Take Your Time

Posted: 19 May 2012 in Toolbox
Tags: , , ,

Papers and Pencils had a couple of articles that struck me as really interesting, a discussion of the importance of tracking in-game time in RPG sessions, and a follow-up on the same.  What really struck me was the quote from Gary Gygax that P&P lead their first post with: “YOU CAN NOT HAVE A MEANINGFUL CAMPAIGN IF STRICT TIME RECORDS ARE NOT KEPT.”  And those are Gygax’s ragecaps.

I started thinking about timing a while ago; one of the first Alexandian posts I read was on prepping situations instead of plots, and letting the situation (and the world) react to the player’s actions.  That calls for some amount of time management, because you need to know what events are starting and ending as the players move about the world, so you know what they prevent, what they interrupt, and what they miss.  That could be vague accounting, but the more vague it is the more similar it is to GM fiat — the players interrupt the ritual because the DM declares that they interrupt the ritual.  And like P&P points out, doing rigorous time management lets neat things happen, like having torches sputter out because the characters took too long.  Without requiring DM fiat (and avoiding that is a virtue, if you ask me).

P&P talks about three modes of timing that need to be addressed, which basically correspond to the three modes of movement: tactical movement, local movement, and overland movement. Tactical movement is used for combat encounters, and combat already has a rigorous method of time management that everyone is familiar with: the 6-second round.  P&P then suggests a 10-minute turn for local time management, and days for overland time management.  Turns can be sub-divided into minutes if necessary, and hours could be appropriate for either local or overland time management, depending on what’s going on.

Here are my suggestions for how to divide up and manage time; month, year, and season divisions are only appropriate for non-earth (or at least, non-Gregorian) settings:

6 second is 1 combat round.
10 combat rounds is 1 minute.
10 minutes is 1 game turn.
6 game turns is 1 hour.
24 hours is 1 day.
7 days is 1 week.
4 weeks is 1 month.
13 months is 1 year.
Each season (Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter) is 13 weeks (3 1/4 months) long.

P&P recommends tracking Local time my ticking off turns on a sheet of paper while the players move through a town or dungeon.  Shifting between modes can generally be ignored, unless the players take a really long time in a lower mode.  Five or 10 rounds of combat (30 seconds to a minute) when moving through town won’t make a significant impact on how many Turns to track.

In addition to being able to track things like secret meetings and evil rituals, time management can give you a reliable way to measure the passage of the seasons and long term events like wars and famines.  Calendars can be printed out and used to track events that happen during a session and to schedule events that could happen in the future (if the PCs don’t prevent them).  The possibilities are kind of exciting.

  1. casewerk says:

    At least a significant portion of my current game campaign was designed with the “situations, not plots” model and in particular its first and second adventures ran very much off the premise of me knowing where and when various events would take place unless acted upon or impacted by player character actions, and tracking the time that it took them to do various things.

    I’m using a detailed calendar of events too, though I’m not being quite as granular with my time as detailed here, especially because the game turn in the system I’m using has a variable duration.

    It ended up being quite successful. I’m now plunging the group into a whole new set of situations, and am looking forward to seeing where it goes.

  2. dhlevine says:

    There’s at least one other way of dealing with time-sensitivity without resorting to fiat or “dramatically appropriate time” (whenever you get there is when the ritual is due to complete). You can turn the question of “do you have enough time to X?” into a roll. So, e.g., if what I really want to know is if I discover the ritual with plenty of time to prepare my assault, or just in the nick of time, or.not until it’s too late, say I roll Investigation vs. the ritualist’s Occult Sneakiness.

    Which one works better for you is largely a matter of taste, of course. Just pointing out an option besides meticulous calendars and hand-waving.

    • Good point; though that does rely on the game having a notion of Investigation and Occult Sneakiness. But you’re right, it’s all about the tools you use and the desired effect.

  3. This is helpful. Specifically the very practical idea of ticking off turns with a sheet of paper. You could even have each category listed on a sheet of paper, and tick off the appropriate category during the session, then add it up after the session to get a very precise measurement of time.

    I like the thought of being able to make a calender that has an impact on gameplay. That opens up all sorts of possibilities.

  4. […] using the time structure I mentioned before (with simple actions taking a minute and longer actions taking a turn, when it […]

  5. […] The last piece that I think is essential (and Gygax agrees with me, apparently) is a solid notion of time. Modern games still keep time during combat, […]

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