Ritual: At The Last Second

So, you know how on television, nobody ever works up the nerve to cut the right wire off the bomb until the last moment? That’s what this Ritual is.

But you can use it for other things that have implicit or explicit timers attached to them, too, like:

  • you really need to leave the house in the next few minutes if you don’t want to be late but you can’t find your keys
  • you want to buy something from the corner store but you’ve misplaced your wallet at the bottom of your purse again and they’re about to close
  • you need to get something from a computer, but it’s going to erase its files if you don’t enter the right password before a conveniently-on-the-screen timer expires, and you’ve got way too much to look through
  • you’ve just realized that you’re not going to finish this exam because you don’t know the material, but damned if you won’t spend the last few minutes guessing at what the answer to the last question is

Usually this Ritual ends in success, unless something really weird happens. In this situation, the question isn’t whether you can solve the problem/find the thing/finish the test - the question is whether you can find it fast enough, or work up the nerve to actually do the dangerous thing.

I’m conflating a handful of vaguely related scenes here, so not all the options will apply all the time (doing mathematics in your head isn’t going to help you find your wallet) but there’s enough overlap between these types of scenes that I threw them all in the writeup.

Invoke this ritual by getting everyone’s attention, and then saying “I only have a few minutes left!”

The Timer - usually the HG, but sometimes one of the other players, if it is appropriate - will then say the first item on this list that they haven’t already said (the ritual loops back to here multiple times, so you’ll get to the others eventually; call this the Countdown):

  • Five minutes -
  • One minute -
  • Thirty seconds -

The person who started the Ritual may then respond with one of the following ritual actions:

  • emoting desperation, determination, or another similar feeling
  • talking briefly about what you did in another situation in the past that was like this, and then explain why it isn’t working here (”Last month, I thought I’d lost my keys but they turned out to be in the couch cushions. But I’ve already looked through the couch cushions this time and they’re not there!”)
  • desperately unzipping, ripping open, etc. a relevant parcel or pocket so that you can look through the contents of it
  • skimming across text that you don’t have the time to actually read
  • looking in a place where you know you looked before, hoping and failing to find something (a tool? the answer?) this time that you didn’t see before
  • telling yourself to stay calm, think, don’t mess this up, etc.
  • talking yourself through some sort of math or science calculation (”…plug the result into the formula, and then take the square root…”). Don’t write it down; you don’t have time for that!

Others who are physically present or nearby may then respond with one of the following ritual actions, as long as the environment is suitable (i.e. don’t just drop things on the desk of someone who’s taking a test, since the proctor will think you’re cheating):

  • running in, out of breath, and giving you something that you need to look through for what you need (a file folder of papers, a wallet with a lot of zippers, an overfull pencil case, etc.)
  • running in, out of breath, and giving you a tool that would have been usable if you had just a little more time
  • running out to go look somewhere else for what you need
  • making a sympathetic gesture, trying to calm you down, or otherwise offering moral support because they don’t know what else to do
  • helping to look for the thing you need

After that, the Timer will go back to the Countdown and say the next ritual phrase, and the process will repeat until you’ve run out of Countdown.

Once the Countdown is gone and everyone has responded to every item, the Timer person will say one last ritual phrase:

  • Five, four, three, two, one -

And then whoever would logically be in a position to solve the problem tries one last ritual action:

  • scraping all your nerve together and trying something that you think will work but you’re not completely sure

And then the HG or relevant other individual will narrate what happens next, and that’s the end of the Ritual.

Note that you can adjust, add, or remove items in the Countdown. I would strongly recommend not using more than five Countdown list entries; it gets repetitive and saps the tension.