The Boon of a Ticking Clock
Most experienced DMs and adventure writers are familiar with the concept of time pressure in an adventure, and strive to include them in their storylines. Planting a ticking clock within the narrative really increases the urgency of the adventure (in theory at least… keep reading for when it doesn’t!), which in turn adds tension and drama to your table.
A time limit also adds an additional way the party can fail in their mission. Not only might they fail in their quest to kill the vampire, but they might fail by killing it only AFTER it has already drunk the blood of the young prince, condemning the boy to an eternity of undeath. An additional way to fail = more stress and tension and, by extension, more fun, relief, adrenaline if / when the party succeeds.
In any action or adventure story you tell, time pressure is nearly always a device worth leveraging, and you’ll see it employed again and again in Hollywood (a pretty reliable endorsement). Destroy the Death Star before it gets in range (Star Wars), offload the passengers of a bus before it explodes (Speed), ignite the passion between your parents before you cease to exist (Back to the Future), etc. etc. Naturally, this narrative tool can frequently be found in literature too: destroy the one true ring before Sauron gets his hands on it (Lord of the Rings), or retrieve the Queen’s necklace before her infidelity is exposed (The Three Musketeers).
In Dungeons & Dragons, I’d argue the case for including time pressure in your stories is even more compelling than for the average Hollywood hack, thanks to the game’s rest mechanics, which rather unheroically encourage adventurers to take as many and frequent siestas, and full-on slumbers, as possible. Very tedious, and often a recipe for slow gameplay and ponderous pacing. As the DM though, you have the power to wrest control of proceedings.
When Time Pressure Doesn’t Work
Before I share some concrete examples of ticking clocks you can use in your game to ramp up the adrenaline, let me share two scenarios where time pressure doesn’t work.
The first is when the party are unaware of the time pressure (or unaware of the consequences of ignoring it). I learned this the hard way when I was DMing Waterdeep: Dragon Heist. Instead of getting on the trail of the Stone of Golorr while it was still warm, my party decided they didn’t want to risk any encounters without a full complement of spell slots, and so I had to rewrite a piece of the adventure to punish this lack of alacrity. (I could have just fudged it, and had the stone dutifully wait for them in its hidden location, but I like player decisions – including their bad ones – to matter. The enemy were on the move and they chose to doze. A much better solution to this problem would have been for me to find a way to communicate the urgency of the situation they were in).
The second is when the time pressure is vague and the party sense that they won’t be punished for chugging along at their own pace. If the only information the heroes have is that they have to rescue the young prince before the vampire drinks his blood, then they won’t push on through the night, they will just assume the DM will rig the game to let them arrive just in time. If, however, the heroes know that the vampire plans to drink the prince’s blood at midnight of the winter solstice then they have a hard deadline – and if that deadline is in 10 hours time, they know they will have to heroically forgo forty winks to get the job done.
As the DM, you don’t necessarily have to underpin your entire adventure with an ominously ticking clock… you can apply the hourglass just to certain scenarios within the adventure. When you do that you’re quite literally ‘pacing’ your story, and common wisdom has it that you want to alternate fast and slow episodes, maybe only putting two or three back-to-back ‘high speed’ encounters as an adventure finale.
Specific Time Pressures You Can Apply in Your Game…
Ok now for the fun bit, let’s brainstorm some concrete examples of ticking clocks you can use in your adventures, either as a DM or an adventure writer.
After setting some of these out, I’ve realised some work better on a macro scale for an entire adventure campaign, while others offer a more immediate threat, suitable for turbo charging an encounter. In between, there are several devices ideal for using throughout a single location, such as a dungeon.
Adventure / Campaigns
Ticking clocks that underpin an entire adventure or campaign can start as rather vague in the beginning (a background concern) but should begin to loom large as the adventure / campaign reaches its climax. Sometimes these time pressures ARE the adventure – stop the birth of the evil god before it’s too late! But they can be a time limit to achieve another aim. Rescue the groom in time for his wedding.
- An undead army is being raised (quite literally), threatening the end of civilisation. (Or any other kind of hostile army for that matter).
