December 24, 2014

Skill Variant for 5e D&D

In my discussion of 5e optional rules on Facebook, someone asked for variant rules for 5e skills.  I'm happy to oblige!  The most asked-for was a skill ranks variant.

Let's say you really liked the way skill ranks were handled in Pathfinder and 3rd edition.  Or maybe you like games with skill point systems, like the World of Darkness games.  This variant gives you skill ranks in 5e.

Variant System: Skill Ranks 

Summary:  At level 1, you choose a Race, Class and Background.  Your Class and Background give you a list of skills you can learn.  You get 8 skill ranks to spend on these skills, with a maximum of 2 ranks in any single skill.  Classes with more than 2 skills get Bonus Skills.  Every level thereafter, you gain 1 skill rank to spend on any of your character skills, with a maximum number of ranks equal to your proficiency bonus.  Read on for more details.

At Level 1
First select a race, class and background.  Your race might give you a Bonus Skill (see below).  Your class gives you a list of class skills.  Make a note of your class' skill list.  This is the start of your character skill list.  For instance, a cleric's class skills are...
Skills: Choose two from History, Insight, Medicine, Persuasion, and Religion
D&D Basic Rules for Players, p. 21
See the "choose two from" part?  If it says "Choose three" you get one Bonus Skill.  If it says "Choose four" you get two Bonus Skills.  See below about Bonus Skills.

Next, add your Background's skills to your character skill list.  For instance, a Folk Hero might get...

Skill Proficiencies: Animal Handling, Survival
D&D Basic Rules for Players, p. 39
So a Folk Hero Cleric would have the following character skill list:  Animal Handling, Survival, History, Insight, Medicine, Persuasion, and Religion.  If any skills overlap, that's OK.  For instance, the Acolyte background gets Insight and Religion.  Those overlap with the Cleric's skills, so an Acolyte Cleric would have a more limited skill list.  But that's OK - that just leads to a more focused character.

Write down your character skill list.  You'll be able to modify it later as you go adventuring.  If you use the character sheet from the 5e Player's Handbook, fill in the bubble next to the skills on your character skill list.

Now, distribute 8 ranks among the skills on your list.  A skill can have either one or two ranks, because the "max ranks" a skill can have is equal to your Proficiency bonus.

Total Modifier

To calculate the total modifier when making checks with your skills, add your skill ranks and your attribute modifier.  So let's say our Cleric has 2 ranks in Insight and Wisdom 16 (+3).  That makes the Cleric's Insight check modifier +5:  Two points from skill ranks plus three points from Wisdom.

Write this number on the line next to the skill, if you're using the character sheet that comes in the Player's Handbook.

At Later Levels

At level 2-17 you gain one new skill rank per level.  (At the DM's discretion, you can gain even more ranks after level 17.)  You can put it into any of your skills, but you can't have more ranks in any skill than your Proficiency bonus.

Ran Out of Skills?

It is possible to make a character that runs out of skills.  That is, you can wind up with all the skills on your character's skill list at Max Ranks and a skill point with nowhere to go.  Remember our Cleric example?  If you make an Acolyte Cleric, you will have a character skill list of just History, Insight, Medicine, Persuasion, and Religion.

At level 3, you will have 2 ranks in each of those skills.  When you reach level 4, your Proficiency bonus will still be +2, and you will have a skill rank to assign, but nowhere to put it!

If this happens, you can immediately add any new skill to your character skill list for free, with no training time.  So our Acolyte cleric might choose Athletics, fill in the bubble next to it on the character sheet, and put that new skill rank in it.  As you can see, the Acolyte cleric will be very focused -- she will have all the core Cleric skills at max ranks fairly quickly!

Rogue Expertise

Rogues get an ability at level 1 called Expertise.  You choose two skill proficiencies (or thieves' tools and a skill proficiency) and "double your proficiency bonus" for these.  If you're using this variant system, all this means is that you get to add your Proficiency bonus when making checks with the chosen skills.  For instance, a Rogue might choose to have Expertise in Stealth and Perception.  She has 2 ranks in each, and with Expertise, gets to add a +2 proficiency bonus as well.

Adding to Your Character Skill List

A character can only take ranks in skills from their own character skill list.  But characters can use Downtime Actions to add skills to their own character skill list, allowing them to put ranks in those skills later (or now, if they also gain a level during downtime).

To do this, you must spend 20 days of downtime with a teacher who has at least 2 ranks in the skill.  These days don't have to be consecutive.

  • Another PC can act as the teacher, but it also takes 20 days of their downtime for them to train you.
  • If you are in a populated area, you can hire a teacher for 20 days for 40gp

This process effectively adds the skill to your character skill list, so you can take skill ranks in it later.  The DM might limit you to adding one skill to your character skill list per level.  That is, if you train in a skill to add it to your character skill list, you must gain a level before adding another skill to your character skill list.

On the Job Training

At the DM's discretion, a character can teach another character a skill (allowing them to add it to their character skill list) while they're adventuring.  Assuming the players of both characters roleplay out the training as they adventure, the adventuring days spent training can count toward the 20 day training time.  DMs should allow this, because it can be a lot of fun at the table.

Ranks on Tools and Languages

You may spend a skill rank to learn a new language or become proficient in a new set of tools, but you should be careful using your ranks on these:  Since you can learn languages and tool proficiencies in downtime without spending skill ranks, players should only spend their skill ranks on tools and languages if there is a strong pressing need.  If there is such a pressing need for the character to have that language or tool proficiency, it's worth the lost skill rank.  Otherwise, it's really not.

Top Tier: A Free Skill

Because 5e has a pattern of granting big perks at or around level 20, I decided to give characters an entire extra skill's worth of ranks (6 extra ranks) from level 18-20 instead of stopping the progression at level 17 (the last Proficiency increase). At level 18, you still get a skill rank.  At level 19, you get 2 skill ranks.  At level 20, you get 3 skill ranks.

If you want to be strict about it, you can rule that skill points stop at level 17 (so characters gain no ranks at 18-20).  In the table below, I made the text for those levels blue, to help you decide.  I recommend you allow the extra skill.  After all, you're using this variant system because you value skills and value the flavor contributed by players' choices in what skills their characters learn as they advance.

Skill Ranks and Max Skills Table

(Max Ranks)
Total Skill Ranks

Bonus Skills

5e characters can gain additional skills through race, class, feats, items, divine boons, Wish spells, and so forth.  There has to be a system to account for those.  In this rule variant, those are called Bonus Skills.  

There are two kinds of Bonus Skills:  Permanent and Temporary.

Permanent bonus skills are ones gained through race, class, feats, Wish spells, and other permanent bonuses.  For instance, the Bardic College of Lore grants you new skill proficiencies, effectively giving you three Bonus Skills at third level.  

