If you’ve read a lot of boxed adventures, you know that the key events in a plot are mostly bound to particular locations. Advancement along the plot thus requires movement from location to location, and the specific time is flexible. This is great for adventure stories, but does not work for all kinds of stories. Some stories work better if the events instead occur after discrete amounts of time have passed, and the specific locations are flexible. Mystery, horror, intrigue, disaster, and survival stories all work better by focusing on time. This is because they rely heavily on the use of time limits to create tension.
Placing an emphasis on a plot unfolding during a game has a few notable advantages:
Opens up more opportunities for player-driven initiatives. “You have 3 hours before the witness is available for interview. What would you like to do with that time?”
Makes it easy to make use of and balance strange abilities, “utility” skills and spells, rituals, inventions, crafting, etc. This is closely related to point 1, but it also requires particular character builds.
Makes it really easy to make problems open-ended. “In one hour, the bomb under the hotel will blow up. What will you do?”
Makes it easy to use side plots. “You have 3 hours before the bomb under the hotel blows up; just enough to visit one of your lovers and try to straighten out your ridiculous love life.”
Makes it easy for the GM to balance abilities that are balanced by the frequency of their usefulness.
Examples of Time Limits in Film and Television
The best movie I can think of that uses a deadline is High Noon. It’s an incredibly good movie about a cowboy preparing to fight a gang. That description does not do it justice. Shutter Island is a thriller that uses weather to impose some time limits and pace out important plot events. The Ring is a horror story that uses a time limit in an exceedingly unsubtle fashion. Many television serials use deadlines frequently. MacGuyver and Star Trek: the Next Generation comes to mind. In both cases, time limits are often tacked on to stories that don’t even need them to increase the tension.
The Three Ts: Threat, Trouble, Theatrics
Instead of dividing an adventure up into locations and encounters, a game based around time can be divided into Threat, Trouble and Theatric.
Threats force a response from players. They are often immediate, but the most important threat is to establish the time limit. The immediate threats are often like normal events in an RPG: “You walk into a tavern, and an ugly patron picks a fight with you.” The more important threat has to be something that requires the players’ attention in the future. They are the driving force of the plot.
Troubles are problems that the players must strive to solve in some fashion. This is probably going to be where the bulk of play occurs. To use them, just create a problem and give the players some time.
Theatrics are when the players have down time. I like to use it for role-playing scenes, and incorporating improvisational theater type scenes. That’s just my preference, though.
Here’s a simple ratio for pacing them out: 2 troubles : 1 threat : 1 theatric. Exactly what order to do them in is up to you.
And that is all there is to it. It is very easy to use, and it works very well.
Tricks for using time limits in “normal” adventures:
Give the villain a plan, and make the players aware, so that if they don’t stop the villain before a certain amount of time has passed the villain will be able to follow through on their plan
Make it clear that severe weather is on its way, and the players only have a little while before it arives.
Set the adventure against the backdrop of a social event: a festival, an important diplomatic visit, a rock concert, a soccer game, a criminal gang-war, etc. This allows you to have many events that are triggered by time passing. Make it so that the plot is tied to the end of the event in some fashion, so that the players feel pressure to complete things quickly.