It Cannot Be Seen, Cannot Be Smelt: Hacking Time in D&D

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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.

Time Passes

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.

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84 thoughts on “It Cannot Be Seen, Cannot Be Smelt: Hacking Time in D&D

  1. This is genius.The only downside is that it requires at least six spare dice.

    I’ve been struggling with a way to determine when to run random encounters in dungeons for a while now. I have notes saying things like ‘every hour’. Of course, at the table, I begin to wonder when an hour has actually passed.

    I’m also very much looking forward to the long awaited wilderness travel overhaul article.

    • Agreed, I really like this mechanic. Solves one of the biggest issues I have at my table.

      As for the spare dice, I imagine I’ll just use a d6 with the corresponding number facing up. Once it reaches 6, that’s an hour and I’ll roll.

      Also, this mechanic seems easy enough to convert to wilderness travel – instead of 10 minute intervals, just use 1 hour intervals.

      • You could also use distance. Assign a random chance of a potential Bad Thing being in each hex. Then you use the skill system to determine whether the Bat Thing affects the party – does the displacer beast detect the party and start stalking it, or do they get stuck in the bog, for example.

    • If spare dice is the only down side. Use coins, or any other item. Coins would be useful because each type (dime nickel etc) could represent a dice type. Replace em with dices when you need to roll…

    • if you’re really that short on dice, I’d imagine you could just use cheap tokens of any kind in the pool, and roll one die 6 times when you have to roll.

  2. I am happy someone finally wrote an article addressing just how much of a nebulous thing time was in RPGs. We all knew it of course, but probably didn’t realize it. I mean it was right there at the start, in “adjudicating actions”. What is the rule? “…if there is no repercussion for trying again forever”
    But time is always a factor and I had it nagging at me, wondering how I will tackle this in my game, also wondering how other GMs do it.

    I like the idea of this dice pool. It is admittedly bit half-baked right now, but at least it is something. Now I will have to plan some things for Bad Things. At least I still have about 2 days to do that 🙂

    I am looking forward to your “searching for hidden things” article. I really liked your article on traps, and the concept of signaling. I guess would be a key thing for other hidden things too.

  3. OK, that was great.

    I aways felt that time in an RPG was a thing dissociated from the real world, as in the players make time-based decisions solely by the rules of the game. Your article tries to handle that problem, and It does that pretty well.

    But you didn’t cover the most painfull timesink in D&D – long rests. When the party wants to take a full 8 hours sleep to recover their resources. Thats why most players hate low-level exploration: you can do only 2 or 3 things before your character has to stop, go back to your camp, and rest. 4E & 5E tried to mitigate this problem with the “Rest = Full heal” mechanics, but that devaluated time even more.

    I think that, besides hit points, you should have an “injury” score. Every time you got to zero HP, you got an injury. When you have a number of injuries equal your Constitution modifier, you go one step down on the exaustion table.

    Now, you have a short rest (1/2 hour), a long rest (4 hours) and an extended rest (1 day per exaustion level). Short & long rests do the same thing they do now, but they consume less time, making for more dynamic adventures. But the injuries don’t go away that easily. They start to weight on the characters. And they have to make a choice between pressing in to the Dungeon or leaving i to rest. So it gives them agency.

    Also, short rests put 3 dices on the Time Passage Pool. Long rests can reset the pool, increase the danger of the dice, or generate an automatic roll of the Time Pool. Each choice represents something at the game world.

    So, when a party strikes the Hobgoblin Fortress, they are facing a d8 stronghold (I will put a d8 at the Time Pool every Time Passage). As they explore, the Wizard (Con +2) os droped to 0 HP, and gets an injury. The party decides to take a long rest inside the Fortress. The hobgoblins know they are facing intruders, so a Bad Thing happens – each hobgoblin patrol is now accompanied by a Wolf, to sniff the party. Later, the wizard drops to 0 again, and get a second injury, going down on the exaustion table. The party decides to retreat. The Hobgoblin General then coerce the Riverside Goblins to work for him, increasing the danger of the Time Pool to a d6 the next time the players pay them a visit.

  4. Your system sorta remet nds me of shadow of brimstone. Basically, when in the dungeon, players must “hold back the darkness” every turn woth a roll. Every failure advances a marker on a track, making the rolls progressively harder and adding consequences on every second failed roll. Also, sometimes you draw “growing dread” cards. It really put the pressure to press forward as fast as possible.

  5. I have some thoughts…

    1. I have lots of d6s, and not that many of the other type of dice. I can easily slip a 36-die cube of 1/2″ dice into my bag (I have several) and just use them. Using only one type of die doesn’t give anything away to the players. Using different types of dice does.

    2. I think setting the pool size to 10 or 12 is better. 12 means exactly 5 minutes to constitute an hour. 7-11 is vague. 6 dice, I think is too few. My thought is that each time a player says, “I’m going to…” I throw in a die. It doesn’t matter if two players are doing things simultaneously, because, inevitably, here’s what happens: Cleric: “I’m going to examine the alter to and try to figure out what god they are worshiping.” Rogue: “I’m going to examine the chest for traps, and if there aren’t any, open it.” GM: “Okay, Rogue, you find a holy symbol in the chest.” Cleric: “Do I recognize the holy symbol?” GM: “Weren’t you busy looking at the alter?” Cleric: “Yeah, but since the rogue found a holy symbol, I want to know if I can identify it.”

    From this, I, the GM, must infer that they may have started doing their things simultaneously, but the Cleric was distracted. At some point he left his task and went to see what the Rogue was doing. For that, two dice go into the pool, not one.

    3. When rolling the pool, the chance of the encounter isn’t based on getting one “1”, but getting more than one. D6’s roll a 1 every one in six, so if I’m rolling twelve, in all likelihood, I’m going to get two. If I want high probability, I establish the threshold there, at two. If I want to lower the probability, I might set the threshold at three, four, or five. I can also use this measure to gauge the severity of the encounter. For each 1 rolled beyond the arbitrarily determined threshold, I step up the level of the encounter a bit.

