Setpiece Battles #7: Tick, Tick… Boom

Sometimes what makes a battle memorable isn’t always the location, but the circumstances that surround it.  Today we discuss one of the best ways to establish tension in combat above and beyond the threat of injury, capture or death… a time limit.

A time limit is a great indicator that things are about to get a lot worse than they are now.  Like the sword of damocles the players are made aware that what they’re currently slogging through now has the potential to blow up in their faces and possibly take them out of the running.  Whether it’s a ritual by an infernal mage attempting to rip a portal to hell and bring in the forces of his dark lord, or a countdown of a nuclear bomb that will level the entire city and render everything into a glowing wasteland, time limits force the players to stop kidding around and focus on getting the job done as efficiently as possible.


  • Knowledge Skills – Depending on the setting, this could be Arcana, Engineering, Demolitions or some other skill directly involved with identifying the threat and neutralizing it.  Of course, all applications of skill require time, and that is quickly running out.
  • Combat Skills – Often a necessary evil, since the bad guys will be more than willing to throw disposable troops or hired guns to stall for time.  Their objective will be to keep the player characters tied up as much as possible, resorting to dirty tricks such as grappling, spells that immobilize, or perhaps for those able enough, handcuffing heroes to a post or a handrail.  They don’t need to kill the player characters yet, since that will follow soon enough, merely neutralizing and disarming player characters, or perhaps killing the engineer / mage / demo guy will suffice.
  • Transport Skills – Occasionally the dangerous object or event in question will be located in a place that’s difficult to reach.  The top floor of a skyscraper with the elevators disabled, perhaps, or in the middle of a Volcano in another.  Given that the bad guys get to pick where and when they’ll initiate the countdown, this is where the players have to show that they can get to it first to buy themselves precious time.


If one particular bomb was bad enough, a particularly challenging GM might offer to split the destruction across multiple smaller fronts.  Multiple cults opening portals in key areas of a given city would be an example, as the players must now split their forces, reducing each team’s overall strength as they attempt to make do and stop as many of the portals as they can.

The superhero dilemma applies as well, with a passengers on a bomb-rigged train in jeopardy, while another villain holds the superhero’s love interest dangling off a building.  By crossing objectives over, you’ll probably get glares from the players but at least they know you’re not taking them lightly.

Moving objectives are nasty as well.  It’s one thing to be disarming a bomb, and another thing entirely to try and disarm a bomb on the exterior of a supersonic plane speeding towards it’s direction.  Other examples would be a hand carried virus that would be deployed, of only you could locate where the carrier is… especially if he decides to walk straight into a crowded street or mall, or using tricks such as a change of clothes with a disguise or switching cars and transportation en route to his destination.


I suppose the issue with a time limit is how to handle the actual countdown.  While most systems delineate just how much time a combat round takes (like HERO’s 12 second Rounds), it becomes necessary to actually pay attention to just how much time has elasped.  Movies can cheat by cutting to a more appropriate time when the hero gets to the bomb in question but players will demand that they be allowed to keep strict accounting of the time.

The first thing to consider would be to know your game.  In HERO a minute is a long time, especially when dealing with characters who have SPD stats of 4 or higher.  Being able to move 4 times in a 12 second interval is significant, and depending on how lethal the game is, player characters who take the safety switch off their attacks will start mowing through lesser characters if they put their mind to it.

The proper response to this of course, is possibly to up the ante with a little help from mooks armed with knockout grenades, stasis field generators and the copious application of obstacles appropriate to the setting from force fields to draw bridges.  The Villains are allowed to be crafty bastards in this situation and would take a hit to their reputation if they didn’t manage to make the most out of this situation.

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