Thursday, July 23, 2009

Time in the Old School Campaign

Game time is of the 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 removed concerned characters from their bases of operation – be they rented chambers or battlemented strongholds. Certainly the most important time stricture pertains to the manufacture 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 will force choices upon player characters, and likewise number their days of game life.

One of the things stressed in the original game of D&D was the importance of recording game time with respect to each and every player character in the campaign. In AD&D it is emphasized even more: YOU CAN NOT HAVE A MEANINGFUL CAMPAIGN IF STRICT TIME RECORDS ARE NOT KEPT.
Thus spake Gygax in the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide. As he often did, Gary was undoubtedly engaging in a bit of hyperbole in order to emphasize a point, but that point is well-taken all the same. I quote the above paragraphs because I was reminded of them while re-reading The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures volume of OD&D, which does include, as Gygax states, a section on recording the passage of time.

Time in OD&D is framed, initially, in reference to the healing of wounds, which takes place at a rate of 1 hit point every other day of rest after the first. The text notes, in a superb example of understatement, "This can take a long time." It then goes on to discuss time more broadly and suggests that the refree
Recon [sic] the passage of time thus:

Dungeon expedition = 1 week
Wilderness adventure = 1 move = 1 day
1 Week of actual time = 1 week of game time
Those four lines are very intriguing, both for what they say about OD&D play as it was conceived by its authors and for what they say about OD&D as it was actually played back in the day.

Let me begin by stating that I keep track of time in my Dwimmermount campaign. Since the game began 291 days have passed. That number is based on the notion that each week of actual time represents a week of game time, with some additional days added based on in-game journeys -- the three days back and forth between Adamas and Dwimmermount, for example -- the manufacture of scrolls by Dordagdonar, and other similar time sinks. I settled on the "1 actual week = 1 game week" out of convenience, as I hadn't remembered the OD&D guideline, but I'm pleased my instincts on the matter were sound.

What seems immediately apparent to me is that OD&D's understanding of a "campaign" is still strongly informed by a wargames mentality, which only makes sense historically. Nevertheless, it's interesting that OD&D presumes that "as the campaign goes into full swing it is probable that there will be various groups going every which way and all at different time periods." This presumes multiple adventuring parties within the same campaign, which, again, only makes sense when you consider the 20-player standard of OD&D.

What's most striking to me, though, is that all this emphasis on time-keeping and how long every thing takes paints a picture that is strategic in its focus rather than tactical. I've mentioned before that dungeoneering is more like mounting an exploratory expedition into terra incognita than it is to simple treasure seeking. The fact that OD&D often uses "expedition" as a synonym for a dungeon adventure only encourages such an interpretation more strongly in my mind. Old school D&D would thus seem to be a game focused on long-term projects and goals. Or at least long-term projects and goals form an important part of its foundation, acting to ground individual game sessions in a larger context. That's why I think "story" is an emergent property of an old school campaign rather than its actual focus.

In any case, I'm still pondering the meaning and ramifications of OD&D's time-keeping conventions. Even though I'm abiding by something close to them in my own OD&D campaign, I can't yet say they've had any specific impact on play, but that may be because we've only been playing for a (comparatively) short time and that, like "story," the significance of it all can only be seen well after the fact.


  1. "This presumes multiple adventuring parties within the same campaign..."

    Indeed, frankly I can only make sense of the time-strictures in a context where the DM is juggling multiple (somewhat competitive) adventuring parties. I think even Gygax's use of the word "campaign" is marinated in this understanding.

    Whether anyone's managed to actually accomplish that other than EGG himself is something I often wonder about.

  2. Prof. MAR Barker did it all the time in his Tekumel campaign when there were multiple groups.

    I've seen other referees with more than one adventuring party do the same thing.

  3. This aspect of old-school gaming - multiple groups gaming in the same world at the same time - is one of the things I wish had been carried into the newer editions of the game. Does anyone know of any good articles about running this kind of campaign? It doesn't have to be D&D specific, really. I'd just love to run a campaign world, rather than a group campaign.

