Thursday, December 27, 2012

How to make time mean something in your campaign



What does it mean you have to hole up for two weeks to wait for natural healing, or wait two weeks for that magic item you ordered to be made? Some games actually make time mean something, and not something to be glossed over. Recently I listened to an episode of Ken and Robin talks about stuff where they talked about time in games. It made me think of my old 3rd ed campaign. In that campaign I had the opportunity to see time as an obstacle being circumvented in a not so cool way.

The deal was that with the Craft skill, you can produce items. In this case it was items which should be enchanted, and thus they had to be of Masterwork quality. Unless I remember totally wrong, it wasn't that much harder to do them, or even something you needed a certain level of skill for, but you paid in time. Now, if you delve in the dungeon and the time in between is just that, time in between, then it means nothing. It doesn't matter if it takes one hour or two week if you let it go with "and when it's done you get back to the dungeon". It reminds me of how some spells in older editions of D&D used to age the caster. As far as I remember, that didn't make it into 3rd ed. but item creation rules still had a "time cost".

Can we say something about how time was used to be handled in the olden days, and how time is handled in newer games? I think it's pretty clear that all the talk of the 15 minute game game day, and then back to town for healing and re-memorization of spells signifies something.

Let's think back to the Blackmoor campaign. We know that the players there were in command of armies, and that Arneson in the FFC mention things like yearly events. Clearly time were advancing at a decent pace if it made sense to have random annual events for the kingdom.

But, I am also pretty sure I have read enough of old school campaigns where the only time that mattered was in the dungeon, and I find it significant that in the Mentzer edition of D&D there are no healing rules. You go back to town and when you start the next adventure you are healed. Some time have passed, I guess.

Clearly there are different ways of handling time at work here. There are more examples, and they are not all clearly and easily align chronologically. Maybe someone have done some research in this area. There are some excellent scholars of old school gaming styles, so it would not surprise me. For me it's a stepping stone for ideas on how to play.

Let's say you would like to have time matter. Without keeping those famous records of time, you probably can make the "time tax" useful. Let's take a look at two games where time matters. In Ars Magica and Pendragon time is of importance. Maybe they can teach us something?                                                                                                                        
                                                                                                                                                                                                    
In the latter game, you often only play one of two adventures each year, and then it's the "winter phase" where you do macro management of your character, talking care of manor economics, childbirth and marriage. Step by step your character age, and later on you probably get to retire your character and play with his heir.                                                                     
                                                                                                                                                                                                    
In Ars Magica, you play multiple characters and the mage will probably do research that take years to finalize. Since you will be able to play another character while that happens, it's no impediment to being engaged in the game, but it will still matter that your mage is doing research and not out on adventure.                                                                                
                                                                                                                                                                                                    
How can we use this?                                                                                                                                                                                
                                                                                                                                                                                                    
Would it be useful to have a limit year year on how many adventures you can participate in? One way would be to have three delves a year, and if you are injured you have to make a save or loose one of those three opportunities being holed up for healing. I think that would be a cool mechanic.                                                                                                    

Let's then take a gander at long term projects, like crafting items and researching magic. If magic of any complexity takes time, then it makes sense to combine that with the idea of a set amount of adventures per year. If a project takes more than a month, one of the yearly adventures is forfeit.

If we in addition to this takes a a cue from Ars Magica and let all players have a "stable" or adventurers we can have our cookie, and eat it too. A stable of characters is a phenomenon I first heard of in 5th edition of T&T. So even if it's a way to hand a player a cookie when her other character is busy doing magic research or crafting, it actually is as old school as it gets. :)

15 comments:

  1. I would certainly consider something similar if I ran a megadungeon-based campaign again. It was one of the things I couldn't emphasise well enough.

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  2. I disagree that long periods of downtime doesn't matter in old-school games. On the contrary; players are encouraged to do as much as they can as fast as they can for the simple reason that if they don't other players-- their competitors-- will go into the dungeon and grab the loot.

    This was explicit in the days when there were 40 people in a gaming group, who would break off into smaller groups and explore the dungeons. If your character was laid up until Friday being healed, the group that explored the dungeon on Wednesday might well get the big treasure in the area you were going to explore.

