Classic Timekeeping

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:

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Thanks @Gus.L, that’s very helpful.

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I completely agree with @Gus.L’s post. Aside from resource management, one of the issues that I find still comes up, and is exacerbated by the more recent narrative resolution actions like “Moves” is less “How much time is passing?” and more “How much can a PC do in any one action/Move/segment/turn?”

While picking a lock might take 30 seconds, 1 minute, ten minutes… I don’t know… but the obvious fact is that it takes a LOT more time than swinging a sword or loosing an arrow. Just getting the lock picks out of your pouch and figuring out which ones fit this particular lock could take longer than an entire battle which could be over in a few bloody seconds.

Moves in PbtA make this potentially even worse, as there is usually no turn structure, and PCs may be engaged in vastly different kinds of actions. (If the PCs are in separate places and not interacting, this doesn’t really matter, but if they are all together…) One PC is doing “Volley” shooting arrows at an approaching goblin… the other is doing “Discern” to find the secret door. Well, those combat actions are fast and furious compared to carefully searching a room… so which happens first? How many of one can happen while the other takes place?

Even abstracting time to turns, what can happen in a “turn” is always a question.

In my own game design, using PbtA resolution mechanic, I specifically broke Moves into two groups… Tactical Moves and Story Moves. Tactical Moves are defined as short, time compressed, immediate actions with incremental results. These moves interact with other PC Moves in the same space in the same time frame. There is a structure in declaring Moves and order of resolution, and all active players can contribute to that “turn” and how all their actions shape what happens before the next “turn”. This is “zoomed in” play I call Encounter Play.

Story Moves are not turn based and happen when the fiction allows for a more flexible passage of time, and one PC’s actions aren’t having an immediate impact on another PC. This is “zoomed out” play I call Story Play.

Both can happen in the same game, but they don’t happen within the same SCENE. It is still an abstract construct of “time” but it is defined by “what kind of things can happen” in that time. This gives Encounter Play a sense of immediate action, while Story Play is more encompassing drama.

It isn’t easy, and any player trying to “get away with as much as they can” can ALWAYS find a way to break a game’s structure, no matter how flexible or tightly structured. I just think providing some clear framing expectations goes a long way.

Absolutely, I can’t speak to the PBTA aspect very well, but the distinction between exploration Turn and combat Round is deeply ingrained in early D&D.

I could claim that in classic play combat exists largely as a penalty for taking too much risk, and most often it remains a discrete activity – the party acts and the GM rolls the random encounter die, but that’s not sufficient. While any encounter occurs after the exploration turn and the time scale switches to rounds (themselves equally abstracted). I don’t think this resolves the problem you mention though, when players want to do something like search or open a door during combat it does create a discordance between time scales that can be hard to resolve.

I find the temptation to return to granular time here high, one minute rounds, representing a pass of combat, and exchange of blows, feints, and parries rather then the seconds of an individual attack are helpful (helpful for abstracting combat as well - though they create issues with things like ammunition use). One can say “it’ll take you ten rounds to pick the lock” and it’s not nearly as impossible as the hundreds of rounds required when thinking in terms of seconds.

I’d be interested in a more fluid system, but none comes to mind of the top of my head - rather, general combat as penalty bias, the order of procedure for the exploration to combat transition, and abstracted combat with longer rounds try to limit the occurrence of exploration/combat overlap and make it more fictionally acceptable, but it sure is clumsy.

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I abandoned D&D in the early '80s, but spent most of my gaming time in HERO system (40 years at this point) and while it never defined the “explore” it HIGHLY defined combat, again as an discrete activity… yet in a game based on superheroes (Champions) it was all about characters with powers fighting other characters with powers, so that made sense.

The “Speed Chart” was an ingenious (for the time) structure that essentially boiled down to “Out of a set of 12 possible actions (segments) how many times and when can my character act?” It had many of its own issues (easily codified that higher SPD and more actions was the single best thing any character could do) and caused a lot of player issues, as it was too easy for one high SPD character to dominate all the play time and others to tune out. I dumped it for a more classic initiative system that was primarily intended not to reflect time as much as provide each player a chance to participate.

