GM Advice: Why You Should Track Time in Your Campaign

Some campaigns seem to take place in the Land of Perpetual Summer. It might rain a bit, but farmers are always in their fields tending their crops and winter’s snow never arrive. Time never seems to move on…

By William McAusland (Outland Arts)

By William McAusland (Outland Arts)

 

Tracking time can be a pain. Surely, a GM has enough to keep track of – plots, NPCs, PCs, XP totals and more; adding one more thing to that list seems like a lot of extra work and hassle for no real gain. Not so!

Tracking time in a campaign can be enormously rewarding for the overall gaming experience. Gary Gygax said:

“Game time is of 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 removes concerned characters from their base of operations – be they rented chambers of battlemented strongholds. Certainly the most important time strictures pertains to the manufacturing 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 force choices upon player characters and likewise number their days of game life…YOU CAN NOT HAVE A MEANINGFUL CAMPAIGN IF STRICT TIME RECORDS ARE NOT KEPT.”

There are many reasons to track time. These include:

  • Verisimilitude: Verisimilitude has become a bit of a dirty word in some circles in reason years. General – but not obsessive – verisimilitude is great design. After all, roleplaying is at its heart a suspension of disbelief. The GM owes it to his players to make it as easy as possible to suspend their disbelief. Adventuring in a timeless environment (unless one is on the planes) is not particularly conducive towards that goal.
  • Passing of Seasons: As the seasons come and go, the PCs can see the land in a number of different guises. Adventuring in winter – or in high summer in the desert – presents certain unique challenges that can be fun to work around, overcome or turn to one’s own advantage.
  • Festivals & Holidays: Festivals and holidays are a great way to introduce cool local customs to the PCs. Many classic modules make use of this mechanic. Such events can act as a unique springboard to adventure.
  • The PCs: As they adventure, the PCs grow older and wiser. They may fall in love, get married and have children, travel great distances or even start to build a home. They may settle down and spend a year or two in semi-retirement. Other adventurers may even found their own kingdom, fight wars, raise mighty castles and so on. The passing of time provides a great backdrop to such activities.
  • Personal Quests: A PC may want to locate a sage, visit his homeland or undertake some other long journey. Such activities can cut to the very essence of the character and provide fantastic opportunities for the character’s growth and development. Of course, these activities have a knock-on effect to a PC’s companions and one that needs careful consideration. While Andy’s character is off searching for a lost dwarven hold, what are his friends doing? Do they accompany him, go off on their own adventures, craft magic items? All offer personal opportunity for character development.
  • Using Skills: If a PC has skills in crafting items – whether they be magical or mundane – tracking time is vital if they exercise those skills. If a PC is diligently crafting a magic ring, he may miss an adventuring opportunity or other PCs may have time to pursue their own projects.

Help Fellow GMs!

So that’s where I stand on tracking time in my campaign. Do you track time or just ignore it? Do you track it for any other reasons? Do you have any tricks or tips to make tracking time easier? Let us know in the comments below and help your fellow GMs run a  better campaign!

Creighton is the publisher at Raging Swan Press and the designer of the award winning adventure Madness at Gardmore Abbey. He has designed many critically acclaimed modules such as Retribution and Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands and worked with Wizards of the Coast, Paizo, Expeditious Retreat Press, Rite Publishing and Kobold Press.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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6 thoughts on “GM Advice: Why You Should Track Time in Your Campaign

  1. Heck on the season change have a snowfall bad enough the players have to choose between a risky travel to someplace “safe”… or stick it out in the dungeon. There is no greater
    antagonist that you cannot fight and win against than the weather.

  2. Many years ago, I was inspired by an article on calendars in White Dwarf. But it always bother me that I didn’t know what the various agricultural workers were doing out in their fields at various times of year.

    Some years after that, with a fresh understanding of landscape archaeology and agricultural history (who says games aren’t educational) I decided to write a farming calendar to avoid the Land of Perpetually Digging in the Fields.

    It’s proved one of my more popular articles, and been republished (with petmission) by history sites and in a re-enactment society newsletter. It even had a citation in an academic journal.

    http://www.penultimateharn.com/history/medievalfarmingyear.html

  3. This is an idea that came from another DMing blog, possibly Treasure Tables? For tracking time outside the dungeon, I made a simple spreadsheet with 7 columns and 12 lines spread across a landscape sheet of paper: Date/weather, PC actions, Realm events, Local events, NPC actions, Secret NPC actions, Other.

    I use it for two types of time-tracking. One is that each line is a day, when they are stomping around in the wild, looking for trouble. I like to roll up weather and random events/encounters in advance of the game session, so that I am ready. If the party is kind enough to tell me where they intend to explore, I can customize whatever it is they will be seeing, along with estimates of how far they will get, given weather and terrain.

    The other is for long-term time, with each line being a month. Now I can plot ahead to where the king might be visiting, the undead will be rising– wouldn’t that be better around the winter solstice than midsummer?– and so on.

  4. There is bit of irony for me in arrival of this post in my Facebook feed…The article was posted November of 2014, but I didn’t see it until June 2016. Talk about no sense of calendar. 🙂

    I try to keep a calendar for most of my games. I am a big fan of celestial phenomena. A good friend created a website for se, so I could track the positions of the twin suns, the phases of the three moons, the appearance of the plane shifting city of Mondhiem, and the appearances of two wandering stars in my games. I, also, did a bit of work on a collapsed campaign that involved a prophecy.

    Just for the record, the last date of my newest campaign was Age of Wyrms 2016 Aries 22. Thanks again for a great post and lots of good things to think about.