Before I ran my first TimeWatch session, I was intimidated. The PCs can roam anywhere and anywhen, defeat their enemies before they are born and even get help from themselves. How can you do anything other than improvise if players have that scope?
In practice it was very straightforward, easy and fun.
So, like the Doctor, this article holds your hand and takes you through space and time, but without the ever-present risk of death and abandonment.
Bluffing the System
This article assumes you know the basics of GUMSHOE, both the Investigative side and the General ability side. You need to know what a Test is, what a Spend is and the combat rules and the use of Preparedness.
Snag these cheat sheets and read the summaries in this article.
Unlike more complex GUMSHOE games, there isn’t much work to offload onto players. Someone might like to keep an eye on Paradox tests for Chronal Stability rolls, found in the cheat sheets, and all players should read the descriptions and benefits of the Timecraft and Paradox Prevention investigative abilities.
Most import of all, you need to understand the basics of combat, not because you’ll necessarily need to spend a lot of time in combat in the game, but because combat needs to be fast and thrilling. You should always know whose go it is, whether a test hits or not, and what your monsters can do. But combat is pretty straightforward in GUMSHOE.
- At the outset, decide who the instigator of the combat is. Give them a token (we recommend a plastic dinosaur)
- To try to hit an opponent, make a test (d6 + point spend) against their Hit Threshold (almost always 3 or 4). Spend points from the combat pool before rolling. If you match or beat the Hit Threshold, you hit.
- for lethal weapons roll the damage listed on your character sheet. There is no dodging.
- If you hit with a stun weapon they need to make a Stun test, optionally spending Health points to resist being knocked unconscious. Even if they succeed, they are impaired, suffering a penalty on tests. Foes with 3 or fewer Health points do not get to make a test, which makes it easy to stun mooks
- Players can spend Investigative points in combat with suitable narration to get a +3 bonus on combats Tests (Timecraft and Intimidate are two good examples).
- Sometime during their go the instigator decides who is up next, and passes them the dinosaur.
- When it’s your go, if you want to fight, you make the same test against the PCs Hit Threshold. Usually TimeWatch foes have simple bonus rather than a combat pool. Watch out for and use creature special abilities, usually powered with a pool called Tempus. There is a sample stat block with notes in this article to give you an example.
- The dinosaur is passed round until all players and the GM have had their go. The last person passes it to the new instigator for the next round.
Time Chase summary
Most TimeWatch games include a time chase – on dino-back in the Jurassic era, to Minis in Rome, through to hover bikes in 23rd Century. The chase summary and track are available in the cheat sheets.
- The pursuers and the pursued decide secretly how many points they’ll spend, reveal their spends, then make a Chase test, usually Difficulty 4, but it can be different for each side
- Deduct the Difficulty from the test results.
- Compare the results, and the lead changes in favour of the winner.
- Agents can use their abilities to improve the odds, for example spending a point of Paradox Prevention to will have arranged for a traffic jam to be in the way, or Preparedness to scatter caltrops behind them. They could even arrange for their future selves to be waiting in ambush for their pursuers.
- When the lead reaches point-blank, that’s the end of the chase.
Stitches are TimeWatch’s action tokens. Add three per player in a bowl at the beginning of the game. Whenever anyone plays their character well, makes a great suggestion, solves a clever clue or is other cool, any other player (including the GM) may give them a Stitch. Stitches let you refresh on the fly as well as giving you other options – see the cheat sheet for these.
TimeWatch features a very streamlined character sheet with few abilities. All the scientific abilities are subsumed into the pulp-flavoured Science! Being unnoticed and noticing are rolled into Unobtrusiveness. Burglary includes infiltration, concealment and filching.
Tinkering lets you create, repair and upgrade gear and use explosives. Often combined with Science! it lets players peruse the gear section and chose chronal grenades, time slime and make a choice, at the cost of Tinkering tests.
So, which abilities are not familiar? Well, Timecraft and Paradox Prevention on the investigative side and Chronal Stability and Reality Anchor on the other. Timecraft is straightforward – it tells you when there is something up with the timeline and lets you spot and follow other time travellers, lets you makes Tests twice and use the result you choose in a scene.
So far, so simple, and it gives the correct impression that TimeWatch is fast and fun.
Preparedness allows players to model their characters’ competence, without themselves knowing how to be a TimeWatch Agent. It also shortcuts lengthy planning meetings, and gives players a fallback in emergencies. This is how it’s used.
- Make a test to have something relatively unusual you haven’t mentioned.
- If you have a rating 8+ allows you to have all ready done something you describe in flashback. If the action requires another test by you or another player you need to make that too, afterwards.
There are lots of short, simple TimeWatch adventures to kick you off. Recruiting Call from the core book is good start, as is Axe and Hatchet from Behind Enemy Times. For your first game it will make you happier if you know the adventure pretty well. Get a basic grasp of the each featured historical era (think media rather than accuracy), prepare for any fights by checking antagonist special abilities and see if there are any chases. There is a little bit of added complexity in that players can meet foes for the first time who have already met them – this is usually flagged up.
Introducing the Game
Open by explaining they are TimeWatch agents, whose job it is to keep history on its fixed path. They can try all the tricks you see in time travel stories – getting help from yourself, defeating foes before they were born and trapping adversaries in time loops. They have all the gear they need to travel in time, blend in wherever they go and stun foes when they need to.
Character creation in TimeWatch is straightforward, so straightforward I wouldn’t recommend using pregens. Encourage them to create character concepts from anywhere in time and space, but offer suggestions so they don’t freeze up. Highlight and summarise Timecraft, Paradox prevention, Chronal Stability and Reality Anchor (the equivalent of Trail’s Psychoanalysis.) If a player finishes their character quickly, refer them to the gear section – and if they want to pay the Tinkering points – they can start the game with any gear which won’t spoil the adventure.
What to tell the players
- Don’t spend much time planning One of the big problems with action games is planning inertia, so tell them about Preparedness and Timecraft – they give the benefit of planning without the planning. Their characters will know what to do, even if they don’t, and if they do get bogged down in an extended planning scene, remind them of Preparedness.
- Try all the weird time stuff Even the most egregious time manipulation is possible – try it. Timecraft and Paradox prevention is your friend here. Once you are low on Chronal Stability – tread more carefully.
- If in doubt, time travel Hunkering down is always a bad idea. Time travellers stay ahead of their opponents, or before them. There’s a small Chronal Stability cost, but worth it.
- In the end, true history prevails after all the fun, it’s the real timeline the Agents want to protect, and that might well help you dial back any excessive meddling.
Adventure design gently points players at choke points in history – times and places where history has diverged. These are player magnets – you don’t need to persuade them to visit these places. But they may well want to go elsewhen, too: that’s half the fun of the game.
First, consider what they actually want to achieve. Does it need a scene? The simple answer to that question is – would it be fun?
If it’s just getting information, let them spend History (narratively they could have travelled to the Library of Alexandria, and that might be worth a little scene)
Things which give you an advantage in the here and now, are straightforward: The mechanics are simple and flexible enough that if a player wants to talk their way past a receptionist and says “I go back in time and was his roommate for five years, ten years ago” a one point Timecraft spend just does that.
However, if they go back and try to prevent an important character being born – that’s probably a full scene plus some Chronal Stability. If they are having fun, shift some antagonists around. If necessary, have one of their characters from the future advise them to move on!
Thanks for reading, and let me know how your first session goes!
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.