Dollar Store DM: Hourglasses

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’s post is about the humble egg timer/sand clock/hourglass. Now, this isn’t a revolutionary idea (Matthew Mercer uses one) but I do hope some of the ideas for using it will be new to you.

Hourglasses are interesting because they break the level of abstraction between the game and the players. Typically an RPG takes place in ‘game time’ which is sped up and slowed down at the behest of the DM/GM and the players. While many things happen that are timed in-game, they aren’t usually timed at the table. Some might argue that using a timer breaks a key part of the game by putting a real-world restriction on the players ability to work their way through the cognitive processes required for roleplaying. Yawn. Let’s get to ideas.

Speeding up combat
If your players (or a single player) tend to debate and discuss every single action they take in combat. Remind them each round/move/thing your system uses is only a few seconds in-game and slap the timer on the table. If they don’t act within the time, they lose their action through hesitation. If that’s not enough, offer them a +1 bonus or similar if they act with 30 seconds, or 15. Vary it, and don’t use it in every combat. Also, remember the players get to use it on you as well. Make a character or NPC who is hasty act in shorter amounts of time, and a wise, considered person can have more time. This helps with the aforementioned layer of abstraction.

Puzzle Solving
It wouldn’t do to not mention this most obvious of uses in this article. Whether your players are solving a riddle, doing a pen and paper puzzle or playing with a full-blown Jenga set, give them a time limit to do so. Make a deliberate choice as to whether the consequences of this timer running out are totally clear, or dark and mysterious. Knowing what will happen can heighten tension as much as mystery, and a surprise positive or not-that-bad outcome can keep the players on their toes too.

If the players meet an NPC who isn’t that positive in their attitude towards them, or simply extremely busy, keep the conversation moving by putting a timer on each back and forth, or even on the total interaction. This can help players keep in mind that the world around them is meant to be a living and functioning thing beyond them, and that the average peasant has go stuff to do!

Chases are a thing many RPG rule sets have ways of tackling, but I think a real timer can be a viable one. I’d love to hear about it if anyone knows a system that actually uses on. So, thief runs down alley, PCs must make chase and every interaction or round is timed, so the players must make quick decisions. There are two ways of doing it that spring to mind. The first one, similar to in combat, is rewarding quick decisions with bonuses or even rerolls to any checks they make. Second, and more interesting is using differentials to track how close they are to the person they are chasing, or being chased by. Let’s use players chasing a thief as an example. The thief starts 5 chase units ahead of the PCs. If the PCs make a correct decision/successful check in under 30 seconds, they gain 1CU for each 10 seconds (or part thereof) they made it in. If they take over 30 seconds, they fall behind 1CU for each 10 seconds or part thereof that they took to make the decision.

Sometimes, give the players a decision where making it quickly means that they get better outcomes in almost any situation. We’ve already mentioned when speaking to NPCs, but it could be used as a negotiation tool for purchases where depending on the merchant’s personality, they reward either quick or slow decisions. An old dwarf might approve of a much-considered purchase, whereas a young brash human might want to keep things moving. There should be a signal for this to the players.

Regulating meta-gaming
The distinction between understanding the rules and meta-gaming can be a difficult one, and how much meta-gaming to allow can be also be a tough decision for many DMs. Many players like to meta-game and want to do it as part of their character being as badass as they are inside their heads. To keep it under control, explain that you’ll allow it, but whenever it reaches what you consider a threshold of too much, you’ll introduce a timer and any decisions must be made before it ends or face a meaningful penalty.

Keeping yourself sharp
Using the timer for your own decisions or actions is also key. Nothing slows down play more than the GM taking time to make decisions or find just the right mini. If you take longer than the timer, give the players’ PCs some sort of reward.

Settling rules disputes
We all know rules are an important part of RPGs, but they aren’t (usually) the why of playing them, only the how, and actually, more than virtually any other game, we are free to make our own. Don’t be afraid to slap a timer down and limit time for flipping through books or Googling answers before you make a ruling and move on.

Buying an Hourglass
Now, I got mine at a dollar store. However, it did occur to me to look at what other options are available for those with more budget, or who inexplicably live in a land with dollar stores. ¬†Here’s some Amazon US links for you all to consider.

Hourglass Set – These are amazing, a whole bunch of different time lengths. They look cheap and are cheap.

DRAGONS! – Oh my. You could buy all sorts of things at the dollar store with this much cash but if you’re a fancypants DM, go for this.

Got other ideas for how an hourglass could be used in your game? Hit us up on Twitter or get it off your chest in the comments.


Join the discussion and tell us your opinion.

May 1, 2017 at 2:39 pm

A good article, I do however have a question:

What if you tend to Rp your actions?

What i mean is, I play a wizard that in combat likes to RP his spell casting with gusto. The other players like it, but what I am asking is would that not come under the rule of indesicivness.

I belive the hour glass can be a good idea for games. But is there another way to deal with conflicts like this?

A good article nonetheless.

The Trenchcoat Dwarfreply
May 1, 2017 at 2:58 pm
– In reply to: Ian

If you want roleplay the casting of the spell, I’d let you do that, as that is part of the game moving forward. The decision-making process is what I’d want to time, and only then if you were super slow about it or there was a reason to create haste.

It’s certainly possible for a DM to overuse this mechanism and have it harm the RP element of the game. Balance and discretion always important.

A question in return, do you have set words and motion for the spells, or is it improvised?

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