Monday, April 2, 2018

On the Clock

For your consideration: I've fallen into a thing with wandering monster checks in my recent games, that I've never seen anyone else do. I broadly assume that adventurers are exploring a dungeon in real-time (however long they take to decide and interact with me), and time the wandering monster checks with my watch, every 15 minutes. In fact, I'll even tell the players exactly how much time to the next check on occasion. Checks themselves are rolled in the open; standard 1 in 6 chance. (Checks are waived while in combat mode; this can be adjusted to taste, but I like the simplicity.)

The reason I'm doing this is to combat my own cognitive biases about perception of time as the DM. We're all familiar with the advice that if the action drags, the DM can start rolling dice as a random encounter threat (possibly real or vacuous) to hasten the action. For example, DMG p. 97 cautions about a "boring session", and suggests, "Mocking their over-cautious behavior as near cowardice, rolling huge handfuls of dice... might suffice."

But the problem with that is that the DM's perception of "boring" may not be exactly the same as the players'. If the players are deeply engaged with strategizing and planning, or character role-playing if that's what they like, or whatever, then perhaps that's not so bad a thing after all. While I want to be hospitable and support all of that, I'm just a bit suspicious that my own sense of time might be different while I'm not on the critical path of the action. And I don't want to prioritize my own sense of what the pace should be over everyone else's.

So, keeping the wandering checks (such that there's a legitimate pressure to use time wisely and proceed forward at some positive pace), but putting them on a strict clock (so as to make the pacing objective and not tainted by the DM's sense of time), seems to feel very nice right at the moment. This is a very "gamey" strategy, in line with my tendency to make almost all dice rolls in the open, to try to make the mechanics as transparent as possible, etc., and likely not suited for "deep narrative storytelling" type style. But if you're reading this blog, that latter description probably doesn't apply to you anyway. Consider it for a session and tell us how it feels.

13 comments:

  1. It sounds like a more organic approach that I think would instill more genuine suspense to the game. I like it.

    I'm also a fan of making dice rolls in the open. It's a good practice.

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  2. Good idea! I’ve taken to prerolling some encounters and spacing them out in table time appropriately, setting a phone alarm, then triggering the encounter at the alarm. Pleasing synchronicities like the party taking a door and wanderers coming up behind the party at that very moment in tonight’s game under the City-State have come up a few times, making for tense situations that might otherwise make the players felt I was overly adversarial if I picked that moment to roll an encounter. For regular exploration crawling, I like yours better.

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    1. Cool! I like that effect, too, of reducing the "intentional adversary" aspect.

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  3. The last few times I DM'd (and in most of my game designs of the last few years...at least the ones that would have "wandering monsters") I've been employing the same technique: using real time for conducting encounter checks rather than "game time."

    I'm sure I got the idea from some blog or other, but can't for the life of me remember where. However, game time is just too malleable...subjective, elastic...to rely on for gaming purposes when you're talking "short-term" time lengths (i.e. the ten minute turn). Who wants to measure game time in such granularity?

    In the underworld, time moves in strange and mysterious ways. Outside the dungeon (i.e. in the wilderness) we can use the more usual "two checks a day (morning and night)" system for encounters.

    It works for me.

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    1. Interesting! Maybe this is one of those "simultaneous discoveries" whose time in the zeitgeist has come. :-) I totally agree with you about the squishy time in the underworld; it's easy to rationalize and much better then checking 10-minute boxes for various moves, say.

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  4. In case players start to take the firm 15 minutes into account, you could also roll 1d20, 4d6 or whatever, to set the amount of minutes to the next check.

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    1. I could totally recommend that if someone else wanted to implement it. (Also: Some kind of extension where you just single-roll for when the next encounter occurs.)

      At the moment, I'm not too bothered by the predictability of it. E.g.: Had one player last week about to douse the lamp and sneak into an area, then when I reached for the encounter die, said, "No, wait! Before we do that, look around for threats!" Which entertained me so much I didn't mind playing that way at all.

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  5. This is a great technique!

    A couple people may be thinking of "The Black Hack," which did this back in 2015/16 or so. (That was my first exposure to it.) I suspect that real-time encounter checks have been independently invented a number of times.

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    1. That's cool! Thanks for the info.

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  6. I've done that with torches in normal delves. They last 15 minutes of real time. So if the players are planning on a two hour session, they can reliably expect to need 8 of them, plus a couple spares. With a timer set, it's one less piece of logistics to have to track during the session.

    Naturally, for odd delves like tramping through the Underdark for days on end - where the logistics are part of the challenge - we use more traditional methods.

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    1. Great! Agreed about the other contexts: I only use this specifically for dungeons in exploration mode. Timer is suspended in combat. And other scale turns need to be used for wilderness, underdark as you say, etc.

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