Saturday, January 13, 2024

The Clock-Driven Dungeon

 A couple of weeks back, I created a dungeon, a set of dwarven ruins in a volcanic chasm that I wanted to feel vast and terrifying.

In this dungeon, slow mutants (à la Stephen King's The Gunslinger) are hidden, but forever listening. Make too much noise, cast too many spells, and you will suddenly find yourself surrounded on all sides by swarms of hungry, mad, whispering things.

It is a crumbling maze full of ancient machines that will break, causing clouds of steam torrents of water or crushing debris to come down on you... With the mutants likely behind.

And it truly is a labyrinth of bridges, tunnels balconies, and ancient smelters, It could take days to navigate.

Where cenotaphs with the last riddle of the final bitter survivor of a ln extinct clan sealed their magical secrets away from the unworthy. Only one who can read his tongue, solve his riddle, and sacrifice an object of power can uncover it.

Sound good?

Well, the hitch was that it was made for Fabula Ultima, for my wife, who loves TTRPGs, but hates old-school dungeon crawling.

Fabula Ultima fuses elements of Ryuutama and the Forged in the Dark engine to create a tabletop experience that feels like a Final Fantasy game. Namely, it is built to imitate the character mechanics, magic, and rich story experiences of Final Fantasy IV - XV. Without imitating it's long, grinding dungeons and endless series of nuisance combats.

Progress and Danger Clocks

It does this last part by borrowing the clock structure that Blades in the Dark uses for heists. Instead of placing necessary items and clues around a map, each major objective in the heist has a progress clock with between 3 and 8 segments (based on complexity.) Whenever a PC performs an action that moves the characters closer to achieving their goal, a segment of the clock is filled in. A major blunder might empty o'clock segment.

Likewise, clocks are set up for dangers the player characters might face during the mission. If the structure is unstable, a danger clock indicating when something might collapse could be established. On a mission requiring stealth you might set a danger clock for when a guard sounds the alarm. Anytime a player character wastes time, fails that sensitive roll, or makes a little too much noise, a segment of a danger clock gets filled in, if it is apropos to the clock.

These danger clocks can be emptied out by player characters taking measures to counter them. For example, if the PCs are trying to prevent guards from sounding the alarm, knocking a few guards unconscious with sneak attacks, or creating a diversion elsewhere in the same building. It might cause the guards to be less wary of their own charges.

Whether or not an action fills or empties a clock is a matter of negotiation. For example, if you are trying to smuggle a safe cracker into a duchess's bedroom, you might have a case for why causing a scene at her party downstairs, starting a fire in the kitchen, seducing the duchess, or climbing it outside move the party closer to their goal. If the GM buys it, then you can attempt to fill the clock.

This is how Blades in the Dark operates. The objective of the heist is established as a clock. Each character uses their unique talents to help the heist move forward. When the clock is full, the objective is reached, and the next one, such as escaping with the loot starts. Meanwhile, thye have to watch and work against clocks that represent the various security measures they have to overcome.

Using Clocks in the Dungeon

Fabula Ultima suggests that you can bypass long dungeon crawls using the same tool. A clock designed to cover navigating the dungeon would be the first clock set up. Other clocks representing the hazards and wondering monsters unique to the dungeon I also managed by clocks. Characters who take precautions can keep those clocks down.

Otherwise, you can pepper the adventure with a few set encounters designed to enhance the flavor and tell the story of the dungeon. Even one monster encounter, and a boss fight can make up the rest of the structure.

Using this Model in a Familiar Way

You could represent a traditional Dungeons & Dragons dungeon crawl like this:

Explore the Dungeon to find the treasure

Rolls to perform magical rituals to find treasure, dwarves using their natural ability to smell gold, the party wizard drawing detailed maps, skill rolls to represent careful and stealthy scouting, all can move this clock up.

Every time the clock is filled in, the player characters also encounter one of several strange artifacts, pieces of art, or mysterious objects that I have designed for the dungeon.

Being discovered by the wandering monsters

This clock fills in every time the party spends two turns in the dungeon. It also fills in every time they make a significant amount of noise. Or anytime they spend resting in the dungeon.

It can be reduced by laying false trails, expending magical energy to improve stealth, having a stealthy party member act as a century, or causing distractions to draw the monsters away from where the party is searching.

Has this clock begins to fill in, player characters might find spore of monsters, or a layer that is currently empty because it's occupant is off wandering. They may hear a creature moving off the distance, or see territorial markings.

Being hit by a mechanical trap

This clock fills in every time players spend time searching for treasure. Every time they interact with one of the unusual objects peppered around the dungeon.

This clock can be wound down by searching for traps, using standard Dungeons & Dragons methods for springing traps without danger to the player characters, dwarves using their natural scents for architecture to scan for traps, taking breaks to refocus.

As the clock begins to fill in, the characters will be made aware that the clock is ticking by having them find the body of a previous adventure who had been killed by a trap. Or signs of one that has already been sprung.

(There is a bit of unfairness in this the same way there is a bit of unfairness in the Quantum ogre, insofar as the trap didn't exist until the PCs filled the clock. There was no possibility of getting a map or intelligence to prepare for the trap. It didn't pre-exist to be found by a clever casting of Prying Eyes, or Find Familiar.

These clocks work against one another. Every time the player characters push their objective clock forward, they are at risk of also filling in the much smaller danger clocks, unless they also spend some of their time and energy keeping them down.