- A cult are working towards resurrecting an evil god / opening a portal to the abyss (as I say, this ‘dangerous event on the horizon’ type of pressure is most effective when you align it with a specific time known to the PCs: the winter solstice, a total eclipse of sun, the next full moon etc., so the heroes can sense the ticking clock as they strive towards their goal).
- An asteroid is a collision course with civilisation (so claims an eccentric gnome with a large telescope!).
- The heroes are fitted with bracelet of cooperation (a magical item of my own invention… see below), that will inject them with a double dose of purple worm poison in 48 hours (the heroes must channel their inner Eddie Murphy).
- The heroes are infected with a disease that slowly turns them to stone (I’m never above ripping off Game of Thrones!).
- The party are being hunted by enemy agents / bounty hunters and can’t hang around
- The true love of one of the PCs is due to marry a complete sphincter instead of them (unless the party complete this quest and arrive in time to disrupt the wedding).
Dungeons / Locations
Applying time pressure in dungeons has been traditionally solved with the old ‘wandering monster’ technique. Definitely a tool every DM should have up their sleeve, but I prefer a more regular beat of father time’s pulse if possible. Plus fights introduced solely to prevent PCs resting are usually a low stakes formality (how many resources can the party conserve while still winning) that take up more game time than they merit. Try these instead:
- There’s a volcano nearby and she’s ready to blow! (The PCs should see signs this is happening… smoke, ash, fire, a minor eruption!).
- The water level is rising rapidly in the dungeon/location (or the dungeon/location is sinking)
- An enormous queen bug is birthing eggs which are about to hatch hundreds of hungry critters.
- Poisonous gas is filling the dungeon
- Oxygen levels are running out
- The party are taking regular damage from acid rain, leeches, poisonous spores, persistent bug bites, hail stones or any other mundane or magical source. To delay is to die.
- The dungeon is collapsing
- The location is on fire
- Enemy PCs are also in the dungeon / location, and racing towards the same goal
- A veil of madness threatens to overcome the party the longer they linger
- The light is fading, and with darkness comes wolves / wights / wicked witches
- The party’s supplies get spoiled, leaving them with no food and water (good for a gritty, realistic, survival campaign… just be sure they can’t simply hunt /forage some replacement supper).
The collapsing lair… a classic film trope. Typically served after defeating the big bad, it could also be a time pressure from the off.
Encounters / Combats
If you’ve ever wondered how to make (combat) encounters more interesting, sticking in one of these time limits should be a surefire solution. Not being able to focus all their action economy on dealing damage to monsters forces players into making tricky decisions, or – gasp – into working as a team.
- A bridge the party need to cross is rapidly crumbling (or a rope bridge is on fire, or being hacked at by the enemy).
- The portcullis of the castle the heroes need to enter is slowly descending (or a drawbridge is being raised, or city walls are being heaved closed).
- The enemy has summoned reinforcements that will make the combat unwinnable. The heroes need to achieve their objectives and get the hell out of there.
- A rite is being conducted that will summon a demon/devil etc. (very similar to the evil god / portal time pressure above, in that the goal is to stop the event happening).
- A rapidly approaching avalanche / mudslide / lava spill means every second counts
- Moving walls threaten to crush the party to death
- A giant boulder is rumbling down the tunnel / ravine the party are in
- A hungry T-Rex / dragon / purple worm / giant ape / yeti in the vicinity has smelled dinner (this new threat should arrive unexpectedly to add to whatever problems the party were already dealing with. And it will work best if it quite obviously can’t be bested in a straight fight. A terrified party is a happy party).
- A schism in the ground is widening
- The boat the heroes are on is careering towards a waterfall / maelstrom.
- The enemy is rushing to a control point of the battlefield. If they get there, the battle will surely be lost…
- An innocent civilian or ally is roasting above a fire, choking to death in a noose, surrounded by the enemy, drowning in a river, sinking in quicksand.
- A shed full of dynamite / wildfire / smokepowder is on fire and surely about to explode.
So there you go, hopefully you’re inspired to make your next adventure / dungeon / encounter extra awesome…. you now have just 30 seconds to subscribe or leave a comment before the curse of the ancient hipster dragon turns all your vintage leather jackets into quilted gilets and makes all your beers taste like Estrella Damm. 29… 28… 27….
