The Time Bomb Solution

From Johnn Four

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0002

One of the most destructive events that happens every few game sessions in my campaign is the Time Bomb. A missed or incorrectly interpreted rule, a forgotten fact or just a bad play and everybody realizes a little later that a mistake has occurred. And the mistake has deeply affected events that followed. Perhaps a character would have succeeded if Rule B had been used. Or maybe you forgot that it was dark and the bad guys could not possibly have been so deadly accurate with their shots?

So, do you decide to press forward or stop everything and do it all again?

I call this the Time Bomb and it used to drive me nuts. Murphy’s Law says that whenever this situation occurs the GM is faced with a lose/lose dilemma. For example, if you carry forward, regardless of the mistake, the players feel resentful that they unfairly got the short end of the stick. But if you do it all over again, then that special ability of your monster has already been revealed and the player’s can’t ignore that the second time around.

The Time Bomb Solution is simple and effective, and should work for your roleplaying group as well. But please note: the Solution’s purpose is not to magically transform Time Bomb events into situations where everybody wins and are happy with the outcome. I do not know of any solution that does this. Instead, it is designed to reduce the pain and negative impact on game play as much as possible so that everybody can get on with the game with no lasting hard feelings.

The Time Bomb Solution is: clearly establish your policy before game play begins that “all mistakes are final.” If an error occurs, time is not stopped or reversed. Events continue.

This policy applies to the players AND the GM.

By doing things this way you:

  • Set the expectations and procedure before the actual event occurs which helps reduce the pain and the negative reactions.
  • Make it fair for everyone because the monsters and bad guys are also affected
  • Encourage everyone to pay attention, be alert and know their stuff
  • Get everybody’s agreement on the protocol ahead of time. It’s easier to accept a mistake you’ve made if you have already agreed on the consequences.

I suggest giving some time leeway on this policy as well so that players don’t feel trapped or develop paranoia about their actions. My group has agreed that if the mistake occurs during combat and if it is discovered within the same round that it occurred then the player or GM can redo the action. If the Time Bomb occurs outside of combat then all results are final after a minute of character time.

Also, by using this solution and looking at the positive side, Time Bombs can actually become a fantastic way to add realism, depth and opportunity for your games. My group also agreed that all Time Bombs require a made-up explanation to justify events as they occurred. And, surprisingly, the explanations quite often provide great details, plot hooks and interesting events to launch encounters and stories from.

Looking on the bright side, unexpected and unusual events (from a Time Bomb) mimic how our real lives work. Just be sure that your players agree all explanations are subject to game master approval.

Remember, agree to the Time Bomb Solution before play and, while Time Bombs may not become fewer, at least they will become less painful and disruptive.

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