  4. Asmodean66,

    I was never personally involved in campaigns with a single referee and multiple groups of different players, although I knew of such things in the early 80s. They were almost always run as part of a game club at a school or library and tended to have upwards of a dozen or more players per party.

    For my part, I have participated in several campaigns in recent years where there was a single group of players, each of whom took turns being referee. Each refereed the same players playing different characters in a shared world, with characters occasionally swapping from one group (and referee) to another. In all cases, the actions of one group occasionally affected the actions of others. This isn't a true old style campaign as depicted in OD&D, though.

  5. I think those ideas on time keeping are just a little too much like a wargame in their structure. I've always been able to keep a pretty good account of the hours going by in my head when in the dungeon or what-not. But to assign a specific number beforehand to the time spent in a dungeon seems weak to me. There is almost 120 years of character continuity in my game world, and it has around three dozen holidays. I have no trouble judging how much time goes by, what month it is, what day it is, when I need to. Honestly, after 30 years it has become second nature to me.

    Although I just have one campaign going on right now in my return to gaming, but in the 80's and 90's there were often multiple campaigns going on. Usually a group out adventuring in the world, and a campaign going on in the city with Thieves Guild or other city fun.

    In my long-running Champions campaign, I went with actual real world time going by, but set 20 years in the future. So if we were having a session a couple of weeks before or after Christmas, it would be around that time in the game. Haven't run that world in almost 10 years, so it would be fun to revisit the 10 years-older PC's.

  6. This isn't a true old style campaign as depicted in OD&D, though<

    Which is why those games sound so much fun. No really, I'm not just being a dillhole - characters swapping back and forth between campaigns, mixing and matching, and affecting each other is the type of stuff that still really appeals to me. I had a ton of that happening back in the day and on into the 90's. So lively and interesting, so many possibilities. But maybe also growing up a Marvel Comic geek got me obsessed with cross-overs.

  7. I'm trying to run a Castles and Crusades game that way. I've run a couple of sessions now, and so far its been pretty straightforward. The game-time-real-time equivalence made perfect sense once I realized that it (for the most part) ensured that two different parties would never retroactively run into each other.

    The trickiest angle I've found, showed up in shifting attendance within the group. A bard and the assassin made a deal with an NPC to cut him in on the loot in exchange for a treasure map. So then what happens when a ranger and a monk show up instead of the assassin in the next session? Does the agreement carry over? Did they join the bard's group, or did the bard join theirs?

    Our solution in this case was to have the assassin come down with "sewer flu" (he got jumped by an ooze in the sewers last time), rendering him bedridden and unable to make the expedition. Then we had the bard hire the other two on to the existing mission to replace him, cutting in the NPC (assuming they don't off him for his share of the loot - I think they might).

    It worked out okay this time, but I'm wracking my brains trying to find a good rule of thumb to handle scenarios like this. Any suggestions?

  8. Rob,

    Sounds to me you did just right! If the player can't make the game, there's obviously some reason the character wasn't able to make it to the adventure.

    My suggestion, as you want to use this style of play regularly, is to make a variation on Jeff Rient's Triple Secret Random Dungeon Fate Chart of Very Probable Doom geared toward character absences. Probably nothing quite so lethal, obviously, but something that would provide both in-campaign developments for adventurer absence and a bit of motivation for players to make sure they attend! You might even create a table for each class, as each clas would ahve very different reasons for being absent.

    Common reasons include being sick, having to visit family or friends, legal entanglements, and so forth. A paladin or cleric might be delayed due to a call from their temple for assistance, while a thief or assassin might have to "lay low" due to guild issues. And so forth... anything that isn't immediately lethal or otherwise require permanent character retirement should fit the bill...

  9. That's not a bad idea, and I've considered doing something like that, but getting characters *out* of play for a session is the easy part.

