Last Wednesday I talked about Progress Clocks from the Forged in the Dark games. That Friday I put them into play in my D&D game to test out how they'd work in another system not designed to work with them. The results went smoother than I expected from a mechanical stand point, but did have a little bit of awkwardness from a narrative one that I chalk up mostly to using new mechanics.
Extended Checks Made Easy
The first thing I noticed with Progress Clocks in D&D is it basically worked as a system for tracking extended checks in a bit of an easier fashion. Lots of advice for 5e D&D talks about taking extended checks from previous editions, because sometimes there are things that take more than one check to do and that can be awkward. You don't have a dramatic flight from Strahd's collapsing castle with one athletics check that decides whether or not someone is crushed to death or escapes, do you?
The clocks let you track progress, and failure, in a fairly easy to understand format. The more full the clock is, the closer it is to the thing happening whether that be an obstacle overcome or a bad thing happening.
Freedom To Act
My favorite thing was that the clocks, and the explanation of how they worked, seemed to open up the players bag of tricks for how to deal with things. Once I said there was a 'clock' for overcoming the guards, but how they wanted to do it was up to them they responded in kind. Where normally in the situation I had (the PCs were trying to sneak into a mist shrouded castle) I'd expect stealth rolls and assassination attempts, in this case they actually bluffed their way past the first few guards before having to do anything else.
This is also where the clocks helped me. It can be very easy - especially in D&D - to think that monsters are there as a combat encounter. The point of putting monsters down to guard a place is for the PCs to fight those monsters and get XP, right? Well...maybe? That is how D&D presents monsters, and to be honest it doesn't give a lot of tools for engaging most monsters in social encounters (Wisdom and Charisma rarely have skills supporting them because the stat blocks we see are for combat encounters.) However, by having the guards written down as a 4 stage clock labelled "GUARDS!" and not "ENCOUNTER: 4x Guard Patrols of 3x Red (Blue) Caps" I had a much easier time thinking of them simply as an obstacle.
Yes, they could become a combat encounter. And yes, I was prepared for that. But the purpose of them wasn't to be a combat encounter to fight the PCs, but rather as an obstacle the PCs had to overcome (possibly through combat!) in order to get into the castle.
With the above in mind, it should not surprise anyone that the clocks made things faster both in game and out of game. Out of game for prep I didn't have to think of ways for the PCs to go around things or overly long about way things would play out. There was a Clock for overcoming the guards, and there was a Clock for the alarm. I could just fill one, or both, up depending on the PCs actions.
This gave me the flexibility to play it in session depending how the PCs were doing things. If they messed up? The "ALARM" clock would fill and there'd be a fight, perhaps the PCs would have to flee. It didn't really matter. But I had a way of tracking both that felt fair and could be explained to the PCs, which is all I really need to go into the session.
Reduced Dice Rolls
The most interesting thing for me is I found the clocks encouraged me to reduce dice rolls. During one of the later encounters the PCs had a clock to get the corrupted Fairy Princess to trust them. Not wanting to fight her, the PCs plyed their social wiles. In the RP around the dice rolls several actions were stated that didn't need dice rolls, but definitely played into increasing the trust.
What did I do to reward those? I have partial credit. I started filling in parts of the clock as the PCs did those re-affirming actions, and that gave a way for the little things that weren't rolls to give real, tangible help that wasn't just "ok, you give advantage to the person with the big social roll who is going to roll persuasion again." And I really liked that.
I Will Be Using Them Again
Ultimately my take away is that the clocks were a useful tool that helped me visualize my session in planning, execute that vision in play, kept things moving, and helped keep the focus on the PCs and what they were doing.
I'll definitely be using them more. Perhaps not all the time. Perhaps not every session. But it is just too useful a tool to leave hanging in the shed.