Gygax On…Tracking Time in the Campaign

As far back as I can remember, I’ve tracked time in my campaign. Tracking time isn’t exactly an insurmountable problem or onerous burden, even for the busy GM. That’s because it’s both very easy to do and can pay great dividends for almost any campaign.

By William McAusland (Outland Arts)
By William McAusland (Outland Arts)



While I don’t obsessively track the PCs’ minute-by-minute progress through adventures I do track the day, month and year.

Knowing the date enables me to portray events occurring outside the dungeon such as seasonal bad weather, festivals, notable events and so on. It makes season-based adventures easier to fit into the campaign (and feel more appropriate when they do occur). It also enables me to add flavour and verisimilitude to a setting by describing such events as planting, the harvest, winter snows slowing travel and so on.

So what did Gary have to say?

“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 bases of operations – be they rented chambers or 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.”

Dungeon Master’s Guide (page 37), Gary Gygax

What draws me to this section of the DMG is that it’s one of the few places in the entire book Gary hit caps lock—he obviously felt very strongly about the passage of time and its effects on a campaign. I suspect this has a lot to do with his wargaming roots.

It’s clear, Gary viewed time as another resource to be used by the players. In today’s version of the game, I think that view is somewhat lacking (except when keeping track of spell durations!)

In the quote above, Gary lists training for levels, crafting magic items, learning a language and recovering from injuries as examples of how PCs can spend time between adventures. PCs can still do all these things in Pathfinder–except train to level (and what kind of adventurer heals naturally these days?)–but the amount of time these activities take has been massively compressed between editions.

I’ve previously discussed the different approaches to making magic items between the two editions. But as another example, consider the process of levelling in 1st Edition against that in Pathfinder. In 1st Edition, it took between 1-4 weeks of training to level (and it was jolly expensive to do so, and if you were interrupted you had to start again). In Pathfinder, the PCs level when the GM gives out XP (normally at the end of the session).

It seems that these days game time spent doing anything that isn’t directly related to gaining XP is seen as not fun or irrelevant (even if the game time spent to achieve a given task translates to mere minutes of real time).

I’ve blogged before about Pathfinder being too adventure-centric and I think this attitude is nowhere more obvious than in the way the game deals with time.

Obviously, the game has changed a lot from 1st Edition. In today’s hobby we seem slightly too obsessed with levelling and our cool new shiny feats and spells. We rarely take the time to experience the game world beyond the dungeon. However, while the slower approach to the game—I think—has much to offer, slowing things down doesn’t translate terribly well to many modern, fast-paced adventures or campaigns (such as an adventure path) where the PCs are rushing to head off some terrible threat. Furthermore, I suspect the very nature of a campaign is different now to what it was a couple of decades ago (but that’s probably the subject for another post).

What Do You Think?

Do you track time or do you think it’s a waste of time (do you see what I did there?) Letme know, in the comments below.

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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.

13 thoughts on “Gygax On…Tracking Time in the Campaign”

  1. I do track it and used the calendar creator from to create a 4 moon (1 for wks, 1 for months, 1 for season, 1 for year) calendar cycle that covers “a year” in 128 game days (8day wk, 16day month, 32day seasons 128day year). I love to include weather and seasons and have always found that a 365 game year limits my ability for the players to experience those changes. In my 1E campaigns winter obviously created the most tension and surviving a trek during a blizzard was nearly the death of one group.

    I’ve not worked completely through my world’s back-history, so haven’t worried too much about a long calendar but I’m starting to put ticks on that timeline as we game in this new world I’ve created. I’m looking forward to our next campaign when I’ll be able to use cameo’s or reference things this group of PCs were involved with (or if its earlier on the timeline then reference things they will be involved in).

    Like many of the differences between PF and 1E whether it creates a problem or not is going to strongly correlate to your player types and your GMing style. I personally feel it adds more to the game, but its also another thing for a GM to work on and some may feel stretched thin already. However, a simple method to get time and weather is to pull up an online weather almanac and print out a month at a time from a year ago or copy-paste it into excel. This method also allows you to keep a mini-campaign journal, although Excel isn’t as friendly for this so I use it for the calendar and journal in Word.

    One last thought is time tracking helps if you’re looking to add more depth to your world and help the players feel like its bigger than them. Knowing how long the group has been in a dungeon or out of town helps you think about what types of things happen while they’re gone including what happens to NPCs they know (or even their families if they have those in their backstory). Rather than creating some event, and then having the players question how it happened, because they though “weren’t we just gone a couple days??”, you will stay more logical by knowing the timeline first and then deciding what they missed.

  2. I track time fairly obsessively as both a player and DM. At the very least I keep some rough notes as to the progress of the adventure, usually in two tracks: track one might be “every little thing” that I want to be able to recall from the meta-perspective; track two is (often after the fact) next to track one and notes what the character and sometimes the party would discern of these things — reminders, mostly. And with these tracks of notes I’ll at least note the day and where possible the time of day within the current adventure. It might be as simple as “Day 1” or “Day 4: three days out from Neverwinter” or something. Between sessions I might plot much more briefly what happened or at least where we were on a calendar appropriate to the world.