That to me was actually where issue lies… allowing and in fact pushing each player to participate in the unfolding scene/action. I don’t want more assertive players to dominate, and don’t want passive players to just sit back and not participate. This is a separate issue, not timekeeping, around the social contract and expectation of players to contribute and engage. But there is a relationship in that more structured, turn based play forces engagement… which I think is a good thing.

Back to timekeeping… to be clear, are you saying it is really reflected in resource management as a cost to meaningful PC action? The cost of exploring? What about games that aren’t really about exploring in that traditional sense… modern society settings, etc.? In some ways timekeeping is less an issue at all, so are you really talking about it only in the case of trad fantasy gaming?

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I played a fair bit of Champions in the late 80’s myself! Excellent, mildly crunchy supers game!

I think it’s an interesting comparison to the classic or neo-classic exploration style that comes out of OD&D (which I think is better for it then AD&D, or really even Moldavy Basic/Expert) to the style in something like Champions, which to my mind sets the mold for the contemporary traditional elements of “character building” and tactical combat. It has an excellent combat system, and I think the cost of SPD (was it 30 power points per point?) reflects just how powerful going first or having an “extra move” can be in a game, especially a combat focused one.

Table management is absolutely an interesting thing, I’ve been thinking about it lately - especially in the context of larger groups and the old “roles” within them like caller and mapper. I suspect the replacement of business meetings with zoom (where I do most of my RPGing) is part of this, because watching people try to adapt has been interesting.

But…

Yes, timekeeping and resource management.

I’d say “read my blog”, and sure maybe you can do that if you’re bored or something, but my basic view is that classic play (and that’s a bit of a dodge), in the “dungeon crawl” format, works best when exploration - moving through the imagined space, and discovering/overcoming its obstacles is as core to the game as encounters with imagined creatures. Making this work requires mechanical support and principally that’s constantly forcing the players to engaging discernment - principally problem solving and risk v. reward analysis.

Supply/resource management is important because it offers multiple lines of attack on the character, multiple currencies to pay for failure to problem solve or judge risk and so adds complexity to those decisions. One of the things I find frustration about contemporary traditional games (say 5E D&D, 'cause I can’t hurt Hasbro’s feelings) is the way all threats to the characters are threats to their HP. Having several things to deplete or barter with the fiction is helpful. Say you have a basic dungeon obstacle - a locked door. Now the players can bash it down, pick it, or cast a door opening spell - the first two hook into the basic time and risk of combat calculation. If you don’t have a specially skilled character you have to make a lot of noise, and it’s likely something nasty is going to wander up and waste HP/resources or force you to run away (effectively ‘doubling down’ by throwing caution to the wind and accepting the risk of additional random encounter rolls as you move away from your goal of opening the door.) Picking the lock is also a time sink and so a risk calculation, but using your carefully hoarded spell is burning a resource that you can’t get back in session – do you save it? spend it?

Time passage also threatens resources. Assuming being lost in a dungeon without light is deadly or close to it, the depletion of light supplies (including the beloved versatile flask of oil) is a real risk. Time means less light to return to the surface, and distance means you have to travel further on the remaining supplies to get back. You need something to trigger depletion (also something to limit supply - which is encumbrance) besides specific obstacles - otherwise there’s little cost to running around, scouting the entire place, deciding which obstacles you want to attack.

I think the fantasy environment lends itself well to this because the supplies are intuitive and simple. One can make coherent decisions about how a 10’ wooden pole might work that are harder to do with more modern equipment without special knowledge. Modern and Sci Fi settings I think (don’t quote me) often depend more on skill systems because of this. None of this is to say you can’t do a dungeon crawl in a modern or other setting, I haven’t thought too much about it except running a steam/diesel punk wreck crawl with things like shaped charges to blow open doors. I do know that Sean at Mothership is working on a big space hulk sci fi dungeon thing that looks really interesting, and given his track record and design chops I expect it will be really interesting. The project is Gradient Descent.

