Dice Clocks

Approximate time to read: 7 minutes.   

When you have a team of people working together to achieve a specific objective, it can come down to the dice to determine success or failure. While you can opt for straightforward tests, that doesn’t necessarily embrace the variable impact of chance, indifference, and the upset of the unexpected.

Different player characters will bring different skills to the table. On both occasions, I have run Titan’s Wake, the closing scene resolved to a pitched battle between two quite significant forces. We’re talking hundreds of troops on either side – the sort of thing that would be difficult to setup as a wargame never mind play out as a group combat with roleplaying rules!

So, the characters could not fight their way through all of them; they needed to find their niche and make a contribution that fitted them best as a character. That gave me the opportunity to spotlight each individual and allow the players to make some key decisions that they hoped would change the fortunes of the battle.

Each player could do something to direct the course of events – and it meant we could zoom in on something overwhelming and huge and make it more personal. In each case, I did this by getting them to declare their intent, roll a suitable test where appropriate and then narrate the outcome. It worked fine, but I’m interested in any suggestion that might provide an alternate approach.

Beat the Clock

Yesterday, I read an interesting article on a blog called Department V about Dice Clocks. While the author didn’t know whether the outlined idea would necessarily have legs in his game, I’m willing to give it a try for Symbaroum to handle those situations where the characters come up against a big challenge. The article has a lot more ideas on using Dice Clocks than I’m proposing to use here – go ahead and read what Ralph has to say.

To be clear, I do not advocate dice rolling and tests as a primary focus for any game session. You should find a comfortable balance between narration, interaction, roleplaying and crunch that suits the way you and your gaming group play games. If you enjoy a complete focus on story, Dice Clocks probably won’t add anything for you.

As I said about the Titan Wake battle, I asked each of the players what they wanted their character to do and provide some heroic detail – a little flourish and style to make it their own. Any test that followed allowed me to determine the measure of success or failure and then narrate back the outcome, taking on any comments the player might have themselves.

That worked fine. However, it took the spotlight and focussed on characters solely rather than the team. I think the Dice Clock approach provides potential for giving both team and individual their spotlight.

Setting Targets

siege-on-LindarosEssentially, I see this rather like assigning Toughness to an event, location, plan or situation. When you have a situation – like a battle – that requires resolution you need to set down a few details of what the player characters need to achieve to bring resolution. You need a clear goal – stop the enemy army from breaching the defenses at Yndaros – and elements that will bring about that goal, noting what will happen and how you can stop it:

  • the enemy will outflank us – slow the enemy down to allow reinforcements from the Iron Pact to arrive
  • the enemy will destroy the Church of Prios – destroy enemy artillery
  • the enemy forces follow orders to the letter, fight or die! – find the enemy’s commander
  • the enemy commander will ensure the destruction of Yndaros – defeat the enemy’s commander

The basic difficulty of any task boils down to 1D4 – like an unarmed attack. If the enemy might have Abilities or Powers that complicate achieving something, adjust the die.

  • Weak Enemy or a basic task equates to 1D4
  • Novice Ability or an Ordinary Enemy equates to 1D6
  • Challenging Enemy equates to 1D8
  • Adept Ability or a Strong Enemy equates to 1D10
  • Master Ability or a Mighty Enemy equates to 2D8

In the example above, these elements equate to:

  • Slow the enemy – the enemy don’t have any special abilities that enhance their speed or command over terrain; take them as the Ordinary threat they are: 1D6
  • Destroy the artillery – the enemy has their artillery far from the centre of battle protected by the bulk of their forces, so we’ll consider them a Challenging adversary: 1D8
  • Find the commander – the enemy commander possesses Spirit Form (III) making him a tough cookie to track down if he doesn’t want to be seen – and (III) is Master level: 2D8
  • Defeat the commander – the commander is only a Challenging adversary but he rides a Strong mount with a bad attitude: 1D10

When you roll the dice, roll them out in the open. If you roll similar dice for different elements of a goal, try to use a different color or roll them apart from each other.

