8 Ways To Use Time For More Interesting Gameplay
From Jesse C. Cohoon
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #597
We live in a world of three dimensions: height and depth, left and right, forwards and backward. But we forget time is also a factor in how things happen.
Here are eight ways you can add the time dimension to your games.
Before The Game
Whether you visit some exotic location like the steps of the Roman Coliseum, the Pyramids of Egypt, Stonehenge, a famous cave or even a major city, use your experiences as imagination fuel to transport you into your game world.
Take pictures and copious notes. Talk to people.
Some of my best gaming ideas have come from traveling somewhere and using part of the experience to enhance some aspect of the game, be it character, plot, a description of a building, or some piece of equipment. Always carry a notebook to jot ideas down in; you never know where the next great idea will come from.
Read your campaign source books, some classic (and not so classic) sci-fi or fantasy novels to glean ideas out of. Look at other game source books too. Even if you don’t use the whole world, maybe you can borrow a system of magic, an NPC or a piece of equipment.
Johnn: Wikipedia is fantastic too. Just hit their home page for daily random inspiration.
Watch TV and Movies
There are many good historical and quasi-fictional accounts of things you can watch. The History Channel is a good source for historical accounts. Watch the Sci-fy channel for good fantasy shows. As you watch, note things of interest for your game.
Johnn: Search YouTube for great videos to watch. For example, “history channel documentary“
Play With Time
Here are two ways you can do this:
In my games, when there is a lull in the action, I ask if it’s all right if I fast forward. If players are having fun and are immersed in their characters, they’ll say no and want to continue the scene. Other times, they’ll think the interactions can be covered better (and faster) by rolling dice.
There’s no need for players to roleplay every interaction, map every square or check every room unless there is a plot-bound reason for it. Sometimes it’s more fun to just give players the map and have them follow along.
Slow Time Down
If players are feeling they’re being rushed and there’s not enough time for NPC interaction, be willing to slow down time to let them roleplay scenes if they think it’s important to do so.
Maybe something they say or do will give you an idea for a plot hook, expose more about their background, or allow you to highlight their skills and abilities in a new way.
If you didn’t cover everything this game because of a time slow-down, there’s always next game to do so.
Keep In Mind Your Player’s Speed
In my games I separate dexterity into ordinary dexterity and manual dexterity.
- Ordinary dexterity allows the characters to dodge. It also affects character movement speed.
- Manual dexterity controls picking pockets, doing card tricks, juggling, etc.
Keep in mind both campaign and PC backgrounds.
Are there any echoes of what happened in the past affecting the world today? If so how?
- Diaries/ journals/ spell books that describe NPC experiments. Maybe there’s a half completed spell players can perfect with research.
- A “message in a bottle” that tells of a slave trade, and a person asking for help.
- An old feud that is starting up again. Who’s involved and why?
- A King’s succession challenged due to new documents.
What other developments are happening in the game world that will affect the players?
Your friend, an important NPC, has a debilitating disease and has just a short period left to live. Can you get him his cure in time?
Is there a war, and when the PCs return home their home town has been burned to the ground? Has a character’s family or friends been drafted into the war?
Are there developments that will shake the gods themselves?
Keep in mind time when:
Speed when dealing with traps. The PCs could be in a room where sand is filling up the room. They have X amount of game time to escape the room.
Trying to use a skill in a rushed period of time. The PCs could have a minute to pick the lock before the guard comes through again. Do they risk it or do they flee and wait for another chance to enter the room?
Spells are being cast. Not only with the PCs, but with the NPCs as well. If an enemy spots a spell in progress, is there enough time for them to interrupt the casting?
Also keep time-affecting magic, when characters can move outside of time or move a lot faster than everyone else.
Dealing with plot. Is there a significant time component that, if passed, will change the course of the game?
Get All The Player’s Actions And Weave A Story With Them
Each round, have players state their intentions and make any necessary rolls. Lump all this together and then narrate what happens. Then proceed to the next round.
(Party of Jason the fighter, Lei the mage, rogue Sharon, and Guar a barbarian, fighting four orcs.)
As Sharon slips into the shadows taking advantage of her dark clothing, Guar charges into the leading orc, swinging his axe at it. The orc was ready, parrying Guar’s axe out of the way with his buckler, returning with a mighty blow of his own. You get 8 damage. Just as the sword was about to connect, Guar stepped out of the way, your dodge bonus coming in handy.
