Timers when not playing in turns



I am not sure if this has been asked before (me using the search function did not bring anything like this up), but is there a way to use timers when not playing in turns?
My players don’t want to play in a fixed turn order when in social/roleplay situations but I still want to use timers to keep things from meandering. This is not to say that I want to prohibit roleplay (far from it) but there are situations where I think a little timer could spice things up.
If we played in turns that would be pretty easy to do, but is there a way to do it without turns?
Do I simply roll and tell them: “In X rounds something will happen” and decrease the timer whenever I see fit?
Do you have any ideas? Is there a way to do it? Let me know. :slight_smile:


You always play in turn. :slight_smile:

The reason for this, as elaborated in this video, is to avoid a single player taking over the whole game. Whenever you set up a scene and stop talking, take stock of every player’s action before continuing the scene. And the moment you open your mouth to make a soft move or a hard move continue the scene you fiddle with your timer: the pressure is always on!

During social encounters, you can clock down your timer when you ask for a roll from your player and/or at the end of it depending on the situation.

What do you think about this?

Stars in my pocket like grains of sand: The End

My players don’t want to always play in turns. I sometimes have some kind of private player order for myself that I go through to give everybody the spotlight, but its not as transparent as “always being in turns.”
I asked my players if they wanted to always play in turns and they said that they will probably break turn order if we did. First, I was like “Well, then a lot of cool mechanics don’t work.” but then I re-read the part in ICME where it basically says “If it’s weird to go in turn order while roleplaying just go freeform.” so I didn’t insist on alyways playing in turns when doing roleplay/social encounters.

Maybe your idea is a workable solution though. I can have my own “secret” turn order without imposing it on my players. My players can still do their freeform but every time it’s my “turn” I change the timer. I’ll still roll the timer in the open though. Let them know, something’s happening. :wink:


Yeah I think you’ve got it figured. To me, I like a consistent turn order but it certainly doesn’t have to be that way, especially in freeform social encounters or roleplay.

What’s more important, for me, than turn order is that everyone gets a turn and an equal amount of turns.

Even in freeform i wouldn’t want a player monopolizing the table just because we’re in a social encounter. I’d always be moving from person to person, making sure they got time to act.

As for timers, I agree with you. Every time it got back to me, I would tick the timer down out on the open. Time is precious and it’s always slipping away :smile:


I hear you. I square the “always in turns” mindset of ICRPG with my players who similarly don’t like staying in turns outside of combat by keeping things in turns on my end and letting things get a bit looser on theirs.

So I don’t force them to think in turns, but I keep myself organized in turns, if that makes sense.

For me, this means they each can “move” and make 1 check or attempt, or “double move.” I let those concepts become a bit abstract depending on what they’re doing. I am very actively moving the spotlight and essentially sticking to the existing turn order, but if someone wants to jump ahead or pass, that’s fine. I’ll note once everyone has had their “turn” in and the “round” is over, ad I’ll mark my timer down.

Example: Players, we’ll say a Priest, a Warrior, and a Shadow, arrive in town and they are interrogating the locals. I roll a timer, hinting ominously that things are about to go sideways. The timer comes up with two rounds, the players have that long to do what they want in town!

Round 1: The Priest says she wants to go to a the temple and say a prayer for guidance and protection, cool, she can do that, rolls vs target, she’s done. The Warrior wants to visit the smith to sharpen his blade and repair his armor, maybe buy something. That’s fine, he does most of that, I rule the Smith doesn’t have anything for sale, but the Warrior wants to Charm the smith into getting something for free, so a roll vs target, and the Warrior convinces the smith to lend the Warrior the Smith’s family sword. The Shadow says she is just going to keep an eye out, WIS vs target, she gets a hint about what’s coming. She hears a rumor that molemen have been seen around the temple, and the Custodian of the Temple is up to something underhanded.

Mark round 1.

Round 2: The Shadow decides to head to the temple based on the rumors she heard, and tells the Priest. The Shadow and the Priest both confront the Temple clergy and custodians, in a roleplay encounter that goes back and forth. I ask them what sort of check or attempt they’re trying to do, even if they’re just talking, and the Shadow tries to threaten the Temple staff and the Priest casts a spell. The Shadow and the priest surmise that the temple is actually covering the entrance into the Moleman kingdom, and the Molemen have been sneaking through the temple to attack the town from below. Their turns are done. The warrior dashes across town, but doesn’t want to do anything else. It’s pretty far, so that makes sense to me. If I thought it wouldn’t take a whole turn, I’d ask the warrior what he wants to do when he reaches the temple.

Mark round 2.

The timer is up, and the altar suddenly slides back, and the Moleman army begins spilling forward to attack the town. The warrior arrives just in time with the Smith’s family blade in hand. The Temple Custodians take off their masks, they’ve been molemen in disguise all along! The battle breaks out.


My players started like that and the first time I read ICRPG I thought “this doesn’t work in rp-ing or social encounters”. I was wrong and here’s he thing… We play in turns in social/roleplay, even if we don’t notice it. What made them realize they were playing in turns even when it looked ‘freeform’ was a simple explanation of what a turn is - one chance to accomplish one thing.

Even if you don’t call it that or hide the turn counting from the players, you can keep turns and rounds going if you adhere to the idea " each round each player can do ONE thing"… and then let them do their things. Sometimes two or more players will naturally do something together and that’s their turn. But turns are there to avoid one dude taking over everyone else’s game.

An example from one of my games:

Social encounter. Imperial Ball. Lots of nobles, dances, intrigue.
Players objectives: (1) find out who is behind recent attacks on a certain fief; (2) collect information about the nobles that can be used later; (3) make a good impression, both individually and as a group.

