‘go wrong’. That’s not to say that you can’t have games which are "travel to the past/future and just explore", but I love the solving of mysteries side of things.
About the game
Timewatch by Kevin Kulp is based on the Gumshoe game mechanics that Pelgrane Press use for their investigative games such as Trail of Cthulhu and Nights Black Agents. These mechanics are specifically designed to make investigative games run quickly and well, based around the simple idea that what makes stories interesting is not whether someone finds a clue or not, but what they do with the clue or clues that they have found. It’s true; when I watch a TV show with a mystery, the protagonists always find the clues... it is piecing together the clues and red herrings that leads them to solving the mystery.
Timewatch can be used to run thoroughly Gonzo style adventures or more serious ones; the times that I’ve played have been on the more crazy gonzo scale of time travel (where it is quite common to use ‘preparedness’ to have doubled back on your own timestream and hidden a gun under your chair, or to risk being in the same timestream twice in order to aid yourself). Dinosaurs, nazis and dinosaur nazis have figured strongly. It certainly shines at this kind of game but I think that it works equally well for much more serious versions of time travel games.
The rules include suggestions for a number of campaign frames. This includes the default ‘timewatch’ trouble shooters, through to time tourists and friends (i.e. Doctor Who with the serial numbers filed off) or paranoid settings where maybe the timewatch you work for are the bad guys...
What I like about it
The rules are a joy to read - Kevin’s style is a springboard for the imagination. It is both clear and straightforward while also giving you both permission and inspiration to be wildly imaginative. An excellent combination.
Some specific rules that appeal to me:
Stitches are tokens which you can earn during play and use for various in-game benefits - adding to or reducing from damage, refreshing general abilities and some other things. I like the name (based on ‘a stitch in time’ obviously) and you are encouraged to use a little bit of ‘time based’ explanation for how the benefits of spending the stitch are realised.
Paradox is because the timeline doesn’t like things which interfere with the normal flow of time, and time will try to heal itself... your character can take physical damage and can also take chronal stability damage too. Too much paradox which isn’t handled properly can lead to your character being subsumed into history and cease to exist! Too much meddling with history is a bad thing, and encourages a degree of restraint in missions.
Enemies are available in abundance. You have the radioactive cockroach descendants from the future who want to ensure their timeline exists by causing global thermonuclear warfare. You have the psychic velociraptors from a timeline where the monkeys didn’t take over who want to destroy our culture. You have a sentient fungus whose memory exists across all timelines and a linguistic meme that spreads through language to take people over. That’s even before you introduce human antagonists.
The game describes how to introduce special effects via narrative, not rules. There is a scenario with pregen characters were one is a T-1000 terminator from the future; they have no mechanical benefits over other characters, but the way that their general skills are used is described in a way which reflects the flavour of the character.
I backed the original kickstarter and I’ve been delighted with the resulting game. The internet is full of wonderful compilations of ‘what-if’ and ‘alt-history’ sites which provide hundreds of inspirations for games, so there is an amazing number of resources available. There are also a lot of actual play podcasts out there if you want to hear what games can sound like.
Bottom line - if you think the idea of a time travelling investigative game sounds interesting, I really think you ought to check out Timewatch
Check it out here
Header Photo by Aron Visuals on Unsplash