Clock Tease

I’ve developed a bit of a reputation amongst my group – I can’t say no to a good progress clock. The Bells crime syndicate is making a move on the Marble District? Clock. The blood maladie takes the host on the next Wolf-Moon? Clock. Inciting a servants revolt against the aristocracy? Clock!

It started, as it does with most folks, with Apocalypse World; but it really became a problem with Blades in the Dark. If it please the court, I present Exhibit A, the play space from a past Roll20 BitD series. I have no regrets. Clocks are great.

Roll20 Blades Page – map, clocks, factions and relationship map

A Wild Lumpkin Appears!

So when I started watching the backlog of the Sunfall Cycle, an actual play series GMed by the Steven Lumpkin, and I saw a clock mechanic being leveraged in 5e – I was titillated.

It didn’t take long realize that the clock in the Sunfall series was functioning more like the Torchbarer grind track and less like a PbtA progress/project clock. Lured in under false pretenses? Sure. But there’s something to be said about what’s going on here nevertheless. So here I am, saying something.

The games that influence the style of play that Lumpkin’s Sunfall Cycle embodies are of a particular ilk: Bloodborne, Dark Souls and Darkest Dungeon. That’s to say, a fairly unforgiving learning curve that incentives creative problem solving and rewards player mastery over a given situation. Through some of the custom mechanics that lean heavily on the genre of game he’s seeking to invoke, Steven has managed to craft a high body count, grinding 5e experience that doesn’t feel punitive or oppressive. If you’re interested in a better explanation, go directly to the source,  

There are a lot of changes going on in the Sunfall series that work well to promote a particular style of play; but for the sake of this conversation I’m going to focus in on dat clock.

The Clock
Due to strange forces and arcane magics unseen, the dungeon is slowly collapsing in time- when the dungeon finally collapses, you respawn at your last Sunfire Brazier, and the clock is refilled.

Every time you enter the dungeon, you have 10 segments on the clock before the dungeon collapses.
Each Segment is 10 minutes long!

This gives the dungeon a clear structure; there are 10 “major events” that can happen before everything resets.  Every time something big happens, I can just check off one segment from the clock.

Steven Lumpkin, “The Sunfall Cycle Playtesting Rules: Character Creation, “Dark Souls”, The Clock” Roll 1d100, 21 October 2018

A 10 segment clock to tick throughout a dungeon, counting down to a critical end point. In the case of Sunfall, it’s the collapse of the dungeon and the return of the characters to a mystical moon base. But if magical moon base respawns aren’t your cup of tea, there’s nothing stopping a low magic setting from reaping the benefits of a little high-stakes, time-crunch, dungeon crawling. Now, what drives this little magic chaos clock?

The following actions tick down 1 segment off the clock:

* Fighting a fight.  Between the combat itself and catching your breath after, a fight advances the clock.
* Taking a short rest.  You must dedicate your collective efforts to recovery during this period.
* Common skill-based actions that invoke a risk of discovery or failure: Picking a lock, Disarming a trap, Hacking down a door, Climbing a challenging ascent, etc.
* Any improvised action that would take a decent chunk of time and effort- for example, carrying a crate of heavy stone statue pieces from a few rooms away and down a narrow flight of spiral stairs.
* Having an extended conversation with an NPC, when the GM deems it appropriate.  Talking amongst yourselves will never advance the clock.

Steven Lumpkin, “The Sunfall Cycle Playtesting Rules: Character Creation, “Dark Souls”, The Clock” Roll 1d100, 21 October 2018

This is where it’s at. Codifying all the noodley bits into 10 minute segments to propel the clock forward. Now, there are other elements to the game that are directly influenced by this time track, lighting for example. Interested in knowing more? To previous link I cast thee!

To The Laboratory

Armed with this premise of a 10-segment clock that reduces by one segment after each fight, short rest, involved skill-based action or other laborious task; we can start concocting situations and consequences for racing the a clock.

Personal preference, my fail states would rarely end in flat out player death. It’s far more enjoyable to keep them around and just making things worse and worse. Either way, let the players at your table know what’s at stake before it’s too late.

Dirigible Down

How did the goblins manage to commandeer that airship? You’ve got it on good authority that not a one of them in the lot is adept at flying, let alone landing. That surely has not stopped them from making a right-awful mess of the lowlands for the pass three days, as they’ve sailed dangerously low and recklessly fast. At this pace they’ll be at the castle walls by nightfall – though it’s hard to say if they’ve enough altitude to clear the parapets.

