The Countdown Stack

A countdown stack is a pile of tokens, typically glass beads, candy, or poker chips, plunked down in the middle of the playing space. They drain away at a measured rate, people can spend them (or add to them) for various purposes, and when they’re all gone, something happens. The purpose of having a countdown stack is to put pressure on the game to keep things moving, and to act as a visible reminder to the group of “the coming thing”, and to get people engaged in, and totally onboard with, the endgame thing.

When the game is all about the build-up to some event, and that event is something the characters are working to overcome a countdown stack may very well be appropriate. In a scenario where everyone is trying to survive the zombie attack through the night, the sun comes up when the stack is gone. In a scenario where the characters are racing to stop Dr. Whatever from unleashing atomic devastation on New York city, the countdown stack can mark the time until he does. The countdown stack can help make a high-pressure situation even more pressured.

Before setting a countdown stack in the middle of the table, four things should be decided on:
  1. What happens when the stack runs out? A happy ending for survivors of the zombies? Horrible destruction in atomic fire? The death of the king, planting the best-positioned character on the throne? Your pizza delivery is now late?
  2. How fast does it naturally deplete? One token per hour of real time? One token per day of game time? Once per “scene” during the game?
  3. Does “hitting the stack” add or remove tokens? As described below, one of the ideas here is that characters can gain benefits by ‘hitting’ the stack (either adding or removing a token). If the ‘thing that happens’ is a good thing for the characters, then hitting the stack adds tokens to it. If the ‘thing that happens’ is terrible, then hitting the stack should take tokens away from it. If the thing that  happens changes the situation, then whoever acts as opposition to the player (typically the GM) either adds or takes one away, whichever they feel the character would want least at that moment.
  4. How many tokens to put out there? This is figured by estimating the results of the above, and how long the actual game session or sessions are intended to run, and making a guess. After using countdown stacks a couple of times, estimating “the right size” should become easier.

This is where the idea of a countdown stack goes from being a simple timing device to actually making the play itself more interesting. As above, hitting the stack may either add or remove a token, depending on the outcome of an empty stack. Here are some possible uses for hitting the stack (there are plenty more possibilities):
  • Substitute Points: Many games already have some kind of spend-able points, Fate or Action or Drama or whatever. One of the easiest plug-ins is to simply say that a player can hit the stack and get any of the effect they would get from spending one of those points.
  • Do-Overs And Straight Wins: If there are a whole lot of tokens in the stack, and they deplete pretty quickly, then allowing players to hit the stack to “do over” some rolls or other small bits can work well. If the stack is smaller, and depletes more slowly, the tokens are more valuable; in that case, simply saying “hit the stack to succeed at the roll, even if you failed”, might be totally the right thing for the setup.
  • Reprieve: In a situation that is a ‘perfect storm’ of bad stuff, it may be useful to let any player hit the stack to get a scene where they can rest, recuperate, reload, all those things. A GM that wants to really push it can make this the only way to hit the stack, remove the natural depletion, and just pound on the characters constantly, letting them set the timing of breaks by hitting the stack.

Possibly one of the diabolical ways to use a countdown stack is for a GM to use it to make offers. Things like “Y’know, I’ll give you that roll, if you hit the stack”. If the players are cautious about hitting the stack, but dig the idea, a GM can have a lot of fun making such offers. However, GMs should be careful with their temptations; when offering such temptation, the offers should be spread mostly evenly among the group, or made to all of the players at the same time.

When the result of the stack running out is a good thing or something that changes the game entirely, it can be handy to set a limit on hits. Making this limit easy to see and judge, though, is essential. If, for example, the starting stack is ten white poker chips, and hitting it adds more, it might be declared that all hits add a red poker chip - and when the red chips outnumber the white ones, players can’t hit the stack from there on out.