Trying to take it slow to wind down the trap clock fills in the monster clock. Trying to move swiftly to avoid filling in the monster clock instead fills in the trap clock. Much like traditional Dungeons & Dragons itself. But, abstracted, and effectively divorced from a map.

You can read my clock design for the dwarven ruin described above in this article. I had a mechanical disaster clock that filled in every time the player characters made too much noise or used too much magic. I had another clock that filled in that would cause the players to suddenly be attacked by a very large and potentially deadly swarm of slow mutants. And some of the conditions by which the clocks could be filled or emptied.

One thing I didn't do was make the clocks clearly visible. I made sure that I gave hints in the narrative when one was filling in. For example, when the slow mutants discovery clock was halfway filled in, the players we get there first clear glimpses of them at a distance.

Both Fabula Ultima and Blades in the Dark actually recommend that players get to see the clocks ticking to build tension. I find that giving clues is more effective, but I also am a GM who is very stingy with certain kinds of information.

So, the big question is, how is the experience?

I will start by saying that this is no substitute for a traditional Dungeons & Dragons experience. It is very different. I personally prefer mapping out a dungeon and holding my breath when I know random encounter tables are being rolled.  It offers a very different kind of gameplay.

What It Does Well

This setup was ideal for giving an impression of vastness and large, empty spaces. I could focus my description on themes and impressions.

For my wife, who prefers to keep D&D adventures in urban and wilderness settings, it let us ignore her pain points in dungeon crawling: mapping and visualizing spaces 

It compresses the experience by only giving key moments and events. The empty rooms, long corridors, and untrapped doors do not waste game time.

With a little setup where you establish what the big threats are early on, the metagame knowledge that each delay and failure brings one of the danger clocks closer to full builds tension almost as well as D&D does when every coin of weigh counts, your arrows are low, and you don't trust the map.

It creates a dungeon experience that is cinematic: it gives you the emotional ride, and enough of a taste of danger to be good without taking the time to really be there.

What It Does Poorly

Because you are not moving through the dungeon, making choices as you go, if you have a talent for visualization, a traditional D&D adventure is immersive - a VR experience run on your minds eye. Because you are only getting snapshot of the dungeon the clock method simply doesn't offer immersion to the same degree.

It also does not offer the same level of granularity of play. You are not challenged to learn the sights and smells of a dungeon and use them as clues to identify lairs. Nor do you have to think of solutions on how to move in order, find your way, keep your escape route clear, not get lost, or create a map.

With less granularity comes fewer opportunities to engage in the creative problem solving elemets of the game. If you know traps are going to come when a clock is full rather than "when you least expect it," you aren't going to be coming up with creative uses for unseen servant, 10-foot poles, and iron spikes. This is a big part of what I find satisfying about D&D.

I also find that the clocks demand a level of metagaming that I dislike. Even if you are not asking the PCs "How are you going to help fill in the progress clock?" asking them, "Is there something you can think of to do to help the group navigate?" that feels very artificial. My use of clues to tell the PCs where they are on the clock, and hyping the dangers to make them aware that the clock exists is unorthodox to the system. And for things like magical rituals, you simply have to make the PCs clearly aware that the clock is there.

Both Blades in the Dark and Fabula Ultima also tend to make progress in clocks based on successful and fill in danger clocks based on failed rolls. If you play the clock system as written, it gives a perverse incentive to overuse dice to keep the system moving as written. It requires additional use of GMs pergoative to make sure you are rewarding player greativity and descriptiveness, as well as making sure that bad decisions that didn't require a roll have neggative consequences. This is, frankly, a feature not a bug of the FitD engine, as it is a system that is designed to take power out of the GMs hands.

A Weird Analogy

If you will indulge me in a metaphor that might seem a little odd, if a dungeon crawl was instead a love story, using clocks is like a love song: you get the big feelings, the most memorable moments, and the epilogue all bundled up in a flash. While playing through the process of exploring a map is more like a romantic novel: you get the feelings by being there as the events unfold, you watch the meeting, the flirtation, the confusions, the heartbreaks, the reunions, the sex, the arguments, and finally, how it settles into the pattern of life by watching it unfold. It is longer, more detailed, more immersive, and more challenging to absorb. 

The romance reader might enjoy listening to love songs on the radio, but it probably won't replace sitting on the porch with a glass of wine and a good book. And the fan of love songs might not find reading a novel gives them the same pleasure.

They are both enjoyable experiences; but not enjoyed in remotely the same way.

Fused with random tables and the right rules structure I could see it being a great tool for solo gaming, however. Such as the solo game I ran when testing Pacts & Blades: Salamandur Household. And if you must do a massive underground labyrinth such as the Underdark or the Dwarf Roads from the Dragon Age series, I could see using it to handle journeys between more granular adventure sites.

As is, it allows me to compromise between my love of tense dungeon crawls, and my wife's preference for intriguw and overland adventures in an interesting new way.


  1. Speaking of using mechanics in a different way: usage/depletion dice as hit points. Minor hits reduce your die on a 1, average on a 1-2, and major hits on a 1-3. When you deplete a d4, you fall unconscious.

    First level characters have a d4. Fighters advance to a d6 at 2nd level, thieves and clerics at 3rd, and wizards at 4th.

    1. That would feel TENSE. But actually make PCs potentially tougher depending on the whim of the dice gods. I like it!