5 Adventure Hooks: Time is Running Out

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on June 29, 2012

A lot of DMs, me included, have run into the problem known as the 5-miute work day or the bed problem. This is when some or all PCs expend all of their resources more quickly than expected and demand an extended rest to recharge, regardless of what is happening in the story. We’ve run numerous articles on this topic and even offered a few ways to overcome it. (See The 5-Minute Work Day: Blame the Players and Solutions.)

Today we’re examining this problem from a slightly different angle. In my experience the best way to avoid the 5-minute work day is to put the PCs on the clock. Set up a situation where resting is simply not an option. Tie something in the story to a ticking clock and make it clear that the zero-hour event (whatever it may be) will happen well before 8 hours are up. So if the PCs try to take an extended rest it’s essentially game over.

This kind of adventure should only be undertaken on rare occasions. After all, very few PCs lives as exciting as Jack Bauer and will only find themselves working under this kind of exceptionally tight deadline in the most unusual and rare of circumstances. When DMs decide that it’s time to put the PCs into one of these situations you want to make it memorable. The encounters shouldn’t seem overly forced in order to work. With this in mind we present 5 Adventure Hooks below that will help you put the heroes in a fight against time as well as the usual hazards and monsters.

1) Survive the night

It’s night and the undead are everywhere; specifically undead with a vulnerability or aversion to daylight (Vampires, Wraiths, Spectres, etc). The heroes find themselves in a situation where there is no way to escape and no way to possibly defeat them all. The only way to survive is to wait for sunrise and make a break for it. Until then they’ll have to defend themselves and possibly other survivors ill-equipped or unprepared to battle such creatures. If the PCs take an extended rest before dawn the undead will surely find them and destroy them.

See 7 Tips For Running an All-Zombie Campaign.

2) Urgent delivery

The PCs are asked to deliver an important message. Life and death literally hang in the balance. If the message is a stay of execution, they heroes could be the only ones capably of stopping the unjust killing of a local hero. If he dies the masses will rebel against the local lord and throw the whole province into civil war. One man’s fate carries incredible consequences. If the message is a signed treaty it could stop a nation from invading their neighbour. The advancing army of the aggressor is on the boarder and ready to invade. Unless the Warlord in command receives the signed non-aggression pact or peace treaty he will slaughter everyone in his path as he leads his army on to the capitol. Regardless of the letter’s contents there will be powers on both sides that do not want it delivered. The heroes will face many dangers and obstacles along the way. If they rest the world will be a very different place when they wake up. See Making Boring Skill Challenges More Exciting, Skill Challenge: Protect The Caravan and Skill Challenge: On the Road.

3) Sink or swim

While crossing a large body of water the PCs’ ship is attacked. During the assault the ship is damage and starts sinking. The heroes must figure out how to save the passengers and irreplaceable cargo before the ship sinks. The attackers may still pose problems while the PCs are taking charge of the situation. The only way the PCs will get more than a short rest now is if they go down with the ship.

See 8 Adventure Hooks for Campaigns on the High Seas.

4) Renew the binding pact

Creatures from other planes of existence, like demons and devils, are often bound into servitude by complex arcane pacts and rituals. These agreements always specify very exact terms of service.

A powerful Wizard recently passed away. The Wizard’s apprentice only just discovered that his master had a very dangerous demon tied to a lengthy pact of servitude and that the pact will expire tomorrow. The only way to stop the demon from breaking free of his bonds and attacking the city is to renew the pact and reinforce the ritual. To do this he needs very specific components. (Alternatively the apprentice could perform a banishment ritual if that will serve the story better; either way he doesn’t have the components on hand). Only the heroes have the means to travel the distance required to collect all of the components and face the perils and dangers along the way. There will be no time to rest if the apprentice is to complete the ritual before it expires. If the demon breaks free he will unleash unimaginable destruction.

See Skill Challenge: The Missing Ingredient.

5) Don’t get caught

The only way to gain access to a secured location is to use the key. This is not a traditional key that can be replicated; the lock is not something that can be picked or bypassed with magic. The heroes need the genuine article. The Captain of the Guard possesses the only key. The heroes can “borrow” the key while the Captain sleeps, use it to open the lock, retrieve the treasures within, and return the key before the Captain awakens and realizes it’s missing. As long as the key is returned before morning the Captain will have no reason to check on the treasure and have no reason to believe it’s missing. By the time anyone realizes that it’s gone the PCs will be far away from here. It will take most of the night for the heroes to complete this task and the Captain will wake up long before they have time to complete an extended rest.

See Skill Challenge: Prison Break

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1 Philo Pharynx June 29, 2012 at 11:29 am

Hmmm… two of those sound a little like encounters in one of ENworld’s adventure paths. 🙂

2 Ameron (Derek Myers) June 29, 2012 at 11:50 am

@Philo Pharynx
The ticking clock is a pretty common way to force adventurers to keep moving. Some of these ideas are pretty obvious when it comes right down to it so I’m not surprised that others have come up with similar ideas. I don’t know what “ENworld’s adventure paths” are so you’ll just have to believe that any similarities are purely coincidental.

3 Alphastream June 29, 2012 at 12:20 pm

Folks who want a survive the night zombie adventure may enjoy the free D&D adventure I wrote for the Going Last Podcast’s May of the Dead series. You can pick it up here.

4 Joe Lastowski June 29, 2012 at 12:47 pm

I was run through a situation using method #2 in a game a year ago. One of our party (the player was absent that night) was framed for murder, and the trial was the following day. We each had to rush around gathering evidence, chasing potential killers in the night, etc. while he languished in jail. We couldn’t stop to rest because we’d lose the trail, and we couldn’t cast rituals at the crime scene because the authorities kept checking and we were technically not allowed to be there. It worked really well (and also kept divination rituals from spoiling secrets).

5 B.J. June 29, 2012 at 12:52 pm

I’m trying to get past the 5-minute workday issue myself. My PCs had actually a sort of easy fight last week. After having just leveled and an extended rest, they were all excited to try their new powers out. They expended most of their daily powers and action points. Several of them also caught wererat filth fever. Their first thought? Run back to safe ground and take an extended rest! They had already taken the effect of sickness for the day, but they were just freaked out so much by it and their poor resource management that there was no way they could start tackling a multilayer dungeon. I solved this by having a fire appear in a local camp where some of their acquaintances were located. They did go save the camp, but I threw a very hard encounter at them that was a close call.

I’m allowing them to rest now, but I’ve got to find a way to curb this desire to just run and rest because of their poor decisions. The dungeon I have set up is intentionally kind of a slog. I want them to think about resource management, but it’s difficult if they just want to rest after fighting four kobolds. The above suggestions might be of use to me in order to prod them along without checking out after one encounter.

6 Ameron (Derek Myers) June 29, 2012 at 1:14 pm

If it’s got zombies then I’m interested. Thanks for the link. I look forward to reading this over the weekend.

@Joe Lastowski
This is a great way to handle a player’s absence. Sounds like you had a really good time. I particularly like that you found a way deny rituals without seeming too heavy handed. I may actually use this idea in an upcoming adventure.

Once we hit paragon tier we had a lot of this happening in our home campaign. Some PCs would blow everything in one fight and then cry until they got a rest. The DM decided to make the encounters a lot harder than they should be for our level and/or he coupled two tough encounters back to back. In many cases we didn’t even have a chance to take a short rest. It made a lot more sense from a story perspective since the campaign involved a lot of travelling and there was no other way to justify denying extended rests when combat encounters happened days apart. In some rare cases it does indeed make sense to rest before advancing, but clever DMs will do exactly what you did and throw one more unexpected encounter at the party. It’s a way for more experienced players who know how to balance their resources sine in tough situations. It also serves as an example to those who blew everything quickly.

7 Philo Pharynx June 29, 2012 at 3:27 pm

@Ameron, Oh, I didn’t think you copied the ideas. 🙂 But if anybody is in the market for a complete campaign I can highly recommend War of the Burning Sky and Zeitgeist from ENworld.com. Both campaigns are available in 4e or 3.5/Pathfinder flavors.

