This is a scenario for the ‘Time Watch’ game which is currently on Kick Starter. You can back it here.
This is an example of how to use the mystery structure of the game. PCs find out history is changed and follow the trail back to its source. They then have to work out how to fix things, without making the situation worse.
I knew I wanted to have an adventure featuring Edgar Allan Poe, sparked mainly due to his mysterious death. I read his wikipedia entry, particularly what influences he had on others.
It was then just a matter of working out how the world might change if he didn’t become a writer. Hyperlinks are your friend when researching, allowing you to chase down different paths and find out how people and events are interconnected.
Now you just have to take your players down the same paths.
World War II has been altered again. This week it is the PCs team that get to find out what has gone wrong this time. William Friedman never became a cryptologist and so never helped the US break the Japanese ‘Purple’ cipher. This shifts the outcome of World War II, with history diverging significantly by 1950.
The reason that William Friedman didn’t become a cryptologist is because he never gained a passion for it as a child because Edgar Allan Poe now never wrote ‘The Gold-Bug‘. He never wrote it because instead of becoming a writer he became a professor of ancient languages.
This isn’t a deliberate attempt to alter history but the unfortunate result of a stranded time traveller going to the same university as Poe and reporting his gambling. Turning over a new leaf Edgar Allen Poe stayed for longer than 1 term starting a chain of events that the PCs must now unravel.
Likely Investigation Structure:
- Agents are told that history has changed and they are being sent to 1950 New York, where the changes were most noticeable. They are warned that they’ve already lost one Time Watch agent because of the alteration (no further details are given as it is classified).
- In the 1950s the PCs find that currently Russia came out of WWII in better shape than in original history. They agreed a peace treaty with Japan prior to the bombing of Hiroshima in 1945. Cold War tensions are rising as accusations are made that Russia had decoded the PURPLE cypher prior to Pearl Harbour but did not inform the US.
- History (Contemporary) and/or research reveals that in original history the Purple cypher was decoded by William Friedman, who now is known for work in genetics (particularly related to crops). Visiting him (in any time period) reveals that he has no passion for cryptography. Their research should allow PCs to know that it was ‘The Gold-Bug‘ that inspired him but if he is asked about this he says he has never heard of Edgar Allen Poe. Indeed, no one has.
- Following the lead about Edgar Allen Poe reveals that he only published three books, all related to dead languages. He graduated from the University of Virginia, taking various teaching jobs and researching languages. He lived a quiet, unremarkable life. This should lead PCs to the diverging point, his first year at university.
- Travelling to 1826 the PCs encounter a rebellious Edgar Allen Poe, spending his money on drink and by gambling. Most of the students, who are self-policing, turn a blind eye but when the PCs arrive he has just been reported to faculty and ordered to confess his sins to the rector (and 4th President), James Monroe. The culprit is a new student George Reynolds.
- Investigating Reynolds, who doesn’t appear on the original records as a student, reveals he is a time traveller. His own time machine is non-functional and buried nearby but detectable. Confronting him he reveals that he just wanted to meet James Monroe and when he became stuck in this time he decided to study at the university so he could establish himself in this era. He reported Edgar, not realising who he was, as he worried he was throwing his chance away.
- With or without George’s help they must convince Edgar not to reform. Once he decides not to give up his vices and that university isn’t for him time will restore itself.
- Returning to the Time Patrol citadel they are congratulated and introduced to the recovered Time Patrol member, Edgar Allan Poe. He explains that it is the PCs who recruit him and they are despatched to September 27th 1849 to pick up Edgar, his last known appearance before his reappearance in Baltimore on October the 3rd and death on the 7th.
A WORLD WITHOUT POE
New York 1950 is not where the alteration to time happens but where history begins to diverge in a noticeable way. In fact time has been altering since 1939. Without William Friedman cryptography was setback and the Allied forces were largely unaware of what the Japanese were up to. Further more relations between the US and the UK were setback as they were not able to give them the PURPLE machine in exchange for details of the Enigma machine.
Russia was able to break the PURPLE code in 1941 and shared enough information to give the allies about the fortifications along the Atlantic Wall. The rest they kept to themselves, giving them an advantage.
When Stalin discovered that Japan only intended to attack the US and the UK he sent them an encoded message proposing an alliance. Shocked to discover how much information Russia had Japan agreed, allowing Russia to withdraw forces from the Far East and concentrate their forces against the Germans.