If the wingwright’s calculations are correct, the arcane engines have been running wide open for too long. They’re liable to explode at the slightest provocation. These damned fools are riding an arcane bomb into a stone wall. Now’s time to get aboard the craft and land it before the entire city are showered with goblin guts and balloon bits.

The Chronomancer’s Task

The golden zugguart of Zemdaru Lu, the last of the Hoursmiths, is drifting. The cyclopean structure is drifting across time – and it’s taking the Brass Bends District with it. The Troll Barons are bound to be mighty cross – the Brass Bends weren’t scheduled to slip into the nether of time for at least 300 more years. So it goes in the bureaucracy.

The Consortium has filed the requisite paperwork for a fully bonded and ensured questing party to venture into the golden zigguart and put the derelict Hoursmith to task. Alas. There was a clerical error and they’re stuck with you. Venture into the chronomancer’s lair and put a stop to this madness before it is too late.

The Joys of the Butcher Prince

The castle whispers with rumors of the Prince’s cruelty. The Queen, bereft of the firm hand of her husband, the Red King; left alone to the task of raising her troubled son – she has taken to keeping the boy locked away. Bound to his studies and worship for many hours a day.

Still yet, the Prince has an unseemly appetite for the macabre that cannot be so easily hidden away. From high upon the keep in his solar – dark demands are carried forth to the prisons below. The galors approach. They come to snatch you and yours out of your cell and take you before the blood-spoiled boy to partake in unthinkable inhumanity. Now, you must escape.


Reaches of Nalvros: Ants in the Pants

In last week’s post, My Dirty Secret, I made mention of some prep from an old Dungeon World game that had gone dormant. In an effort to not completely waste the effort, why not dust off the work and give it new life.

The notes process, taken from Perilous Wilds, nest discoveries, dangers and sites under respective regions with the almanac. The regions tend to come into better focus as more points of interest are added. As this sharing process continues, I’ll bounce around from region to region sharing the things I’m most interested in at the time. Over time the various regions will become more defined.

This week, we start in the Gorecrow Gap, a stretch of clear-cut wood southeast of the walled city of Ironwood. The trees of the Gap grow to tremendous size and hardness – providing both a source of valuable ironwood lumber to nearby civilizations and roots for the murderous gorecrow.

Region – The Gorecrow Gap

Temperate, Repopulating Timber Lands, Perilous, Neutral

  • Dense trees are refilling the gap
  • Exquisitely tall Ironwood
  • Things go bump in the night
  • Spring: Color returns to the Ironwood
  • Summer: The nests come alive
  • Autumn: Harvest of the Ironwood Pods
  • Winter: Ironwood turns a dull white

Site – The Nest

A subtle but consequential rise in the dusty earth gives hint to the frenetic activity that lurks below. A very active, giant ant colony.


  • Subterranean cloying heat.
  • Irrationally deliberate tunnels and passages.
  • The ceaseless thrumming chatter of a thousand minds work as one.

: Danger – Goliath Ant Drone
: Danger – Goliath Ant Queen
: Hazard – Subterranean Maze
: Treasure – Goliath Ant Queen Pupa

Danger- Goliath Ant Drone

Horde, Large, Blind
Mandibles (d6 damage); 6 HP
Hand, Close

These huge, blind, subterranean insects build elaborate tunnel systems that sprawl throughout the Gap. Something has agitated the colonies.
Instinct: To serve the queen

  • Excavate earth
  • Leave a scent trail
  • Swarm

Danger- Goliath Ant Queen

Individual, Huge, Immobile, Blind
Mandibles (d4 damage); 10 HP; Armor 1

A living factory. This behemoth matriarch, designed for breeding, can hardly defend herself. But do not think for a moment that makes her any less dangerous; she is mother to an entire army.
Instinct: To spawn.

  • Birth larva
  • Rally soldiers
  • Throw weight around

Hazard – Subterranean Maze

The seemly chaotic network of tunnels, caverns and chambers is anything but chaotic for the ants. You, however, are no ant.

When you navigate the labyrinth of the Goliath Ant Colony, Roll + INT. On a 10+ You get hopelessly lost and find — roll d8 on the table below; on a 7-9, roll d12.

1-2A lone drone
3The nursery
4An unexpected exit
5The larder (+2d6 rations)
6The Queen’s chamber
7-8A swarm of Goliath Ant Drones
9-10Am abandoned tunnel, leading deeper
11A gnome poacher
12What the ants fear most

Treasure – Goliath Ant Queen Pupa

A soft and milky white fetal creature the size of a horse. For now.
A future Goliath Ant Queen, still impressionable. When you separate the future queen from her colony and raise the Queen as your own, Roll + WIS. On a 10+ a new master — choose 3 from the list below; on a 7-9, choose 1.

