Timekeeping in D&D RPGs
1:1 Timekeeping vs Press Pause - Are They Incompatible Methods?
Timekeeping in the D&D-style RPG Campaign is of vital importance to the success of a living world. In the past few months the idea of 1:1 Timekeeping has come back to the surface of the more innovative gaming tables.
(Read more on this here - Jeffrogaxian Time Keeping vs Variable Time Keeping [Theory] - and a video here - How to Win at RPGs: Free Players)
That is a lot to digest, so I'll give you some time. When you are ready, let's take a look at what implementing 1:1 Timekeeping will actually mean for your campaign. I wrote about introducing this method of timekeeping into my own LFG campaign back in June (Downtime Session Report). The change was met with a pretty good response from the players.
1:1 Time is an Excellent Campaign Tool
A DM (or group of DMs) running a large-scale campaign may have two or more groups of Player-Characters adventuring simultaneously, with as many as ten-to-twelve players coming and going on an irregular basis. In this case, it makes a lot of sense to get everyone back to town at the end of each session. Especially when those sessions are six-eight hours long, as we know they were, back in the Old DaysTM.
1:1 Timekeeping allows for a changing roster of Virtual or IRL players for your game, for any given session, and allows a DM to keep track of which characters are where, and when. There is a great example in the AD&D (1e) DMG, where one gaming group lolly-gags around, then misses out on a chance to gain XP and treasure, because another group played through while they were goofing off. This is part of Gary Gygax’s advice on running a campaign for new DMs.
I am currently also playing in a campaign using 1:1 Timekeeping, and it is a lot of fun. The downtime chat, planning and idea-swapping between games is great. I will say that this did not come about automatically. We, as a group of players, had to make some conscious decisions about our play style and our approach to the session. Due to the fact that some of the sessions lasted longer than one week of in-game time it also meant that we needed to have multiple characters to be able to play every week.
For example, when my PC Shaman Yllmeeton traveled with the group to the capital city of the region, it took about ten days of in-game time. I believe six of the eight players in this campaign were present, and had their characters participate in this trek. That meant the following session, a real week later, all six players had to roll up new PCs because Yllmeeton and his companions still had 3 days left to travel.
Due to this style of timekeeping, all of us wound up running two (or even three!) PCs which were based in different locations. Some of them knew each other, some didn’t, and it makes for a very interesting campaign, with action taking place “offscreen” nearly all the time.
However (you knew that was coming, didn’t you?) there is a caveat to this. At the beginning of the campaign, our sessions were only about two hours long. Even though we knew there was a hard time limit, and we had to get back to town, it made the adventuring into a kind of "mad dash" if we hoped to accomplish anything. If we did too much exploring or loitering, we would have a disappointing session. We had more than one session where we did a lot of exploring, getting lost and wandering around, and at the end of our two-hour time limit had nothing to show for it. No Gold, no XP.
1:1 Timekeeping put a rather extreme limitation on us that became a sort of damper on the joy of the game play.
Short-duration session-play created some doubts about 1:1 Timekeeping being suitable for long-term delving. I had a discussion with the players at my own table, who were concerned that ending exploration and dungeon-delving “arbitrarily” at the end of the session would have a negative impact on the overall success of the mission. I had to agree.
I still cannot see how 1:1 Timekeeping works with a classic Megadungeon delve.
Coincidentally, as we made the transition to 1:1 Timekeeping at my table, the group membership changed a bit and we were able to play for longer periods, three and even four hours. Suddenly a rather obvious answer presented itself.
Some sessions are longer than others. Sometimes, you press pause. Sometimes you don't.
Timekeeping vs Session Length
Recently I was involved in an extensive convo on Twtr about 1:1 Timekeeping and Session Length, with some of the participants firmly in the camp that 1:1 Timekeeping is an absolute rule. That there is never a situation when "Press Pause" is an option in Real D&D.
