I am under the impression (so correct me if I'm wrong) that having a close time limit on objectives could be fun if there is not an abuse of the game mechanic.

So one hand, I want my players in a game of Akuma: the Sixth Dawn to find out about this time limit in the right moment:

Oh no, the truck where we hid the MacGuffin just left west, that's the direction of the bridge that was blown up! And in the foggiest day! Let's us hurry up pals!

But on the other hand I don't want to video-game the event1 or spoonfed them the info. The truck is going to leave at 9, and crash at 11 if nothing is done. Only the guard and some employees know this. If my players think getting a drink after a rough day is more important than taking care of the MacGuffin, that's part of TRPG.

Still I'd like to give my players as many chances as possible to find out there is a time limit, or to connect the dots.

DM: So the guard tells you that truck just left to another town via West Street, the unique, long street that reachs out of the city.

Player: (Doesn't remember the bridge is west) Mm okay, maybe we could find out tomorrow where it's headed.

This is even trickier for events the party doesn't know about, BBEG plans, rituals, man-made catastrophes ("Hey let's open this cursed ancient tomb in the name of archeology"). In this case it'd feel even more unfair, as the players didn't get to make any decision, they were just slow or oblivious, and we completely miss on the adrenaline rush .

How can I improve the odds of players finding out about time-sensitive events at the right moment? Better even if they are slow or dense that day.

1Where the event doesn't happen if the player character is not there.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Are you looking for answers especially focused on players being aware of secret information (like the 11o'clock crash or the BBEG plan you mention)? Because I would expect most answers to begin with "dont assume secret info" of you don't specifically ask for it. \$\endgroup\$
    – 3C273
    Commented Jan 14, 2021 at 15:07
  • \$\begingroup\$ @3C273 I apologize, I don't understand your question. I'd like to know how to give important, time sensitive info to my players without spoonfeeding it to them. \$\endgroup\$
    – Melferas
    Commented Jan 14, 2021 at 15:10
  • \$\begingroup\$ I guess the main point of my question is : will you accept an answer that says "never make plans for informations that the PCs have to explicitly search for (what I called secret). Only info that is freely available(and you can thus just give out as the gm)"? \$\endgroup\$
    – 3C273
    Commented Jan 14, 2021 at 15:15
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ @3C273 Ah I see, it does make sense, but then the whole question is kind of moot. I'd actually like to see if there are any tips for this. If there's none, well, I'd have to accept a "never" for an answer. \$\endgroup\$
    – Melferas
    Commented Jan 14, 2021 at 15:19
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ The example is important for this question as unclear time limits. They need to make several logical leaps to assume that the truck driver is going to commit suicide by foggy bridge, so the time limit is confusing. \$\endgroup\$
    – Nepene Nep
    Commented Jan 16, 2021 at 14:52

10 Answers 10


Time limits the players don't know about are useless.

You don't know where your players are gonna go, or what they're gonna do. If you have events happen off screen that they can't foresee, there's no real tension, and they might decide to go somewhere else. You can have timed events for your own fun, but roleplay is about collaboration and interaction.

You should adjust your events to be more active and interactive.

As I understand it, they left the macguffin on a random truck, and the truck driver is gonna drive off a bridge and die? Did you tell them that this truck would likely drive off? They left no one there who could tell them? Regardless, the macguffin randomly being lost isn't that interesting. Instead, have things happen with it.

Blades in the dark has a fun mechanic, of clocks. You make a clockface, divide it into several fractions, and each time a big event happens you colour in a face. So, for this truck-

  1. The truck driver finds someone invaded their truck, and goes to analyze the macguffin. The next time the PCs go to check on the macguffin, it's lost.

  2. The truck driver arranges an auction for the macguffin. The PC's contacts can tell them it's being sold, as everyone knows.

  3. The big bad goes to buy the macguffin. They can see some assets being sold off to pay for this, or they can see troops being moved to ambush the auctionee.

  4. The big bad activates the macguffin. Whatever the macguffin does happens.

At any point in this the PCs can intervene. If they don't whatever happens happens.

