I'm writing TimeWatch, a time travel game for GUMSHOE.

This is a playtest brain-dump for Ride of the Valkyries, an adventure using the game's pulp campaign style. TimeWatch is going to be a GUMSHOE time travel game with a slightly pared-down ruleset optimized for fast action and investigative play.

One of the things I'm screwing around with is how well the rules support different campaign styles, from gritty alt-history cop dramas to cinematic one-shots in the style of famous time travel movies or TV shows. Ride of the Valkyries was a four-hour one-shot game with pre-gen characters designed to put the pulp campaign style rules through their paces. I've run it four times with 26 different players total. Let's see how it did.

Initial Premise: Hitler reportedly developed a lot of his theories about Aryan racial superiority from the operas of Richard Wagner. If you remove Wagner from the picture, striking at Hitler obliquely, what happens?

Better yet, imagine if the person assassinating the teenaged Wagner is actually a sympathetic character from a parallel timeline. In her timeline, Hitler's scientists got nuclear weapons from a rogue time traveler and used them to annihilate the west. She's come back to change her history. If the PCs successfully save Wagner in 1826, they'll still have to stop Nazi scientists from developing nukes in 1940—and doing so strands that time traveler in this history, instead of her own.

Pre-gen Player Character summaries[/sblock

Vid (Vidhvansaka-5): Punjabi assassin from 2043. Secretly a reprogrammed, amnesia-ridden liquid metal shape-shifting assassin cyborg (ahem).

Uurrk: Neanderthal caveman from 33,000 BCE. In a mechanic stolen blatantly from Robin D. Laws' game Og!, Uurrk only knows nine words at the game's start. A mechanic allows him to add words as he goes along and have momentary, brilliant flashes of loquacity. It's a fun character.

Mace Hunter, Big Game Hunter: An intrepid African explorer and ladies' man from 1843. He dreams of bagging the ultimate in big game.

Dr. Leah Breen: Mad scientist from 2219. Brilliant and utterly amoral, she invented one of the first time machines and spent some time sabotaging or time-exiling other inventors before TimeWatch caught up with her.

Cpl Jakob Hiedler: An artist and soldier from 1919, recruited by TimeWatch during the Great War. Extremely moral and guilt-ridden for reasons that aren't immediately obvious to everyone (see below).

Theodosia Burr Alston: The daughter of Vice-President (and accused traitor) Aaron Burr, in her youth Theo Burr was called the most educated woman in America. In real life she vanished in 1813 when her ship from North Carolina disappeared at sea. Clearly, she was recruited by TimeWatch.

Dan "D.B." Cooper: In real life, this skyjacker demanded $200,000 and then parachuted out of a plane over the Pacific Northwest. He was never caught. Secretly, this Cooper is actually from the 24th century and did the skyjacking as a game show stunt. Now he's filming a reality show. He subtly interviews the other TimeWatch agents, records everything, narrates his own actions for the unseen audience, and prays he doesn't get caught.

Adventure Outline:
Scene 1: Adventure intro, in media res. PCs fight an alien shape-shifter in 1983 and are assisted by Sparrow, a friendly and helpful time traveler who already knows them. "As long as I'm stuck in your time, it's a delight to help old friends." They haven't met her before, however. She's not TimeWatch and is cagey about her origins, but she thanks the group for what they did for her previously. The group has no idea what she's talking about.

Scene 2: Alert! TimeWatch HQ indicates that nuclear war has erupted in the 1960s, which is typical if someone assassinated Hitler or if WWII hasn't happened. TimeWatch Intelligence has traced the ripples of change as far back as Berlin 1865. Off the PCs go.

Once in Berlin, they quickly learn that the theater scene is quite different than it should be. The operatic scene has fewer works than expected, and there's no reference to Richard Wagner or his works whatsoever. Research shows that in the Jewish quarter of 1826 Leipzig, a 13 year old boy named Wilhelm Richard Geyer was killed violently by an unknown assassin at the opening night of his father's play. That boy would have been Wagner.

Scene 3: This scene is where the PCs have great latitude in their approach. They can arrive in Leipzig as early or as late as they wish in order to investigate and stop the impending assassination. The assassins are Sparrow and a Punjabi assassin cyborg that she's hired from 2043. (Note: to get the right amount of combat and danger in the game, this should have been two assassination cyborgs. That would have pushed the game beyond 4 hours, though.) The challenge of the PCs: save young Wagner and stop Sparrow without killing her, since they know she survives (and is quite friendly to them later.) This is complicated by the fact that the assassin cyborg is actually Vidhvansaka-5, one of the PCs, apparently in an earlier time that she no longer remembers. As Vid's secret identity as a cyborg is revealed to the group, she must stop them from killing her earlier self and figure out a way in which she ensures her continued existence.

