Avoiding the Gimmick
by Kevin Kulp
TimeWatch, Pelgrane Press’s recently Kickstarted game of investigative time travel, falls into the same category of games that play quite differently as a one-shot than they do as a continuing campaign. Feng Shui, Trail of Cthulhu, and Night’s Black Agents fall into this category as well, as does Paranoia… okay, who am I kidding? I’m having a little trouble imagining a game of Paranoia that isn’t a one-shot. I’ve played several games where the character death count was 35 out of 36.
But I digress.
In these games, the assumption and goals for a one-shot game may be very different than for a campaign. Loot and (most) character development doesn’t matter, and neither do the long-term consequences of the characters’ actions. It doesn’t matter if five of your six Lovecraftian investigators die or are driven screamingly insane, so long as the hideous evil is thwarted. It’s okay if your secret agents blow up Cartagena; law enforcement heat doesn’t carry over into the next one-shot. And your Feng Shui everyman hero probably isn’t going to be all that different at the end of a one-shot adventure than he was at the beginning of play.
If you’re in a long-term campaign, however, these things matter. Your investigator will probably prefer to keep her sanity and a portion of her health. Those agents discover that any massive assault that makes international news has consequences. Your everyman hero may fall in love, develop allies, and decide there are things in this world he’d give his life for.
That brings us to TimeWatch. I designed the game to provide an intuitive and self-contained one-shot adventure. That’s evident in the default mission structure: get a mission, time travel, investigate the time disturbance, try to fix history, and take down the bad guys before they use time travel to detect and assault you first. It’s fun, allows huge amounts of flexibility, and (surprisingly for a time travel game) like any one-shot has a minimum of real consequences. Each mission is self-contained, and there’s not necessarily much character development in the process. History is restored, but have the characters fundamentally changed? You had to replace Abraham Lincoln with a cyborg after accidentally getting him killed early, but will anyone notice before Ford’s Theater?
That’s where the concept of a TimeWatch continuing campaign comes in. Here are three rules to remember as you settle into a TimeWatch campaign:
- Relationships and secrets matter
- Enemies remember and multiply
- Small changes add up
Relationships and Secrets Matter. If you’re playing more than a game or two, pay attention to whom your character meets, trusts, and loves. Maybe you live embedded in the normal time stream while not working, with a normal job, boss, family and set of friends who care for you, and from whom you need to keep secrets. Perhaps you have relationships with TimeWatch coworkers, never quite knowing who in the vast organization is on your side and who may be subtly working against you. Do hidden secrets turn allies to enemies — and are you the one to blame? This is why characters have secrets, and GMs are encouraged to exploit and draw on them for adventure ideas.
Your GM may include factions, secret organizations or cabals within both TimeWatch and history as a whole, giving you and your group secret and personal missions to accomplish alongside your normal history-saving work. When you aren’t quite sure why you’ve been asked to accomplish something, the long-term ramifications of your actions become a lot more interesting.
Enemies Remember and Multiply. You may have to fight an arch-nemesis long before you’ve ever met her for the first time. You may have the allies of an enemy come calling at the time when you’re the most vulnerable. Any history you let be known might conceivably be exploited by your foes, and don’t be surprised if unexplained and mysterious enemies show up at exceptionally inconvenient moments. They’ll strike to eliminate you from TimeWatch if you let them, and that may mean a tactic as insidious as ensuring that you have an incredibly happy childhood, just so you’re never tempted to lead a life of adventure.
You can use this same game feature against your enemies. Try to discover the earliest point when they might be vulnerable. Strike against their friends, relatives, or history. Harass them at a half dozen different places in their life, in the hopes of stopping their ultimate plans. Just be cautious not to be the cause of their hostility in the first place.
Ultimately, continuing play becomes personal. It becomes more about the agents and what they experience during their missions, than it does about solving the mission itself and saving history. The best games are a combination of the two.
Small Changes Add Up. If you end up with some sloppy solutions to alternate history, enemies may try to leverage and exploit these for their own gain. Say, for instance, that you teach some jolly Austrian children baseball while on a mission in the 19th century. That’s the sort of thing that history usually takes care of on its own, reabsorbing the knowledge back into the river of time until Abner Doubleday reads about the Austrian game and decides to re-invent it. A clever GM might have your enemies try to pry that small shift into a much larger breach, changing the timestream in unexpected ways just to try to open some weaknesses in the flow of history. Continuity in multiple missions is a joy, mostly because you may find yourself dodging and hiding from your younger selves from three missions ago, just to reduce the chance of paradox.
Work to avoid the gimmick. That’s really what time travel is — a fabulous gimmick, but it’s a means to an end just as much as it is an integral part of your everyday adventures. Once you get used to the flexibility and problem-solving that a time machine gives you, you should break the pattern and experience a mission or an adventure that might be solved almost completely without your time machine. As your missions transition to become more personal, and you find your character changing in both power and attitude as a result, you’ll be well settled in for long-term campaign play.
Just remember, unlike Paranoia, every TimeWatch character doesn’t start the game with six disposable and identical clones. Your character development may benefit as a result.
TimeWatch is a time-travel adventure RPG where brave agents of TimeWatch defend the timestream from radioactive cockroaches, psychic velociraptors, and human meddlers. Go back in time to help yourself in a fight, thwart your foes by targeting their ancestors, or gain a vital clue by checking out a scroll from the Library of Alexandria. But watch out for paradoxes that may erase you from existence… or worse.. Purchase TimeWatch in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.