Plot Advancement as a Function of Time

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:

  1. 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?”

  2. 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.

  3. Makes it really easy to make problems open-ended. “In one hour, the bomb under the hotel will blow up. What will you do?”

  4. 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.”

  5. 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.

Foreshadowing and Sideplots as Part of Play

There is a formula used in Star Trek: the Next Generation that is easily replicated.  Two plots are presented side by side: a plot that concerns the entire Enterprise (the spaceship), and a plot that is about an individual crew member.  If we were to watch only the plot that is about the Enterprise, it would be a very satisfying story until the end.  Suddenly some minor secondary character comes out of nowhere with an outrageous and bizarre solution to the problem of the day.  However, because the show has a secondary plot about crew members, this deus ex machina is avoided.  Nothing new is introduced at the conclusion of the story; it was introduced early during the secondary plot.
In RPGs, a side effect of magic and super-science being fictional is that it can do anything.  In stories this means it can be used for deus ex machina.  In RPGs there are often established spell and item lists, which can often eliminate this potential.  However, unless the players and the GM are all aware of the full set, deus ex machina can still occur.  It is especially common for GMs to not reveal the capabilities of the stories antagonists.  If this somehow completely overcomes the players efforts it is a “diabolus ex machina” and one can expect there heroes to be very annoyed.  Even if it is fair according to the rules of the game, it is poor storytelling and adventure design, and good GMs should avoid this.
The way around this is foreshadowing.  As usual, I don’t want to talk about foreshadowing as a literary technique.  I want to talk about making it an integral part of play for GM and players alike.
Beginning at the End
Let us begin by making the goal very clear, and then extrapolating a rough plan from the goal.  The goal is for the players to resolve conflicts using narrative content introduced in earlier scenes.  In order for this to be interesting, the earlier content needs to require some cleverness on behalf of the players to be applicable to the current problem.  There also needs to be mechanical incentive to resolve conflicts using the earlier content.
One way to require the players to be a little bit clever is to make sure that the earlier content has nothing to do with the conflict that drives the plot.  It can be about the player characters, the setting, objects, treasure, magic, technology, bystanders, friends, etc.  It cannot be about the villains or their capabilities.
The benefit to players from using the earlier content can be of three types.  Sometimes it will completely circumvent a problem they would otherwise have to confront.  Sometimes it will introduce a novel capability to the main characters.  By “novel capability” I mean an entirely new option.  For example, perhaps it will provide some common ground from which to begin a negotiation with an enemy who would otherwise refuse to talk.  It may also just provide “buff efffects.”  This last one is superficially boring, but can be used to represent how a character learned something new during their side-adventurer.  As such, it is an excellent vehicle for character development.
The narrative content, given that it must contained with a story and not be about the main plot, will be in what I call sideplots.
Developing a Sideplot
The sideplot can be developed alongside the main plot.  The most obvious goal of development is to skew the narrative content in a direction that makes it more useful for resolving conflicts.  This is mostly accomplished by bringing more characters into the plot.  If the sideplot has a conflict that is playable in some fashion, this should also be used to advance the sideplot.  Almost any plot’s conflict is playable, but the genre of play can be quite varied.
For time constraint purposes, lets assume that developing a sideplot will not adhere to an action plot.  RPG combats take too long to bother including them if they are only peripheral to the main plot.  The sideplot can instead adhere to mellodrama, mystery, or horror.  Mellodrama is about developing relationships between characters, mystery is about reasoning, and horror is about anxiety and powerlessness.  Developing these in a game really only has two parts, and progression through the sideplot is accomplished by alternating between part 1 and 2.
Part 1: instill mode of engagement
To begin the game must establish the way in which the players will enjoy the sideplot (the mode of engagement).  A mellodrama should begin by one player taking a stance on an issue that one other player will support, and another character will dissagree with. Bilbosh the Bariton Bard wants to perform in Torric’s Tavern, which is Garren the Gruesome’s favourite watering hole.  Wiks the Wiley Warlock thinks that Torric’s Tavern is filled with uncouth morons, however, and thinks that Bilbosh should not debase himself by performing for such an audience.  