    The bigger problem, I find, is what happens when some characters have running entanglements, goals, or deals (most specifically: agreements involving shares of treasure) and the rest of the players haven't necessarily agreed to any of them. Maybe the best answer is just to let the players work it out between themselves? I can't help but shake the feeling that that is a recipe for spending half of every time we play in loot negotiations...

  10. I was right up there with you until the part about equating real time to game time. I'm all for putting players under the pressure of the clock, as long as it's the game clock and not the real clock. If the party comes to some key moment when the session ends, perhaps in the middle of searching a dungeon or having just taken an important prisoner they wish to interrogate, I think it's extremely important that they be able to halt the game clock there and pick up right where they left off at the next session.

    I personally saw this fall completely apart when running a game with some co-workers during our lunch hour. I tried to tie the passage of a week of game time to each session, but it meant the players constantly had to leave time to get in and out of the dungeon and potentially deal with wandering monsters. The game crawled along as the party would only have enough real time to explore a room or two before having to go home again. If they didn't find enough treasure in their few minutes of exploration, they'd feel screwed over as they had to spend upkeep and travel expenses for a fruitless expedition. Players were then actively discouraged from interacting with NPCs or doing anything else that ate into precious treasure seeking time.

    Sure, having only one hour per session was a big part of the problem, but I think it simply exacerbated an inherent flaw in tying real time to game time. Game time should be a resource the players must manage, but they should be able to manage it on their own terms. Some sessions should see weeks of game time pass as the players travel about or spend it researching and planning. Other times, I think it's fine for multiple play sessions to all add up to a single game-day.

  11. As for player absence, I have a standing rule that while players may be absent, their characters will not be. Any player-less character assumes hireling status while his player is away. If the absent player has the foresight, he can dictate which player will control his character while he's gone, otherwise it's decided at the table. And like hirelings, an absentee PC earns half XP, and can certainly die. All the more reason to carefully choose a buddy to take care of your character while you're absent!

  12. Paul:

    I would have said that too, a year ago, but after trying it, the best format seems to depends on the type of game you are running. In a normal game with a single coherent party, there's no reason to take this precaution - you have only one campaign to follow. In a lunch hour game, it would be a disaster, as you experienced, because you don't get enough play time to cover even a single day.

    What tying game time to real time does is help you keep timelines straight when running multiple groups through your world at the same time (In the computing industry, they call this sort of phenomenon "multithreading". It's widely acknowledged as a useful capability, but it's difficult to code). While this is not a common scenario today, Gary Gygax did a lot of this sort of thing, which is why parallel time is listed in the rules he wrote.

    For example: Say I was to run two separate groups through my megadungeon on two consecutive days. At the end of Monday's game, Group A escapes the dungeon and takes downtime for a week to hire new members and spend their loot, while that Tuesday, Group B calls a halt midway through the dungeon.

    The next real-time week, Group A (again, playing on Monday) goes to the Ubiquitous Tavern to do some seriously drink and some rumor collecting, which goes well. But that Tuesday, Group B (who is now playing seven days of game-time *earlier* than Group A) escapes the dungeon, returns to the Ubiquitous Tavern to boast, gets into a brawl, and burns it to the ground.

    Well, crap. A paradox.

    Tying real time to game time imposes a few constraints on what you can accomplish in one session, yes, but it prevents potential causality-breaking shenanigans like this one. It's not perfect for every situation, and its horrible if you run short games, but when it helps, its a godsend.

  13. Rob: I grant you, DMing multiple groups in the same consistent world does put an interesting wrinkle into the mix. I would still be tempted though to simply keep record of where and when each group is and only enforce game-time passage as necessary. Heck, I already make a habit of keeping notes on a calendar of what the party does when, doing so for two groups rather than just one doesn't seem that much more difficult. Then you only have to force advancement the game clock when one group arrives at a local another has already visited at a later date.