Permanent bonus skills grant you Max Ranks (ranks in the skill equal to your Proficiency bonus) when you get them.  When your proficiency bonus increases, all your Bonus Skills increase as well.  Write a "B" next to any Bonus Skills on your character sheet, so you can keep track of them.  

If you already had ranks in a skill when you gain it as a Bonus Skill (such as from the Bardic College of Lore, mentioned above), you get a refund of those ranks to spend on other skills as you see fit.  The most common Bonus Skills will be Bonus Skills gained from classes that grant more than two skill proficiencies at level 1 (e.g. Bard, Rogue, Ranger).  See below for those. 

Example:  Sidney the high elf Wizard (Sidney is short for something complicated and elvish) gets to 4th level and takes the Skilled feat and gains three Bonus Skills.  He chooses Arcana, Diplomacy and Religion.  Sidney already had 2 ranks (max) in Arcana, and 1 rank in Religion.  He had no ranks in Diplomacy.  He gets a refund of 3 skill ranks to use on other skills.  Sidney's player chooses to put 2 ranks in History and 1 rank in Dungeoneering.

Temporary bonus skills are ones gained through magic items, potions, or other strange events. These are short-term or conditional bonuses.  Instead of applying your Proficiency bonus to ability checks with the skill, a temporary bonus skill gives you Advantage on all checks with that skill.  Write an "A" next to such skills to remind yourself that you have Advantage with them.

Example:  After Sidney the 4th level high elf Wizard finds an item called the Crown of Ancient Knowledge, which grants "proficiency in the History skill while worn."  (I just made up this Crown, so I don't know if anything like it actually exists.)  The DM reminds Sidney that this is a conditional, temporary bonus.  Instead of taking max ranks, Sidney's player notes that he now has Advantage on all History checks.

Bonus Skills on Bonus Skills:  In the event that you gain a Bonus Skill in a particular skill you already have as a Bonus Skill (as opposed to being given a choice), you or the DM -- depending on the circumstance -- can select a different skill to get as a Bonus Skill.

Example:  Let's say you get transmuted into an Elf by Corellon for some reason, but you already had Perception as a Bonus Skill from being a Rogue.  The DM changes it so you get a Bonus Skill in Nature, because Corellon also likes nature.

Classes with More than Two Skills

If you start in a class that normally gets Proficiency with more than two skills, each skill after the second is granted as a Bonus Skill.  For instance, Rogues start with four skills.  That means they get two Bonus Skills selected from the Rogue skill list.

Here's an important recommendation:  If you get Bonus Skills from your class, make sure to take the skills most important to your character as Bonus Skills.  Do it before assigning skill ranks.  This is because they will all automatically increase to Max Ranks as soon as your Proficiency bonus increases.  At those levels (5, 9, 13 and 17) you increase all of your Bonus Skills but only one of your regular skills.

Example:  Myra the level 1 Criminal Rogue gets 8 skill ranks like every other character.  She also gets 2 Bonus Skills because Rogue grants four skill proficiencies.  She chooses Stealth and Perception as her Bonus Skills, because her player thinks these are the most important for Myra.  She then takes 1 Acrobatics, 1 Athletics, 2 Deception, 2 Investigation, and 2 Persuasion.  


Use this system for PCs only.  The monsters in the Monster Manual and D&D Basic Rules for DMs are all designed with simple skill proficiencies.

When building monsters on your own, it's also easier to just use the basic proficiency system.

December 19, 2014

Five Optional Rules for your 5e Game

The 5e DMG is great - I think it might be the best DMG of any edition in terms of DM advice, but I didn't like the optional rules I found in it.

Here are some optional rules I wanted to see.

1. Short Rests are Too Long

Short rests of an hour duration are too long.  An hour is long enough that the DM feels like she needs to figure out what the nearby enemy is up to for that time.  In the DMG, there's an optional rule for short rests being 5 minutes, long rests being 1 hour, and long rests for spellcasters being 8 hours, or some malarky like that.  Instead, just call them short rests.

People know what "enough time to rest, but keep it short" is.  Anyone who smokes, who takes five minutes to check Facebook, who gets home and needs a minute before picking the kid up from daycare, or who plays a sport knows what a "short rest" is.  Why do we need to track it in minutes?  The answer is spell durations, but I'm going to address that below.

Alternate Rule:  Short Rests are Short

A short rest is a short amount of time, from a few minutes to an hour, give or take.  If you don't use the Story Time rule, below, a short rest is long enough for minute/level spells to expire, but not hour/level spells.  If you must have the exact number of minutes, roll 1d6x5.

2. Tracking Duration Stinks

4e and 13th Age gave us durations in story time.  Characters have rounds, days, encounters, short rests, and long rests.  The other duration was "save ends" (which 5e also has) allowing a character to make a save at the end of each turn to end the effect, until the encounter ended.  No duration required tracking!  Nothing was "two hours" or "3 rounds" or "minute per level" - it was one of any of those units.  I'm surprised 5e didn't continue this simple pattern, or at least mention it in the DMG as an option.  Even people who hated 4e didn't complain about simpler effect durations!

The rule below has been tailored to the 5e Tiers, as best as possible.

Alternate Rule:  Duration in Story Time

Rounds and Days use the same definition from the PHB.

Encounters are a new unit of time.  An encounter lasts from when a conflict begins to when the conflict ends.  This can be a combat (from "roll initiative" to the point where one side has been defeated), a chase (see the DMG for rules), a complex puzzle, or a social scene -- or anything that the group feels was a challenge or conflict that the party resolved.  As a rule of thumb, if it's worth XP, treasure, or plot information, it's an encounter; and if the party has to attempt something that they could fail or screw up, it's an encounter.

Track Rounds:  Any effect that has a duration of less than 5 rounds lasts a limited number of rounds as described in the effect.  The DM should not track rounds.  If a PC used an effect with a Track Rounds duration, the player must track the duration.  If the DM used an effect with a Track Rounds duration, even if it was on an NPC or monster, the DM should ask a player to help track those rounds.

Encounter:  Any effect that has a duration in rounds and lasts 5 or more rounds lasts a whole encounter.  Any effect that has a duration of 1 minute lasts a whole encounter.  Any effect that lasts 10 minutes or less lasts one encounter.

Track Encounters:  Any effect that lasts more than 10 minutes but less than 5 hours lasts one encounter, plus one additional encounter per hour of duration or part thereof.  Ignore time taken for short rests.  These spells end after a long rest.  That is, if I cast a spell that lasts 11 minutes, it lasts two encounters, even if I take a short rest in between.

All Day:  Any effect with a duration of 1 day or more than 4 hours lasts the entire adventuring day or the entire duration of a long rest (depending on when it was cast).

All Day and All Night:  Any effect with a duration of 17 or more hours lasts through the adventuring day and through a long rest that the PCs take after.

But what if you don't want to track rounds or encounters at all?

