Sunday, August 19, 2012

The DMG, Section by Section, Part 14: Time


Thus, famously, wrote Gary in today's section of the DMG (pg. 37), and I tend to agree, if not with the severity of the statement (the all-caps are his, not mine), then with the general high desirability of keeping "strict time records."

Alas, time is something I've struggled to keep track of, especially in the dungeon, so I was excited when I saw that today's section was on keeping track of time… and disappointed that Gary gives only the smallest bits of advice for keeping time in the campaign and almost no advice for keeping track of time in the dungeon. In fact, Gary spends the vast majority of this section arguing that keeping track of time is important… so let's deal with those arguments first. (Gary says a few other things, but, as with every entry in this series, I'm discussing what I find to be most interesting, not dealing with every last point Gary makes.)

Time in the Campaign

The first reason Gary gives for keeping time is that when the party splits up and one group uses more time than the other group then it becomes possible to encounter weird time-related conundrums; for example, if on Monday group A goes on a week-long journey, returns and kills a dragon on Day 7, game time, and then on Wednesday group B visits the dragon's lair on Day 2, game time, what happens? The DM must realize that group B won't be killing the dragon, as group A has "already" killed the dragon on Day 7. Whether the DM makes sure the dragon isn't at home, leads the encounter away from violent confrontation or just makes sure the dragon is invincible, this is an important point for DMs to keep in mind, especially when running a campaign where different players can play on different days.

Gygax goes on to point out that the loss of time is what makes healing hit points meaningful; otherwise healing full hit points is costless and assumed between each adventure. PCs also spend time away from their bases while adventuring, incurring bills if they rent and risking attack and capture of their homes if they own them. Perhaps even more significant than either of these is the time it takes to craft magic items, which must be uninterrupted and so necessarily cuts into adventuring time. Additionally, though Gary doesn't elaborate, and I wasn't aware of this stricture in AD&D, time is a factor in leveling and training. Keeping track of time also gives an impetus for players to play their PCs' henchmen while their "regular" PCs are otherwise occupied, giving the henchmen character and a chance to level up and possibly set out on their own.

Finally, Gary states that keeping track of time, that is, making time an element of the game, is worthwhile simply because it is the addition of another interesting set of choices to the game. I buy that.

Time in the Dungeon

Keeping track of time in the dungeon is important because the DM must know when to check for wandering monsters, when spells with certain durations cease their effects and when the party must stop for a rest (every 50 minutes and after every strenuous activity). Gary also lays out that a round is one minute and a turn is ten minutes and explains that time records should be kept on a separate sheet of paper.

OK, so that, in my mind, pretty satisfactorily settles the question of the desirability of keeping time records, but my personal question is not "why?" but "how?" especially for inside the dungeon.

I suppose this is actually pretty simple, on paper. As a referee, I just need to figure out the slowest member of the party's movement rate and count out the party's movement on my map as the PCs move through it. In practice, though, I find this really difficult. Maybe it's just me, but all the times I've tried to count spaces and calculate time while providing description of the dungeon to my players, listening to them describe their characters actions, figuring out the immediate consequences of those actions, answering their questions and keeping the greater workings and context of the dungeon in mind… I've ended up giving up on keeping track of time within the first five or ten minutes, real time.

What I have been doing is using Faster Monkey Games' Turn Tracker (they seem to have a new print version here) and advancing a turn whenever it felt like a turn had past, in game. Hardly exact, but also better than nothing. I have a feeling that many in the OSR would approve of that sort of time tracking by "feel" (or find even that too confining), and maybe I just have too strict a definition of "STRICT." On the one hand, using the Turn Tracker has been working for me, so it can't be all that bad; on the other, both for my own satisfaction and to keep the fairness to my players as high as possible (I probably track time by "feel" too quickly or too slowly… or both), I'd like to be more exact. Any advice on this would be appreciated.


  1. What you might be looking for is on page 96, "movement and searching". Gary basically recommends you use a few fixed references for time and then subsume everything else. Here's how I do it:

    - 1 turn to travel the party's movement rate down a corridor (roughly eyeballed)
    - 1 turn per room entered and casually examined
    - 1 turn to thoroughly search a room
    - 1 turn to check for secret doors
    - 1 turn per combat

    Especially big rooms (anywhere they can't see the opposite wall) are counted as two or more smaller 'rooms'. Writing corridor lengths on the map helps a lot with estimating distance, although I don't worry if I'm a square or two off.

    Any normal actions the players take I assume to fit within the time already allotted, so I don't need to worry about tracking time while the players are talking to me. (If they spend an unusual length of realtime in one place, I might advance another turn by feel.)

  2. Really enjoying this series, thought I'd weigh in on my own experience tracking time in the dungeon.

    I made my own "Delve Record Sheet" that is mainly a means to track the turns that pass (although it also has a space for tracking marching order, listing what spells the party has prepared, and so forth). Every sixth turn is marked so I can remind the players when to deduct torches from their inventory, and there's plenty of space for each turn to note any unusual events, combats, spell durations, etc.

    Now, I actually interpret the word "turn" to mean that the party takes a turn and the referee takes a turn. The party's turn is the visible part of the game - calling directions, asking questions, brainstorming together, etc. My turn is usually nothing more than a second of double-checking, rolling a die for random encounters, and crossing off a number on my record sheet.

    I always write down the party's speed, and I often mark little dots on my maps - or even numbers - as I track their position and inform them of what they find. That makes it easy to know when to stop the party caller and do whatever's necessary for my own turn. If I have a little extra time before play begins (while everyone's socializing and waiting for stragglers to arrive), I can roll random encounter checks in advance and mark them on the record sheet to save time and get a leg-up on integrating these encounters organically into the gameplay.