WHAT IS THIS?
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 TO USE IT
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.
THINGS TO SET
Before setting a countdown stack in the middle of the table, four things should be decided on:
HITTING THE STACK
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):
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.
CAPPING STACK GROWTH
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.