I’ve been spending a lot of time over the last few months reading through the rulebooks of tabletop games. Mostly because, for some reason, it’s just fun to read through these and imagine what it might be like to actually play them. Not enough time in a lifetime.
However, one thing I’ve found as a side benefit of reading all of this good good gaming content is the magic of what I’m calling the stolen mechanics. Now, to be clear, this is not me saying that the creators of these games stole these mechanics, but rather that I have my grubby greedy game master hands on them and I am stealing them thank you very much.
That is to say, there are so many awesome mechanics in games across the board. As a Dungeon Master running a Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition game, I come across ideas big and small from these other games that just shout “this would solve x or y problem in my game!”
The biggest and most useful of these is the progress clock. These appear in a number of game systems, but the one that brought them to my attention first is the wonderful Blades in the Dark by John Harper, published by One Seven. This game sees your party take the role of a criminal organization in a dangerous fantasy city, and is likely the next system I’m going to throw at my players in the next break from our campaign.
The concept of a progress clock is a really wonderful mechanic that can be rolled into a D&D campaign really easily, offering the twin benefits of helping DM’s track progress towards certain outcomes as well as ramping up the tension to your players.
What Are Progress Clocks?
Progress clocks as a tabletop roleplaying game mechanic are pretty simple at heart: break whatever it is you’d like to track progress toward an outcome for, break it down into segments based on time to completion / complexity, and visualize it as a pie chart. They’re really that easy, and that simple formula can be used to track any number of activities.
Consider this situation from any number of D&D campaigns: the party needs to get to a critical NPC before a group of villains can. Without a tracking method, DM’s are forced to play it by ear and rely only on the narrative and their own brains to drive the action of this race to a goal and track it reliably. That’s not to say that this isn’t an entirely reasonable way to do it, but progress clocks can really help make this chase into a more solidly tracked event, as well as give your players instant feedback on that progress and driving tension as those clocks fill up.
To track this specific narrative, whip up two progress clocks side by side, giving each a descriptive name. In this case, “The Party Reaches NPC First” and “The Villains Reach the NPC First” would be pretty descriptive. Then, as the party takes action, fill up the appropriate clocks to indicate either the party of the competitors making progress towards that NPC. The party finds a shortcut? Fill two clock segments. A road is unexpectedly closed, or blocked by a caravan? Fill a segment of the villains clock.
By filling these clocks as the action in the game unfolds, you have a hard and fast way to show the impact of that narrative on the game’s outcome. The party can see exactly the impact their efforts are having on their progress towards their goal, and the tension of the fiction is ramped up as they see the villains gaining ground.
The outcomes of all of this action are still up to the DM, of course. Say the party reaches the NPC first, but the villains are only a clock segment behind. They may secure the NPC initially, but the opposing group is hot on their heels and may need to be dealt with. Using these clocks to track action and drive the fiction of your game further doesn’t take any control from the hands of the DM, and frees their brain up to do other things besides remembering where the villains would be, or coming up with reasons they are actually ahead.
Kinds of Progress Clocks
These mechanisms can be used to track a pretty broad list of actions in any game, D&D being no exception. There are a few kinds of clocks from Blades in the Dark that are perfect for D&D, all of which take very little effort to understand and implement.
At their heart, many progress clocks will be tracking how close the party is to some kind of danger. Danger clocks are a relatively basic progress clock that gets filled as events progress in a way that reveals or activates that danger.
If your party is running from some members of a thieves’ guild, a danger clock called “The Thieves Catch Up” could be created to show how the party’s actions allow their opposition to catch up to them. This is one of those clocks that is GREAT to track something that otherwise might feel a bit more amorphous.
The example above of the players racing to an NPC before a group of villains is exactly what racing clocks do. These side by side sets of clocks (which can be just a set of two, but can also be even more clocks depending on the parties in whatever competition this might be) show across-the-field progress towards a goal, and help the DM track that progress in a clear way.
