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How can I properly measure "ingame" time to make a countdown? I'll explain it with an example:

The party encounters a small ghost ship, and they board it to investigate/salvage. When they get to the bridge, a video starts playing in the main screen, saying that they're all going to die, and that the ship is going self-destruct in 30 seconds. The party has now to make a narrow escape or suffer the consequences.

Now, I don't want to kill my friends right away, but I want them to feel anxious to escape the vessel as fast as they can, but how can I measure how fast they can go, how much time do they have left? They'd be like "ok, we run and get away safely".

In combat I do believe each round is roughly 5 seconds... I could add combat and penalize their escape time for each round, but what about non-combat? And don't tell me it's up to me as a GM, I already know that, but I want the players to feel they're running out of time, to quantify how long does them take to do something before the time runs out, so they have to "hurry".

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up vote 53 down vote accepted

A candy filled doom pool with players taking variable amounts of candy every action.

In our 4e game, we faced a countdown timed by a bowl filled with candy. Since you've obviously ruled out mapping out the entire ship and having them move through it, instead, start the timer by pouring candy into the bowl.

For every action each player takes, have them take a few pieces of doom candy, to represent "the clock ticking down." They run out of candy, bad things happen. (My recommendation would be to start the explosion on the far end of the ship and have it ripple up, just to give them an unstated grace period.)

The beauty of the doom candy is that you can adjust (slightly, but still adjust) the tension by costing out different doom counts. They fail a roll: they still succeed but they take more candy. It's a race against candy time, and since it's so tactile and visual, it has an immediate impact on the game.

Just make sure the doom bowl is appropriately impressive.

It is also important to note that running is the medium for the activities, not the activity itself. Activities should be "I try to find a shortcut on the computer" or "I force that bulkhead hatch open" or "I leap over the stocked equipment." Running is presumed, it is the successes and complications during the run that make things interesting.

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Bonus points: choose a candy variety that's popular with the group, so they're tempted to take more, sooner! –  Brian S Feb 4 at 15:12
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@Golokopitenko: "I run" 6 times in a row is boring. If this was 4e, I'd say make it a skill challenge: holes(athletics/acrobatics), deadends(history/perception), explosions(heal/endurance), blocked doors(thievery/strength) –  Mooing Duck Feb 4 at 17:28
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Along with Mooing Duck, I would never have it be just "run" to the exit. That's just taking their movement rate and comparing it to time left. Instead, give them a maze, or enemies, or perhaps some objective they would like to finish first (retrieving an important map?). Then they have to handle things and make choices while facing the dwindling candy. –  TimothyAWiseman Feb 4 at 21:55
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This is all awesome. An additional suggestion: entangle the PCs. Offer them chances to help each other (help someone up; hold open dangerously malfunctioning door) at the cost of not making as much progress themselves. –  Alan De Smet Feb 4 at 23:08
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Those are very nice advices, but you didn't really address the questions, that I understand is measurements of the speed and no combat situations, in your method, how many metres are a candy or how many candies consume running 10 metres. –  Flamma Feb 5 at 13:55
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Add decisions.

Sure, they can easily escape right away. But when they do, what happens to that one crucial piece of gear/data/McGuffin they have on their ship?

Create dilemmas, where no decision is the right one, and they have to decide for themselves which one is worth more to them. The friendly NPC who took sleeping pills just an hour ago to get over his insomnia, who is going to wake him up? Who is going arm the jammed escape pods for the rest of the crew? Who is going to make sure that the one thing of incredible value they are transporting is okay on an escape pod? Maybe the escape pods do not have navigation system, who will download it there? And how long will it take?

They cannot possibly save everyone and everything, without getting burned to crisp themselves. They choose.

These are the decisions to combine with Brian's great method of doom candy:

  • If you run, take 2 candy.
  • If you download the data, and succeed on your roll, take 4 candy
  • If you download the data, and fail the roll, take 8 candy
  • If you are going to wake up the NPC/grab the gear/arm the pods....
  • If they shut the fire gates, and succeed, add two candy as the explosion is delayed. If they fail, take 10 candy from them.

This is what makes RPGs so interesting: choices. Be ready to give your players as many choices as possible.

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This is going in the same direction as Brian Ballsun-Stanton’s answer.

Knowing my players, they would actively try to fail and make a competition out of it to get the most candy.

I preferably use the following variations of the same idea:

  • Pouring deco-sand from a bottle (I like my broken hour-glass for this) onto a plate (when tabletop elements are used in the same game, as specifying relative positions on a map via miniatures, I like to put a mini onto the plate and have it slowly covered by sand).

  • Remove “gems” from a pool — especially nice when blood-points or similar are represented like that anyways.

  • Take dice out of your dicebag or put them back in — theatrically throwing them back in made my players call me sadistic.