This scene ends when Wagner is safe, onlookers who witnessed any anachronisms have been mind-wiped or convinced otherwise, and Sparrow has explained that thanks to a rogue time traveler Hitler now has nuclear technology. The PCs promise to go solve that problem if she stops trying to destroy good opera.

Scene 4: TimeWatch Berlin safe house. What's the first thing every time traveler tries to do? Assassinate Hitler. It's so popular that TimeWatch has a safe house set up in Berlin, where teams of agents take a number to thwart one assassination attempt after another.

Here the PCs re-equip, role-play, and develop their strategy for infiltrating the Nazi nuclear facility run by Kurt Diebner in Gottow, Germany.

It's also here that the group likely learns that Great War veteran Jakob Hiedler, one of the PCs, is an alt-universe analogue of Hitler who has spent his life consumed with guilt and trying to make up for the atrocities that this timeline's Hitler committed. They disguise him as his namesake to perform a surprise inspection at the nuclear lab in Gottow.

Scene 5: Gottow Nuclear Facility. A clever group has no problem infiltrating the facility in disguise. The problem comes when they meet the rogue time traveler who gave Diebner nuclear technology; he's actually there as a direct result of past actions of Dr. Leah Breen, another of the PCs, and he's pissed. When recognizing Breen, he orders his lab assistants to "hit the red button!" This starts a time tunnel that draws a Tyrannosaurus Rex into the nuclear laboratory.

The scene ends with a spectacular free-for-all between the rogue scientist, Diebner and his guards, and the very angry Nazi T-Rex, against the seven PCs. For the PC who is a big game hunter, and the Neanderthal PC, the fight couldn't be better.

At game end the victorious PCs leave Diebner alive but unconscious and memory-wiped, destroy the nuclear facility without triggering a meltdown, remove all anachronistic technology and material, and return to a (hopefully) restored and correct timeline.

Playtest Lessons: The most important lesson? Knowing the basics helps you plan for the unexpected.

My original plan was to have the Leipzig cyborg assassin be a different entity who the PCs had to fight. I was caught flat-footed the first time Vid's player paid a Paradox Prevention point to make it herself, from an earlier time. Pure brilliance. That became canon in the later playtests.

Another noteworthy surprise was when the Neanderthal PC's player (@Rel) paid an absurd amount of points to ensure that the T-Rex was struck by a small meteorite that the PC, himself, had put on a trajectory 93 million years prior. Totally implausible in a serious game, but in a pulp game with Nazi dinosaurs? Oh, Hell yes. Everyone applauded.

It's worth noting here that trying to include an alt-history Hitler as a sympathetic player character was challenging, interesting, and not something I'd quickly try again. I like the idea of a man battling against the monster he could have become; I don't like the idea of lessening or mitigating the amount of moral outrage we should have against anyone who has perpetrated those crimes. This is the sort of historical shenanigan that can strike too close to home for some players, and I'd advise it only with caution.

Most importantly for the ruleset? These playtests helped work out kinks in the initiative system, the action point system, the concept that your chronal stability ability keeps you anchored to the world, and the various methods in which PCs can utterly flout the laws of nature and create paradoxes (and other fun tricks that you fully expect time travelers to do.) Robin D. Laws and Ken Hite did a fantastic job of laying down a rules core that I can riff off of, and I'm tremendously grateful.

What's Next? I'd say the manuscript is 60-65% of its way to a complete first draft. Up next are 2nd-party playtests run by locals, where I can sit and watch someone else GM to see which rules need better explanation. I still have a lot of setting material and GMing advice to write, including guidelines on building and pacing adventures.

Want to Help? The most useful thing you can do right now is mention this game to your friends. Please do! Playtests are showing that the game is going to be really fun; our biggest challenge will be making sure that people know about it when we prepare the Kickstarter that funds printing, great art and extra development. And thank you.

For semi-regular updates, follow @Timewatchrpg on Twitter (written by me; I'm also at @KEvInKulp), watch here, and watch the Pelgrane Press community on Google+. We'll also have See Page XX updates at Pelgrane's web site (www.pelgranepress.com) as the game proceeds through development.

So, whoo hoo! Progress!