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Tick Tock – The Countdown Mechanic

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 [1]). 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 [2]“, 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:

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?

4 Comments (Open | Close)

4 Comments To "Tick Tock – The Countdown Mechanic"

#1 Comment By Totally Guy On May 23, 2014 @ 3:02 am

Did you ever see the pacing mechanics in Lacuna?

During play all the characters are asleep, facing threats in a communal dream. Each character keeps track of their heartbeat, as you play the heartbeats accelerate, and for a while it gives you benefits but too high and everything becomes threatening.

Next is the static mechanic. It’s a little bit like a Front in Apocalypse World and its relatives. As the players do particular things the GM increases static and the dream world becomes a little more surreal and hostile until the dream manifests all kinds of nasties to shut you out.

The two pacing mechanics riff off of each other to really put the pressure on the players.

Amazing that it was written before Inception as the two go together remarkably well.

#2 Comment By Scott Martin On May 23, 2014 @ 10:05 am

I’m bad at props, but this is a great example of when a prop is worthwhile. The “big d6” or other prop showing the countdown really can become a focus for everyone.

Making it concrete, visually, is key. If it’s just one more number everyone’s juggling in their heads, it doesn’t have as much impact.

#3 Comment By nymalous On May 23, 2014 @ 3:38 pm

I must say, I do love witty writing! Thanks for this article, I actually laughed out loud at work… twice! Monty Python references are notorious in gaming circles (so that made me laugh, just because it has happened to me… and I’ve done it myself). I can also empathize with the pain of typing count up (certain configurations of letters just work together, others our fingers refuse to type smoothly).
As for you content, I definitely plan to make use of it very soon.

#4 Comment By John Corbett On June 1, 2014 @ 12:00 pm

While the thrust of this article is the countdown mechanic, enough was said about focusing player attention that I thought I’d reiterate the value of giving players something interesting to gaze upon. Sometimes that’s as simple as a map of the city usually works, but I’ve found that representative artwork can also help a lot.

For example, when I ran Marvel Heroic, I would create little slips of paper as NPC trackers for stress and complications. Because there is an abundance of comic art available online, I included an image of the villains on each tracker. Then, when the scene unfolded, I would place these in the center of the table where everyone could see them. Players really seemed to enjoy the imagery, and the tracking info was useful because it added to their own dice rolls. It’s more work to crank out these papers each week for every encounter, but I thought the payoff was worth it, especially since MHRP has relatively low prep work.