    4. Finally, I’m no fan of random encounters. Don’t get me wrong – I’ve done them and I will continue to do them. However, as much as possible, I want to have my encounters prepared in advance. This way I can have my notes ready to go and I don’t have dig through books and things, forcing the players to wait on me, while I set it up and figure it all out. So, technically, when an encounter happens, it isn’t truly random. The only random factor, with this mechanic, is *when* I spring it on them.

    • Using more dice and making up a more complicated system to track Bad Things kind of defies the purpose, though: knowing “you rolled a 1, therefore a Bad Thing happens” is faster than “you rolled three 1s over the threshold, which is X for this particular place, therefore here’s a Bad Thing ‘3 steps harder’ than normal (whatever that means; you will know, but players won’t)”.

      At that point, either you force the players to follow along all of your calculations, or the mechanics become just another complex thing that causes random stuff to happen; the correlation between “time spent” and “things happening” should feel very heavy and direct for the players if you want this system to work; with this, either someone follows carefully your rules, or the players feel more detached from the mechanics.

      Some players like to track and calculate things, some don’t. This system would resonate more with certain people than with others. But “6 dice = bad, and also don’t roll a 1 so lower dice = bad” is so immediate and simple that anyone will follow that, even if they are the kind of players who usually don’t care about math and time passing (the players who need this system the most).

      Also, the “different difficulties for encounters” defies the purpose of making the system easier to use, and is especially troublesome for those, like you, who would design encounters ahead of time: adding “difficulty levels” would make planning even more complex, all for something your players won’t experience (they may be told that this encounter is harder than another possible encounter, but if they never experience the first one they won’t really care).

      • Your points are valid – I don’t dispute them.

        What really concerns me is that whenever I’ve proposed new mechanics to my groups, we discuss it and perhaps try it out for a session or two. Afterwards, we decide that it didn’t accomplish the stated goal (or if it did, only minimally) and, more likely, didn’t change behavior – – or if it did, the new behavior was worse than before.

        This doesn’t mean the idea was bad, it just means it didn’t work for my groups. I see this idea the same way.

        In truth, if I have a planned encounter, I will spring it on the group. I’ll find a way. I don’t need dice to figure out what the encounter is, when it happens, or how challenging. Same goes for non-combat “encounters” like traps, puzzles, conversations, whatever. I’m not running Munchkin or any of its variants.

        Pertaining to the aspect of time, I wholly agree with Angry in that the way time is handled in 5e and most other RPGs is either horribly ignored or badly mismanaged through unworkable mechanics. My campaign is story based, and I have imposed a sense of foreboding and pressure that both groups feel, but it’s at a higher level, not at the minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour level. Rather, it’s day-to-day. I shall elaborate…

        (I’m running two groups in the same setting, during the same time frame. However, they each have a mission to take care of some sort of evil that is building.) What I did is figure out what my two evil forces are doing presently, and projected what they will do for the next three years, *provided the PCs do nothing to interfere*. For example, I know that on February 12, year 192, the Elven city of Melandell falls to siege. Five days later, the halfling city of Hebree is captured by another division. It is presently (for the group on this mission) December 1st. These two cities are half a continent away and there’s no way, short of magical teleportation, that they’ll get there in time. However, because of magical communication, they are aware of these events. The siege of Melandell started November 8th, followed by the siege of Hebree on November 17th. The point I’m getting at is that the PCs are aware of these events and that they are leading toward a greater goal the baddies are pursuing. The more time they spend “preparing” allows the bad guys further progress, and becoming that much more difficult to ultimately defeat.

        This, more than anything else, forces the PCs to weigh heavily on whether or not they take long rests between encounters.

        Because of the power of the story, I don’t know that I need a (new) mechanic to track minute-to-minute, hour-to-hour time progression. On the other hand, this article makes me aware of the problem and gives me ideas, from the story-telling perspective, on how to mitigate it. Rather than using a mechanic, I simply say, “You realize, spending time searching the alter and chest takes time, which increases the likelihood that something bad might happen.” Or, more appropriately, “You get a sending from Cithara, relayed from Navita, that Melandell is still under siege. The escape tunnel from its castle has been cut off and now the elves are fighting for their very existence.”

        • Once I tried to use salt for my soup. But I never used salt before so either I use too little so I don’t taste the difference or too much so it tastes like garbage. That’s why I never tried salt more than once on my soups. It just doesn’t work for my cooking as I have just proven.
          Honestly honey: long learned behavior will not change after just one session. Go read Angrys game hacking articles: 1st session players get used to it 2nd session players use it 3rd session players try to break it. Evaluate and adjust then not during the first session.

          But you seem to already have a functioning system for time.

          • Yeah… Consider that most of the people in both groups are co-workers, of which, most of them work in the “Quality Management” department along with me. We have data testers, software testers, and (yes, really) my manager! In addition, two are business analysts. Not only are we professionals and good at what we do, but our job is to break down things, evaluate them, and find the flaws.

            In other words, whenever a change is proposed, it gets evaluated at a level most people wouldn’t believe. I have to be really careful, as I’ve been burned a couple of times already.

            Despite the meta-game level challenges, we do manage to have fun. Oft times when I, as the GM, go against rules-as-written, I make it clear that I’m doing it to advance the story. A couple weeks ago one of the groups incapacitated a dragon (instead of dealing a killing blow, they chose to deal non-lethal damage.) By rule, the creature would be unconscious for 1-4 hours. For the sake of the story, I told them they had only a few minutes to bind the it before it awoke. I attributed this ruling to the creatures’ high constitution and other mitigating factors I don’t want to detail here in this post. The group was okay with it and we moved on.

            … They jammed the young white dragon into a well shaft because they didn’t have any handy chains. Yes, it would be able to slither itself out of the confinement, but, with the group standing around weapons ready, even the dumbest of dragons would figure out that staying put was in its best interest.

  6. Neat. Really, really neat. I notice you like variable die sizes with repercussions on a 1 (megadungeon random encounter tables spring to mind). It’s neat, it’s elegant. This, like so many of your articles, helps to articulate semi-solutions I’ve had sort-of drifting around my head, and give me the obvious solution I should have seen.

    And as any Pratchett fan knows, a man who can invent something ‘anyone could have invented’ is a fucking genius. I’ll be stealing/adapting this!

