Okay. First, I’m very much aware that this article is late. Second, I’m very much aware that this article is not about what my fancy schedule said it would be about. But, third, I’m not apologizing and fourth, I’m not admitting the schedule was a bad idea. It wasn’t. The schedule was a good idea. It still is. So is this article. Because that’s what happened.
I was working on an article about how to handle hidden items like secret doors and hidden treasures and rare collectibles and stuff like that. That’s what I had promised on the schedule. But most of the way through the rewrite, it suddenly occurred to me that I hadn’t really solved the problem I thought I had because I had the wrong problem to begin with. And when I realized that, I realized there was a bigger issue to address. But I also came up with a pretty neat solution to the whole thing. I think, anyway. And I’m right. And that neat solution can also be worked back into the scavenger hunt mechanic.
Now, some people criticized me because I put out a hard and fast schedule. They knew – they know – that I am prone to sudden fits of changing my mind about everything at the least minute and slapping together entire new articles about things that I suddenly feel are more important. And they felt that the schedule would keep me from being able to do that. But, let’s get one thing straight: the schedule is just a planning tool. It’s not like I’m dealing with magical fairies here. I’m not going to turn into a pumpkin if I do decide to suddenly throw the schedule away for a week and belt out something else, even if it takes an extra day or two.
You have to understand that. It’s how I work. I admitted in my Megadungeon Monday post that I know I’m going to f$&% up my plans again someday and I’m going to forgive myself for that. But this ISN’T a f$&% up, okay? It ain’t the first time I’m throwing away an entire article at the eleventh hour and it certainly won’t be the last. And departing from my schedule isn’t a f$&% up. It’s a choice.
Are we clear? Good. Let’s talk about failure and consequences and random encounters and getting caught sneaking around and wilderness encounters and durations and let’s talk about the one thing they all have in common. Something that’s actually a huge pain in the a$& that most GMs don’t want to bother with. But to get there, let’s play a game.
The 50,000 GP Pyramid
So, there’s been this gameshow that has been off and on TV for… f$&%, I don’t know, practically forever. It’s called Pyramid. Actually, it has been called the $10,000 Pyramid, the $20,000 Pyramid, and various other amounts up to and including the $100,000 Pyramid. It worked like this. One member of a two-person team knew a secret category, like “things at a zoo.” That person would fire off a bunch of hints and clues and items and examples trying to get their partner to guess the category. The partner could just keep guessing until time was up. And the player would listen to their guesses and change strategies. For example, the clue-giver might begin by saying “lion, tiger, zebra,” and then the partner might guess “animals.” The clue-giver would then change tactics, “tickets, cages,” and the person might guess “things at the circus.” The clue-giver would say “what kind of circus has zebras, you moron, it’s a f$&%ing zoo! A zoo!” And then the team would be disqualified.
Anyway, the point of the Pyramid game is to take a bunch of separate things and figure out how they are all related. So, suppose I started saying things like “random encounters” and “can the party rest in the dungeon” and “lighting” and “wilderness travel” and “what’s the difference between picking locks and breaking down doors” and “why doesn’t the party just search everywhere for secret doors and traps?”
Do you have a guess yet? All right, let me just give you the answer. The answer is time.
Consider, for example, the question of searching everywhere for secret doors and traps. Why DOESN’T the party search everywhere for those things? Well, if the game were real life, the answer would be because it would take f$&%ing forever. It would take hours to explore a handful of rooms. But, as players in the game, we don’t have to worry about that. Because it wouldn’t take hours to play. It’d just take a few minutes of extra die rolls. The biggest problem is that it would be pretty boring. Rolling dice to search every square inch of wall, floor, ceiling, door, and chest would drive me – the GM – f$&%ing crazy. And most of the players would probably get pretty bored too.
But, you can easily overcome that boredom. After the third or fourth time the party sets off another screwjob trap in the same dungeon, they will start searching everywhere for traps. They won’t necessarily be happy about it, but they will realize it’s the best strategy. The safest strategy.