Having the macguffin randomly fall in a hole is a lot less interesting than a giant auction of evil.

This serves as general advice when you have a time limit. Don't make it quick and hard to see. Make it extended, and escalating in it's badness.

An example, just as you asked, of how you might handle a cursed tomb is The Mummy.

The Mummy has these steps. Step 1. The curator burns the map to the tomb, because people who go there never return. Step 2. A knowledge check by the protagonist says the tomb is a portal to hell, and they see Americans going to the tomb. Step 3. Ardeth Bay shoots at them and says "Leave this place or die." Step 4. On the way into the tomb, supernatural monsters consume some of the American's natives. Step 5. On the tomb of the Mummy is a curse, saying that whoever opens it will be consumed to resurrect the Mummy. Step 6. Everlyn decides to read from the book of the dead, and is warned that doing so is dangerous. Step 7. Everlyn reads from the book, and resurrects the Mummy. Step 8. The mummy eats the Americans to regain it's strength as the curse said it would.

Every step on the way is well telegraphed, and they had many many chances to avoid this danger. That is ideal.

Make time limits interesting.

That's the key aspect. They should be slow, well telegraphed, and give the PCs a chance to shit their pants as things get worse. That is what TRPGs are about.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I would only add that there also needs to be visible progress of the situation getting worse, and the time scale needs to be fast enough such that it happens while the player characters can see/interact with it. I recently had a situation where I delayed the party for 15 in game rounds for an event the BBEG wanted to happen and it was generally seen as not fun because of the delay tactics that I had to use. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jan 14, 2021 at 21:50
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ While this advice is all good, the question is 'how to reveal a time limit' and I don't see this actually answering that \$\endgroup\$
    – SeriousBri
    Commented Jan 15, 2021 at 16:10
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ The question does note how to handle them- make them obvious, multi parter, and interesting. Their current plan is a single step hidden plan (truck driver commits suicide with the macguffin the next day). \$\endgroup\$
    – Nepene Nep
    Commented Jan 16, 2021 at 0:41
  • \$\begingroup\$ "Time limits the players don't know about are useless." I'd wager that the ones that the players don't know about are the most useful. Good time limits are the ones, that players don't know about, but they know of \$\endgroup\$
    – tuskiomi
    Commented Jan 16, 2021 at 4:21
  • \$\begingroup\$ I want to say, all answers here have most helpful information, but I tried the escalating system on paper and table and it really seems to work, it was more important to ramp up the odds than to have a single point of failure, and as soon as the players knew things could go worse, they started trying harder to avoid it, which was fun. \$\endgroup\$
    – Melferas
    Commented Jan 18, 2021 at 8:52

Whether you have a "living world" or not, something needs to connect players to events

I have had similar problems in my games: I want players to discover things for themselves, and understand the details well enough to make informed decisions about what they want to do and how they want to do it. I like this more than giving a mission briefing for every single event that might interest them. But ultimately these games exist for the players, and fun they never get to have because they don't know secret information is the same as the game not containing that fun in the first place.

I've tried two main approaches to address this when I run games:

1. The game is centered around things that matter to and happen near the PCs

This is the easier option. Regardless of how detailed your game setting is, players are probably not going to interact with absolutely every part of it. They will be focused on parts of the setting that matter to the story and that match their preferences and interests.

The basic idea here is that players will come across information naturally, as they go about their normal in-game activities. The challenge for the GM is to find ways for the information they need to come up in those normal activities. By making sure that the way players will hear about important information naturally fits with their activities, it's much easier to provide natural-seeming clues.

2. The game world is detailed enough that events have purposes and effects outside of interacting with the players

I find this to often be a more difficult option, but also a more effective one. The major issue with the situation you describe is that you are playing a TRPG, not observing an actual world that exists. If the only reason the truck leaving matters is because the MacGuffin is hidden inside of it, then you already have the "events don't happen unless the players are there" problem: the truck leaving is only relevant because the players need the item.