Meanwhile, Sharon has gotten behind the last orc who, unaware of the rogue’s presence, gets stabbed in the back for 12 damage. The orc, though badly hurt, isn’t down for the count as of yet. He slams the rogue into the cave’s wall, smashing her badly for 6 damage.
During this time Lei is thinking what spell to cast and gets into position, chanting. Hooking his thumbs together, he spreads fire towards the second and third orcs, giving them both 5 damage.
Jason, not wanting to be outdone, charges in. He finds a gap in the second orc’s armor and drives the sword home for 8 damage. The injured orc cries out in pain and returns a blow, blood welling up on Jason’s arm for 4 damage, but his armor blocks much of the damage.
The third orc, thinking to catch Jason unaware, flanks him, swinging his sword, but Jason is too quick and the sword hits nothing but air, his spot skill coming in handy.
Play With Time Travel
Have an NPC visit from the future. Or maybe a PC has premonitions.
You can not only play with time travel, but with alternate timelines as well, where they may tell of things that may happen. What changes will be made to the storyline by character or villain interference in history? Are the changes for the good or for the bad?
For possible plot complications, watch the “Back to the Future” movie series.
Those are eight ideas to get you thinking about how to play with the concept of time in your games. I hope you found them interesting.
Brief Word From Johnn
NPC Charity Bundle Ends Jan 4
$123 has been raised so far! Thank you so much. My goal is $200 so just a short ways to go.
In case you didn’t catch last week’s issue, I’m raising funds for a couple who rescued some puppies and accrued a large veterinarian bill in the process.
I’ve put together a bundle of NPC books to raise funds for these kind people.
The Awesome NPCs PDF Bundle:
Everything is an instant download. The bundle ends Jan 4. Thanks for your support!
Workflowy Looks Interesting
My group has been dabbling with collaborative session note taking.
We use a Google Doc and anyone with a laptop or device can add to our session notes during or after the game.
When I say a weird and complicated name, for example, instead of stopping the game to spell it out for everyone who’s taking notes, I just type it fast into the doc for everyone to immediately see and use.
Player notes help because you get your group’s perspective. You find out what they think about things to see where to take the game next. You can detect missed clues and spot misinterpreted or misunderstood facts.
Last week I began experimenting with an online app called Workflowy. If you like lists, check this app out as a potential way to plan your games. You can share and collaborate on your lists.
But I think the two coolest features are #tags and @names. There’s no limit to these in the free accounts. When you use an @name for the first time, that name appears every time as a shortcut, making writing faster and more accurate. And if you click on an @name it automagically filters your current list to show just the items with the @name in it.
For example, I type in “@Krug visits merchant @Calendor and pays 50 #gold to repair his diamond encrusted sword hilt.” If I click on the @Krug link, I see all references to Krug the PC in my notes! If I click the Calendor link, I see all references to him. And if I click on the #gold link, I see all the entries that involve money.
So Workflowy combos lists, search, filters and some other cool features to possibly make computer-based campaign information management easier. (Except for the online collaboration bit, these features are all available in MyInfo too.)
It’s a neat app. Free up to 500 line items per month (which I think is too little for our intended use for RPG) and $5/month for unlimited use. If you refer anyone to their service you get a 250 item bump. Here’s my link if you’re interested in checking it out: WorkFlowy.
It’s My RPG Anniversary
33 years ago this week my friend handed me the Basic D&D book and Keep on the Borderlands and said, “Here, you figure it out.”
We played a couple times during that Christmas vacation, but we really hit our groove in January.
Though I had played D&D twice the year before at school, I really consider the week after Christmas to be my anniversary because that’s when I started playing regularly.
We spent the winter in one-on-one games kicking down doors, killing monsters and taking their loot.
By the time April rolled around I splurged for the AD&D PHB. Then I got books for Easter and pretty much every retail holiday after that. I also started playing with other players, gaining access to new ideas about the game.
What an awesome time.
I plan on keeping my gaming hobby active in 2014. I’m playing in a Pathfinder campaign while I take a break from GMing. I’m also writing an adventure and reading a lot of OSR games.
It’s important to make time for play, relaxation and friends. I hope you will GM or play in 2014 too.
Reader Tips & Comments
Most of the tips are disturbingly “new-school” “frustrated-novelist-gm” type tips.