@B.J., One way to adapt this to a dungeon environment is to have the residents react to the invasion. Have them set up new defenses and guards in areas that the party thinks they’ve cleared out. Have a couple monsters hang back to warn other groups if the battle goes poorly.

Or perhaps the monsters emerge to track the party to wherever they are resting. By having the monsters be active, the party has to judge the value of recharging their abilities vs. giving the monsters time to reinforce.

8 Alton (Marc Talbot) July 2, 2012 at 3:52 pm

What seems funny enough is that I don’t remember having to rest so often playing 3.5 edition. I wonder what changed in 4th?

Our DM recently upped the encounters we are doing in E# right now and it seems that the party (regardless of great tactics) are expending more resources than they should. I think when designing encounters, DMs should take into consideration the limited resources the party may have. Hard encounters should not be the norm. I am not saying eliminate them, but if you want a full work day, put a few easy encounters followed by a couple of hard ones and throw in some moderate ones as suggested by the DMG.

Experience is also a big factor on the part of the payers and the DM.

I think this would solve the 5 minute work day.

9 Philo Pharynx July 2, 2012 at 6:39 pm

@Alton, I think that there are times when parties should face a lighter challenge and sometimes when the party needs to be sent through a day of hell where they really feel beat up at the end of it. I’ve played through a 14-encounter day.

@everybody – Another way to extend the work day is for the players to coordinate the use of resources. This will vary depending on the resources.

* Healing surges – It’s most efficient to use healing surges when you get as much benefit as possible with them. Note how you use your healing surges – if you are regularly healing more damage than the people have taken, then it might be better to wait a little before using them. During a short rest do you always heal up to maximum? Our group’s rule of thumb is not to use the healing surge if your damage is less than half of your surge value. Comrade’s Succor is a good ritual to have in the party. If there’s one person who takes a lot of hits, then this can let that person go on by using the resources of somebody who hasn’t been hit so badly.

* Action points – It’s good to make sure that the party has at least a couple action points after every encounter. Try not to have more than half of the party use action points each encounter.

* Daily powers – Know what daily powers the party has and figure out when you’ll use them. Figure out the conditions when each daily power gives the most benefit so you can make sure that the party gets the most benefit from it. If you need party members to help you get the most benefit, then call out what you need and ready/delay. This can be moving into or out of an area or getting ready to use leader bonuses or granted attacks. If your dailies need special circumstances to get the best use out of them, consider how often that happens. If you can’t make that circumstance happen more often, consider retraining the power.

Personally, I try not to use action points or dailies for the first couple of encounters. I’ll pull them out if we’re facing strong opposition or if we are taking a beating, but I’d rather have those resources late in the day. If we rest without me using all of those resources I’m okay with that.

10 Alton (Marc Talbot) July 3, 2012 at 10:16 am

@ philo

14 encounter days would be a dream come true. Stretching our resources to its maximum. Sweet!

I have never used all my dailies in a day yet. I have never had a use for them much. My encounters seem to be most devastating, especially when coupled with whirlwind sneak attack and martial mastery.

Action points, I use them when I get them, cause in the earlier levels, they used to go to waste. I will try to keep one and see how it goes. I just never know when we are going to rest.

Good advice, and a great article for those of you reading this right now; from the content and the comments.

11 Philo Pharynx July 3, 2012 at 11:37 am

Of course all of my suggestions to held back resources are based on average encounters (with average luck). If something needs more resources then use them.

I don’t see ending the day with an action point or two and some daily powers as a problem. After all, you might get attacked during the night. (at least until the party picks up an exodus knife).

For some characters, their encounters and at-wills are so good that dailies don’t seem that attractive. There are some dailies that aren’t very useful unless certain conditions are met. Fireball is one of these. It’s a 7×7 square that affects all creatures and does half damage on a miss. So you would use this when you have a bunch of enemies that are spread out and you have no allies in there. On the other hand this configuration will often happen at the beginning of battle before you know if this is a battle worth using a daily in.

The secret to having conditional dailies is not to forget them. Remember to look for their condition and use them when you get the chance. Soo if any feats or items will help you with them. For example, if you take the war wizardry feat and get your allies items of fire resistance, that might make it a good idea to use your fireball even when allies are there.

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