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Progress Clocks for Complex Situations in D&D

by Mike on 4 July 2022

The core mechanic of D&D works something like this:

This is the core interaction between characters and the world in D&D. Much of the game follows the model above. Sometimes, though, situations are more complex. It's not just a single lock on a door or a single piece of evidence the characters must find. A whole adventure shouldn't rely on the success or failure of a single check.

Blades in the Dark, a roleplaying game by John Harper, includes a simple tool we can easily drop into our D&D games to handle more complex situations: the progress clock.

For a video on this topic, see my YouTube video on Progress Clocks in D&D.

The progress clock is a circle divided into a number of slices, like slices in a pie. There may be four, six, or eight such slices. Each slice represents the progress of a particular clock.

Maybe the characters need to recover four pieces of evidence to incriminate the King's viceroy. Maybe the trap has four separate components to overcome to get into the vault. Maybe it takes convincing six of the local crime syndicate underlings to betray the location of their boss. Each of these can be a progress clock.

Blades in the Dark offers up a number of variants for these clocks. Danger clocks tick down as a looming threat gets closer. Racing clocks have two clocks racing against one another, say finding the four pieces of evidence before the viceroy's guards figure out they're being infiltrated. A tug of war clock might involve two sides fighting against one another, increasing and decreasing the clock as one team gets the edge over the other.

Progress clocks like this can be used for long-term and downtime activities too. Maybe it takes eight successful weeks of work to research a new magic item or successful days of investigation to find the location of the lost tomb of Veragon.

Progress Clocks Best Practices

Here are some thoughts about making the most of progression clocks:

First, they're a wonderful improvisational tool. You can build progress clocks during the game to represent complex situations on the fly. You don't have to plan them out ahead of time and, in particular, you don't have to plan how the characters accomplish the task. Use clocks when they make sense.

Second, the segments in a progress clock should match an in-world situation. Are there four different traps or four locks on a door? Do the characters have thirty minutes, broken down into six five-minute steps, to accomplish their goal before the guards become aware of their presence? Blades in the Dark recommends an even-number of steps based on dividing up the pie but there's no reason you can't have three, five, or seven steps. Match the number of steps to the in-world situation, not just an arbitrary number.

Third, sometimes characters come up with a way to bypass the entire clock. That's fine. They don't always accomplish just one step in the clock. Critical successes or creative ways of using spells and powers may bypass a number of steps or bypass the whole clock completely. If it makes sense that the characters bypass an entire clock, let them. Clocks are easy to make and easy to throw away.

Fourth, generally, don't hide the clock. Put it out in front of the players so they feel the pressure and know what they have to accomplish. There are probably times for hidden clocks but mostly its better to have them in front of the characters.

Progress clocks are a simple and powerful tool to keep in our DM kit. They take nothing to set up, are easy to improvise on the clock, and give us a powerful way to model our fictional world and the situation within it that fits well with the core mechanics of D&D.

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