Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Importance of Time

In early D&D, time was of the essence, to the point where Gygax wrote in the Dungeon Masters Guide for AD&D: "YOU CAN NOT HAVE A MEANINGFUL CAMPAIGN IF STRICT TIME RECORDS ARE NOT KEPT." (His caps, not mine.)

At the dungeon level, there are several important timers. The length which a torch will burn (in both Holmes and the AD&D PHB this is listed as 6 turns, but it is not found in OD&D) creates a strict limitation for characters who do not have a Continual Light  spell available; you can only be down in the dungeon as long as you have torches. Wandering monsters force exploration along if they are high-risk, low-reward encounters. These are balanced with the time it takes to explore rooms, search for secret doors, and so on.

In the mode of Blackmoor as explored in The First Fantasy Campaign or the semi-competitive Greyhawk, it makes sense that Gygax would talk about a meaningful campaign - having multiple players with their own goals and different playing time - needing a strict timeline. But often campaigns are party-oriented and time becomes less of an issue.

I think that this is unfortunate, because a number of mechanisms - such as the design time for magic items, or the simple expedient of sleeping after the fighter's taken a couple hits and the magic-user's out of spells - should have more of a meaningful impact on the game. There are a number of ways that I think this can still be achieved.

One is the living dungeon. Any set of intelligent creatures who know that a group of adventurers are invading their living space should react by finding the most defensible spots and laying traps en route to them, then holing up where possible. Even a single escapee from a group of enemies should cause headaches to a party that gives them sufficient time to reinforce and defend themselves. Similar is the rival party, another group that roams the dungeon; if PCs clear a difficult area and then leave to rest, imagine their surprise when the easy pickings beyond have all been looted. One possible variation on the rival party would be a 9th level fighter who is clearing the area where the dungeon is in an attempt to claim it as a barony, and starts a full-on military expedition against the dungeon's denizens.

But what I really like are timers in the game world. One that I think was really brilliant was in the LotFP module Better Than Any Man: eight days after the beginning of the adventure, the sandbox will be destroyed by an invading army. It's quite explicit that there is a hard time limit, and it's not practical for the PCs to forestall the invasion or the destruction of the adventure locales. For me, this is really a great type of timer, because it creates the reality of the outside world while limiting access to the dungeon environment. It would not work for a proper megadungeon, but I think the idea that a certain locale has to be explored by a certain time or it will disappear is interesting.

For instance, what if an underground reservoir was breached and the dungeon was slowly being flooded? It's most interesting of course if the PCs wind up being the cause of the flood. Or some structural flaw has been revealed by the PCs' exploration and a level is now slowly becoming unstable and subject to cave-ins that could also lead to really interesting problems when the PCs are present. You could even have some magical force slowly eating away at the dungeon, or due to cause some local disaster when the stars are right.

Seasons could also be a way to make time matter. Underground areas tend to reflect the world above, so in a temperate area a dungeon in the winter would be so cold as to be uninhabitable by normal humans. In summer, a cave in a warmer area can become so hot as to be hostile to human life. In a true megadungeon there could well be active delving seasons in the spring and fall.

The key to all of this is that it puts time pressure on a sandbox situation. That's not always desirable, and I don't think it should be contrived, but I do think it's an interesting way of adding time pressures at a larger scale. Some of these also apply to hexcrawls; I know that plate armor is lighter than its reputation, but it's still unbearably hot in the hot sun. Mail likewise can be quite comfortable, until it bakes for a while on a summer day and becomes scalding hot.

So, to open it for comments: what have you used to make time count for PCs?


  1. Ok, I would love ro be able to use time to create tension in-game, but I hate timekeeping! What's a relative straightforward and efficient way to handle timekeeping in order to maximize the old school time tension??

    1. @Anthony

      I use checkboxes to mark off turns. For a slightly more recent solution, you might want to look at Apocalypse World countdown clocks. Here's a good post tying the idea to old school play:

      I use dice-based timers to track campaign events (such as PCs financing the building of a road). This seems to work well.

      I'm not good at larger scale events yet though, such as the progress of seasons and so forth. Torchbearer has some interesting ideas about that (like forcing a "winter" phase every three adventures), though that might feel a bit meta to D&D players.

  2. Within a session, I've found that using a die to do timekeeping is a convenient thing. I've always got plenty, and since OD&D and the like use 6-turn rest cycles you can count them on a d6.

    For long-term, I don't have any easy solutions. I always write an adventure log after each session, so that's where any time related notes I have go.

  3. One of the fun things about 4th edition's Eladrin race is that their cities traveled between the material plane and the Feywild based on the phases of the moon or the positions of the stars or whatever, which was a great tool for putting temporal pressure on PCs if the dungeon they were exploring was Eladrin ruins.

  4. It's easy with faster monkey games' Turntracker! See the youtube demo!


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