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I've heard of using a 'clock' to help manage encounters and create tension, but how do you create and use one within a campaign/session/encounter?

I have seen it used in other games, like Scum and Villainy, but using them for 5e is something not covered in WotC books and I would like to know how to apply the idea of a clock to this RPG.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Do you have any more context you can offer that you've heard about this? It's ok if this is all you've heard or recall. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jan 22, 2023 at 15:47
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    \$\begingroup\$ @doppelgreener Added context, but also using this for others. I’ve seen us recommend clocks for people, but it isn’t explained. This Q is for that as well as understanding how to implement clocks for D&D \$\endgroup\$
    – NotArch
    Commented Jan 22, 2023 at 17:33
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    \$\begingroup\$ NB: If trying to explain clocks to people coming from a video game background, it might be productive (depending on the individual) to ask them if they've ever played a Persona game, as those all use clocks in a similar manner to TTRPG clocks (i.e. "you have X days to complete the quest, and everything you do will cause the clock to advance, whether you're ready or not"). The major difference is that, as video games, Persona doesn't really have the luxury of improvising an alternative outcome when the player runs out of time, so it just declares the time limit absolute and moves on. \$\endgroup\$
    – Kevin
    Commented Jan 23, 2023 at 8:14

4 Answers 4

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What's a Clock?

Clocks are not just a method to track time, but as a GM tool also serve other functions. A Time Clock tracks the in-character time in some way or another, which of course is not linearly related to RL time. Progress Clocks instead track the progress of any kind which is not linearly related to IC time at all: you might track events, encounters or specific actions. Similarly but not equally, Trackers, such as Hit Point Boxes/tracks or slot-sheets can be seen as extensions of Clocks, and so get a little paragraph too.

Making a Clock

Clocks are used natively for example in Blades in the Dark or Apocalypse World but can easily be lifted from there. In general, determine how many actions or ticks are needed before the event that is connected to the clock triggers. Then, determine what is needed to fill a clock segment. Now, draw a circle or bar and add dividing lines to get the needed number of segments.

Using Clocks

Often, a clock can run open and the players know what will happen when it is full, but at times the GM might keep its existence or fill status hidden, so as to not tip off players of things that happen in the background. The use of most clocks comes naturally: Whenever the trigger condition happens, fill in a section.

When using clocks, keep in mind that the same trigger condition could advance multiple clocks - especially time clocks can run simultanously. In some cases, you might want to combine multiple time clocks for that reason. See the Calenders section for more.

At times the same clock can have both a public and a secret contents, which is also something that typically happens with calenders.

When playing Shadowrun, the game naturally features two clocks in the physical and mental condition monitor tracks on the character sheets.1 As an extension, I went to use magazine sheets, where rows are the length of magazines. In L5R I similarly track HP... See also Tracker clocks.

Time Clocks

NPC Location/opening days/hours

It's simple: every day, a segment is filled. The high priest is only available on Sundays, while public court is Friday and you can only on Monday to Friday you can apply for papers. If the day of the week plays any relevancy, use a 7-day clock, tick it once a day, and see in the associated list who's open when or where they are.

The extension of this is yet again the calendar, see more below.

Time Limit

Does the group need to arrive in the next town before some event happens in 7 days? Give each day one or more segments. Typically 8-hour segments work great for clocks that depict travel time, using 3 segments per clock. A long rest thus would eat a whole segment, just like a day of marching eats another, and so on. The free space on the clock dwindles, creating urgency - when the clock is running out, bad things happen. At some point, there's no time for a long rest anymore, or the players need to take shortcuts to try and make their time...

Using shorter segments or possibly sub-clocks can help with tracking how far you are inside one of those 8-hour segments, e.g. using a second clock with 1 or 2-hour segments (4/8 pieces) to show how far you are inside that segment.

Time between Rests

As Groody explains, a Long Rest is pretty much resetting most rebounding resources. Unless it's a one-use item, it will return. But nothing penalizes players from doing one encounter, then doing a long rest in the core rules. Sure, a long rest takes 8 hours, and 6 of them are sleeping, and they can only benefit from one in a day, but if you don't have to be somewhere within a given time, nothing prevents players from resting after every single encounter (or even short resting till they can long rest again after each fight).