If, instead, the truck has some independent reason to exist (maybe it's a delivery truck that regularly makes trips between cities, for example) then you have details about it that don't relate to the players at all. It has a reason to be where it is, and a reason to go somewhere else at a certain time, and player interaction is not relevant to that.

This allows two important elements: players can choose how and when they want to approach the truck, and you have plot material to work with if the players don't do what you expect. The truck and MacGuffin will end up somewhere, at some point, and even if players miss the chance to hijack it they'll be able to follow it later (in this case, missing the time limit might have consequences but doesn't guarantee total failure). If the players decide to organize a robbery of the truck you have an opportunity to introduce the time-limited elements while they are planning.

I think that the main problem you have is providing information about the game world to your players

It is not reasonable to expect players to randomly discover necessary information at an important moment-- anything necessary to the story shouldn't depend on odds at all. As GM, you are in control of the game world and what your players know about it. If the players need information, you need to give it to them or at least make it clear that there is important information they need to discover.

The total story will be very clear to you because you are running the game. Your players, on the other hand, only know what you've told them. If you never tell them something, the players will never know it. It is very easy to miss details as a player which the GM finds obvious, and the best defense against this as a GM is to provide more information.

The Alexandrian's Three Clue Rule is a helpful guide for adding enough information for players to discover what they need to move forward. An alternative is making information more obvious, even if that leans towards spoon-feeding it to players. The backup option is to have a branch of the story that allows the plot to move forward if players do somehow miss out on the clues you've provided.

The trick to all this seeming natural is to think of ways for the necessary information to come from a natural-seeming source: it's not what the information is, but about how the players hear about it that makes events feel more natural or more forced. And when all else fails, it's more important to give the information awkwardly than to smoothly ensure that players never learn about it.


You need to create the circumstances the players find themselves in, so that you can reveal the clock

Ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Who knows the truck is in that direction?
  2. Who knows the bridge has been blown up?
  3. Who knows the fog will mean the driver can't see and will crash off the bridge?

The basic idea is to be able to create a bunch of people in your world who will be able to give the players the information they need. Then you need to make sure your players interact with them, and there are a myriad of ways to do this.

Maybe they walk past a group of workmen grumbling that the bridge has been blown and is going to be backbreaking labour to fix. If the players don't move, maybe the workmen walk past them.

Maybe the truckdrivers union is up in arms about having to drive in such dangerous conditions and are out on the picket lines. They could specifically be calling out how the last truck that left is doomed because the driver can't see. Maybe even drop hints like how an inexperienced driver was chosen because they were the only ones who wouldn't dare turn the job down. If the players aren't moving maybe have them hear the shouts, or see some guards going to restore order and talking about the situation as the walk past the party.

Maybe have the wandering workmen wander towards the picket line, mysteriously just as the party arrive, the workmen put 2 and 2 together themselves and exclaim loudly about the broken bridge and say straight-up that the truck will crash if nothing is done in time.

Basically just put the group near NPC's who can provide the information. Give the clues and let them connect the dots themselves. As a player it is often far harder to see the dots than a DM might think, so you need either more clues (there is an oft-cited 3 clue rule, which means everything you want the players to know, tell them at least 3 times), or to be a little bit more obvious. Most players won't spot that you are being so heavy handed, it just doesn't look that way from the players side of the table.

Once the players are aware that something is happening, assuming they bite the hook they will seek more information, and you can make sure they find an NPC who can help them connect the dots and work out that they only have 2 hours. The NPC could even help make sure they get the only vehicle in town fast enough to catch the truck.

In your example the players talked to a guard who only provided one piece of the information, but you are in control of what that guard knows, so what was stopping him from knowing more and just telling the players? Maybe the guards have tried to stop the truck and sent patrols to catch up but the guard is worries that they won't catch up in time.

It sounds like you have events happening in your world that nobody knows about, and that is the problem. Every event needs to either happen to the players, be clearly mentioned to the players, or just be something that the players experience the consequences of, in which case the when and why is irrelevant because they were never meant to intervene in the first place and the consequences are what will be happening to the players.