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I think it may help to dial in what is trying to be accomplished by timekeeping. As I see it it exists either

A) To exert additional pressure on decision making. To mitigate and penalize analysis paralysis, actions must be declared within a set time frame. This can either be beat by beat (you have 30 sec to determine your next combat action) or at a higher level (you have 1 hour of torchlight left, explore and play as normal with this time pressure)

B) To create a limit on character “actions”. If picking a lock takes X minutes, that creates an ability comparison to the fighter who can make multiple attacks same amount of time. This creates an imbalance in how much each player gets to “play” in a scene since the rogue is only making one roll while the warrior makes several.

Scenario A applies time pressure to decision making and penalizes interparty bickering. Scenario B could be better optimized to fix the player imbalance in number of rolls. A turn system with a discrete “speed” stat is one option, but then creates the problem where that becomes the most important stat. Instead we should aim for a system where everyone gets the same amount of “turns” but must make tradeoffs for how they spend them.

In the lockpicking scenario we could say a “turn” is an nonspecific amount of time; the rogue could commit the entire turn to lockpicking (in which case say they get a bonus) while the warrior commits the entire time to fighting off foes. We must then allow for other options (either codified or player suggested). For example; the rogue may have the option to lockpick quickly, which allows them additional actions (like dropping a smokebomb, tossing knives, or spying through the keyhole) but at a penalty to their lockpicking roll. The Warrior similarly could declare “I fight off foes while the rogue lockpicks, but if they fail I start battering down the door” so that the focus is not on optimizing your personal play, but interacting with the play of your team.

I imagine this could be mechanized as: When a scene starts, all players agree on the timeframe (1 minute, several minutes, an hour, etc.). Based on the timeframe, every participant gets a pool of dice. Dice can either be spent on rolls or on bonus to rolls (and perhaps vice versa: they take a penalty to rolls but get more dice). If a player wants to commit all of their allotted time to one action, it is now a choice instead of mandate by the system.

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Yes… this… it is exactly the point of my establishing “Encounter” vs. “Story” play… so that the table decides when/if they enter Enounter play, where things are time compressed, immediate and one PC’s actions will affect another’s.

Instead of a dice pool, two things happen… each “round” the players all declare what their PC is doing, then we decide as a table in what order they resolve (what seems a logical flow of the fiction). If a rogue says, “I’m picking the lock so we can get out of this room!” while the warrior says, “I’m holding the narrow hallway against the goblin swarm to buy him time,” cool… we know intent of the scene.

As GM, I might present the rogue with a short challenge clock… you need four successes to get through this lock… with 10+ being 2 successes, etc., then the warrior has to fight while the rogue is trying to get enough successes… on a warrior fail or 7-9, goblins get past him or whatever… that is to be determined in the play… but it can be done… but to your point, you need the table to have some agreement/guidance on options and kind of actions that are appropriate to the scene.

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I find this discussion very interesting, because I’ve largely abandoned anything more than extremely loose timekeeping in my games, and have found that as a rule, they are better for it. No one really knows how long most actions take anyway, so trying to be rigorous about it just creates problems.

Of course, I also haven’t run a “dungeon crawl” in decades, and that (and occasionally but much more rarely wilderness exploration), always seems like the space people are really talking about when they talk about timekeeping. Torches. Random encounters. Spell durations. I feel like outside of this kind of ‘darkest dungeon’ sort of thing, there isn’t a lot of value in rigorous timekeeping.

In other sorts of games, I find that dispensing with both “turns” AND “actual timekeeping” brings people closer to an “authentic” experience, because as has been pointed out, people’s internal clocks are generally really bad, so people aren’t going to be able to accurately guess “Okay, I could do X twice while Corey does Y once…” and that overall a “spotlight based” style of taking turns produces a more satisfying game experience.

That said, the distinction between a “combat scene/action” and a “Story scene/action” is an interesting one, but it’s not a distinction that I’ve found necessary; Do people often find that their players are ‘mixing’ combat stuff with noncombat actions?

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RDU Neil and I have just finished about 8-9? episodes of Ironsworn. I was the GM. The reason I bring this is up is to speak to this:

BlockquoteTime passage also threatens resources. Assuming being lost in a dungeon without light is deadly or close to it, the depletion of light supplies (including the beloved versatile flask of oil) is a real risk. Time means less light to return to the surface, and distance means you have to travel further on the remaining supplies to get back.
Blockquote

I thought Ironsworn did a brilliant job of handling travel and exploration. Because there was this feedback loop of needing Supply to absorb losses and to gain healing. But Supply wasn’t just ticked off, it was baked into several different Moves… so it was somewhat random, but common that Supply would be used up. And gathering of Supply was equally tied to Moves, so it is not automatic that Supply would be granted when certain criteria had to be met. While Supply is an abstraction common to PbtA games, it had very strong, concrete, impact on health and ability to the characters to accomplish things.