Alternative Rule:  No Tracking Duration

Any effect with a duration from 2-5 rounds lasts until the end of the encounter.  Any effect with a duration in minutes (even over 10 minutes) only lasts one encounter.  Any effect with a duration in hours lasts for an adventuring day.

Optional Feat

Here's an optional feat you can include in your game, if you track duration in story time.  It encroaches a little on the Sorcerer's Metamagic class feature, but is still useful, even for Sorcerers with that feature.

New Feat:  Lingering Spells
Increase your Intelligence attribute by 1 to a maximum of 20.  In addition, your spells originally of level 5 and below last longer.  You can cast a level 1-5 spell at a higher level, and it still lasts longer.  Spells that are originally spell level 6-9 are not affected by this feat.  Spells affected by this feat last longer, as follows:

  • Spells that would normally have a duration of one minute or one round per level now last an entire encounter.
  • Spells that would normally have a duration of one hour or one minute per level now last through two encounters, even if the PCs take a short rest in between.
  • Spells that would normally last 2 to 10 hours now last all day.
  • Spells that would normally last 11 hours or more now last all day and all night.
  • Spells that would normally last 17 to 24 hours now last two days and two nights.

3. Instant Death is Too Harsh (or Not Harsh Enough!)

At low levels, characters can die very, very fast.  Level 1 characters are especially fragile.  If you roll damage, MOST monsters can drop a Level 1 PC in one hit, or kill them on a crit.  And higher level (2+) monsters have a good chance of instantly killing PCs.  In the Starter Set, Klarg has about a one in five chance of outright killing a PC.  You can use an OSR technique like The Funnel for Dungeon Crawl Classics ( to temper this, but it doesn't seem like 5e was built for "throwaway zeroes" -- the low level characters you make in just a few minutes to die in the funnel.  So what do you do?

With very few exceptions, trauma is rarely fatal in under 20 seconds.  A "death blow" might leave a person alive, but dying, for a minute or more.  Modern medicine and healing magic both have miraculous (literally, in D&D's world) effects at preserving the lives of people who suffer mortal wounds.

Alternate Rule:  No One-Hit Kills

Simply remove the rule that says that if a character is reduced to 0 hit points and there's enough damage left over to equal his maximum hit points, he dies.  Now whenever a character takes more damage than she has hit points remaining, she is reduced to 0 HP and begins making death saving throws on each of her turns.  Apply this rule to PCs and any individually named NPCs and monsters.  Nameless, unimportant mooks or everyday monsters are dead at 0 hit points.

Effect:  Characters cannot be instantly killed by combat damage, using this rule.  There is a philosophical effect on the game when the risk of death from a signle blow is gone.  It makes the game more heroic and epic.  It emulates the brash pulp sword and sorcery style more than the gritty old school style.

But what if D&D style death and resurrection are fun for your group?  Try this one:

Alternative Rule:  Tiered Lethality

Apply the "No One-Hit Kills" rule through the Local Heroes tier (levels 1-4), then return to normal.  Let the players know that they should now begin to be worried about one-hit kills.

Effect:  Levels 1-4 are the time when a character is most likely to die from a one-hit kill, which is sad because it's right at the start of the story, rather than in the middle or end.  The PCs also don't have access to spells that bring back the dead until character level 5.  By applying the "No One-Hit Kills" rule ONLY from levels 1-4, you're still conveying a philosophy similar to that rule, but at level 5, you let clerics (PC or NPC) handle the work of preventing permanent character death.

But what if you're a Pathfinder fan?  Or what if you think the instant death rules are not harsh enough?  Try this one:

Alternative Rule:  Pathfinder Style Lethality

Ignore the instant death and death save system in the PHB.  Track negative hit points.  Use the Dying condition from Pathfinder, verbatim:

Effect:  Instant death from a single hit is still possible with this optional rule, but it's less likely at level 1, especially for PCs with fewer maximum hit points.  It's about the same at level 2.  But instant death becomes MORE likely as the PCs gain levels past that.  Luckily, the PCs' access to spells that bring back the dead (through NPCs or PCs) also improves as they gain levels.  The real dangerous point for this optional rule is at levels 3 and 4, when this rule makes instant death more likely, and the PCs don't yet have the ability to cast spells to bring back the dead.  If you like that, stick with it.  If that makes you nervous, give the PCs access to an NPC cleric ally who is willing to cast Raise Dead for them, if they can scrounge up the cost of the material components (a diamond worth at least 500gp) and then start leaving 500gp diamonds as major treasure occasionally, starting around level 3.

4. Item Crafting is a Poor Compromise

Notice how magic item crafting minimum levels aren't based on the Tiers of Play?  Level 3 and 6?  And notice how it takes a half a century to make a high end item?  I think the designers wanted a compromise between the free and easy crafting system of 3rd edition and the lower magic, more DM-controlled "go on a quest" rules from older editions.  OK, fine.  But where are the optional rules to take it all the way to either extreme?  And why does it take so long to craft the items to begin with?

I'm going to give you a revised table and then two variants on the item crafting rules.  One is for low-magic campaigns where a magic item is a big story event, and the other is for high-magic campaigns, like a Sharn-based Eberron game.

First, let's fix the item creation table, setting the rarities at the tiers of play.  Note that in the base system, a Legendary item basically cannot be crafted.  It takes about 55 years to craft a legendary item.  With 10 assistants, it would still take 5 years.  You would need 100 assistants, all of level 17 and up, to do it in under 6 months.  That's basically impossible.

Alternate Rule:  Tiered Item Crafting

This rule changes the item crafting table (not the cost, just the levels) and makes changes to the rules on how long crafting takes.  Here's the modified cost and level table:

  • Common: 50gp, Local Heroes (Level 1-4)
  • Uncommon:  500gp, Heroes of the Realm (Level 5-10)
  • Rare:  5,000gp, Masters of the Realm (Level 11-16)
  • Very Rare: 50,000gp, Masters of the World (Level 17-20)
  • Legendary: 500,000gp, Cannot be Crafted (except with DM permission)

The amount of time it takes to craft an item is based on the creator's level.  This way we don't have to do arithmetic.

  • Common:  One week.  For level 5+ characters, they take one day to create.
  • Uncommon:  One month.  For level 11+ characters, they take one week to create.
  • Rare:  A year.  For level 17+ characters, they take a season (3 months) to create - or less, at the DM's discretion.
  • Very Rare:  A year (12 months)
  • Legendary:  Entirely up to the DM; but it should take at least a year.

If multiple item crafters cooperate, at the DM's discretion, divide the time required by the number of participants.  Feel free to use rough approximations.  For instance, if a PC has recruited a circle of thirteen druids to help craft a Very Rare item, the DM could rule it takes one month to craft.

