“I’m writing this anonymously, because I’m spilling some secrets that aren’t supposed to slip out. Just know that I’m on the right side of true history – whatever TimeWatch says it is – and I’ve done my best to make that happen. And if I screwed up a few times? Well, no one’s perfect . . .” So begins the blurb on the back of a manuscript that has recently fallen into my hands, a century and change after a TimeWatch agent delivered it for publication and the entire print run vanished months later. It’s been out again for more than a year now, though, so apparently whoever made it vanish from the time stream didn’t manage to do so a second time around. Before history gets rewritten once more and I forget I ever read it, let’s review The Book of Changing Years from Pelgrane Press!
The Book of Changing Years is to the TimeWatch RPG in the same vein as the Halcyon City Herald Collection is to Masks: an ‘in-universe’ anthology of stories and information meant to provide inspiration and ideas for people to use in their own games, while also being an entertaining read. Published in 2016, the Book isn’t even Pelgrane’s first foray into this kind of supplement, as even on the back of the Book they draw attention to The Book of Smoke and The Armitage Files, both for Trail of Cthulhu.
I made the lovely mistake of wandering into Pelgrane’s booth at PAX Unplugged, and after they pretty much held me upside down and shook the money out my pile of goods included both a copy of TimeWatch proper and the Book. I’m still learning my way through TimeWatch and the GUMSHOE system, and that might end in a review on its own or at least a Meet the Party, but in the meantime I think I can admit that this sort of supplement seems to appeal to me and I think it deserves some time in the spotlight.
There are two parts to the supplement, first a timeline of history ranging from when TimeWatch HQ was built in the era of pre-time before the Big Bang to the founding of TimeWatch in 3230 CE. Written by TimeWatch-the-game’s creator Kevin Kulp, the timeline was in-universe put together by an anonymous TimeWatch agent who goes by the moniker ‘the Historian’, quite possibly the agent who (according to the back of the book) delivered the in-universe Book of Changing Years to Pelgrane Press in 1895. For a few examples:
-14,854 years: TimeWatch arranges for Atlantis’ destruction and removal. It’s a long story that no one will talk about.
2560 BCE: King Khufu completes the Great Pyramid of Giza, assuming some damn time traveler doesn’t replace it with a pyramid-shaped spaceship and TimeWatch has to fix things again.
1431 CE: Joan of Arc is tried and executed, if you consider “recruited to TimeWatch” as “executed”.
1841 CE: Richard Owen coins the word “dinosaur”. Sophosaurs across the globe furrow their eyes ridges.
1942 CE: Inspired by disguised ezeru, the Manhattan Project begins.
2212 CE: Meddling with Things Humanity Ought Not to Know produces the first uplifted super-intelligent gorilla. He’s far from the last, however.
The timeline is full of more entries like this, taking up 59 of the Book’s 200+ pages. The tone is often wry, approaching the facts of history from the perspective of someone who has seen and researched a lot of paradoxes, collapsed timelines, time traveling meddlers, and nonhuman plots and lived to be a retired agent spending their time as a librarian on the Citadel. For the prospective TimeWatch GM it’s also packed full of potential hooks. Just from the examples cited above, you could get an adventure involving that long story concerning Atlantis, someone replacing the Great Pyramid with something, sophosaurs picking fights with paleontologists, and radioactive cockroaches from the future making sure the nukes that birthed them get made. As a player you get plenty of ideas for potential characters. Why not play Joan of Arc, or a super-intelligent uplifted gorilla, or a refugee from a collapsed timeline, or someone plucked from time during a natural disaster?
The second part of the book consists of journals, diaries, and reports from a number of TimeWatch agents, written in real life by a wide variety of authors: Heather Albano, Kennon Bauman, Emily Care Boss, Stephanie Bryant, Emily Dresner, Marissa Kelly, Emma Marlow, Epidiah Ravachol, Rebecca Slitt, and Ruth Tillman. The agents who have created the in-universe reports include Richard and Edward Plantagenet, Theodosia Burr, Ambrose Bierce, a mercenary known as the Surgeon, a rogue agent known as Agent Snow . . . suffice to sat that this section also provides fodder for character creation.
They also provide examples of all different kinds of stories that a team of TimeWatch agents could get caught up in. They are full of various ways that time can go wrong, from time-traveling art thieves to an agent facing down themselves to internal strife in TimeWatch to chronal ghosts to giant cockroach plots to pranking Marco Polo. Some are serious, some are silly, some are heartwarming, and some are heartbreaking. One agent sees his future self die trying to pass on a warning, another gets to eat the first chocolate chip cookie ever, a third newly-recruited marvels at all of time stretching out before him, and a fourth sees her protégé go astray. If the goal of The Book of Changing Years was to answer the question “What can you do with this setting?” I’d say it definitely provided.
Is The Book of Changing Years useful for groups looking to run TimeWatch? Well, as I said, I’m only starting to dip my toes into the system, but this supplement certainly makes me want to play the game. Also, the best part is the most important part: it’s an enjoyable read even if you never intend to play TimeWatch.