[RPG] How to reveal a time limit without videogaming it


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.

Best Answer

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.

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