Tuesday 19 February 2013

Four Clocks: Real, Play, Game, Leveling

Time passes in four ways when you're playing a D&D-based campaign. Real time marches on; in that real time, you are playing at a certain pace and length of sessions; on top of that, you're keeping track of in-game time, or Gary's no friend of yours; and your players' characters are leveling at a certain rate, which determines how fast they can progress to new challenges.

Not quite what I meant ..
Here's how my currently longest running, Band of Iron campaign is tracking in terms of the three clocks:

Real time: About 13 months
Play time: About 35 roughly 4-hour sessions
Game time: About 3 months
Leveling time: Near or at Level 5

While I think the ratio of play to leveling time under my 52 Pages rules is just about right, and the ratio of play to real time is about as good as we can make it, game time is progressing awfully fast. Spring has barely turned to summer in the game world. But in the space of 3 months the party has visited 6 adventure sites, had two extended wilderness treks, dealt with business and pleasure in 5 different towns and cities, and gone from zeroes to heroes.

AD&D did a better job, as I recall, of pacing out the action in game-time. My characters only have to train one day per level they're gaining. AD&D had a system which nobody ever followed strictly, in which players got graded on a 1 (best)-4 (worst) scale for how they'd played their characters, and then had to take that amount of weeks times their level to train up, paying a brutal 1500 gp a week. The costs may have been impossible, but leaving them aside, the long passage of time between adventures lent a certain grace to the campaign. Also, the different experience amounts to advance meant it was rare that two characters trained at the same time, so that's more time waiting, visiting home villages while your companions level up and so on. In the high school campaign I played in, long travel times also advanced the calendar, especially combined with the requirement to visit fixed sites for training or plot reasons.

And yet ... A stately pace is realistic and satisfying, perhaps, to the world builder, but it's also anathema to a certain kind of scenario where there's time pressure, or things get scarier under the players' noses. In that case, players can end up frustrated, able to level but unable to spare a month or two while a villain still remains at large or the world slides into danger.

It is possible to just arbitrarily key time to adventures, as in some of the suggestions on this thread - take a year in between scenarios, and so on, making sure all the level advancement happens when adventures are not on. I'm not entirely happy with this, for the same reason I prefer experience points to session-based leveling. I like players to have an in-world reason their characters are passing  time, rather than just enforcing artificial time-outs.

Perhaps a good compromise is to have players get their hit points as soon as they level - representing the development of their instinct - but get other level-related stuff only after training. I could also stand to examine some of the other features of the system, such as prophets being able to heal up a seriously injured character who doesn't get a terrible death and dismemberment roll at zero hit points or less. Maybe those seriously injured guys need to spend some time in bed, prophet or no prophet. The "Pow! Healed! Walk again!" does get a little disconcerting when a character, by all rights and rules, ought to be spending some time in the penalty box, if not outright dead.

Any other thoughts on how to handle the long-term passage of time?


  1. The only thing I can say is realistic travel times, although I don't think your campaign is broken in any way.

    The adventure locations ought to be perhaps a week's travel away from civilization, no? That means 6 adventure sites equal 12 weeks of travelling back and forth, which is 3 months just there without any serious downtime for training or the like.

    I try to use periods of travel like this, to pace the campaign. They also work as stressers for the players and let me set off some campaign world events such as wars, famines and other backdrop stories in a realistic way.

    1. This is true, my campaign has used overland treks between places, but not extensively, and travel to the adventure spots has been fairly short. They did get a huge change of scenery off a fortuitous teleportation trick.

  2. Treating level like confidence and reputation, rather than training, as Talysman does, can help with the verisimilitude here, I think. Especially if the power curve is not too steep.

    I don't much care for the interpretation of level as skill and training much anymore, though I'm pretty sure that's how 95% of players think about things. Considering levelling as training encourages a level of fiddly detail (most obviously on display in the AD&D training rules) that seems to get in the way without adding much.

    I agree that tracking the diegetic game world time can be quite valuable (and a great source of adventure hooks), but I don't think one needs to assume that PCs should require many, many years to gain a few levels. Many conquerors in the real world, even, rose to prominence relatively quickly, if one requires historical justification.

    1. I see that working for some things (fighting, HP, clerical miracles) but not others (thief skills, scholarly magic). I'd also be happy to leave the whole concept of experience sitting in between simulations and beholden to none, like hit points are.

  3. I'm playing a S&W game with a DM who clearly learned to play D&D from 3e onwards. After our first session, we decided to leave the dungeon to recover as some players where pretty beat up. I told him we'd spend a few days resting and gave him a list of things we'd do in the meantime (look for henchmen, investigate a strange item, etc). But, rather than just advance the clock and tell us the result, we started the next session just outside the dungeon and had to "role play" out all the tedious walking and talking (with no real decisions to be made on our part). We were back in the dungeon the very next game day.

    I ran my 3e campaign pretty much this way and I think the characters hit 11th level before 9 game months had past. That's pretty ridiculous.

  4. What I like to encourage is the notion t5hat characters aren't ever stagnant: you don't level up because you fall off the grid for a few weeks to train (if that were true, why not just train, train, train for a few years then go kick god's ass?) - you level up because your character has been improving incrementally over time and they've reached a point where it can be represented mechanically. The Wizard reads his books by the light of the campfire every night and the Thief practices slight of hand as they trek down the road, but the game just isn't granular enough to measure that. Characters can get the full effects of leveling up "immediately" upon reaching the XP goal because they've been training the whole time. (Though for practical reasons I try to level at the end of a session, so that choices can be made away from the game table.)

    Other than that I'd defer to Gygax on measuring time and making sure you're sticking with it - it seems to me that tasks in real life always take morwe Turns than I expect them to. If you're marking acurate time and making overland distances reasonable, then it doesn't matter that you've only been adventuring for 3 months, they've just been eventful months! (Do you characters never take weekends or sick days? That'd be a pretty crazy work ethic...)

    Final note: "able to level but unable to spare a month or two while a villain still remains at large"... Either the villain doesn't require you to level (in which case time dictates that you forego leveling for now in order to stop the Bad Guy) or he does (in which case taking time to level is required for success). There's nothing wrong with going in underpowered because it has to be -now- (that's a dramatic trope!), these things just need to be communicated to players so they understand the consequences of training or not.