My View on Time in Role Playing Games

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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.

time
Time in a game is a precious commodity

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!

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3 Comments


  1. I like running long time-base campaigns, where there is an indeterminate time gap between the active adventuring sessions, especially in games where the focus is on domain building.

    Pendragon is an example of such a game. In any year their may be only one or two possibilities for an actual adventure (and even less if the players participate in war . The rest of the time the players are busy looking after their manor (if they are lucky enough to have one), standing guard, patrolling the land, or attending their lord.

    Ars Magica effectively uses seasons (since research and lab Work are measured in seasons (and anything other than a short break from the lab will negate that season’s work). So if a mage is forced to do something for their covenant it had better be only once per season. And then only for a short while.

    I find that a long time-base game has a number of advantages:

    (1) Things get built (and destroyed). This is important in a domain game. Players actually get to see the effects of their efforts as their domains (or simply the place they variously call home), grows (or decays). A royal stronghold, such as Beaumaris Castle for example, may in reality take a century or more to get built. In a really long time-base campaign there might even be the possibility of a player getting to explore the ruins of a dungeon of his own creation. It happened in my D&D game.

    (2) Time has a more pronounced effect on campaign play. This is one of the benefits of a seasonal basis for play. If, as most games are, based in northern climes [I still think snow is a myth], then spring has a much more definite effect on the campaign as the farmers are busy planting. In summer warfare is more likely because your workforce isn’t involved with the farm, and it is easier to travel. In autumn their is the harvest (and the culling of animals so a breeding stock can survive the winter). And only a fool tries to adventure in winter (making it a convenient place to make those random rolls that determine whether people (and animals) live, die, age, or have given birth in the previous year and survived the process. More continuous games, even if they use a calendar, don’t tend to have as pronounced a change in the campaign environment and it tend to seem steady state.

    (3a) Immortality becomes a big theme in the campaign, although most people solve it in the traditional method by raising a family. Whilst this is a particular speciality of _Pendragon_ (although _Bushido_ is also a useful reference), it actually has a basis in OD&D as well (wills and inheritance). Being able to play a new character from your family who may get to inherit an heirloom from a famous adventuring forebear was always a possibility. Or one could actively seek active immortality. A number of characters in my D&D game achieved it (of one form or another). In Ars Magica, tat immortality serum is very important.

    (3b) Characters grow old and retire from the adventuring life. This provides a background stock of NPC support and advice for new characters. It also brings stronger ties to the group (say and Ars Magica covenant) or family, which was a historical fact. Family was important (and not just in areas of Germanic law).

    (4) Having a normal job/support/duties ties you into the community so you aren’t rootless vagabonds or murderhobos. You have a place in society, contacts, and friends (and enemies and rivals too).

    My old D&D campaign would often jump years, allowing for profound changes in the campaign environment. The largest jump was the entire interregnum after the fall of the Empire (1,000 years). [This had an advantage that it allowed the reestablishment of various polities in the campaign where you could see the effects of the interregnum more clearly than if you had played through it. It had the disadvantage of completely rewriting a lot of the campaign.] I was not too fussed about player knowledge from previous characters. If I needed justification I’d simply say that each character was a reincarnation of the player (even if the old character was still alive – reincarnation was a funny thing and the afterlife was covered by cosmic censorship). In fact one player went so far as to magically awaken their past life ancestor in order to draw on their exact knowledge. But generally players kept past knowledge pretty discrete (although I did enjoy when they met people they had disliked in a previous life and distrusted them immediately for “unknown reasons”), even though I never made it a requirement.

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  2. Yeah i think time pressures are an unfortunate necessary evil for balance reasons in many games. I prefer to use sone other dimishing resource that doesnt reset every day/24 hrs etc to keep the tension up regardless of time

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  3. this just makes me want to play a netrunner rpg more

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