Ps. nearly forgot, here’s the Bracelet of Cooperation, a little snippet from my forthcoming adventure (1.5 years and 300 pages in the making… it’s nearly ready. Another reason to subscribe, as I will be sharing full details soon!).
Bracelet of Cooperation
Wondrous item, uncommon
This magic bracelet is used as a guarantee of cooperation by creditors. It takes one minute for someone proficient in Arcana to fit the adamantine band, which constricts tightly (and uncomfortably) over the debtor’s wrist and contains a visible bubble of poison. As part of the fitting process, the bracelet is programmed to administer the poison, via a pin on the underside of the band, to the wearer after a period of days determined by the bracelet’s fitter. The bracelet has a secret command, typically only known to the owner, that allows it to be removed safely, after a debt is repaid or a contract or promise is fulfilled.
The bracelet can be filled with up to three dosages of any poison. As the poison is injected directly into the victim’s veins, they must make any saving throw with disadvantage.
Published Adventures With Ticking Clocks
Want to include time pressure in your game, but don’t really fancy spending weeks writing an adventure? Check out these instead…
The Secret of Skyhold Tower
In this Platinum best selling adventure by M.T. Black, the adventurers must save Neverwinter from a flying tower on a collision course with the city. Yep, this spire has one serious altitude problem and its up to the heroes to fix it.
The Curse of the Mariner’s Heart
This tale literally features a ticking (grandfather) clock…. at midnight the ghosts come! Part of the Midwinter Ghost Stories collection that merges Victorian England with Ravenloft.
A Walk in the Spirit Realm
What could wrong with a little stroll in the spirit world… after all your bodies are safe and sound back home, right? Wrong! In this beautifully produced adventure by Alan Tucker and Jeff C. Stevens, if the incense in the final encounter is allowed to burn out, the heroes will die in the real world. The stakes are raised! Also available on Fantasy Grounds.
The Ylracon Trilogy
This trilogy of Adventurers League stories, written for San Diego Comic Con by Mike Olson has the party visit Ylraphon Convocation of Delvers, Seekers, and Sages. Within the scope of the trilogy the party must defeat a mock dungeon within 10 minutes, race to catch a thief before he releases the MacGuffin’s powers, and rush to get out of a swamp by nightfall.
The Faerie Coffins
With consistent 5-star reviews, this Silver best-seller by Jack Duncan has the party lead a hunt for the eponymous lost attraction of a house of curiosities. The adventure ends with a classic collapsing lair escape scene.
The Yeast Fiasco Getaway
In this 5-6 hour adventure, the party must deal with the aftermath of a failed beer-related heist in this Tarrantino-inspired romp before they have their legs broken.
Treachery & Forgotten Sins
Produced as part of the RPG Writer’s Workshop, in this adventure the party must first track down a group of bandits, but after discovering their true nature they must then either race to find an artefact to control an undead army, or race out of the country with proof of treachery before they can be caught and silenced.
Gnomes in the Night
This wonderfully illustrated one shot sees the party cursed with old age – and given only three meagre hours to reverse the effects before they become permanent. Finally a one shot that won’t overrun!
The Dead Wizard’s Tower
In this Electrum best-selling adventure by Jordan Carmichael, the party will literally have to battle the hourglass in one scene to get out of a gargoyle filled chamber. Time is of the essence!
Red Hand of Doom
A 45 day timeline keeps characters on their toes in this classic epic adventure that pits the party against armies, dragons and wyrmlords. Matt Colville is a fan! You can buy a PDF of the original 3e model, or check out this 5e conversion guide with maps.
Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan
Ask your granddad about this one, kids! This much loved 1st edition weird fun-house dungeon features poison gas and other ticking clock mechanics to keep the party moving. There’s a 5e conversion guide if you fancy running this classic module.
Gleaming Cloud Citadel
In my only 5e adventure to date (number 2 on it’s way as mentioned!), I wheel out some lovely poison gas in a locked chamber and introduce a lucid demon dreams mechanic that makes taking a long rest in the top of the Gleaming Cloud Citadel a questionable decision… it’s by no means a perfect adventure (my first attempt!) but an Electrum best seller with plenty of 4 and 5 star reviews, so I hope you enjoy it!