[RPG] How to make a countdown


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".

Best Answer

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.