Monday, February 20, 2012

Time Management

Allow me to be clear; I play modern tabletop games. Pathfinder is my game of choice, and I believe Paizo is a company with the potential to be a driving force of innovation within the gaming industry. I love rulebooks which are heavy enough to break your toe if you drop them, I love having mountains of build options for my characters, and I love a game which has functional rules for making detailed monster builds. Sure it's a waste of time if you're doing it for every monster in every game, but who says you need to? And no, modern rules are not perfect. I think I've made that clear with posts like The Problem with Feats, and Stuff Which Never Works. I'd like to see some serious revisions to the way modern game developers look at games.

I also believe in the importance of learning from history. Whether you are trying to run a nation, a classroom, or just a game table, history can be your greatest teacher. Our forebears were, believe it or not, just as smart as we are. They didn't have all the tools we have today, which is why we sometimes forget just how clever they were. But if anything, lack of tools only made them more ingenious, until one of them was so ingenious that they made a tool so that the given task would never be quite so difficult ever again.

Now, do not mistake me: I do not look into the past with rose colored glasses, as some do. Anytime I hear someone rambling about how things were 'better' in the 'old days,' I have to roll my eyes a little.* More often than not the speaker in question is just allowing nostalgia to cloud their perceptions. However, the fact that things have, overall, improved, does not mean that our very clever forebears didn't have amazing ideas which never reached us. And the best part about those clever people being in the past is that we can look around and see for ourselves how their ideas worked out. So even though I do consider myself a modern gamer, I frequently look to the works of Gygax, Arneson, and others who worked on games in the early days.

And in reading these early works, I've frequently come across the concept of time management. Specifically, that it is important to track time not only in combat, but out of it as well. It is necessary, according to Gygax, for a Dungeon Master to keep track of in-game time throughout the entire session. This is mentioned a number of time throughout the numerous iterations of D&D's first edition, but nowhere is it more clear than in the original Dungeon Master's Guide--universally regarded among the most authoritative works on the subject of role playing games.
"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 operation--be they rented chambers or battlemented strongholds. Certainly the most important time stricture 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.

One of the things stress ed in the original game of D&D was the importance of recording game time with respect to each and every player character in a campaign. In AD&D it is emphasized even more: YOU CAN NOT HAVE A MEANINGFUL CAMPAIGN IF STRICT TIME RECORDS ARE NOT KEPT."

-Gary Gygax, Dungeon Master's Guide
The emphasis, by the way, is not mine. That's Gary Gygax throwing up caps, because this is that important to him.

When I first read about how important Gary considered time management, I was taken aback. On the one hand, I couldn't understand how time management was even supposed to work. And on the other hand, I was offended by the thought that every campaign I had run in the past was not "meaningful," simply because we didn't keep track of time. I've run some damn good games in my years as a GM. Why does the fact that I've never even attempted to keep track of time invalidate that?

Then I took a deep breath, remembered that I pride myself on being rational, and tried to stop throwing an internal hissy fit before anyone caught me in the act.

The fact that I've never attempted time management before doesn't invalidate all the good games I've run. They were good games, everybody had fun, and nothing will change that. The question is whether those games were good because of, independent from, or despite my lack of time management. And if I'm being honest with myself, I can think of a lot of things which would improve if I was better at tracking in-game time. And even though I can't think of an easy way to manage in-game time, the fact of the matter is that Gygax did it, and many other game masters do it, so it must be possible. I am simply ignorant of the methodology, and that can remedied with learning.

So I did some more reading. First through Gygax's Dungeon Master's Guide, then through the OSRIC manual, since clarity was not always a strong point of Gary's writing. I also refreshed myself on the movement rules as stated on pages 170-172, 192-194 of the Pathfinder Core Rulebook, since movement is one of the core elements time management affects. Pathfinder divides movement into Tactical, Local, and Overland, which I think functions as a good basis for a modern system of time management.

Tactical Time is managed in the basic units which we're all familiar with. A tactical (or 'combat') round is six seconds long. In these six seconds, every combatant gets a turn. Ten rounds make a minute, sixty minutes make an hour, etc. Local Time is what you might use if you're delving into a dungeon, or exploring a town. Taking a page from OSRIC, it seems like the best unit of time for Local Time is 10 minutes. That's long enough that it shouldn't significantly slow down the players as they try to get things accomplished in game time, but short enough that it shouldn't need to be divided further for players to complete small actions. Overland Time is tricky. I'm not sure whether it should be measured in hours, or in days. I think the best solution is to use days and hours both as units of measure, depending on what the players want to do. If they're just traveling in to a destination, days will work fine, but if they'd like to spend part of their day exploring the area they're already at, and the rest of the day traveling, then breaking things down into hours could be helpful.

I haven't tried this yet, so I have no idea how it will play out in a game, but the more I think about it, the more it seems like time management is actually an awesome idea. Casters will actually have to be careful with their spells if the party doesn't want to stop to rest simply because they ran out of spells within the first few hours of the day. And if a caster does run out of spells, this could give non-caster classes a real opportunity to shine. Potion durations and non-magical hit point recovery become relevant! The players could actually be forced to make decisions based on how much time something will take, or be faced with time-sensitive goals! The very notion that I've never done this before begins to seem ludicrous.

I have no idea why modern games stopped emphasizing time management, and why they never developed better systems for implementing it. It seems to be the same problem I discussed a few months ago in my "Why Hex Maps Need to Come Back" post. For some reason, modern gaming developers decided to arbitrarily throw something away without coming up with a replacement for it. And us poor kids who were raised on D&D 3.5 or Pathfinder are stuck with an incomplete picture of how role playings games can best be played, until we start looking back through gaming's history for guides.

As I stated in the opening of this post, I have a lot of faith in Paizo's ability to be an important force for innovation in RPGs. They should start by bringing back some of these senselessly abandoned concepts.

*To clarify: this is not always the case. Occasionally people will have well reasoned arguments for why they prefer something old over something new. For example, members of the Old School Roleplaying/Renaissance community have some very solid reasons for preferring 1980s style tabletop RPGs over more modern games. Likewise, I like to think that I have some very solid reasons for feeling that recent expansions of World of Warcraft have reduced the game's quality in many ways.


  1. I'm always looking for good techniques to keep track of time. I still don't have something I'm totally happy with. How do you do it? Hatch marks for turns, calendar for updating progress between sessions?

    The part of that Gary quote that sticks out the most to me is this:

    The stricture of time is what makes recovery of hit points meaningful.

    Makes me think of this:

  2. I think it would be correct to state that without time tracking GG urges it is impossible to have a meaningful campaign, in the sense of campaign he is using. Really, that passage is as much about what he takes to be the meaning of campaign as it is about tracking time. Which is not to say that it's the only way in which a campaign could have meaning.


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