    Thanks again, and I don’t care how far you drift from your schedule if you’re doing good things while you drift :).

  7. I love the concept, but the odds are so high, it’s almost not worth rolling. With 6d6, you’ve got a 66.5% chance of an encounter on the first roll. The party does one more thing, you roll again, the cumulative odds are now 88.8%. Three times puts you at 96.2%.

    It’s also weird that an hour officially passes only when something bad happens and the pool is cleared. It seems kind of predictable and immersion-breaking if something bad is guaranteed to happen exactly once an hour.

    The only mystery is whether the thing will happen after your sixth action, (rarely) your seventh, or (very rarely) your eighth.

    • The system is supposed to feel predictable: if a Bad Thing could show up at any time, with small (if any) correlation with the amount of dice in the pool, the whole “feeling the tension rise as the chance of bad stuff gets clearly higher” is lost.

      • Remember, I’m advising using bad things not just as random encounters but a ticking clock. That’s the whole point. Clocks are predictable. The point is to encourage the PCs to try to get as much progress towards their goal as they can, to make them impatient.

        • Could be worth considering making the severity of the “bad thing” tied to the number of 1s that come up on the roll. 1 1 is a nuisance, 6 1s is a minor disaster.

          • You could do whatever you want, but I assume that you’d plan your Bad Things before, and having to plan 6 levels of each is loads of extra work.

          • That’s not a bad idea. It wouldn’t be hard to set up a simple reference table with a list of possible “bad things” depending on number of 1s rolled and tailor it to the area/ dungeon.

    • Maybe you could add some unpredictability by having the number of 1’s affect what happens—multiple 1’s could either mean that multiple things happen at once, or that worse things happen.

      Per 6d6, the odds are:

      1 one: 66.5%
      2 ones: 26.3%
      3 ones: 6.2%
      4 ones: 0.9%

  8. Fantastic mechanic! I love it, you can immediately see how to use it, how it will affect the players, and how to build on to it. I just have a couple notes:

    You’re plan with short rests is interesting but I don’t think it will work out at the table because the players will quickly figure out how to game it. They’ll just wait for the pool to clear, representing a new hour, and then say “Okay, our time pool is empty, let’s run back two rooms real quick and rest.”

    Which leads to my second, bigger suggestion. As written, you track the passage of hours, but once an hour has passed, the pool empties. That leads to a sort of ratcheting up of fear that gets reset each hour. So the players explore a room, search for some traps, eventually something bad happens and the pool empties. They know they can’t just waste time because the pool is empty (because that will just fill the pool back up) but they also know they are safe for the moment. So you gets these artificial rises and dips of tension as they explore the dungeon.

    What you need is a way to make sure that the tension is always rising. You can have little ebbs and flows in the tension, but overall, the longer they spend in the dungeon, the more tense they should be. Basically following the structure of excitement found in movies (Star Wars and the like). I suggest a second time pool. Each time your first time pool clears, you add a dice to the second time pool that represents hours. And the second time pool only clears either when they take a long rest, or when they leave the dungeon. I’d recommend using different types of dice for the second time pool, dice that you would never use in the first pool, like d20’s, though that does weird stuff to the probabilities as written. Oh, and you’ll need two lists of bad things to happen, a list of minor bad stuff that can happen when an hour is used up, and a more serious list for the second pool. I’m going to refer to these pools as the Minute Pool and the Hour Pool.

    I’m toying with the idea of instead of having something bad happen when you roll a 1 on any dice, you use a cumulative system. You add up the dice results each time you roll, and when the rolling total reaches some predetermined number like 100, then something bad happens. Instead of using small dice to represent more serious risks in the Minute Pool, you use larger dice that can reach your thresholds faster. That way the d20’s used in the Hour Pool seem far more threatening than the dice in the Minute Pool. Plus, if you are using a cumulative system, you could have it always be addings instead of resetting when something bad happens. At 100, Bad Thing A happens, at 200 Bad Thing B happens, etc. The obvious downside is that adding up dice is obviously more time consuming for the GM than just looking for 1’s. I’m fairly quick at adding numbers in my head but I could see how this would be really obnoxious for some people.

    • This is wrong. Tension cannot and should not always rise. That’s why movies follow action scenes with quiet scenes. Tension trends upwards, but it rises and falls moment to moment.

      • See, you started it off by saying I was wrong, and then ended by saying you agreed with me completely so I’m left confused. Tension rises and falls moment to moment, but it trends upward. You don’t get ‘trends upward’ by resetting back to zero each time the pool reaches six dice and then rolls a ‘1.’ That’s not a quieter scene, that’s starting the movie over from scratch.

        Without a way to increase the base level of tension or maximum potential tension in each hour, you just end up with a pattern, or perhaps a rhythm would be a better word. If it doesn’t get worse or doesn’t become more likely with each passing hour, a “bad thing happening” just becomes the mark of the end of an hour, a way to track the passage of time rather than dreading it, 8-12 Bad Things per adventuring day.

        • I think the pool filling and getting emptied visibly gives the rise and fall component of the tension profile, while the stacking up of consequences and repeated, “oh no!” comments from the GM gives the upward trending component.

          Having a set number of bad things per day as a matter of course sounds about right to me. It perfectly describes my life. 🙂

        • I like your idea. I would never actually use it. I think the idea behind the system is to be easy to track and force players to make decisions about where to spend their time.

          As far as your background level of tension is concerned I’d normally depend on the plot or getting deeper into a dungeon to deal with that.

        • Such a rhythm is actually a nice thing, but not the only one. It would depend heavily on the scenario you are trying to run if you have one of the following arcs:
          * tension – quiet – tension – quiet (but not exactly predictable, just enough to keep players on their toes and hurrying up)
          * introducing more and more tension over time (escalation, building to a climax)
          * any other pattern, including no tension for example

          The problem with building escalation from dice pools is that this escalation practically never aligns with your story goals.

          Let’s say players have to go to room 10 to meet the boss. So, Angry’s design goal was “get the damn players to go to room 10 without dawdling too much, searching any corner, and resting a bazillion times” – which is basically a goal most module designers have, else their reward assumptions and encounter difficulties don’t work.

