One panel I was on, The Hacker’s Guide to D&D, offered up several good nuggets that I’d like to share.
These are mostly not elaborate system hacks; the focus, rather, is on making something simple serve your game’s needs. The ideas range from wacky and very specific to exceedingly general. The materials needed to implement them vary. They cover everything from telling when another story of a burning building will collapse, to how quickly a sinking ship’s hold fills with water, to letting characters succeed at a cost when the dice don’t quite favor them enough.
First, if you’re not familiar with countdown clocks from Apocalypse World (AW) and Blades in the Dark (BitD), I strongly suggest that you rectify that. AW was my first exposure to them, but I think BitD does a better job of incorporating them into the system and making use of them. With a little thought, BitD’s example is relatively easy to port over into D&D 5e: the death save system already exists as an example of something similar, and countdown clocks could be implemented in a similar fashion. The purpose of using them, as far as I’m concerned, is to make sure that your players are aware of the cost of failure (or the benefits of success) without having consequences be immediate.
Countdown clocks can be used to model any kind of protracted process. They should be labeled with a clear result or state, and placed so that everyone can see them, so that people know what will come to pass when they’re complete… though you could play with hidden information and a growing sense of dread if you wanted to by obscuring the label on a mysterious clock from players, if that made sense for the game. Countdown clocks consist of a circle divided into segments, with a 4-segment clock being a circle with an X drawn through it to create four quadrants. These clocks can have however many segments you want (e.g. 4 is fast or easy, 6 is moderate, 8 is slow or hard), and for each failure (or success depending on the clock) your players might earn one to three filled segments in a clock. The death saving throw process of 5e exemplifies a race between two 3-segment clocks, with one clock labeled “dead” and the other “stable and unconscious.”
You could just as easily use competing clocks to model sneaking past a series of sentries (one clock labeled “guards alerted,” the other labeled “inside the tower”), or a single clock to model a prolonged research project labeled “knows the secrets of Mazar-Khuin.” There’s no need to give competing clocks equal segments: a virulent disease might spread on a 4-segment clock, while its cure requires an 8-segment research project. By having these clocks out and visible to players, you can let them come up with their own ways of addressing the issues they face, and track their progress, without always having to dig into the minutiae of any given action.
Reimagining the central mechanic from Epidiah Ravachol’s DREAD, you can use a dice tower as the way to tell when a burning building’s floors would collapse. With each round that passed, the storyteller adds another die to the top of a growing dice tower; when the dice tower inevitably falls, the next story of the building falls too. You could easily expand this, adding another die each time the building suffered further structural damage—or even using less stable dice when more damaging actions were taken. This was tested in an online game, without the tower visible to the players, but the tension of watching the dice tower grow might add to the experience if it were used in person.
In a similar vein, it’s possible to simulate a ship filling with water—useful when the player characters want to loot a sinking ship. To model the ship filling with water, the storyteller uses a map of the ship’s hold and lower decks, a die, and a series of (blue) index cards. Each round, the storyteller rolls a die and covers a corresponding number of sections of the hold, working from the lowest deck up. Any characters still in now-filled sections of the ship are now submerged, and risk drowning.
Another tool for running fires in a game: given that a fire can double in size roughly every minute and heat a space enough to spontaneously combust nearby fuel within three minutes (here’s a practical demonstration video in case you’re skeptical), you can track time with a countdown clock. Every minute, double the size of the fire. At the end of the third minute, all remotely flammable material in the same space ignites if it wasn’t already on fire. Long before that, characters should be suffering from the effects of smoke inhalation, etc. If you’re playing a game with 6-second rounds like D&D, a 10-segment clock (or a d10 if you’re feeling lucky and don’t have cats) works perfectly.
We spoke about binary and trinary results in dice rolls (which I have a post about), and simultaneous turn resolution. The simultaneous turn resolution seemed complicated to me at first glance, but I can also see it being a lot of fun. The basic idea is that everyone declares all their actions simultaneously, all dice involved are rolled, and then the storyteller narrates the results of that round as they all happen at once. The person suggesting this mentioned that it took some getting used to, but that people learned it as a system fairly quickly and appreciated the way in which it both sped combat up and created a more dramatic feel. I’m not sure it would speed things up for me without more practice, but it seems worth experimenting with.
There was also mention of altering the ways that wizards gain spells in 5e, and the restrictions on what spells they could cast. With the underlying ideas that 1) wizards should tie their acquisition of new magic to the narrative and game world, and 2) wizards should be able to learn and cast any spell (because they’re wizards and that’s their jam), someone suggested that wizards should be able to learn spells from any class so long as they could find a spellcaster willing to share that spell, or existing instance of that spell, and study it. The drawback that went hand in hand with this was the idea that no wizard could learn a spell (not even the free ones gained at a new level) without finding the spell out in the world. This thus implied borrowing or stealing spellbooks, unsavory wizards abducting other magic users to cudgel their magical knowledge out of them, well-stocked arcane laboratories for the wizardly experimentation necessary to develop new spells of one’s own, etc. If you want wizards to feel a little more Vancian, want to encourage the creation of towers and dungeons and castles to guard a wizard’s special magical knowledge, or want others to look on wizards with a little more suspicion and so on, this might be good for you.
Finally, we talked about borrowing the “weak hit” mechanics from AW to let characters in 5e succeed even when the dice said they shouldn’t… so long as they were willing to sacrifice or suffer something meaningful and narratively sensical in order to make the difference. This could be dropping the bag of doubloons you’ve looted when you’re trying to escape that sinking ship, or losing your weapon in the brush when you’re fleeing from a monster through a patch of thorns. As long as the player rolled relatively close to the threshold of success, this is a way to let them eke out a success at a cost, while letting them choose what they’re willing to give up in order to succeed. It’s also easy to use in other systems, with a little tinkering.