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.
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.