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I'm writing up a scenario base on the idea of a breach and clear of a hostage situation.

I imagine it being a failure if it lasts more than about 30 seconds and as a round is about 5 seconds i figured 6 rounds then mission ends. The problem with this is they might then really analyze each action and that would completely destroy the atmosphere of the mission as it would lose that fast and furious feeling.

My second idea was 20 minutes real time, 3,2,1 go, roll initiative then play as fast as they can to complete the mission. This might work but I'm worried it will make it very hard and therefore not fun.

So my question is

A) has anyone written/played a scenario like this before ?

B) has anyone had experience using either style of timer and can offer pros and cons ?

C) is there a 3 choice I've over looked ?


readign the answeres its clear i forgot a key piece of information. The players have infinite time to plan the mission, pick there weapons, discuss tatics, look through the maps. The timer only starts when they blow a hole in the wall.

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In the second option, would you tell the PCs that there was a timer, and how much time they had? – Red_Shadow Jul 21 '14 at 17:26
I'd suggest taking a glance at some of the Spycraft materials. I seem to recall one game where performed a "flash and clear" down the length of a train; it went pretty "fast and furious". – Wesley Obenshain Jul 21 '14 at 18:12
@WesleyObenshain that sounds amazing, do you have any idea what its called ? – Skeith Jul 22 '14 at 13:36
I'm pretty sure it was a Living Spycraft module but we made up the "flash and clear" part to take advantage of the confined space. I just happen to know it has the mechanics to support this. – Wesley Obenshain Jul 22 '14 at 15:57
I think a game specific tag would be helpful because some games I know have specific mechanics to handle this. – MrJinPengyou Jul 23 '14 at 14:10

Yes, I do this kind of thing all the time in my supers games.

I usually go with the first option; decide how long they have, then convert that into a game-measurable limit (the system I use calls them "panels"), but then if my players start getting bogged down in tactics I cut them off and say "Uh, guys? Clock's ticking, here."

It helps that they rarely know exactly how long they have (IE, I don't tell them they've only got four rounds). That unknown is usually enough to keep the pressure on.

I prefer this to using real-time because then trying to figure out what counts against the clock is a hassle (Bob just had to go to the bathroom and the pizza guy came... is asking me questions off-limits? etc.)

As for other options, the old Men in Black game had a combination of the two; you had to get a certain number of successes within a real time period, which resulted in a lot of frantic die-rolling. But from reading various reviews of the game, no one really liked that mechanic.

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The problem with introducing a real world timer, in my opinion, is that the characters most likely know more about how to handle such situations than the your players do (well, unless your players are professional negotiators and/or SWAT people.)

In my experience it's quite natural for players to discuss strategy and tactics, especially in critical situations, and I always allow it. Sure, I do not allow too much time for this, because that can, as you've said, end up in endless debates and a ruined session -- but about the same holds true of rushing their decisions as well: not having enough time to sort through options will, paradoxically, weaken your players' immersion: they'll stop thinking with their characters' heads and react as they themselves would, superficially.

That said, it's hard to give precise advice without knowing your players (their personalities are the most important factor here, I believe) and the system and the characters (though these are secondary to your players.) What worked for us is a gradual "easing into" the situation: If you give them 30 seconds in game and start counting rounds, allow a lot more real time for coming up with a plan, surveying the situation, and thinking through what their characters' options are in the first two rounds. Then, when they've come up with practically everything and are again actively "in character", ready to get into the real action, start speeding real world counting as well. The third and the fourth rounds would be half as long as their preparatory ones (the first two) were, and the last two rounds would be real fast. This way you can build momentum both in-game and IRL, controlling the pacing.

A technique we use is to visualize such situations as a gradually speeding up movie scene: the first two rounds are described by slow-motion imagery, then everything kicks into higher gear...

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+1 for building up momentum and making the rounds faster and shorter. Also if my group is taking too much time, I just let the bad-guys advance a little, not in that the PCs miss their round, but just a little fluff: e.g. if an NPC can shoot each round and the players are taking too long with their round I would go "And he is ejecting the shell from his shotgun and aiming to shoot again" - and the players will immediately react, without the GM actually changing any game mechanics ;-) – Falco Jul 22 '14 at 8:24

Addressing this as a "What should I do?" instead of as "round limit or real-time limit", I think you might be looking at this the wrong way. Consider what SWAT teams (and other such organizations) do during a hostage situation. The essential problem with hostage situations is that its assumed that under ordinary breach circumstances the hostage takers (HTs) can kill the hostages with little to no effort. Limiting the number of rounds doesn't reflect that. Neither does limiting the real-time combat, though that probably provides a better reflection of the stresses involved.

