This is part 20 of 21 of the series: Hacking New Rules

Tension on the Road to Elturel

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You might not realize this about me, but I love to tinker with rules and game mechanics. I know. Who would have thought? But it’s true. When I’m running games regularly, I am constantly tweaking and fiddling and tinkering with shit. And occasionally, one of my tweaks or fiddles or tinkers will actually work. It’ll actually make my game better. And that’s when I get excited and vomit forth 5000 words about the tweak and how brilliant it is and how much of a genius I am and then I splatter that vomit on this website for all the world to admire. And once I’ve written the article and gotten a few weeks out of my idea, I tend to just toss it aside. Because, frankly, it’s easier to just do things whatever crappy way the book tells you. And because, once I’ve tinkered enough to get something working, it just isn’t fun to keep tweaking anymore. It’s okay though. Soon enough, some new fiddle or tinker will appear in my game to take its place.

I have piles and piles of notes describing all sorts of brilliant game mechanics I’ve written, tested, tweaked, published on my site, and never used in my games again. But if I ever decide to make an RPG, I’ve got a lot of fodder for game mechanics.

But every so often, I do pull something back out of the pile and play with it again. Mainly because I’ve encountered a new problem in my game and I need a way to handle it and it’s a lot easier to twist some mechanic you’ve already written into an abominable Frankenstein’s monster of a system that can sort of handle the new thing, than it is to come up with an entirely new and fresh idea.

Look: I’m brilliant, but I’m lazy as hell. And I’m sorry if I’m shattering some illusions here.

Now that brings me around to this Time Pool/Tension Pool thing I invented a while ago and used for literally three adventures over the course of two months, wrote an article about, and then dumped into the pile of forgotten mechanics. I don’t even remember when I first wrote about it. Or why. It was related to some other project I never finished. But, unlike all of my other brilliant mechanics that I can’t be bothered to actually use, this one proved difficult to ignore. Because people keep using it and then telling me about it. Like I want to hear that. “Hey, this thing you invented? I’m using it at every game I run and it really made things a lot better! What sorts of things are you using it for, Angry? I’d love to hear more ideas for it.” And I’m like, “I don’t know, I can’t really be bothered because it’s so much more effort than just, you know, making up a bunch of crap as you go and making it seem like you have a brilliant plan. I really can’t be bothered to do more work for a game than would fit on one cocktail napkin.”

And if you’re trying to reconcile that lazy-ass GM with the person who is constantly tweaking the game mechanics and writing thousands of words about it, good luck. I’ve been trying to reconcile those two people for years and they are both me.

Here’s the point: people convinced me the Time/Tension Pool Mechanic was actually something worth a damn. So much so that I actually do take it out and dust it off every few months and try to see what else I can get it to do. And I’ve discovered that, while it had some rough edges, once it was filed down and simplified, it was actually a very versatile little tool. Especially considering that it was originally just a way of making my players get nervous about wasting time in dungeons lest they get eaten by a random monster they weren’t going to get experience for. I’ve used it to track time in dungeons, to manage complex stealth scenes containing multiple encounters, to manage social interaction encounters, and all sorts of other things. And gradually, I’ve simplified the rules.

But one of the things I’ve always wanted it to do and one of the things it has always resisted doing was managing wilderness travel and wilderness adventures. And I found myself having to run just such an adventure recently. One in which the party was trying to travel safely from point A to point B. But that wasn’t all that was going on. See, “get from here to there” is just not much of an adventure by itself. That’s the sort of thing that happens between adventures. Or on the way to an adventure. If that’s all you’ve got, you don’t have a wilderness adventure. You have a traveling montage.

See, the party was being tracked by a mercenary army they’d pissed off. And they were escorting an NPC who was on the verge of having a nervous breakdown and running for the hills. And they’d been forced to take on this job without adequate preparation. So, they didn’t have the supplies they needed to make the trek. That last part was just their own dumb planning. Who creates a brand-new character without outfitting them with basic travel gear like a blanket and food and water?

But I digress. This isn’t about that adventure. I will write about that adventure once I know the players have finished with it because it illustrates the importance of thinking through failure states and macrostructures and I just wrote about that stuff. No. This article is about my ongoing, evolving mechanic called The Tension Pool and how I’m using it to help manage wilderness travel. And how it works equally well for wilderness travel that just represents “getting to the actual adventure” and for wilderness travel that IS the adventure.

So, let’s talk about the Tension Pool. For, like, the seventh freaking time.

The Tension Pool, Ver. Whatever

Formerly called the Time Pool, the Tension Pool is a generic mechanical tool that the GM can use to add random complications and growing tension based on the players’ actions. The original version involved a growing pool of dice that each represented ten minutes of wasted time. It was complicated and clunky because it used different sizes of dice and didn’t automatically empty itself and it was just kind of a mess. Now, it’s simpler and more streamlined despite the fact that people keep writing to me to tell me how they’ve overcomplicated it terribly and unnecessarily. I’m going to review the current, generic rules for the Tension Pool and then talk about how I used it as part of a wilderness adventure.

The idea behind the Tension Pool is that you have a visible, growing pool of dice that represent the growing chance that something terrible is going to happen. Depending on the scene or adventure you’re using it in, the Tension Pool can represent different things. While exploring a dungeon where every minute that the players spend in the hostile environment comes with a growing chance that some monster will stumble on them, the Tension Pool represents the passage of time. During a difficult negotiation with a powerful villain, the Tension Pool might represent the NPC’s growing impatience with the party, or his dwindling mood. If the Tension Pool is being used to track the passage of time, it’s called the Time Pool. If it’s being used to track the likelihood of an encounter suffering some disastrous setback, it’s just called the Tension Pool. Either way, the mechanics basically work the same. And there’s no real limit to what it can represent.

To use the Tension Pool in a scene or adventure, you’ll need six six-sided dice. You’ll also need a space in the middle of the table to pile up the dice so the players can see the mounting chance of bad stuff happening. The visibility is extremely important. See, when the characters are in a dangerous situation, like when they are wandering a dungeon, they feel a growing sense of dread for every minute that passes without something terrible happening. They know they are in dangerous territory. They can’t ignore the press of darkness beyond their torchlight, the sound of distant creatures wandering about, and the sense that something terrible is about to happen. The players, comfortable in their chairs and knowing this all a game, need some help to get into the same mindset. The Tension Pool gives them a visible measure of dread. Whenever the players waste time on an action, they see the Tension mounting and they feel what their characters feel: dread. Trust me. It works. That’s why people keep using it. In fact, that’s the one piece of feedback I get more than any other. It keeps the players engaged.

Personally, I use a glass bowl so the players can see and hear the die dropping into the pool.

Now, the rules for the pool are pretty simple. The Tension Pool starts empty. Dice get added to the pool and occasionally the pool gets rolled. When the pool is rolled, if any die comes up a 1, a Complication occurs. Complications can be anything at all and the GM should consider preparing a list of possible Complications in advance. In a dungeon, Complications might represent random monster encounters or trap encounters, they might represent earthquakes or other sporadic hazards, or the magical effects of a haunting. If the party is playing cat-and-mouse with a ghoul in a labyrinth, a Complication might indicate an ambush by the ghoul. If the Tension Pool is part of a social encounter, a Complication might represent the NPC growing impatient and making some random demand of the party, or taking offense at something, or deciding enough is enough and ending the encounter. The only stipulation is that Complications must always make things worse. Or harder. Or more inconvenient. They are NEVER beneficial.

The pool can never have more than six dice in it. Once you add the sixth die to the pool, you always clear the pool. That means you pick up the pool, roll the pool, and then put it aside and start with an empty pool again. That makes it very handy for timekeeping. If each die represents 10 minutes of time, then an hour has always passed when you clear the pool.

If you ever have to roll the pool and it’s empty, roll one die. You can’t roll an empty pool and there’s always a chance of something going wrong. Don’t add that die to the pool. Just roll it as if it were in the pool.