This is where visualizing the mandatory Time Gaps comes in. A GM might reason that you can only do a Long Rest every so many time segments. 24 hours are in the rule book, but the GM might want to extend this. Only when the clock is full, you can do a Long Rest. You don't need to do a long rest right then and there, but you also don't gather extra segments on a second clock. Showing players the time progress needed can be in essence one of the most simple fixes to the accessibility problem of Long Rest - it just shows that time progresses and players become a little more hesitant to spend a day idling to regain the long rest abilities. Do note, that there are other tweaks to try and dissuade such behavior as for example House DM suggests. In my opinion, it's most certainly still more accessible with a modified time gap than requiring an inn.

How do you determine when to fill such a segment? The rules say it's 16 hours passed, but the DM might instead want it to be an encounter for each segment, a number of short rests, or it might be a day of adventuring for each - in any way: limiting long rests this way (or even more restrictive: limiting it to safe locations as House DM suggested) will seriously impact the power balance between classes that refresh on short rests compared to long rests - the short rest classes get proportionally stronger, as DNDShorts summarizes.

Calenders, naturally nested Clocks

If your campaign tracks the date, you will likely already use a track clock aka Calendar. Typically, one might be using a linear track to demark holidays or special occasions. Those might that modify opening hours or the location of NPCs (see above). You see, the flow from Clock to a full-fledged page-filling calendar almost comes naturally.

Just by writing down some things onto the calender, you can turn it into a big clock that can contain many smaller clocks that all progress simultanously.

In a campaign I ran, I had a public and a GM calender: Certain events were pre-marked on both (such as holidays or meetings). Some events were only marked on my GM clock until they happened, such as assaults on their town, and the arrival of reserves. Other events were written down onto both versions of the clock when Player-actions happened, such as when the planned training of their units or side projects would end without interference.

Writing down the planned end dates for certain plans keeps both track of progress as well as time, and can minimize the need to fill multiple different clocks. A well formated calender can track many things at the same time and reduce the number of clocks required.

If your all month have 30 days with 3 tendays (weeks), a well formated clock could have 3 rows of 10 fields to display a month. Finding out the corresponding weekday and thus place of NPCs becomes trivial.

If you have 12 30 day-months, 7 day weeks and 5 intercalendary days, make 12 colums with 30 rows, every 7th is colored in for it is the start of a new week. Putting the lunar phases onto the calender can make it even more versatile - or be a requirement in some games.

Progress clocks

Alert Clock

The Players are in a dungeon or somewhere where being loud or messy might be bad? Well, whenever they make a lot of noise, such as fighting, or leave behind corpses, one or more segments are filled. When the clock fills, following encounters get more dangerous: The enemy will be more alert, up their numbers, or lock doors.

Something similar exists baked into Shadowrun 5th edition, where any illegal activities in the Matrix create Overwatch Score - once that hits 40, the Matrix police show up and hits you. It just isn't natively visualized as a clock.2

Project clocks

If the side project takes a certain number of rolls, days or successes, tracking that as clocks makes it easy to track - When the clock is full, it's done!

I used a linear track in The Dark Eye 4.1 to account for the number of skill points that went into the project with each roll during a campaign, as it was easier to do than to keep track of summed-up numbers of these points as the game suggests.

The Evil Plan's progress

The clock can show the progress of the adversary. Whenever a clock segment is filled, the adversary has achieved a certain goal. When the clock is filled, they have fulfilled a major target. When a given number of clocks is full, the adversary won. Players need to finish the adventure before the adversary wins, and if the adversary has filled clocks, each one makes the final showdown harder.

Escaping/catching up/hunting/pursuit

Assume that one group is hunting another. The running group needs to fill their clock to reach a specific point of safety. The hunting group succeeds the moment they have the same number or one more segment filled than the hunted group (depending on the rules used). Success on the rolls fills the respective clock, possibly by more than one segment each.