          Now imagine you get your dice math wrong and you get really bad escalation in room 7 for reasons of randomness. What to do?

          This is what typically happens in systems with dice pool escalations like Marvel Heroic or systems that quickly escalate consequences like Dungeon World – their escalation logic trumps any you might have as DM – or even any narrative sense or structure. It might prove a lot less rewarding, and it depends mostly on how your dice mechanic works out.

          Compare this to a simple disincentive to dawdling which does not completely override the DM’s narrative dramatic arc. They can coexist.

        • The “trend upward” is reflected by the Bad Things getting worse each time a Bad Thing happens. The dungeon gets more flooded. The creatures you’re hiding from get closer. The Dragon becomes more aware of the PCs’ presence. Even fi you go the most simple route possible and treat this as a random encounter mechanic, each Bad Thing that happens makes the next Bad Thing that much worse; even if it’s just a matter of draining a small amount of resources, that’s still fewer resources for the next one.

    • This is really dumb.

      StarWars is ebb and flow as is Angrys Pool. You need relief between action scenes, you can’t keep tension rising forever.
      Yes the plot progresses but that is also true for the consequences: they pile up. The longer the party needs the more caverns are flooded the more demons are summoned etc.
      Angry presents something like Alien: you wait for shit to go down but don’t know when exactly shit will go down, then shit goes down and then you are waiting again. And over the course of the movie you have fewer and fewer people alive aka consequences pile up.

      • I don’t read insulting replies so I really appreciate you putting your insult right at the front so I knew not to bother finishing.

  9. So, a couple questions.

    You mentioned that this sort of thing could be potentially adapted to long term wilderness travel. But what about dungeons that are writing have encounters rolled every 10 minutes instead of per hour? Would that equate to using d4s? Or would the time per die need to be adjusted, as I imagine will be happening with the long term travel?

    Also, it seems like the players are going to end up having bad things happen each hour, on the hour. I like the idea that the players will be trying to get as much stuff done before that time roll happens, but putting the bad things on the top of the hour feels a little weird. I know time is arbitrarily used up, and it’s possible to have an encounter between hours if the players are doing noisy stuff, but if the time pool only empties if it’s full and a bad thing happens, and THAT’S when an hour officially passes, then the dungeon/ritual/bad thing machine suddenly becomes very clockwork.

    I realize that normal encounters, rolled on the hour, have a similar effect, but with that system there’s at least a chance that they don’t happen EVERY hour. Should we be designing Bad Thing tables that have some leeway for “no encounter”? Should the steps of the dark ritual happen every other hour without fail, so that the players might still see some random encounters?

    I’m probably being dumb about this, but I really want to use this system.

    • You’re overthinking it, I suspect. While every time the pool resets is “one hour”, it’s not an hour the way we understand it in real life. Time is pretty fuzzy in most RPGs. Many use a unit of time called “one scene” which could be anywhere from a minute to several weeks (both extreme cases, a scene in most games topically represents between ten minutes and an hour).

      In this case, the pool represents something that the players can see and easily interpret to understand how much time they are spending. This means they can make meaningful choices about time management. Picking locks versus smashing doors. Searching for traps versus running pell-mell down corridors.

      What things, in the mechanics, interact with an hour as an increment of time? Primarily spell durations. So what does an hour spell duration really mean in universe? It means the spell will last through a couple of fights, but that you do have to be quick or it will run out. We know the designers chose to include that countdown on those spells because we also have at least one eight hour spell, which is basically long enough that you don’t have to worry.

      So if one hour spells are there to make you think about time management, that kinda makes sense that a similar amount of time be used for bad stuff. It doesn’t have to mean an actual hour, it’s just “long enough that your buffs are all gone now” because that’s the trade off they made when they decided to search inside the fountain instead of leaving it, to interrogate the orc prisoner instead of just killing it, and to ritual cast detect magic on the room with the murals instead of spending a slot.

      Sorry if I rambled somewhat towards the end, I’m on mobile so it’s hard to keep my thoughts as organized as I’d like.

  10. That is amazingly similar to a system I use that I called “Entropy”.

    Entropy and your Time Pool both work in a very similar way: A Dice pool, in which the result “1” triggers bad stuff. (And if 20 or more is rolled but no 1s are rolled, good stuff happens! But that came later, and it’s not the point)

    But, Entropy then goes like this: I roll whenever I add a dice (And I add a dice to represent time doing it’s thing where it slowly makes everything worse), the type of dice added is related what is making me add the dice (Travelling for point A to B in a city could add a D20, searching a dungeon room for 10 minutes could add a D12, but resting for an hour while cooking could be a D4, because it draws more attention, and ), not the location.

    I clear the pool whenever a 1 is rolled, and the pool doesnt reprensent any fixed time, only the entropy of time making things go unexpectedly.

    This allows me to use the same system for any circumstance, even in large-scale exploration. Exploring a whole forest pathway can take many hours, but I still only add 1 dice to the entropy pool (Which type of dice would then vary depending on many factors like: The threat level of the forest, the amount of time passing, my current mood, etc)

    Only the concrete threat that something may go wrong is enough to give time a value, which is really good for versimilitude and immersion, even if it rarely makes anything go wrong!

    • I like this. A lot. I like that it allows for some random good things to happen to you as well (stumbling across an unlooted body or a patch of mushrooms or just finding a coin in the street). Do you scale the goodness of what happens depending on the size of the die that rolls the max number?

      • That’s a good idea, but nah, I usually don’t: Simply because my “Good Stuff” is usually a pre-determined list of random good stuff I can throw in. I usually chose one that’s context appropriate and move on. Lazyness and all 😛

    • I like this. It links the Bad Thing to the decision to take an action, and the action taken, not the passage of time. In-game time is meaningless to players; consequences for decisions taken are not.

  11. This is pretty great, Angry. Like you said, it is a rich mechanic. I can see a lot of value in it. It reminds me of the countdown clock mechanic from the PbtA game The Sprawl.

  12. As a someone, I have to recognize that making a planning and not following it (or almost or whatever) has the advantage of making it easier for you to write your introductions.