Now, here’s where things get interesting. Game Masters and Game Designers know that the “search everywhere” mentality is the best strategy in general but it’s also really bad for the game. Most GMs eventually just stop using traps and secret doors, or use them only sparingly, and they avoid pushing their players into paranoia like the plague. Meanwhile, the designers have added rules like Taking 10 and Taking 20 and then Passive Perception just to get rid of the whole complicated mess.
What no one did was stop and ask WHY this was happening. Why is there a strategy built into the game that is a good idea with no inherent downside that also leads to a really crappy play experience? WHAT is missing?
Let’s take another example. Resting in the dungeon. Or leaving the dungeon to rest. Why shouldn’t the party rest after every single encounter? After all, you are at your strongest immediately after you wake up in the morning. You have all of your hit points, all of your spells, all of your daily abilities, and so on. That’s clearly just the better strategy. And, in point of fact, it has driven GMs and game designers absolutely crazy. The resting and milestone mechanics in 4E were designed specifically to address the so-called 15-minute workday. And GMs deal with this crap all the time. Of course, it’s not safe to rest in the dungeon. But what keeps the players from retreating from the dungeon to rest and then come back? Once again: clearly better strategy that just leads to a bad play experience.
You can ask lots of questions like this. Why doesn’t the party try to pick every lock instead of just smashing doors open? Why doesn’t the party travel as slow as possible across the wilderness in 5E so they can forage for food, never run out of supplies, and ensure they are never caught by surprise and always able to avoid encounters? Seriously. Look at the wilderness travel rules. There is nothing but upsides to traveling at a slow pace. Foraging isn’t particularly hard.
If It Ain’t In the System, It Doesn’t Count
Now, some folks are screaming at me that there are downsides. And this is where the whole problem gets confused. And why it’s been so hard to solve the real problem. Or even recognize it.
First off, some folks have correctly identified that the downside to everything that I brought up above is time. Very good. You’re right. It is the thing that all things devours. Gnaws iron. Bites steel. Grinds hard stones to meal. Slays kings. Ruins towns. Beats tall mountains down. All of that. Yes, time is the answer.
If you search every goddamned inch of the dungeon, if you travel as slowly as possible, if you rest after every encounter, your adventures are going to take a long, LONG time. Days. Weeks. Who knows how long. Yes, that is true. But here’s the question… so what?
Let’s take 5E, because it’s the most egregious offender. What does the passage of time do in the game? It chews through resources – food, light sources, etc. – that’s true. IF the GM tracks such things. And that would be awesome if foraging weren’t trivial the amount of money that characters turn up wasn’t so plentiful compared to the cost of supplies. And honestly, most GMs don’t like bothering with that crap anyway and the game certainly doesn’t make it easy to handle those things.
Beyond that, time is meaningless in D&D. Unless the GM purposely adds elements to the game – and they are NOT instructed to – time is meaningless. Now, I do understand the importance of urgency. I’ve explained it before. But the designers of D&D don’t seem to because they don’t waste much page space on it.
Now, there is ANOTHER downside that is sort of built into the system. And that’s random encounters and wandering monsters. As you wander through the wilderness and explore dungeons, there is a chance you will stumble upon some sort of chance encounter. Usually, it’s with a random hostile creature.
The random encounter thing is certainly a downside of wasting time. And in theory, it should prevent people from dawdling. But there’s a bunch of reasons why it’s flawed. The first reason is that D&D is kind of iffy on whether you should even use random encounters or when you should and how you should. 4th Edition D&D dispensed with them altogether. But, admittedly, encounters in 4E had to be so meticulously designed that it was almost impossible to do encounters on the fly. 5E takes a sort of hemming-and-hawing approach. The DMG says “look, we know you hate them and they seem kind of pointless, but there’s some good reasons to use random encounters and anyway you should roll for them whenever you want to based on whatever criteria you imagine in your head but here’s some nice tables you can use IF you decide to use them and WHEN you do use them WHENEVER that is.”
The reason for that approach is that it’s no secret that most GMs don’t like dealing with random encounters. Lots of GMs see combat in general as a huge time-sink. Wasting time on random combats is a huge waste. Thus, random encounters punish GMs who actually do try to use them. Great.