  • The colony serves you implicitly.
  • The colony takes root in a place of your choosing.
  • The colony matures quickly.
  • The colony does not attract undue attention.
  • The colony does not damage surrounding valuables.  
  • The colony has a taste for the exotic.

My Dirty Secret: A Man Named, Jason

Some while back I was running a game of Dungeon World for folks on Roll20. The game ran for a couple of months and for one reason or another it came to a ho-hum end. It wasn’t a well orchestrated, fictionally satisfying, cinematic climax. It just sputtered out with a whimper. People got busy. Situations changed. Sessions were skipped and eventually, the campaign fizzled. And ya know what, that’s okay. That’s not why you’re here.

That brief series of gaming brought about one of my most ‘oh damn, that’s cool’ moments – when one of the heroes crossed into a magical tapestry and took the place of a venerable saint to wrestle a vile black unicorn. Henceforth changing history as the character took the place of the honorable saint as the figurehead of a devout religious sect. But that’s also not why you’re here, not now at least. You’re here because you want to know my awful shame.

I, Michael the GM, was over prepping my game. A Dungeon World game no less – how salacious!

You know who I blame? Well, Jason Lutes, mostly. Perilous Wilds, his random table fed, exploration focused Dungeon World supplement is – addictive.

Time-frozen swamp, haunted by a luscious garden that creeps across the landscape? I got you, fam. A caldera, home to a violently reclusive cult of daring Lamplighters? On it, chief. A splendid mountain villa, once home to a line of erudite dwarven lords – now the site of a great betrayal and a mercury golem? Miles ahead of you, buddy. Suffice to say, once I started rolling up random locations, I just couldn’t help myself.

I was afflicted by the GM’s sickness – an incurable love for the lonely game.

So here I was, playing a weekly game of Dungeon World with a perfectly fantastic group of players. But was it all was all a thinly veiled excuse to noodle in an increasingly more convoluted Google Doc between sessions? I pecked away nightly, quietly interpreting dozens and dozens of d12 rolls – consulting charts and decoding the results in my brain. Answer questions that hardly yet existed, let alone been asked.

But what is the: Unnatural | Divine | Discovery | of a | Chaotic | Wisdom!

Harry Clarke Andersen

I was flagrantly defying the principles of the game that I espouse as the closest thing to GMing 101. I drew the map, but then, I filled in the blanks! Then I went back to add in the crosshatching.

But dare I say, where’s the harm in a small novella worth of game prep? After all, this isn’t the ‘allow me to regale you with my grand tale of intrigue’ type of GM prep. This is that good ish – the evocative prep that raises two or three questions for every one that it answer. The prep in a really sexy consistent format structure. The prep that gets you totally jazzed for what comes next. The prep that just begs for players to get involved to bring the beast to life.

And there it is – prep that begs to be played. That’s the redeeming quality, is it not? The hundred some odd pages of ideas and almanacs that I have squirreled away from this long defunct game are now – a corpse. When that Dungeon World game ended, the game prep went on the shelf and I haven’t fiddled with it since. To do it now would feel uselessly academic. The players, weren’t the excuse to prep – they were the catalyst. I may have been writing for me, but I was writing because of them.

Are you a habitual over-prepper? Are you seeking treatment or embracing your foibles? When has your need to over-prepare your creative pallet bitten you in the ass?

Oh, yes. Once more with feeling for Perilous Wilds – it’s worth the price of admission. I haven’t run a game of DW without it since first reading it. I like it so much I use PW rolled dungeons in my 5e game. Besides, Keny Widjaja’s illustrations are consistently dope.

Surrounding Demons by Spidol (Keny Widjaja)

Failing is Effin’ Fun

I’m convinced that players are by in large masochists. At least the ones that I play with tend lean in that direction. Maybe that’s a result of how I run games. Maybe it’s just the type of people I attract in my life – oh god. Not a time for self reflection.

Failing is, as the big words above state, effin’ fun. With this caveat – failure is most fun when it hurts like a mutha and it does not rob players of the agency. Solution: give the players the tools necessary to hurt themselves. They’ll rarely shy away from it and they’ll be surprisingly ruthless.

