Trading Time for Risk

Risk and Reward - Words on Dice

I’ve always struggled a little bit with how to handle the game when players decide to “thoroughly” search rooms (such as “taking 20” in d20 systems), or take extra extended rests, etc.  While there’s times and places for these decisions, often a hostile dungeon isn’t one of them.  There are some competing forces here, and I want to try and enumerate and understand them so that I can have a better idea of what the system itself can control, and what the GM must control with conflict timelines.

Risk vs Reward

You’ve entered a room in the crypt of an ancient culture.  You’ve looked around and there is some seriously weird stuff going on here.  There’s a metal plate in the floor.  There is a statue of an ancient king, standing on his head.  There’s a fountain in the corner of a woman, whose tears are the flow of water to the basin.  You make a cursory examination of the room, and despite these things, you’ve found nothing.  In old school D&D, you would have to risk a “random encounter” to stay and search this room, risking another combat in a dungeon where you only have limited resources before you have to leave.  The conceit of unlimited “wandering monsters” always struck me as a ridiculous mechanic, but it did its job very well.  It made the players keep moving.  In more recent editions of the game, that tend to place tactical encounters around the map, the risk of a wandering monster – or at least the risk of an extra encounter above and beyond the combats you would have had to face otherwise, is mostly gone.

So in old D&D, you look at that room and you might say, “ok, that’s neat – maybe something later will explain this,” and keep going.  OR you might say, “this is clearly important, we need to risk an additional encounter to interact with this room some more.”  In new D&D, without wandering monsters codified into the rules, the players have no reason to expect additional encounters than they would have had anyway (since the unlimited wandering monster conceit is based on a game mechanic, not a believable game world), so there upside of interacting with the room easily outweighs the risk of encountering something while you do it.

Another reason players take their time is because of dwindling resources.  Whether the players squandered limited resources in combats that could have been won otherwise, or whether they had a string of bad luck, or whether the game design by the GM called for a string of tough encounters – the players finally decide that they can go no further.  They realize that most difficult encounters are at the end of a dungeon, and they are likely going to perish – even in an average combat.

So resources must be regained.  The game system says the way you regain them is sleeping for 6-8 hours, then spending some hours studying spells and praying to the gods.  It doesn’t matter if the Lich King of the Necropolis is in the midst of completing his ritual to become a god in the next room, because the players have decided that the risk of wiping to the Liche King is greater (~100%) than the risk of the Lich King completing the ritual before sometime tomorrow morning (unknown %, ~99%).  They’ve decided to rest, and place their lives in the GM’s hands, as there is no mechanic for wandering monsters, the GM must DECIDE whether the Lich King is able to finish his ritual, or whether the Lich King’s minions walk into a room with sleeping adventurers.  And what kind of cold-hearted GM is going to arbitrarily decide that the adventurers lose because they chose what they saw as their only option!??

Another reason players take their time, is because tracking elapsed time is painful.  There’s really not a good method for it, since there is so little correlation between how long something takes in the fiction of the game to how long it takes in the real world.  Combats that take 2-3 minutes can take hours to adjudicate.  An exhaustive search of a crypt might take 2-3 minutes in the real world, but hours to complete in the fiction.  There’s no game clock sitting at the table reminding everyone how precious that 20 minutes really is.

In the end, each playing group is going to have their own thresholds for how they value their time.  Some are going to get cautious and want to rest before proceeding further when they are still at 75% strength.  Some groups are going to want to conduct a thorough search of every cleared room, no matter how mundane. The further you get from pressing on, generally, the more boring the game becomes, and the less “real” the world begins to feel. What’s interesting about a secret door if you have the luxury of doing a thorough search in every single room?  What’s interesting about combat if you’re full strength for every one of them?  Old school D&D codified a wandering monster rule, which was an elegant little mechanic to encourage action.  New RPGs need some other incentives:

1. Plot Timelines – the GM can just let the players know that there’s a timer ticking.  “That Lich King ritual will be completed in 12 minutes, do you want to take 20 minutes searching the kitchen?”