Next, rules for low magic campaigns:

Alternative Rule:  The Rule of Three for Low-Magic Campaigns

Other than consumable items (e.g. potions and scrolls), any character can create up to three magic items in their whole life.  Consumable items are created according to the normal item creation rules, and there is no limit to how many the character can create.

Character class does not matter under the Rule of Three optional system, as long as the character has a relevant proficiency.  For instance, a character proficient with Smith's Tools might be able to forge a legendary magic sword.  This rule assumes that using magic is more than just casting spells, and everyone can do a little magic, if they follow the right ritual steps provided by the story.

Furthermore, each time a character elects to craft a magic item, they must undertake a quest to complete the task.  The quest can either be its own adventure, or be a sub-plot in an adventure.  Here are some example quests:

The first Vorpal Sword was tempered in the incomparable heat of a gold dragon's breath.  You must explore the Lost Mountains to find the lair of the last gold dragon, then convince him you are worthy to bear a Vorpal Blade.

The Staff of Life and Death requires the wood of a tree called the Ash of Souls that only grows in the Shadowfell.  They grow in groves, and you will need the heart-wood of the trunk of a perfectly straight tree at least three feet in diameter.  Luckily, your next adventure will take you to the Shadowfell.  Watch for any woods and try to convince the party to take a side-trip.

The vision your God sent you instructed you to find the Codex Aeternal, a lost treatise on the afterlife in Her religion.  After embroidering its Seven Truths into the cassock, She will bless the cassock as the Vestment of the Returner Aeternal.

Feel free to change this to the "Rule of One" or to further restrict crafting items to spellcasters if you want even lower magic campaigns!

Next, a rule for high-magic campaigns.  You're going to need this if you're running an Eberron game, for instance.

Alternative Rule:  Easier Crafting for High Magic Campaigns

Crafting enduring magic items requires the investment of a feat and a proficiency, but once you have it, things get easier.

First, characters can only craft consumable magic items (e.g. potions and scrolls) without the Craft Magic Items feat.  Crafting any item (including consumables) requires proficiency at least one type of tools necessary for the item's manufacture (e.g. Scribe's Tools for scrolls or Alchemist's Tools for potions).

Second, change the time required to craft a magic item to the following:

  • Common:  Two days
  • Uncommon:  One week
  • Rare:  One month
  • Very Rare:  One season (3 months)
  • Legendary:  One year, but only with the DM's permission

Optional Feat

If you're using Easier Crafting, above, you need to include this feat as an option for the PCs in your game.  It is up to you whether only spellcasters can craft magic items (and thus take this feat) or not.

New Feat:  Craft Magic Items
First, with this feat, you can craft enduring magic items if you are proficient with at least one type of tools necessary for their manufacture.  Second, this feat provides you a bonus proficiency in your choice of one of the following tools:  Jeweler's Tools, Smith's Tools, Woodcarver's Tools, Tailor's Tools, Alchemist's Tools, or Scribe's Tools.  Third and finally, the time to craft consumable magic items is reduced as if they were one degree of rarity more common.  For example, crafting a Rare potion would take as much time as an Uncommon enduring item.  Normally you cannot craft enduring magic items, and you do not get to create consumable items with a reduced crafting time.

5. The Morale Rules Need to be Player-Facing

The DMG's morale rules aren't bad, but they require the DM to do all the work, and don't let the players cause monsters to flee or surrender except by surprising them or hurting them.  This optional rule replaces the morale rules in the DMG with a player-facing system -- meaning the players initiate the action of and use the rule.

Alternate Rule:  Player-Facing Morale

Under this system, the player characters can attempt to scare off their enemies or force them to surrender to them.  Use these rules when the PCs try these actions, not when NPCs try these actions on each other or on the PCs.  If the NPCs or monsters are threatening each other, just decide how it works out.  If the NPCs threaten the PCs, explain or roleplay what they say and do, and let the players decide what their characters do.

As a Bonus Action, a character proficient in Intimidate can attempt to force opponents that can see or hear the character to flee or surrender.  Forcing opponents to surrender only works on creatures that can understand the character's language.

The character makes an Intimidate check against DC 20.  The DM should consider drastically reducing this DC in a combat encounter that seems to be almost over anyway, or even let the character automatically succeed.

If the character succeeds, and the DM wants to randomly determine how the enemy reacts, the target should make a Wisdom save, with a DC based on how many hit points it currently has.  (Note that enemies with more hit points tend to have better Wisdom and are more likely to have proficiency in various saves.  But also note that even very high level PCs often fight much lower level monsters in this edition; so Hill Giants may still be a threat at level 15 -- it would just be lots of Hill Giants.)

Here are the Wisdom save DCs:

  • Under 20hp:  DC 20
  • 20-99hp:  DC 15
  • 100-399hp:  DC 10
  • 400+hp:  DC 5

As a Standard action, the character can attempt to force all of the creatures that can see or hear the character to flee.  Make Wisdom saves individually for each monster.  If the enemies have a leader, start with that creature, then roll for the rest in any order you want.  If the leader flees or surrenders, the DM should decide if the leader orders their subordinates to flee or surrender as well.  Lawful leaders will usually do so.  Chaotic leaders will rarely do so.

Enemies that flee gain the Frightened condition and usually try to escape combat.  They usually use the Disengage action and then move away quickly.  Creatures immune to the Frightened condition cannot be forced to flee, except with a creative idea, at the DM's discretion (waving a burning brand at a flesh golem is a classic).  The Frightened condition persists until they have gotten to a safe place, far from the intimidating character (as they perceive it).  They do not usually return to their masters or allies, or try to attack the PCs or their allies again.  If they return to their masters, it's usually the last thing they do.  Among evil creatures, that kind of cowardice is punishable by death.

Enemies that are forced to surrender drop their weapons and lie prone on the ground, protecting themselves but not otherwise engaging in the combat.  After the combat, they expect fair treatment.  If the PCs interrogate them, they expect something in return for their cooperation.  If the

If a character forces the last active opponents in a combat encounter to flee or surrender, the DM should end the combat immediately, narrating the rest.  There's no need to make disengage actions, continue in initiative order, et cetera.