Many pixels have been spilled in discussing what is Real D&D, and I will be the first to admit that I thought 1:1 Timekeeping was an impossible technique. I learned to play with the Holmes Blue Book, for goodness sake, and never played that way! HOWEVER, as it came out in this discussion, BITD we had lots of time for marathon sessions of D&D. My buddies and I used to get together and play all weekend, until we had cleared White Plume Mountain, or whatever. 12, 14, maybe 18 hours of play over two days. When your group can complete a large dungeon or adventure in the course of (essentially) one very long session, then long-form time-keeping isn't quite as important. And we were kids, what did we know?
As a married adult I do not have time to invest in clearing a dungeon in one, long session. In fact, when I started DM-ing again last year, we only had two hours per week available to us. "Press Pause" style play was perfectly natural, and fit the structure of our sessions. Sure, an adventure might take eight hours to complete, then we could do some fun downtime things in town, but those eight hours covered four or five sessions.
The Hybrid Solution
A fellow BROSR colleague, and the DM of the ACKS game I play on Wednesdays, has a recent session report where he speculates that 1:1 Timekeeping may not mean the end of the Megadungeon.
However, he visualizes a different solution:
I am uncertain if this party of players will ever return to delving a mid to large sized dungeon, and that's fine. But I think the megadungeon still has a place in a brosr campaign. One way an enterprising brosr DM might consider handling a megadungeon the PCs have abandoned is consider each level of the dungeon as a small army. Each dungeon lair as a unit or two. So level 2 of a dungeon with a lair of 50 lizardmen, and a lair of 50 gnolls, might come under the command of a Big Bad in either tribe (or a lone evil wizard on the dungeon) where they depart the dungeon to range the nearby wilderness as a small army. Or, if the megadungeon is below a city, do small raids into the city above to capture prisoners here and there, rob a jewelry shop or take prisoners for crossbreeding from the temples or whatever. Give this military unit to a Patron player, perhaps, and watch the sparks fly.
This might work perfectly well, but it is still constrained by the original limitation that made 1:1 Timekeeping fall from favor (and eventually from memory) - the short session. It is all well and good to have the monsters in a dungeon restock, re-group and upgrade their defenses in the interval between a PC party’s delves. But arbitrarily ending a delve and returning to base at the end of session time isn’t in the mold of the classic Megadungeon delve. These adventures were planned to be multi-day, if not multi-week, forays into the dark recesses of the world. BITD adventuring parties would be accompanied by a team of porters and torchbearers to carry extra provisions and supplies. These expeditions fully expected to spend several “nights” camped out underground, holed up in a room or cave, without returning to the surface for some time.
The Megadungeon is a Special Case
It is the exception that proves the rule. A Megadungeon simply does not lend itself to either a short- or long- session using 1:1 Timekeeping.
Substantial work on the part of the DM is needed just to create an adventure scenario that can be accomplished in two hours. Additional work, such as out-of-session planning, by the Players between games is also a necessity.
In a short session it just isn't possible to do the overland travel, the delve, the wandering monster encounters and so on, and STILL have time to get back out of the dungeon and experience more overland travel to get home. This can be especially frustrating if the party is doing well, and is still in good shape for HP and resources. Maybe only a couple of in-game hours have passed since the party entered the dungeon. Why must they leave? In this situation the "Press Pause" style becomes more appropriate.In a Classic Megadungeon situation, it becomes essential.
Your table can run two or three short sessions like this, and when the HP or resources are getting depleted, then it's time to withdraw from the dungeon and return to town.
If your table is able to run sessions that are 4-6 hours long it is much easier and authentic for them to play aggressively, consume resources, expend HP, and actually need that week of rest and recuperation. The longer sessions support and even encourage the RTB style of play.
Keeping accurate time records is still important, to both types of play, and still allows for a multi-layered experience. Even with Press Pause there may be times that the party splits, and their sessions end at different points of in-game time. Your players may choose to have multiple characters whose adventures take them to different locales and experience different forms of time-compression.
A hybrid approach to time-keeping creates space to accommodate the players’ schedules, the characters’ goals, session length, and downtime requirements.
That’s my two cents, and that’s how we’ll manage timekeeping at my table.
I’d love to hear your thoughts. Am I out of my mind? Is this the greatest idea? Leave a Comment below.