2. Realistic Responses – This one is tricky, and can lead to some boring encounters, but maybe that would resolve the players to take action.  If the denizens of an area fortify themselves as time progresses, or you take the next 3 encounters that would have been quite winnable individually, and have them all group together into one fight, the game becomes much more difficult the more time everyone takes.

3. Don’t Pull Punches – You’re trying to sleep in a hostile area, in your armor, on the stone floor with rats crawling all over the place?  Maybe only a % chance of succeeding in actually resting in such an area, or a reduced benefit codified into the rules from resting in a hostile area as opposed to resting in town.  You can also raise the risk on resting, making the rules for fighting while waking from sleep stacked in the attackers favor.  You could even simulate wandering monster % rolls to put some of the disruption of the player’s plans up to fate, instead of GM fiat.

4.  Resource Recovery Rules – Daily powers are really only meant to be used once in a condensed play session, not every combat after you’ve rested.  By basing power recharge on a daily cycle, you’re encouraging the counter-intuitive behavior of sleeping in the dungeon.  Fully healing because of a night sleep and suddenly being able to ask for divine miracles once again (what a fickle god, so reliant on that sunrise!) because you’ve rested is an abstraction of the game that could use some change.

5. Visible game clock.  Keep a clock, or something with you at the table to clearly show the players that time in the game matters.  If there’s a clock present, the players are going to focus more on the time things are taking them to do, and I think that would encourage some more action.


5 thoughts on “Trading Time for Risk

  1. connorbros

    You make a lot of good points and it’s definitely a relevant discussion piece. There is always that weird moment where you search a room, roll a 1 and are just like… um can I search again? And how this relates to time/impending doom is often kind of opaque. Dust may have more to say on this when he gets back from vacation but I think he has often done a pretty good job DMing an integration of pacing and possible peril when we are adventuring.

    I think it becomes less difficult when there is an engaged group that is specific with ideas and the communication is pretty open between the DM and players. We had a campaign a bit back (I think running Next rules… somewhat? I’m never that privy to the back end, I just sit and enjoy whatever mixture of rules/narrative my brother is running with) where we were on a hostile island and Dust made it pretty clear that resting wouldn’t be strictly safe. And it pushed us to put more thought into the roleplaying side considering our environment and spells and such to see what we could do. Like someone used a spell of silence over our fortified area to try to keep our group more hidden. Another time we crafted a tent out of an animal hide we had gotten which saved us from sand storms but then attracted a dragon creature. And then that tent set up played a role in how the encounter began.

    That being said, that relies heavily on the group/DM to make the experience enjoyable, and isn’t any kind of codifiable suggestion. Of the things you mentioned I guess I am of slightly a fan of the Don’t Pull Punches, but again perhaps with some of the elements I mentioned above. Like, a slightly more codified harsh reality as the foundational base point, but with an eye towards rewarding interesting/realistically valuable suggestions. I’m also quite curious about how successful a visible game clock would.


  2. connorbros

    Great post, and nice set up from both of you for what I’ve done with my current running campaign: I run it in semi-real time. Each day in the game is 4 hours in real-time (and the people of the world split the day into four equal parts), an extended rest is 1 hour of game time and is just done when the players are done for the day. This means I consistently run 3 hour-ish sessions.

    For combat, I use a different time scale – each round is 10 minutes, but I take liberties if everybody makes their moves faster than that by just moving on to the next round. If players take too long, they miss their turn in indecision (and if I take too long, the enemies rush their turns or skip them altogether, though neither has been an issue thus far). This combat time is more tiring to the characters, so even if a couple combats only represented 10 minutes of game-world time (but nearly an hour of real-world time) I still suggest ending the day after around 3 hours. In such a case the characters rest a bit earlier in the day because they are exhausted (even if their resources have not dwindled, there is a toll for acting at such intensity), and they will often wake up in the middle of the night the next session.

