There is a bomb in the city. Yes, this city. The one where the PCs live. Where their families, loved ones, and contacts live. More importantly, where all of their stuff is. Yeah, that last one probably got their attention, if nothing else did. Ready for the kicker? The pending destruction is their fault, and they're the only ones who can do anything about it. Oh sure, the police will try, but the PCs have a history with this mad bomber, and it is ultimately they who are being challenged. Which means that it's time to tie on those boots, because this one is going to get messy.
Bomb? What Bomb?
First off, welcome back to Dramatic Situations. It's been a while since I've dusted off this series. Not necessarily for a lack of ideas, but other things always seemed to be a bit more pressing. However, the idea of timers in games has been fresh in my head lately, so I wanted to take some time to talk about it. Especially because, ultimately, having a bomb set to go off in your adventure/campaign, puts a timer on everything. It is a very simple Win/Lose scenario. Either the PCs stop the bomb in time, or they don't.
Now, that doesn't mean that a bomb is the only way to do this. There are lots of ways to handle it, and many of those ways have the same big elements. For today though, I want to focus on using bombs. If only because of the little something extra that they add to the situation. Later on, in a different entry, I'll likely come back and talk about some of the other ways of having timers, or at least how their end game can differ from a bomb, but for now lets begin and get the baseline elements of having a time bomb on your hands out of the way.
No Time To Lose
This is where the tension comes from in this situation. There is a timer on the game, and now there is no time to lose. The PCs can't afford to waste time, because every second they lose is one they may need later on. This means that they don't have time to dick around between fights. As the timer gets closer to the end, they likely won't even have time to properly treat their wounds, or to go and get resupplied. The longer things go, the more desperate everything gets, because this isn't the case of "Oh we'll catch him eventually". No, this is, "if we don't catch him by 5 p.m., everything is over".
As the GM, you want to play this up. Give regular references to the time, how long something has taken, how much time they may have left. If you don't give them how long they actually have on the timer, you want to have the villain taunt them regularly that it could be soon. Honestly though, I recommend giving them the timer. I mean, we've already got someone who is insane enough to tell them there is a time bomb, where is the fun in not knowing when the end game has to happen?
Back on topic though, how do you play up the time? Simple, just keep it popping up. "Can I use first aid on myself?" "Sure, but it is going to take 5 minutes to properly bandage all that stuff up." If they do it, great, just make sure to knock the five minutes off of the clock and keep going. Eventually though, those decisions will become tougher and tougher. "Can I treat the injury" "It will take five minutes" "I don't have five minutes. Come on, tough it out man. We gotta get going". This is what you want, as it brings the tension in. The characters will start to become exhausted, because they don't have the time to rest they normally have. Fights become more precious, use of abilities that can only be done X times per day become more valuable than gold. Do you use that void point now to reduce 10 wounds? Or do you save it, in case you need it to ignore wound penalties when you finally find the bomb?
Keep that tension playing up, especially as you get closer to the detonation. Your players may feel rushed, but that is ultimately what you are going for. After all, they are being rushed.
The downside to timers, is that they can massively increase OOC frustration. You need to be careful to not obscure the correct path too much, because you are rushing your players in this situation, and you don't want to ruin the fun. So keep an eye on your players, if they seem to be getting edgy, it might be worth taking a 5 minute ooc breather, or just opening the door to the next part of the adventure for them. You also want to be sure of your group when you do this, not all groups handle being rushed well, and if it is going to cause more harm than good, this may not be the situation to bring up.
Most groups will work with this just fine. You may still want to point out before things begin that there's going to be a timer, and wasting time may be a bad thing. You may also want to give the players some plot points to use when they get stuck. Some games have these built in naturally (Mutants and Masterminds comes to mind), where when players get stuck they can spend a point and get some help from the GM. The idea here is that you want tension not frustration. One often leads to the other, but you can control it. Especially by just taking a step back every now and then to let people breathe.
Use A Real Timer
This is something that can work very well, but keep a real timer. Now, there are tricks to this, things to keep in mind, but having an actual timer on hand that you can use can be a great thing. John Wick has a story in Play Dirty where he used an egg timer for a device similar to this in his game. He'd set it for one hour, and then every time it went off, a player - randomly chosen - had an explosive device go off in their head. It was the end game for his Cyber-Punk game, and it went over well (because he knew his group, mind). As the game went on though, players eyed the egg timer to see how much time they had, and wanting to know who would be next.
For your game, you may not want to count time in real time. If you are, be sure you have a pause function on your timer, so you can take breaks. You also want to tell your players that real time is what is being calculated, not in game time. Still, the presence of an actual timer can help the players keep things in mind. It shows them what they have left, easily referenced without having to ask you. It looms ominously reminding them that time is running out. It is a prop, one that can work well.
Not Just A Race
The end game, and for bombs I mentioned this would be different. See, a bomb doesn't make the situation just a race against time, because you need to do more than just make it to the end point before time runs out. You also have to diffuse the bomb.
This can mean that one member of the group works on the bomb while the rest of the group watches their back. It can mean that they have to do the final fight, and then go on to the bomb. It may just mean they arrive too late, and get to watch the last few seconds tick away on the bomb before everything goes boom.
This can also be the hard part for the GM, especially if you are queasy on killing the group off for failing an objective. You'll be tempted to pull a 'one second left' type scenario on the diffusal, and that can work. However, you still want your players to earn it. If the player rolls crap on the bomb diffusal, and you still give it to them, well then...they'll know. And it can rob a lot of what happened already. I mean, how tense can any situation be when you know you'll arrive in time? Sometimes you need to remind them that just because they always have made it in time, does not necessarily mean that they always will.