Now, there are five actions you can take with the pool, including clearing the pool. When and why you take those actions depends on what you’re using the pool for. So, I’ll describe the actions and then explain why you might use them afterward.

Here’s the five actions you can take with the Tension Pool:

  • Add a Die: Pick up a d6 and visibly drop it in the pool. If you just added the sixth die to the pool, immediately Clear the Pool.
  • Roll the Pool: Pick up all the dice currently in the pool and roll them. Take note if any of the dice show a 1. Then, put the dice back in the pool. If the pool is currently empty, roll one d6 by itself, note if it shows a 1, and then put that d6 aside. Don’t add it to the pool.
  • Add a Die and Roll the Pool: Pick up a d6 and visibly drop it in the pool. If that’s the sixth die, immediately Clear the Pool. Otherwise, after adding the d6, pick up all the dice currently in the pool and roll them. Take note if any dice show a 1. Then, put the dice back in the pool.
  • Roll a Full Pool: Ignore what’s in the pool. Pick up 6d6 and roll them. Take note if any of the dice show a 1. Don’t change the pool in any way.
  • Clear the Pool: If there are six dice in the pool, pick them all up and roll them. Take note if any of the dice show a 1. Regardless of the result, don’t return the dice to the pool. The pool is now empty.

Another action you can take: leave a tip.

So, when do you add dice and when you do roll dice and why would you ever want to roll a full pool? Well, it depends on what you’re tracking. If you’re tracking time, you want to add a die to the pool whenever the party takes an action that would use up that amount of time. Roughly. For example, during dungeon exploration, each die represents about 10 minutes of activity. So, if one member of the party searches a chest for traps while another ransacks a cupboard for treasure and a third one is searching the bookshelf for secret doors, and a fourth casts detect magic as a ritual and looks around the room, you would add one die to the Time Pool to cover those activities. Remember, different members of the party can do activities simultaneously.

Whatever you’re tracking, you always want to roll the pool whenever the party does something reckless or dangerous or risky. If the party decides to break down a door in a dungeon, that’s loud and it might attract attention. If the party stands around at an intersection arguing about which way to go, that might also attract attention. Roll the pool.

Sometimes, the party does things that are both time consuming and reckless. If the party decides to take out their picks and prybars and dig through the rubble of a collapsed passage, that’s going to take time AND it’s going to attract attention. Add a die, then roll the pool.

When you’re using the Tension Pool to keep track of tension during a scene or encounter, the general rule is that you want to add a die for any cautious action and roll the pool for any reckless action. So, if the party calmly pleads their case with the king, add a die to the pool. If the party decides to threaten the king or insult him, roll the pool.

And yes, that does mean that players who figure out how the pool works will tend to take reckless actions early on in the scene, grow more cautious in the middle of the scene, and then grow impatient and become reckless again as they try to end the scene before the pool fills. That’s working as intended and mirrors the way most characters would approach most situations.

Rolling a full pool is most useful when you’re using the pool to track time and the party does something that would eat up enough time to fill the whole pool. For example, when the party decides to take a short rest which, in Dungeons & Dragons 5E, takes an hour, just roll 6d6 as if they filled the pool to see if a Complication interrupts their rest and leave the current pool intact for when they start adventuring again.

Finally, if you want to use the Time Pool to help track the duration of spells during dungeon exploration, you can do that easily enough. Anything with a duration of fewer than 10 minutes expires when you add a die to the Time Pool. You can handle things with durations of one or more hours in a couple of ways. The way I usually handle it is to expire anything with a duration of one hour whenever I clear the Time Pool regardless of when it was cast. Eventually, the party learns to cast their long duration spells when the Time Pool is empty, which is when they should be doing it anyway. If that bugs you, an alternative is to take note of how many dice are in the Time Pool when the spell is cast. If there’s more than three dice in the pool when an hour duration spell is cast, don’t expire it when the Time Pool clears. Instead, wait for the next time the Time Pool clears. Yes, that technically means such a spell could last for one hour and thirty minutes and yes players could optimize that shit and if you’re really really worried about that and can’t figure out that the alternative is to expire it based on when the dice are added to the pool the next time around, I can’t help you. Me? I can’t be bothered to care that much about it.

Anyway, that’s it. That’s the basics of the Time/Tension Pool. And, as I said, I’ve used it for a lot of stuff. Apart from timekeeping, I use it as the structural element for social encounters. I’ve even used it during combats in hazardous situations. On the deck of a ship during a terrible thunderstorm. Every time a character – PC or NPC – took an action, I either added a die to the pool or rolled the pool depending on whether the character was being particularly reckless. So, the pool got rolled three or four times every two turns on different characters’ turns. The Complication always meant something happened to the character whose turn it was. I remember the barbarian brandishing a polearm and climbing up onto the forecastle and flying into a rage… and getting struck by lightning. That was awesome.

Now, on to using the Time/Tension Pool for overland travel and wilderness adventures.

How to Get From Here to There

Using the Time/Tension Pool for overland travel and wilderness adventures evaded me for a while. There were two problems that I kept running into. First, the six-die limit didn’t really align with anything in wilderness travel as neatly as it did with the passage of ten minutes and one hour. Second, most wilderness travel isn’t resolved in terms of individual actions. It’s resolved as a series of days. Moreover, I found that sometimes I had to switch temporal resolution – how’s that for a game term?! – in the middle of a day. Like, the party might spend three days traveling at a normal pace and suddenly, partway through the fourth day, decide to take a shortcut through a dangerous swamp for a few hours, and then get back on the road. And the Time Pool only allows for two different segments of time. And all of my solutions involved adding clumsiness to the whole thing.

See, I like the Tension Pool mechanic as it is because it’s a very simple, intuitive system. You’ve got the pool, you add a die for cautious or time-consuming actions, and you roll the pool for risky or dangerous actions. You watch for 1s whenever you roll the pool. And you roll and clear the pool whenever it hits six dice. You can keep all of those rules in your head very easily and make quick decisions about what to do with the pool. Hell, it’s more complicated to spell it out than it is to actually use that. I didn’t want to change the way it worked for just one situation. So, I had to change the way wilderness travel worked to fit the pool.

The basic idea is that rolling once each day for a Complication if the party is just traveling normally seems normal. So, the pool needs to be cleared once each day. The problem is, most of the time, you just resolve travel on a day-by-day basis. The decisions the party makes that affect how long they’ll be traveling are made in the order of days. They pick their destination and their route, which determines roughly how long the trip will be. They navigate each day, which determines if they get lost and spend extra time in the wilderness. And they decide whether to travel at a normal, slow, or fast pace to set their own speed. During most days of travel, there aren’t six decisions that get made to put six dice in the pool.

This is precisely why I added the Roll a Full Pool action to the list above. If the party spends a day traveling normally, you can just roll six dice because you know they will fill the pool. And then you can decide when during that day of travel the Complication occurs. Basically, you treat a normal day of travel like a short rest in a dungeon. You roll a full pool to see if the travel is interrupted.

However, there are times when you want to zoom in and resolve things on a shorter time scale. In the order of hours instead of days. For example, if the party is exploring a certain area of the map looking for a particular location. Or if the party is traveling through a particularly dangerous bit of terrain. Like, when they are tracking a group of goblins through the goblins’ territory. Because one of the strengths of the Time/Tension Pool is that the party can take reckless actions that might help them accomplish their goals at the risk of further complications.

Hell, consider this: a normal travel day is – according to the PHB – about eight hours of travel. But, that also includes a number of breaks and rests and meals and stuff. And if the party travels through most of the daylight hours, it’s more like ten to twelve hours. But what if the party decides to push that up a little? Not into forced march territory. Just try to squeeze a few extra hours during the evening. Well, that’s a bit risky. Predators and monsters are at their most active during the dawn and dusk hours. And if the light is fading, the chance of blundering into a wilderness hazard is increased. And navigation becomes more complicated.