    Now to the point, I like the dice pool idea. However everyone will use it as they see fit. Me? I’ll use the dices in the pool to reroll MY dices that feel crap, during a fight to make a failed attack successful or try to increase some damage. They will still see the dices piling on and understand that one dice is like a punch in their face. I don’t care about hours passing and emptying the pool, give me dices and have fun when the last boss rolls everything perfectly fools!

  13. Awesome! I imagine wilderness might just use hours and fill up at 8. At least, that’s how I’ll use it until the wilderness article comes out. Thanks for this awesome mechanic!

  14. I am a bit confused as to how this is significantly different than older D&D’s dungeon turns. You can just say a “turn” is not literally 10 minutes but is this loose “Time Passes”. And every time “Time Passes” roll a die in the center of the table to see if something bad happens. On a 1, something bad happens. You can vary the size of the die you roll to simulate different levels of risk/alertness.

    Sure, you don’t have something tracking hour-long durations, but that tends to be something in the player’s hands – if they cast a spell that lasts an hour it is their responsibility to track 6 “Time passes”.

    You can even extend this to the wilderness very easily – a “turn” in the wilderness could be approximately 4 hours instead of 10 minutes.

    • Yeah, I’m not seeing much of a meaningful difference either. This is basically the Turn from Basic D&D with a small pile of dice being visible to the players on the table. It doesn’t appear to be a significant innovation over that.

      One thing that is kind of critical in the pre-AD&D 2nd edition rules for making random encounters work like intended is having PCs getting their XP primarily from recovering treasure. With that system fighting a wandering monster isn’t just an easy grab of XP that comes to you. It’s a drain of resources and risk of character death that brings almost no reward, as the XP for fighting a monster are tiny and they won’t be carrying most of whatever treasure they have with them. That’s all assumed to be stashed somewhere else in the dungeon as one of the hidden treasure chests or with the monsters buddies in their lair. Once fighting monsters becomes something that benefits the players, the whole oldschool exploration system starts getting cracks.

      Another big issue I see is thinking of random encounters as “fairly small and easy encounters – basically nuisance encounters – that can be played out quickly”. Random chance can lead to the party running into hostile creatures that don’t pose any real threat to them. But a good wandering monster table has a lot more on it than just that. It should also have really dangerous creatures that could be very deadly in a fight and that could lead to noisy escapes that have the characters blindly running through doors and barring them behind without fully checking if it’s safe. You can have random encounters where the party notices the creature before it becomes aware of them, or creatures that spot the party without being detected themselves and keep following them silently for a time. The creatures can be scouts of a lair of the same creatures somewhere in the dungeon, which retreat or send a runner when spotting the party to alert their main camp or get reinforcement.
      And of course there is also always the “reaction roll” in the oldschool editions to randomly determine if a creature is hostile, indifferent, or friendly to the party. Many creatures might not want to eat the PCs and don’t feel threatened by them, or don’t want a fight as long as the players don’t get too close.

      The oldschool exploration system isn’t just time and wandering monsters. It is also XP for treasure, encumbrance, reaction rolls, and morale. 3rd edition completely dropped this whole system (though 2nd edition already went off in a different direction) but kept some individual elements around half-heartedly in the DMG that seemed to be rather pointless and unfun. Because with the system of which they were part being gone, they pretty much where at that point.

      • I made a similar point below, though I have to admit I don’t fully miss the old system either. Random monsters also rubbed me wrong, too. Take for example “Curse of Strahd” for 5e where the castle is basically the old castle Ravenloft from 1e. Where do all these random encounters come from? How do they fit in? Random encounters are a nice threat, but in terms of gaming logic and consistency they are the weakest of sauces.

        The time die system could be used in a more reasonable way, though – or even the old random encounter chance. Stock the dungeon fully, including where the monsters are. Now, as a disincentive for dawdling, let monsters go investigate noises or wander a bit. So, nearby monsters 1, 2, or 3 rooms over (for example, as others suggested, depending on the number of 1s) start to go looking for the players which makes much more sense. Players could later stumble over the lairs of monsters they attracted, giving the whole thing a more consistent feel like truly random monsters don’t.

        Of course such dungeons should offer ways of achieving goals without running into most monsters, hence rewarding smart players, good strategy, or at times, sheer dumb luck.

      • Angry makes random encounters only worth 1/10 the XP of a regular one, then tells you about it so you know it’s a waste of your time to deal with them. It’s one more part of his subtle “hurry up” mechanics.

      • Don’t forget, in his Megadungeon series Angry advocated for random combat encounters being worth significantly less experience.

        Dungeon random combat encounters should be nuisance encounters, because they function to drain resources, and the dungeon game is an attrition game. Even a small drain can be a nuisance, and given the time combat takes in modern systems you don’t want to spend too much time on them.

        It is a different matter in wilderness encounters, because there may only be one or two in a day, so attrition is less meaningful. That is why in the 1e encounter tables, dungeon encounter difficulty was related to dungeon level, whereas wilderness encounters could be with anything from kobolds to the tarrasque, regardless of party level, and encounter avoidance was a big part of any strategy.

    • I think the idea is that having a visible pool of dice creates a sense of rising tension in the player’s minds that just having random rolls doesn’t. That seems like the most significant difference.

  15. Well, I think the mechanic is quite well thought out, if rough.

    The reset every hour thing seems to be the biggest gripe in the comments section, though I must admit I do not see it in a bad light.

    A visible indicator for the party that they may have a minute to catch their breath can actually play into the fantasy a little. The guards caught you and a fight broke out? “Hey guys, lets back off until later, we probably made a ton off noise and the rest of the guards are on alert.”
    Now it becomes a risk/reward choice. Other guards may be on alert now, but if we wait, they may bolster there defenses and double the watch. Hell, doubling back may no longer be an option because of it.

    The on the hour thing? just enables the players to make a semi-informed decision based upon information presented. It not only mortifies them when it gets full, it also empowers them at the same time by providing a clear decision point.

  16. I had to think of the game “Dread”, a horror rpg in which you don’t roll dice but instead play Jenga. Every time you try something -> pull a piece.