A mystery begins with the players working together to create a few hypothesese that could explain an as of yet unexplained event.  After the party found the body, they retired to the tavern to discuss the event.  Given the evidence of struggle, the Professor believed that the victim was overpowered and strangled.  The Colonel believes that the evidence of a break in suggests a burglary gone wrong.  These ideas, while not mutually exclusive, are further complicated by the fact that the criminal managed to access the safe.
A horror story will need to get the players to make an unfair decision very quickly: a decision where they do not have sufficient information to make an informed decision, and the consequences to making a poor decision are immediate and severe.  The PCs hear a creak behind a door.   It’s dark outside, and the silence after the creek is disconcerting.  One of them chooses to hide, and the other goes to the door.  As the player reaches for the door, the door collapses down and a furred thing charges in. The player can’t even get a good look at the beast before being knocked to the ground.
Part 2:  accept or reject the sideplot
This is the players’ chance to say “this is stupid; I don’t want to do this.”  They may make this decision either in-character or out-of-character.  Accepting the sideplot is done by initiating a scene the continues along the lines of the previously established mode of engagement.  In a mellodrama, it can be assumed that the players attempted to persuade one another to change their opinions during Part 1.  Now one of the players gets to try and show the other players, instead of just talking about it.  In a mystery, this is done by using a hypothesis from phase 1 to guess where there might be more clues.  In a horror story, this is done by making a survival plan.
Rejecting the plots are really easy.  If the characters in a mellodrama choose to leave each other alone, the sideplot is over.  If the investigators in a mystery choose to let the police handle the crime, the sideplot is over.  If the characters in a horror story just leave the haunted house and never come back, the sideplot is over.
The Final Step:  Ending at the Beginning.
Why would I end at the beginning?  Because this is where the biggest choice is made, and without knowing the steps that must be done afterwards it is a meaningless choice.  At the start of a sideplot, the novel ability that will be gained must be introduced.  This is the part that is foreshadowing.  I suggest leaving this step up to the players.  This is where we decide why Bilbosh is going to play at Torric’s Tavern.  Perhaps Bilbosh wants to make some criminal contacts in case he ever needs a “favour.”  Perhaps Bilbosh wants to become a local celebrity.  These two goals make for very pronounced differences in the new abilities gained by the players.
The new abilities do not need to be subtle.  This is where new abilities of superscience or magic are introduced.  Lets suppose the murder victim is an inventor who is perfecting a new kind of fusion drive for spaceships, or the world’s foremost expert on necromancy.  These have the potential to introduce a new ability to the entire campaign setting, not just the players.  Note that if strange abilities are introduced early in a story they can be used later when they are needed, but if the strange abilities are introduced when they are needed it is a deus ex machina.
Subtler examples also exist.  A player can choose to have their character exposed to something that is outside their normal range of experience or behaviour.  How often have important choices been made at a Poker Table in Star Trek: The Next Generation?  How often have characters in horror and survival stories made profound personality changes by the end of the story?  If you want your character to become ruthless, or begin valuing life and kindness, even just for a little while, a brush with death is a great explanation.  In high-school dramas, often an insensitive rich kid will become kind (for a little bit) by having to spend some time with homeless people.
A difficulty of sideplots is that they must occur alongside regular plots.  This means that both the regular plot and the sideplot must have naturally occuring reasons to take breaks from them.  This is fairly difficult for characters who don’t have any real responsibilities (like adventurous wanderers), but is fairly easy if the characters have jobs, families, friends, families, superiors, hobbies, clubs, etc.
As such, sideplots are easiest to use in games where the PCs are well integrated into the setting.  This can be accomplished with narrative alone, but is often better acomplished with game systems that account for worldly ties mechanically.  GURPS would work especially well with this, as it makes Frequency of Appearance have an especially meaningful impact on players’ options over the course of a sideplot.
This kind of session design is likely to make a game feel like one of two genres: television action-adventure, or a sitcom.  It really depends how silly the sideplot is.  Lately I have been thinking that I put way too much emphasis on serious games, and I am eager to learn a bit of the forms that contribute to television comedy.  This is the first I noticed.
I also feel that this can be integrated very effectively into an exploration based game.  It would take some work.