Locked, Clocked and Ready to Rock

How to use “clocks” to become a lazier GM

Basically my GM Notebook.

“I am a lazy GM.”

That’s a statement I read a lot from people; people I respect, who are phenomenal GMs and game designers. I’ve used that statement to describe myself on more than one occasion. Frankly, I think everyone GM should be lazy. I don’t mean “lazy” as in “not working to make your games compelling, your NPCs interesting, and your hooks intriguing.” I mean it as in “doing the minimal amount of prep and upkeep required to meet those ends.” As a GM, I want to spend my time engaged with the players, their characters, and the stories we’re making together. The less bookkeeping I have to do, the better. So, I’m lazy, and thanks to the work of some fantastic game designers, I have one stand-out tool to help me in my quest for laziness — clocks.

If you’ve been around the indie RPG scene for any amount of time, you know I’m not talking about actual clocks. No my friends, I mean metaphorical clocks — tools you can use to do such things as track campaign events across multiple sessions; build tension during a scene in a single session; manage the state of your nefarious organizations, and more. In some games, even character health is represented by a clock. They’re a great way to abstract sequences and goals, but still convey, visually, an imminent outcome. You and your players can see a clock, and know how close it is to striking “midnight,” and thus how close it is to either stopping, or coming to its (often horrible) conclusion.

I don’t know who can be credited with the creation of “clocks as an RPG tool.” My first encounter with them was in Apocalypse World and the games it spawned. Vincent Baker establishes clocks for a few uses in Apocalypse World; namely player health and “Countdown Clocks,” which are used for tracking events that will occur unless the characters intervene. John Harper uses them in Blades in the Dark for all kinds of things; tracking events, factions, long-term projects, etc. No matter who invented it (and if you know, tell me so I can give proper credit), the RPG clock concept has been a godsend for me. So, how do they work?

Time is (not) on my side.

Digital, analog, atomic, cuckoo; the real world has all kinds of clocks, and so it is with RPG clocks. While you can track many things with clocks, in my experience they fall into one of two categories: countdown and progress. What differentiates these two types of clocks? Well, here’s how Vincent Baker defines countdown clocks in Apocalypse World:

A countdown clock is a reminder to you as MC (GM) that your threats have impulse, direction, plans, intentions, the will to sustain action and to respond coherently to others’.

Put differently, the clock is an escalation that ends in some sort of culminating event — Sauron reclaims the One Ring; the Empire destroys the Rebel Alliance; the Barzini family eliminates the Corleones. A countdown clock tells you, the GM, what will happen if the thing the clock represents proceeds unchecked.

Let me give you an example. Say you’re running a bog-standard fantasy game, and there’s a goblin clan menacing the local villagers. The villagers tell the characters something is up, and maybe the goblins are involved. You know that if the players don’t act against the goblins, the village, and maybe the whole duchy, is doomed. But, things don’t start that way, so you come up with an escalating series of events:

  • Livestock and lone travelers go missing along the outskirts of the duchy.
  • Several farmers and their families have been taken off into the mountains.
  • The goblins sacrifice the captives to their god, and a shaman arises amongst them.
  • The shaman empowers the goblins, and they sack the neighboring village.
  • The shaman uses more sacrifices to raise undead to assist his clan.
  • The goblins make their final assault. They and their undead overrun all of the villages in the duchy, and assault the lord’s keep.

You’ll notice that I haven’t listed a “zero-state;” there’s no “everything is fine here” in the list. That’s because things can often be assumed to start at zero. Maybe there’s some event (or another clock) which has to occur before the goblins start their rampage. Until then, things are quiet. This doesn’t always need to be the case; you might have your first segment be “All’s quiet in the mountains,” and then have your first escalation be “farmers are kidnapped,” or something even worse.

You also might be thinking that this series of events doesn’t really need a fancy clock at all. You’re the GM — you can just check off things as they happen. While that’s true, I’d argue that organizing these events visually helps you keep them together in both your notes and your mind; grouped into a clock, this series/front/outline becomes more tangible. More-over, you can strip out some of the finer details from the clock, and then show it to your players, letting them see how imminent or far-off the doom is.

Here’s the clock for this example:

Goblin Clan Countdown

You could also leave some segments blank. Maybe the first two segments of the clock don’t need to be filled with specific events; you’ll know when to fill them in when its time. That clock would look like this:

Goblin Clan “Hybrid”

There’s a further bit of drama you can add to a countdown clock: mandatory badness. In Apocalypse World, and many of its descendants, countdown clocks come with a serious consequence — anything after 21:00 cannot be reversed, it can only be mitigated. In our example, that means once the goblin shaman has risen, the goblins are going to attack the village, period. The best the characters can do is try to keep the damage and bloodshed to a minimum. This doesn’t mean the characters no longer have any agency over the outcome, it just means they can’t prevent the outcome from occurring. When a countdown clock is in play, this is the cost of (1) ignoring the threat all-together, or (2) failing to stop it early.

