I've yet to play in a game of Blades in the Dark, or other Forged in the Dark games, but I've been intrigued by several of them. One aspect of the mechanics I like is the idea of Progress Clocks. A progress clock is a simple way to track progress towards some goal, threat, or occurrence in play. It gives a way for a GM to know just how much the PCs have to do to accomplish their goal, how much lee way they have before things get bad, and how easy it is for things to get real bad once they've started to go bad.
Today I want to talk about Progress Clocks, and how they can be used to help any game.
An Obstacle or Object, Not A Method
The first thing to know is that a Progress Clock represents an obstacle or object, as opposed to a means of dealing with it. For example, if the PCs are trying to get into a secure building there could be a progress clock for "The Guard Patrols" but there would not be one for "Sneaking Past the Guard Patrols."
The idea is that when the PCs have completely filled the progress clock for "The Guards" they have surpassed that obstacle. How they choose to surpass that obstacle is up to them. Perhaps they sneak past the guards. Maybe they bribe their way through. They could even just murder hobo their way past. The point is, once the PCs fill that clock that obstacle is done.
Complexity Makes Longer Clocks
The second thing to know is that the more complex or difficult an obstacle or object is supposed to be - the larger the hindrance or harder it is to have happen - the more spaces there are in the progress clock. The default ones suggested in Forged in the Dark look like the image below.
But you could always do larger or smaller if you wanted.
Returning to the guard analogy, a small patrol or a patrol of not particularly well trained guards could be a 4 step Progress Clock. Mean while, the patrols to get into the King's bed chamber could be a whopping 8 tick progress clock.
Multiple Clocks Should Run At the Same Time
The third, and final, thing to know is that you should have multiple progress clocks running at the same time. They should be running for good or bad things, and they should all progress at their own rate.
Let's look back at this infiltration example we've been using for an example: The PCs need to get into a secure facility and retrieve a document. To deal with that they will need to handle the following obstacles: Guard Patrols, Perimeter Security (walls, magic eyes, traps, etc), and Internal Security.
At the same time, there is also going to be a progress clock for 'The Alarm.' This is one that the NPCs set, and it progresses as the PCs mess up (failed rolls), make bad choices (say, using something that makes a loud noise or bright flash to take a guard out), or otherwise have things go awkward for them. There could also be a second progress clock for "Marquis Lafayette" and when this clock fills, the Marquis arrives in the tower which could have any number of effects depending on the setup.
Now as the session progresses the PCs are trying to fill the progress clocks for the Patrols, Internet Security, and Perimeter security while keeping the Alarm clock from filling. Ostensibly they want to do all of this before the Marquis arrives at the facility.
Bonus Point: Clocks Can Affect Other Clocks
While not needed, it is also good to know that Progress Clocks can affect other clocks. The biggest example is having a clock start another clock once filled. So that Alarm clock? When it is filled, it could start a new clock for "Reinforcements" that counts down until a lot more help arrives to make the PCs life hell. And that clock could trigger another clock for "The Army" for things getting really really bad.
At the same time, the Marquis's arrival could bolster all the other clocks. Not taking away PC progress but adding steps. Suddenly the Internal Security goes from a 4 step clock to an 8 step clock as the Marquis and his security detail arrive and add to the defense.
Progress Clocks In Your Game
Progress Clocks are a great way to think about obstacles and problems facing your PCs (or NPCs) in an abstract way that gives them both a means of mechanical expression and mechanical manipulation. Put in other words, they put into mechanics something that we all do while running games anyhow, but by putting that thing into mechanics it gives an easier way to think about it.
For example, I am sure no one needed me to tell them they needed a progress clock to tell them that if the PCs aren't stealthy enough they're going to raise the alarm on their infiltration mission. What I am not so sure about, is where we all thought that alarm would go off. I've known GMs who raise the alarm on the first mishap (one person out of six fails a stealth roll? Great, its a bust from step 1) while others allow for more things to happen first.
The progress clock however gives you a way of expressing that. How hard, or easy, is it for the security team at this place to raise a general alarm? A place with more lax security might have it be harder. I could see a bunch of noisy, undisciplined goblins or corporate wage slave night security rent-a-cops both giving pretty lengthy 6 or 8 step clocks towards raising that alarm. At the same time, palace security or trying to infiltrate Avengers Tower might only be a 4, 3, or even 2 step clock before an alarm goes off.
What about the guard patrols and other security features? How intense are they? It is one thing to say there is "a lot of security." And it is probably too much prep work if you're detailing exact patrols and guard numbers. But saying "security is tight, and bypassing the guard patrols is an 8 step clock" is easy.
And then the best part is it doesn't dictate how the PCs have to get around these things. I mentioned above with the guard patrols that the PCs could try different ways to get around the guards (or even all of them at different times) and each attempt could move that clock forward. Each clock could also risk moving the alarm clock forward different amounts depending on how it works. But that is up to the PCs.
So take a look at some of the Forged in the Dark games out there. Definitely check out the Progress Clocks. And maybe consider stealing them for your own games.