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.


3 thoughts on “Clock Tease

  1. Huh, now I’m wondering if any protracted conversation should tick the Grind in our urban game. True NPC interaction in the base game is sparse and reserved for the Town phase…. but in our game…


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