    In more modern games, where we don't have multiple groups of competing PCs, the same effect can be had by introducing competing NPC parties. Hearing the Band of the Frog in the tavern, talking about how they're going to be exploring the southwest area of level 4 tomorrow, can be quite an incentive when that's where *you* were planning on going the day after tomorrow...

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    1. Good point Joe!

      But, note that while e.g. the time it takes to cast a ritual is in the book, having competing parties cleaning out the dungeon and taking "your" loot is not.

      I think someone, it could have been Ron Edwards, called the unwritten rules and the social contract at the game table for System. That is, it is a system of rules just as important, but not written down in the rules you could buy.

      That might be why some rules have lived on in, say, 3rd edition D&D, while some of the System that made them make sense have not. That is also probably the reason why different re-tellings of game sessions back in the day seem to differ on these matters.

      I strongly urge readers who like to experiment to try out the suggestion by Mr. Bloch about competing NPC parties. I think it sounds like a marvellous idea!

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    2. Yeah, EGG goes out of his way to mention the importance of tracking time in the 1e AD&D DMG, cf "Time in the Campaign," pp. 37-8.

      In any case, it's on the referee to make time meaningful to the players, with the world changing in response to the player characters' actions and inactions.

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    3. Sure, but notice the discrepancy. Some of this is in the book, some is not. Some of it is in some editions, and some is not. The referee has some work cut out for her!

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    4. I'm currently running a 4E game that has a competing NPC party. The players' are of the opinion that any NPC party is of inferior quality and obviously should be snubbed. Are they going to be surprised when they find out they aren't so incompetent, but instead are profiting off the PCs' expense? I'd like to think so; at least I'm certain one or two will be furious, but at that point the NPC party will be making a play to remove the PCs, so... come at me.

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    5. Sweet. That takes Joe Bloch's suggestion of NPC party to the logical next step. Sounds like a fun game!

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  3. The "Chance Cards" mentioned in FFC were one a month. Back then, there was the real-time == game-time rule. I'm not sure when that rule disappeared. It was present in AD&D IIRC. In my 3e campaign the players role played out every single hour of every day. I doubt an entire year had passed before they were 10th level. There wasn't much wilderness exploration in that game and very little overland travel.

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    1. Thanks for the reminder on the Chance Cards. I was far off from my copy of FFC when writing that post.

      Actually, one of the things which prompted me writing this post is that those rules about how to handle time is coming and going in different editions. It's almost as if the designers on each edition are all remembering different parts of the former editions. Joe's comment above is also telling, as it highlight how some "rules" as not even written down.

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  4. There's also AiF to consider Andreas. There Arneson basically requires the players to be doing something - training, learning, making potions, climbing the social ladder, etc., between adventures and ageing as they do it. The length of time has to be carefully tracked.

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  5. Ah, one of these days I would love to read that game. I enjoy your insights and references to it in the field of gaming archaeology.

    I guess it makes sense, considering the rule for Dave was to award xp for gold spent. You have to take some time to spend it, and that time is taking it's toll. Thanks for the reminder of AiF!

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  6. I recently implemented a mini-game into our 4E game to encourage the group to slow down and not try to do everything in a day. I've never put a lot of stress on the passage of time, but include descriptions along the lines of "after two days of travel..." and skill challenges to represent random encounters, weather, or other situations that might be appropriate.

    Anyway, to the mini-game. Our group set up a goblin keep and after setting up a tenuous peace with the nearby human town, left. They continuously talk about the goblins and keep meaning to go back and check on them, but always seem to get sidetracked. So, I added a mini-game centered around the goblins. Each player has one goblin leader that they "play", and each in-game month each chooses one role/agenda and one action/project for the next month. As time passes, they get to determine how their goblin kingdom grows, interacts, and struggles. Hopefully, it should be that little extra incentive to make them go, "let's take a day off from adventuring and just hang out in town catching up on the local gossip", as that day off will mean another round of the mini-game sooner.

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    1. That's a good way to handle it. I am of the opinion (at least this week), that you should make it a game mechanic for it to feel real, and that is a good way to do it. I like it a lot!

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  7. I'm using a Death & Dismemberment table that includes bones breaking and taking 2d4+9 weeks to heal, and I try to push players into letting a week pass between sessions. Those characters are out of the game for a long time. Research taking many weeks hurts.

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    1. That's a neat idea. Everyone loves some tables for nasty combat damage. Strangely enough, even when it happens to a character of ones own.

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