This might all seem a bit heavy-handed. “What if my players kill the goblin shaman after he makes the sacrifices, but before the goblins attack the neighboring village?” you might ask. Well, the goblins come for vengeance. Or maybe in the absence of the shaman, a clan of orcs sweeps in and takes the goblins as slaves, and the orcs attack the village.

Or, or, or.

Or, maybe there are a few more clocks ticking away, and the death of the shaman ticks them up a notch or two.

Now, as a GM you won’t always have predefined ideas for the scenarios in your session, and if you did, well then you wouldn’t be lazy, would you? Luckily for people like you and me, there’s a different kind of clock we can use.

The March of Progress

Countdown clocks are all well and good, but they can be limiting, or often, a crutch. I know I’m totally guilty of using them as the latter; getting tunnel vision as the characters move through scenarios, rather than reacting organically to what’s going on. Often times, you won’t have any ideas as to what might happen between 12:00 and 00:00 on a clock, you’ll just know that when the clock strikes midnight, something’s going to happen. These scenarios are perfect for progress clocks.

In a progress clock, you define the outcome and a number of segments for the clock, and that’s it. As the characters do (or don’t) take actions that will impact the outcome, you fill in the segments. When the clock is full, the outcome occurs.

John Harper makes liberal use of these clocks in Blades in the Dark, from tracking how complex a lock is to pick, to following the grand machinations of a rival faction. Here’s what he has to say about them:

Use a progress clock to track an obstacle that takes several actions to overcome.

Sneaking into the Bluecoat watch tower? Start a clock for the security coverage of the patrols. When the PCs make progress against the security, fill segments on the clock to track how well they’re doing.

Generally, the more complex the problem, the more segments in the progress clock.

Harper also stresses that the clock should be about the obstacle the character’s face, rather than the method they will use to overcome it; and that complex obstacles should be represented by multiple, layered clocks.

Now, with our example above of the goblins massing for an assault, the progress clock could be fairly straightforward:

Goblin Clan Progress

Whenever the characters fail to check the goblin’s rise, we fill the clock. Or, we could reverse it. Instead of the clock being “Goblin Clan,” we could make it “Village Defenses.” Now the characters fill the clock when they succeed, rather than when they fail.

We could also layer “Village Defenses” with other clocks. Maybe there’s a “Fortifications” clock, and a “Security of the Outlying Farms” clock.

Village Defenses Layered Clock

This is how I start to build complex, interlocking events in my own campaigns. I begin with a simple concept, and then expand from there. Often times I’ll mix countdown clocks with progress clocks; when I have a solid idea of what events will happen, I give it a countdown. When I don’t, I make a progress clock with enough segments to cover how complex I think the end result is.

Or, I’ll mix them in the same clock, as with our example of the “Goblin Attack!” clock where the first two segments are blank.

Now, that’s not to say that only grand ambitions should be represented with clocks. You could easily use them to represent two groups of adventurers racing to reach a treasure, or the systems the characters need to overcome to disable a complex security system. Some games, like Apocalypse World and The Sprawl, even use progress clocks to track player health.

Time’s Up

Clocks threw me for a loop the first time I read about them. My initial thoughts, in fact, were pretty hostile. But after taking some time understand their implementation, I find I now have a hard time running games without them. Even my one-shots will get a clock or two when it makes sense to the situation. If you’re still having a hard time understanding how they might be useful to you, I highly recommend you check out Roll20’s GM prep sessions for Apocalypse World. Adam Koebel does a great job of showing how that game utilizes clocks in the greater context of its mechanics, and even if you don’t plan on playing Apocalypse World, you can get an idea of you might bring them into your own game.

I should point out that while both Apocalypse World and Blades in the Dark use clocks as single parts of wider systems, it doesn’t mean we can’t borrow the idea for different games. As I said above, I use clocks in nearly all of my games, whether they be Dungeon World, Fate Accelerated, or even Dungeons & Dragons.

That’s it for me this week. Next week I’ll be back into my play reports with my group’s first excursion into Dungeon Crawl Classics. In the meantime, if you’ve got something you want to say about clocks, or my interpretation of them, leave me a comment! I always enjoy feedback from our community.


Fun aside: I think Mario 64 might be the first use of a “harm” clock. Seriously, check it out!

♂ 🤓 💻 🎲 🎮 📖

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