The new DLC for State of Decay—Lifeline—adds a feature I haven’t seen often in video games, though it’s more common in sandbox games: regularly set time pressure to return to base. In this case, it’s a timer that grows until you have to defend against a massive zombie attack against the base. The time it takes is somewhat unpredictable, you can set up strategies that make it count down more slowly, and some missions pause it until complete, but eventually you have to drop what you’re doing and rush back home.
This is pretty profound difference from the core game, where the only times the base is attacked is when hordes of zombies happen upon in (and you can usually take steps to destroy them before that happens). In the DLC, the player controls a group of soldiers running search and rescue operations, rather than a collection of survivors. The tradeoff of having military weapons and of all unplayed characters being in fighting shape is that all that gunfire and helicopter-based resupply tends to draw in the zombies.
At its core, the mechanic seems like an ideal solution for games struggling under a lack of over-arching time pressure, particularly games of D&D that suffer from the fifteen-minute adventuring day.
The mechanic doesn’t have to be a horde of enemies, all it really takes is:
- The PCs have a base that is important to them (even if only because that’s where they keep their stuff).
- Something threatens that base on a regular and relatively predictable basis.
- Without the PC’s presence during one of these problems, the base may be seriously damaged if not outright destroyed.
This problem can be as exciting as attack by a zombie horde (or other horde-based antagonist) or as dull as a gradual buildup of some kind of dangerous energy that for some reason only the PCs (or the items they collect on adventures) can bleed off. It could even just be that the rent is due, and adventuring is how they pay the bills. All that’s required is that it makes the players consider the tradeoff of taking adventures boringly slowly: if they take their time and proceed in complete safely, they’ll potentially have to leave halfway through to see to the problem at home and may not have collected enough resources to deal with the problem correctly.
A couple of unique challenges to using this idea crop up in a tabletop game as opposed to a video game:
- The problem needs to be carefully engineered to prevent the PCs from trying to stop it permanently as their first and only goal, or from just moving their base, because tabletop allows them the creativity of trying those options. Even if the game is light on story, it essentially has to be built in as the core conceit that drives the play space of the game.
- The problem needs to be something within the GM’s ability to manage at the table. You probably don’t want to run a hundred attackers against the PCs plus a base full of NPC helpers in tabletop without systems in place to manage a lot of it quickly and with a minimum of rolling.
But with those problems solved, you wind up with a pretty nice pacing device to keep your game moving even if it’s otherwise light on world events and story.