Meanwhile, most players can’t tell the difference between a random encounter and a planned encounter. To them, they are all just encounters. And many players find combat fun. It lets them use all of those cool abilities and feel like a bada$&. And combats come with experience points. And treasure. And because combats are balanced, the players are rarely at risk from one fight. And even if they are at risk, characters rarely actually die all the way. And once the fight is over, the party can always just rest.
The point is that the game makes no particular point of explaining why random encounters are important. It certainly lays down no firm rules for how to use them. It doesn’t do anything to mitigate the time factor of random encounters or explain how random encounters should be run or designed differently. It doesn’t simplify their design. So, to the GM, they are kludge. Meanwhile, the players get the same fun and the same rewards regardless of whether the fight was random or not.
And so, most GMs skip random encounters. And random encounters are the only thing that really creates a downside to wasted time. At least, the only thing in the system.
Time is the Fire in Which We Burn
The real issue isn’t with random encounters. That is to say, it isn’t JUST with random encounters. We are going to have fix that crap at some point if we want a better game. We’re going to have make random encounters less painful for the GMs and more painful for the players. And we’re going to need some firm rules for them, not just vaguey “make a check every 4 hours or every 8 hours or maybe every day or maybe when the party makes noise or whenever you want.”
But let’s assume – for the moment – we ARE using random encounters. Or, rather, we’re using something. Let’s pretend there’s an in-built random chance in the game that something will go wrong every so often. Maybe not always a monster, but something. And that something is going to suck without dragging the game down too much. For the moment, pretend we conquered that (we’ll come back to it). There’s still yet ANOTHER problem with time. Or rather two closely related problem.
Time is more bookkeeping for the GM and it’s too disconnected from the players.
Now, I remember the days of 1st Edition and 2nd Edition and Basic D&D. In those days, there were very proscribed systems for handling random encounters and for tracking time. And, you know what? They were a f$&%ing pain in the a$&. Basically, the game was divided into 10-minute turns. Whenever the party spent ten minutes doing something – moving from room to room, searching for secret doors, casting complex spells, whatever – you made a little tick-mark to track the passage of one turn. Every six turns was an hour. This timer tracked when the players’ resources would run out – like light spells and lanterns and torches – and it also tracked when it was time to roll for random encounters. Most GMs I know – self included – gave up on that crap. Tracking time was a slog.
But even when we did, it really didn’t solve much of everything. And that’s because the characters and the players are in two different worlds.
Here’s the thing: in real life, we are mortal beings who are, by their nature, a little impatient. We don’t like to waste time. I mean, people have different thresholds for it, but all human beings have a certain threshold for impatience. That’s why we have the phrase “wasting time.” We are keenly aware of the passage of time. And when we are in a stressful, urgent situation, we become absolutely fixated on the passage of time. When you’re going to be late for work, every minute wasted in traffic weighs on you. When you are excited to get to the theme park, same thing. Time weighs on people.
Imagine this in real life. Imagine you and your friend have been hired to load a bunch of things onto a truck. Imagine you’re being paid a fixed rate for the entire day. Imagine the job will take you an hour if you rush. But your friend says “let’s put one thing on the truck and then rest for an hour. And then put another thing on the truck and rest for an hour.” And so on. He wants to stretch out the job over the entire day to avoid getting tired out. Even if you have nowhere else to be and nothing better to do, even if you can’t possibly do anything else that day, you’d still find that crazy. You might not rush and get the job done in an hour, but you certainly wouldn’t drag it out for ten hours consisting of one hour of rest for every ten minutes of work.
In D&D, the players CANNOT feel the passage of time the way the characters do. They are disconnected from it. They don’t care – they just don’t – if their characters have to sit around doing nothing for ten hours before they can take a long rest. They will still do it. That time doesn’t weigh on their shoulders because the players know it will take exactly the length of one sentence to dismiss those ten hours.