Some situations might modify the enemy's saves.  Here are some suggested modifiers for the enemy's Wisdom saves for morale.  You can probably think of others:

  • The enemy is in its lair:  Advantage on saves vs. Surrender; will not Flee.
  • The enemy is a Legendary creature:  Will not flee or surrender (DM's discretion)
  • The enemy is a major, named villain or evil mastermind:  Advantage on saves vs. Surrender.  Almost always happy to run away to fight again another day, regardless of their Wisdom save result vs. Flee
  • Enemy is a Lawful Celestial or Fiend:  Advantage on saves vs. Flee.
  • The PCs have a reputation for killing their prisoners:  Advantage on saves vs. Surrender
  • The PCs have a reputation for stabbing or shooting fleeing enemies in the back:  Advantage on sves vs. Flee for enemies who know the reputation
  • The PC is using Barbarian Rage or Druidic Wild Shape:  Advantage on saves vs. Surrender or Disadvantage on saves vs. Flee
  • The enemy knows that the PC is of a religion that violently opposes theirs:  Advantage on saves vs. Surrender, Disadvantage on saves vs. Flee
  • The enemy knows that the local authorities will execute them if they are brought to justice:  Advantage on saves vs. Surrender
  • There are more conscious enemies than conscious PCs (and their allies) in the fight:  Advantage on saves vs. Flee or Surrender
  • The enemies are all larger than the PCs:  Advantage on saves vs. Flee or Surrender
  • At least one PC is incapacitated:  Advantage on saves vs. Flee or Surrender
  • At least one enemy is incapacitated:  Disadvantage on saves vs. Flee or Surrender
  • The target's leader is present, not incapacitated, and not fleeing or surrendered:  Advantage on saves vs. Flee or Surrender (the leader does not gain this advantage).
  • The target has already surrendered:  Automatically fails saves vs. Flee on subsequent rounds

December 15, 2014

5 Tips to Run an Adventure Style LARP on a Budget

So there you are, eager to run a LARP.  You and your friends are big fans of adventure style games, and would prefer them over the backstabbing competitive nature of elysium style LARPs.  But you have a problem:  You don't have a lot of players, and can't charge them an arm and a leg.

You've got to run an adventure style LARP on a budget.

Let's say you can reliably recruit 20 players and staff and charge $5-10 per player or staff member per session.  Given drop-outs and IOUs, you can't expect much more than a hundred bucks a session.  So here are five tips for how to run a well-dressed adventure style game for just $100 a session!

1. Sell Concessions

LARP is hard work.  LARPers need snacks and beverages to keep the energy level up.  Having good snacks and drinks around will really help improve your LARP, beyond any income they generate.  You can sell snacks and drinks when you have private space, and dress the space appropriately as a party, home base, cafe, or other location where such refreshments are available.  Expect to make about fifty cents of profit per player from refreshments, plus five or ten dollars of donations.

First, buy refreshments that are good for your game, allowed by your site, and desired by your players.  Put them out as part of the set dressing, but place a slotted box next to the refreshments.  On the box, write the "suggested donations" list and a promise that all the proceeds will go towards game site, printing, props, and set dressing.  Give a range that starts at a number involving coins and ends at a round number.  Make the top end of the range close to the higher price that you'd pay for the refreshments at a gas station or convenience store if you stopped in on the way to game.

Suggested Donations:
  • Can of soda:  $0.75-$1.00
  • 20oz soda:  $1.50-$2.00
  • Bag of chips:  $0.50-$1.00
  • Candy:  $0.75-$1.00
At the end of the game session, give all the players a last chance to give additional donations to the game or buy stuff for the ride home, or to settle up if they didn't donate for stuff they consumed.

The profit from the concessions sales will only net you ten dollars an evening, but the additional donations will probably double the pot.  It's sure to pay for your printing costs, at the very least.  Thank players who provide donations and explain that this is a fundraising tool, so you'll keep providing it as long as it raises money.

2. Free Sites

The biggest challenge for adventure style LARP is game space.  I could write a book on this problem and how to solve it, really.

First...  Bad news live combat LARPers:  Unless you live near a very large national or state park with lots of private space, you are not likely to get a good free site for a live combat boffer LARP.  You will never be able to get free space for a live combat airsoft LARP.  If you can't afford a site for that sort of game, you probably can't afford insurance, and you really, really need insurance for a live combat game.

But for the simulated combat adventure style LARPs, such as Vampire or Call of Cthulhu or all the other sim-combat games out there -- there is a lot of opportunity.

Malls, Bars and Clubs
You can LARP in a mall, bar or nightclub.  The benefit is the food and drinks, easy to find event calendars, and friendly (if you tip well) staff.  The drawback is the noise and unpredictable (or total lack of) private space to run action scenes.  The solution to both of these problems is to use a bar or club district instead of a single bar or club.  Select a strip mall or city street with multiple cafes, bars, clubs and restaurants, or a large, popular shopping mall.  Decide if you want to ban locations with cover charges or other barriers to entry (e.g. movie theaters) from the list of game space sites.  Set limits on how far off the main drag the game space's boundaries are.

Ban weapon props (use index cards with words and stats on them) and advise players that their characters will be in public and maybe ought to dress to fit in.  Run your action scenes in parking lots, on side streets, and so forth.

Limit your action scenes, too.  Some action scenes, especially those involving deception and tense negotiation, are great for these sorts of public spaces:  "Your goal is to follow the enemy spy and eavesdrop on her conversation with her contact."  "Your goal is to negotiate the return of your sire, in exchange for the return of the Ventrue antitribu's sire, without the scene turning violent."  "Your goal is to determine which of the visitors is an alien in disguise and capture them when they go to the parking garage."  Remember, simulated combat games do not involve actual touching, so capturing an NPC involves some dice or rock-paper-scissors.  Make sure your players know that they should not mime violent actions, or they could get arrested.

Parks and Public Spaces
Parks are great for a LARP, as long as you don't live in Buffalo.  Wooded areas provide semi-private space where your players will feel more comfortable dressing in costume and setting out set dressings.  Just choose one that's big enough that you can get lost in it, and get yourself on all the community email lists for the town around it.  You don't want to schedule your LARP alongside the annual stream cleanup, triathalon, jazz festival, or Sunday school scavenger hunt.  Some of these events might actually be great for your game, but not if you're taken by surprise.

Just because it's a park doesn't mean you can whip out the airsoft MP-5.  Do not use realistic gun props in a park.  Check with your local police department about any other kinds of props that they might feel worried about.  Tell them you're doing a kind of no-contact improvisational theater game called LARP.

College campuses are a special kind of public space.  If you have a group entirely comprised of students, you have a lot of free reign, and most campus police services actually know what LARP is.  If you have non-students, you might want to be a bit more careful.  If your game is mostly non-students, you may need to reserve a small space through the student to serve as a home base, then range out from there.  A student center, with a food court and meeting rooms, is often the best kind of LARP site.

Somebody's House
If one of the players has a house they're willing to entertain the LARP at, you're set.  But that player should consider it the same as throwing a party.  If they are comfortable with the other players coming to their house, it's fine.  But if your LARP has walk-ins and visitors (like a network game in One World By Night) or advertises on sites like meetup, your game is not a good candidate for someone's personal home.

If you use a personal home, have the host close off areas that are forbidden to the LARP and put signs on the doors forbidding entry during the LARP.  If you're the game producer/head GM and you're not the host, you have to stick around to clean up.  Yes, that means the dirtiest jobs.  Yes, that means the bathroom.