Or you do this with one clock as a tug-of-war, speaking of the distance between the two: The clock starts half-filled. The group that wins their roll either fills (hunting) or empties (running) one or more segments. If the clock is full, the trackers catch their prey, if it's empty, the group got away.

Resource Tracker/Clocks

A different type of clock is for tracking resources. A barbarian's rage is X minutes? Make a clock with X segments and using a minute of rage fills one. Do you have spell slots? Visualize them as clocks or tracks. Do you play a game with ammunition and non-bottomless magazines? Make a clock out of it! Because a track is nothing but a linear clock. And once your reset condition triggers... empty the clocks. This is in my experience adequate, even if you track highly volatile resources.

Dummy Clock

Technically, this isn't a fully separate type from Time or Progress Clocks, but a subtype. In general, it's a device for a GM to get players to pay attention or create suspense. It might track something, for example, the time or progress through a dungeon, but once the clock is full, nothing happens.

However, it might be useful anyway if you play with narrative descriptions, such as tracking the time of day that is outside of the dungeon. While such a clock has no mechanical impact, it can help with immersion and thus get the players' heads into the game.


1 - See the official Shadowrun Character sheets for 1st Edition, 2nd Edition, 3rd Edition, 4th Edition 5th Edition, and 6th Edition
2 - Shadowrun 5th Edition, Core rules, 2nd printing, p.232

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"Clock" can be a shorthand for limiting the time PCs have

There are many uses for "clocks" in the sense of progress trackers in role playing games, for example there are clocks to track progress against goals, or that just track passage of time, or that track consumption or build-up of resources and so forth (see Trish's answer for a more detailed listing of those). This answer is focused on the use of time pressure to drive the action in the game.

The background for this is that, in D&D 5e with its full healing of hit points and refresh of spells and nearly all other features on a long rest, there is not much long term resource attrition. If there is no time limit then the player characters can spend all their most powerful resources on a single encounter: their highest level spells, their most powerful daily features, and then rest again, to do it all over again for the next encounter. This also has been called "the 5-minute work day".

Imposing a time limit forces the players to manage their resources. They have to decide if they want to spend their best spells in a given encounter, or, considering that they have to press on for many more encounters to make most of the day, try and save it for a more important or dangerous one.

Such a time limit to spur characters to press on and go to the limits of their resources is informally also called a "clock".

"Hard" Clocks

This is an absolute deadline by when something has to be accomplished to avoid failure.

For example, by the next full moon, the princess will die of the hag's curse. The evil duke will take the throne during the coronation in two days, if the characters cannot find the real heir in time. A poisonous gas will kill everyone still is in the dungeons in a couple of hours from now.

"Soft" Clocks

There can also be a "soft" clock in the form of a dynamic world, where not everyone is frozen in time for their scene to play out when the characters show up, but other factions actively pursue their goals, and the world changes (typically not for the better) when the PCs waste too much time. Such soft clocks have the advantage to both make the world seem more real, and also to leave some slack for the DM and characters, while still gently prodding them on.

For example, the opposing orc army takes another town every week during which the characters do not manage to retrieve the artifact to banish the evil lich. During the final battle, every town lost that way can tip the odds against the PCs.

Or, in a treasure hunt to plunder a dungeon or crypt, there are other parties in the dungeon that plunder it if the PCs wait for too long. (It is worth noting maybe that in old-school megadungeons, such other parties were not even NPCs run by the DM, they were other groups of players adventuring in the same dungeon complex, thereby creating a real, dynamic environment.)

"Hidden" Clocks

For the clock to do what it is meant to do, the PCs and the players of course need to know or discover that the clock exists and is running, even if they do not know how much time they exactly have. Clocks thus can be known to the PCs, but their details can be unknown.

In some adventures, clocks are handled with a time-table or calendar, where certain events will transpire on pre-defined days, unless the PCs manage to disrupt or stop them. This also can make the world more believable, because it does feel more as if the world is living, not just a construct that revolves around the PCs.