And the vague knowledge that they are risking random encounters or other terrible hazards is a bit too vague and nebulous for most players. They have some sense that things become more risky if they let some time pass. But how much? How risky? Who cares. “Let’s just search this whole room again for treasure. I only got a three when I rolled the first time. What’s another hour of time if it turns up treasure?”
This, by the way, is what finally hit me when I was trying to figure out why searching for hidden things was so f$&%ed up in D&D. Because TIME. Everything comes back to TIME. Resource consumption is tied to TIME. Random hazards are tied to TIME. So many choices between this action and that action are tied to TIME. Pick the lock? Keep trying? It’ll take minutes… an hour even. TIME. TIME. TIME. Isn’t it kind of weird – considering how many things are measured out with exact durations and casting times and whatever – that there ISN’T a mechanic for the passage of TIME other than “I don’t know, just keep notes.”
Mechanical Impatience: The Time Pool System
D&D NEEDS a mechanic for handling the passage of time. But, the thing is, it isn’t really about time. It’s about dread. D&D really needs a mechanic to make the players DREAD the passage of time. That way, whenever they make a decision to spend ten minutes searching a room or an hour sleeping or whatever, they feel ratcheting tension as they know they are just a little closer to something bad. They need to feel the value of time.
What does the mechanic have to be? Well, it has to be something that is VISIBLE to the players and it has to be something that is easy for the GM to keep track of. It has to be something that other rules – and the GM – can build on. It has to be something that can make the game more fun, not less fun.
What it doesn’t need to be is about actually counting actual minutes. Though it would certainly be helpful if it were tied to durations somehow. We’ll come back to that.
Imagine this. Imagine if, in the middle of the table, there was a growing pile of spent time. Imagine if every time the players decided to spend time searching a room or taking a short rest or whatever, there was some kind of something that accumulated that said “you have spent this much time.” And what if that pile somehow also facilitated an easy way to randomly determine when something goes wrong. If only there was something every game table had in abundance that was physically visible, capable of being piled up, and somehow reflected random chance.
The Time Pool
The time pool is a dice pool. It is literally a pile of dice in the middle of the table that grows as the party spends time doing things and represents the chance of something bad happening. Let me run through the basic mechanics and then we’ll explain a little bit.
Basically, a die in the time pool represents about ten minutes of time in a dungeon or other hostile or dangerous location.
So, let’s say the party comes to a room. There’s a treasure chest in the middle of the room, a cabinet in the corner, and a mural on the wall. The GM asks the party what they want to do. Alice decides to check out the treasure chest. Bob decides to root through the cabinet. Carol examines the mural. And Dave keeps watch in the middle of the room.
Rooting through the cabinet is something that will probably take a few minutes. The GM says so and then describes the mural to Carol – which includes some weird runes – and describes the chest to Alice. Bob is still rooting through the cabinet. Alice decides to search the treasure chest for traps, a task that will also take a few minutes. Now the GM says “Alice is going to take a few minutes searching the chest and Bob is going to take a few minutes rooting through the cabinet. Do you two want to do anything or just wait?” Carol might decide to copy the runes down into her journal. Dave will just continue to keep watch.
The point is, the party is now committed to performing actions for a few minutes or waiting for tasks to be done for a few minutes.
This is the point at which Time Passes… if you understand what I mean. Basically, whenever there’s a moment in the game where several minutes will pass in the dungeon before the players finish one or more tasks, Time Passes. The entire mechanic is based on when the GM says “Time passes, and then…”
What constitutes Time Passing is obviously a little bit subjective. But the basic guideline is clear enough. Ransacking a room, searching for traps, searching a section of a wall for a secret door, and so on. And traveling from one room to the next also constitutes Time Passing. Thus, if the party rushes, they will explore six rooms in an average hour. That’s a lot of game if some of those rooms have encounters. If the party reasonably explores each of those six rooms, they’ll eat up two hours of time. That’s not unreasonable.
One thing that definitely DOES NOT constitute Time Passing? Most encounters. Most combat encounters can be measured on the order of one or two minutes of game time. And other encounters are similarly short. And even if a long negotiation or stealth encounter does drag on for game minutes – not real minutes, fictional in-world minutes – even if an encounter does drag on, you can assume it’s length is subsumed in vague number of minutes represented by the next die added by the passage of time.