    If the tower collapses you fail and die in the most horrible way possible.

    If you instead smash down the tower you succeed and then die in the most horrible way possible.

    However this time pool thing made it possible for me to just use 10+searchskill to determine what PCs notice passively and 20+searchskill when they invest time.

    I would personally not move the consequences away from the players (more endzone enemies, dragon waking up) unless the players already know the consequences.

    Since I like probabilities:
    6d4 – 82,2% to roll one 1 or more
    6d6 – 66,5%
    6d8 – 55,1%
    6d10 – 46,9%
    6d12 – 40,7%

  17. This would quite dramatically affect the GM’s determination of whether there is a cost to a player action (and thus determine whether a roll is called for or not). Every attempt to pick a lock now has a concrete, visible and tangible cost, so long as there are Bad Things in the dungeon, even if they are far away Bad Things.

  18. Great stuff, love this idea.

    Would be interesting to see it applied to the travel rules as well. Possibly the increment could be days or half days instead of hours. I could imagine taking the complexity just one step farther and making it so that during travel, time starts to wear you down. This could mean things like penalties to checks, fewer spells, etc.

  19. I like this and am really interested on how this could work in wilderness settings.

    A question: what happens when you roll multiple 1s? Do they get hit with multiple encounters? Are all the 1s pulled out of the time pool?

  20. Interesting concept, but given you described this as an 11th hour rewrite, I assume you haven’t been able to beta-test this yet? Would love to hear how you refine it after trying it out.

    My biggest concern is with the feasibility of eyeballing probability since the chance of rolling a 1 doesn’t grow linearly. It’d be more straightforward to compare the *total roll* against some threat value (ie 15 for dangerous environments, 20 for avg, 25 for safe, etc.)

  21. After reading this, I got the idea of building a sort of dice tower/scoreboard thing. It would have a sort of shallow tray, just the right size for six dice, that would be raised slightly to increase visibility. That way, the GM could clearly show Time Passing, as he sets each die. The base of the tray would be metal teeth that one could open with the flick of a lever, allowing the dice to drop down and roll.

  22. Angry, when you propose new mechanics like this, I often wonder if people wind up using them and how it works out. Have you considered adding some kind of wiki where the community can follow a particular idea like this over time? Just a one page thing dedicated to discussion and polishing of this mechanic in an organized way would be awesome.

  23. As always, a beautiful example of critical thinking translated to real world usefulness. Thanks, Angry.

    The observation that D&D lacks an elegant mechanic to track time (dread) is spot on. For me the implementation using dice of different types and rolling sounds cool, but would probably not get much use at my table. I almost never use any of the elegant, carefully worked out random encounter tables I create. Probably the visual cue of having dice in the middle of the table would help, but it already feels like its getting to fiddly for my tastes.

    However, this has made me think of a mechanic I saw recently in the upcoming Modiphius 2D20 Conan game – Doom. This mechanic tracked a growing sense of menace using doom tokens added to a pile in the middle of the table (you can use whatever marker you like as a token). The nuances of the 2D20 doom mechanic aren’t terribly relevant here and I won’t go into detail, but essentially this pile grows because of events in the game, and the GM can use it to power bad shit. I think a similar approach here – taking Angry’s idea to an even more abstract level – could work really well. Essentially, the growing pool would track time/threat/doom/dread, and can be used at any time for the DM to roll a D20 – either as advantage for NPCs or monsters, or to trigger a bad thing (I.e. Rolling a 1 or whatever). The ebb and flow of doom, as its spent and as the PCs actions cause it to grow creates a visual representation of mounting dread that Angry so elegantly describes. At the end of a long rest (or whatever) the doom pit is cleared.

    I think I’d prefer this kind of more abstract mechanic as it essentially gives a currency to time/dread that can be keyed into all sorts of other mechanics/sub-systems and doesn’t require the poor DM to remember lots of nuanced rules (like which dice type now, how many 1s did I need to roll, when do I reduce it, by how much, etc.). Or alternatively, you could use it to make as complex a system as you like – e.g. Multiple tokens for different effects and so on.

  24. I know, what an idiot, right! It’s like that one time he talked about Harry Potter and Lord Vader, when it’s Lord Volothamp. It’s like he’s doing it on purpose…

  25. Very nice. I do like one commenters idea that the number of ones is a factor in how bad the random encounter is.

  26. Wow. This is definitively one of the best ideas I’ve seen here… and that is saying something.

    My issues are removing the die if a 1 is rolled without a full pool. To me that would almost seem like they get an extension of time if something bad happens early which seems odd. I guess I don’t understand what the intention for removing the die is… what does it do for the system, is it just throwing the players an additional set of actions before the hour ticks for having something bad happen?

    The other issue I see is that something bad will occur on every hour regardless if something bad happened prior. Though I guess it could be something bad could happen… like the “something bad” might happen but you still need to determine the encounter with a roll that could come up with nothing… it doesn’t look like Angry threw out the random encounter tables, so that might be his intention, I guess. In which case that seems fine.

    • I interpreted the “remove a die” rule as a way to lower the amount of bad stuff happening in short time. If you can only lose dice in the pool at the “6 dice / 1 hour” mark, it makes players want to “game” the system, by making noise if 6 dice are in the pool, and only then. This way, though, picking these actions at a different moment is not just wrong, as you technically still gain something from it (one less die in the pool).

      I do agree with the problem of “1 guaranteed Bad Thing in every single hour”, though; a solution could be adding the chance that the Bad Thing at the end of the hour is just losing extra resources: so, if you roll/pick/get that one, the party just uses up extra oil/more torches/part of the food in this hour.

  27. Well, It’s about time. . .

    Seriously love the crunch on this one. I haven’t been this excited to shamelessy steal one of your mechanics since fighting spirit.

    Keep up the good work, brother!

  28. Great article.
    This has brought the Heat mechanic in Dusk City Outlaws to mind. I suppose what you’re tracking isn’t so much the passage of time as gradually mounting danger, presented in a way that the players can see it build and drop mechanically in the way that you want tension to build and drop in your story. So, you could have it tick up with time but also with doing things loudly, setting off alarms, being rude to people in town, foraging loudly, etc.