As a DM you control the entire world, it doesn't matter what the players do or where the players go, you can create an NPC or an event that gives them the information you want them to have. I have a list of random NPC's just in case I need it, if they have to encounter a stranger in the woods in order to get certain info then that is what will happen. If the players care or not is up to them, or maybe it isn't, but the trick is to at least make them think it is.

Once the players know there is a clock

This is where you can really turn up the tension. You can use a prop so they can actually see time ticking away, think how the clock in 24 worked to increase suspense. You could even use an hour glass to the pressure is real time, and the game time is abstracted to just fit into however long the hourglass lasts. Each is a different requirement from the DM, but both work with the right type of players.


First of all, there is nothing inherently "wrong" with visualizing time limit as a ticking clock, like in a videogame. There are games which explicitly describe such timers, Apocalypse World has its Countdown Clocks for instance, so do many PbtA games.

But if you think this will ruin suspension of disbelief at your table, consider more implicit/tangential ways of showing the time limit. Two things will remain tho — 1. players should be aware of it and 2. there should be a way of visualizing the progress.

Players should be aware of the time limit

Basically paraphrasing the Nepene Nep's answer. Don't hide from players there is a time limit, even if it could be more "realistic" from the simulationist point of view. Give them information, one way or another:

  • as a part of the introduction: "You're condemned and will be executed in the morning at 9:00. You have 12 hours to escape".
  • as information that was found in-game: "There are rumors the Royal Guard will arrive tomorrow at dawn".
  • using party's resources: "You have 20 torches, each burns for 30 minutes. After 10 hours you will be in complete darkness, unless you find another source of light".

Visualize the progress

Now players are aware the time limit is there, but game time and real time run differently, so make sure the players have a sound way of tracking the game time.

  • There is a clock at the prison cell's wall. Draw it at a piece of paper. Tick a segment each time it advances an hour.
  • Answer the truth when a player asks "what time is it", considering the character should probably know that
  • If clocks aren't common in the game world, describe time of the day approximately: "The shadows lengthen. It's 1-2 hours before sunset."
  • Spend their resources: "Time passes. You have to light another torch"

There are plenty of familiar real-world natural timers:

  • A decrepit bridge that might go out at any time
  • A very old NPC who is close to death
  • Fading ink
  • Rising flood waters
  • A new lord of the keep about to take control
  • A mountain pass which becomes impassable in winter
  • Poisonous insects multiplying

Any of these can be used to provide a sense of urgency, even if they won't put your party in a specific place at a specific time. If you need that, how about

  • An overheard rumor of something happening January 6th
  • An opportunity to take advantage of the chaos of a guard shift change, or sneak in with a scheduled class of new recruits
  • A town whose security is lax on market day, or a religious pilgrimage (if your world includes multiple organized religions you have near-infinite ability to tie rites to a specific date and time)

Use a light touch or it's a railroad

As the referee, it's your job to present a fun world. If your vision of "fun" is that it's supposed to be realistic, then keep it real. In that case, don't reveal time limits except through realistic hints. On the other hand, if you prefer a cartoony feel, then you can even use cutscene narration so that players know what's happening that they don't see (and encourage metagaming).

Well-run, timed events breathe life into a world - because the world moves on with or without the players. In fact, many times the players are forced to choose between Event A or Event B, because they both happen at the same time. Or "gasp", split the party?

Some of the best written adventures that I've seen (first played, then run) have built-in time limits - or at least timed events. Two examples come to mind, "Shadows over Bogenhafen" and "City of the White Wolf" from 1987 for the WFRP system.

The problem, as noted in the wikipedia review is that the players can feel railroaded. If you miss Event C, you might not find out about Event D, and if you aren't at Event E, etc.. That's what I meant by the "well-run" qualifier above.

As the referee, it's fine to fudge things a bit. If you see the players missing the path needed to "save the world", a little careful nudging doesn't hurt. However, the more you nudge, the more "railroad" your players will feel. Keep in mind, the players may WANT to leave your carefully crafted plot and explore somewhere else.