What Happens When Time Passes
When Time Passes, the GM adds a single die to the Time Pool OR rolls the Time Pool. If the Time Pool is full, the GM must roll the Time Pool.
The die that gets added, in a dungeon, is based on the danger of the place. Extremely hostile locations use d4s for Time Dice. Normal dungeons use d6s. And sparse dungeons use d8s. In theory, an extremely sparse dungeon could use a d10.
Adding a die to the Time Pool is exactly what it sounds like. The GM picks up a die of the appropriate type and drops it into a visible pile in the middle of the table so that all the players can see the passage of time. He can even say “Time Passes, and then…”
Since each die in the Time Pool potentially represents up to ten minutes of spent time, vaguely speaking, once there are six dice in the Time Pool, the party is probably getting pretty close to having spent an hour in the dungeon. Now, I’m being vague on purpose. It’s very important to be vague about this. Because dice in the Time Pool each represent a few minutes. That could be anywhere from three minutes to ten minutes. And the exact passage of time is hard to track without a clock.
At any rate, once there are six dice in the Time Pool, the Time Pool is full. No more dice can be added. Instead, whenever Time Passes, the GM must roll the Time Pool.
However, whenever Time Passes, the GM has the option of rolling the Time Pool INSTEAD of adding a die. The GM should do that whenever the action the party has undertaken would attract undue attention. If the party spends several minutes, for example, trying to use crowbars and digging tools to break through a stone door, they are attracting attention.
To roll the Time Pool, the GM picks up the dice and rolls them all. If any die shows a 1, something bad happens. We’ll get back to something bad in a minute. For now, just know, something bad happens.
If nothing bad happens, the Time Pool is simply returned to the middle of the table to potentially cause something bad to happen again in the very near future.
Once something bad happens, if the Time Pool isn’t full, the GM removes one die from the Time Pool. I mean, if I want to be picky and detailed, I could say the GM rolls the die that rolled the 1. But the GM just removes one die. It doesn’t matter which.
But if the Time Pool was full, after something bad happens, the GM clears the Time Pool. AT THAT POINT, the GM tracks that an hour has passed. Durations expire. Light sources go out. Time slides inexorably into the past. See why I said that a full-time pool only means the party has probably spent an hour? Because the hour doesn’t officially pass until the Time Pool is cleared.
The thing is, each die in the Time Pool can represent anywhere from five to ten minutes. Thus, a full Time Pool can represent anywhere from 30 minutes of time to 60 minutes of time. Thus, if it takes four rolls of the full Time Pool to clear it, that’s okay. It’s still in the neighborhood of an hour.
The most important thing about the Time Pool is that it is a visible indicator of the passage of time. The players can’t ignore it. Every time they decide to take drawn-out action, time is going to pass. And they can see it. That won’t stop them. The filling of the Time Pool is inexorable. But as the Time Pool grows, it will give the PLAYERS a growing sense of dread that would mirror their CHARACTERS’ growing sense of impatience. And it would make them think twice about searching every inch of every room three or four times.
It also greatly eases the tracking of the passage of time. Casting a Ritual Spell causes Time to Pass. When Time Passes, any duration of 10 minutes can be decremented. When the Time Pool is cleared, any duration measured in hours can be decremented. And so on.
Short Rests and the Time Pool
In D&D 5E, a short rest is a period of about one hour during which the party rests and recover hit points. In order for short rests to work in a balanced way without also throwing off the duration mechanic, there are two options. First, you can simple reduce a short rest to a 10-minute duration – which is in line with what 4th Edition did anyway and entirely reasonable. However, the rule I like is this one.
When the party takes a short rest, leave the Time Pool wherever it is. Pick up six dice of the appropriate type and roll them. If any shows a one, the rest is interrupted by a bad thing but can be resumed after dealing with the bad thing. Otherwise, the rest is uninterrupted. Either way, mark off an hour. An hour of time automatically passes after a short rest. Remove one die from the existing Time Pool and then keep playing.
