Deadlines are terrible and inspiring. Terrible because of the feeling of dread they can instill in us as we are pushed towards them. Inspiring because they require us to finally act. Whether it’s a word count by the end of the workday, all our errands completed before dinner or defeating the Fire Lord before a comet will enhance his elemental power, time limits increase the sense of urgency and lend gravity to a situation. As humans most of us tend to divide the day, the year and our lives up into bundles that we try to dole out proportionately to the things we want to accomplish, setting goals along the way. Married by age thirty, five kids and a chinchilla farm by age 40, all the kids out of the house and five chinchilla farms by age sixty-five at the latest. And when our plans don’t go the way we wish and we don’t hit our goals, we tend to flail and either give up or reassess our goals and make new ones.
Adventurers don’t have to be gifted with all the time in the world to get things done! Why should they? A change in the seasons could mean the adventurers need to return before the end of autumn or be trapped behind treacherous mountains. A campaign set in space could have a certain amount of days before the origin and destination fall out of alignment, making travel between the two bodies difficult or even impossible. Many cultures have auspicious times for things and there are always holidays and other important events that might be the cutoff for return meaning that even if the goal was accomplished or the goods acquired, the buyer might already be gone or the need diminished. Even worse, natural items are liable to spoil.
Time limits can be even more immediate. Things like sinking ships, burning buildings, changing of the guard or a procession going down a street can all put time limits on PCs. Choices have to be made and sometimes, sacrifices. When pressed for time some of the best and worst decisions can be made. Which ones will the PCs make?
-Decide how you are going to keep track of time. Is it something that is going to take a certain amount of rounds? Days? Months? Keep a calendar for longer periods of time and be clear how much time is remaining for the quest. State how much time is remaining at the beginning and end of each session so everyone is on the same page.
-How does the culture keep track of time? Do they use a solar calendar? Lunar? What is the length of a work week? The length of a month(However, use a straight up Gregorian to keep track Out of Game. Or you’ll be wondering if it’s the Moon of Horses or the Moon of Turtles, get frustrated and TPK everyone)?
-Who created the calendar? Was it made by the church to reflect holy days? By the state to reflect the agrarian year? A combination of both?
-How many seasons are there and how long are they? How does the weather change for each season and how does this affect things like travel, availability of lodging, Are there blizzards in the winter? Monsoons in the summer? Sandstorms in the autumn?
-If the PCs complete their task but not in the time required, what are the consequences? Will there be a second chance? Will it affect them or others? Loss of money? Loss of reputation?
-Who keeps track of the time? Does every city, town and village have a person or organization that keeps track of the passage of time? Is it displayed for all to see?
-How is the day broken up? What kind of time-keeping instruments are utilized? How accurate are they? How available are they?
-What makes up a day? Is it sunrise to sunrise? Evening to evening?
-Different countries might have different calendars, different clocks and be in different timezones. Not to mention that time may pass different in locations under the power of certain energies.
-The PCs are all chained or trapped together in a sinking ship. A huge storm rises up (or something else) and the boat begins to start sinking, forgotten by their captors. The PCs must work together to get free and above deck before the ship sinks. Also in the ship are other captives, sailors and lots of stolen goods that are worth money. How do they get out? Do they try to help anyone else? Do they sneak off the ship? Try to get a little vengeance or a few supplies before they push off? Or maybe a few things to sell in the next port town?
-The PCs must retrieve rare animal eggs to deliver to a collector of exotic pets. They must plan their trip and arrive when the eggs are already laid, transport them safely and deliver them before they hatch or spoil. Spoiling means they gain no profit. Hatching means the newborn animal imprints upon one of the PCs, making it worthless to the buyer and potentially cumbersome to the party. How do they avoid being killed by the parents? Do they take any extra eggs in case something happens to the number required? Who is assigned with the task of caring for the egg(s)?
-When an illness falls upon a town the PCs are sent to find the remedy. They have two choices: travel a treacherous but shorter path to retrieve fresh ingredients which are more potent but spoil more quickly. Or they can travel to a father off location that has a safer passage and has the ingredients dried. These are less potent but are less likely to spoil. If you want to throw even more factors in here, counter in the cost for travelling a shorter more dangerous distance with free ingredients versus a road to a place where the item must be purchased. What do the PCs choose?
-A certain animals only spawns on a particular beach during the last full moon of the summer. The PCs must get to the beach and collect a certain amount of specimens and transport them safely to the purchaser, careful to only collect females.
-The holiest holiday of the calendar requires the sacrifice of a particular animal in order to guarantee a good harvest for the following year. The PCs must retrieve the animal and get it back to the temple in time. Do they transport the animal in the open or do they hide it? Is there a competition, with different villages all hoping to bring the animal back so their town can receive the highest honor and the favor of the gods? What will befall those who fail? And how are the crops affected if no sacrifice is made?
-While the higher level fellows are off fighting the dragon attacking their fort the PCs are charged with getting all the people to safety. Fire rages all around them and suffocation is a real danger, as well as the threat of collapse. How do the PCs go about making sure they have everyone? Are any of them watching for the dragon?
-The PCs must sneak someone or something from one building to another during a procession such as a funeral or parade. The parade will only be on the block for a certain amount of rounds and moves at a steady pace. How do they position themselves to take advantage of it? Do they sneak at a slow pace or run? What are the typical protocols for observers during the type of procession and do they try to blend in? Do they try to stall the procession for their advantage or would stalling it make them stand out more?
-A location is only reachable for a window of time (either because of magic, trajectory, seasonal flooding, etc.). The PCs must try to arrive at the beginning to have the most time available to them and keep track of time while there to make sure they aren’t trapped when time runs out.
-Do you have any personal goals that are time dependent? Are any of them dependent on the campaign?
-How much do you value your reputation? If you fail at the task, will your family lose honor?
-Are there any events in your home village/town/city that you want to be back for?
-If a mission was in dangers of failing would you press on? Give up? Or try to find the quickest buyer in the hopes of making up some of your losses?
-Who keeps track of the passage of time in the party?
-How would you try to get in touch with whoever has hired you if you are going to be late?
-Do you follow the state calendar or a religious calendar? Are there things you do once a week or once a month (attend a religious service, visit a grave, write someone a letter, change your undergarments)? How do you keep track?
What say you? Also, aren’t you supposed to be doing something else right now? :P