The theme of time has popped up numerous times in the past week. First was after my review of D&D and many people pointed out to use random encounters to break up the long rest idea (I find random encounters much more contrived but that is another post). Just recently I answered Baz Stevens’ request on Google+ to play Netrunner over Jinteki.net. I had always thought that he was Australian and then he pointed me to the podcast he co-hosts (the Smart Party) in which one of the recent episodes was about turning Android Netrunner into an RPG. This did two things, proved Baz is as British as they come and also have a lengthy discussion about representing time in RPG’s.
Handling time in a game
One thing that I realized over the past week is that a lot of Judges, Dungeon Masters, Games Masters (or whatever you want to call them) use time to pressure their players into moving forward. I do not do this a lot – in fact, I hate doing this. To me this implies that the players should be pushed in a direction and that the time pressure will force them in that direction. In some circumstances this can be good but to be consistently adding in time management issues into a game begins to feel very old quickly. I have done this in the past and I have found that players dislike the time pressure in my games.
I prefer to run a game where the players learn about the world by exploring it. I much prefer a sandbox style game where the players are the main driver of what they want to do in the world. There are plots on the go that happen over time and it is the players decision to get involved or not. If they do then they learn of the timing of things happening around them. If they don’t the plots occur and the world changes. I refuse to force the players to become a part of a plot and then push them around with time to force them down a particular plot line.
Games that focus on time
As I said, I listened to the Smart Party discussion about turning Android Netrunner into and RPG. They covered a lot of points, but one of them was the passing of time in game. Time is a big thing in the game of Netrunner and they discussed how it should be included in a mechanic for the game. I was a little bit surprised to find myself agree with this standpoint. Having actually played a game they mentioned in this podcast (Torchbearer) where timing is a mechanic that happens because of the rolling of dice. I have to say that this mechanic at the time felt very contrived, but I can see how this idea is used to progress the game.
In fact, my recent foray into Fragged Empire also includes mechanics to do with time. Characters get spare time rolls to be able to use building things up around their characters in game. It can be used building a robot or healing companions. It might also be used to conduct research to find out secret materials in game to make your character have that edge over others in the game. This style of timing structure is one that I much prefer to those in something like Torchbearer. These rules are much more abstract and feels a lot less intrusive.
Then there are the games that play out because of the timestream. Doctor Who RPG where time is more a setting than a mechanic and some other games. I finished a game of Dungeon Crawl Classics last night where one of the character’s call to their god involved in a rewinding of time. These games interest me a lot more because time is not so much a mechanic but something to make the game shine in inventive ways.
Too much focus on popular culture
There are way too many games in the market trying to tell GM’s that they should stage their games like an episode of their favorite T.V. show or their favorite movie. These genres often use time pressures to keep things moving, to keep the tension up. This is not a necessary element though in a storytelling game in my opinion. Discovery and exploration games do not need a time pressure.
The games that I hold close to my heart as a player are not the do X before Y happens. They are the ones where I explore the setting and find out surprising details. One campaign that I enjoyed the most was a love affair that played out in MegaTraveller. Time was very abstract and not a conditioning factor that played the scenario out. I explored my character failings and transformed them without artificial timing constraints.
My opinion is…
Pay close attention to your use of time in a game. The thing that I do not like is to see it’s overuse in driving story though. Some things in life have timelines but it is the player’s choice to involve their character in the timeline or not. If they want the thrill of Octopussy to stop the nuclear bomb then pace the adventure to suit this. Player’s are unpredictable and you must prepare for alternatives.
I have been a part of campaigns that fall apart because the GM pushes a plot with time pressure. In nearly all of those cases the players have called it out and the game has ended. Be careful what you do with your games GM’s. Players have to want to play what is in front of them. Timing it like a T.V. show does not mean that this is going to appeal. Keep rolling!