Continuing the discussion from What are you working on right now?:
Yesterday @Jesseabe asked me “Honestly, timekeeping is the part of classic play I struggle with most as a GM, so I’d love to read a basic intro at some point.”
In responset I’ll try to lay out my thoughts on timekeeping in the classic dungeoncrawl style of play. I have to of course start with one of the favorite absurd quotes from AD&D’s Dungeon Master’s Guide:
“YOU CAN NOT HAVE A MEANINGFUL CAMPAIGN IF STRICT TIME RECORDS ARE NOT KEPT” Gygax was talking about weeks and days, months and years in long term campaign play, but there’s still a bit of truth to his bombast – time and timekeeping are important to that older style of play, but (as I often find with AD&D) not in exactly the way that Gygax seems to be implying.
When running a game about exploration, discovery and movement through a fantastic space full of problems to solve one wants to create tension, a sense of risk and make player discernment about when caution is warranted part of play. Exploration means one needs space, and moving through it needs to be meaningful, and the only way distance becomes meaningful is with time. However for time and distance to matter there has to be a cost and risks associated with spending time, moving through space and puzzling through obstacles. This is accomplished by other mechanics: encumbrance/supply and random encounters primarily. Timekeeping is just the structure that makes these costs and risks somewhat predictable to the players – each turn risks a random encounter roll and reduces light or other supplies.
Timekeeping is a funny thing though, because it’s traditionally been extremely annoying - for two reasons:
A) Timekeeping in a traditional way (via a record) is another, complex piece of bookkeeping that the GM needs to do while otherwise running a game. GMing is a lot like running meetings, and there’s a reason that in meeting management advice one of the roles handed over to the participants is often “timekeeper” – keeping time is distracting! Even pre-rolled encounters, planner sheets, chits and such don’t reduce the bookkeeping to a manageable level for a lot of GMs.
B) The players’ modern granular concept of time creates conflict. When you say a turn is “10 minutes” as old D&D does, or one minute as in contemporary editions you give the player a reference point for actions that they can argue with. How long does it “really” take to pick a lock, climb a wall, move through a corridor? Your players will tell you – and when it helps them in game for that time to be longer or shorter they will try to break down that turn into seconds. This then becomes a frequent point of conflict and confusion because “timekeeping” isn’t really about keeping time, it’s about turns, “turnkeeping”.
To solve this second issue rather than thinking about details of how long a specific event or action takes, consider that time isn’t really important - but turns are. Firs the players describe an action, taking a “turn” and then the GM describes the reaction of the fictional world. The ability to take multiple actions each turn is a well known mechanical boon and very powerful, don’t simply hand it over to the players without intention because it will radically change the game. Instead keep the Turn a discrete unit of activity - not time. Do premodern explorers have a second by second clocks in their heads, unaffected by stress, injury and fear? Does time even work rationally in a nightmare mythic underworld corrupted by strange magic?
A turn cannot be a period of time if one wants to avoid discussions about minutes and task completion. A turn is gamified, a turn like in a game of checkers.
The record keeping issue is harder to correct for - the best solution I have is tying resource depletion and random encounters together with the gamified turn by using an Exploration Die/Overloaded encounter die. Light sources, exhaustion and durations aren’t individually tracked by minute and hour or even turn - they’re randomized by the die that the GM (or players if they like the gambler’s joy of rolling risky dice) rolls each turn. No tracking 60 minute/6 turn torch intervals - just a 1 in 6 chance that each turn the torches burn out. Players can still budget how many torches to carry this way (roughly at least), but the bookkeeping is gone and each turn becomes even more meaningful because each turn something happens - supplies deplete, a clue is discovered, the party must rest or meet with a random encounter. Everyone at the table becomes focused on the passage of time and thus the exploration it requires.
That’s how I think about time in classic games - I have a giant essay about this stuff here: