How I write a Timewatch Adventure

This is just my basic formula for writing and running a scenario to run in Timewatch.

Step 1: Play Historical What-If 

First, I start with an historical “what if” scenario. It might be a cause or an effect.

A “cause” would be something that happened and ripples forward in time. This is the most common “historical what if” that you’ll find, and there are hundreds of them posted every day right here( if you need some inspiration. A cause scenario might be something like: “What if Little Boy had never been dropped on Hiroshima?”

An “effect” scenario starts with something I want to have happened, which will be the big clue to the PCs that the timeline changed. Effect scenarios are less plausible, maybe, than cause scenarios, but they’re also flashier. “What if cowboys rode dinosaurs in the Old West instead of horses?” Now, obviously that’s a big change to the timeline and it is also a cause, perhaps of things going strangely in the 1880’s in the U.S. But it’s mainly an effect– it’s the effect of dinosaurs not dying out (perhaps) and existing with humans into the 19th century, and even becoming domesticated. That’s a huge effect, very cinematic, and very implausible. But fun and lends itself to an over-the-top storyline.

The “what if” should be big– big enough that it changes the fabric of history enough to matter. It should alter the course of a large group of people– maybe a city or even an entire civilization. In my mindset, Timewatch doesn’t send people back in time to fix up their parents at the winter dance. However, if you are playing a more personal storyline, one where the autochron is not issued by Timewatch…. then a smaller scenario would be fine. However, in this case, you absolutely need to know the timeline you’re working with. That’s why, when I want to get personal (such as in my Sarah Connor session), I use a well-known fictional character whose timeline you could research on the Internet.

Step 2: Research and Speculation

If you have a “Cause” scenario, then step two is to figure out its effects– what are the timeline ripples you’re going to see due to this thing happening? Conversely, if you’re using an effect scenario, you need to be saying “and that happened because…” to work backwards from this really evident change in the timeline.

This is all part of the research phase. You’ll need to have a good knowledge of the timeline before you sit down to change it, and that means going on a guided tour of history. Whenever you change time, you need to know, as the GM, what the change was. You need to know the history and culture of up to about 20 years before the event happened, just in case the PCs show up too early or want to set something up in advance (they always do). And you need to know the timelines, both real and altered, of the world from the day it changes until about 100 years later. I like to go every major milestone for about 50 years, then space things out for a few generations until either the timeline recovers and, oh yeah, we have dinosaurs and they just kind of blend back into the normal fabric of human life. Or the timeline doesn’t really recover and we’re looking at psychic dinosaurs taking over Timewatch in about 20,000 BCE. Either way– it’s good to have a chronology of both what *really* happened and what happened in the alternate timeline.

Step 3: Make Stuff Up

By the way, this often means you are Making Stuff Up, especially for the timeline for the future. Yeah, you’re making up both the real and the invented timelines– there’s a reason I like to use pre-existing fiction for that. It’s much easier for me to pull the timeline from The Terminator than it is to make one up completely.

Step 4: Invent and Kidnap Your NPCs

The best part about Timewatch, in my mind, is that there is already a huge host of NPCs waiting to be used. They are historical figures, and believe me when I say that players who would normally stab Elminster in the eye with a spork will go nuts over the opportunity to save Genghis Khan from dying of measles before his time. Use historical and famous people liberally– they’re the guys your Timewatch agents want to save, because they are the key people in the historical timeline.

You will also need some non-historical people, of course. Knowing a culture well (or “well enough”) means you’ll already know how prevalent the art and antiquities industry was in 14th century Florence, when your friends go wandering around looking for clues about an ancient firearm that isn’t supposed to exist.

Step 5: Set up Some Clues and Scenes

Timewatch is a game of investigation, so you need to know the core clues that your Timewatch agents will be looking for, and where those clues might lead.

It is absolutely important in Timewatch to help the players steer clear of red herrings, so keep your clues focused on the actual Thing That Happened so they can go to that time and place as quickly and efficiently as possible. Don’t worry– once there, they are certain to muck around a while trying to figure out who the other time traveler is who’s trying the change the timeline!

Any time your players are in a scenario that could be solved with time travel and they think of a way to break time to do it– let them. Make them pay a cost, usually in Chronal Stability and Paradox Prevention points, but let them bend time to their will. That’s the point of this game, and it’s what makes the game insanely fun.

Step 6: Plan a Few Non-Investigation Scenes

I like to have at least one chase scene in every Timewatch game. The chase rules are fun and lightweight and players love them. Chase scenes usually resolve within 2-3 “rounds,” and sometimes I will set things up so the agents have to chase down the perpetrator, or sometimes the perps are hunting them. And sometimes, the party splits and half the party is protecting a key person and being chased by the perps, who are themselves being chased by the other half of the party trying to apprehend them.

Chase scenes are the one area where I don’t try to drop clues on the players. There’s enough going on as it is! The only clues you want to put into here are interpersonal, perhaps witty banter between the agents and the perp where they might taunt them into revealing too much.

If you have a lot of combat-loving characters or players, include a fight scene. I often write the adversaries as being rather willing to throw their hands up when they’ve been caught– not every confrontation has to end with beating the bad guy into submission, after all. But sometimes, you have one or more players or characters who don’t feel like the story is over until there’s blood on the floor.

Step 7: Sidestepping, a House Rule

I use a house rule called “a sidestep” when players want to jump out of the timeline, do something, and jump back in a second later. They’re usually doing this as a solo quest, and it can be detracting from the main plotline.

If they’re not going to be mucking about too much, and they’re not doing it to avoid the base resources of health, chronal stability, and paradox prevention, I let them make these sidesteps with just one chronal stability check, and I don’t role-play out the side scene too heavily.

I’m nice that way.

Step 8: Be Ready for Changes

As always, be ready to roll with the changes when your players go somewhere else. Move clues where you need them to appear. Make sure they have solid threads tying them to where to go next. If you have to create a new clue on the spot to join their unexpected visit to 4 B.C.E. to the time-jump into the post-apocalyptic moon base, do so. Keep your eye on the goal of the scene, which is to reveal enough information to cause the characters to move onto the next scene you want to set up. If they do so by going a little bit sideways and detouring for more clues, give them more clues that point to that scene.

Does that sound like railroading? That’s fine– Timewatch is a little bit railroady, in that you have a timeline that has been changed and needs to be fixed. By its very nature, Timewatch is a somewhat linear story– it’s just a linear story that can go pretty much anywhere and anywhen!

4 thoughts on “How I write a Timewatch Adventure

  1. It’s a new kind of game, and so your tips are useful even for old fogeys like myself. Thanks!

  2. This is a great post.
    I freely admit that I have over the years brushed up against the idea of running a game involving time travel, but the preparation overhead has always been intimidating to me. The way you laid it out step by step above , makes it seem less daunting and honestly more enjoyable.
    I’m going to have to get my hands on GUMSHOE, and Time watch and think about giving it a go.

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