Using Time in Games
Happy New Year! I hope that the holidays went over well for you and that you’re all looking forward to 2013.
This change in the new year has made me think about the passage of time in roleplaying games. In most games I’ve played, it’s generally not come up. In Dungeons & Dragons, for instance, quests may take many days to complete, but we generally don’t keep track of how many they are and don’t conceptualize larger units of time, like weeks, months, or years. Part of this of course is that in most fantasy settings, they aren’t going to be using the same names for days of the week or months and it doesn’t matter whether the year is 349 or 5192. So in order for time to be used in a roleplaying game, it must be meaninfully measured.
The simplest way to do this is to just use the Gregorian Calendar, since that’s what we use today. Some settings have used the Gregorian Calendar, but gave different names to the days of the weeks and the months. The Elder Scrolls calendar did this, as does the calendar in Low Life (although the latter changes the names out of parody). Part of the reason for this is that a different calendar with different numbers of days to the months doesn’t really add much to the game. (However, there have been a lot of efforts of calendar reform in real life to make it simpler and more logical. But aside from changing the Julian Calendar to the Gregorian Calendar, none have been successful. I think the world should switch to the International Fixed Calendar, by the way).
Virtually all civilizations have, at the very least, measured the progression of time by seasons. The progression of time has to result in something changing, such as the weather. How many games have you played where your adventuring party started out in hot summer and ended in frigid winter? If you’re like most groups, not. This is partly a result of the trope that It’s Always Spring because it’s simpler to not factor in weather. But I think it’s a lot of fun to include it. Having the weather be rainy or snowy when it’s not because of Chekov’s Gun makes the world seem more alive, and the likelihood of such weather changing over time in long campaigns can add a lot of depth to the game.
Seasons of course are periodic, as are many other units of time. Historically Ancient Rome had 8 day weeks with the eighth day being a market day where everything is closed, while our modern calendar has 7 day weeks because Jews and Christians worship every seventh day. I could see a setting changing the number of days in a week for reasons such as that. And of course, we mark one year as the number of days that pass before Earth is at the same position in relation to the sun. This of course adds the possibility of annual holidays. When was the last time you celebrated a birthday or holiday in your games? You’re missing out!
In many of my games lately I’ve tried to incorporate time and it’s either been a lot of fun! For starters, I mandate that all players must have birthdays. This is done by randomly rolling a d12 for the month and a d30 for the day (if the month has 31 days and they roll a 30, then they roll odds or evens). The only time I had a birthday come up was when I ran Daring Entertainment‘s War of the Dead campaign. In the middle of the zombie outbreak, the six year old girl they rescued realized that it was her birthday and she just turned seven! There was a lot of celebration by all, even with a couple they met using up the last of their flour and eggs to bake a cake, and it really helped raise morale for the characters after all the horror they had been through with the zombies. It was a fun diversion and the players loved it.
Over the summer, I ran a roleplaying game version of The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall, which unlike the later games had special things happen on certain holidays. For instance during our campaign, the Warrior’s Festival came up, and as a result the player characters could purchase weaponry and training for half price for that day only. One of the players agonized over whether or not to borrow money and buy a weapon at half price or pay for it later at a greater price. I think that the feeling of having the world be more alive was fun as well.
Finally in my current The Last Sons campaign, I’m going full tilt and keeping track of each day that passes. Certain developments in the plot point campaign happen on a certain day (e.g. the national elections) as well as certain holidays. How will the posse be spending Christmas? And the weather is going to change significantly as we get closer to winter. They don’t know about it yet, but there’s also going to be a time limit to the best result of the campaign. Sure you can dawdle around on the Weird West as much as they want, but if they’re not ready on that last day, they’ll miss their shot at making things a whole lot better.
Adding time to your roleplaying games adds a lot of little moments that make the game more enjoyable. It requires a bit more tracking on the GM’s side to pull it off, but I think that it’s worth it in the end.