I need to experiment with this a little to get it right. I admit I’m winging it on this one.
Bad Things and the Real Power of the Time Pool
Right now, it probably just seems like I have built a much more complicated way of handling random encounters and a kludgy way of forcing GMs to track the passage of time. And if you’ve never had any serious problem with time-wasting players searching everywhere, repeatedly reattempting checks – or asking to – or resting with impunity, you probably don’t see the worth.
Well, let me tell you something: I think a codified time-passage mechanic that adds a sense of impatience and urgency to the game that the GM doesn’t have to do a lot of bookkeeping for that ties in to existing durations is pretty valuable, but there’s another more powerful aspect to this. And that is in deciding what the Bad Things are. And in manipulating the system.
For example, sure, the Bad Thing can just be random encounters. But personally, I think those random encounters should be fairly small and easy encounters – basically nuisance encounters – that can be played out quickly and don’t offer any real reward. They are just a pain in the a$&. A GM can run a nuisance encounter in ten or fifteen minutes if he’s willing to rush it.
But, look, random combats with minor vermin is only the tip of the iceberg. Imagine if you’re running an infiltration adventure. What might the Bad Thing be? Well, obviously, the party can see or hear a patrol coming and now they have to hide or ambush the patrol or run away. What if the party is exploring a crumbling, unstable ruin? A Bad Thing might represent a collapse or seismic activity. A part of the dungeon might be closed off to them. Or they might suffer some damage from a minor fall of rubble and debris. A tidal cave might be filling up with water. Every time a Bad Thing happens, more of the dungeon is flooded. If the adventure involves a cult opening a portal to hell, each Bad Thing might represent the cult completing one of the six steps in opening the portal. The more steps they have completed, the more demons in the final encounter and the harder the portal is to close. In the dragon’s lair, each Bad Thing might represent the dragon rousing. And then realizing someone is in the dungeon. And then searching for them. And then finding them. The players might not even realize what is happening. The GM might just make a note that the dragon is now roused, remove the die, and say “uh oh.” If the party is trying to evade capture, a Bad Thing could represent the enemy finding them. Or getting closer. And the GM could track how far away the enemy is. After four Bad Things, the enemy might ambush the players. In less dramatic adventures, a Bad Thing could represent a setback that is too minor to really be an encounter. The party accidentally disturbs a snake without noticing it and a random player is bitten before anyone can react. That kind of crap. In a cursed crypt, the party might be wracked with ghostly moans and have to make a saving throw or suffer a temporary Bane effect. Instead of random encounters, Bad Things can be minor setbacks instead.
The point is, Bad Things become a planning tool. The GM can find the thing in an adventure that hooks into the passage of time and use that to advance the plot. Or rather, to provide a setback for the players. And if you were thinking about building rules modules based around different modes of play, you could certainly utilize Bad Things easily enough.
In fact, the whole Time Pool system can be a useful tool for adventure building. Imagine, for example, the party encounters a goblin patrol and some of the goblins escape. Now, the goblins are on alert and the GM starts using d4s in the Time Pool instead of d6s. Heck, if the players attack the goblin lair during the day when they are least active, the GM could use d8s instead of d6s. And then if the place goes on alert, it increases to d6s. And then d4s if the place goes on high alert. And it could take a few days for the alert to drop again.
And honestly, seeing THOSE possibilities is what made me throw away 5,000 words of barking up the wrong tree and write 5,000 words about this. Because if there’s one thing I love, it’s a rich mechanic. This mechanic is rich. It helps align the players with their characters in terms of how they feel about the passage of the time, it’s simple for the GM to administer, the rules of the system are easy to keep in your head, AND it provides a lot of hooks for the GM to hang things off of to create interesting scenes, encounters, and situations.
Now, this system is great for minute-to-minute game play. Exploring a dungeon, infiltrating a location, that kind of thing. But it doesn’t quite work for protracted periods of wilderness travel. But don’t worry, when I start redesigning wilderness travel, I will be building on the Time Pool system. For now though, enjoy the added sense of impatient dread in every dungeon.