  • Turning a D100 (the ball version) and thus counting up or down — this makes it hard for the players to follow your counting and you can bluff rather well.

  • Blowing out candles (though I prefer that for life-threatening situations when each character and NPC has his own candle and for each death one gets blown out).

  • Turning handles on a paper clock (like those that are used to teach children to read time) — good, if you need to remind them that “midnight” is drawing near.

If you plan on using such time counting techniques more often, try to give them plenty of time when you introduce this and make actions more costly the farther they get. This allows you to adjust the way your clock ticks to best serve the dramaturgy and atmosphere of the scene, without players complaining about unequal costs.

If you want to annoy your players and keep them from thinking straight (as for simulating great stress for their characters - like loss of mental stability), try playing one of those “time is running short” sound-tracks best known from quiz-shows. Tapping your finger on the table usually does the trick as well. And you can increase the pace whenever they start to get out of character or keep discussing what they should do.

If you want them to get anxious, try looking very concerned and put some additional candy into the bowl after visibly considering back and forth whether you should do that. Or when a player has to take some candy, with the same show as before, you look into the bowl, change your mind and have him put some of it back. Players usually assume that the GM won't kill them — it pays to play into that.

For the introduction to your example: I would make sure, that I am the only one talking, describe the scene while innocently preparing the counting technique, go on describing the video, quote what it says, pause, grin and say “Run!” while taking out the first counters. From my experience, it makes a lot of difference how you introduce “the chase”.

Then there is the matter of how you translate game time to counters. I am not familiar enough with your system of choice, but I think Flamma’s answer is a good start. How you choose the ratio between story-telling and rules to determine how they are getting ahead, as always, depends on your preferences as a GM and those of your players.

For my regular group, the approach we settled for is to resolve everything storytelling wise and only throw in dice rolls when they are really needed or when they serve the dramaturgy but nothing more complicated than rolling a die and quickly interpreting the result. But I also once had players who wanted to do a meticulous simulation with rules for every step their characters would make and specific formulas for how much time that would take. While I could never “feel the chase” that way, it seemed to be quite intense for them.

This got terribly long … again.

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You have movement speed, you know how much distance they can move in 5 seconds, be it walking, running or sprinting. 30 seconds are 6 turns in your calculations. For more time, just multiply (if the time is 2 minutes, don't make them roll 24 times). In difficult terrain, let them roll Agility or any appropriate skill, and you can calculate at what percentage of their maximum speed they can move.

Now, before you start, you have to ask yourself: what happen if the party fail the rolls and don't get to escape in time?

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In theory, this is how game rules are typically written to work, but in practice, it's incredibly tedious and error prone. –  Wyrmwood Feb 4 at 22:37
    
@Wyrmwood Why is that? If you run 10 meters in 5 seconds, in 30 seconds you will run 60 meters. Then the GM can divide the time so the players make as many rolls as he see fit for achieving tension without making it boring or tedious. You don't have to roll each turn, but as many times as you want. –  Flamma Feb 4 at 23:52
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Yes, mechanically, it works perfectly. The problem is that it's perfectly mechanical. "I run", roll. "I run", roll... gets boring fast. It doesn't require the players to make interesting choices and whether they live or die becomes a purely random result. (Succeed on enough rolls, you live. Fail too many rolls, you die.) As other answers have said, you can assume the running is happening, so focus instead on whatever else they may choose (or be forced) to do along the way. –  Dave Sherohman Feb 5 at 10:02
    
@DaveSherohman I don't understand why. You can insert as many obstacles as you want: enemies, electronic locks, an important device that would take time to get... I want to remember original questions are "how can I measure how fast they can go, how much time do they have left?" and "I could add combat and penalize their escape time for each round, but what about non-combat?", and not "How to make the run interesting". In that way, only Allen's answer and mine really address the question. –  Flamma Feb 5 at 10:55
    
@Flamma - I'm not disagreeing with you at all. The rules in most games have the granularity to keep perfect track of time, but in my experience (which is obviously biased), exact time keeping is difficult at best. I have run scenarios where the clock was important; where players were racing against two other factions (not exactly enemies) and I have to admit, there was a great deal of fudging... –  Wyrmwood Feb 5 at 20:58
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I would suggest two different answers depending on the time scale you're talking about.

Using your example, 30 seconds in 5-second rounds is just 6 rounds. At that scale I'd say keep them in combat rounds - they use actions as appropriate to get to the escape pods/override the self-destruct/beam to the opponent's ship. When they're out of rounds, things go boom. (For added fun, limit how long they can chat before they lose an action to "arguing about what to do").

If your time limit is long enough that keeping everyone in combat isn't feasible, I'd suggest a timer of some sort. Everytime they're discussing what to do, start the clock. Remember, the goal is to make them feel rushed. The actual time is less important than that continual tick-tick-tick...

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