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Using Clocks To Fill The World

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    Nik Vinter

I'm not sure Powered By The Apocalypse invented clocks, but it sure helped popolarize them. This post aims at implementing and using clocks in any hexcrawl game to add depth to an otherwhise bi-dimensional exploration.


Whenever you change hex you roll 1d6, on a 1 there's a random encounter. Usually this are how hexcrawls go. Encounters don't have to be combat ones, you can have wilderness setpoints, friendly creatures, ruins and dungeons, but it's still a self-contained mechanic. We often talk about "time tracking" in OSR games, but it rarely (at least from my experience) a factor. Yes there's food and torches, but rarely there's a timed quest. Some people dislike even quests! Clocks are a way to bring time on the menu.

For those unfamiliar with the concept, you draw a circle and divide it into segments. You give the circle a label, and whenever an event related to that label occurs you fill one of the segments. When the whole circle is filled a big event happens. It's a glorified progress bar, it's just an intuitive way of tracking progress towards a goal. We can now take this idea and use it to add three dimensionality to our exploration. One thing I like about clocks is that once they're set, they're there. You can't stop them just by forgetting about them (you shouldn't at least) and it becomes a problem of the you of the future, but still a problem.

First of all you need to decide what we want to track. This should come from your setting and from whatever is happening at the moment in your game (this might be a good moment to reflect on your world). Are nations at war? Is a lich trying to summon undead forces? Is a band of orcs migrating? Everything that represents a continuous action in time or that can be triggered by a series of related events is a good candidate. Select one short term clock, one medium term clock and a long term one. (Of course you can use less or more and this is just a guideline)

Short Term

Those are local issues and should be closely related to the players. They can be tracked in "Days" or "Events", whichever fits best. A tavern will run out of food in 8 days, the local militia will arrive in the area in a week or the local thugs are tired of seeing the party's faces and will attack the third time they see them. Being local sometimes stuff like this isn't suited for the "Crawl" part, but there are still occurrences where this could work (the rivers will stop being navigable in 5 days)

Medium Term

Here we get to region-scale and these clocks should be tracked in "Weeks" or even "Months". Consider how the player's actions can influence them. Maybe the bandits are planning an en masse attack on the villages and it will take them 4 months to organize everything, if the players encounter a bandit courier they can delay the attack and move the clock backwards of one unit. Medium term clocks can also be used for keeping track of seasons if they're important: the monsoon season could last only 6 weeks and after that the lakes will be traversable again.

Long Term

I love looming threats, big schemes and evil plans. These clocks are just for that. Use "Months" or "Years" as well as "Events". Players shouldn't be able to interact with such clocks, they're too big for them. Once a plan is in motion it's there forever, but sometimes a party might be fortunate enough to encounter a ritual site and delay the summoning of the Salt Drake Of The Never ending Light. Use these clocks for wars between kingdoms, rituals and long projects. The kingdom of Nocelic just started building a wall around it, in 8 months it will be unreachable and no one will be allowed outside.

Bonus Clock: The Destiny

In my opinion every hexcrawl should have one of these clocks. This is a 12-segment clock. It represents time passing in the world. Each segment corresponds to a week of game time. Every time a week passes fill one segment, every time a segment is filled roll 1d6. On a 1 a random minor event happens. This shouldn't be anything drastic, maybe a festival begins in town, a new temple is discovered, a dragon is seen flying nearby. Every 4 filled segments roll 1d6 for a medium event. On a 1 something important happens: a village is burned to the ground, the local lord is killed, a dam gets destroyed. Whenever a full clock is filled roll 1d4. On a 1 a major event occurs. 25% chance might seem much, but for how the clock is structured this means 1 event a year, and given the usual pace of hexcrawls it seems balanced enough for me. A major event should be something very important not only to the players, but for everyone in your setting: a giant hole opens in the earth and devours the capital, the sun stops, everyone becomes psychic. You decide how big you want this event to be.

In general remember that clocks are just guidelines, and they can be tweaked as needed. They can be filled and emptied by the players, and if you feel that a result isn't going to be fun, just ignore it. The idea behind them is to go past the "distance" metric that is used in hexcrawls and add more focus to the "time" dimension. Players should know that their actions, directly or indirectly are influencing the world, and the world is moving with or without them.