Building actual tension at a table is not an easy task. GM’s often go to great lengths to create a dramatic tension through the use of lighting or music, only to have jokes about Monty Python undermined our well crafted narrative. Through my many years of gaming, one method I have found for successfully building tension is the countdown mechanic. When employed properly, your players will be riveted to the table, and jump every time that counter drops another increment. Want to start building some tension? Start counting down.

The Countdown

The countdown mechanic is a device that can be employed at the character or player level of the game (see Levels of the Game). In its simplest form the countdown announces a movement in a diminishing increment towards some kind of event or goal. Often the event or goal is not something good (the arrival of a new monster, the detonation of an explosive, the completion of an arcane ritual, just to name a few).

The countdown can also be a count up, where the incremental movement is building up to the event. For the sake of writing this article, typing count up is more of a pain than countdown, so everything I am saying about countdowns works for a count up as well.

What does it do?

In the game, the countdown gives the characters and players a visual indication of an impending action or event. In most cases this event is something that the players are working against, and the movement of the countdown relates to the players that the event is coming closer to fruition. That generates a feeling of tension within the players as they are reminded of the event coming closer and often increases their desire to take action to impede or halt the countdown.

This tension is often felt at both the character level and the player level and is seen as the players become focused on taking actions to stop the countdown, and voices grow more tense, side chatter at the table ceases, and the group falls into sync to do what they can to slow or halt the countdown.

How To Construct A Countdown

A good countdown mechanic has a number of features which need to be thought out before you deploy one within your game. If not thought out, the countdown can create confusion, frustration, a feeling of helplessness, or apathy. The main features of a countdown include:

A Goal

Every countdown has some goal which will be achieved when reached. The goal of your countdown has to be totally clear to the players, so that they understand what the stakes are for this conflict. Take the time to either let them discover the full ramifications through skill checks, or through an NPC, if needed.

A mechanism for counting down

Your countdown needs a game event or game mechanic for determining when to decrement the countdown. This could be temporal, in the form of hours or days, or it could be event-driven, like the destruction of sacred glyphs on the temple wall, or it can be related to a mechanical outcome, such as a failed skill check. The mechanism you select needs to make sense and be predictable so that the players understand that when the countdown decrements that the trigger condition was met.

A representation of the countdown at the table

Your countdown should have some kind of physical representation you can employ at your table so that the players can see the countdown as it progresses. The physical representation can be a kind of prop related to the mechanism, if you are the kind who crafts and employs props, or it can be something totally unrelated to the in-game representation. For many countdowns I use my “big d6“, which I then decrement during the course of the game.

Some will say that this step is optional, but I will disagree. A countdown which is only at the character level (i.e. in the imagination of the players) does not have the same visceral impact as seeing a physical representation of it at the table, and having to watch the GM move the count down another notch.

A mechanism for ending the countdown before the goal

Unless you are running something nihilistic, there should be a way for the players to stop the countdown before it reaches its goal. There should be a condition or event that the players can perform which then halts the countdown. This could be killing all the cultists before the ritual completes, or venting the drive plasma before the warp core breach. This then gives the players the ability to intervene and prevent the goal from occurring through their direction action. Without this mechanism the players will feel helpless, as they are being dragged to the inevitable.

A mechanism for delaying the countdown (optional)

Depending on your story and game, there may be a way for the players to stop the progress of the countdown and hold it at its current state. This can be useful for helping to attenuate the tension of the countdown and preventing feelings of hopelessness as the players discover that their actions can hold off the countdown, giving them time to reach the condition which will end the countdown all together.

Much like determining what makes your countdown decrement, you will need to decide what action or event will prevent the countdown from progressing. You also need to determine if the action totally stops the countdown or if it only prevents it from decrementing at the next action or event.

A mechanism for counting up (optional)

Like above, you can also build in a mechanism for the countdown to move up in number; a reversal of the process. This mechanism has much the same effect as the halting or delaying of the countdown, mainly to remove the feeling of hopelessness. This mechanism also introduces hope into the process, by giving the players the idea that some of their actions can reverse the process. With this mechanism in place, you create a tug of war, where the countdown tries to progress to the event while the players attempt to push it back and ultimately towards the event which will end the countdown.

Using the Countdown At The Table

Once you have constructed a countdown you will then have the opportunity to use it at the table. The following are some suggestions to make delivering your countdown to your players successful:

  • Prepare the physical counter ahead of time – The countdown is a tool for building tension, and having to stop the game to dig through your bag to find the prop you are planning to use as a timer while running the game is doing to diminish its effect. Make sure you have your counter easily at hand as you are running the game, so that you can place it on the table and keep playing.
  • Explain what is going on, but not too much – For the countdown to be totally clear, all the players have to understand what is going on. Take a moment to explain what is going on and make sure the players understand the goal approaching. You do not need to explain how the countdown decrements or how it can be stopped, those can come out in play.
  • Provide details as they emerge – When the players witness an event which causes a change in the count, make sure its clear to them what event triggered the change. This will inform them of what actions they need to prevent or perform.
  • Change the count quietly – When there is a reason to decrement the count, say nothing, just reach over and change the value of your counter. Your players will become riveted to the counter and will fear your every movement in its direction.

Conclusion and Questions

The countdown is a tool for creating tension at the table. With its visual cue and its movement towards the impending doom, it is a tool which can focus a table full of rowdy players and build a tension which is palpable. Setting up a good countdown takes a little work but once designed properly, it is fairly easy to deliver at the table.

Have you used countdowns in your games? What kinds of counters have you used? What were some of your best moments of tension?