Clock downsides

For all their benefits, overuse of clocks can have its own issues. There is a downside in always being under time pressure making it hard to explore character arcs, justify downtime, just goof off or go on side adventures.

Setting up events

Setting up the clock differs from adventure to adventure, and is not complicated, especially not for a Hard Clock. You just decide when it will be.

It is more complex when it comes to other factions and groups creating the time pressure. How you do that depends on how much real-world time and interest you have to put into this. In the simplest case you again just decide by when what might happen and who succeeds in what, which I think is likely the most common. I also had a DM who took the NPCs that made up a competing group, and played through their dungeon exploration, rolling their checks and fights, and leaving corpses from that behind where some of them fell. And of course on the extreme end, you run a real, other group of players.

Tracking time

Once that is in place, you also need to track the passage of time. There actually is a section on this in DMG on page 32. At least you want to have some kind of calendar to mark off the days as they pass.

I typically also keep track of adventuring time during the day, in hours and 10-minute blocks (and in rounds during fights). I have a column for days and passage of time on the scrap sheet that I also use to track monster hp in fights or record NPC names I made up on the fly. I typically use a vertical line for a 10-minute interval as the smallest unit worth tracking, so it is quick to do and does not consume much DM time, and I use numbers to indicate hours - a 2 would indicate they used 2 hours. Every time the characters cast a ritual, take a short rest, travel somewhere for an hour I mark off the time this takes. It does not need to be super detailed.

You also need to consider cooking, making camp, etc., that is not normally played out, and decide how many hours in a day should be available for adventuring. Many of the game rules seem to assume about 8 hours (downtime rules for how much you can craft, overland travel rules, etc.), so that is what we use, although if there is really a lot of pressure on, some days run longer with minimal slack for these other activities.

I am sure there are many other ways to do it. How you track time exactly it is not really that important, important is that you do it, so time is actually of value as it is consumed.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ But how do you actually implement the clock during a session? \$\endgroup\$
    – NotArch
    Commented Jan 22, 2023 at 17:38
  • \$\begingroup\$ @NautArch I am not sure I understand the question - do you mean apart from the characters being told or somehow learning about the time limit or competition? Or is the question about that a clock, to be credible, must include the possibility to failure that somehow must be implemented? \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jan 22, 2023 at 17:41
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    \$\begingroup\$ This answer seems to be unfamiliar with the kind of clocks commonly used in FitD games, which track progress towards a goal rather than the passage of time. \$\endgroup\$
    – GMJoe
    Commented Jan 22, 2023 at 20:58
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    \$\begingroup\$ @GMJoe A clock is a concept that is not limited to those games' use of the term and I read the question of giving them just as an example. I think that NautArchs question was precipitaded by my recommendation of using a clock in my answer here. I for sure have used this concept longer than those games even exist. Maybe there is another use of the term for those other application, too \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jan 22, 2023 at 21:37
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    \$\begingroup\$ @GroodytheHobgoblin My apologies. I should have been more clear: Your answer describes clocks only as a tool for tracking time. They can also be used to track things other than time, as described in the other answers. This makes your answer misleading. \$\endgroup\$
    – GMJoe
    Commented Jan 23, 2023 at 0:07
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What is a clock?

You know how, when you're using software and you tell it to do something time-consuming, sometimes you'll see a "progress bar?" It's a little rectangle that gradually fills up as as whatever-the-software-is-doing gets closer to completion. They can fill up quickly, slowly, or in fits and starts - but in every case, they provide an easy-to-understand visualization of how much progress has been made towards a goal.

A "clock" is the pencil-and-paper equivalent of that: It's an easy way of tracking progress towards some specific event.

Despite the name, clocks don't necessarily track time. They can just as easily track things that progress unevenly until they reach an outcome, such as "how many plates can the PCs break before they get fired," "How many successful rolls the PCs need to translate the treasure map," or even "how many HP of damage will kill the goblin."

How do I use one?

There's a bunch of different ways of noting down this sort of thing, but one popular one is to draw a circle, and bisect that circle with one or more straight lines running through its centre so that it looks like a cake or a pie that's been cut into slices. Then, write down the event that'll happen when the clock is full next to the clock - something like "the treasure map is translated" or "the goblin dies."