You know how you end pixel bitching? Don’t have a pixel in mind – be willing to move on if the players don’t find stuff. Let the players set the agenda.
Frankly, everything in that “end pixel-bitching” article is basically guaranteed to INCREASE pixel-bitching, and then, when you find the players can’t read your mind, you condescendingly throw them a lifeline….
At that point, it’s the GM playing with himself, not the players playing the game.
From John Rudd
Another way to stop pixel bitching:
Stop being a Bad GM!
If you want your players to find it, because they HAVE to find it, for the plot to move forward … THEN LET THEM FIND IT. Setting up pointless obstacles to progress is BAD GMing. You want to make things interesting, not prevent those interesting things from happening. But you also don’t want to just sweep their failed roll under the table.
There’s a great mechanic for this in games like FATE: Failure means Success With Cost.
If you fail your roll, you still succeed…but at some cost.
What cost? As the GM, pick the cost that has the most dramatically interesting value. And the more severe the failure in the search/sense/whatever roll, the more severe the consequence/cost.
You (the player/character) failed your roll to find a secret door:
- You open the secret door right as an adversary was about to open it from the other side. They aren’t surprised by you, because they heard all of your knocking and scratching as you were searching for a secret door. You, however, are surprised by them. GM picks the encounter (from a list of regular NPCs specified for the adventure, or from the adventure’s possible list of random encounters).
- You accidentally break the door (damage the hinge, fall through the flimsy door material, punch through the flimsy door material as your knocking around for the hollow wall sound, etc.). No encounter, but, everyone will know someone was in the secret vault/etc. And if you failed the roll badly enough, maybe you made enough noise to attract attention.
Maybe they weren’t actually searching for a secret door. Have them make a roll just on general good luck/random thing seen out of the corner of their eye. If they fail, go with the “accidentally” result — they trip and smack their head (1d4 damage maybe? — not to be punitive, but to reflect just how badly they had to hit their head to reveal the door) on the secret door… and, hey, that section of wall sounded hollow!
Similarly, if they’re just ransacking a room, and they need to find a particular thing in the room…but the players keep overlooking the shelves while focusing on the desk.
In that case, have them roll for a random sensory roll of “maybe you see it on the shelves”. If they fail, have something dramatically appropriate happen, but that leads to their finding the object.
Such as: NPC or random encounter arrives because they took too much time searching the desk, and as soon as the thing enters the room, it a) looks surprised to see them, and b) looks at the shelves to be sure they haven’t been disturbed…and does so in a way completely obvious to the party (because the NPC is REALLY concerned about the shelves).
Sure, they have to deal with the NPC, and possibly them shouting an alarm, but that’s the “with cost” part of “success with cost”.
More Hexcrawl Campaign Hooks
From Glenn Davis
- The PCs are teleported far from their home. Likely after handling some artifact they didn’t know how to operate properly. Now they must figure their way back. Ideal when the PCs have reason to return home (families, ties to organizations, etc.). Doesn’t work for Wolverine/Raphael lone wolf types who never settled down.
- After gaining the trust of the right people, the PCs become the problem solvers for a nobleman/noble family/mercenary unit/merchant company/religious order/magic circle with assets across the continent. They are sent to deal with trouble spots. Their bosses act in a hands-off manner, leaving the specifics of how to deal with any situation to the PCs. It’s just up to the PCs to respond to communiques indicating where the next trouble spot has flared up. They may alternatively be sent on a rotation to make inspections of various facilities, ferreting out problematic local leaders or traitors to the organization.
- The PCs are sent as messengers during a war. These messages require the PCs to travel through territory in which the enemy has been sending raids. The PCs may even be asked to make contact with friendly forces in a fortified city or castle surrounded/under siege by the enemy.
- Historically, nobles would return to their lord’s home each year to pay tribute. Barons would visit the Count they owe fealty to, while Counts would visit the Duke they owe fealty to. This reassured loyalty and presented an opportunity to voice concerns and resolve disputes. The PCs could be lawmen visiting these regularly-scheduled appointments. Not necessarily to make decisions, but to quote the law. Appointed by the King, they could also be impartial third parties that investigate these disputes before moving on to the next such appointment. Usually such processions would include guards, religious officials and government bureaucrats (nobles appointed by the King). These are your fighters, clerics and wizards, respectively.
