Art by Aureta
Last time I spent some time looking at the Planarch Codex method of specifying dungeons based on themes. A core component of this method is the countdown – typically a series of checkboxes that are checked as a given theme or danger rears its head. Let’s quote the Codex’s CC licensed text here:
Countdown: Name the danger—a corruption, a desire, etc.—and tell the player to draw six boxes, filling in the first. Next time, tell them to fill in more or offer incentives to do so. When all the boxes are full, boom, it happens. If they ask, tell them a way out.
This is intended to be a GM move, but later we’re presented with a mechanic for checking boxes that involves a typical PbtA 2d6 spread.
Instead, what I’d suggest is a simple flat d3 roll – but give the characters opportunity to add ±1 to this roll based on preparedness or circumstance. If an action moves the Countdown forward or a risk is brought to bear, roll a d3 and tick that many boxes. Often you don’t know how much of an impact you actions may have until they’re done.
Consider that with a typical range of 1-3 boxes ticked, a three box Countdown has potential to end abruptly with a good roll. Likewise, a 6 box Countdown could take a long time if the dice are not favorable. I personally like the 3-6 range for most Countdowns because of this. Longer Countdowns could take multiple sessions, or long involved actions. I wouldn’t use shorter Countdowns – a length of 1 or 2 is more or less an extra roll after some sort of character success.
Using Countdowns Effectively
A Countdown should always be attached to a singular thing that is clear: either the time until a thing happens, or the amount of a thing remaining. Keep the names of the Countdowns obvious, so it clearly communicates what is going to happen. Things like:
- Countdown: The King’s Demonic Possession [ ][ ][ ]
- Countdown: Pack of Goblins [ ][ ][ ][ ][ ]
- Countdown: Cave Collapse [ ][ ][ ][ ]
This is covered in Rob Donoghue’s Clockery article better than I could manage. Each Countdown should have a single purpose, not be filled with dense information at each step of the way.
But expanding on the article, you might wish to have an “escalation point” during a Countdown. Often escalations do not mean the end of the Countdown, just a change. Notate these escalation points like so:
- Countdown: Zombie Incursion [ ][ ][ ][ ][ ]|[ ][ ]
- Escalation: The Lich Queen arrives
The zombie onslaught continues unabated for 7 ticks of the countdown, but at some point the Lich Queen arrives. Notice that the Incursion end without the Lich Queen arriving – we can tick 3 boxes at once and skip right over it.
This is important, because an escalation is an independent event that happens – it may still affect the countdown, but once the Lich Queen has arrived, she isn’t beholden to the Countdown.
Here’s another example:
- Countdown: Villagers cross the bridge [ ][ ][ ]
- Countdown: Bridge Collapses [ ][ ][ ]|[ ][ ][ ][ ]
- Escalation: One rope rips, tipping the bridge
The interesting bit here is that we probably won’t skip over the escalation point, and we have two competing Countdowns. As the character’s actions help the villagers, they risk the bridge collapsing. When it tips, villagers may be in peril, and helping them is that much harder.
Types of Countdowns
Previously I talked about using Countdowns for generating a space to be explored – using themes or dangers present in the place, and then rolling to see which were present, if any. I’d call those Exploration Countdowns – used to create a place. These are passive Countdowns that sit squarely on the GM side of the table. Exploration Countdowns tick once per scene, and tick again when the scene changes.
The examples above are mostly Event Countdowns – used to indicate when something will occur, or when something will end. These are active Countdowns that are directly impacted by character actions, and should be clearly shown to the players (keeping escalation points hidden until they occur is completely fine, but optional). Event Countdowns tick multiple times per scene based on character actions.
We can also use something called a Project Countdown to reflect passive activities the characters try to help with. These are a special type of Event Countdowns that usually take a long time to accomplish. Imagine building a church in a small town – the villagers may do most of the work, but it is a slog. When the characters get involved, it moves much faster. Or perhaps supplies are lacking and the characters need to help. When characters do actual work on the project, that’s a good time to give a +1 bonus to the roll. Project Countdowns tick once or twice per session.
And finally, we have Faction Countdowns that show how important people or groups move toward their goal. These are a specialized Project Countdowns that occur in the background. The character’s overall actions in a session should provide the ±1 for the roll, but can also fully disrupt a Countdown, removing it from the board. When a Countdown ends or is disrupted irrevocably, immediately write up a new one for the faction – they never sit still. Faction Countdowns tick once between sessions.
I instinctively pace a lot of things in this manner when GMing. Most of these Countdowns are improvised, because that’s how I do things. But my intention is to use Faction Countdowns to provide a living world full of groups vying for different goals.