Now, this is the opposite of “Classic Timekeeping”. But RDU Neil himself said this was the first time in a fantasy game where travel felt dangerous and genre-wise, felt like Frodo and Sam, hunger, starving, struggling to press on. But I loved it.

In a similar vein, I’m playing a computer game called Gordian Quest. It is a card driven game, much like Slay the Spire, with some D&D add-ons, tacked on. A ton of fun, from a small indie game designers. It has Supply too. You travel from event node to event node and that eats up Supply. If you run out of Supply, you start drawing grayed out cards… they take up space in your hand, but you can’t use them. The character is “exhausted”. Another direct impact of a Resource that needs to be managed or it impacts the ability of the characters to function optimally. Btw: if anyone wants a good cheap game with nice art values, under 20 bucks, plays on a laptop, link here: [https://steamcommunity.com/app/981430](http://Gordian Quest)

Here is my thought on Classic Timekeeping. It was an attempt to set up Stakes before Stakes were being talked about in game design. “It takes 3 weeks to get to castle Hargrave, but it will take the Horde only 2 weeks” Boom. Stakes. But if the Stakes don’t emerge, then it is a ton of hassle with no payoff. No one gives a crap if Conan took 2 weeks to Shem from Koth or 4 weeks. The tale starts as two armies face each other across the River Styx between the two countries.

In a modern game with cell phones, internet, air travel… does it matter if Geiter Punn, super spy, takes a day to get to the Riveria from Bombay? Or a week? Well, yes, again, if there is a deadline, a ticking clock. If not, no.

But an additional, overlooked, stressor for a GM, is information speeds and gateways. Geiter Punn doesn’t have to return to London to give his report, not when he has a secure Satphone. Geiter doesn’t have to be at the Library of Congress to research 1880 prospecting maps to seek out his arch nemisis’s secret lair. He can request that information with an email, directly from the Library itself or more likely, his crack team of Signit specialists at 85 Albrecht (address of M.I. 6 HQ, natch).

I think we underestimate how much more information gatewaying that a GM has in a fantasy game compared to a modern or scifi game. The proliferation of information in modern/scifi games further pushes Classic Timekeeping towards dinosaur-ship. Because if I don’t have to travel to London to learn X, I can simply call or do the research on my laptop, it saves me hours and hours. Whereas if PbtA-like Spy Game, getting information X relies on bulling through bureaucracy, knowing the right people and the right questions… what the Wire called “suction”, this can be simulated with a lot more impact, verve and speed-in-game and actually be as much fun as a MMA fight in a narrow staircase.

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I’d be clear that the timekeeping or better turnkeeping I’m talking about is specifically important in location based/exploration/dungoen crawl scenarios. It’s not particularly useful (along with encumbrance and other key classic mechanics) in other play styles or even scenarios (though I find Wilderness exploration/adventure needs some kind of timekeeping to make for weather, random encounters and supply important) – but again that’s a emergent style of play focused on characters interactions with an external and randomized world fiction, that is to say classic play.

The combat time and exploration time dichotomy is also one that I suspect largely stems from the way combat encounters work in classic games. If combat is either the locus of play (as in contemporary traditional style tactics focused games) or attached to a general mechanic as one type of narrative crisis/problem I don’t know that having separate scales matter. In the first kind of play one clearly needs very well defined ‘combat time’ as it’s a key tactical consideration, but since exploration/location based problem solving is disfavored and often even a simple linear narrative between tactical combat, it doesn’t need timescales in any meaningful way. My understanding is that when one has generalized and universal mechanics with a meta-game of genre emulation the main combat concern is likewise “how does my character respond to this form of obstacle in a genre/character appropriate way” while the GM is more concerned with the narrative results (I use that to mean how it effects the fiction) and how to slot the specific combat challenge into the universal mechanic then modelling arbitrating character injury/resource depletion with fictional fidelity and without favoritism.

