Secret Clocks in Solo Play

Introduction

The dragon has swooped down in the village and the elders offered him a maiden as tribute. A young barbarian slayer has come to the rescue, delving into the dungeon to save the fair lady.
Dark cultists have gathered in the ancient cavern. The stars are right and the ritual has begun to summon the thing that should not be into the mortal world. Two detectives and a medium have deciphered the ancient texts and are rushing to stop them.
The bank robbery went awry and it has turned into a hostage situation. The police have surrounded the bank but have no eyes inside. The breach from the special forces is about to begin.
The chaos space troopers have broken into the nuclear fission reactor of the metropolis and are setting it up to meltdown while at the same time they prepare the scientists for ritualistic sacrifice to their deities. Orbital drop from imperial space troopers is imminent.

All the above are perfectly valid adventure themes in a tabletop RPG.

What will the protagonists encounter once they reach the final scene?
Will the barbarian have slaughtered scores of enemies to find the dragon’s belly full or will he find a maiden ready to fall in his arms?
Will the detective reach the grand chamber to encounter an ancient horror ending all life on earth, or will they find the cultists still chanting?
Will the special forces breach the bank to find the treasury wide open, hostages dead or will they find the robbers still considering their options, surprised from the assault?
Will the imperial space troopers save the scientists and lose everything in a huge meltdown or will they save the city, but find them mutilated? Will they split their forces and risk it all?

All these questions are solved either arbitrarily, by the GM, or in solo RPGs by asking the Oracle, or through another tool, which is the Clocks.

A clock can be fixed, e.g. 10 in-game minutes, perchance, e.g. roll 19+ on 1d20, variable, e.g. roll 20+ on 1d20+number of turns, and/or modifiable based on certain events.

In all cases it suffers from a serious metagaming issue. The moment the clock is triggered, the player knows it and has no motivation to keep going on.
That isn’t a problem when the clock is fixed in-story as well, e.g. the space pirates will ‘space’ one prisoner every 5 minutes unless they are given the set amount of ransom. The player knows and the character knows.
What about cases such as the examples above? Let’s say the barbarian is in the second dungeon room and the event is triggered. He won’t get his reward if the maiden is killed. Why go on? revenge only. Suddenly an interesting story has become a chore.
That’s the issue to tackle here, with the use of Secret Clocks.

Purpose

Provide a solo gaming mechanic to maintain tension and the unknown factor in major story events where the time is against the protagonist.

Scope

Variable, perchance and modifiable clocks.
Fixed clocks are out of scope.

Procedure

Expand upon the premise set by the Background Surprise Events Oracle by using a tangible, physical token as provided by a deck of cards.

Base trigger

Once the clock starts ticking, draw a card (default: face down), per each time unit. For a dungeon a good time unit would be a turn. Assign up to four clocks, on each of the suits. If three consecutive cards of the same suit are drawn (e.g. three spades), the clock is triggered.
If you only have one clock, the base chance can be increased, by deciding on ANY suits (e.g. three spades OR three clubs OR three hearts or three diamonds), ANY suits of a specific color (e.g. three spades OR three clubs), or ANY color (e.g. three clubs OR spades).

Independent Secret Clocks

An Independent Secret Clock is one that:

  • Isn’t impacted by other clocks
  • Doesn’t impact other clocks
  • Isn’t impacted by player actions
  • Doesn’t get revealed on its own

A good example of an Independent Secret Clock would be the dragon that has taken the maiden. No other clock impacts the dragon’s decision to eat the maiden. Also if the maiden is eaten it won’t impact any other clock rather than the story. The dragon is mighty, even if he learns of the barbarian’s assault that won’t cause an urge to be done with the maiden, so it isn’t impacted by the player’s actions. Finally, even if the dragon eats the maiden, the player won’t know it until the very moment that they enter the room.
The Independent Secret Clock is drawn face down and uses the default base trigger. The revelation of the clock is performed upon entering the respective scene. By keeping the cards in order, you can also understand how much time has elapsed since the clock was triggered, if this is relevant to the story.

Dependent Secret Clocks

A Dependent Clock is one that:

  • Is impacted by other clocks
  • OR impacts other clocks
  • Isn’t impacted by player actions
  • Doesn’t get revealed on its own

A good example of a Dependent Secret Clock would be if we changed the dragon in the maiden example with an evil sorcerer who will use the maiden for a dark ritual that will give him immense power. Here we have two clocks. One clock for the life of the maiden, and one clock for the conclusion of the ritual. The clocks are dependent, the ritual can’t be performed if the maiden isn’t sacrificed. So the ritual clock is impacted by the sacrifice clock. The clocks aren’t impacted by the player actions. The sorcerer must take his time to perform the ritual as described or they risk failure. Also the player won’t know of the success of the ritual AND/OR the performance of the sacrificial killing unless they enter the main temple chamber.
The two Dependent Secret Clocks are drawn face down and use the default base trigger. The revelation of the clocks is performed upon entering the respective scene. By keeping the cards in order, you can also understand how much time has elapsed since each of the clocks were triggered, if this is relevant to the story. It is recommended to use ANY suits of a specific color for both the two clocks, but the impacting clock will trigger first always. So for example if three spades OR three clubs are drawn, the maiden is sacrificed, and then if the other suit of the same color is drawn, the ritual has been performed.

Impacted Secret Clocks

An Impacted Secret Clock is one that:

  • Isn’t impacted by other clocks
  • Doesn’t impact other clocks
  • Is impacted by player actions
  • Doesn’t get revealed on its own

A good example of an Impacted Secret Clock would be if we changed the dragon and sorcerer in the above story with an orc boss waiting for a ransom in exchange for the maiden. If the orc boss becomes aware of the protagonist trying to thwart their plans, then they may kill the maiden, since she no longer provides leverage. The clock is independent by other clocks and doesn’t impact any other clocks. And also, the player won’t be aware of the event unless they finally confront the orc boss.
The Impacted Secret Clock is drawn face down and uses the default base trigger. The revelation of the clock is performed upon entering the respective scene. By keeping the cards in order, you can also understand how much time has elapsed since the clock was triggered, if this is relevant to the story. If at any point there is a chance for the player’s actions and presence to become aware (e.g. a stealth roll is failed and the orc guards run off to an unknown direction), then from that point on increase the speed of the clock, by drawing twice as many cards per time unit.

Known Trigger Clocks

A Known Trigger Clock is one that:

  • May or may not be impacted by other clocks
  • May or may not impact other clocks
  • May or may not be impacted by player actions
  • Is revealed on its own

A good example of a Known Trigger Clock would be if the dark ritual by the evil sorcerer example above, would instead summon a dark entity from the skies, that will engulf the entire region. When this event is triggered, the player and the protagonist becomes aware, no matter their location.
The Known Trigger Clock is drawn face up and uses the default base trigger. But! the trigger isn’t preset. So when drawing the cards face up, once three cards of ANY suit come up consecutively, ask the Oracle a Yes/No Question: Is this the suit of the clock?
The likelihood of the question for the first suit is Unlikely. If No, this suit is disregarded from questions from the Oracle for this particular clock in the future.
The likelihood of the question for the second suit that triggers is unmodified. If No, this suit is disregarded from questions from the Oracle for this particular clock in the future.
The likelihood of the question for the third suit that triggers is Likely. If No, this suit is disregarded from questions from the Oracle for this particular clock in the future.
The likelihood of the fourth suit that triggers (if all suits trigger) is 100%. No question is asked to the Oracle.
A Known Trigger Clock can be Dependent or Independent. If it impacts another clock, then, the impacted clock can be secret until revealed. If it is impacted by another clock, then consider the other clock as a Known Trigger Clock as well, using the rules for Dependent clocks for trigger chance.
A Known Trigger Clock can also be Impacted by player actions, doubling the draw speed as per the relevant rules.
The Known Trigger Clock is like Schroediger’s Cat. It is hidden and revealed at the same time. You see the drawings, but you can’t be certain until it triggers.
A Known Trigger Clock could use a dice mechanic if that was desired, but in order to keep the harmonization with the other clocks, and to combine different clock properties together, the deck of cards was chosen as an option.

Decks, Clocks, Locations

It’s recommended to use one deck of cards per location for secret clocks, and a separate deck of cards for known clocks.

Options

These may be rules, but most of all they are guidelines. Random events could be inserted by using Jokers, special details could be chosen by the type of cards in the trigger sequence.