    As a player it helps me with a framework for the events of the adventure which lets me immerse my imagination more fully into the setting. As a DM I find it invaluable especially if an adventure is more complex, layered and/or multi-threaded. As I’ve matured in the game, as a writer, and the like often for my own satisfaction I like to create more complex environments and give thought to what other characters, creatures and beings are doing which might influence the party. This influences things.

    The obvious influences are some of those mentioned. Details of season, holidays, and more provide elements of setting that help the adventure be more interesting. “You’ve arrived home to discover it’s the high holy day of _____ and the streets are festooned with floral displays, music can be heard from many parts and a great throng has taken over the market square …”. And certainly there are issues of food and water supplies in harsh environments which keeping a calendar makes less work of and imposes problems and limitations that the characters must address. It also lets me sort out things like where and what the party’s patron might be up to while they’re off and away. Or how long it might be until the larger orc clan might see fit to reinforce the outpost the party has been picking away at.

    Finally there are elements of realism that I like to include which the calendar keeps me mindful of in both regards (as player and DM). In an early 5E adventure I noted that my relatively young character had been catapulted from a fairly safe and sedentary life into an adventure of some weeks where there had been at least one melee each day and often more. I’d portrayed the character as a rather intelligent, thoughtful and sensitive sort, and when that became clear I started to add nuances of stress and personality shift to his portrayal. Gradually the incidents added up into a significant alignment shift and argued for shifting my initial plans for the character’s development.

    Finally, I too find more recent versions of the game all too adventure centric. While I haven’t come up with good solutions for these problems it is rather bothersome to my “suspension of disbelief” when a character can fully recover from a major reduction in hit points with a long rest (8 hours) and even more that upon “leveling” there is a sudden and immediate acquisition of significant and detailed abilities. Adventures now tend to snowball from one frenetic melee fest to the next and players begrudge even 5 minutes for “bookkeeping” that entails just enough downtime to justify that the wizard added three new spells to the spellbook, or, more significantly, that a character somehow managed to gain a level in an entirely new class. In one game I had a rogue who suddenly added a level of warlock which felt all wrong happening overnight. Much better in a concurrent game when circumstances indicated a wizard should do the same but there were three or four days of game time which passed and events which helped the addition make sense.

    1. That reminded me of a session towards the beginning of the campaign I’m GMing for my wife and children. They approached the city gate and started getting lots of strange looks, and questions about what had happened to them.
      The players were a little taken back, then I reminded them that in the 14 days since their PCs had left town they had slept in rain, snow, been in a fire, fought several major melees, been drug through the woods, been in a cave-in, and lived on about 1/2 ration for the last couple days back to town. Their cloaks were tattered, stained, shields dented, faces and clothing dirty….really looked like they’d been drug behind a wagon the last mile to town by the looks of things.
      It had been something like 10 game sessions, but the totality of it had been missed a little by the players, I believe that and my description of getting into a hot-bath pulled by the tavern owner (who also quickly sent out for a set of new clothes for each) helped them better get into their PCs state of mind looking back at what was essentially their first “adventure”.

  3. First Pathfinder 3rd 4th and 5th edition D&D games I find entirely unplayable for this reason in fact I find them about as fun as watching grass grow to a background music of crying babies

  4. I think its important – there are just too many time the party wants to “long rest” after every battle! Also there are all sorts of fun adventures you can make like limited time “escape the room” scenarios, where time tracking is crucial. I was never able to find a satisfactory solution to time tracking, so this summer, I decided to do something about it. I taught myself to code, and after about 7 months this is what I came up with. Quest Clock – A time tracking app for RPGs. Hopefully somebody will get some use out of it! My group has been using it on two campaigns, and it is incredibly refreshing to tell them “No! It’s only been 18 minutes since you last slept! And by the way, you haven’t eaten in 36 hours!”

  5. Tracking time is incredibly helpful for both DM and players, going level 1-20 in a few weeks is a little immersion-breaking. The problem is that I find myself forgetting to mark the days/hours as they pass. That’s what I need help with, some way to ensure that I track it even with the best of intentions.. and make it visible to players so they know it’s passing too.

  6. I use Gygax’s advice to have game time & real time progress at the same rate. Going over to 1 week for a 5e Long Rest has really helped with this. Rather than track umpteen different downtime activities – and healing – they all take place in the week between adventures.

  7. Fully agree. Even when I try to build downtime into the game the players seem a bit lost as to what to do with their characters – the idea that they have lives outside of being adventurers (like being a magical scholar or a linguist, or even taking the day off to go fishing) seems completely alien.

  8. I insist on tracking time and have a custom calendar for my world. As most players are not terribly interested in the detail, I end up writing short summaries by date for them.

    I’ve tried to build in downtime for the players but they seem to be completely uninterested – I guess it is the video game mindset that many of us old farts are complaining about these days. 😉

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