You should consider getting cheap event insurance if you use someone's house.  And you should have the host check with their homeowner's or renter's insurance policy for any restrictions.  For instance, under some policies, damages are not covered if you're hosting an event people have to pay to attend, or for your own profit.  In that case, make sure you word the "site fee" as a "suggested donation" and make it clear that none of the money will go to pay the home's owner.  I'm not a lawyer, though, so don't take my suggestion as legal advice.

Set dressings are even more important at people's homes.  This is because they help you block fragile televisions or decorations, cover shelves full of distracting gaming books, and hide those off-limits doors.

Not every church thinks role-playing games are the tools of the devil.  Some are very friendly towards safe, prosocial, sober, creative activities that keep kids off the street.  Ask your troupe if anyone is a member of a church that might be friendly to LARP.  They might have event space free to parishioners, or available for a very low fee.

3. Dress the Set and Use the Outdoors
Cheap and free sites are great on the budget, but they tend to have two major limitations.  First, they tend to be small and have only one room.  A typical adventure LARP with more than six or seven players has at least two simultaneous adventure scenes going much of the time.

If you intend to use a cheap or free site regularly, design set dressing for it to make it work for your game.  I attended a very popular Vampire LARP once that was located in a one room daycare, and they never went to the effort of buying set dressing to disguise the place.

Make sure to give yourself a monthly props and set dressing budget.  Here's a list of tips to get set dressing on the cheap:

  • Buy a few five yard lengths of cheap black fabric at the arts and crafts store, and get some plain white, tan, brown, and grey sheets at the local goodwill.  Use these to dress tables, cover desks in university classrooms, hide Sunday school art on the walls at the church, etc.
  • Lighting is key!  A flourescent-lit meeting space seems to transform as soon as you turn off the overhead lights and get some electric candelabras flickering away.  A fog machine and strobe light can open a portal to hell.  Hide the face of a mysterious patron at the head of a meeting table in a dark room by placing a desk lamp with a 100W bulb behind him, pointed right at the players.  Cheap flashlights tend to go out randomly, which makes them excellent props.
  • Raid the after-Halloween sales to get set dressing and props at huge discounts.  Focus on set dressings and lighting, since props tend to be more limited use.
  • You can make an indoor space look like an outdoor space with a single street sign or lamp post.  Buy the cheapest lamp post light at Home Depot (solar powered post-cap lights or large garden stick-lights might be better, since they will actually light up), a 6' length of PVC pipe, and a can of black spray paint to paint the pipe black.  Use a Christmas tree stand to keep the post upright.
  • Buy an old, oversized blazer or vest at the goodwill.  When players temporarily take the role of NPCs for you, have them wear it so the other players know they're a different character for the time.
  • Don't underestimate the value of sound.  Get a good speaker, plug your laptop or ipad into it, and dress your set as a busy train station, remote mansion in a thunderstorm, ancient ruin, or dripping sewer by purchasing or streaming ambient sound effects (search sites like or
  • If you have the budget, garage space, and game space, construct some theater flats (broadway flats are fine and easier to store):   The materials for these are cheap, especially if you have some old paint and screws lying around the house anyway.  Constructing them is easy.  The hard part is storing them, transporting them, and getting space big enough to justify using them.  If you run a game at a convention and get your own room, or somehow get a school cafeteria, it's likely to be a huge open space.  Not ideal.  Just six broadway style flats will turn a 25'x50' meeting room at a con into four private spaces for your game.  The picture below has a meeting table, two tight spaces on the left side, and a library or laboratory on the right.

Also, use the outdoors.  Get to know the area around your tiny, imperfect site.  Follow the paths, sidewalks, and streets in every direction for five minutes to find out what's a five minute walk away.  There might be some nice secluded areas: a picnic table behind the site, a playlot across the street, a quiet alley without any residences off of it (residents might get mad), or a little square with benches and modern art.  Draw a map for the players so they see all the space they can use.  Give the map to the people writing and designing your adventure scenes, too, so they can set the scenes in the appropriate sized space.

Important note:  Tell players that if they want to use their personal cars as LARP props, they're required to have comprehensive insurance, and that they have to sign a liability waiver for the LARP (find some for free on google, search for "larp liability waiver").  That way, they're covered (after the deductible) if something happens to the car.  Note that none of this is meant to be legal advice; I am not a lawyer.  Consult a real lawyer if you have any questions!

Finally, use the local businesses.  Get the hours of the businesses nearby, and include any that seem appropriate in your game space in your site boundaries handout.  Maybe you only have one room in an art center for your Dresden Files LARP, but if that art center is one block from an all night parking garage, a cheap Chinese restaurant that's open until ten, a sports bar, a Starbucks that's open until nine, and a 24-hour Circle-K, you've dramatically expanded your game space.

4. Alternate Free Space with Paid Space

Free game spaces come with a lot of restrictions.  Parks have odd hours and tend to have regular folks strolling through.  University buildings tend to have limited hours and classes, study groups, and events appear unexpectedly.  Bars, cafes, malls, and other public commercial spaces are loud and very public.  And players' houses come with all kinds of risks and restrictions.

But if you can manage to set your LARP in public every other or two out of three sessions, you budget gets much nicer.  Here's an example.  My sample game has 20 players, but only 15 usually show up.  It has a game fee of $10 for the twelve to fifteen regular players and $5 for the three to five member staff and NPC cast.  The game happens every other month.  Here's the ledger for a year of games:

  • Game 1, free site.  Income: $160; Costs: $60 (props, set dressing, and printing).  New Balance $100
  • Game 2, paid site.  Income: $125; Costs: $200 (site fee), $10 (printing).  New Balance: $15
  • Game 3, free site.  Income: $140; Costs:  $10 (printing).  New Balance:  $145
  • Game 4, paid site.  Income: $130; Costs: $200 (site fee), $40 (more set dressing, printing).  New Balance:  $105
  • Game 5, free site.  Income: $95; Costs:  $50 (props, set dressing, and printing).  New Balance:  $150
  • Game 6, paid site.  Income: $120; Costs:  $200 (site fee), $30 (props and printing).  New Balance: $40
$200 goes a long way for a site fee.  It can rent back rooms at restaurants, multiple meeting rooms on college campuses or in community centers, party space at most apartment complexes, and practice space in community or college theaters (remember, LARP is basically a kind of theater).  $200 can rent four rooms at a cheap motel, two at a half-decent one, or a suite in the off-season in a resort town.

5. Call the Local Game Stores and Game Cafes

It's a long shot, but you might be able to secure great free or cheap paid space at a game cafe or game store.

With a game store, your most likely outcome is to get permission to use a game store as a home base for opening and closing ceremonies, and to store GM stuff.  The LARP would have to take place in the strip mall or streets around the game store.  See Malls, Bars and Clubs under #2, above.