    So to go to your example, everything plays as written until group B wants to go to the tavern. Then I see in my notes that group A is at the tavern 7 days in the future, at which point I force group B to advance 8 days before allowing them to go to the tavern. It should be easy enough to conjure a reason -- perhaps group B encounters difficulty in their travels to said tavern and it takes longer than they expected. In fact, this could be an interesting adventure for the evening inventing what troubles group B encounters that makes them 8 days late arriving at their destination.

    I think in spirit though we're both agreeing with the sentiment of the original post -- that keeping strict time records is extremely important. We're simply disagreeing about how to go about doing so.

  14. "I think in spirit though we're both agreeing with the sentiment of the original post -- that keeping strict time records is extremely important. We're simply disagreeing about how to go about doing so."

    Indeed. I don't even really disagree with anything you've said. This is one of those areas where as long as the system works, it's silly to shout "UR DOIN IT RONG!!1!". The approach you've outlined has a lot going for it (I'm rather charmed by your awesome idea of handling delay as an adventure spur) and a real-time tie-in just doesn't *work* without reasonably long sessions or frequent play.

    Realtime just has a couple of features that make me prefer it, personally. I like that its a simple system that requires very little fidgeting by me on the spot. What I *REALLY* like is that it's consistent enough to warn my players beforehand, so they can plan around it ahead of time.

    And of course any system that lets me use Jeff Rient's "Triple Secret Random Dungeon Fate Chart of Very Probable Doom*" can't be all bad.


  15. This aspect of old-school gaming - multiple groups gaming in the same world at the same time - is one of the things I wish had been carried into the newer editions of the game.

    I had the distinct pleasure of participating in only one such game and that was as a result of attending Armadillo Con circa 1983 (?). It didn't work out so well as one might expect but that might have been due to the 9-pin dot matrix printer computerized character generation and implementation rather than the letter of the rules.

    I do remember being annoyed that the stock character I was given was a druid named "Kip Cup." Oh the shame!!! The amusing thing though was that I met another player character named "Pip Cup" so the GM assumed we were siblings which almost made up for it. It was that simple improvisation that made all the difference in my attitude at the time. Unfortunately it was a tournament and we met with an early demise.

    (Oddly, Steve Jackson was play testing GURPS at the next table and it hadn't even seen print yet?)

  16. Unfortunately, too many real weeks pass in between our sessions to make this practical for us. We typically bookmark were we left off and return to the same spot the next session, like you would if you were picking up a book. Does anyone else do that?

    Related point of interest: I recently ventured an attempt to reconstruct a "canonical" Greyhawk calendar complete with moon phases and holidays upon which to track time, only to discover that such a thing just does not exist. It's been educational though. For me, this very clearly points to exactly what James has been saying with regard to the pitfalls of following too closely, completely canonical game worlds.

  17. In my recent Red Box/3.5 mash-up module/adventure-based campaign I used the following approach successfully:

    Game time at the start of each adventure = Real time.

    So, the adventure starts on 3rd March. That means it began on 3/3, game-world time.

    It lasts 4 sessions, which takes 2 months real time, but might only be a few days game-time. In the game-world there are then 8 weeks of down-time.

    The next adventure then starts on 5th May real time, which is 5/5 game-world time.

    I ran it this "time by module" way for nearly a year (July 2008 to May 2009) and it proved a very easy, stress-free way to track game time.

  18. @S'mon

    This is what I'm doing too, now. One slight difference is that I avoid "bookmarking". I think it feels more natural if, during the week or so between sessions, the characters are in downtime. I don't think it has to be exact-- two weeks real time might be two days game time. But overall, one real year = one game year.

  19. The game-time-real-time equivalence made perfect sense once I realized that it (for the most part) ensured that two different parties would never retroactively run into each other.

    Is that the only rationale behind the game-time-real-time equivalence? I had never understood that until now. Possibly because I've only played in campaigns with only one group made up of small number of players. There was no "other party" to take into consideration.

