I love it when a plot comes together! Succubus gets to face her nemesis. Inquisitor discovers her girlfriend’s evilness. Patches is friggin’ distraught. At the risk of injuring my elbow, it’s a wonderfully orchestrated bit of drama. All the elements come together in one climactic clash, with our protagonists arriving with only a moment (or seven) to spare. Unfortunately, it’s all a bit artificial.

This is one of the basic problems of interactive storytelling. The narratives we all know and love feature orderly plots in sensible shoes. They proceed along Freytag’s Pyramid like British people queuing for an escalator. Upwards from Inciting Incident, progressing slow and steady through Rising action, our polite plot people step off at Menswear, Home Appliances, and Climax without making a fuss.

Unlike literary characters, players don’t behave like this. Players are chaos beasts. You can never know when exactly they’ll bust down the door, make a speech about friendship, and finally get around to triumphing over evil. We all want the dramatically ticking timebomb, but achieving last-minute heroics is a tough when the literal last minute is variable. Just suppose your players take a few rounds too long defeating the guardian before arriving in the nick of time. What if they decide to take a short rest after the battle? What if they decide to take a long rest for that matter? Hell, they might even decide to finish up a few quests on that other continent before finally fighting the end boss. It’s all a variation on the sleeping outside the door problem, and it can be a tough one to work around. Happily, we’ve got a number of go-to solutions choose from.

  • Polite Fiction — You might think of this as the default solution. No matter when you arrive at the final encounter, it’s always just in the nick of time. This solution is equal parts gentlemen’s agreement and suspension of disbelief. It does tend to work OK, but it can also fail spectacularly. If you’ve ever had to tap-dance to accommodate a party’s ill-advised delays, you know how hard it can be to keep the tension alive.
  • Evil Agenda — Rather than the aforementioned ticking timebomb, this is more of a looming threat. While the players faff about and finish their side quests, antagonistic forces advance their own sinister plots in the background. You generally communicate this information to players via setting details. Increased prices because of war, brutal policing thanks to tyranny, or PCs’ hometowns getting burninated by un-slain dragons are all examples. Of course, if you’re too subtle with the background hints, it’s possible for your players to ignore the threat entirely. When that happens there’s a very real risk of, “Campaign over, world destroyed, you lose.” And that can be a great big feels-bad.
  • Progress Clocks — I’m a big fan of this Blades in the Dark mechanic. You can read about the technique in full over here, but the basic idea is a highly-visible threat-o-meter. If you find your players saying, “We really ought to appease The Inspectors before they get their sixth Trivial Pursuit pie wedge and raid our lair,” then the mechanic is doing its job.
  • Other Clocks — In this formulation, anything that communicates “time is running out” to a player is a clock. Types of clock include random chance (“We have to escape before the ancient red dragon regains its breath weapon in 1d4 rounds!”), a finite number lives (“Friend computer won’t give us more clones if we run out!”) or even real-time dungeons (“We have one IRL hour to solve this escape room style puzzle before we die!”). In all cases, these clocks represent player-facing methods for making ‘bad ending’ a palpable possibility.
  • Resource Depletion — This is the resource management option baked into a game’s mechanics. When you’re running low on ammo, health, spell slots, or any other finite resource, “saving the day” just means “surviving.” Take my own The Siren’s Lament mini-dungeon. Once the players put the titular siren to rest, her watery temple floods with sea water. Players have to make it back through the maze of flooded chambers before they run out of air. That makes the character sheets themselves a source of “we made it out just in time” stress.
  • Ozymandius — As usual, you can opt to subvert the trope. The option of allowing your players to arrive a minute too late is always on the table. “You dawdled. The sacrifice was slain. Now you’ve got to fight a demigod.” That’s a judgement call though, and outraged cries of, “How were we supposed to know?” are a risk. So if you do go this route, I’d urge you to make the your you-guys-need-to-hurry-up messaging abundantly clear before pulling the trigger.

Now that we’ve got a common vocabulary to work with, what do the rest of you think? When you want to ratchet up the tension with a “nick of time rescue,” how do you avoid making the party’s ultimate arrival irrelevant? Let us hear if you’ve ever adopted one of today’s named strategies in your own game. And if there’s another option that we left off the list, tell us all about it down in the comments!


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