Over the past year I’ve been running a weekly game of 5e on Tuesday nights. It’s got all the traditional trappings that you’d expect out of a D&D game. And it’s been a ding-dang blast. But I have a secret and I think my players are starting to suspect something – I’ve got PbtA chocolate in their D&D peanut butter. Not exactly earth-shattering stuff, I get it. But hey – permit me this flare for the dramatics.

For those unfamiliar with PbtA – a quick rundown. Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) is a designation for a family of games, inspired by Apocalypse World by Vincent & Meg Baker. The various systems loosely share design aspects with AW – what is/isn’t PbtA can be a discussion for another time. For the basis of this discussion, PbtA games generally have players rolling 2d6 + a modifier between -2 and +2 with a 10+ result being a successful result where the players ‘get what they want’. A 7-9 result is a partial success or a success with complications; the players get what they want but at some additional cost or complication – cue the tense music because things are ramping up. Finally, a 6 or less is a failure. The player may still very well get what they want, or maybe they don’t, regardless – this is where the wheels fall off. The crap hits the fan and thing go sideways. But never does the forward momentum stop.

TL; DR – There are dozens of stellar PbtA games. Go play them. At the very least, go read them – the GM principles alone are worth the price of admission. Check out some of the titles below.

By leaning on some of the key concepts lifted from the Powered by the Apocalypse family of games, I’ve been able to run a style of 5e that has proven to be a win for both players and GM. Concepts such as: ongoing collaborative world building (leading questions, another future topic), the idea of say ‘yes’ or roll, a non-binary success / failure approach on non-combat rolls and the idea of failing-forward.

Since by now we’re all big fans of sucking – here’s what I did. I set out to make failure choices in my 5e D&D game similar to the messy choices seen in many PbtA moves: On a failure, pick ‘x’ from the list below. That’s when the players realize their staring at a shit sandwich on a plate no matter what they choose – and everyone is into it.

Now, I’m not a crazy person. I’m not monkeying around with 5e combat mechanics (yet?), the d20 vs AC is still sacred in some circles. So what’s left? Skill checks. Okay, but what’s better than a skill check? A skill challenge! Go on you say? Don’t mind if I do.

Skill challenges have their origins in D&D 4e. Extrapolate a complex series of actions down to a series of skill checks vs a DC. Allow the players some flexibility in what skills they use to overcome the obstacle. Track the successes vs. failures and the overall result is determined by which boxes get filled up first. Easy enough and familiar even if you never touched a 4e game – we see a very similar concept in 5e Death Saves.

So we have these two concepts, failure choices from PbtA and skill challenges from 4e and now, we make em kiss. Boom – the Fail-Pick Challenge is born. A typical skill challenge in original design but with an added wrinkle – on a failure, in addition to marking a failure, the player chooses one of x number of choices that each weigh some sort of interesting risk vs. reward. One choice might be safe(r) but provide no benefit. Another choice might be comically bad for the character’s heath but weighted with a big fat juicy carrot danging off the end of the stick. The more tempting the choice, the more it’s going to ‘cost’.

The particulars of each Fail-Pick should be devised in advance and with some degree of care. As the GM you know what candies your player’s bacon best. What’s the thing that they just will squirm in their seats to say ‘no’ to? That’s what we’re after, players lamenting their predicament while everyone else leans in awaiting their choice.

How’s about an example from a recent game:

Dismantling the Earth Eater

The source of the furious grinding sound comes into view as you round the final bend. At the end of the tunnel, a wall of gnashing and biting metal teeth and gears lock and spin with a unceasing need to consume. The machine, twice as tall as a house, bristles with snapping belts, hissing pistons and flashing diodes. Thick tubes feed hydraulic pumps and gouts of steam roil out in anger. The massive contraption works to strip away the earth before it with astonishing ease. The mountain above you and the earth below you quake in protest. Putting a stop to this madness will require quick thinking and precise action.

Skill Check DC15 to exploit a weakness in the brutal apparatus – each player acts in initiative order, using each skill only once.

Successes: [ ] [ ] [ ] Failures: [ ] [ ] [ ] Time Track: [ ] [ ] [ ] [ ]

On Initiative count 20, mark one segment of the Time Track.

On a success, mark one box on the Success Track.

On a failure, mark one box on the Failure Track and choose one Fail-Pick below:

  • Bail Out – get out quick. DC12 Dexterity save vs. a glancing blow (5d6 damage), save for half damage.
  • Hang Tight – take the shot. Take a glancing blow (5d6 damage) with no save, but set up your next ally with Advantage.
  • Take the Blow – face the danger head-on. Take the full blow (10d6 damage) but mark a success on the Success Track, in addition to your failure.