Most of the time, this crap doesn’t matter. Which is why you can just Roll a Full Pool to cover a full day of normal travel. But if the adventure involves searching for a hidden location or spending some time wandering through particularly dangerous territory or, say, evading a mercenary army while escorting an NPC who is one step from a nervous breakdown, the party needs to be able to make these decisions and the Time Pool should be able to handle it.

So, here’s what I did.

First, I broke the day down into six segments. After all, I have six dice to fill the Time Pool with. So, the day must have six segments. And because a day is 24 hours, each segment is four hours long.

  • Dawn: This is the period around sunrise and into the morning. About 4 AM to 8 AM.
  • Morning: This is the midmorning to noon period. About 8 AM to 12 PM.
  • Afternoon: This is the period after noon. About 12 PM to 4 PM.
  • Evening: From late afternoon to nightfall. About 4 PM to 8 PM.
  • Night: From nightfall to midnight. About 8 PM to 12 AM.
  • Predawn: From midnight to before or just around daybreak. About 12 AM to 4 AM.

Now, these periods are approximate and fuzzy. And that’s fine. No one is wearing digital watches anyway. And I purposely decided to start the day at dawn, not midnight, because that’s the more practical cutoff for wilderness travel.

In theory, if I were tracking time on an hour-by-hour basis during the day, I’d add one die to the Time Pool for each of those chunks of time. And after Predawn, I’d Clear the Pool. But that doesn’t align with how the game actually plays out. I’m Rolling a Full Pool for each day of travel at the start of each day to determine if I should interrupt a day with a Complication. I don’t need the Time Pool beyond that.

But what if, on one particular day, the party does something reckless at noon. Say, they decide to have a massive screaming fight about how to divide treasure on top of a ridge silhouetted against the sky. Or they decide to ignore the skulls-on-pikes marking this particular chunk of the evil forest as orc territory and blunder on through. I’d like to be able to Roll the Pool, right?

Well, I can. Because I know how many dice SHOULD be in the pool at any given point in the day, I can handle it as if I’d been tracking things hour by hour. Hypothetically, if it were noon on any normal day of travel, there’d be two dice in the Time Pool. One for Dawn and one for Morning. And when the party said, “let’s just plow through the orc territory instead of taking the time to go around it,” I’d normally Add a Die and Roll the Pool because traveling for four hours through orc territory is both time-consuming and reckless. So, I can just roll three dice right then and there and see if a complication arises.

And yes, I know that means traveling through orc territory is more dangerous the closer to nightfall it is. That seems kind of appropriate, don’t you think? Working as intended. And yes, that does mean the party could decide to wait until morning to travel through dangerous territory to make things slightly safer. Yes, the party should be more cautious and more nervous the closer it is to nighttime. And they should decide to cut their travel day short rather than get caught in dangerous territory at night. That’s the point.

I have to point out that I not only know this shit, but I’m counting on it, because people think I miss this stuff and that the party making intelligent decisions based on well-designed systems is always metagaming and therefore always bad. Truth is, if the system is designed so that the metagame decision leads to the decisions the characters would make if they were real, metagaming works FOR YOU instead of AGAINST YOU!

Beyond that, I can now build decision points around those smaller segments of time in an abstract way. For example, I could decide that orc territory is large enough that going through it takes two periods of travel whereas going around it takes three or four to get to the same place on the other side. And I can build specific Complications for specific areas of terrain. Like, orc territory has orc-related Complications. And if the party sleeps in dangerous territory, that’s reckless too. If they travel partway into orc territory and then sleep there, they could end up with three increasingly risky die rolls.

It’s a pretty simple system overall. Ask the players all the relevant details about their plans for the day of travel, Roll a Full Pool to determine if a Complication interrupts their travel, and then narrate the day away. If the party’s day is interrupted with a decision point and they make a reckless decision, roll the pool that would exist if you were keeping track by the hours based on the time they hit the decision point.

Complicating Things

Once I had the basic idea ironed out – that a travel day is broken down into six periods which each could represent one die added to the Tension Pool and that you could preroll the Tension Pool once for each day of travel – I realized I could add some complexity to the travel day. Or rather, add some depth. As I mentioned, in this particular case, my players were in the position of having to keep a good pace but they were also in the rough position of having to occasionally slow down to forage. And the only real choice they had was the speed at which they traveled except when I put a decision in front of them.

So, I looked back at wilderness travel in the book and viewed it through the lens of travel in terms of four-hour chunks of time to see what additional levers I could add. And I started with the assumption that the party travels for eight hours out of each day. That strikes me as too little time, even allowing for breaks and meals. Assuming they sleep for eight hours and travel for eight hours, they spend eight hours out of each day doing nothing. I don’t buy it. I mean, I understand this game is for modern sissies who think working more than 35 hours a week is just too damned much. But adventurers are cut from a different stock. You travel from sun-up to sun-down.

I assumed that all else being equal, a party could travel for three out of the six periods in a day. Twelve hours. That assumes they take a break in each period. But could the party travel for more? Of course. PHB 181 provides rules for a forced march. But it’s based on an eight-hour day and it’s based on counting hours. Well, I modified the rule. If the party keep traveling beyond the three normal travel periods, they could do so by making a Constitution saving throw (DC 10). Anyone who failed would suffer a level of exhaustion. If they traveled beyond four travel periods, they could make a Constitution saving throw (DC 15) or suffer a level of exhaustion. Beyond five travel periods, they needed another Constitution saving throw (DC 20). And it would keep going up like that until they took a long rest. If they traveled at a slow pace, they could gain advantage on those saves. If they traveled at a fast pace, they would suffer disadvantage.

Now, speaking of long rests, they were pretty easy to handle. PHB 186 explains that a long rest lasts for eight hours, but it also allows for the fact that during that period, everyone can take a watch rotation and do other light camp activities and still get enough sleep. So, the party has to devote two consecutive travel periods to a long rest. And assuming they do that, there’s no problem. And, by the way, I don’t even keep track of the watch rotation. That’s such a pointless thing. Assume the party divides the night evenly between them and if there’s an interruption, roll randomly to determine who is on watch when the interruption happens.

The only time I’d give more thought to the whole rest and watch thing is if the players tried to complicate the watch issue. Like, if someone didn’t want to take a watch rotation and there were not enough PCs left to cover the night and still let each of them get six hours of sleep in aggregate. Or if they were traveling with fewer than four people, the minimum needed to cover four two-hour watch rotations in an eight-hour night. And the party would just have to push the long rest longer.

Since I was now keeping track of crap like this, the idea that a party covers 30 miles, 24 miles, or 18 miles a day depending on their pace, was no longer good enough. I needed to break things down to figure out how much distance they’d cover in a normal period. And to work that out, I used a magic trick I like to call SIMPLE MATH! If a party, traveling normally, would cover 24 miles in three travel periods (my assumption), they obviously covered 8 miles in any given travel period. Or 10 miles at a fast pace. Or 6 miles at a slow pace.

So, when my players decided to push themselves to the max to get a good lead and travel at a fast pace from dawn through the evening, I knew they could cover 40 miles in that period. Which was good, because the well-trained mercenaries behind them were doing the same thing. And if they did manage to exhaust themselves after one extra travel period, they’d still have time to complete a full long rest and get rid of it.

But I wasn’t done adding complexity. Because the Time Pool is based on allowing the party to manage their risks by making various choices about how to travel, I had to establish some baselines about what was considered Safe behavior and what was considered Risky behavior. And I actually had some fun with this.

