Someone murdered an ambassador's wife, leading to a NATO vs. Warsaw Pact war in the 1960s. Your team is on the case, but not to bring the killer to justice. This is TimeWatch – and your job is to prevent this crime from ever happening in the first place.
Time travel is one of the most difficult topics/powers to tackle in an RPG. In a traditional RPG, it can be incredibly unbalancing if used as anything other than a one-off plot device. Creating an entire RPG centered around characters with the ability to travel anywhere up or down the time stream sounds equally awesome and impossible.
Game designer Kevin Kulp accepted that challenge, creating TimeWatch based on the investigation-centric Gumshoe RPG system. Gumshoe makes it easy for game masters to build seemingly elaborate mystery-based adventures with minimal effort, and lets players find clues and solve mysteries using their own wits instead of a lucky die roll. I interviewed Kevin about the development of TimeWatch.
io9: TimeWatch uses the Gumshoe system, with a focus on investigation and mystery solving, but it also incorporates pulp action and other types of adventures. Did you consider any other systems, or have any plans to port it to other systems? In a lot of ways it feels like a Savage Worlds game, for instance.
Kevin Kulp: TimeWatch was a (somewhat streamlined) Gumshoe game since day one. I think it's a great match: Gumshoe's design assumes that finding clues is less fun than deciding what to do with them. I wrote the game to take advantage of those mechanics. My goal was to work in just about every time travel trope you can think of, including the "Bill and Ted" solution of having your future self drop off useful objects, and Gumshoe handled that seamlessly.
I'm a little surprised by how adaptable the TimeWatch rules are turning out to be. They work as well for classic sci-fi as they do for 1920s Lovecraftian secret societies who combat mythos horrors by traveling through dreams; Sliders-like parallel universes where we jettison time travel entirely in favor of adventures in alternate timelines; and a "crime-time" setting where you play time-traveling con men and master thieves. I'm not sure how many of those campaign expansions will make the final science-fiction-focused rulebook, but I'm delighted they're possible. I'm not sure such settings would work as well with a different rule system.
io9: There are a few obvious time travel touchstones, like Dr. Who, Quantum Leap, and the X-Men comics. What are some of the other influences on TimeWatch?
Kevin Kulp: Our premise is that you're an elite time cop, fixing history after other time travelers accidentally (or purposefully) screw it up. Poul Anderson's classic "Time Patrol" series of short stories inspired that initial seed. TimeWatch is fueled by history podcasts (particularly Dan Carlin's Hardcore History), alt-history forums (such as a superb one on Reddit), Harry Turtledove and Simon Hawke novels, the old "What If?" anthologies, the Terminator movies, and Kenneth Hite's old alternate history work.
io9: Some of the character concepts are pretty out there — uplifted gorillas, psychic velociraptors. How does Gumshoe allow for that kind of flexibility?
Kevin Kulp: Those examples belong to TimeWatch's Pulp playstyle, something you really wouldn't see in a more hard sci-fi setting, but here's what I love most about Gumshoe: the rules don't give a damn about how you describe something, so long as your character can accomplish it.
For instance, let's say you want to intimidate a subject into spilling a clue. The rules don't care if you're a huge and threatening intelligent gorilla, a frail accountant who can hack the subject's credit rating, a medieval psychic who mentally activates the subject's worst fears, or a futuristic super-scientist who uses nanotechnology to influence emotion. That's up to you. All the rules care about is, "do you have one or more points in Intimidation?" Having those points means you'll get the information you need from the GM—everything else is you being creative.
As a result, you can play agents from anywhere in history, from neanderthal times to the far future. You build your Gumshoe character normally, describe her however you like, and you're good to go. If you're playing a neanderthal, for instance, I recommend a high Disguise skill — and it's up to you whether your disguise comes from clothing and makeup, a high-tech Mission Impossible-style mask, a holographic projector, or something else. As long as you make your Disguise roll during a scene, you'll be fine.
io9: I'll admit that, as a GM, the thought of creating a cohesive adventure for my players that involves time travel is pretty daunting. Can you tell me about the mission seeds and other GM advice you have planned? Any plans to publish complete TimeWatch adventures?
Kevin Kulp: If there's one thing I'm experienced at, it's writing GM advice! I think that's essential for TimeWatch. Time travel games give players huge flexibility: if you can't get past a security guard, you can go back in time a few years and befriend him, so that when you encounter him standing guard in the present day he recognizes you as his old neighbor and barbecue buddy. Or hey, why not go back two months and get a job there yourself? Or go back a couple of hours and arrange an emergency, so that the guard is called away from his post at the perfect time.
Encouraging the players to be creative and innovative is a strength of the game, and it's something I'll want to talk about extensively in the GM advice. That's equally true with designing adventures. In TimeWatch the bad guys have usually already gotten away with it—changed history—and you have to figure out what they did so that you can go back and stop it from ever happening at all. That makes it different from just about every single game on the market.
So how do you build an adventure for a setting like that? Until the internet age, time travel adventure design was intimidating—you'd have to head to the library and hope for a useful encyclopedia. Now it's dead simple: a single search about a historical era will turn up dozens of completely brilliant plot hooks that can fuel an evening's play. We're going to include multiple missions and dozens of short adventure hooks to inspire you, and we'll likely have a 96-page campaign expansion that includes a series of missions, thematically linked but playable in any order. Over the last three weeks we've also seen a number of free TimeWatch missions being written and posted online. I think GMs will be in good shape; with Wikipedia, it takes me about half an hour to prep an adventure, and it's fun to do so.
I love that the game inadvertently teaches you history in the process. I'm just never sure whether to mention that as a selling point.
Sio9: Have any of your playtesters surprised you with unexpected ways to use time travel?
Kevin Kulp: Constantly. I had one player use literal rocket science to set up a meteorite as a weapon of mass destruction against Nazi Germany. I had one player recruit his own younger self into TimeWatch. I had a character run a 20 year long-con, living with a nomadic hordes for two dozen years in order to secure the great Khan's trust and respect during one crucial minute.
The stand-out surprise happened when a group of characters barely survived a brutal ambush, traveled back in time, then set up that same ambush against themselves in order to prove to a Mongol warlord that they could predict the future. Utterly brilliant, completely unexpected, proved that the bad guy didn't know where they were after all, and it ended up winning them the day.
As one of our playtesters said, making sure his TimeWatch team had a convenient parking space as they pulled up in front of a Prohibition-era speakeasy: "If it's a game about time travel, I will use it for frivolous, dramatic purposes."