Monday, May 22, 2017

Time is of The Essence When it Comes to Challenge in RPGs

The gnoll guards hadn't been sleeping at their posts, and they put up a fight. Brevalder nearly lost a hand to one of their axes, and Firan spent several of the spells he'd carefully prepared ensuring the hyena men were kept silent. When the bloodletting was done, and the heroes had healed their wounds, they did the only thing that made sense after they'd kicked in the door of the slaver's stronghold...

They trekked right back into the desert to camp, sleep, and rest so they could come back with full resources tomorrow.

Uh... guys? Are you going to finish this dungeon some time in the next week?
How many times have you seen this scenario happen? The party gets loaded for bear, goes in full-force, and then as soon as an encounter is complete they go recharge all their powers. Sure, out-of-game that's a matter of a few minutes, essentially hitting the reset button on your dungeon delve. In-game, though, it means there's a lot of time between that fight you had yesterday, and the party wading back into the same area looking for trouble.

It's important to remember that time is just one more resource players have to balance, and if they squander it then there should be consequences.

Time Changes Everything

Take one of the most common scenarios in all of fantasy gaming; the party has to go to a certain place, and perform a certain action. Maybe they're heading to the ruins of Rakesh, hoping to locate a legendary sword that vanished beneath the sands. Perhaps they're traveling to Black Pond to sort out the local warlord who's been razing towns and farmland. Or they're just moving along the coast road to the capital of whatever nation they happen to be in right then.

Most of the time, the challenges from travel can be circumvented with relative ease. A few Survival checks, buying enough food, and managing to sidestep bad weather can make journeys little more than 5-minute exposition. Even if you're using random encounters, they can become trivial after a while. But what if your party doesn't have the luxury of walking for a short time, then resting to recuperate?

Brew a pot, boys, we're pulling an all-nighter!
For example, what happens when the ruins only appear once every 25 years, and they're only accessible for three days? What if the warlord is only going to be in Black Pond for a short time, and once he moves off he'll rejoin the rest of his army where he'll be significantly less vulnerable? What if the party has bandits on their tail, and they need to hustle on their way to the capital to stay one step ahead of the deadly outlaws? Well, they might have to force march themselves, making saves and taking penalties for a lack of sleep. Spells, ki points, Rage rounds, bardic music... they all need to last longer. That makes them a more precious resource, not to be used lightly.

This same logic applies to the meat and potatoes of an adventure, as well. Because even if the party can approach a location at their leisure, traveling at a relaxed pace, once they get where they're going they can't really pull back without breaking the suspension of disbelief. Sure, if you're investigating ruins that have been abandoned for a thousand years, and you're dealing with traps along with constructs and undead, you might be able to pull back and regroup since the guardians aren't programmed to leave their posts. But what about in other situations? When you're raiding a goblin cave, fighting through an orc stronghold, or assaulting a frost giant fortress, you can't hack your way through a few encounters, run away, and then expect everything to be just the same a day later.

The creatures you killed will still be dead, sure, but they've been replaced by new guards. Not only that, but those guards are now on high alert, and looking for revenge on the people who killed their friends. The traps have been reset, and it's possible a few more have been added. There might even be mobile units ready to respond to any threats, now that you've given away your presence.That is, of course, assuming the enemies don't send out scout patrols to harass you where you're camping, with orders to kill or capture you.

Time Between Fights Is Just As Important

There's another aspect about time in RPGs you should be paying attention to as a DM: specifically the amount of time it takes the party to buff itself, and how long those buffs last.

Unstoppable, baby!
We've all seen the character builds where, with 5-6 rounds of prep time, a character can become godly in their power and capabilities. It's one reason we often have clerics and wizards who have buffed themselves for several minutes as our big bad guys. However, while players should have the chance to get their buffs in, unless they're setting up an ambush, or they're scouting ahead either physically or magically, they shouldn't be able to predict when they need to be operating at maximum capacity. At that point it's about action economy, a subject I've already talked about in Understanding Action Economy (And Why You Need It).

The other thing you should pay close attention to as a DM is how long those buffs last.

As I mentioned in The 4 Major Flaws of Character Building, it's one thing to have a big gun. But just because you have it, that doesn't mean you have enough bullets in it to shoot your way to the end. Put another way, sure, you can boost your AC into the 40s, your Strength into the 30s, and give yourself a dozen natural attacks... but for how long? Which buffs last rounds per level? Which ones last minutes per level? For the others, do you have a daily cap?

This is important because, as I've said repeatedly, it's easy to hulk out for one fight and wipe the floor with the bad guys. You can probably do it for two fights, also. But can you pull the same trick for a third fight? Or a fourth? How many buffs did you bring? Because even casters with deep spell pouches only have so much they can bring to the table, and it only lasts for so long. Keep track of those rounds, and make sure your players aren't pausing the count downs because it, "doesn't count if you're not in combat."

Plan For The Long Haul

Time is just like any other factor in RPGs; it can be as forgiving, or as punishing, as you want it to be. Just like you can have your fights in broad daylight, and in wide open fields with plenty of lines of fire, you can give your party all the time in the world to achieve their goals. But just like how you can make them fight uphill, in the dark, and in the rain, you can also force them to step up their pace. Often this means they have to get where they're going, and get the job done, with no refreshes, and only their skill, smarts, and luck.

If you feel you've been going too easy on them, add a ticking clock. I guarantee it will make your players sweat.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday update! Hopefully it helps some folks out there, particularly DMs, who feel it's hard to challenge a party without arbitrarily boosting their monsters' CRs. If you want to stay on top of all my updates, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you'd like to help support me, then head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron today! As little as $1 a month buys you my everlasting gratitude, as well as some sweet gaming swag!

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