It's a matter of play style. Whether you go complete "living world" where things happen as they happen and it's up to the players to keep up, full "video game" where the players always arrive exactly when they need to for the plot or any sort of intermediate is completely legitimate as long as everyone is on board with it and knows what to expect.

Having the plot wait for the players to catch up to it is a special form of illusionism and like illusionism in general there are wide ranging opinions about it and it is the kind of thing that needs to be discussed as part of "session 0" or earlier.

Some players are OK with knowing that timers exist in general even if they don't necessarily know which plots have timers. Some players don't want plots to have timers at all, even if they are clearly informed of those timers. Some players are in the middle and are fine with time restricted plots as long as they know about them. All of these are legitimate play styles.

You could even have different parts of the plot work in different ways such as the main plot being "video game" style while side quests are "living world". As long as the players know that's what they should expect that's fine.


Provide alternate ways to get the MacGuffin back.

In the real world, there are almost always multiple ways to accomplish something. If someone needs more money, they typically have several obvious choices:

  • Get a job (slow, but low risk and a decent likelihood of success)
  • Play the lottery (high risk of a total loss, low chance of phenomenal success)
  • Steal or counterfeit the money (high potential reward, but high potential for getting caught and suffering severe penalties)
  • Start a small business
  • Search for buried treasure
  • Ask parents for an advance on their inheritance
  • Beg
  • Etc.

Your player's characters are not limited to a single choice of "rescue the truck before it crashes". Sure, rescuing the truck is probably the "best" choice, but people often achieve success in their goals despite not always making the "best" choices. Perhaps the MacGuffin can be recovered from the wreckage of the crashed truck, but doing so requires an adventure.

  • It's foggy out there - who knows who or what else is lurking in that ravine?
  • People can be injured by stepping on broken pieces of the truck or bridge or stepping on uncertain ground and falling.
  • Other factions have found out about the crash, and may attempt their own salvage missions (possibility of combat?).
  • The driver was, or would have become, a supporter of the players' party, but is now dead and unable to help.

Ask your players how their characters know, and tell your players what their characters know.

In the case of the truck crash, this is what those ideas would look like. As your players decide they're leaving the MacGuffin in a partly disassembled WeMoveIt truck, you say:

Okay, so how are you planning to keep an eye on this until you can come back for it? Tracking device, surveillance hack, dress up like a janitor? Drink at the Teamster bar and listen to them gossip?

It doesn't really matter what your players say as long as it's remotely possible. Now you have a way to get them on the exciting chase you want them to get on, so you present that information in keeping with how they get it. So if somebody volunteered to nurse a Shirley Temple all night at the Teamster bar, you can say:

Along about 1 AM, a group of people in WeMoveIt coveralls storm in, mood like an angry sky. Apparently the boss decided that an order really needed to get out tonight, in the fog, over the mountain road, in an old beater of a delivery truck they just patched back into service. When the union balked, he schemed up a way to saddle Babyface Jensen with it, and he's never even driven that route. Poor kid's gonna die out there.

All of that is just stuff any GM might say, but then you can follow up with what their characters know, things you don't intend to be a mystery to the players.

There was only one beat-up old delivery truck in that warehouse, and you hid the MacGuffin in it. And yeah, the kid's probably going to die out there, especially if he does the rookie thing and takes the bridge over West River to get to the mountain road. It's still under construction after that disastrous explosion last week.

So, what are you doing?

Of course, not everything you have planned can get the how/what going this easily, like the disastrous archaeological dig on a remote continent. What do you do in that case?

The players can't lose if they're not there.

Now, things can happen all the time when the players aren't there. Like, Babyface Jensen got pressured into that ill-fated drive. But the players haven't lost because Jensen's out driving, that's just something they have to deal with.