In classic location based play (which one might gather is my kind of game) combat is a penalty, perhaps inevitable) for either bad decision making/problem solving or pushing ones luck. It has a separate timescale at least partially to limit avoidance options once it begins (there are plenty beforehand) and partially because it uses a much stricter set of resolutions mechanics.

So yeah, I think it makes sense that a lot of play styles disfavor, greatly abstract or ignore timekeeping – the ethics of play and design goals are so very different. The ways that this canalizes play are interesting though.

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While I largely agree here regarding supply I think a key distinction is necessary regarding play style.

When we talk about genre (fantasy/sci-fi/spy) I think it’s useful to keep it separate from play style (location based/scene based, exploration/genre emulation etc.). Supply and the time mechanics useful for depletion work well in a specific play style - exploration of wilderness or location based on risk management and problem solving. Obviously one can include it in other forms: how many bombs does my robot have in a mecha-combat tactics game? do I add the idea that our food has gone bad when I need to add a narrative complication to my Artic exploration genre game?

In the examples you provide the question of supply is disfavored or different (it may matter as a specific mission complication how much time there is, but it need not be constantly tracked) because these are examples scene based play - The contact on the Riviera is a scene, the plane flight like elided, and the investigation in Bombay a scene or series of scenes. There’s no need for encumbrance and supply because between scenes the player is assumed to have restocked “off screen” - items or character aspects can still be resources that are damaged or removed from play, but the steady decline, push your luck ethic isn’t the same as in a location based “dungeon crawl” where movement and time are modeled in detail.

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This is helpful, as I was scratching my head at this in general… “Like, when is this an issue?” 'cause I haven’t played that kind of game in 40 years. Ironsworn with its integrated Supply stat only recently and to great success… more wilderness exploration risk, than location exploration… but again, so simple and abstracted it didn’t feel like bookkeeping at all, but still provided the “pressure” on the characters that drove decision making in and out of character.

I’d never have thought about “supply” as “timekeeping” because I haven’t used that term in decades. Thus my divergence into comparative “how much time does this particular action take?” issues… which has definitely been a problem in lots of games I’ve played, with very different systems/styles of play.

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I don’t know about other people, but as a GM, I’ve had enough issues with things like…

a) “I want to do X” and it is convoluted or over-stretches the actions of others. Sometimes it is easy enough to say, “Let’s break that down… you do A first, then B depending on outcome… ok?”

b) or, other times it is about scope of outcome… one player is hitting to do damage, the other is more “I’m going to use my power to do oratory and compel this crowd to follow me, and it will go down in history as the greatest speech ever and I’ll have followers…” etc. The open ended nature of Moves leads certain players (clever, assertive players who see big narrative outcomes as “winning”) to push for more than feels comfortable… both in the narrative time frame and what can be accomplished in one roll.

c) or… in judging the proper level of “hardness” in a hard move… failing at a tactical move should have tactical repercussions… failing at a Story level move should have story level outcomes… I, and I’ve seen other GMs, struggle with this at times.

It isn’t even that these situations happen a lot… but when they do happen it is like horrible scratching of a record in the middle of a great song (that is me being old, not a vinyl hipster)… very jarring, knocks us out of the game, just feels bad. The framing I’ve been writing up in my game is just that… a way to frame things for the table so people are more clear on the expectations for the scene.

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Yeah, when I returned to RPGs after taking a 25 year break I just ended up playing what I used to play, rather then looking too deeply into the way things have changed since 1990ish. I’ve since fooled around a bit in the indie/story genre, but only a few sessions, and still find myself drawn to classic play. As a genre I find the problem solving and survival aspects fairly compelling, but I am also aware that many of the things I want from the play style weren’t how I played it when I was 12 and the mechanics offered in the older editions don’t always do the best, and rarely the most efficient job of creating the play experience they’re aiming for.

Largely due to the mental burden of tracking resources/time I tend to champion simplification of those systems, removal or minimization of tracking and scheduling in favor of randomness and consequence. E,g, a simplified slot based encumbrance rather then a weight based one or the exploration/overloaded encounter die.

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