Imagine you have a bank heist situation where, after gaining access to a magical vault, the burglars have only so much time before guards arrive. Linked clocks are set up so that the completion of one clock ‘unlocks’ the next. In this example, by progressing through a clock called “Gain Entrance to the Vault,” a second clock called “The Guards Arrive” would be opened up and progress started.
This style of clock is just a slight abstraction on a singular progress clock, but the example can really apply to a good number of situations inside of D&D.
When you want to track an event with actions that might fill a clock or might empty it, a tug-of-war clock is a great tool. Imagine in the greater setting, some mystical power is building that will unleash destruction on the world. If the actions of the players (or other parties in the world) helps to prevent that destruction, you can remove segments from that clock that has filled over time. This push and pull of values is an exceptional way to show how the actions of the party are impacting a situation that, without their drive to forestall disaster, would spiral out of control.
Long-Term Project Clocks
This implementation of Progress Clocks is actually one of my favorites, as the rules for some of these kinds of longer term projects in D&D leave me feeling less than satisfied. Consider a situation where you have a party member embarking on a large crafting project, one that (per the rules) will take a long time and a lot of rolls over a lot of sessions to complete.
With a project clock, you can create a series of clocks that represent the number of rolls over time that player might be expected to succeed on to complete that crafting project. Whenever they sit down to craft, however many rolls they make will impact the series of clocks being filled. Once they’re all filled up, crafting complete!
You can play with the rules here a little more and add some interesting impacts of failed rolls as well. Maybe if the player fails a roll, they actually lose a segment of their current clock. Fail three rolls? Maybe that means they’ve made a mistake, or ruined some of their tools or supplies, and the whole current clock is emptied. There are lots of ways these project clocks can be tweaked to make these kinds of project-based rolls more interesting.
While factions are incredibly important in a lot of D&D settings, the faction affinity systems I’ve seen in play are sometimes a bit lacking. You do things they like and… sometime… when it feels right… you get another level of affinity?
Faction clocks are a way to codify the faction standing of a party in a very clear way, and one that allows for multiple factions and the impact of party behavior on their regard to be tracked easily. Each faction gets a clock, and as the party acts in ways that improves or decreases their standing, the clocks are filled or emptied. The clock fills up, and their standing level goes up by one. Anger that group enough times, and the levels can drop as the clock is emptied.
This gets even more interesting when tracking factions that are opposed to each other. Impress the local assassin’s guild by taking out a noble? That guild’s faction clock will fill even as that of the city’s ruling organization lowers. This kind of push and pull can help DM’s make the interplay between multiple factions and the party have greater depth.
To Show or Not To Show
One question that came to my mind after learning about these clocks initially was whether these clocks should be shown to players. I pinged the amazing folks at the RPG Talk Discord (seriously, if you like tabletop RPGs, get thee to this Discord channel, the people there are the BEST) for some feedback, and the answer was universally “yes, show them to your players almost always.”
This makes sense, in retrospect. In most cases, certainly in the examples above, showing these clocks to your players does nothing to change the narrative in the game. This information would usually be available to them in some form or another, and the clocks just make it more clear. Plus, in many instances where the clocks are tracking the approach of impending danger or disaster, the players will feel that tension in a totally new way.
That said, if there are times you have a clock you want to hide from your players, it can certainly work just as well as a private tracking tool. You also have the option of showing them a clock and not giving it a name, which I guarantee will put them on their toes. Always fun to pop up a blank progress clock that fills as the players take 5 hours to decide on a course of action and see what happens.
Gotta Hand it to Clocks
Hah! Hand it to… see what I…
That’s okay, puns aren’t for everyone. Progress clocks, however, can easily be added to any Dungeons & Dragons campaign. Tracking progress towards outcomes, danger, or exciting developments can make a Dungeon Master’s life a little easier and free them up to drive exciting narrative, as well as make the action feel even more real to the players and adding an infusion of tension to the fiction.
Call for Comments
Progress Clocks and You
Have you used progress clocks in your Dungeons & Dragons game (or any other game, for that matter)? How did they work? What were your favorite examples, and how did they impact your game?
Sound off in the comments below!