The thing is, unless you intend for something to be a campaign finale, having an action sequence that results in a campaign loss if the players don't succeed isn't that much different from having a fight which only ends when one side is dead. There's no guarantee the players will succeed at the action sequence or the fight, the dice could turn against them. If you don't want the players to lose or die you have to go in thinking: it isn't campaign over, so what's the worst that could happen?

So, if the players seriously screw up tailing Jensen and stopping the crash, or if even knowing the kid's going to die out there, are just too drained to throw their all into pursuing him, what's the worst that could happen? Well, the MacGuffin's now at the bottom of the West River. Probably a lot harder for the characters to secure now, and a lot easier for other forces to snag without leaving the obvious trail they would ripping it out of a truck in a busy warehouse. But not gone forever.

The same is also true of things you want to have happen without the characters necessarily having a way to find out, such as Dr. Bonn's ill-fated expedition to the tomb of Amok-Ra. If your game is geared more toward globetrotting adventure, like Spirit of the Century, players often have a hook to find that sort of thing out, like being a member of the Century Club, an international organization fighting to forward the better angels of humankind. The Century Club has all sorts of ready intelligence on threats all over the globe.

But if you're running in a setting where all the characters really have is their local newspaper, even if Dr. Bonn's expedition is front page news and the talk of the town, that might motivate the characters to get curious and get involved, but there's no indication how badly it's going to turn out if they don't. What do you do then?

Well, the players can't lose if they're not there, so you come up with a scenario that would get them more immediately involved. Maybe someone they care about really wants to go on this expedition and asks Dr. Bonn to hire them on, too. Or absent any ties like that, maybe they don't really lose to the evil of Amok-Ra until they get a chance to stop it on their own turf. Something like:

To complete his plan, Amok-Ra needs powerful artifacts that have already been entrusted to the state university, and since Dr. Bonn is one of their head researchers, he gets possessed. The expedition returns but with things more obviously wrong - Dr. Bonn the only survivor, bearing the Mark of Amok-Ra as a scar, with a bunch of mysterious packages in tow, and maybe the presser on his return goes south when he leaps into the crowd and nearly assaults one of the reporters before regaining his composure. Then you tell your players what their characters know - this isn't the same Dr. Bonn that left. This is some bad trouble. And they can start taking steps to stop it.

A final note: Not gaming is better than bad gaming.

If some or all of your players have had a bad week, to the point that they can't focus on getting into character or understanding the game world, there's no shame in canceling and just watching a movie or something. It's nobody's fault that the world is cruel. RPGs are a form of entertainment that need a decent amount of engagement on everybody's part in order to be successful. Trying to force that on people who aren't up to it at the moment is just going to give everybody in the game a worse time.


Players should always be aware that a timer exists at least, even if they do not know what the timer is exactly.

Are you able to make it tacitly understood going into the game that that time is of the essence? I often see that done story wise and that should be enough for players to know now to dawdle (i.e. some plot is afoot and MUST be dealt with before the moon rises).

You craft story the story such that it makes sense that you don't have an infinite amount of time to dawdle. Then as the game goes along you have events occur at at intervals on an turn-timer that progresses the story whether the player wants to or not. Not all the progressions have to be important or game breaking, but small movements forward in the world outside of the player's control will quickly key them in that things are progressing and will happen with or without them.

That lets players know the clock is ticking without actually knowing precisely what the clock is. The Arkham Horror and Mansion of Madness games do this.

The "turn-timer" isn't always based on turns either. In the games mentioned, the timer is often based on an accumulating counter mechanism integrated into the story that happens randomly whenever players take certain necessary story-related actions. For example, if you're trying to track down a serial killer, the body count may or may not increasing whenever arriving at a scene.

The counter might even be reversible. If you're trying to catch an arsonist, the number of fires on the map might be the counter, and they have a chance of appearing every turn. You can put them out if you want but you can't put them out as fast as he sets them. One way to pile on the pressure is to make the number of new fires correspond to the number of existing fires so the worse things are, the worse things will get. The trick in this case is to arrange it so it is a losing, but not unproductive battle (you can buy time, but you can never be effective enough to reverse the counter. It is always, on average, counting forward.


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