Rambling On The Control Of Time In RPGs

This is the first post (if you ignore my first ever post) where I want to ramble about a concept that’s been on my mind. Don’t expect anything mindblowing, or anything fully formed, more a stream of conscious on a topic. I really hope it’s useful, and/or entertaining…

Time is an elusive concept in role playing games. For the players, time is incredibly subjective, and is impossible to keep track of. They dip in and out of character so often, and so fluidly, that time becomes meaningless. For the DM, time is one of those things that you tend to ignore until someone asks you about it. Keeping track of it is difficult at the least, and often almost completely impossible. That said, time can be an incredible resource in your campaign, one that the players must manage, and that the DM can use and abuse. Time in an RPG can relate to either in-game time, or table time, and each needs to be controlled in different ways.

In-Game Time

ICRPG deals with the issue of time by spending the whole game in a form of initiative. The game is essentially turn based, with each turn taking up moments, hours, or days. The DM can then control time by introducing timers and the like. My only issue with this is the breakdown of party discussion that I’ve seen happen when compared to much more open systems, such as traditional D&D. My problem, therefore, is how to combine these two concepts; structured time, with the team discussion and interaction of less structured systems…

This might seem incredibly obvious, but my current thought is to run a variation of initiative. First, allow the party a short period of time to discuss what they want to do. After that they each get two actions (move, make a check, etc). This ’round’ could cover anything from a few moments to weeks, depending on what the party are aiming to do. In reality the exact length of time doesn’t matter so much as the illusion that time is passing, and that wasting that time will have consequences of some sort.

To use an example, I’m about to start running a game based in the Warhammer 40,000 world. The party play an Inquisitorial group, investigating a planetary system. Behind the scenes the bad guys make their moves, fight one another, and work to attain their aims. Money is no resource, the team have regiments, battleships and the unrestrained authority of the Imperial Inquisition at their disposal. What they do not have is time. In general the campaign will run in large blocks of time. What do the party want to do over the course of a week. If they want to spend a week researching something, interrogating someone, or overseeing military operations, then a few rolls will be made, and that’ll be that. If it requires more detail, then we can delve into the details and run that period of time like a traditional D&D adventure.

I think that makes sense…I think.

Table Time

Round timers do a great job of creating tension. The players know they have limited in-game time to do something, and it sharpens their minds to the task. The opposite happens when you break out the egg timers and ask them to do something in three IRL minutes. Physical timers can be a great way to bring the tension that the characters would feel during the in-game timer to the players. This is the kind’ve timer I’m usually worried to break out, but that I’m often glad I did when I use them right. This, I feel, should be used at points where the players are beginning to feel comfortable, and in situations where the player’s characters would really begin to feel the pressure of time. Maybe the ship they’re on is crashing, or the room they’re in is filling with sand. Many of the same events that a random round/turn timer would deal with, the physical timer is a similar, but fundamentally different, way of adding tension.

Final Thoughts

Really hope that all makes sense. Like I said, I’m still formulating my own thoughts on this matter, and I would love to hear what you think about it. Comment down below with your ideas, what you’ve done in your campaigns, and how time has affected your characters. Until next time, cheers!


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