Doom Clock

Celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Overloaded Encounter Die with a fiery rebuke!

Doom Clock
Photo by Ahmad Ossayli / Unsplash

Today marks the 10th anniversary of the Overloaded Encounter Die (OED) presented by Necropraxis:

When the party moves into a new area or spends time on an exploration activity, roll the encounter die and interpret the results as follows.

2..Percept (clue, spoor)
3..Locality (context-dependent timer)
4..Exhaustion (rest or take penalties)

The table was later reordered and expanded for other phases of play up to the latest Hazard System v0.3 (2017), though the one for dungeon turns remained the most popular, and the appellation OED largely stuck:

1..Setback: Encounter (use zone table)
2..Fatigue: Rest and consume rations (1/party) or suffer minor harm (1 HP)
3..Expiration: Expire transient dungeon conditions (light, spell, etc)
4..Locality: Shift dungeon state (or other local change)
5..Percept: Spoor or clue regarding next encounter
6..Advantage: Free dungeon turn

Theis has arguably been one of the most influential pieces of mechanical design to arise from the entire OSR/adventure game movement, alongside slot-based encumbrance, that was not simply recapitulating extant mechanics like reaction and morale rolls from earlier editions of D&D. It has wriggled its way into several of the best-known NSR/POSR games including Errant, Cairn 2E, and Knave 2E. If you ask on social media for procedures or advice on running a dungeon-crawl, it's likely to be in the top-rated reply.

There have of course been several other efforts (Exploding Encounter Die, Overloaded OED, Underclock et cetera), but none have even credibly challenged the crown of the venerably-denarian OED.

And you know what, Sam-I-Am?
I do not like the overloaded encounter die.

I love the underlying principles that fostered its creation, and to me it is a genuine improvement on the strange melange of modern D&D with precise item weights and spell and torch durations, yet no firm guidance on time taken for exploration tasks or turns. It also handily beats out those 'expedition tracker sheets' you see floating around that are reminiscent of a computer-graded MCQ answer sheet.

Yet whenever I have tried to actually use it in play, I get caught on rough edges and hit snags, and am left cold and disappointed:

  • Everyone says if a result seems illogical you can ignore it (such as repeated torches expiring or needs for rest), but that breaks one of my guiding principles: when we roll the dice we should have established stakes and stick with them - no fudging or takebacks. Cavegirl perceptively described adventure-style games as emotional gambling; that only works if for all the pageantry the cases are real, and the rulings are final.
  • As I have argued before regarding the tracking of torches: that juice ain't worth the squeeze. An awful lot of retrospective analysis and design blogging has focussed on what was intended in various editions regarding torch prices, bulk, and burn duration; or else how to newly tune these parameters to best draw out the promised high-stakes procedural dungeon-crawl gameplay of space, time, encumbrance, and threat. Yet despite every effort problems remain: the fail-state of groping about in the dark is a wet blanket, cost quickly and inevitably becomes irrelevant, and keeping encumbrance relevant requires constant vigilance against hirelings, magical light sources or extra-dimensional sacks, and the now more common shorter delves and sessions (and fewer empty rooms).
  • Likewise, I have no need for discriminating between spell durations down to the hour. Combat spells should last one exploration turn (a combat) or until next short rest, while if a utility spell needs a longer duration it might as well be for the length of the delve or until an overnight rest. Don't be a magical miser.
  • The mandated turn of resting (and/or consuming rations) to avoid fatigue penalties is perhaps the wildest example of rose-tinted goggling. It rarely leads to any meaningful decisions, as any scenario where you don't just down tools when the bell rings is pure contrivance. Most frustrating is that we already have a better option hiding in plain sight: a combat doesn't take a turn, but any subsequent restoration of HP (Oddlikes) or spending HD and regaining encounter or short rest powers (D&D 5E) does take a turn of party rest and banter. Ration to heal some piddly additional HP? No worries!
  • Locality or dungeon shift frustrates me, because it injects a new issue into a mechanic intended to otherwise simplify and distill a set of disparate systems. I now need to come up with something meaningful to happen on this result, which is not part of the usual play paradigm, and almost no published modules anticipate. Knave 2E tries to remedy this with a d100 table of generic options, but frankly they're rubbish filler. It all smacks of what Mark Rosewater has called designing by numbers: filling out a structure or pattern in a rote manner.
  • Having done all of the above, what it still doesn't directly achieve is triangularity (a risk-reward tradeoff). The longer and deeper you delve the better the potential earnings, but that should correlate with escalating risk as well. The usual association of dungeon floor to opposition challenge achieves this, but the random encounter system doesn't. The risk (frequency) and severity (level of threat) is the same in room 1 and room 20. The decision to push on for just one more room isn't as alluringly perilous as it ought to be.

Fhew. To be explicit, I am in no way harshing on Necropraxis, or anyone else who enjoys playing with the OED or includes it in their game. But if you feel like I do, then you might like my alternate take:

Doom Clock

Each exploration turn, roll the doom die (starting at d12 for a fresh expedition). On a 1 trouble has arrived (a surprise encounter), while on a 2 the trouble is on the way (an omen or telegraphed encounter).

Either way, roll on the encounter table with the same die. When the trouble arrives, step the doom die down to the next smaller die in the chain (d12 -> d10 -> d8 -> d6 -> d4). Stepping down a d4 means the expedition is doomed and lost.

The encounter table should have the most threatening entries be low-numbered, while less threatening or even beneficial entries should be high-numbered.

Mhmmm - that's nice. The ur-spice of game design is triangularity, so I want to crystallise that tension: distilling it all down to navy-strength spirit, nobody light a match!

This further abstracts party supplies, including illumination and fatigue, into essentially an expedition usage die. The starting encounter frequency replicates the common 1-in-6 chance every two turns, but hots up with time to a spicy 1-in-4 every turn. Likewise the encounter table ordering means the results get steadily less pleasant, reflecting the malignant stirrings of the mythic underworld. I would also use the current doom die to check for surprise (4+ party isn't surprised) and perhaps even encounter distance, to further put the screws on.

This also pairs nicely with a style of play that eschews x-in-6 chances to listen at doors or search for traps, and instead make the decision that a turn spent performing an action will reliably yield results (if it is there to be had). They always risk not only an encounter, but stepping that die down, so you can't go searching every 10ft square willy-nilly!

When the expedition is doomed and lost, you can either call that a final fail state (ie Total Party Kill) or permit each character to roll a save vs death/doom and on a pass then roll on one of those Escape the Dungeon tables. Either way the purpose is to establish up front with the players that they do not want this to ever happen, but if and when it does the results are quickly adjudicated and play continues, consistent with other existential threats to our poor paper-thin avatars.

What do you think of the OED or my Doom Clock? Do you have a different favourite flavour I haven't even acknowledged? Hit up that comment box below!


  • Marcia of Traverse Fantasy kindly responded by saying "Boooo We Hate Torches," and presents her own thoughts on making torches meaningful without counting them by having a dedicated torchbearer.
  • Tom van Winkle and JT Jantzen responded on the NSR Cauldron Discord and proposed a growing keep-lowest d6 dice pool instead of a usage die, and pointing out similar prior art in Macchiato Monsters, respectively.