    While I'm thankful that my group stayed together for as long as it did and that we were as dedicated to the game as much as we were (we rarely had attendance problems--almost never), I think I'm a little jealous that many of you played in large campaigns that supported multiple groups.

    In any case, thoughtful posts and replies, everyone. I enjoy reading Grognardia quite a bit.

  20. Brian:

    This is what I'm doing too, now. One slight difference is that I avoid "bookmarking". I think it feels more natural if, during the week or so between sessions, the characters are in downtime."

    I don't do that within a scenario because the PCs will probably end the session in the dungeon, in the wilderness, or subject to time pressures. Typically I'd end the session with an overnight rest. The one thing I won't do is end a session in the middle of combat (which in 4e is apparently standard practice, the 4e DMG recommends having a digital camera to photograph the combat so you can set it up right next time!).

    So, a session break within an adventure = overnight rest

    A session break at end of adventure = downtime sufficient to bring game-time up to real-time.

    This works for this campaign (run at the London D&D Meetup games club) because it is mission-based, the PCs are the king's champions and are sent on or stumble into discrete modules/scenarios/adventures; all of which after the initial 1-session intro have lasted 4 sessions, which is normally 2 months of real-time, sometimes 3.

    My current tabletop campaign (4e) is a sandbox and needs a different approach, I will need to use a detailed time-tracker I guess, *sigh* - I'm finding that harder work these days.

  21. I've played in a campaign world for a few years that had multiple groups, both at once and over the years, and it was a blast. Dealing with old mislabeled maps of a tomb complex that another batch of players explored 6 (RL) years ago is a gaming experience I wish on everyone. Likewise the acrimonious division of a huge treasure haul between the two PC groups that had temporarily joined together to find it. (One of the treasures was a 'squat guitar-like instrument'.. a fat lute.)

    Something that goes along with a persistent campaign is PC groups that are heterogeneous in terms of level. Higher level characters are earned, not concocted to match the level of the rest of the group. If all the other high level PCs are busy, your PC will have to travel with a bunch of newbs.

    (As an aside, the feeling of character ownership in persistent campaigns is MUCH stronger than I've felt in so many other games. In those "campaigns", my PC is woven out of smoke at level 6 and will soon return to nothingness when the end of the railroad approaches, and the group moves on to the next shiny new thing.)

    Of course when you have Robilar adventuring alongside Wimpilar you have a big gameplay problem; how can a 1st level character contribute and/or survive an adventure that a 6th level PC wants to go on? Older D&D is not TOO great at this, but later editions have burned the bridge quite thoroughly.

    Skill-based systems have an advantage here, actually; new characters can max out a useful skill, don their red shirts, and hop on board the shuttlecraft...

  22. There are ways a new character can be of real use to a high-level group. An extra brain, let alone the attached pair of eyes and hands, is always a useful thing to have around. The low-level player just needs to pay attention to everything and keep himself sharp and alert - while his more experienced companions take most of the serious physical risks.

    The thing is that no matter what the system, even if all the character's class abilities are already handled by the stronger PCs, low-level characters are still good for ideas, and for keeping watch. Robilar can't be everywhere at once. Without a skill system though, not every action depends on character level, so the poor saps have at least *some* things they can do competently.

    And when it comes to lowering the rope to bail me out of a pit trap, I'll take whoever I can get.

  23. "The thing is that no matter what the system, even if all the character's class abilities are already handled by the stronger PCs, low-level characters are still good for ideas, and for keeping watch..."

    I think I see a "that's not fun" brigade coming over the hill to lynch us...

  24. "Ideas"? Oh, I've heard of those. They're worth +2 on my roll, right? ;)

  25. I did get the opportunity to play in a campaign where there were multiple groups playing in the same setting with a single DM a few years back. It was really interesting. The DM went out of his way to encourage crossover adventures. In one interesting development, a character that had started out as a friend and ally to my character fell in with some bad guys (played by another group) and ended up being my worst enemy by the end of the campaign.