If your town has a game cafe, you might be in for a treat.  A game cafe is a semi-new business that combines coffee shop or bistro with table games.  They either rent tables or set other limits to keep turnover high.  A LARP is a great proposition for these places:  By giving or renting the LARP just a few tables, they get twenty customers ordering coffee and snacks, and half the time the LARPers are outside wandering the block.  Not only is the place guaranteed to be gamer-friendly, but depending on their business model, you may be able to get great cheap space, enthusiastically friendly and understanding staff, and good food.  Heck, the staff might even be willing to help the game out by passing messages and other fun thing.  Just make sure your LARP supports their profit margin nicely.

That's it for today!

Do you have any tips for running an adventure LARP on a budget?  Let me know in comments or on twitter @RunAGame 

December 5, 2014

Time Pressure

This post will outline the technique of time pressure.  It relates to pacing, so consider reviewing the pacing series to get more out of this technique.

In tabletop RPGs, time pressure is a technique that spans creative agendas, systems, and play styles.  Time pressure is simple:  You employ time pressure whenever the plot requires that the player characters complete a task in a limited amount of time.

Time pressure is a game element when the players have to make consequential decisions about how to use limited time with limited information.  For instance, if the player characters are exploring a palace that is sinking, they might only have time to explore one wing, or two if they press on without resting.  Which wing to explore, and whether to press on without rest are decisions that the players must make without knowing for sure what is in each wing, and how dangerous the exploration will be.

Time pressure is a story element when it is used to establish the stakes of the story and provide a mechanism for the GM to use threat and opportunity scenes to create a strong narrative structure.  Time pressure is also a strong story element in fantasy fiction:  We have to stop the cult before they open a gate to hell.  We have to kill the werewolf before it kills again.  Et cetera.

Time pressure is a simulationist element because it requires the players and GM to establish a shared understanding of the passage of time in the game world, and establish a system for how much time certain activities cost; then it requires the players to solve problems within this immersive framework.  For instance, in 5th edition D&D, a short rest costs one hour and a long rest costs 6 hours.  Exploring a sinking palace, the water level might rise every hour, until, after 12 hours, the palace has become submerged.  Instead of tracking the seconds and minutes involved in combat and walking around, the table should simply agree to track time by counting short rests and long rests, to avoid arguments about how long it takes to swim down a 40' corridor.

Acute Time Pressure

Acute time pressure has a tangible, immediate cause.  The pressure ends after the adventure concludes.  Acute time pressure can be used to run increasingly fast paced stories:  As the timer runs down, the stakes go up and the players' options narrow.

Some RPGs really benefit from acute time pressure.

If you're running Pathfinder, for instance, the martial classes balance with the spell-casting classes when the party has 3-5 encounters per adventuring day.  Encounters tend to last 3-4 combat rounds, and spell-casters usually have 8 or fewer uses of their best spells in a day (without using expendable resources -- and barring hyper-optinized characters).  For instance, a 6th level Wizard should have three 3rd level spells and four 2nd level spells.  With 4 encounters lasting 3 or 4 rounds each, that's one powerful spell every other round.  The fighter and rogue at that level are very likely to be consistently better than the wizard's first level spells and crossbow bolts, but not those third level spells -- so it averages out.  But with 2 encounters, the wizard gets to use her most powerful magic every single round.  The wizard (and the party) benefits from having fewer encounters per day.  Without time pressure, there is no reason to have more than one or two encounters before taking a rest.  Consequently, time pressure helps balance the game's system at a very deep level.

Another example of time pressure improving system balance is Gumshoe.  In a Gumshoe game, the players collect clues and then follow those clues to the solution of an investigation.  Without time pressure, the player characters can spend as much time as they like poking around and finding all the clues.  But with time pressure, they're forced to take leaps of logic, to form educated guesses, and to trust NPCs without knowing if they should.  Furthermore, experience points are awarded per session in Gumshoe games, so if the players dilly dally, they actually earn more XP.  Time pressure solves both of these problems.

Apocalypse World uses a doom clock mechanic.  There's a handful of boxes, and the GM can make a move to check one.  When they're all checked, the doom comes.  This can be "investigate the supposed curse before it's supposed to get here" or "get out of here before the bomb goes off" or any number of super-acute time pressure moments.  The system gives the GM opportunities to advance the doom clock, and the GM can rule player actions take enough time to advance it without die rolls.

Chronic Time Pressure

Chronic time pressure is a common trope in the epic fantasy subgenre.  It happens when the entire story is based on time pressure.  The protagonists' actions are vitally important -- often so much so that their very lives are a small price to pay for victory.  Naturally there's no time to waste!

The Lord of the Rings trilogy is a classic example of chronic time pressure.  The story has no down-time:  The characters are racing against Sauron.  They have to destroy the One Ring and rally the old alliances to protect Gondor before Sauron conquers the last bastion of the strength of men.  Contrast this with the Dresden Files series of novels.  Each book presents a story that has strong and building acute time pressure.  But each story concludes and resolves the time pressure.  The next book picks up after some time has passed.  Harry Dresden spends the interstitial time healing his wounds, rebuilding his resources, growing his network, gaining power, and grieving his losses.

Tabletop RPGs can simulate epic fantasy well, but chronic time pressure prevents the player characters from using down time.  At the end of each adventure, the time pressure only grows.  The characters must rush to the next phase of the campaign -- the next adventure.  Delaying can only hurt:  Sauron's forces gather in the East.

Chronic time pressure also results from travel stories, where the PCs are constantly on the move from place to place.  They never return to their home base.  At the end of one adventure, there is no use in doing anything but moving on to the next adventure.  This is because once they leave each location, anything they established there must be left behind.  And typically travel stories provide other kinds of time pressure:  The goal is to round Cape Horn before running out of food and water.  The goal is to get to complete the pilgrimage in time for the ritual at the foretold eclipse in a month's time.  The goal is to get back to Normandy from the Holy Land before your inheritance is forefeited.  The goal is to pursue and capture or kill the Man in Black.

The Value of Down Time

Down time has two strong story benefits, and they're two of my favorite things to talk about: Pacing and hooks.

The first benefit is that downtime slows the pace.  In the hero cycle, the hero returns to the familiar after emerging from the unfamiliar and overcoming the antagonist.  The hero is changed, but the pace slows and the world is still there.

The second benefit is that in downtime, the players' characters are given an opportuntiy to deepen their ties to the game world.  They recruit allies, improve their personal status, strengthen their factions, enrich their families, study with their mentors, build strongholds, and create networks of informants.  All of these activities involve NPCs, locations, and investments in the world.  Sometimes they do dangerous things like spend all their coin carousing, or antagonizing a powerful NPC.  Each downtime activity a character takes supports the character's ideals and goals, or represents the character's flaws and dark side.

