I’m kinda fascinated with the subject of time in RPGs. It’s a quirk of mine as a fan of the genre and a long-time GM. I’m fascinated by the way we use time in games – or ignore time in games. I’ve written about time in games before, but it’s a topic I feel myself drawn back to again and again. As I’ve been working on my own game system, the passing of time has been a topic I keep wrestling with.
One of the first things I think of is how time in RPGs is often “cinematic” time. Watch any police or detective show and you’ll see a character whip out a pocket set of lockpicks and open a door in 10 seconds. Most modern RPGs treat picking a lock as a single action – the kind of thing that can be done in a combat round. But doing a little research (I admit, I’m not a locksmith – but I am a decent researcher) tells me that a competent, professional locksmith should be expected to pick an average home lock in 7-10 minutes. Which is interesting to a nerd like me because 10 minutes is the length of a Turn in Old School D&D (and its relations) which was usually how long “exploration” type tasks took.
Such a distinction mattered more in old D&D because Turns were also important for a lot of other exploration-related reasons; such as how long your torch lasts and checking for wandering monsters. Modern iterations of D&D that have largely eliminated those concerns as part of the game-play don’t need such strict accounting of time and therefore it tends to take a backseat.
Another issue of cinematic time involves character advancement. In a modern D&D game, it’s entirely possible to start the game at level 1 and be level 10 in a matter of weeks of game time. Characters don’t really have to worry about aging or wear-and-tear because they’ll be level 20 and retired in potentially less in-game time than it takes to play it out in the real world.
(Disclaimer – I don’t point any of this out to say that one is “better.” It’s a matter of what you prefer. I can only speak to what I like and what rubs me wrong.)
The important take-away from the discussion of Turns as a game-mechanic is that time had weight in those games. And in order for time to be meaningful, it needs to have weight that is felt by the characters.
I’ve decided to take a middle-ground. Tasks are going to take time – obviously different for different types of tasks – and that base amount of time required is going to be the default for the base difficulty. If a character needs to do something faster, they can try – but that makes the job harder. If they have the time to luxuriate in doing something, then they can make the job easier by taking extra time. Nothing groundbreaking but it accomplishes my design goals.
I’ve also decided to take my inspiration for character advancement from one of the games I hold dearest (Amber) and have it tied to the end of significant stories or story points such that almost all of your character’s growth will take place “off screen.” I want to try wrapping this up in a technique like Blue Booking to allow players to still be invested in that downtime. As I told my wife, if you’re gonna get better, you’re gonna need a montage (with apologies to Team America).
This doesn’t mean the question of time is settled. I still have more thoughts and questions about how to make time matter in an RPG, how to give it weight. Maybe I’ll dig a little more into the idea behind my advancement system and see how that goes.
Anyway, thanks for taking the time.