Tick-tock Dungeon Clock

Saturday, November 23rd, 2019

“Clocks” are a concept from the Blades in the Dark RPG by John Harper. They are circles divided into anywhere from four to twelve sections, which are “ticked” after certain rolls are succeeded or failed. One or multiple sections can be ticked depending on the outcome of the roll. When a clock fills, something happens, something in the game’s fiction changes in some significant manner.

One of the issues I had run into with our D&D game is the concept of “running away” or “chasing down” being wholly reliant on Speed and the differences between those of the pursued and their pursuit. And the few times there were chases, they didn’t feel as fun or engaging as they should–just “I use my Move action, then they use their Move action, then I use my Move action, then they use their Move action, etc.” usually interspersed with some skill checks or ranged attacks.

Then I realized D&D already has something like a clock built-in, and why shouldn’t I add another?

What clock? The Survival check when a PC hits 0 hit points.[1] Obviously, this isn’t called a “clock”, but it functions in the same manner and is, essentially, two three-section clocks, one titled “Survives”, the other titled “Dies”, and whichever fills first (based on the outcome of the Survival rolls) is what happens.

I can easily utilize the same concept for chases, creating two clocks “Escapes” and “Caught!”, which require an appropriate check, the outcome of which ticks one or two sections of the appropriate clock. These would be Dexterity checks, with additional modifiers from any successful checks (knocking stuff down, finding a shortcut, etc.) that might improve a character’s position.

The utility of this idea for other situations, particularly for projects a character might engage in during downtime, is immense, removing the brutality of everything hinging upon a single roll (such as researching spells, training, gathering information, recruiting decent hirelings, and so forth). I also prefer the “three ticks” design baked in to the existing “clock” in 5e, rather than the four or twelve of Blades.

For research projects, and similar, I feel only a single clock needs be required, rather than dueling clocks, and in such a case a failed roll doesn’t have any effect except not ticking the clock: time is used up, but the effort can continue until the clock is finally filled.

There are multiple methods I am considering to handle these situations in the case of a critical failure:

One where additional sections are added to the clock if a critical failure is rolled, rather than the clock simply receiving no ticks.

This seems most useful if you feel long-term projects should not be subject to complete failure and only require increasing time and effort (and gold!), thus being achievable eventually.

One where a critical failure actually subtracts a number of existing ticks, which is similar to the above, but changes the curve of success (you can’t go below zero ticks).

Alternately, if a critical failure removes more ticks than the character has built up, the attempt fails. (However, this crosses-over too much with the dual clocks method, re-inventing the wheel for no good purpose in my mind: I only mention it to be complete-ist and to note the issue with such a mechanic should someone else think of it.)

One where–and I feel is a better use of a critical failure on long-term tasks–the task becomes impossible without: additional and well-hidden information, help from more skillful or learned individuals, or rare materials.

Obtaining such would require a quest that could be played out in an evening, or the utilization of downtime for an off-screen quest to gain such as the reward, and restarting the clock once that quest has been accomplished.

Beyond the sorts of items listed above, clocks are also great for “Alarm Raised” situations where the characters are sneaking around, or trying to fool others into believing they are who they say they are (when they aren’t), “Feed Everyone” situations when Outlanders and Hunters are foraging and attempting to feed the rest of the party when it may not be a foregone conclusion and they wish to take additional time, or “Ritually Cast” situations when the Magic-users or Clerics are pushing themselves mystically for hours on end.

[1] For those not familiar with 5th Edition D&D, when a character is knocked below 0 hit points, they have six check boxes by their hit point counter on their character sheet. Three of the boxes represent life, the other three represent death. Unless Stabilized by magic or a proficient healer, a character below 0 hit points must make a Survival check each round.

If this check is successful, the player checks one of the character’s life boxes, if unsuccessful, they check one of the death boxes. The first set of boxes to fill completely indicates what happens (the boxes do not need to be checked sequentially). I also personally rule that a critical on a Survival check marks two boxes of the appropriate type.

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