I lifted one of my prep techniques from the mystery countdowns of Monster of the Week by Michael Sands. These aren’t “whodunit” mysteries but instead mysterious monsters with mysterious agendas and mysterious weaknesses. As the book puts it­—

Each mystery has a countdown: this is the sequence of the terrible things that will happen if the hunters don’t stop the monster. The countdown will be your guide to what will be going on off-screen as the hunters investigate. To create the countdown, think about what would happen if the hunters never came to help.

• Who would be attacked?

• Who would die?

• What is the monster’s ultimate plan?

Once you have an idea, divide it into six events in the order they will occur. Then allocate them to the steps in the countdown. Countdowns always have the following six steps: 1. Day. 2. Shadows. 3. Dusk. 4. Sunset. 5. Nightfall. 6. Midnight.

The names of each step are metaphorical: the “sunset” step of a countdown doesn’t have to happen at sunset, the names are picked to give a sense of things getting worse. As the countdown is what would happen if the hunters didn’t interfere, it normally won’t play out how you wrote it. But even when the monster’s plan has been derailed, it will still be trying to achieve its goals and the countdown is useful as a guide (or something to adapt) to determine what happens next.

For my Stonetop campaign, I used a mystery countdown to prep for the players encounter with a hagr, which Jeremy Strandberg describes thus:

Misshapen brutes with sagging flesh and one bulging eye so filled with hate it’ll stop you dead in your tracks. They spend their days collecting fallen branches, looking for just the right one to add to their home of rotting logs. The others they pile neatly, reverently. Perhaps they were servants of the Green Lords, once bred to build, and now long ages hence, building still.

Given this description, they seemed like the perfect antagonists when the PCs set up a logging camp. I decided this hagr also had some crinwin minions (crinwin are like tree goblins who live in giant wasp-like nests).

Here was my countdown for the hagr interfering with their logging mission, which occurs after they’ve met two NPCs (Jamya and Wanchu).

DayThe PCs find a tower of large rocks and small boulders stacked one upon another. Little houses built of sticks are arranged in a circle around it, comically small compared to a larger log building. (It reminds them of the Stone and Stonetop, like it was built in imitation.)
ShadowsThey hear the horses whinny in the night. They find all four wheels have been stolen from the wagon.
SunsetThey hear Jamya’s screams from the forest. (They will find his remains, torn limb from limb, with some crinwin gnawing on whatever the hagr left.)
DuskCrinwin try to kidnap Wanchu. 
NightfallSome of the logs the PCs cut down have been dragged into the forest. If they follow the track of the logs, they will see that four have been planted as end posts in imitation of the Pavilion of the Gods, with bushes used as the roof.
MidnightThe hagr seeks to steal and drag off the wagon for its construction.

What do I like about this better than Dungeon World’s Fronts? The names of each step are good mnemonics (and they are figurative, not literal, as the mystery does not need to occur within a single day). The names help build towards a climax. Contrast a rhyme scheme with free verse – both are fine, but sometimes the constraint of a form inspires creativity. I like the labels, the structure, and the set length of the mystery countdown compared to Fronts. Another point of contrast, though, is that fronts are often for long-term developments and campaign arcs, while the countdowns were clearly meant for use within a session or two.

I do run mystery countdowns a bit differently than described or than how I run fronts: I try to make each step in the escalation PC facing rather than just something that happens offscreen.

Prep is there to make it easier to run a session, while recognizing that players will often go in different directions, and that other ideas will occur in play. For instance, on the first night they took watch, they heard the hagr crashing through the brush, and the next night coming close and snuffling, upsetting the horses. Some added foreshadowing I hadn’t planned on.

When Jamya was attacked and carried off, they immediately gave chase – except for the Would-Be Hero, who was a stableboy and was adamant (after agonizing) that his job was to stay behind and protect the two horses. The other PCs succeeded at every move in tracking and finding the hagr, but not before it had dismembered Jamya and started devouring him. All their volleys hit it from a distance and, to my surprise, it died before it could run away (the Ranger hit for 11, which was 10 after armor).

So later I added a second hagr, who nearly killed the Fox before dying. They saw some of the hagr’s constructions, not all I had prepped, as they did not explore the woods – even though I tempted them.

Altogether, though, the technique provided me a useful enough framework that I’ve used it to prep and run other antagonists.

Monster of the Week: Codex of Worlds is crowdfunding now on Backerkit!

Update (2023-02-14): One mistake I made running with a countdown in a different campaign was not fleshing out the monster fully. I was adapting a monster from an existing module, but it really wasn’t monstrous enough given the countdown I’d created for it. As a result, the final confrontation fizzled out rather than ending with a bang.

I should have downloaded the Mystery Worksheet from Evil Hat’s site as inspiration. This template provides space for recording—

  • Type (e.g., Monster/Minion/Phenomenon)
  • Powers
  • Weaknesses
  • Attacks
  • How much armor it has and how much harm it can take
  • Space for custom moves.

See also: RPG Session Prep Techniques and Threat Maps as Campaign Prep.

Note: Originally published 2022-08-13.

Photo by Christopher Osten on Unsplash.

The Best-Delayed Plans book coverYou can download this and other essays in my free ebook, The Best-Delayed Plans.