How I Manage Events & Clocks in My Game

I’m an unashamed fan of the idea of clocks within RPGs, if you’re not familiar with this concept the clock (a concept I encountered first in Apocalypse World) is simply a method of tracking how many intervals of time have to pass before an event occurs. Clocks tend to be represented in Apocalypse World and other such games as a circle divided into segments.

In the clock to the left there are eight segments, each time certain criteria were met you–as the GM–would fill in one or more segments, when they are all filled in the event (whatever that might be) occurs in your games.

For example: Using the clock above I might say that an evil warlord is going to take eight days before his army is ready to move; each time a day passes in the game I tick off one of the segments and when the clock is full I know that the army is on the march.

There is a great article about clocks by Kevin Whitaker at https://medium.com/@kwhitaker81/locked-clocked-and-ready-to-rock-c42ac20ffbd5.

What is the point of clocks?

Clocks are a very convenient and visual way to represent what is occurring in your game-world and track it in an easy manner, it also helps you to portray your campaign consistently. In our example above, for instance, if–after four days–the player party do a scouting mission to find out what is going on with the warlord’s army, I can tell them that he is getting ready to march and is about 50% of the way through his preparations.

Some Powered by the Apocalypse games allow the players to see the clocks as they tick up (perhaps it’s a project you set some friendly NPCs working on) but it’s down to you whether you do this or not as suits the needs of your game.

This was used to great effect when Johannes ran us through Band of Blades, a military fantasy game where you are the last remnants of an all but destroyed army trying to fight a withdrawal to the safety of Skydagger Keep. Along the way we had various groups of NPCs in the army building siege engines, searching for resources, etc and a lot of this stuff was tracked on clocks, making it very easy for us to see at a glance what was going on.

So, how do I use them in my games?

Well I really enjoy the idea of clocks, and sketching out the standard circular layout isn’t a problem if you’re doing it manually, but I tend to keep most of my game information in an Excel spreadsheet for ease of use and it isn’t quite as easy to do the circular layout in that program; sure I could use a pie chart but it seems a lot of hassle when I simply need an indicator of how many intervals have passed before an event is complete.

So I decided–for my Old-school Essentials and White Star campaigns that I would just use a simple row of coloured cells on Excel to get the same effect.

Below is a list of some of the events in my OSE game (actual play videos of the sessions are available here):

For each row I leave a number of spaces unshaded to roughly determine how long it’s going to take and then, the spaces get filled in green as each interval passes, once all the spaces are filled in green the event comes to pass as described in the description.

An Element of Randomisation

I like having an element of randomisation in my games, particularly when running hex or space-crawls as I am at the moment, because it means that I never know exactly when things are going to happen and keeps the game fresh for me; I’m also lazy and didn’t want to have to update the clocks when each day passes.

So what I do is–after each session–I roll 1D6 for each of the clocks that is currently active and fill in a number of sections based on the roll:

1D6 RollNumber of Sections Filled In
10
2-51
62

One of the handy things about clocks is that–because I know what’s going on at any given time in the game–I can foreshadow approaching events.

For example: Recently in my OSE campaign we had an event come to pass where Mithril was discovered in a mountain range to the north of the player character’s home base; because I knew this was happening I could drop in mentions about miners heading to the mountains and such like.

World & Minor Events

In my game I have two types of events that I track using clocks, World Events and Minor Events.

World Events

World events are large-scale events that potentially have an effect that will reverberate throughout the campaign world. In our previous example, the discovery of a precious, magical metal in the mountains could have a substantial effect on the economy of my campaign, presence of magic items, people rushing to the mountains to try and strike it rich, etc.

Minor Events

These are smaller-scale events, like fortifying a settlement, they can still have an impact on the game but the effect is more localised in scale. Minor events are often sparked off by the player party hiring NPCs to do things or having longer running projects on the go.

Whenever the PCs initiate a project that will take some time, I give them a rough estimate of how many days it would take and then set up a clock as appropriate.

For example: In my OSE campaign the PCs helped save the life of a merchant named Hercule Buchannen and discovered that he was originally planning to set up a trade post in the area once he had shipped his goods from his homeland of Roheline. The PCs were able to persuade him that he should set up the trade concern near their village (realising the potential benefits for them).

I set up a series of clocks to track Hercule’s progress back to his homeland and the setting up of his trade post as shown below:

We can see from looking at the clocks that–at the time of writing–Hercules has travelled back to Roheline has arranged his affairs and has now started the return ship journey with his trade goods.

How I determine what events are happening

I have cobbled together a series of tables from random sources (including the adventure Broodmother Skyfortress and many other supplements):

These tables are stored in the same spreadsheet as the clocks, when the previous world event has finished I roll 1D6 on the Initial Event Table (shaded blue in the screenshot above). This gives me a broad outline of what the event will be and what to roll to see how many sessions will occur before the event takes place, and thus how many blank spaces to put on my clock.

Please note: Because I there is an element of randomisation in how quickly my clocks are filled (as described above) just because I get a roll that says there is going to be a natural disaster in six sessions, it may not take precisely that long.

A roll of 1 on the Initial Event Table means that no event occurs for 1D6 sessions whereas a roll of 6 means that a Minor Event occurs rather than a larger-scale event. I have a Minor Event Table (shaded orange in the screenshot above) that I can roll on to determine what the minor event is.

So What Exactly Happens?

Although the tables give me a general idea of the sort of event, I still have to come up with specifics that apply to my campaign world, and I prefer it this way because it means I can tailor the event; but the tables provide a good jumping off point.

Chaining Clocks Together

Sometimes a project or an event has multiple components necessary for completion that would result in a massive, unwieldy mess if you tried to do it all as one clock. In this case I break it down into a series of clocks, each with a description of the various stages of the event/project. Once a clock is filled I start filling in the second, and so on until all the clocks related to that project are complete.

We can see this on the clocks for Hercule’s Buchannens trade journeys:

With this I broke it down into four clocks:

  1. Travelling back to Roheline via ship
  2. Arranging affairs in Roheline
  3. Travelling back to Valkonnen via ship
  4. Setting up his trade post near the village of New Seal Land

I started ticking off the first clock to track his journey back to Roheline, once that was completed I moved onto the second clock, and now (at time of writing) we are currently filling in the third clock so I know that he is on the return leg of his journey.

What do I feel clocks have added to my games?

I’m very much a fan of running hex-crawl style games where the onus is on the player characters to go out and find adventure/excitement, but in order to enable this efficiently and create the feeling of a living world that moves on whether the PCs choose to act or not, I need to have some way of generating background events and tracking the progress of events and projects. Clocks enable me to do this in a simple way that is easy to update and store in my notes, it also allows me to–at a glance–see what plot threads we have going on in the campaign world.

If you’re looking for a way to track events and add a bit more depth to your campaign worlds, I would advise considering the humble clock.


Edit 06/03/21 18:38: My old friend, ex-Purple Worm host and fellow podcaster has put me on to a module for FoundryVTT (the VTT I use) that allows you to create clocks within the game.

You can find the details of the module here: https://foundryvtt.com/packages/clocks/

Check out Pete’s podcast Dragons are Real here: https://anchor.fm/dragonsarereal

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