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RPT Newsletter #002 | The Time Bomb Solution

Stephan Hornick

Community Goblin & Master of the Archive
Platinum WoA
Wizard of Story
Wizard of Combat
Borderland Explorer
The Time Bomb Solution
From JohnnFour | updated December 10, 2020

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #002

One of the most destructive events that happens every few game sessions in my campaign is the Time Bomb. A missed or incorrectly interpreted rule, a forgotten fact or just a bad play and everybody realizes a little later that a mistake has occurred. And the mistake has deeply affected events that followed. Perhaps a character would have succeeded if Rule B had been used. Or maybe you forgot that it was dark and the bad guys could not possibly have been so deadly accurate with their shots?

So, do you decide to press forward or stop everything and do it all again?

I call this the Time Bomb and it used to drive me nuts. Murphy’s Law says that whenever this situation occurs, the GM is faced with a lose/lose dilemma. For example, if you carry forward, regardless of the mistake, the players feel resentful that they unfairly got the short end of the stick. But if you do it all over again, then that special ability of your monster has already been revealed and the player’s can’t ignore that the second time around.

The Time Bomb Solution is simple and effective, and should work for your roleplaying group as well. But please note: the Solution’s purpose is not to magically transform Time Bomb events into situations where everybody wins and are happy with the outcome. I do not know of any solution that does this. Instead, it is designed to reduce the pain and negative impact on game play as much as possible so that everybody can get on with the game with no lasting hard feelings.

The Time Bomb Solution is:
Clearly establish your policy before game play begins that “all mistakes are final.” If an error occurs, time is not stopped or reversed. Events continue.

This policy applies to the players AND the GM.

By doing things this way you:
  • Set the expectations and procedure before the actual event occurs which helps reduce the pain and the negative reactions.
  • Make it fair for everyone because the monsters and bad guys are also affected
  • Encourage everyone to pay attention, be alert and know their stuff
  • Get everybody’s agreement on the protocol ahead of time. It’s easier to accept a mistake you’ve made if you have already agreed on the consequences.
I suggest giving some time leeway on this policy as well so that players don’t feel trapped or develop paranoia about their actions. My group has agreed that if the mistake occurs during combat and if it is discovered within the same round that it occurred then the player or GM can redo the action. If the Time Bomb occurs outside of combat then all results are final after a minute of character time.

Also, by using this solution and looking at the positive side, Time Bombs can actually become a fantastic way to add realism, depth and opportunity for your games. My group also agreed that all Time Bombs require a made-up explanation to justify events as they occurred. And, surprisingly, the explanations quite often provide great details, plot hooks and interesting events to launch encounters and stories from.

Looking on the bright side, unexpected and unusual events (from a Time Bomb) mimic how our real lives work. Just be sure that your players agree all explanations are subject to game master approval.

Remember, agree to the Time Bomb Solution before play and, while Time Bombs may not become fewer, at least they will become less painful and disruptive.
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Stephan Hornick

Community Goblin & Master of the Archive
Platinum WoA
Wizard of Story
Wizard of Combat
Borderland Explorer
Great tip, Johnn! Although I could not put a finger to a Time Bomb that actually disrupted game play that much, I can indeed remember some instances where there was the risk that it did or even later resentment that was not articulated in the situation.
My general approach is to ask the players to be attentive and point to mistakes as they happen, as I DO make rule and logic mistakes.

But you are absolutely right, as I still realize every other week with my fellow players and GMs, that you NEED to set expectations to avoid drama.
At this point, I want to just refer to a nice summarizing video by Cody from Taking 20, in which he talks about: The One Thing Every Game Master Should Do to Avoid Drama at the Table | GM Tips. He lists 5 points to speak about BEFOREHAND:
  1. Setting
  2. Play Style
  3. Humor vs. Immersion
  4. Houserules
  5. Type of company vs. Sensitivity
But there are several more, detailed issues that one needs to talk about I believe, as the game progresses. For example, when to make rolls, and when to role play, in which order you make rolls, so either to let the roll decide the following description by the player, or to let the player first describe and then nuance or even flip the description after the following dice roll shows the results. In addition, you should surely explain beforehand, whether detailed and creative descriptions have any influence on the following roll, and how you cope with situations where a player wants to play a charismatic bard or a genius mage, even though the player is the complete opposite and can hardly grasp the concepts of what is necessary to fulfill the role.

And then, I should also reference to Johnn's great course on Game Mastering, ADVENTURE BUILDING MASTER GAME PLAN (Learn more about it here), in which he elaborates in detail on different player types and their expectations of the game and how to cope with a mixed group.
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New member
Silver WoA
I have not done it yet... but some time back I had the idea to use a 24 hour rewind.
I take a lot of liberties with time as it is... an enchanted gem sent the party back 500 years to an underground dungeon that has been stuck in a time loop. The objective was to stop the time loop, which would fix some things in present time.
We have lept ahead in time with no memories of the past year... the objective - to dig out clues as to what happened...
So a 24 hour rewind would not be a shock to my players...
If a character dies, for example, and the player would prefer to continue with said character... I thought - rather than just fudging a roll or wiping the one event, we would wipe 24 hours game time. all that happened ... didn't... I think it would be fun, if its not overdone, to explore how different choices might direct things differently, how a little pre-knowledge might challenge players to not meta-game, or how different dice rolls might carry the party somewhere else entirely.

Sure it might take more work for the dm to adjust things on the fly...but i need practice at that anyway.