    I’m not sure I see the benefit of using dice rather than providing the GM with a building pool of points to spend on complications, though. Using Dusk City Outlaws as an example again, there you can spend 4 points of heat on a minor complication (squad of goons, awkward minor diplomat, etc), 12 on a major complication (captain of the watch, wanted posters going up, etc), or 20 on a full on plot twist (betrayal, raid on your base, encounter with a heavy hitter). You could come up with some specific appropriate things during adventure design. If the players knew the rough point costs of things, you could even build tension by appearing to save up for a big plot twist, even if you didn’t plan to use one. Using points rather than dice would give the GM more control over the timing of complications and avoid the feeling of anticlimax if you used your dice to try to stir things up but didn’t roll any 1s. Maybe.

  29. I like this concept. It could be improved on, though, or rather it shouldn’t stand alone – I’d argue there’s a fundamental problem at the heart of D&D that needs fixing first:

    In Original/Classic D&D, Basic D&D, and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 1st Edition you would get 1XP per GP plundered and/or banked. The specific rules were a bit bogus (like “valuable magical items are their own reward but gold isn’t”…) but I think the rule was needlessly maligned and replaced with something worse – from AD&D2e onward monsters were the main way to earn XP.

    Reasoning was probably like “Fighting monsters is fun for players” and “Actually fighting stuff makes you use your abilities and improve them” but it created the problem you described in your article: as long as no other conditions exist, fighting monster is a reward in itself as long as players have resources to do so, because leveling up is the coolest thing in the game, especially in later editions where it earns you so much more power in comparison to, let’s say, 2e.

    In fact, monster XP became so important, quest XP could not exceed monster XP if you followed the guidelines. So, the game rewarded hack & slay. Oe, Basic, and 1e, though not necessarily fully intentionally, rewarded smart ways of getting the treasure without fighting or spending resources. Things like save-or-die were big disincentives to fighting that are by now largely abolished in 5e.

    I posit this was the wrong direction to take. Hindsight is 20/20 here. If D&D had simply switched from “get the gold” (which is your objective) to the more generic “achieve your objective” it would have fared better. Players avoiding fights and staying on task would have been rewarded. The task could have been “kill this particular boss”, “get the damn gold”, or even “escape alive”, it doesn’t really matter. Not big on 4e, so I’d guess milestone XP are mostly a 5e thing but maybe I’m wrong, don’t know. Took the game more than 3 decades to pull its head half-way out of its ass, at the very least.

    If we had the monster XP progression of 1e (10XP for a lv1 aka 1HD monster, anyone?) in 5e combined with milestones, combat encounters would become nuissances. Hoards and treasure types for all monster encounters are also a thing of the past, so the incentive for fighting would be reduced tremendously and story/milestone goals would feature more prominently. Random encounters would become more of a thing to avoid.

    Now combine this with Angry’s idea of the time die pool and bad things happening. Yes, it can be something cool or dreadful, but in some dungeons it would be “more monsters” because not every dungeon is shaky or similar. And now these monsters would be true nuissances.

    So, I say a step in the right direction between 1e and 2e might have saved us a lot of heartache. It was generally an improvement, anyway, but again, hindsight is 20/20.

    I will try to use the time die pool thingie in my campaign. The “I cast a ritual” all the time gets on my nerves, and unlike encounter table rool (“on 15-20 on d20 you get an encounter”) this one scales. The more time you waste, the worse. So, one ritual is a calculated risk, reducing resource expenditure. Three rituals and you are asking for bad things to happen…

    It doesn’t solve the problem of going out and resting really. It might generate more obstacles on the way out but that’s it. That problem persists unless you run every mission with a time limit or… whatever cool way Angry gives us in a future article.

    Really worthwhile reading. 🙂

  30. One thing I would change is, instead of being ‘Time dices’, they would be ‘Threat dices’. Every time you add one threat dice, you roll all the dices, if a 1 is scored on any dice, the whole pile is flushed, and s**t hit the fan.

    You would add one threat every time PCs attract attention in some ways. Looting a single room would only attract a ‘passive’ attention, as a monster could walk in a surprise them, therefore adding a die to the Threat pile.

    After a Bad Thing happens, I would add one die in a Permanent Threat Pile : those dices count toward rolling for Bad Things, but wouldn’t be flushed when a 1 is scored.

    • If you re-rolled all the dice every time you added a d6, you’d exponentially (factorially?) increase the frequency of bad things happening.

      Cumulative chance of getting a 1 after:

      1 roll: 16.7%
      2 rolls: 42.1%
      3 rolls: 66.5%
      4 rolls: 83.9%
      5 rolls: 93.5%
      6 rolls: 97.8%
      7 rolls: 99.4%

      • What if you made those dice d10s or d20s instead? I like it better with rolling after each die is added but would never use d6s if done that way.

  31. Seriously great mechanic that I’m going to steal and tweak. Can’t wait for Angry’s Amazingly Awesome Adventure Atlas or whatever the grawlix he’s calling it these days. I can’t wait to back the grawlix out of his Kickstarter.

  32. It’s interesting how much people seem to like this idea. I can’t stand it.

    Not that it’s not an interesting mechanic. And I agree that time is one of those things that’s often a problem for many D&D campaigns, particularly 5e because of the way it works.

    But it’s never really been a problem in my campaigns, although the resting rules were some of the first I hacked after 5e came out because of the way they encourage players to engage the rules instead of the game world.

    And that’s what I can’t stand about mechanics like this – it encourages engagement in the rules (the pile of dice on the table) instead of the game world. It’s a fun little game mechanic, but I’m trying to make the game mechanics blend into the background.

    In our campaigns I simply remind the players that the characters are people. They, like most people, like to eat at certain times, take a break every once in a while, and don’t typically like to work more than they have to. Not stopping to take a rest causes fatigue, but resting isn’t tied to the recovery of abilities. Sleep is, to some degree.

    Rounds are 20 seconds in our campaign, and we always consider things take a decent amount of time when exploring, etc. There might be random encounters, but they are tied to the locale, the way the party is being stealthy, or not, and other in-world considerations.

