To me, a zero hour is essentially a time limit. And a zero hour item is an item that will destroy itself in a certain amount of time. Whether that be a time bomb, or some item that requires constant charging or feeding. Time limits in tabletop games are a tricky thing, but I know from personal experience they can be extremely rewarding. The difficulty arises from the passing of time. How does one fairly adjudicate how fast time passes in a game where a lot of the details are glossed over for ease of play? If players trust the DM to be on their side, everyone can work together to make a time limit fun and tense. In my games, I tend to use zero hour items. Some sort of item that will self-destruct if not cared for properly. I've already spoken of the wondrous item that breaks if not charged once a day. But today I'd like to talk about the best zero hour item I've ever given a player, and the resulting mad dash that drove a party to their absolute limits.
In their quest to kill an evil god, the players re-constituted a broken artifact called the Godsbane. Being the only weapon that can kill a god, they desperately needed it for their quest, lest the evil god return to wreak havoc on the realm. However, this weapon had a caveat; it was designed to kill a god, and since it had not yet tasted a god's flesh, it instead hungered each day for something similar. Gods are outsider type creatures, so it yearned for the soul of an outsider of 16 hit dice or more once a day. If it did not deal either the killing blow or its instant death effect to a powerful outsider in a calendar day, it would break forever; never to be constructed again. Obviously, the players, having played for two years previously to get to the point where they could even start to think about taking on a god, did not want to fail this quest.
Their journey took them deep within the earth, where they faced numerous undead. The day was long and tiresome, and no outsiders appeared. The players fought every inch through the darkness, hoping, praying their DM would show mercy. None was forthcoming. At first it was of no concern, but the further they traveled, the more undead they slaughtered, the more tired they became. Then the unthinkable happened. Two members of the six party team died to a banshee. The clerics had not brought resurrections with them that day, not having considered that the day would drag on as it did. The dwarf hoisted the dead up and continued their journey.
After a time, they came across salvation! An outsider! But halt, it was a bound angel, held against his will. The paladin knew no other thought, and freed the angel without hesitation, much to the wielder of the Godsbane's chagrin. Time was wasted arguing over the wisdom of this decision, before they knew they had to continue or risk losing all hope. On they went, avoiding combat any way they could. I had never seen such lateral thinking and careful planning to avoid combat, especially at such high levels where a character can cleave the sun. It was impressive.
Further on, dismay set in, the next level of the deep presented itself, with no outsider in sight. Their guide, an evil blackguard who was the twin of the paladin, held against his will, was allowed a sword and freed of his bondage to aid in the survival of the party. No rest was in store. They asked how much time they had left before the Godsbane shattered: four hours. Their stomachs turned and they continued. It was here the blackguard hatched his escape plan: in this deepest cavern, lie the dreaded fiendwurm. Unbeknownst to those new to these hell beasts, they feed an eternal pit that opens within their stomach into a layer of the Abyss. Through there would the blackguard find his escape.
When they encountered the endless maw, he charged it, fooling the others into thinking he was either brave or foolish. Bit as he approached the creature, they remembered an old tome they once read that spoke of these things and their portal to another realm. They cursed their luck, they needed their guide for these caves were massive and without a map they would wander forever, and certainly not find an outsider in time. And yet, pursuing their captive, where would they end up? They might feed the weapon's thirst but how would they get back? Would the evil god return on his own if they delayed too long? In the end, they could not afford to lose their zero hour weapon, and ran into the wurm's belly, screaming and cursing their foul lot in life.
They emerged through and instantly saw their first outsider, a massive demon-dragon that informed them that surrender is their best option. He waved toward a large sack for them all to climb into and accept their death. Of course, the paladin told him in no uncertain terms where he could put said sack. He was pulverized and instantly turned into a soggy meat in armor. Tired and worn out, with almost no spells, and low hit points, the others obeyed. They were taken to a demon prison where they waited out the remaining few hours. They looked at the clock and knew it was an hour until all hope was lost. That is, until an imp named Puck, the bane of their existence and the enemy of the party saw them. Puck was a devil, in the Abyss to convey recon for an invasion of devils. He told them he would break them out and that his boss, Dispater, Lord of the Second Layer of Baator wanted a word with them. From six now to three, the remaining party agreed.
Teleported immediately to Dispater, the players recalled that they had had dealings with this devil before, and that when last they met he had allowed them to leave in exchange for a future boon, which he asked of them now. They agreed, but informed him they needed to feed the Godsbane first. Dispater, being not unreasonable, agreed only if they would best a concordant killer (a type of devil/angel) in an arena. So with an army of devils around them, they entered a small caged arena. They were tired, broken, weak, low on spells, and had the exhausted condition. The three remaining survivors saw that there was only ten minutes left on the clock, and prepared for the most important battle of their lives. The angel's opening move was to forcecage the wielder of the Godsbane, trapping him completely. The players despaired. Rule books were pulled out, spells were researched. There's got to be something they have to get out of forcecage! Time passed while I allowed them to grasp at the straws they had left. Until finally, the wizard came into a realization: dimension door! He used it to get into and then out of the forcecage, freeing the player, who promptly threw the Godsbane at the angel. The weapon flew true, striking the angel in the gut. It rolled its saving throw... and failed! The essence of the outsider was drawn into the weapon as he screamed in agony and fear. The Godsbane pulsated with a greenish glow, and the greater good was served so that a god could be killed.
My players blew a sigh of relief! Glory! A single day of endless fear and desperation. A zero hour run that ended in the most harrowing experience of their adventure yet. To this day, my players still talk of this day, played out over at least two months worth of gameplay sessions. In my opinion, the players had never been so strained or taken to their limits, nor had their characters. They proved to me and themselves what they could accomplish in a single day. They showed me that ingenuity will arise when the characters are stripped of almost all they have, and the game did not suffer, but was instead improved. Sure, today they speak of the day in fear, as they never want to do it again, but they still speak of it. They still remember it. They still revere it as the most tension they have ever had playing this game we call Dungeons & Dragons! Thanks for reading my final A to Z Challenge entry. I hope you enjoyed it. I, for one, am going to take a well-deserved break from writing in this for a few days. But I will return, and continue to write all my opinions and suggestions and hints about how to be the best Dungeon Master one can be. I hope you'll join me and continue to read. What a month!