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Friday, 8 November 2019

The ticking clock

The ticking clock: one of the mainstays of dramatic tension. I may have first become conscious of it watching First Men In The Moon. The lunar ship had been painted with hot liquid cavorite, which would cut off gravity and launch the ship into space when it cooled down. The snag was, our heroes were bustling about loading their equipment on board but somebody had left the greenhouse doors open and that cavorite was cooling fast…

If you’re going to get an early lesson in great storytelling, it helps if it’s from Nigel Kneale.

Though often put to effective use in movies and television drama, the ticking clock usually ends up going cuckoo when deployed in a roleplaying game. Cthulhu will rise if the ritual isn’t stopped by midnight? What if the characters mess everything up (c’mon, it can’t just be my players) and arrive at the wrong address twenty minutes late?

You can fudge it, obviously, but if you do that a ticking clock is forever after going to feel like a fake threat. Or you could embrace the catastrophe. Cthulhu rises, and what used to be an investigative campaign abruptly shifts gear and swerves into post-apocalyptic territory. Now, I like that approach, obviously, because it lets events take the narrative wherever it needs to go. But, again, you can really only pull that trick once.

A more reliable staple is what we might call the “soft” ticking clock. The players aren’t given an exact time when the balloon will go up, but they do know that delays will be costly. The enemy forces are mustering. The elements of a dire spell are being worked. The colony is dying for want of the medicine shipment. Or maybe they just have Mr Wolf breathing down their necks:

Instead of having to count off exact time periods (always a headache when running a game) you can now label various options as just quick or slow. The characters need to retrieve the heir to the throne from a convent in the woods before her father dies, otherwise her cousin will be crowned. They can go straight through the woods – that’s quickest, but there’s a risk of getting lost and these are the hunting grounds of faerie folk after all. Or they can go around the woods, which avoids faerie foes and lets them stick to the road, but is going to take longer. A series of choices like that will determine how promptly they deliver the princess to the castle.

Now, here’s the crucial point. If they chose all the swiftest solutions, that’s its own reward. Their forethought and gambles and shortcuts paid off, they arrive in good time, the adventure ends in a triumphant flourish. But the longer they took, the harder the endgame is going to play out. A short delay gives the nasty prince time to put his agents on the approaches to the castle ready to intercept them. A longer delay means he has replaced their loyal seneschal with his own sorcerer under a magical disguise, and if they don’t see through that the princess may not survive as far as the throne room. A very long delay means the coronation is already starting, the prince has framed them for the death of the old king, and now they need to fight their way past the castle’s entire garrison.

The real fun there is you can make the missed-deadline outcome almost impossible to beat. After all, to have arrived at that ending they will need to have turned down every single opportunity to get a move on. I’m often too lenient with my players. I think I’ve thrown a tough fight at them but they sail through it. This way, I’d figure that the finale they get to if they were too slow is meant to be all but unwinnable. They were given the chance to avoid it but they dawdled, even knowing that time was a factor. So then you can throw a TPK-level threat at them without a qualm.

Or – even worse for their pride – have an NPC step in to save the day, as here:

But all that's just mechanics. Details. What's important is how it feels. A race against a deadline must have a sense of urgency at all times. If the players stop for twenty minutes to talk about their plans, don't accept that twenty minutes makes no difference in a twenty-four hour time frame. Dithering is dithering. "We're talking while we ride," they say? Can't be riding very fast, then.  Call for snap decisions. Keep up the pressure. Every time they start idling, call attention to the swift sinking of the sun in the clouds, the long miles still to go, the chill of approaching night. The sands are running out; make sure they know it.

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