Whenever progress towards that event is made, you "tick the clock" by filling in a segment. When all the segments are full, the event happens. It's pretty simple. The above method works best for clocks that need two, four, six, or eight segments, since having too many segments can make the clock harder to read.

Other common methods of keeping a clock include fencepost counting, and using a die of an appropriate size. Anything that allows you to track a number will work, though methods that are easy to update and easy to read at a glance work best.

Oh, and when you create a clock, it's a good idea to consider whether it should be visible to the players or not. Letting the players see a clock can help them visualize how well they're progressing towards certain goals or how immanent a threat is, which is useful feedback for them; on the other hand, keeping a clock secret helps build tension, as they don't know how close they are to success or failure.

So... Yeah. That's clocks. They're handy in any game that needs bookkeeping.

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Clocks

'Clock', 'progress clock', 'timer', is a term used for a visual representation of a time pressure or countdown to success/failure. The most famous example is a series of boxes (known as 'ticks', sometimes) which are filled in by the GM or an individual - when all the boxes are 'full', the event they are keeping track of occurs. In theory this is used to keep track of a number of underlying issues or subplots in a simple manner, with multiple clocks (of whatever type) 'counting down' to various events. In reality, it generally gets used to nudge players in some direction, creating a pressure on them to achieve X or Y before the clock counts down, a sense of foreboding, apprehension or giving hints as to unexpected outcomes of actions (why does giving malcolm's remains to the town pastor cause the 'night of the eclipse' clock to tick down?).

The simplest form of a 'clock' is a reminder written in GM notes, often in a prominent place, which tracks the progress of various subplots or reminds them that certain events will occur if certain conditions are met. Some people make this more elaborate, with 'scores' required to set off certain events and various other events that add varying amounts of 'score' to that total until it tips over. This is not a tool i've ever used, preferring to keep track of things and have them occur without using a numerical system (that can often be awkward if unexpected events occur).

The more interesting (and original) uses of the term apply to counters which players have access to, either seeing them, or directly keeping track of them. This is one of a wave of various tools used to make narrative elements more directly visible to players, and are often talked about in more narrative focused and indie games. The countdowns, which take many many forms, typically have some effect when they 'finish', either events occurring or even things happening behind the scenes that the players eventually realize after the fact.

These countdowns can be explicit, or more rarely are left to the players imagination.

Benefits

  • Helps keep track of stuff you might otherwise forget.
  • Filling segments or w/e forces the GM to make certain actions when the clock indicates so, rather than when they would naturally think to do so, which introduces randomness into a game and can break up predictability much the way dice do.
  • Putting elements of the game into player perception can make it much more interesting for them on both a narrative and strategic level than if it's all just 'the GM decides'.

Negatives

  • A clock 'counting down' at the wrong moment can derail things you were setting up or otherwise mess with the narrative, the randomness working against you instead of for you.
  • Clocks and other narrative involvement techniques require a certain basic foundation of understanding of the game/story/description/roleplaying to work. Like props, animated virtual tabletops etc, they can be a distraction and if the basics of the game are not functioning that distraction will not be worth the cost in time, energy and focus.
  • It's easy to add too many of these and forget what they are all for or to update them.

How to use Clocks.

You can use clocks a lot of ways. It's a really variable term for a lot of different things. A simple and usable one though is the one blades in the dark uses. A circle with a number of segments (usually 4-8) that are filled in when the party either succeeds or fails at a roll, for a short term objective ('get past the guards'). This is very similar in concept to a 'skill challenge' (popularized with a rather bad and broken system in D&D 4e, but from other published rpgs before that), a situation where a number of successful rolls succeeds, if you get to that number before a certain number of failures.

Another good one is to use a 'clock' to track something general and observable, like the mood of a city. Instead of having to ask the GM how the people on the streets seem, or roll a check, instead everyone can see a series of segments marked at one end with 'rioting' and the other with 'peaceful'. Bonus points if it's a goal the party has, so they have investment in seeing it go up and down.

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