Dollar Store DM: A Counter

RPGs can be an expensive hobby. With it often costing a couple of hundred dollars to get set up, and with an ongoing lust for minis, terrain and books that most DMs/GMs experience, finding ways to squeeze more out of you game for less money is an idea most of us can get behind.

Dollar Store DM is a series aimed at doing exactly that. Finding cheap things and putting them to use in RPG games, and writing about ideas for how to do so. This could mean a broad range of things, maybe it’ll be a prop that drives an encounter idea, or a tool, or a toy/mini-game, or something else totally unexpected. Also, not everything will be from an actual dollar store, I mean come on, we don’t even live in America.

Today, I’m talking about a simple clickable counter you can use to track all sorts of things. Many of these ideas perfectly doable with an abacus (another dollar store item), with spare dice or even with the humble tally. I like clickable counter partly because it has an audible click. If you keep it behind the DM screen the players are aware you’re counting something, but may not know what

A timer is always useful. It gives encounters a sense of urgency. I’ve written before about real-world timers using hourglasses before, but in game timers can even more important. Adding a timer of some sort to as many encounters as you can helps create tension, and can add some really interesting mechanics to any encounter where you’re meting out rounds. Having a timer on the table that the DM/GM clicks every round provides the players with a real reminder that something is about to happen, and they may or may not know what it is. Here’s some real, recent examples from my own campaign.

1. Every D4 rounds, a catapult outside town shoots a ball of flame into town.
2. After D6 rounds of questioning, the evil priestess slips from her bonds.
3. After 12 rounds of combat, some NPCs arrive to help the players out.
4. After 4 rounds being in the grip of a Choker, a PC or NPC will pass out.

Other Triggers
It would be remiss of me not to mention that a counter can be used for other triggers as well, they don’t all need to be based on time. The noticeable click from behind the DM screen when they do something give that tension of knowing something is coming. Other triggers I’ve used in encounter recently include:

1.  After the players have killed four kobolds, the rest will flee.
2. After the players have moved 12 squares cumulatively, the giant spider will attack.
3. If four people/creatures are on the bridge at the same time, it will collapse.

Counting actions
This can be done for a number of reasons. It can be as part of simple AI for an NPC such as after three melee attacks, use a special ability. This can give a video-game-style buildup to an enemy using a special ability. They can also be a nice way of tracking spells per day or other limited use abilities, or tracking consumables like arrows.

I’ve also been considering an Elder Scrolls style levelling system based on players using actions or achieving things in order to improve them. If I do roll this out in my game I’ll be doing a bigger post on it.

Tracking damage
Whatever method you use for tracking damage, you can mix this in to help differentiate a particular monster or NPC. Perhaps that NPC is vital to the outcome of an encounter. Their survival, their death or their potential to flee might be what matters. As soon as they take some damage, out comes the counter so everyone at the table can clearly and separately see how much they taken. This makes the importance of their fate clear to the encounter without you spelling out “kill this guy” or “protect this NPC”. While the players don’t know what total the counter must reach, they have a progress bar of sorts that gives them a very real representation of progressing the encounter.

I used this in a session recently where the village was attacked by a group of kobolds who unleased a two-headed ogre on the players. As soon as they damaged the ogre and the counter came out, the players knew he was central to the encounter and focused on bringing him down. I would have continued adding kobolds almost infinitely, what the players needed to do was take the ogre down, and the counter successfully signalled that without me explaining it in words.

Objective tracking
An encounter isn’t always made or broken by the players killing or defending a living thing. It might be that players need to destroy a certain number of pillars to make the evil temple collapse, or perhaps they need to find the six pieces of a sword. Obviously almost any group of players can keep this in mind, but my feeling is that making it physically tracked creates an urgency and helps focus players on what matters. This can be especially with nw players who need nudging or players who get distracted.

Monitoring habits
This was useful in a previous campaign of mine where a new player wasn’t sure what feats to pick. By tracking how often he did certain things he was able to make better decisions about picking feats etc, and it helped remind him to try out new actions like disarm and grapple.

As a DM, you can also track your own actions to see if you overuse particular actions, or even words. This is a process I have been through outside of RPGs, and it can be surprising what your own habits are when you monitor them.

Buying a Counter
I got my counter at my local dollar-store equivalent. However, if you’re champing at the bit to get a counter right now, check out these options on Amazon.

A nice metal counter – a nice simple model made of stainless steel if you wouldn’t be happy with a cheap plastic model.

A counter with a base – another nice, but expensive metal model. The base makes it very nice for a lot of the purposes I’ve described above.

A pack of five – a number of the uses in this article could definitely be expanded with more than one counter. This will serve your needs nicely and they’re in a nice mix of colours.

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