If the Success Track fills first – the challenge is a success. The Earth Eater screams in protest as the pistons and gears powering the industrial megalith come to a halt. The vicious machine now lay dormant as the echoes of its grinding fade into the stone. Pebbles and debris trickle down from above.

If the Failure Track fills first – the challenge is failed. The boring device whirls out of control and continue to drills into the mountainside. Ravenous in its consumption of the earth! Cracks and fissures split along the ceiling and floor – the whole place is coming down.

If the Time Track fills first – the chance to stop the machine has passed! The Earth Eater chugs away, ripping through the innards of the mountain – ejecting tons of tilled earth and debris in its wake, nearly burying you! The device is out of your reach now and continuing on – down a path that will surely take it directly into the nearby abbey.

That should give you a bit of the flavor of a Fail-Pick Challenge. There’s an endless number of ways you could go with it using a similar design and that big sexy imagination of yours.

If the idea of tinkering with skill challenges in this way is interesting and you’re keen on some more examples and thoughts on the elements that make the design – I made a thing. It’s a short little ditty about Fail-Picks and you can find it on DriveThruRPG for a single smacker. Link below for those pickin’ up what I’m puttin’ down. And hey, thanks.

What are you doing in your game to make failure dynamic, exciting and efing fun?

Yeah, like – a lot.

“So, what do you do?”

There are two responses to this question – the uninspired answer that everyone expects you to give. The one I give by default. The one that sends alarm bells ringing my brain halfway through my half-hearted explanation, “stop. you’re killing them with your apathy.”

And then, the answer that’s brimming with passion and excitement and truly speaks to the heart of this man. That’s the answer I never give out. That’s what this place is for.

So, what do I do? I think about RPGs, like – a lot.

I first got involved in tabletop RPGs, let’s call it, four years ago; because quite frankly, nobody is going to fact check me. I was late to the party. Depictions of the glory days of D&D in media like Stranger Things invokes in me a nostalgia that I have no right to claim. There has to be a clever phrase for this false sense of belonging to a moment you never had. Oh yeah, delusion.

I grew up at the teat of video game RPGs – titles that I later learned cribbed so heavily from the rise of TTRPGs that they might as well have been paying royalties to TSR and company. I was primed and ready, but I had no gateway. No cooler older siblings to haze me into their game. My equally nerdy best friend showed no interest in the hobby. No access to a FLGS and certainly no Matt Mercer and a legion of Critters to lure me deeper down the gnoll-hole.

It wasn’t until Roll20 came about that I finally had access. I broke in to the previously esoteric world of pen and paper roleplaying games, on the internet. How anachronistic. Alas, those first few goes at it, they were, unique. I truly hope no matter how addled my brain becomes through the years, I never forget the sound of my first GM shouting to his off camera daughter to, “just put a bowl over the mouse! I’ll get to it later.” And then catapulting my gnome, strapped to a dog, across the river. The game sessions were short lived and mostly forgettable – but that mouse. That damn mouse.

The online play spun into public play with Pathfinder Society at a game shop no more than 5 minutes from my front door. Who knew? Clearly not I. Eventually, I did the inevitable, the unthinkable – I started GMing. That’s when things fell into place.

Scene change. Cross fade. Present day. Over the past three years, I’ve fallen in with an absolutely amazing group of players; nearly all met randomly through Roll20 and G+ gaming communities (RIP). Over that time, we’ve logged hundreds of hours playing dozens of systems, telling countless stories and making honest to god some of the most meaningful memories in my life. It is because of these random invites that I’m booking my third consecutive year spending a week in June in Columbus, OH at Origins Games Fair- playing more great games with more amazing people and making more memories. It’s a vicious cycle.

The side effect of this bountiful wellspring of RPGs is this affliction that I simply cannot shake. My brain is in game mode, constantly. Every bit and bob of media consumed is immediately deconstructed for content. Like a picky toddler dissecting their dinner, hunting down and extracting all the vile ‘green stuff’ before they eat a bite. The world is my chicken casserole and all the “green stuff” is gamable goodness. Here’s the trick. I love the green stuff. You would too kid, just eat your dang dinner.

Next month I’ll be 35, halfway to 70. I’m banking heavily on a few more decades of kicking around design ideas with good friends, obsessing over the latest Kickstarter launches and deliveries, prepping for future sessions, binging on backlogs of Actual Plays and just generally just keeping my brain whirling with making the make-believe, real.

I like RPGs. Yeah, like – a lot.