The war still ended in 1945 but with Russia in a much stronger position. They continued to build a strong relationship with Japan (mostly due to the secrets they’d gathered). Since the end of the war they’ve co-operated on invading China and Korea, with the rest of the world too busy rebuilding to interfere.
In 1950 the word has got out that they broke the Purple code. Worse Russia had intercepted a coded message that revealed Japan was going to attack Pearl Harbour but had said nothing. The US is demanding answers and every agreement and deal is being re-examined. Russia is defiant, saying they will meet any aggression with devastating force and Japan is standing with them.
All of this is an unintended consequence of someone going to university with Edgar Allen Poe but establishes the stakes. Things will continue to escalate, likely leading to further war or even a nuclear strike.
The atmosphere during this era is tense, with most countries in the western world losing hope. If the PCs spend an extended amount of time in this alternative history and you want to prod them into going back consider having a nuclear missile launched at the city they are in (or nearby). They might see it in the air or see the mushroom cloud in the distance and have to charge up their autochron to escape the blast.
WILLIAM F FRIEDMAN
The PCs can choose to meet Friedman at any stage of his life. They might seek him out in the alternative 1950s or travel back to 1939, when he was supposed to break the Purple cypher, to find out what happened.
Friedman is still brilliant but has put his passion into genetics. He finds it fascinating how each generation of crops, and the effect that outside factors have on them, impacts on the generations to follow. He talks about being able to identify the consequences of your actions before they happened in order to make the best choices.
The key is that he has no interest in cryptography and will say so if quizzed about breaking codes. Most biographies about Friedman attribute his passion for cryptography to reading ‘The Gold-Bug‘ as a child giving the PCs a reason to ask him about this. Friedman is therefore essential to revealing that the alteration to time can actually be traced back to Edgar Allan Poe.
Failing this you can have Friedman or someone else draw the PCs attention to renowned horror and mystery writers and fail to mention Poe. You could also introduce an element that invokes his work (such as a raven or a ‘tell-tale heart’) in the hope that one of the PCs makes a reference to it so that NPCs can say they’ve never heard of Poe.
The normality of life for Friedman is a reminder that things aren’t all bad in alternative histories. Some people will just live their lives, unaware that they were meant for something else.
THE UNIVERSITY DAYS OF EDGAR ALLAN POE
Born 1809 Edgar is 17 in 1826 and has already experienced massive changes of fortune. Abandoned by his real father and losing his mother to consumption he was adopted by John and and Frances Allan. When John Allan’s uncle, William Galt, died he left the family a fortune. A year later Edgar was sent to the University of Virginia, his adopted father paying for his books and boarding.
The problem is that Edgar likes to drink and gambles with money meant to support himself. He writes to his adopted father, asking for more and more money, putting strain on their relationship. He is also losing contact with his love, Sarah Royster.
The university has strict rules on gambling, horses, guns, tobacco and alcohol. The students typically ignore these rules and since they are self-policing there is no control. Without discipline Edgar’s worst qualities spiral out of control and would have led to him leaving in a year.
Recently the faculty were alerted to Edgar’s behaviour. He has been sent to James Madison, the newly appointed rector. He expresses his concern to Edgar that his actions distract him from the noble pursuit of learning, that he is stealing from both himself and his adopted father. This is enough for Edgar to consider changing his behaviour.
When the PCs meet him he is considering these words and if not influenced further will decide to be a better person to repay his adopted father. He will also reach out to Sarah Royster, feeling that her support will make it easier to avoid temptation.
PCs can easily blend in with the students and faculty. They might be able to sit in some classes, meet James Madison (former 4th President) or James Monroe (former 5th President) who also lives on the grounds. This will seem like a world away from the alternative 1950s they’ve encountered.
Edgar will see strangers as a distraction but if questioned will explain that his behaviour is due to his conversation with Madison and so he must thank whichever student reported him to the faculty. If the PCs question the other students they point the finger at George Reynolds.
GEORGE REYNOLDS, STRANDED TIME TRAVELLER
Originating from the 26th century (change depending on your own timeline) he was obsessed with early presidents, particularly James Madison. Creating his own time machine he was determined to meet him. Unfortunately he crashed in December 1825.
Unable to return home George decided to join the University of Virginia, where he knew Madison was the rector. It also had the added bonus that he would be able to meet James Monroe. Thanks to his youthful appearance (although 45 26th century beauty treatments make him appear 17) he was able to blend in.
