Saturday 8 October 2011

How to Remember Time in the Dungeon

By Haku, via
In running dungeon adventures, one thing that has always eluded me is the careful in-game timekeeping needed to judge things like torches burning down, explorers getting hungry, or wandering monster checks. It's something that's easily forgotten in the heat and fun of the moment. So that makes me suspect that draining precious attention to do a careful, minute-by-minute accounting of time would be both doomed to fail, and detract from enjoyment. This is the same consideration that led me to drop pre-announced actions from my game.

What's needed, I thought, is an insight like James Raggi's list-based encumbrance (see also the Alexandrian's Stone system). Take something players do anyway - like write down what stuff they have - and simplify the bookkeeping to follow directly from that. To be exact:

1. As with list-based encumbrance, switch to more natural units: from "minutes" to "scenes." Exploring 1 room is a scene, unless it's a huge cathedral-like space. A combat is a scene. Walking carefully down more than about 50' of corridor is a scene. Taking extra time to do something like skin a lizard or eat lunch is a scene. Each scene is roughly - very roughly - about 5 minutes. That means a 30 minute torch lasts 6 scenes, a 1 hour flask of lantern oil lasts 12, and you roll for wandering monsters every 2 or 3 or 6 scenes depending on your rules.

2. To keep track of time - this works best if you have more than 4 or so at the table - pass some kind of visible token around. Start it at a random player and say it passes to the left whenever you change scene. If you forget a scene change, just do it retrospectively. I tried this in the first test of the One Page system today with eight players at table, one of whom volunteered her toy ninja, and it worked like a charm. It's easy to remember how many times it has gone around already, and to say things like "The current torch will go out when the ninja gets around to Connor."

3. As a bonus, I found myself designating the player with the ninja token as a kind of democratic caller. This meant that the temporary token-bearer had the responsibility to propose motions on decisions, like which way to go, and put it to a vote. This tended to cure the paralysis that eight at table can cause. In combat, because I use side-based initiative, I would start with the token-bearer and ask for actions clockwise. That worked pretty well too. Oh, and finally, whoever has the token gets to roll the initiative die.

This rule looks like a keeper in my games, especially for large dungeon crawl sessions.


  1. I like this A LOT. It's the kind of thing my group (who always argue with me about how long things take) would really enjoy.

  2. This is a very good idea indeed.

  3. You're on a roll. I feel this needs a name, though, so we can refer to it. Time token? Scene-based time?

  4. Aren't those scenes already described as "Turns"?

  5. I'm with JDJarvis on that. But I like the passing the Ninja (or whatever) idea. The referee could, say, simply toss poker chips into a pile, but having the players pass the Ninja looks like it would have the effect of getting the players more involved and thus increase the fun (and tension). But would people really remember how many times it has gone around? That sounds odd to me. How about tossing a poker chip hour marker into the pile every time time the ninja goes around (if you have six players, of course)?

  6. Yeah, I'm also with JDJarvis. What you are describing is what we do in our games and they are called turns.

    It takes 1 turn for each character to search a 10x10 square, it takes one turn to move your movement safely, it takes one turn to fight a short combat. Every third turn, you check for wandering monsters, etc.

  7. As far as I remember, a turn was defined as ten minutes. So, no, it's different because it's specific. You start thinking in turns, you need to start calculating how much territory someone can search, or move, or run in ten minutes, then you've lost the whole advantage of abstraction.

    It's like if you told Raggi about his encumbrance system "I thought gp took care of that." Yeah, not very well.

    I tried this tonight, but it fell apart because my 7 players went in four different directions (seems weird to have someone not involved in a combat roll the init). But splitting the party got one player permanently blinded and a trained ferret killed, so hopefully they'll learn to stick together in the future.

  8. @JD & -C: You can handle turns this way, but as TC said, that term is too tightly tied in my mind with strict 10 minute blocks. The leap is small but important; not to think in terms of abstract time, but to have a change of scenery of tangible delay in game trigger the clock. Also, the 5 minute block seems more realistic than the 10 minute turn; I have 6 second combat rounds and am aware that it does not take all the time that the DMG says it would to move a short distance, or search a room with anything less than forensic precision.

    @Oakes: The chip idea might work for a longer session. We were playing for about three hours and it went round the 8 person table about 2 1/2 times.

    @TC: I had my players split up too, but in that case the "caller" for each sub-party is just the next one you hit going right from the token.

  9. Have you heard of the Faster Monkey turn tracker? I haven't tried it myself yet, but I have been meaning to.

  10. @Brendan: Looks cool. I could see that being passed around as the token. The key is getting the players involved, and having the reminder sitting out in front of them instead of behind your screen.

  11. I don't know about the token, but you can be sure I'll be using "scenes" rather than minutes, etc, in my 3.5 games from now on.

    The issue with the token for me is that I don't use side based initiative, etc, in my small (4 players at the moment) group. I doubt we'll remember to switch the token around without a reward...however, I can see an alternative right now. Perhaps I'll let the person with the token add a +1 to a single d20 role during their possession.