Traveling by day is considered Safe and sleeping by night with a watch rotation is considered Safe. And that forms the basis for normal travel. If the party travels during the daylight hours for no more than three travel periods and camps at night with a watch rotation set up, the party is traveling safely. And then I don’t need to worry about anything other than Rolling a Full Pool once each day of travel to see if I need to interrupt their travel with a Complication. The party’s pace will determine how much ground they cover and whether they have advantage and disadvantage on Survival rolls to navigate and Perception to get surprised by Complications and whether they can forage and stuff. That’s normal travel and I don’t have to think anything more about it. Just roll 6d6 for each day of travel, note any 1s, possibly throw a Complication at the party, and tell the party to mark off one person-day of food and water.

So, what’s risky? Well, first of all, traveling or resting in Unsafe Territory is risky. And notice that, because of the nature of my system, Unsafe Territory should be limited in size. Like the hunting territory of a red dragon, for example. Or the lands claimed by a particular orc tribe. Unsafe Territory is often, but not always, recognizable. I use Survival checks to allow trained characters to recognize subtle signs of Unsafe Territory. For example, the orcs might mark their territory with orc marks and skulls on pikes and stuff. That’s obvious. But the hunting ground in the deep forest of a green dragon? That might be more subtle. A survivalist might notice the lack of game, the subtle magical influence, the bark scratched off trees as the dragon passes, that kind of thing.

If the party gets stuck in Unsafe Territory and needs to rest, they can safely do so by looking for a hidden camp. This is a Survival check again. If it succeeds, the party finds a hidden camp and resting is safe. Otherwise, if they fail, they can try again. If they fail twice, they lose a travel period of four hours and camping is considered dangerous.

Obviously, these are just additions to the normal rules about safe behavior vs. reckless behavior and the Tension Pool. The thing to remember though is that you aren’t really adding to the Tension Pool during travel because you have to switch from tracking time by days to tracking time by travel periods on the fly depending on what happens in the game. So, if the party does anything unsafe during any travel period, you roll a number of Tension Pool dice based on the time of day: 1d6 at Dawn, 2d6 in the Morning, 3d6 in the Afternoon, 4d6 in the Evening, 5d6 at Night, and 6d6 in the Predawn hours.

And note that if the party decides to camp in an unsafe place or decides to camp without a watch rotation, then you’ll make two rolls of the Tension Pool – 5d6 and 6d6 – because the party is spending two travel periods being reckless.

Now, as complicated as all that seems, most of it is situational. You only have to use it when the party does something unusual because their situation demands it or when you drop a planned decision point in front of the party during the course of travel and they take a reckless course of action or if the party’s travels take them to particularly dangerous territory like the environs around a dungeon. And the key thing is that it doesn’t add any rules to the basic Tension Pool rules. Once you have the Tension Pool down, you can quickly assess what to do with it for wilderness travel.

And that is where I would have ended. And you can stop reading here. But I added one more layer to the whole puzzle that is totally optional and unnecessary but actually adds a little bit of verisimilitude to the whole thing that I particularly liked.

Seasonal Variation

So, the basic assumption is that you can divide the day into six travel periods and a normal travel day involves the party traveling for three periods, resting and sitting idle for one period, and then taking a long rest for two periods with a normal watch rotation. If the party does that, you Roll a Full Pool at the start of each day to determine if a Complication shows up sometime during that day. If the party changes it up, you still Roll the Full Pool at the start of each day, but the party’s behavior might change how much ground they cover and might require further Tension Pool rolls for reckless behaviors.

But what if you want to take the day-night cycle into account. Well, I did just that. See, I figured there’s three different kinds of periods. Daylight periods, Twilight periods, and Dark periods. It’s safe to travel during Daylight and it’s safe to rest during Twilight and Dark periods. If the party wants to travel during a Twilight period, it’s risky. Roll the Time Pool. If the party wants to travel in Darkness, that’s even more dangerous. Again, Roll the Time Pool, but also apply Disadvantage to all travel checks like Perception, Survival, and anything else just as if the party was traveling at a fast pace.

The baseline assumption is that there’s three Daylight periods in a day, one Twilight period, and two Dark periods. If you don’t want to think any harder, just use that assumption. But, maybe you want to make things more complicated because of seasons and latitudes. So, that baseline assumption is a good assumption for Spring and Fall in a temperate climate. In Summer, there’s four Daylight periods, one Twilight period, and one period of full Darkness. And in Winter, there’s only two Daylight periods, one Twilight period, and three periods of full Darkness. During the summer, the party can safely push themselves into four travel periods without risking any further Complications. They just risk a level of exhaustion that goes away if they get a good night sleep. During the winter, though, the party risks a Complication just to travel a full, twelve-hour day because they are traveling in twilight for part of the day.

You can also adjust this by latitude. In the tropics, every season follows summer. In the subtropics, two seasons follow the spring/fall pattern and two seasons follow the summer pattern. Beyond temperate climates, there’s only winter or summer. And near the poles, you have a season of all darkness and twilight, a winter, a summer, and a season of all daylight and twilight.

Now, you may not need that level of complexity. No one really does. But I find it fun because I’m a tinkerer at heart.

Granted, I’ll probably stop bothering with all of this in a few weeks when I find something new to tinker with.

75 thoughts on “Tension on the Road to Elturel

  1. My experience in the tropics is that the night is much longer than a temperate summer night, and the twilight is almost nonexistent. If verisimilitude is the goal, I would suggest three Daylight + three Darkness. The tropics don’t give you the opportunity to push on into twilight at moderate risk; you stop at sunset or you brave the night.

  2. Good read! I was using your tension pool in dungeons and social situations before, but had not thought about it for travelling.
    Previously, I was using the rules from the 5E DMG and Xanathars, but this sounds great as well, might try it out!

  3. I love the time/tension pool, but I think you’ve overcomplicated it.

    The only actions are: Add a die and roll the pool. Damned if I’m keeping track of which types of events and actions I decided add dice and which ones roll the pool and which do both.

    Clear the pool when an encounter is rolled. (I have tons of d6s, 6 is not a theoretical limit.) An encounter resolves the tension.

    • Time consuming actions add to the pool. Reckless actions roll the pool. Actions that are both time consuming and reckless do both. But that IS a lot to keep track of. And six is not a theoretical limit because this isn’t a law of physics. You want to be able to clear the time pool without having a complication sometimes because good pacing requires that sometimes things just work out okay. Like “oh, crap, we thought something was coming… but it wasn’t. Phew. We can relax for a little while.” And using six as the limit makes it useful for time keeping.

      But use it however you want.

  4. If your players are the type to manipulate the rules to maximize their spell durations, maybe a different color d6s added in the interval when a spell is cast will let you keep track of that.

    I expect you considered & ditched “add a d4 to the pool when the party does something loud, or a d8 when the party is careful or quiet” (and keep the advantage/disadvantage rules in mind when each party member off doing their own thing). “Roll the pool now” accomplishes the same effect if you want to track tension, but I am going to try the different dice size to use the pool strictly as a chronometer in the dungeon.

    • Or maybe just let them. If they eventually learn to cast their long duration spells in synch at the beginning of each hour when tension is low, that’s a GOOD pace. Let them do that sort of bookkeeping and preparatory crap when you’re not trying to maintain dread. It’s a good thing for the rules to create an optimal strategy IF that optimal strategy actually leads to a more satisfying way to play. Especially when you can do it with less complication.

    • I was thinking something similar, and inverting the ‘dangerous’ aspect:
      – 6+ is bad.
      – D4s represent very safe activities – no chance of anything going wrong.
      – d8s are dangerous. Anything beyond that increases the danger significantly.

        • I’ve been using the tension pool (though not the travel variant here, which I quite like) for a few years now, and in the original the die size changed based on context — so in a camp on high-alert, it was a d4, in a mostly-cleared dungeon it might be a d8, etc. I really enjoy that added lever, personally. Plus, I really enjoy my players’ panic when I start the time pool again after clearing it, and am using smaller dice (as they arouse suspicion).