George had studied the era enough to survive, although his behaviour is noted as being strange. Unfortunately his knowledge of literature was lacking and so doesn’t know who Edgar Allan Poe is (not without some reminders).
All he knew was there was a fellow student who was obviously very intelligent but was throwing their life away. He thought that by reporting him to Madison Edgar’s life would be improved. In a way he was right. Poe might never have the fame he should but he’ll build a better relationship with his adopted father, get married to Royster and have stable life.
George will be horrified to discover he has unintentionally altered time (and his own past in the bargain). He will fear the PCs have come to punish him but if assured that they aren’t there to hurt him he can try to help. He’ll hope that they’ll help him get home once everything is resolved.
Observation of George can reveal anachronistic behaviour and technology. Timecraft or a Tether with sensors can find the destroyed time machine. Tinker 6 could repair it enough to make one jump through time.
There are a variety of tactics the PCs might use to put history back on track.
They might concentrate on George, since he caused the deviation. They could travel to the 26th century to prevent his trip into the past (as long as the revisions to history haven’t caught up to this point) or stop him from entering the university or get him thrown out before he can report Poe.
This approach is fraught with potential paradoxes so the PCs might be better suited to convincing Poe not to change. You could go for a more comedic tone here, allowing the PCs to engage in college humour in the 19th century as they try to show Poe that bad behaviour is fun.
They could convince him that his creativity will benefit more people than his study of languages. They could ruin his relationship with his adopted father (maybe by revealing his indiscretions and illegitimate children) or with Sarah Reynolds.
PCs could approach Madison and convince him that Edgar shouldn’t be at the university. They could go as far as framing Poe so that the faculty have no choice but to expel him.
This section requires the most creativity since it requires them to influence a person. There are plenty of roleplaying opportunities as well as moral quandaries (is it right for them to make Edgar make bad choices to protect history?).
The PCs should have some failures, so that they can try a variety of approaches. Eventually though they should be successful in getting Edgar to embrace his destiny and strike out on his own. He has rough times ahead but he’ll leave a lasting legacy.
Then the PCs just have to figure out what they are going to do with George.
POE, AGENT OF TIME WATCH
Just when the PCs think they’ve seen the last of Poe they should return to the citadel for a debrief. Their usual commanding officer congratulates them and announces that they’ve recovered the lost Time Watch agent when history reverted and that he’d like to thank the PCs personally. At that point Poe enters wearing a Time Watch uniform.
Hopefully they’ll ask about his recruitment and he’ll explain it occurred September 27th 1849 and that they were the ones to recruit him. To ensure that history is finally restored they are sent to do just that.
Their target is Richmond, Virginia as Poe sets out to return home to New York. He will not have seen them since his university days and will have thought often about how their influence affected his life (unless they wiped his mind).
How they treated him will impact upon how he reacts to them. This scene is an epilogue to the main adventure so shouldn’t be much of a challenge. If worse comes to worse they can knock him out and have him transported to the Citadel by a Time Watch technician.
This illustrates how weird life can be with Time Watch. Poe was already a member before the mission began but was only there due to their current actions. It should make them realise that potentially there are older versions of themselves active within the Time Watch organisation, influencing their lives.
Poe can be a reoccurring NPC. He’ll name his tether AI Reynolds in memory of his fellow student who caused so much trouble. When he has free time he visits his grave on his birthday, from the 1930s until 2009, giving rise to the Poe Toaster.
Eventually Poe will be critically injured on a mission and Time Patrol arrange for him to be deposited in Baltimore, October 3rd, 1849. He’ll cry out for his missing tether and die on October 7th. The cause of his death with forever be a mystery.
ADDING MORE DANGER
If you want to make things more difficult then you can give George Reynolds a more sinister motive. Changing WWII might have been his objective after all. This could be because he wanted to alter history or because he was stuck and knew that this change would catch the attention of time travellers who could come and rescue him.
Poe could have been the target and George has a collection of his books, kept outside of time. With the removal of Poe his books become unique. With the PCs threatening to put time back on track he might try to kill Poe to remove him once and for all.
Having three historical figures at the university (Poe, Monroe and Madison) might make it a tempting target to time terrorists. This doesn’t necessarily mean George as another group of time travellers could turn up while the PCs are there. Now they have two things they have to prevent.