Timing mechanisms: clocks

I consider it to be very interesting, and possibly incredibly informative, that clocks are rarely used in games.  Not all games of course, in fact there’s an entire class of games where clocks are a very common timing mechanism: team sports.

But they are rarely seen in board, card, or roleplaying games.  My guess is that this is due to the fact that clocks are not tied too very closely to play itself.  They are, for lack of a better term, an aloof mechanism.  They operate independently of play, and there is no way to guage their progress other than direct reference.  As time runs out on the clock, the dynamics of the game stay mechanically the same.

Contrast this with the other methods we’ve identified.  Each of those other timing mechanisms interacts with other mechanics directly, and as you use those mechanics you are continually updated on the progress of the timer.

This means that clocks are not very good for pacing.  This is especially true for roleplaying.  If you are playing a game, and need about ten minutes to wrap things up but get excited about what is going on and don’t realize that you only have a minute left on the clock, then you’re either going to exceed your time limit or fail to generate a satisfying conclusion.

All this explains why clocks are rarely used as a timing mechanism, but I don’t think that clocks are no good.  We just need to consider some new ways of using them.  One thing we might try is a large number of short time limits.  Maybe the clock goes off every ten minutes.  That way you can make sure that the last ten (or however many) minutes gets devoted to a satisfactory end.

Or we might try using odd timers.  Which is what my own languishing Trust and Betrayal is trying to do.  Use timers that constantly remind you of their presence, use timers that can provide timely cues regarding how much time is left.  In Trust and Betrayal we’re talking about planned soundtracks, so that you can tell how much time you have left based on the music.  But there are surely some other solutions that do the same thing, or even better things.

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6 Responses to “Timing mechanisms: clocks”

  1. shreyas says:

    What about pacers?

    Way cooler than timers.

  2. Thomas Robertson says:



  3. Anthony says:

    As a general rule, I think players feel too restricted or forced by clocks and timers. They’re oppressive. Even when their use has a perfectly practical benefit (like we need to close in three hours), it still feels somehow like every moment we are doing anything is wasting time.

    Just my opinion there as a player.

    As a GM, I’ve found pacing by a clock and having a brief outline of scenes I’d like to include help a lot. It also helps if you note how long you spent on each scene. There are a lot of cool things you can do with just time awareness as a GM, but it’s almost impossible to discuss such matters on forums with other GMs because the results vary so much from game group to game group.

    I currently want to try a new game with my group, but its focus is on player-controlled episodic sessions. As a GM, I’m concerned that we may have left over time and have to end early when my players decide to leave town, if I take all the GM advice within the game. It’s an example of timing issues and why they are important.

  4. Hi Thomas,

    For what it’s worth, I once played in a three table (and three GM) session of Shadowrun, where each mission played a squad with it’s own specialities to accomplish a common mission (a spec-ops squad, a magical one and a matrix squad).
    We had a limited amount of time to accomplish our mission and we played in “real time” so to speak.
    It definetly focused every one on the tasks at hand: lots of tactical decision making and some illusioning around by the GMs :)

  5. Thomas Robertson says:


    I’ve done a couple of similar informal experiments. It’s something I wish we saw a lot more of because I’ll bet there’s some really cool techniques just waiting to be discovered using clocks.

    Also, that sounds like a fun time. That’s just the sort of thing I think Shadowrun is great for.


  6. There are a few games from this year’s Game Chef that kind of use this mechanism. Crime and Punishment for example only leaves fifty minutes for acting.

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