      • It’s the opposite. A d4 represents the most dangerous (25% chance of rolling 1). A d10 would be pretty safe (10% chance of rolling 1). A d20 would be the “safest” die to add with a (5% chance of rolling).

        Although, like Angry, I’m a fan of simple. Just stick with d6’s for everything and add/roll based on frequency of player decisions. If they’re especially reckless, maybe add 2d6 instead of 1d6. (Unless they’re being used for time tracking of course)

        • Right – but I was toying with other (unvoiced) ideas, like accumulated totals staying under a threshold. This made me think of the following related BUT DIFFERENT mechanic:

          For example – with a successful sneak check of (say) 15, being able to do any number of activities with corresponding recklessness, on a scale of d4 to d100. Roll the die after each action. This way, the player knows the risk and the likelihood.

          If you want to do something simple with your stealth – say, go down a hall without being heard and with a guard facing the other direction – done deal. You succeeded.

          If, however, you wanted to go down the hall, pick his pocket (with a corresponding roll), tie his shoes together when he pauses, and dash back the way you came (swiftly but trying to be quiet), you will likely get a d4 fir the walk + d6 for the pick-pocketing, d8 for tying the shoes together, then a d10 for dashing back down the hall (or whatever, these are just examples).

          If the player is presented each one each time an action is declared, they can choose to risk it or not. This would only be for complex or relayed actions rather than just asking for new stealth checks over and again.

          • Interesting concept but too clunky/complicated for my tastes. Sounds like a lot to manage but might make for an interesting game. If you try it out, post back and let us know how it went.

  5. I think it’s super interesting that the way you adapted the tension pool to wilderness travel is pretty much the same as the travel rules you laid out in “Getting There is Half the Fun,” but instead of the “danger level” modeling dangerous territory, you use risky behavior rules here. I gotta wonder if you used the same method consciously or if it’s simply convergent design.

    I love those travel rules, btw. They made it really easy to plan travel days ahead of time (I could roll up a bunch of travel days ahead of time, then apply region rules to those rolls when doing session prep to determine encounters and discoveries) but I’ve found the method I use isn’t entirely flexible in practice, and I have to make several adjustments if my players do something I didn’t plan for. I think doing things tension pool-style would require me to do more work at-table, but it would give me better tools to do so… Combining them wouldn’t be hard, though. I’ll think on it.

  6. I love the idea of the system but the frequency of “Complications” worries me a bit. Rolling six 6-sided die each day has a >66% chance of yielding a 1. That is a lot of complications. Do you keep the complications to a generally low severity due to the high frequency in which they occur?

    • Two encounters every three days on the road or every three hours (six rooms) in a dungeon is a good rate. I like it. It works. And the complications vary in severity. But remember that encounters in the wilderness when they are the only encounters that happen in a day NEED to be more severe because all of the effects of an encounter are wiped away with a long rest.

      • Granted. Wilderness encounters are the exception due to the party being able to meet them with near to full resources available to them. I was thinking more about the in-dungeon complications. While the party should never be trying to take a long rest in a dungeon (but some do), interrupting their short rests two times out of three seems like it could become tiresome unless the severity of the complication was minor or you allowed them to complete their short rest and applied the complication at a later time (like the kobolds of the dungeon saw you and set traps in your path that weren’t there before)

        Either way, great system. I might play around with other die sizes to see if the variation in frequency suits my table better but I will certainly be applying it in some for to my game.

        Can’t wait for you to continue your crafting system, as well! Cheers.

        • Have you read Angry’s other articles? He specifically mentions rolling a full pool after the 1 hour long rest and not during it so as to not deny the PC’s their resources.

          • Having experimented, I generally roll before their short rest, using the tension pool at it’s current size. If I roll one “1”, their short rest is interrupted by something one party member can handle while the others rest. If I roll two or more “1”, their rest is properly interrupted.

            In theory, this shouldn’t interrupt the rest too often unless the party are resting during periods of high tension, which should be risky.

    • An optional tweak that I use is to count the number of 1’s rolled as a hint to the GM about the severity of the Complication. A single 1 (which as you note is pretty frequent) might be just an annoyance like “a horse throws a shoe and you lose 4 hours of travel time dealing with it” or “you discover some of your food supplies have gotten wet and spoiled.” But if you roll 3 1’s you might be getting into “you are ambushed by trolls” territory (or whatever is appropriate for your game).

  7. I like this system, but I worry that it sometimes paints with too broad of strokes. For instance, wouldn’t it be easier to sneak through enemy territory under the cover of night when most of them are asleep, instead of doing it at dawn?

    • I believe GM adjudication is always an integral part of Angry’s hacks. If the players are using night travel to enhance their safety, they have successfully converted a dangerous activity to a safe one.

      The only potential issue could be the dice pool being high. But that would only lead to increasing the tension during their stealth mission through orc country. Which seems to be “working as intended” and enhancing the fun of the game.

      • You get a cookie John Lynch. No GM should ever expect a mechanical tool to do the thinking for them. Remember, the first step in Angry Action Adjudication is USE YOUR BRAIN.

    • That assumes the enemy is diurnal. Most monstrous humanoids in D&D have dark vision (and many have Sunlight Sensitivity), so could easily be assumed to be nocturnal. Sneaking through orc territory at night may be strictly worse than waiting until dawn breaks, since most will be active at that time.

      Obviously this doesn’t apply to every enemy though. You should probably tweak results based on whose territory they’re specifically in

    • Only if the enemies aren’t monsters that like to run around at night.

      sparked an idea tho – the enemies are camping at night because of the wandering monsters (and have defenses) and sneaking thru might get you past the enemies but risks the monsters.

    • If the party are sleeping during the day and travelling at night for safety, I’d just start the adventuring day with a period of twilight and escalate from there as normal.

  8. This combined with the Darker Dungeons rules for dicing encounters, travel, and exploration-based XP makes for a meaningful journey phase of a campaign. I like it a lot.

    I hadn’t read previous articles on this mechanic, but I found myself nodding each time a new point was introduced. So many “yes” moments in here where I could visualize my table interacting with the visible dice, the sound, the stakes growing higher… Really great mechanic.

  9. I was just using the tension pool a few nights back. My players had decided to break into a heavily guarded warehouse at the docks. They were looking for superior quality weapons that were supposed to be inside. Conflict and hilarity ensued as plans weren’t panning out as they expected. Now, we had already been using the pool to track time/danger in a dungeon the previous session, so they knew what the empty clear dice box in the middle of the table was for. The thief was surprised though, that in the middle of his searching crates one at a time I started adding 3 d6s to the pool per round. I told him all the guards are on high alert, there’s fighting, there’s fire, bells have been rung, Time is more valuable. He pushed his luck and was ambushed by three guards when he had his head in a crate. Thanks angry, it was fun!!!

  10. The most popular variant 5E rule for the OSR crowd – a long rest is a week. Hitpoints don’t reset out in wild until you start building forts that you can stay in.

    • My next campaign is getting a similar houserule, namely that a long rest requires a real bed, shelter and a hot meal. Meanwhile an 8 hour sleep in the wilderness gives half Hit-Die and no HP recovery other than from spending Hit Die. I tried to introduce it in my current campaign, but players weren’t happy so it didn’t happen.

      I do feel like combining this with the tension pool would make travel more of an adventure, and would enable difficult survival challenges.

  11. When taking the day-night cycle into account, do you split the Twilight period between the first half of Dawn and latter half of Evening, or would you just say screw it and choose one or the other?

    • Screw it. Twilight is in the evening. Each period can only be Daylight, Twilight, or Night. So here’s how I look at it.

