Today’s guest author is Jonathon Narvey, who blogs about RPG stuff over at Savage Games. Jonathon is a GM (and occasional player), copywriter and political propagandist. He is also the author of a Cthulhu-themed sci-fi novel with lots of tentacles in it, as well as a novel about Yiddish-spouting gangsters fighting for survival in the Middle Eastside. He drinks six cups of coffee a day, minimum. Thanks, Jonathon!

Deadlines concentrate the mind. Giving your players the sense that if they don’t do something fast, “something awful will happen” is an easy (and oddly, often-overlooked) way to get your players feeling engaged in the adventure.

Some examples of deadlines:

  • Our heroes have just three days to find the evil wizard’s lair and destroy his source of power before the 1,000-year old prophecy comes true and his reign of terror becomes unstoppable.
  • Our gangland players have 24 hours to get the money to pay back “Big Louis” (with interest) before he calls out his enforcers.
  • The paranormal investigators have one night to locate and disarm the Plague Bomb that could turn Capitol City into a hive of deadly mutants.

Adventuring as Problem Solving with Deadlines

In real life, any task or problem becomes easier — and paradoxically, less engaging — if you’ve got no time limit. Theoretically, anyone could score 100 percent on an MCAT or LSAT if they had years to prepare and two weeks to write it.

But when you’ve got no deadline, you can also lose motivation to complete even projects you claim to be passionate about (That screenplay or novel you’ve been working on… for three years, with no end in sight).

The same principles of problem solving apply to roleplaying adventures. Not to single out Dungeons & Dragons (because adventures in any RPG system can suffer from lack of deadlines), the infamous Tomb of Horrors module is practically a textbook case. I can almost hear the dialogue between player characters right at the beginning of this adventure:

Boris the Lionhearted. “Hark! The lair of the practically indestructible Lich protected by deadly, nearly impossible-to-avoid traps lies just a day’s ride from here! Evil is near!”

Willy the Wizard. “Yeah, um… Can we deal with that Lich next month? I mean, it’s not like he’s going anywhere. He’s been pretty quiet for years and years. If adventurers didn’t keep going down there and dying, we wouldn’t even know about that place.”

Boris the Lionhearted. “But treasure and XP await!”

Willy the Wizard. “Yeah, about… wait, what the Dickens is XP? Ah, forget it. How about this: we take our time, maybe gather an army for cannon fodder –- say, 100 warriors and a couple of my fellow spellcasters from the Far Reaches ought to do it.”

Boris the Lionhearted. “It could take months to recruit so many heroes!”

Willy the Wizard. “So? Even if it takes years, we still come out ahead… and alive.”

Boris the Lionhearted. “We could meet with the captain of the local militia. Perhaps he would have some volunteers for our worthy cause.”

Willy the Wizard. “What’s the rush? Let’s do the recruiting thing next week. I heard there’s a big clearance sale over at “Ye Olde Magik Shop” the next town over and I wanted to pick up some half-price magic rings…”

Now, imagine this same scenario with a deadline inserted.

GM. The Lich’s power grows. Every day, the evil that emanates from the Tomb turns more land into useless muck where nothing will grow, and the process is accelerating. Nearby towns are already starving –- including the ones where your clans come from. If this isn’t stopped, the entire continent –- perhaps the world –- could be overwhelmed in a week. You are the closest heroes who might stand a chance against his power.

Willy the Wizard. “Let’s go kick that undead loser’s butt right now.”

Boris the Lionhearted. “For Oerth! To arms!”

Time and Consequences

For deadlines to be effective in motivating your players, two conditions have to be met:

1. The players have to know about the deadline. It does no good for a GM to suddenly announce in the middle of a session that the players didn’t accomplish their mission in time, so they lost. They have to know as early as possible that they’re working against the clock.

The deadline can be approximate. “Very soon, the gateway between this world and the bizarre dimension of the malevolent Old Ones will appear.” Or, “Your food supply is at its lowest point since the zombie apocalypse began — you’re down to your last packet of Ritz crackers, for 12 people. You better find some grub soon.”

In these cases, players may be even more motivated than with a firm deadline, assuming they are already on borrowed time.

2. Serious Consequences for failing to achieve their goal by the deadline. The threat of death is a good motivator, either applied to PCs directly or their cherished allies, lovers, etc.

But the consequences don’t need to be lethal — the threatened loss of a cursed limb (ie. “You’ve got a week to find some Griffin’s wings for a special healing potion or your gammy leg is going to fall off), or fading power of a treasured magical item could be enough to motivate the players to get going. Try to make the consequences personal — the deadline will seem artificial and lame if the person who could be harmed was introduced thirty seconds ago.

Urgency Delivers Better Adventuring

When players have urgent deadlines, they will very quickly rise to the occasion with decisive action. If they’re not sure exactly how to reach their goal, their questions to NPCs (or the GM) will be more targeted. Their decisions will have more meaning. The “story” of the campaign will come together a lot more seamlessly, with less filler.

Open world gamers won’t be fans of deadlines, since a sense of urgency in one particular direction necessarily reduces the incentive for players to explore areas that aren’t central to the mission. Well, that is kind of the point — obviously, if you and your players prefer a pure “wandering around aimlessly in a sandbox” game, instilling a sense of urgency is the last thing you want.

But for most GMs and most campaigns, deadlines are exactly what you want. Make your players feel like they need to do things — and fast! When they accomplish their goals, they’ll be doubly proud of winning the game — and stoked that they saved the day with just seconds to spare.

Got more ideas about deadly deadlines?

What are some tricks or scenarios you’ve used to make your players feel a sense of urgency? How do your players react to them?