Recently I finished running a TimeWatch adventure. Over three sessions (roughly 10 hours in all) in real-time with events spanning centuries it taught me a lot about writing and running a time travel game. What follows are some observations that could help others accepting the challenge of attempting a similar task.
CREATE A TIMELINE
In the process of writing the adventure each Scene would produce numerous events that I realised would have to be catalogued. The TimeWatch agents have the ability to visit those events in any order so it is important that the GM be able to quickly reference them and get an idea of what happens when.
You might notice that events cluster around particular time periods. This can highlight where to focus your research, sprinkling scenes with era specific music, fashion and cultural references.
Linked to this is making sure you know the entire history of any important NPCs in your adventure. PCs might meet a character in one particular point of their life and want to use their tether to find out what happens to them in the future. You’ll want to keep track of when those same characters might cross the PCs paths in the future or if the influence of the TimeWatch agents put their lives on a new course.
PREPARATION IS EVERYTHING
Nothing slows an adventure down more than the GM struggling to come up with something interesting during play. Prepare for anything that you know is going to happen during the game and as many eventualities as you can think of. If you don’t end up using it that material can still be used for future games so it is still worthwhile.
I created a list of possible Time Chases, specifically linked to the alterations in the timeline. Not only does it make it easier to pull these out when you need to it helps reinforce what the new version of history is like. While it is background details it still makes it memorable.
I’d created another group of TimeWatch agents, carrying out a parallel mission to the PCs. I introduced the members of this other team as they passed each other on the way from the briefing rooms in the Citadel. My intention was that should the PCs get into trouble or miss any important avenues of investigation this other group could help.
Not that I’d make it easy for them. I’d sketched out possible fates for each member of the other team, getting the worst of the changes in time. In order to get their help the PCs would have to rescue members from being stranded in the ancient past, insane asylums in the 18th century or death at the hands of terrorists.
In the end the PCs didn’t need any help so the other team remained in the background, solving minor problems so the heroes could concentrate on the important parts of the investigation. Yet I don’t regret the time spent as it helped flesh out both TimeWatch and those who work alongside the PCs.
WIKIPEDIA IS YOUR FRIEND
It isn’t possible to know everything and no matter how much research you do there are going to be times when you need to find out more information to develop the setting. This is especially true in TimeWatch where the PCs can investigate any clue at any point in history.
One of the important locations in my adventure was a small island off the coast of Greece. The PCs could investigate it at any time and they choose the year 1950. Within a few minutes I was able to bring up some details about the country during that period and give the players a feel for the place.
Obviously this requires having access to the internet but in our modern age that isn’t too much of a problem.
Just like the clothes shop in ‘The Time Machine’ or Hill Valley in ‘Back to The Future’ places can act as both an oasis of stability and reflect the passage (or alteration) of time.
In our adventure the PCs became very fond of the Red King hotel in New York. Investigating a murder there in 21st century they got to know the manager. Travelling back to the 1970s they decided to stay at the hotel, meeting the manager when he was just a bell boy. Later they travelled into a post-apocalyptic future where the hotel crumbled and decayed around them the further they went. Finally they went back to the 1950s when the hotel was first built.
When ever they needed to stay in a particular time period the Red King was they immediately wanted to go. Being able to describe the current state of the building and the staff helped establish the particular period they were in and emphasise that the TimeWatch agents were exploring more than any mortal could in a single lifetime, their own lives interweaving with the history of the hotel.
Familiarity can also come into play when the PCs try to solve the problem. It helps if you establish each location with a clear identity and purpose. If the players can understand its function then they can use it to help them.
At the conclusion of the game the PCs knew exactly where to get everything they needed to fix time based on their prior experience with the variety of locations they’d encountered.
THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A TRIVIAL DETAIL
During the game it helps to bring a scene to life with minor details, whether it be the music playing in the background of a bar, the sound of bird song in the woods or a couple arguing loudly on the sidewalk. As long as the trivial doesn’t distract from the important details it can help reinforce that the PCs are living in a particular moment and not just moving between plot points.
If the TimeWatch agents revisit these events then these minor details can be useful temporal landmarks. ‘Groundhog Day’ is a good example of this, with the first run through establishing the trivial events that Phil Connors must live through each day. Encountering one such event again the PCs will know what is going to happen next.
At any given moment PCs or other time travellers could be behind the scenes, engineering those moments or taking advantage of them. This can lead deeper significance to these details or put them in a new perspective.
During the adventure the PCs were speaking to a college professor outside just before he went cycling. I briefly interrupted their questioning of the professor by mentioning that there was screech of tires at the end of the street. There had been a near collision between to vehicles and the drivers were shouting at each other before they drove away.
It was a minor detail, maybe just hinting that if they hadn’t stopped the professor he might have been involved in that near collision. The adventure proceeded until later when one of the PCs wanted to slip a note containing vital information to their earlier selves.
The near collision became the perfect distraction to cross her own timeline. While everyone was looking at the cars the PC slipped the note into one of her teammates pockets and vanished before they saw her. A throw away detail had become an important plot point.
PCs CAN PLAY THE LONG GAME
With time travel PCs can spend a lot of time devoted to their investigation. They can spend months or years befriending NPCs or infiltrating organisations. During the adventure this happened several times with several PCs enrolling as students at MIT or taking a job at a zoo so they could eventually steal an exhibit.
You probably won’t want to run through this periods in detail but spend some time mentioning the people they encounter or things that might happen to them reinforces the idea that this is a long period of time for the PCs, if not the players.
They might have a simple goal but come away with new friends, ex-girlfriends and funny stories to tell about the 7 months they spent in an art commune or working as a vet. These additions to their own personal history could lead to further adventures down the line.
LET THE PCS KNOW WHEN THEY KNOW ENOUGH
There are likely to be multiple routes of investigation that PCs can follow. The trouble can be that even when they have all the pieces of the puzzle they might worry that they need to explore the paths not taken before they can solve the problem.
Depending on how long you want to run an adventure you could let them continue investigating, maybe coming across the some of the same clues to hint that they are retreading old ground. This could, however, make things drag out longer than they need to be.
You can reassure the players by confirming what their PCs know. In certain circumstances the PCs, as TimeWatch agents, will be more experienced and know more about time travel than their players. There is no harm in telling a player that their character is confident they know what is going on and that they can now deal with it.
This leaves the players free to concentrate on coming up with a plan.
DON’T FORGET THE STITCHES
The GM has a lot of things to remember. Not only must you keep the plot straight in your head you have to be able to narrate what is happening and react to anything the PCs decide to do. Amongst all of that it can be easy to forget to reward them with Stitches.
I was guilty of this and once it was pointed out attempted to give them out when ever possible (especially as the plot reached its conclusion and they need all the help they could get). One way to get around this is to encourage the players to award the Stitches, helping share the responsibility.