      Default (or Spring/Fall)
      Dawn (4:00 AM to 8:00 AM) Daylight
      Morning (8:00 AM to 12:00 PM) Daylight
      Afternoon (12:00 PM to 4:00 PM) Daylight
      Evening (4:00 PM to 8:00 PM) Twilight
      Night (8:00 PM to 12:00 AM) Night
      Predawn (12:00 AM to 4:00 AM) Night

      Summer
      Dawn (4:00 AM to 8:00 AM) Daylight
      Morning (8:00 AM to 12:00 PM) Daylight
      Afternoon (12:00 PM to 4:00 PM) Daylight
      Evening (4:00 PM to 8:00 PM) Daylight
      Night (8:00 PM to 12:00 AM) Twilight
      Predawn (12:00 AM to 4:00 AM) Night

      Winter
      Dawn (4:00 AM to 8:00 AM) Twilight
      Morning (8:00 AM to 12:00 PM) Daylight
      Afternoon (12:00 PM to 4:00 PM) Daylight
      Evening (4:00 PM to 8:00 PM) Twilight
      Night (8:00 PM to 12:00 AM) Night
      Predawn (12:00 AM to 4:00 AM) Night

      You can do things differently, obviously. That’s just how I abstract it out. Which is the point. It’s a quick abstraction to simplify bookkeeping. And, except in winter, the first period of the day is daylight because that’s when heroes start their day. Starting at midnight and calling the first period night or twilight is putting realism before gameplay utility. And GMs who do that need to get their shit together. Because gameplay utility ALWAYS comes first.

  12. Hi, Angry! I want to be sure I’m understanding the Time/Tension Pool as it pertains to Wilderness Travel, so I’m hoping you can clarify.

    Assuming everything is “normal,” at the Beginning of the Travel Day (starting with Dawn) you roll a straight 6d6 and “1”s may indicate a Complication. Are the dice specifically keyed to a Daypart? Meaning that if I roll 6,4,1,2,1,5 a Complication may occur in the Afternoon and Night (and I would then roll 3d6 and 5d6 to verify the potential Complications)? Or do any “1”s dictate that a Complication WILL happen and I can insert it where it fits best?

    And then if the Party does something stupid in the Evening, would I roll an additional 4d6 for that daypart for still another Complication?

    I like the idea of the Tension Pool very much, and want to make sure I’m using it properly. I even bought 6-siders having Skull & Crossbones instead of “1”s.

    Pitiful…….I know…..

    Thanks, Angry!

    • I believe the second part is correct though. So there is a minimum overall chance that something happens at any point during the day, then if the party does something reckless, they trigger an additional roll of d6s based on the time of day.

  13. I take off my hat.

    I was trying to figure out how to use the Tension Pool in wilderness since long ago without any satisfactory results. Then you nailed it very well.

    You should consider vomit 5000 words on how tackling problems!

  14. This system is a cool approach to wilderness travel, but my concern is the same as with the regular travel system and that is a long rest every night means the characters are fully resourced for combat and they generally know that they’ll only get a max of 1 encounter per day. I’m curious as to your thoughts on how that impacts tension?

    • The way the tension pool normally works is you roll it at the end of the period (end of predawn) and then at some point in the next time segment (dawn) they have a complication.

      The tweak here is that it’s not literally the next time segment but sometime the next day. You’ll know what choices they’ll face the next day so I would make the complication occur before the next meaningful choice. Then when they face that choice they’ll be down some resources. They might choose the safer option because of this (and forgo a reward they would have otherwise had) or go ahead with the risky option and not be at full capacity.

      You can also make the encounter deadlier then normal. You typically wouldn’t open a campaign with a travel adventure because they’re not as exciting and you should simply start the campaign after they reach the destination. As such you will probably have a few levels under the PCs belt before you get them on an extended trip. As such you’ll know how powerful the party is due to synergies and you can throw a very difficult encounter at them (whatever that means for your party) confident that they should overcome it due to having max resources. This will make each encounter more exciting then it otherwise would be.

    • In addition to what I said below: Angry deliberately doesn’t use “combat encounter” as occurring due to travel, but a “complication”. A complication could be “it starts raining really hard, making navigation difficult. Do you rest and take longer to reach your destination? Or do you push on and potentially get lost?”

      There are no daily resources being lost there. It’s an adventure resource. Presumably there’s a resource at stake during this adventure. If no resource is at stake during this travel adventure then you might want to just hand waive the whole thing and say something like “you face a few kobold attacks, a couple of orc scouting parties and an owlbear as you travel to the destination across 3 weeks. However because of your level you easily defeat these encounters and reach the destination without any real trouble.”

    • Life, writing a book, and having other priorities, from my understanding. Tbh, though, the lesson part of the dungeon is mostly there — maybe not every part of designing a good megadungeon is there, but the parts that are hardest / least visible are.

      • It is a project I definitely want to get back to. But it’s a very time consuming project. And this is entirely correct. The publication of the book took a MASSIVE amount of time. Far more than I anticipated. And while Megadungeon and publishing this site are very high priorities and I put them above almost everything else – because this is my job – I have also been plagued in the last year with injuries and health problems. The hardest part, though, is just restarting. The only thing harder than finishing a project is restarting a project.

  15. To reduce the amount of dice rolling (which would get to be quite a lot on long voyages), what do you think of, rather than having a pool of dice, just decreasing the size of a single die? That is, while traveling in a safe, temperate territory, you roll a d20 each day, whereas each complicating factor (speed, danger of the area, weather, etc.) would reduce the die to a d12, then a d10, d8, d6, or d4, and in any case, if you roll a 1, a complication occurs. I like your idea of six time periods, or watches, and you could just roll 1d6 to see at what time the complication occurred.

  16. I mentioned this on the Facebook thread but I thought I’d leave it here in case someone can use it.

    I’ve been using this system pretty much in the form outlined above since I read the original post, but I recently switched to using the Tarokka deck instead. Basically, I wanted to justify buying the deck:P When the card pool hits 6, I have one player flip a card.

    I’ve written up an encounter table that uses the card to inspire the complication, with 67% of the cards resulting in a negative complication (the rest are just random stuff… “a flock of ravens seemed to follow you throughout the evening” sort of stuff), which is roughly the same chance of getting a 1 on 6d6.

    I don’t know if I’ll continue using the Tarokka deck after I’m done running CoS, but my homebrew world is dark so it might still make thematic sense.

  17. I was using your tension pool idea for wilderness travel only I made an assumption of 12 hours travel time per day and had each die cover 2 hours of traveling. I handled the potential for an evening complication separate from the time pool mechanic. So, I like how you folded in the whole day with the Roll the Pool action and added the flexibility to account for different travel times and paces. I will definitely be trying this out with my group.

  18. Bit of a straw poll: how do you handle this system in actual wilderness exploration — i.e. where the party is out to actually chart the wilderness, i.e. a party that has a literal charter to go and make maps of a given territory? Would one class that as safe travel or unsafe? Pathfinder’s Kingmaker storyline has charting the wilderness in scads, and whilst I’ve had an absolute blast using the old, earlier iteration of Angry’s travel rules to the periods of time the party spends actually out there mapping things, the six separate opportunities to get hit with a random encounter has been pretty taxing on the party and on time (I DM in play-by-post on an online forum).

    The way I’d been handling it was to reward the party’s completing charting of a given area with Kingmaker’s XP award plus dropping the DC on Navigation and Foraging down to DC 5, which is more or less automatic success, and lower the chance of a random encounter while travelling through that area down to minimum of zero. My thinking on it was that the party’s reward for investing that time and effort and risk in dealing with random encounters is that once they’ve comprehensively charted an area, it stands to reason they know the area well enough to optimise their travel paths through that wilderness, avoid the monster haunts, and literally map out the best food and water sources. Thus, if they want to invest the time and risk into comprehensively exploring an area, their reward is being able to pass through that area in future with minimal risk in the food, navigation, and random encounter stakes. It allows them to create their own sort-of roads through the wilderness to get to locations they want to get to.

