by Kevin Kulp
TimeWatch isn’t just the name of the recently Kickstarted GUMSHOE time travel RPG, it’s also the name of the elite organization of time cops for whom the PCs work. It’s worth a few moments for GMs to consider who founded TimeWatch, who runs it, and how that might set the tone for your entire campaign.
It’s an important question. You won’t find it as relevant during a one-shot game, but an organization’s mission, tactics, and ethics are often set from the top down. That’s true for extra-temporal troubleshooting organizations as well, and your choices as GM create significant consequences for the agent in the field, as well as for the type of NPC agents that TimeWatch recruits. Even more interestingly, what happens if management changes during the course of your campaign? Navigating a chronal coup is something that can shake up a game delightfully.
The Ground Rules
TimeWatch is headquartered in The Citadel, a vast futuristic base that exists outside of the normal time stream; alterations to Earth’s history may occasionally prevent agents from reaching the Citadel during a mission, but they seldom prevent Citadel-based TimeWatch agents from entering whatever history is currently extant. That means you can easily leave the Citadel and head to a variant 1492 where velociraptors rule the Earth, but you may have trouble getting back to the Citadel if the changes to history stop TimeWatch from ever being founded.
When they say the Citadel is self-contained, they aren’t kidding. It’s the very definition of self-contained: no windows to the outside, no doors to the outside, and it’s even possible that there is no outside. Whether the headquarters exists in a separate time-isolated bubble universe that calved off during the Big Bang, within a massive Klein bottle, or somehow between the ticks of a clock on February 29th, 1972, the Citadel has so far remained impervious to attack from without. The only way in or out is through time travel.
Regulations forbid agents from time traveling into the Citadel at any time that is earlier than the time they last departed. Violating this rule typically leads to suspension, disciplinary hearings and reams of paperwork; the rule is in place to protect the agents from paradox and chronal instability on a grand scale. Perhaps due to its location upon the shore of time’s great river, paradox within The Citadel has a nasty habit of rippling forwards and backwards like a heavy stone thrown into a very small pool. Agents are urged and trained not to take any actions that may sabotage already completed missions. This admonition also prohibits agents from time-traveling forward to find out if their mission was successful, or time-traveling to the past to warn themselves about useful facts. Some agents cleverly work around this — for instance, more than one team has subtly arranged for an already-prepared clone of a team member who just died during a mission — but by and large the rule remains inviolate. It is reinforced by the autochrons themselves, the agents’ time travel devices, which are programmed not to return to any part of TimeWatch’s past. A 2-point Hacking spend is typically required to circumvent this.
Orders From On High
Most agents are never told the identity of TimeWatch’s secret masters. It’s widely believed that TimeWatch is run by hyper-evolved humanity, humans who have transcended physical boundaries to become ageless and eternal energy beings. Some agents believe that TimeWatch is run by aliens who have humanity’s best interests at stake, while others think that a vast human-cyborg conglomeration tracks histories and corrects ripples in the time stream. Whether you believe that TimeWatch is correcting history for the greater good, or that the leaders have an agenda of their own, the common view is that TimeWatch missions work to restore true history, history as we know it without the interference of time travel. It’s up to the GM as to how much of this is actually true history.
The Tone of TimeWatch
There are any number of ways to handle the framework of personnel and management who keep TimeWatch running. GMs should pick an approach they find most interesting, possibly changing it mid-campaign should internal strife causes a change in leadership.
The Bureaucratic Maze
In this Orwellian and moderately humorous vision of TimeWatch, the Citadel is full of bureaucrats, huge quantities of human and alien office workers from throughout history. Quantum computers and trained analysts spend their days tracking and analyzing historical changes, projecting these ripples through the ever-evolving timeline and dispatching agents to make fine (or coarse) adjustments. There’s a surprising amount of red tape. Agents largely operate on their own recognizance; they can expect poor leadership, slow change, automatically assigned benefits, a stack of procedures to follow, and groupthink committees who usually mean well. . . Usually. Smart and independent agents usually have to contend with office drones from throughout time who work in compartmentalized tasks in order to ensure that the field agents — the PCs — can function, succeed, and thrive.
In other words, think Brazil, Portal or Paranoia, but (perhaps) without an insane computer running the show. Browne Chronometric from game designer Epidiah Ravachol’s time travel RPG Time and Temp falls into this category. In a dystopian setting like this, TimeWatch agents might fight the corporate bureaucracy as much as they fight enemies of the timeline, and the Bureaucracy ability becomes essential for cutting red tape back at HQ.
It’s interesting to consider what happens when a bureaucratic TimeWatch is dismantled, revitalized, and rebuilt by an energetic go-getter who decides that TimeWatch will fail without some sort of renewal. Perhaps she includes the PCs as key members of her team. The bureaucratic old guard doesn’t take well to change, however, so this sort of re-invention always carries the risk of chronal civil war.
The Elite Agents
This campaign structure assumes that the PCs are superb at their job, and they get treated accordingly. They aren’t second-guessed or questioned by their supervisors and case agents unless things go horribly wrong; instead, their superiors assume that they’re going to succeed. There’s no micro-management in this sort of game, which might be a delightful change compared to some players’ real jobs, but there’s also no expectation of backup or strong support systems. Elite agents make their own luck, and can’t always rely on TimeWatch mid-mission for help.
This type of game is ideal for one-shots because TimeWatch management is hands-off and has little effect on the organization’s culture, other than by recruiting superb agents. If you want to stay focused on adventures instead of internal politics, this is a good way to go.
The Rowdy Adventurers
Less coolly professional and more enthusiastically adventurous, TimeWatch agents in this sort of a game are more akin to Remo Williams, Indiana Jones and Doc Savage than they are James Bond. There is little or no organizational bureaucracy within TimeWatch’s loose confederation of agents, and the agents may only see a handful of support personnel who send them on missions. There’s a culture of excitement, adventure and exploration as they tackle chronal problems, and a lack of particularly useful intelligence-gathering. This is TimeWatch in its early days, when much about history remained unknown and unregulated.
To run this sort of game, make the agents’ direct supervisor even more adventurous and gung-ho than they are, perhaps a risk-taker who has been forced to retire. When they have strong support for taking absurd risks, players are more likely to go for broke. Hopefully those risks will pay off, but either way the agents won’t get in trouble for making a difficult call. It’s likely that this sort of organization slowly changes to a more conservative, bureaucratic structure over time, leaving elite teams who rebel against the additional regulations and red tape.
Conspiracy-focused games involve TimeWatch management who almost certainly don’t have the agents’ best interests in mind. Whether there are much bigger stakes in play that the agents don’t know about or understand, or because secret power groups within TimeWatch are clashing with one another for control of the timeline and control of history itself, the agents become expendable tools in the eyes of their supervisors. They have to look out for themselves and choose their own sides, and they live with the risk that they might not be able to trust even the people who are closest to them. This sort of game feels like the best episodes of The X-Files, and works best in medium to longer-length campaign arcs. Any other type of TimeWatch management may become briefly tainted by conspiracies, breaking up the routine and making sure the players stay on their toes.
Balancing the Campaign
Whoever controls TimeWatch, you probably want their management style to flavor your games instead of being the core plot. Subverting bureaucracy or manipulating a conspiracy is a fantastic side plot while the agents are fixing history, but it gets a little self-referential to consider during every game. Pick an approach, build your game’s secrets and its hidden backgrounds, and go have a blast.
TimeWatch is an upcoming RPG from Pelgrane Press, recently Kickstarted and expected in stores in Q1 2015.