- Gathering ingredients required for spellcasting and for making magical items and potions. The materials are processed body parts of various animals and monsters, special plants, rare stones, or other objects that are geography-specific. Travelling to acquire specific material components allows PCs to learn new spells, create new magic items (or enhance old ones), and can be profitable in a high-fantasy setting where they may be placed for sale.
- If you want your PCs to travel, reward them for it. Make it profitable via bringing goods to different places. Or reward PCs with information (the sage who knows everything about the amethyst dragon you’re trying to defeat lives in…), titles (you must go to the capital to receive your knighthood), land (you must register your fief at the regional office in…), more money (to receive appropriate return on your newly-found gemstones you will need to travel to the nearest royal mint in …), and experience (travel to see Mad Martigan in…because he is the greatest swordsman on the continent and could train you well).
- When hack-n-slashing underground, the PCs stumble upon runes. A sage says the runes tell of a “city of gold”. He recommends travelling to a distant sage to discover its full meaning. The distant sage says he has heard of this “city of gold” and the runes describe its general, but not specific location. The PCs may be sent to a number of sites that qualify as the true location of the city of gold. Some of these may have more runes that provide additional information or imply the city of gold was lost or destroyed.
- Treat it as Star Wars but in a fantasy setting, where the PCs are Han, Leia and Luke. They are in a hostile Kingdom/Empire/Land being constantly hunted. Hopefully they are also conducting Robin Hood type acts and being rewarded, but then must move on so as not to bring the Fist of the Empire down – for wherever they stay, the Empire’s troops are sure to arrive shortly thereafter.
From Jeremy Brown
A campaign I started, not once, but three times, and never finished:
The PCs are sent on a mission to a priest’s house. There they find the home burning and being ransacked by bandits. They fight the bandits and hear tell of a mysterious villain named Hilgar. The bandits also know Hilgar seeks an artifact he believes the priest was guarding or knew the location of.
There’s a letter in the priest’s desk addressed to a mysterious wizard in a far away land, in care of the PCs (by name). The letter is protected by magical glyphs and symbols.
The person who hires the party suggests if the PCs are brave and resourceful enough, they could deliver the letter. The journey in my world was going to take a minimum of six months.
The setup: Hilgar’s minions pursue the players throughout their journey. When the wizard is eventually located, the PCs find out they have been carrying the magic item. At this point, the wizard transforms the letter back into the item. He entrusts the party with the destruction of Hilgar using the item. The party must journey to find Hilgar’s secret hideout and destroy him.
From Gerald O’Grady
Royal commission as map-makers, which would also give them a home-base to return to (to deliver finished maps and collect their pay).
Or perhaps they are accompanying the royal map-maker, which gives you a nice helpless NPC to manipulate. 🙂
From Chuck Nusbaum
Two nations engaged in a decade-long conflict have devastated their economies. The Ahnwist Duke of Hahnzahl offers the weaker of the two belligerents a princely sum in exchange for the border province known as Stonewatch, which contains an important crossroads for trade with the far east. Desperate for aid and unable to control bandit activity in the isolated region, the Yahani Sultan agrees to the terms, but many suspect he will renege his bargain once the war ends.
Duke Stahl issues a proclamation dissolving all debts and pardoning all crimes for any who will settle the newly acquired province, with the promise of titles and prestige for those who significantly advance the Duke’s purposes in the region. According to rumor, the Duke believes he has 2 to 3 years to settle and pacify the province before the Yahani prince tries to reclaim his domain, which still harbors a mostly Yahani population.
Scattered throughout the region are magical gates that open sporadically (and perhaps periodically). These gates connect to each other and provide a means of instantaneous travel for any who learn their secret and brave their dangers. The temporary governor pays handsomely for any new information concerning these ancient relics.
Imperial ruins pervade the region. Mute testimonies to the might of the long lost Yahani Empire which once oppressed all the Ahnwist principalities. These ruins are said to contain lost treasures of the Empire. Perhaps even the legendary Sword of Kings, whispered to be the key to Empire for the west, lies within some forgotten Imperial monument deep in some wild reach of Stonewatch.
Bandit strongholds, troll caves, spider nests, harpy aeries, goblin warrens, abandoned dwarven mines, cursed druidic groves, ruined temples, and cryptic monuments predating even the Yahani Empire wait to be discovered throughout the land. And the Duke wants to know where each and every one may be found.