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GM Advice: Time in the Campaign

Some campaigns seem to take place in the Land of Perpetual Summer. It might rain a bit, but farmers are always in their fields tending their crops and winter’s snow never arrive. Time never seems to move on...


(Art: William McAusland [Outland Arts])

Tracking time can be a pain. Surely, a GM has enough to keep track of – plots, NPCs, PCs, XP totals and more; adding one more thing to that list seems like a lot of extra work and hassle for no real gain. Not so!

Tracking time in a campaign can be enormously rewarding for the overall gaming experience. Gary Gygax said:

“Game time is of utmost importance. Failure to keep careful track of time expenditure by player characters will result in many anomalies in the game. The stricture of time is what makes recovery of hit points meaningful. Likewise, the time spent adventuring in wilderness areas removes concerned characters from their base of operations – be they rented chambers of battlemented strongholds. Certainly the most important time strictures pertains to the manufacturing of magic items, for during the period of such activity no adventuring can be done. Time is also considered in gaining levels and learning new languages and more. All of these demands upon game time force choices upon player characters and likewise number their days of game life…YOU CAN NOT HAVE A MEANINGFUL CAMPAIGN IF STRICT TIME RECORDS ARE NOT KEPT.”

There are many reasons to track time. These include:

  • Verisimilitude: Verisimilitude has become a bit of a dirty word in some circles in reason years. General – but not obsessive – verisimilitude is great design. After all, roleplaying is at its heart a suspension of disbelief. The GM owes it to his players to make it as easy as possible to suspend their disbelief. Adventuring in a timeless environment (unless one is on the planes) is not particularly conducive towards that goal.

  • Passing of Seasons: As the seasons come and go, the PCs can see the land in a number of different guises. Adventuring in winter – or in high summer in the desert – presents certain unique challenges that can be fun to work around, overcome or turn to one’s own advantage.

  • Festivals & Holidays: Festivals and holidays are a great way to introduce cool local customs to the PCs. Many classic modules make use of this mechanic. Such events can act as a unique springboard to adventure.

  • The PCs: As they adventure, the PCs grow older and wiser. They may fall in love, get married and have children, travel great distances or even start to build a home. They may settle down and spend a year or two in semi-retirement. Other adventurers may even found their own kingdom, fight wars, raise mighty castles and so on. The passing of time provides a great backdrop to such activities.

  • Personal Quests: A PC may want to locate a sage, visit his homeland or undertake some other long journey. Such activities can cut to the very essence of the character and provide fantastic opportunities for the character’s growth and development. Of course, these activities have a knock-on effect to a PC’s companions and one that needs careful consideration. While Andy’s character is off searching for a lost dwarven hold, what are his friends doing? Do they accompany him, go off on their own adventures, craft magic items? All offer personal opportunity for character development.

  • Using Skills: If a PC has skills in crafting items – whether they be magical or mundane – tracking time is vital if they exercise those skills. If a PC is diligently crafting a magic ring, he may miss an adventuring opportunity or other PCs may have time to pursue their own projects.

So that’s where I stand on tracking time in my campaign. Do you track time or just ignore it? Do you track it for any other reasons? Do you have any tricks or tips to make tracking time easier? Tell me in the comments below.

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other Time based considerations...

Fame: Word travels so fast today that its hard to remember that things like the battle of New Orleans happened in 1814 because neither side was aware of the peace treaty signed by the UK and US several weeks before the battle. Such is also the case with heroic reputations.

Enemies: That goblin tribe you wiped out in the first adventure had a surviving member who became an archery focused ranger. He has trained others and there's about a dozen goblins and various other monsterous humanoids with class levels following in your wake. Individually they were speed bumps to the next big challenge, collectively they are a dangerous and capable foe motivated by vengeance.

If as a GM you love recurring villains, keeping track of their development is another time consideration.

Calendar events: Yearly festivals, eclipses, special ceremonies, the migrations of the strige, and the mating season of the forest drake can all be events that reward timekeeping and add immersion.

Re: other Time based considerations...

I never thought to approach it from the villain's point of view. Great point! I'll be adding it to my list! Thanks for commenting.

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