    Secret doors and traps exist in places where they would be logical. They aren’t there to make the game interesting or provide a challenge. Locating a secret door when you have no indication that one might be there means you probably miss it – although you might come to find it later on under different circumstances.

    I love a lot of what you post here, although I certainly disagree with some of it. But one of the things I try to avoid when hacking the rules is to make rules where none is really needed. In 5e this becomes a need in part because of other rules I have issues with (namely the short/long rest mechanics, and the 6-second rounds).

    Another thing that differs greatly is that my dungeons tend to be larger than your standard dungeon. A lot larger. For example, for a recent catacombs I used modified maps of the Roman and Paris catacombs. There are miles and miles of them. Guess what, it takes time to explore that. The emptiness and great distances adds atmosphere, and takes much more time to explore than your standard 1-page-of-graph-paper dungeon at 5′ or 10′ per square.

    Definitely some interesting thoughts in this article, but not the type of solution I’d go with.

    • This is a great example of different tables needing different solutions to similar problems.

      My regular group is exactly the group that would love to see this, because they love rolling dice and beating challenges and toss would give one more layer that they get to play with. But I’m probably not going to use this in our next adventure because the next dungeon doesn’t really need this thing. My new group doesn’t have an overarching plot to deal with, they’re just treasure hunters, so this is perfect for them in and out of game. Finally, my old group, when I get back to them, won’t enjoy this and I don’t want to put it in unless there’s a specific use for it in a particular adventure, and they’ve got plenty of plot stuff happening on top of strong fantasy engagements, so they sound a lot like your group.

  33. More than ever before, and perhaps because of MMORPGs, I am noticing the disconnect between the character advancement rules and the “sought after” play style.

    As a player, I find myself continually wanting combat, and getting annoyed when other players want to act-out conversations gather pertinent information, or otherwise “waste” time that could be used maximizing XP gains.

    But this doesn’t match my general view of what makes D&D awesome, nor what I value about the game. I do enjoy story, acted conversations, and memorable moments in general. I like to grow attached to characters and see the story unfold.

    But I’m fully aware that I am incentivized-out-of behaving in this way.

    It’s a big problem that is not fully addressed. I’m going to be spending some time thinking about this.

    One straightforward fix is to greatly reduce combat XP and greatly increase story and quest XP. This seems like a good start. But it seems there is also a conflict presented by the rules themselves. The massive amount of cool combat abilities make combat the coolest and most fun part of the game.

    To be honest, I’m not sure how much of my combat preference comes from enjoyment of the combats themselves, and how much of it comes from the XP advancement that follows from it.

    I’m in the process of tweaking the mechanics and world building right now, and I’m hoping I can keep this at the fore when moving forward.

  34. Awesome! I will definitely use a time pool. But I’ll use it to discourage some specific behaviors that annoy me as DM to a group of 8-12 year olds. I plan to add a die any time the players a) have an extended discussion/argument b) want to re-roll an ability check c) dawdle in overland transit. Then any time one of these things comes up, I can let them know that I am adding a die to the time pool. Hopefully that will help keep things moving and give them a sense of urgency.

  35. I like the general idea but I think I’d go with rolling all the dice every time a new die is added, as others have mentioned. I’d therefore make a typical die a d10 or d12 (or even a d20 since it is THE iconic die of the game) so the Bad Things don’t happen all too often (or as often as would happen using d6’s). Or perhaps start rolling the dice once there’s a certain number in the pool, or maybe when every 3rd die (or some other number) is added to the pool. Short rests in the dungeon would automatically trigger a roll. A Bad Thing would clear the dice still.

    Long rests trigger 8 rolls? Hmmm, would take some time to come up with something that would work with this mechanic vis-à-vis long rests.

    IMO, you want it random enough so it discourages “gaming” of the system. I think using d6’s is too predictable and makes gaming too easy.

  36. I like this very, very much. One of the biggest difficulties I have at the table is imparting the sense of urgency to the players. Many of them approach the game as a very simple computer game. “We just go outside and rest, then come back in to right were we left, and nothing will have changed!”

    This mechanic feels like it could be the core of what I need to let them know that Bad Things (TM) are waiting if they daly and delay…

    Thanks!

    • I’ve screwed with my players so much they WON’T leave a dungeon in the middle, even to take a rest. ‘When we come back, it’ll be populated by new and more powerful monsters!’

      Guys… that happened ONE time, and you were gone for WEEKS

      ‘Nope, we’ve got to clear out this dungeon, and every other dungeon attached to it in one run, and if someone dies, THEN we’ll take a long rest. In the dungeon… because if we leave, who knows what you’ll put back in!’

  37. I like how this would tie into spell durations and the like:
    A round-per-level last that many rounds.
    A minute-per-level lasts for one Time Passes.
    A ten-minutes-per-level lasts for a number of Time Passes.
    An hours-per-level lasts for a number of Bad Things.
    It makes tracking the durations of the party’s various buffs easier and their timescale relevant, without needing to track every round and minute that passes. I’ll be using this in the future, though first I’ll need a bowl with Gollum’s riddle printed on it. You know, to inspire extra time-dread.

  38. You’ve outdone yourself this time Angry. So many discussions about how to stop the players wasting in-game time that ended in “I suppose you just have to make time meaningful on a case by case basis and make it up as you go along” – finally a satisfying answer! I can’t wait to build this into my next adventure. It was going to be a wilderness journey adventure but I think I’ll hold out on that until you’ve done your wilderness article(s). What an invaluable resource this site is, especially for people like me who like to have solid mechanics but would rather spend my time designing the adventures themselves.

  39. I like this; I especially love the idea of rolling the time pool when the players do something that would make a lot of noise or attract attention.

    I’m not fully into the idea of a generic ‘bad thing’ happening when one of the dice rolls a 1, that seems swingy. I’d rather work with some random event tables I’ve set up for that particular dungeon or environment that are directly affected by the actual result of the roll.
    Low = good for the players and high = bad for the players. That way I can lock certain random events behind a certain minimum amount of dice of a certain size in the pool.

    I would also increase the die size for a particular location if the players have let some of their enemies escape, that might have gone to fetch reinforcements.

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