Timing mechanisms: what’s not to like?

The big risk any significant timing mechanic takes is that it takes a very important element of play out of the players’ hands.  Specifically, timing mechanisms take most of the responsibility for pacing away from the players.  Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this.  We’ve already got games that take setting and theme and such away from the players, so taking pacing is not a fatal flaw.

Pacing mechanics are going to narrow and focus your audience.  Thinking back to my post on games as interfaces, it should be noted that some groups have pacing and timing locked down.  They already have working procedures for this stuff.  They can sit down at the table, decide to play for an hour (or two or four) and finish their game in close to that self-imposed time limit.  Those people don’t need mechanics to cover that, and chances are that such mechanics will be less optimal for their group than their evolved procedures will be.

However, I would suggest that most groups are not like this.  I know that I, personally, am pretty bad at handling pacing and timing.  Play continues on and on until someone gets tired of it.  This isn’t necessarily bad, it does make it hard to fit a game into reliable time slots, or if you watch the clock it makes it difficult to reliably produce completely satisfying play.  When we play on the clock, I often think to myself that ‘we’ll have to come back to this next week, because all we did this week was set up conflicts to be resolved’.

I think that good and fun timing mechanisms are going to be one of the most important areas of mechanical development in the next couple of years.  I could be wrong.  It actually happens all the time.  But this time, I think I’m right.

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7 Responses to “Timing mechanisms: what’s not to like?”

  1. Fred says:

    Have you seen my “Pivotal Scenes” mechanic? Does that count as a timing mechanism?

  2. Thomas Robertson says:

    Got a link?


  3. Thomas Robertson says:


    Having read the mechanic in question, I think that it’s definitely a timing mechanism of a sort, if not quite the type I’m focused on at the moment. It’s clear that it’s a pacing mechanism. It allows for players to specify that event X will be super-important and will happen after event Y. And that event Z is cool, but not too cool, and will happen early on. It ‘times’ things in the sense that it tells you what order they will happen in, which is sort of like the Plot Arc mechanic in Primetime Adventures, but more specific than that.

    But it’s not a timing mechanism in the sense that it controls how much time play takes. Because clearly you could play for hours and hours without expending any of the pivotal scenes. In fact you could finish a session with the same number in play (having never changed them at all).

    Contrast that with something like Uno where on your turn you must play a card if you can. Otherwise you’re not playing Uno, you’re playing some crazy game with the Uno deck. Thus, eventually, you’ll run out of cards. And further you should be able to develop a nice bell curve regarding how much time it takes people to do so.


  4. Fred says:

    So it sounds like there are two functions that timing mechanisms can have; one is to affect how long things take, in terms of “turns” or whatever, and the other is to affect the order in which things happen. Either, neither, or both may be in effect.


    I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of “infinite games” but a fellow by the name of James Carse wrote a book a while back about this topic that’s worth reading with an eye towards roleplaying games.

    I think one of the most fascinating things about roleplaying games is that they can become very infinite in character; the purpose of play is not to “win” and thereby end the game, but to keep playing.

    It’s for this reason that I’m not as interested in timing mechanisms that bring a game to an end. There’s nothing special about that.

  5. Thomas Robertson says:


    I think it’s pretty highly dependent upon how you’re defining ‘game’. So, looking at Mike’s HQ game, is a ‘game’ a single session, a phase, the entirety of play (phases 1, 2, and now 3), all the play done by that group of players?

    Because it seems obvious that you want a given session to end. It seems obvious that each phase will come to an end if you’re actually progressing your story (no story is infinite). I would suggest that given enough play you’d want the cycle of phases to end, eventually you’ve told all the stories you want to tell with a given set of characters in a given world (though this is a theoretical thing, I’m not sure how many hundreds of hours it takes to exhaust something like this). I imagine that people are complex enough that you can play indefinitely with the same group.

    Since you want some of these things to end (for they must eventually end if play is functional), it seems worthwhile to see if you can make them end satisfactorily and predictably. The open-ended nature of traditional gaming (we play every week until the apocalypse) makes it difficult to get people involved. I mean, I can’t really maintain that sort of schedule, and I’m a college student.

    It seems much better to me to be able to do something like Primetime Adventures where I can say ‘We’ll play this every other week for about three hours, and we’ll be done in three months.’ That’s a commitment you can agree to in good conscience (or not, as the case may be). You can evaluate it.

    Even better, I’d like to see something like the idea Tony was tossing around in the ‘Social Footprint’ threads where I can say ‘we’ll play this for an hour or two’ and when we’re done we’re all satisfied. We don’t have that ‘that was fun, but half of the game was spent building stuff up for the next session, if I don’t get that next session I’ll feel like my time was wasted’ feeling. I hate that feeling, and it is one of the things that makes it hard for me to get involved in longer-term games.


  6. Dole says:

    That’s really a sitpud idea! Sure, alter the clocks by an hour to make sunset earlier, but then don’t bother to put them forward for just 3 weeks!

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