    My off-the-cuff thinking is maybe to assign “Unsafe” to charting in, say, areas really deep in a forest or deep in a mountain range or something, and to signal to the party that they’re really getting into a hazardous area, so the party knows that if they really want to map these areas, they’ll have to take the risk of more encounters as they do. Anyone got any better ideas?

    • Safe travel has nothing to do with the party’s goal. And safe vs. dangerous should be termed as cautious or normal vs. reckless. It’s normal to travel by day and sleep by night, whatever the goal. Traveling by evening or night is reckless. Traveling or sleeping in dangerous territory is reckless. But dangerous territory should be kept small. Like the few miles around a monster lair. Or a particularly haunted but of swamp. Exploring is just traveling.

      The key is that if the party travels or explore by day and sleeps by night, every day involves one roll of the pool which creates about a 65% chance of a complication.

      • Thanks for the clarification!

        And this way, random encounters while travelling — prepared again according to your great “Random Encounters” hack — become Complications, though not exhaustively: a Complication could be as simple as a wheel falling off the party’s cart, hole in their saddlebags, a traveller who gives them wrong directions, they run out of ink for mapmaking, something like that.

        One thing – the old iteration of the travelling rules included a chance of a Discovery, which was a sort-of “7th” d6 rolled. I guess this could still function alongside the Complication subsystem as just a d6 rolled for each day, and on a 1-3 (depending on how ancient the area is) you get a Discovery.

        Another way I guess one could roll this into the overall 6d6 roll for a Complication is that a Discovery still amounts to a Complication, but expressed something like: “You see something that looks kind of interesting off the road, but it’s out of the way and it’ll take you a few hours out of your day to check it out”. It’s a unique type of Complication in that you have the -option- of taking on the hindrance. The loss of time is not beneficial, but the reward for taking the time out might be.

        • Dramatic choices are always good issues to arise – complications that give the players a choice AND a cost. You can check it out, but it will drain resources / days / time.

          I also like the wondering raiding party – you find their tracks and they are heading in the direction of a village…. As long as these don’t become necessary requirements that the party feels like they MUST check it out. If it is there it MUST be plot related, after all, and important.

  19. I love that Tension Pool mechanic and will try it out in one of my next sessions.
    I just recently stumbled upon this blog and the GM Tipps and the Hacking Guides really helped me improve.
    Thank you AngryGM.

  20. Nice and simple ruleset. One thing of note is that it creates many hooks into which to hang new mechanics from.

    Specifically thinking about the Ranger class here. WotC never knew what to do with the class because they never had such an structure in which to link features and powers. If an hypotetical RPG was written with these mechanics in mind, the designer could also include a very satisfying Ranger class that interacts heavily with this system, as well as combat. They could have, for example, a feature that turns Unsafe terrain into Safe. Or that makes it easier for them to spot hostile territory. Or a power that lets them reroll one Tension Die per day – reducing the chance for complications. Stuff like that.

    And of course, that would also works for feats, spells, and all other sorts of player-facing systems.

  21. Hey Angry, I’m wondering how to make this work with a faction system. I loved your Megadungeon faction roster of rolling a d20 against a list of active and inactive factions, so that’s actually what I’ve been doing with wilderness exploration: collapse the spider tunnels and the giant spider REs go away, awaken the treebeast and now plant monster REs are active.

    Tension Pool’s great for – uh, tension, but doesn’t help with determining which complication occurs. How would you combine them? Would you?

    • Hm what about this – and if anyone thinks it’s clunky do tell me.

      One of the TP dice (always the first one you add to the pool) is a certain color. If any of the TP dice get a 1, look to this colored die to pick which faction you get.

      That seems pretty simple! You can even say if you land on an inactive faction it’s just a normal ‘wilderness’ complication. What do you guys think?

      • If you want to randomly determine something about the complication, I recommend rolling a different die after determining that the complication occurs. The problem with using the color of the die that rolled a 1 to determine the complication is that you choose which dice go in the pool as you fill it, meaning that if you aren’t rolling the whole pool, it will be less random. I don’t consider randomness to universally be a virtue, but it sounds like you want it in this context, or else you’d just choose a complication yourself.

        One piece of advice I have is to determine random encounters (or complications) ahead of time and just use the next one whenever you need it. Regardless of whether you are rolling up the encounters, handcrafting them, or somewhere in the middle, having them planned out in advance will almost certainly keep the game running smoother and also probably increase the quality of the encounters.

        • Building REs ahead of time works really well, but the mechanic I’m talking about is to determine when and where they pop up, and which enemy faction they’re for. So you can prepare several encounters for, say, the Goblin faction, the Spider faction, and the Demon faction, and keep them ready in a list, but the mechanic I’m talking about would, with one easy roll, determine *both* whether you get a RE *and* the RE’s faction. It also makes it easy to switch the factions ‘on’ or ‘off’ depending on the PC’s actions.

          In the Megadungeon article I’m talking about (“Wandering Monsters and Random Encounters,” great stuff, highly recommend), Angry outlines really well the benefits of using RE rolls like this. One roll is faster: less time players are waiting around watching the GM to toss dice. A good mechanic is simple, easy to remember, and minimizes loading time – so sure a GM can choose to select REs beforehand, but he shouldn’t feel like he has to.

          As for my follow-up idea – sorry, I could have explained it better. (I’m not saying you use the color of the die which rolls a 1 to determine the faction.) This isn’t a hill I’m willing to die on… but it might be one I’m willing to *dice* on 😀

          – When you add the first die to the Pool, it’s a special color. Let’s say gold.
          – When you add another die, it’s whatever color, doesn’t matter.
          – 3rd die whatever color
          – 4th w/ever
          – 5th w/ever
          – 6th w/ever
          – When you roll the Pool and ANY die gets a 1, you get a complication.
          – It doesn’t matter how many dice are in the Pool when you roll it: this gold die is ALWAYS going to be rolled, because it’s always first in.
          – To determine the complication’s faction, look at the gold die. Its number points to a roster of up to 6 factions. If the gold die says 3, you get a complication from Faction #3. If it says 5, you get a complication from Faction #5. Etc. Hitting an inactive faction could, say, default to a generic wilderness complication.

          Hope that’s a bit clearer.

          • Ah, I see what you’re saying. I didn’t read carefully before. That makes sense. I would still preroll that before the game myself, but I understand the appeal of being surprised.

          • I think that is fine if you want that sort of complication.

            Previous Angry articles indicated that random encounters are less random. They have some thematic or even story tie-in. For that reason, rolling a random faction might not be as helpful as rolling 1 of 6 random encounters that you have pre-planned. Additionally, he said something about not rolling to say which occur, but instead stating that they go in order.

            Here is an example of what I mean:

            1. Finding the missing Tailors’ destroyed random (previously mentioned in town that she is missing)
            2. Another set of tracks
            3. Faction 1 raiding party with a missive that provides direction to the party.
            4. You find the Tailor, feverish and lost in the wood – she just escaped from Faction 2, and you can them coming – there sounds to be a lot of them.
            5. Tracks for a raiding party from Faction 2 heading towards town, fresh. You might be able to catch up, but you will end up burning time.
            6. A scout sees your party and dashes away, very swiftly. Difficult to catch-up to, and they will warn others that you are coming.

    • Nah. I just have a separate list of complications and I pick one or roll one. There’s no good reason to load too much into the Time/Tension Pool itself given there’s so many different ways to set complications depending on the adventure that you might choose complications. Maybe I should write an article about complications and REs and all that other stuff. A lot of people seem to be trying to cram a lot of specialized mechanics into it. Like, I don’t use factions every adventure. I don’t use plot advancement every adventure. Every adventure isn’t a wilderness adventure. I have to be honest, it kind of baffles me that people ask “well, how do you determine what period of the day the complication happens in?” There’s six periods. If you can’t just pick one yourself and it absolutely has to be random, just roll a d6. If there’s four different factions that might show up in this part of the dungeon and you can’t decide for yourself, just roll a d4. GMs have a pile of random number generators in front of them at all times. There should never be a question of “how do I pick from X different options?” PICK UP AN X-SIDED DIE AND ROLL IT!