The players know these objectives but I don’t force them to do anything specific, they go and try to do different things. As the GM I simply put their efforts into their specific objectives and let each one do ONE thing per turn before going to the other. I control the table so one player doesn’t overstep the others.

  • Player A wants to discreetly overhear conversations. Roleplay, rolls, Effort. It counts towards Objective 1. I describe how he hears rumors about the banner of a specific noble being in the region attacked. The player immediately comes up with another idea and… I ASK HIM TO WAIT, develop the follow-up and move on to the next player - I don’t say “that was your turn”, I naturally push the game forward remembering there’s another player waiting to play and that his action already had a reward.

  • Player B investigates the servant’s quarters, stealthly, reasoning that servants usually know their masters’ secrets. Roleplay, rolls, Effort. I describe what she finds out, then she’s satisfied and says she’ll go back to the party to … Again, I ask her to wait and surprise us with her next move in a few moments.

  • Player C wants to seduce a noblewoman. Roleplay, rolls, Effort. He doesn’t make it in one go, so I describe her resistance and their ‘dance’ around each other has a very “Dangerous Liaisons” feel to it. He likes it, says he wants to continue - and AGAIN, I ask him to wait, go around the table again.

  • Players A and B describe their follow ups to their previous actions, roleplay, rolls, effort…

  • Player C turn comes again, he’s successful. I decide it counts for objectives 1, 2 and 3 (pillow talk is powerful).

An so on. As you can see, you can play in rounds/turn in social situations without using those words. And what was my timer in that scene?

In 1D4 Rounds the Empress was going to address the Ball (THE PCs KNOW THIS and they know they must be back into the ballroom before the timer runs out) and there was going to be an assassination attempt against her (this part was a surprise). Notice that I described only 2 Rounds above - the Players had a 4 on that timer and continued interacting for some time and made it back without problems.


I use a simple framework that might help you:

I’m used to playing Dungeon World and there are no turns EVER in that game, rather, you have a turn-like structure to determine when you (the GM) should be acting. Let’s call the act of doing something as a GM (like progressing a timer) “Making a GM move”.

You make a GM move whenever:

-Someone fails a check.
-There’s a pause in the conversation orthey look up to you to see what happens next.
-A player gives you a golden opportunity to exploit your prep.

This structure follows the natural flow of a conversation during a ttrpg session and I find that it makes you more proactive, as you are always attentive of these little moments to jump ahead and do something.

This works specially great for timers and clocks. I can literally hear a “my turn” click in my head whenever one of those triggers come to play.

If I’m not playing ALWAYS in turns, I play with this structure.


One “tic” of the timer is one turn of one player (movement + action). No matter what player plays when if he plays reduce the timer by one. ^^


Might be simple but maybe use an actual timer. roll a d4 and the result could be the number of minutes or seconds they have to talk about whatever is going on, open form. If the discussion doesn’t end as the timer goes off the event happens. So if you get a 3 they would get three minutes to discuss the plan till the baddies arrive, or if it needs to be more tense maybe each is 10 seconds, so a 3 would get you 30 seconds to discuss a plan.


In my experience and opinion, having some kind of player way to give everybody the spotlight is the same as playing in turn. I don’t think it is the “turn order” that is important, so much as it is the “everyone gets a moment, then the timer ticks down”.

And, it’s not like Players B and C can’t chat talk or interact when it is player A’s turn. In game banter happens, people discuss plans. What matters in my games is that I, as the arbitrator of the game, ask each person what action they are taking, and give that person a chance to have priority at the table.


I think it is important to remember what the problem is. The biggest enemy at the table is aimlessness. If your players are engaged, and everyone is getting equal spotlight and time with the DM, there’s no need for initiative or turn order.

But the problem with most groups is that you have one or two talkers or big personalities, and then you have other folks who are a bit more shy, and those latter folks tend to take the back seat to the more vocal folks. What you don’t want to see is those folks stacking dice, doodling on their sheets, checking their phones, or otherwise getting bored while one or two folks hog the DM’s attention.

To that end, having a turn order helps keep things moving and gives everyone an equal moment in the spotlight. For combat, it’s great to add a timer to this turn order (it ticks down whenever the DM makes a move, regardless of what order the players go in), as it keeps things moving and keeps the action intense.

If you need to keep a secret turn order, I would do that. And then I would check in with each player in turn, making sure that everyone gets equal time and attention. That’s only fair. And if players balk at that concept, they need to pound sand.

In RP situations, or out of combat or outside of a tense encounter, I tend to loosen up on strict turn order and allow folks to have a bit more free reign. That being said, I am always on the lookout for one or two people hogging the spotlight.

If I have a “talker” in the group who is monopolizing the stage, I just use a friendly check-in with the next player to keep the spotlight equal for everyone. “Okay, thanks Tim. Joe, what’s Boltar’s reaction?” Or, “Hey, Mary, what is Tenelil up to while that’s playing out?” And just that easy, you move the spotlight to the next person.

If someone is really bent on tying me up, I’ll just freeze frame them. “Okay, let’s freeze the action right there for you, John. Mary, what is Tenelil doing while John’s character is doing x?” And so on.

Remember, part of your job as a referee and director is to make sure all of the main actors get equal stage time, regardless of the turn order, and whether you have a formal initiative order or not. This also includes, for me, keeping NPCs a bit out of the spotlight too. I want the players to do epic things in the moment and keep immersion high for everyone.

Stars in my pocket like grains of sand: The End

I offer up two solutions:

Each round is supposed to be 10 seconds so just set a real timer and when it beeps the thing happens.
Just keep a tally of when every player has said or done something and mark the “round” down. That way you’re not forcing anyone into initiative order but you’re still ensuring everyone had some action. Also don’t be scared to move the spotlight to your more shy/introverted players. If you have big personalities at your table hogging the limelight, cut them off and ask your shy player what their characters think.