    The system isn’t perfect, but my players have been receptive and a few things have occurred which made me really pleased overall. Here are a couple highlights:

    1) After a rough battle, the group is hurting. They’ve patched wounds, but are a far-cry from full strength. But they are in the middle of a dangerous forest. The discussion starts out on a game front – is it safer to rest for a bit and get closer to full strength, or safer to keep moving? They find a defensible position not far and begin resting (every ten minutes of real time affords them some tangible resources).

    After the first ten minutes, they are not full strength, but the tension of sitting there in a forest with nothing but conversation to pass the time encourages them to pack up and keep moving, and it’s a thoroughly in-character decision. The more go-getter prone-to-boredom characters advocate going, the more patient ones are backed up by players happy to sit in conversation for ten more minutes. It’s probably the only time I’ve seen a group get up from a ‘safe rest’ without being fully charged and move on just because of the psychological condition of their characters (mirrored by the state of the players).

    2) The team is crossing a rather long and dull wasteland. The first hour of journeying passes with general conversation (great character interactions), and after that people are doing what they can to stay alert and keep an eye on the surroundings. The third hour comes around with not much happening and the players know they’ve still got a ways to go, and I can see they are simultaneously feeling the ‘drudgery’ and ‘boredom’ of their characters, but really engaged.

    We passed an entire session with very little adjudication from me (just some rolls about navigation and avoiding an encounter or two), and afterwards I got comments that it was really interesting and fun, despite the actual feeling of ‘boredom’. As a DM, I would’ve skipped this whole thing in the past with a couple rolls or maybe a token combat, but in trusting my players and sticking to the system we ended up with a great session. Now the players consider how long it will take to get from point A to point B in their decisions.

    Anyways, those are some long-winded stories, and every group is different. I like many of your suggestions, and this is just me sharing one thing that I tried for one campaign (I consider it a success, but that doesn’t mean I’d do it for all campaigns). As with most things, just being cognizant of the issues, as you are demonstrating in this post, makes it a solve-able problem with a bit of work between DM and players, even if it’s not straightforward all the time.


    1. JackOfHearts Post author

      That’s a far cry from my “fast travel” rules/special abilities! I’d be very interested to give that a try sometime, but I’m afraid that a) the players in my group would not be quite as receptive, and b) that at some point everyone would start to wonder why they were coming on Thursday to travel from A to Z to talk in character for awhile.

      That being said, I’m actually really wanting to give it a try at some point. Maybe in a game I run I’ll make an adventure very much based on traveling through hostile/unsafe lands, and when you cross into that “zone” you’ll be on a semi-real-time game clock. Maybe I’ll even set out a clock. =]

      1. connorbros

        Yeah, I really don’t think I would, as DM, allow that kind of session to happen twice in a row, or even with any kind of regularity. I know that if they are likely going to be travelling for a long period of time again, I will beef up the level of detail of features of things they might find along the way to give them more stuff to interact with. But it was still really satisfying for that to happen once and work. Now when I tell the players ‘You’re going where exactly? From even basic knowledge of geography, you know that’s a VERY LONG journey.’ they don’t just shrug and say ‘Are we there yet?’. When they consider an extended rest, they know they are considering ending the session, when they consider whether to avoid combat or not, they are choosing what they spend the next hour doing.

        It helps that this campaign has dropped them in the middle of a sort of post-apocalyptic-inspired dangerous and wild land, so everything is a bit on the tense side.

        Hope you get the opportunity to try something like it out. It has been a worthwhile experiment both for me and the players, and a tool I will consider in the future.


  3. Andy

    Brett –

    I think this may have been the best post you’ve put on this blog. This is definitely something that could be improved upon with some thought. The wandering monster thing always made no sense to me.

    Personally I am a very big advocate of “realistic responses” and I think that would work well with our group. We tend to be relatively conservative (although I think we have gotten better) and as most of us are pretty heavily combat focused to the extent that you throw an unwinnable combat at us I’m almost not even sure what we would do. I’d be curious to see what would happen if you did that sometime you thought we were resting too frequently.

    Hey I mean… Erastil clearly wants me to get a good night in the sack before he juices me back up with spells. If that’s what my God demands to give me my power I’m definitely going to prioritize my sack time!


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