These are hooks!  Down time actions tell you the kinds of things that matter to the characters and their players.  Many systems (D&D 5th edition, 13th Age, Fate, etc.) have rules for how down time activities impact your character's hooks, and how your character's hooks can come into play in the moment-to-monent action of a game session (D&D's Inspiration, 13th Age's Icons, and Fate's Aspects, to continue the example).

If you have an RPG without a down time system, but want to use down time, consider letting each character do two major things between adventures, and give them a list of suggestions.  Don't limit them to the list; the list is just to help them see what sorts of things they should think about.

Make your list about 5-10 items long, each suggesting a category of activities that a character could take to deepen his or her ties to the campaign world.  Here are some suggestions:

  • Build and protect your family's fortune
  • Make a new, influential friend or become good friends with an NPC
  • Increase your status within the government or in a powerful organization
  • Establish a charitable organization that serves a group of people you want to help
  • Become popular within a neighborhood, town, or professional community
  • Train some novices to be able to do what you do, and keep in touch with them
  • Network within a specific community
  • Build a fortification, safe house, secret hideout, tower, or dungeon
  • Increase public awareness of a problem you want people to know about
  • Become more famous, feared, or beloved by the people

GM Tool: Time Pressure

To help you get some inspiration, here's a list of ways to create time pressure.  This is not an exhaustive list.  If you can think of other categories or ideas, please submit them in comments!

The Villain's Calendar:  The bad guys are going to do something very bad at a certain time.  The PCs have to interfere before they do.  Examples:  Human sacrifice at midnight.  The serial killer strikes every full moon.  The stars will align on January 1st.  The terrorists plan to strike in one week.  The goblin horde will attack at dusk.

Dusk Till Dawn:  The rising and setting of the sun are classic story elements in supernatural fiction.  Vampires slumber in the daytime, ghosts are only active at night, the dawn and dusk are times of power for magic, for gods, and for supernatural monsters.  Sometimes ancient calendars like Stonehenge do something special at dawn or dusk.  In the Dresden Files, magic spells weaken or end at sunrise.  Dawn is also an interesting time to put events on the Villain's Calendar.  Examples:  The luftwaffe bombs london every night once it becomes full dark.  The time loop the PCs are caught in resets every day at sunrise.  You have to survive the zombie uprising only until sunrise, and save as many villagers as you can in that time.  The vampire you are hunting will wake when the sun sets.

Disaster Movie:  An inevitable, unavoidable natural disaster is forcing the PCs to act fast.  Examples:  Lava from the volcano will reach the village by tomorrow night.  The monsoons make the strait impassable for three months, which might be enough time to delay the attack.  The temple is sinking rapidly into the sea, losing about a foot every hour.  Everyone is evacuating the town because of the approaching hurricane.  What can you find out about the bayou cult before everything gets washed away?

Race:  There are other people acting against the PCs' interests.  As time passes, they will achieve their goals.  The PCs have to hurry to stay ahead of them, or else take actions to sabotage them.  Example:  A murder mystery tends to invovle the PCs working to figure out who the killer is while the killer works to cover up his crime and escape the reach of the law.  A treasure hunt often involves rivals seeking the same treasure, deciphering the same clues, etc.  A pursuit involves the PCs chasing a villain who is constantly trying to delay them.  An actual race (such as a Cannonball Run story - remember to set it in the 70s when traffic wasn't as bad!) makes for an excellent plot, as well.

It's Getting Worse:  This variation on time pressure doesn't have a specific time limit - it starts off bad and just gets worse.  The danger that the story conflict poses gets worse as time passes.  For instance, a villain is creating an army of robot minions.  Every day that passes, he makes another.  Or perhaps the werewolf kills a random number of townspeople each night of the full moon, and after a certain point, the town will be so hard hit that it must be abandoned.  But when the villagers relocate to the next town over, the secret werewolf will come along with them if he is not caught.  The mysterious disease kills dozens of people every night, and the death tolls are rising.  The fire is consuming the library - can you contain it in time?  The family you're investigating is traveling soon, so if you don't speak with them  and figure out what the strange dreams are about by Friday, they will get on an Atlantic steamer, and you'll be trapped on a ship with them.

Unknown Time:  In this variation, the PCs don't know how much time they have -- just a general idea.  The GM either rolls once in secret for the time (the power goes out in 1d12 hours), or the players roll every time they take an action to see if the time has run out (the power goes out if the players roll a 1 on 1d12 at the end of the hour).  Examples:  The power is running out.  The enemy could attack at any time.  The police could get here any minute.  This building isn't very stable -- it could collapse at any time.  You have to find a way to cure the knight's illness before he succumbs, which could be any day now.

Ethical Pressure:  Justice deferred is no justice at all.  The PCs or NPCs that the PCs care about have been wronged, and they must seek justice.  Examples:  One PC's sister has been made into a slave.  Nothing bad is explicitly going to happen to her, but every day as a slave is an injustice that the PCs must strive to right.  One PC has had her inheritance stolen by a corrupt knight, who now rules as Baron in her place.  She will stop at nothing to restore her birthright, and will brook no delay.  This is a very mild time pressure, since there's no doom on the horizon.  The players must care about the ethics of the situation and must be adamant that justice be done.  A bunch of rougish, anti-hero PCs will probably respond poorly to this pressure.

Not Getting Paid By the Hour:  The PCs are being offered a reward for achieving some goal.  Each day that passes costs them money, eating into the reward.  At the most basic, they're motivated to finish up fast.  But if their employer offers more money for a faster result, they're suddenly under explicit time pressure.  Examples:  Mr. Johnson wants the Arasaka files by Friday, but if you can get them to him tomorrow, he'll triple the pay.  The wizard needs his stolen spellbook back -- and if he can get it back in 48 hours, he will give you a magic wand in addition to the promised gold.  The client is paying a $500 flat fee plus expenses, but "expenses" don't include renting the crummy motel room you sleep in or the $200 you owe your impatient bookie, so the sooner you can finish up and get paid, the better.

Do or Die:  In this variation, the PCs' lives are at stake.  This is a staple of cyberpunk fiction.  Neuromancer and Johnny Mneumonic both use the do or die time pressure trope.  Examples:  There's a poison in your body that will kill you in 72 hours if you don't get the custom antidote, and it would take you at least a week to engineer the antidote yourself, so the megacorp has you over a barrel.  The dungeon has inflicted a rotting curse on you - every hour, you lose 1d6 hit points.  You can heal with magic, but you're bound to run out eventually, so you'd better defeat the mummy before you rot away to dust.

The Ship is Leaving:  This variation forces the PCs into time pressure based on their own availability.  Examples:  Someone has been murdered on the cruise ship - and there are only three more days before it gets back to port for you to solve this crime.  You're crew on a first rate man'o'war that's leaving port on the morning tide.  Can you find out what Napoleon's plans are from the French operatives in town before your ship sails?  The Water Breathing spell the druid cast on you will last 2 hours, and you don't want to be under the reef when it wears off.