Give the players a real-time limit to plan the raid

SWAT teams use stalling tactics (negotiators, etc) to give themselves as much time as possible to plan and set up before the breech. Give them the situation brief (the source depends on the circumstances), then give them a time limit to plan. If you can put it on a visible timer, so you can avoid calling attention to the countdown, do that. If you feel like it, and depending on the system, let them make rolls to extend the planning time (with delaying tactics, etc) and gather information (like building blueprints).

Once the raid starts target the hostages

Dedicate one or more of your HTs to killing the hostages. They don't all need to be dead before the HTs move on (just dying), but HTs need to be willing to follow through on the threat or they pretty much lose all of their leverage right away. Whether you use system rules or GM fiat to adjudicate that is entirely up to you. This means that the player's plan will need to include some way to prevent the HTs from acting against the hostages long enough to disable them or ending the encounter quickly enough to allow medical attention for the hostages.

Enforce real-world circumstances

Once the "go-signal" is given, the characters don't really have time to discuss their plans. Make that clear before the situation starts, then enforce it in game. I'd give them a little leeway but if they're not ready to act on their initiative, put them on an automatic "hold". If they still don't know what to do at the end of the round, they lose their turn and continue their hold at the top of the initiative order. Only the active player can talk, and no more than a few words unless they're declaring their actions.

Those three things should give the players all the sense of urgency you could ever dream of without having to impose arbitrary in-game or out-of-game time limits.

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I like your idea, have tried it before though ? – Skeith Jul 22 '14 at 13:32
@Skeith I will admit my memories of a specific occasion are rather vague but yes. Spycraft missions contain(ed?) a gearup phase with a real-time limit and we would often enforce a relaxed version of the "no discussing each others' moves" rule. Holding was often reserved as punishment for extended dithering but properly warned and with some leniency it should set the right sense of urgency to decision making. – Wesley Obenshain Jul 22 '14 at 17:53

Why not both?

I'd go with a hybrid of your two ideas for this scenario. The PCs only have so many rounds to complete their mission. The players are only allowed so many minutes per round to discuss strategy. This way you still get the sense of immediacy that you are looking for in game, while also preventing the game from getting too bogged down.


The most important thing if you go this route is figuring out the right amount of time to let the players talk tactics. Too short a time and they will feel too rushed and just go with the first thing they think of. This could result in them failing the mission, and even worse, not having fun. However, giving them too much time to think can kill the tension and immersion of what sounds like a fun session.

In story terms

From a narrative point of view, the PCs have some sort of training in this type of situation (I'm assuming). They are going to be making snap judgements, but those snap judgements are still going to be informed by that training. Your players, on the other hand, don't have any training in a hostage rescue situation (again, making an assumption). The time limit on discussing tactics gives them a chance to come up with the informed decisions that their characters think of on the fly.

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It depends on the group of players.

Giving a real-time limit of 20 minutes is probably going to be counter-productive. Players will feel too much pressure to decide actions quickly, and that tends to go against the fun of most RPGs.

If they like tactical, strongly rules-based gaming, setting a game-time limit of 5 rounds before the bad-guys kill the hostages, but DON'T tell the players. Certainly give some indication that there's a point at which the bad-guys will either escape or kill the hostages.

If the players are a little less tactically inclined, and enjoy a bit more storytelling, you as the GM can try to manage the drama-level a bit. E.g. don't have a preset time-limit. Tell the PC that this group of bad-guys are willing to do anything. As the PC's progress through the stages the bad-guys react in realistic ways based on what the PC are doing. Both the hostages and the bad-guys are going to react in unpredictable ways, giving you license to do stuff that adds drama, rather than trying to hold to a specific time-limit, or script.

Some might use the hostages as human-shields. Some of the terrorists escape unharmed, maybe they take a hostage or two with them. Maybe the PC's kick-ass and subdue everyone, maybe they screw-up and the bad-guys kill-off a few hostages. Maybe a hostage panics and makes a break for it, maybe a hostage knees a bad-guy in the groin and takes their gun. Do what makes the scenario more interesting and fun for the players.