      • I also think a lot of people are missing the big point of the Tension Pool. It isn’t a random encounter generator. You can generate random encounters with any set of dice. That’s not what it does for the game. The important thing about the Tension Pool is that – except in some odd cases – it’s a visible measure of growing dread that the players can see. And see you roll. To fill that roll, all it needs to do is fill up and it needs to have a simple mechanic that’s visible immediately that tells the table they are fucked. All of that other stuff – what encounter, what faction, how many, and so on – that’s all for the GM to handle behind the screen. You want the Tension Pool to be simple because you WANT the players to see it and know what is going on so they think twice about wasting time, searching every corner for traps, standing around arguing, or any other bullshit that wastes their time and attracts trouble.

      • I don’t think it’s so much that we CAN’T choose a daypart for a Complication, but we want to make sure we’re doing it in the manner YOU’VE come up with.

        We hang on your every word, don’t you know…….

  22. Hey, wasn’t sure if this was the right place to ask this or not, but holy crap is the DMG’s guide to treasure garbage. I have no idea what is a good reward for a CR encounter that’s above their level or how to reward them appropriately in general. The Guide is incredibly nebulous when it comes to handing out magic items as well, and considering how dangerous an upgrade can get, I’ve felt a lot of anxiety in my games regarding economy, often ignoring it all together. Any Advice?

    • One of the interesting changes between 5E and previous editions is that magic items are no longer factored in to the “balancing”. For that reason, it’s safe to scale back and not include too many magic items. If you want to include more, I don’t know what to tell you, other than you can always ramp up the CR of future encounters if your party is trouncing your current ones. You aren’t shackled to the games’ rules for encounter difficulty; they’re just suggestions.

    • Here is a separate Angry article that contains some tangents about magic item allocation: https://theangrygm.com/more-accounting-for-magical-items/.

      It comes down to about 4 minor magic items (mostly consumables like healing potions, spell scrolls, etc.) each character level, and 1 major item each character level. So if there is a tough encounter, you may certainly reward the PCs with a major item, but that item might just be the only one they get that level. And I do not believe that is 1 major item per character, but more like 1 major item per adventuring group. If you consider that the baseline, you can adjust up if you want more treasure available or down for grit if you want.

  23. So I have a few issues. Not with the rule set but how to use it… sort of.

    Firstly, how much of this (including not only these rules, but your random encounter rules as well) can be pre-rolled and planned head of time? Cuz my players are about to go on an 11 or 14 day adventure depending on route, to a nearby city. I pre-rolled when the encounters would occur on each route, and am now designing the encounters ahead.

    Secondarily, Some days there is only one or 2 encounters. Other days 3, and sometimes theres 3 days in a row with no encounters. Am I to pile on the Complications rule on top of these encounters? And should/can they be combat?

    Tertiarily, I don’t think I’m very good at improving encounters and such. But I can plan stuff pretty well I think, with your expert guidance of course. My issue is how to respond to player behavior. If I planned out the so-called ‘random encounters’ using your random encounter rules, they aren’t really random anymore, and they end up being mostly unavoidable. I mean, the party might still have the option to sneak by or attack them, and in some cases, try to talk to them, but is that enough? And If I plan out the encounter, what happens if the players behave recklessly or something or somehow draw more attention to themselves? Do I adjust the planned encounter, or do I add a true random one on the fly even if It wont be as full and developed or anything? Basically, I feel like if I plan the encounters, there is no building of tension or building up of dice even. If the players do something reckless, I roll the dice, and if theres a one I what? Look at my list of complications and insert one that makes sense? Maybe im overthinking some of this. Thanks for being Angry though.

  24. I must say, the Tension pool is, in its simplicity or maybe because of it, an extremely elegant and versatile tool.

    For example I’ve been toying for some time with rules for a dreamscape dimension with wich the players can interact inception-style. I wanted the world itself to react to excessive meddling by dreamwalkers and the tension pool fits perfectly.

    Every time players use their powers, add a dice. If they do something big, add a dice and roll. The dice neatly represent the level of pissed off of the dream world. Complications can range from dream creatures attack, to the world “snapping” after being bent (ie: the players remove a mountain range for ease of travel, now there’s a big ole canyon there instead)

  25. I loved your time pool idea and Apocalyspe World/Blades in the Dark timers so much that I’ve ended up using them as an universal resolution mechanic. Here’s how I modified them.

    1. There can be multiple pools running simultenaously. Guards’ attention is a pool, mana reserves of a mage channeling mass invisibility spell is a pool, party weight load is a pool, remaining uses of an adventurer’s kit is a pool, monster’s HP can be a pool too. To increase broadness, I’ve offloaded time-keeping duties from the pools. Tension pools exist only as a tension-building tool, not a pricise time-keeping mechanic.

    2. Pools are using d6s. But you’ll need loads of them. You can also use Fate/Fudge dice.

    3. Players like granularity in the consequences of their actions. Most actions add 1 die to the pool, especially effective add 2, outright crazy add 3 or more.

    4. Players hate when a pool blows up in their face right from their first action, they like seeing it building up for a while. Because of that, 5s and 6s counts as “triggers”, and you have to roll three triggers to “blow up” a pool. If you roll less, nothing happens (although GM may add some minor complication). If you roll 3 or more, it’s not just _some_ complication, but a major consequence. This guarantees that a pools with 1 or 2 dice will never blow up. The players can still do crazy stuff that’s worth 3 dice or more and put themselves at the risk right from the start, but that’s up to them to decide.

    5. Also, counting the triggers after you roll the dice is an act of tension-building itself. You instnatly notice one 6, then look through the dice looking for more, find a 5 and feel the dread of finding the third trigger. Rolling only two triggers creates a powerful relief moment, that can also be woven into narrative.

    6. A pool usually clears when either it blows up, PCs actively do something to influence it (hide from the guards to reduce alert, throw away the heaviest loot to reduce weight load, heal the monster to reduce monster wounds etc), or when situation changes in a way that makes the pool irrelevant. So, no free resets.

  26. Great article. Adding tension for wasting time is a much needed element in D&D, and I especially like how the growing dice pool naturally ties into night being the riskiest time of day.

    However, doesn’t this make the time pool system is unsuitable when the dice represent 10 minutes each? It feels wrong that the last 10 minutes of each hour are arbitrarily the riskiest. If I were the player I would strongly dislike the disconnect it creates between my decision making and the in game scenario, not because meta gaming is going to ruin the game, but because it interferes with with the immersion of the game to constantly be reminded that a meta variable is influencing my decisions.

  27. Good stuff. One option I’d also consider, under the seasonal stuff, is in hot, tropical weather they should be encouranged to rest and sit out the hot “afternoon” segment of the day, otherwise they roll on the exhaustion table.

    Last time I ran a travel campaign it involved me laying a hex grid over a printed map and they could move a certain number of hexes.

  28. More thoughts: I love how the pool scales to different ‘temporal resolutions,’ using the same mechanic for encounters seconds/minutes, exploration minutes/hours, and travel hours/days – which makes me think it could be used for larger stuff too – this could lay part of the foundation for war game mechanics!

    Actions are a week long. You can move your army forward cautiously (add a die), or stage a battle (roll the pool), or move through enemy territory (add a die and roll the pool), and the complications can range from getting mired in a swamp to a flu epidemic to enemy scouts spotting you…

    And there’s so much you can build on from there. Very versatile tool.

  29. Just wondering if this is well liked by your players.This seems to me to needlessly punish players simply for playing the game and taking any action.

    • Why would I keep using and developing a mechanic for years that my players – and many others, I have heard from dozens upon dozens of GMs using it – that didn’t enhance the play experience? And publish it as advice for other GMs?

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