Why different colors or clear separation? Because a player can explain how they wish to overcome an element of the problem to reach their goal and you can’t fight fire with strong language. In the example above, you might use Persuasive to slow the enemy, with harsh words or a well-delivered counter-command, but you can’t defeat the commander that way. You might use stealth to deliver a killing blow or rain down fiery death, but that will need Discreet or Accuracy rolls.

Essentially, each player character can choose to target one of the dice rolled, narrate what they plan to do and then agree upon the appropriate Attribute Test with the GM. The outcome determines whether they’re successful and if they are, they have a chance to reduce the value of a die or negate it altogether. The GM should handle these Tests in the same way as normal and if the player’s proposal isn’t straightforward they may impose penalties.

I’m torn on how to deliver ‘damage’ to the target dice.

On the one hand, per the article, you could use the degree of success. If you have a Quick test against an unmodified Quick of 10 and then roll 15, you can reduce one die roll of the enemy by that amount. You might state that your character races over to the drawbridge and manages to raise it in time to stop the force crossing the fast flowing river. If that 5 is enough to reduce the die value to zero or less, you have your delay and the reinforcements from The Iron Pact will have time to arrive.

The other option would be to have damage aligned to Ability. If you do something with raw Attributes and no particular expertise, you can only inflict 1D4 damage. If you have a Novice Ability that allows you to move more rapidly than someone without that Ability, to continue the example, that would get you a ‘damage’ die of 1D6.

I think that’s something to tinker with.

Hard Targets

fighting-a-trollThe article cites The Catch mechanic from the excellent Hollowpoint, which I’m familiar with. You still roll a die – normally several – but the numbers represent actual targets. You need to use a specific skill to ‘attack’ them and you need to roll the specific number to take them down.

For example, the commander could be anywhere in Spirit Form and frankly the only way to find him will be to have someone with Witchsight track him down. The results of the 2D8 rolled cannot be depleted or chipped down – they need to be rolled spot on. That’s tough – but sometimes tough matters and players will need to commit resources to a thankless task while everyone else covers them.

For example, consider the Cave Troll in Moria. Dealing with it requires a Catch rolled on 1D10 using Accurate Tests only.

You have to hit the Troll precisely in the weakest spot, because the creature has skin like concrete and the nervous system of a marshmallow. If you don’t get a success roll of exactly seven, it won’t go down. The players will need to commit archers and warriors to take the target down – but in the meantime, a bunch of other elements of the goal continues to persist – and you’re on a countdown.

And yes, in theory, I think you would need to allow for substitution due to Ability; but only if you can justify the substitution. A character who dominates and under normal circumstances would switch Persuasive for Accurate could not help take down the Troll. It isn’t listening. Actually, even if it was it’s too stupid to care.

Make sensible calls, in agreement with the players, and stick with them. Sometimes Persuasive might work – but for the Troll it won’t because… reason.

Final Countdown

No one wants dice rolling forever, so you need to set a deadline. A countdown provides a finite target and a sense of doom, desperation and excitement.

If you don’t complete the four elements of the goal within 5 rounds, the army overruns Yndaros. If you don’t kill the Troll in 3 rounds, the goblins cut off access to the Bridge and you will have to find another way out of the Mines. If you don’t clear a path through the enemy in the next 4 rounds, the sorcerer in the back ranks will complete his ritual and summon something awful.

It could be the other way around. A comrade might be bleeding out and unconscious. She’ll take 1D3 damage in blood loss per round. If you don’t clear three elements to achieve your goal of finding her in the cellars of the Ruined Temple before she fails her Death Save, well… you get the picture.


Like the article that caught my attention, I’m not 100% certain how effective this mechanism might be – but I plan to give it a spin and see how effectively it works out. I want to reiterate that a dice mechanic shouldn’t be the be-all-and-end-all – story matters and every throw should come with narrative input and output. When the character hits a degree of success, get them to explain what happens or narrate it yourself. If they chip away a Catch die, you need to make it clear how they come one step closer.

Exciting storytelling works to keep the table energised, the players engaged and often helps to suggest new routes toward success. A player might get an idea on how to damage a die by the way you described the turn of the battle. Don’t overwhelm with florid prose and description, but don’t just throw dice in quick succession.

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