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To keep the pace fast, I would suggest going more granular than the timers you have, and move down to the round level. If you feel a player is taking too long to plan or think through their actions, tell them, to enforce the idea that they haven't got all day. Depending on the sensitivity of your players this could be as easy as "Character X hesitates this round, go character Y", or a simple reminder as Sandalfoot suggests "Clock's ticking".

With regards to the overall structure of the scene, a total round timer may or may not be appropriate. By itself, keeping the players from thinking too much every round and reacting more instinctively is probably enough to keep them on their toes, even if the number of rounds goes up. Depending on how the hostage situation is set up though, a limit like this might be appropriate (for example, if there are no bad guys with the hostages (not that the players know this) but there is a timed bomb strapped to the back of the door).

If the timer is not the way to go however, you should at least have a plan as to what people will do when the breach and clear goes down. Providing they are thinking rationally, the bad guys will have made a plan, however cursory, which you can use to add pressure to the situation without putting on an arbitrary time limit (eg. "once they recover from the initial shock, they will use the hostages as human shields"). The hostages will probably do something to, depending on their level of restraint. Having a group get up en masse and flee towards the exits in the middle of a pitched battle will add tension, if that is the way you want to go.

I would recommend also giving the players ample time to plan, with the information they have, before the fact. Let them know in character (they probably can figure it out themselves, but its good to be thorough) that they will be going into a fast-paced situation and won't have a lot of time to think once it starts. I wouldn't screw with them maliciously at this point, but if they make a mistake or something does not go according to plan it will also add to the sense of urgency, especially if their mistake is quite evident in the worsening of the situation (eg. maybe they planned that the hostages would be passive and wait to be rescued, but on sight of the cavalry, they instead start fighting with their captors most valiantly, getting injured or killed in the process).

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It would be possible to run this in game time without having the real-time element to it.

Bearing in mind that you only have split seconds to react in different situations then you could introduce:

  • Orientation Roles: The concept follows that the player must make choices based on something that is just out of his physical perception but may be impinging upon it (hence the requirement for them to orient towards this). The player must perform a roll based on their intuition and reasoning abilities (this can be tailored for different systems' stat types). A roll is made and added to the [average] of the stat[s]. If the result is 101 or more (percentile dice roles) or 21 or more (D20) then the player notices.
  • Snap Perception Rolls: Perception [RoleMaster, ChL&CL p.48] is a skill that allows the player to notice things that may just be hiding on the edge of the mundane. Depending on how difficult things are to notice depends on the penalties that are applied to the static manoeuvre. A 'snap' Perception roll would receive a penalty of -20 to the skill. The result would be calculated easily by adding the figures together: Perception Skill + Roll - 20 (Snap). Again, a successful result must be 101 or more (21+ on D20). The key to this skill is the player must know that they are looking for something but that something may not be specific.

Either of these can be easily adapted to any skill types throughout the many systems.

Couple of notes here:

  • Orientation rolls are good but there's no skill involved in this. Someone who's been making snap decisions in tactical situations like this is going to be skilled at making the choices. To that end, if it's the players' first time, you may want to weight the orientation rolls to make them easier. If you follow this path, though, you're going to be making a bit of a rod for your back, as you'll have to remember how many times they've done it, and balance this off against there being a possible skill effect.
  • The environment the players are in plays a large part in this. For instance, if the enemies and hostages are in a large warehouse full of stuff, then they're going to be harder to see. Any orientation or skill rolls should be modified accordingly. Alternatively, if the players are sweeping through a house or similar, chances are they're going to notice things more readily, incurring a bonus to their perception or orientations.
  • Don't let the players have the liberty of working out best scenarios except where they actually do have time to rest. If they start discussing logic simply state: 'You don't have time to discuss this.'
  • ANother option is to ask each player in turn for their decision without allowing them to discuss it, based on their position in formation.
  • Give slight orientation or perception roll penalties for players moving backward through the group.
  • Have the players make an assault plan before they go in, and stick to this as closely as possible throughout.
  • Have the players decide on other tactics, such as their formation on the way through, and kill assignments based on their positions (for instance point will always kill enemy point, 2nd will always kill enemy second and so on).

The possibilities here are endless and exciting - nice idea!

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