Suppositions on Tabletop RPG Time Tracking

Day and Night, Passage of TimeSince Monday’s post on time management, I’ve had four separate people ask me how keeping track of time would work in a game. This may not seem like much, but it’s probably the most universal response I’ve received to a single post. Normally I don’t even get that much feedback on a given day’s writing, and when I do, it’s pretty varied. So to have four people ask the same question is unusual, and warrants further attention. I thought I would use tonight’s post to look into time management further. Specifically, to look at how it might be applied to a Pathfinder game. I would like to make clear before hand that I’ve never actually kept track of time in a game–at least not in the ways I’m about to delve into. This post is, at best, educated speculation. If nothing else, the following will be a solid outline for what I will be attempting in the future, and I can do another follow up post with what I learn.

Before I get started, lets go over some basic definitions. As mentioned yesterday, I think the best way to scale time tracking is to use the same definitions Pathfinder establishes for movement on pages 170-172 of the Pathfinder Core Rulebook. Tactical Time is something any Pathfinder player will be familiar with. It is built on the 6-second round, and is what we use to measure the passage of time in combat, or in other severely time-critical situations. Local Time is for exploration, such as when the players are delving into a dungeon. The six second round would be far too short for this, and slow down gameplay to a ridiculous degree, so for Local Time, we will use the 10 minute turn, which can also be divided into 1 minute fragments. Overland Time can be measured in days. If the party is simply traveling from point A to point B across a great distance, breaking things down into a unit smaller than a day would be tedious. Lastly, the Hour can be useful as a unit of measure for both Local, and Overland Time, when the situation warrants it.

SundialWith our basic units of measure established, we need to know how they fit into one another, and how they eventually build into a year. This may seem somewhat silly at first, but consider: the Gregorian Calendar (the calendar most westerners use) is as confusing as the endless layers of the abyss. Largely due to the fact that it is an imprecise attempt to force a variety of natural phenomena into logical time-measurement boxes. By taking advantage of the fact that we’re playing a fantasy adventure game, we can easily redefine the way units of time fit into one another so that we can more easily keep track.

For most of the smaller measurements, it’s simpler just to keep them consistent with the real world, to avoid the need to alter game rules. Casters need to rest 8 hours to recover their spells because 8 hours is 1/3 of the standard day, so changing the standard day would upset the balance of the game. However, larger units of measure can be toyed with at will.

6 Seconds = 1 Tactical Round
10 Tactical Rounds = 1 Minute
10 Minutes = 1 Local Turn
6 Local Turns = 1 Hour
24 Hours = 1 Day
7 Days = 1 Week
5 Weeks = 1 Month (35 Days)
10 Months = 1 Year (350 days)

Keeping a week at 7 days means that the few spells which have a 1 week cooldown are not unintentionally weakened or empowered. Making each month a consistent 5 weeks means you can avoid any confusion by having a single week bridging two months. And 10 months to a year keeps the everything close enough to our reality that the players won’t feel detached. Everything is uniform, which will be helpful later on.

Now that we’ve established our definitions, lets talk about movement. A character’s speed is already listed on their character sheet for use in combat. The speed which is listed on a character sheet is the distance, in feet, which a character can cover in a 6 second round. (The “move action” in combat is treated as a hustle, rather than a walk, which is why it takes less than the full round). This means that a character with a speed of 30 can move 30 feet in a round, 300 feet in a minute, and 3000 feet per 10 minute turn. This may seem ridiculous, but consider that the average human can walk a mile in 13 minutes. A mile is 5280 feet, which actually breaks down to a little over 406 feet per minute, so Pathfinder actually underestimates our movement speed.

Wouldn’t this be easier if we were using metric?

Considering the size of most dungeons, players will likely be moving in 50-100 foot spurts, rather than moving in increments of 300 or 3000 at a time. So I think the simplest way to handle time tracking within a dungeon will be to mentally keep track of how far your players have moved. Your figure only needs to be a rough estimate. Every time the players have moved about 300 feet, make a tally mark on a piece of paper. Once you’ve got 10 tally marks, make note that a turn has past. Bear also in mind that often players will not be moving at walking speed. Sometimes they will be hustling (in which case, they can move 600ft per minute), and other times they will be tapping every cobblestone with their 10ft pole. (There is no official rule on this, so lets just say they’d be moving at 1/3rd their normal pace, at 100ft per minute).

Dungeon Hallway

This sounds like a huge pain, doesn’t it? I know, I’m thinking the same thing. But think of how much depth you can add to your game by having your player’s torches burn out, or having time sensitive events in your dungeons, such as secret meetings that begin 3 turns after your players enter the dungeon, and end 2 turns later. Maybe your players will find them and be able to listen in, or maybe they won’t! That’s part of the beauty of tracking time.

Overland Movement should be much simpler to track. A character with a speed of 30 can move 24 miles at walking speed in a given day. A day, in this case, being 8 hours, which is the maximum amount of time a character can travel without requiring a constitution check. This amounts to precisely four hexes, if you’re using the standard six-mile hex. If you’re not using a hex map (like me, in my current campaign, where I haven’t yet converted the world map yet) you’ll need to figure out how far 24 miles is in some other way. One thing you’ll definitely want to keep in mind is how your player’s traveling speed might be affected by obstacles such as mountainous terrain, swamps, etc. It would probably be beneficial to establish a baseline speed difference between traveling on roads and traveling through the wilderness as well. Perhaps road travelers can move and even 30 miles, or 5 hexes?

Movement isn’t the only thing which takes time. Players don’t simply walk from their home base to the dungeon any more than they walk from the dungeon entrance directly to the treasure room. There are things to explore, battles to fight, an traps to disarm. So how do we measure those in our time tracking system?

Combat is obviously going to be the most frequent interruption to movement–particularly if you’re fond of random encounters. When working with Overland Time, their interruption can be largely ignored. Unless the party faced a large number of encounters in a given day, the amount of time a battle takes should be negligible. Whilst using Local Time, however, the length of combat is much more significant. Regardless of how long combat takes, you should probably round the time up to the next minute. Gygax even recommends that “they should rest a turn [LS: 10 minutes] after every time they engage in combat or any other strenuous activities.”

Other activities can include any number of things. Dealing with a trap, discussing a strategy, negotiating with a monster, exploring a room, opening a locked door, bashing open a locked door, the list goes on. GMs will have to use their judgement on a case by case basis to determine whether an action should be considered negligible (such as glancing around a room), a minute long (such as opening a relatively simple lock, or busting down a door), or longer (negotiating a truce with a hostile creature, or thoroughly exploring a room). I would advise against trying to track increments of time smaller than a minute. Either put a tally mark down for a minute, or don’t mark anything at all. It’ll even out eventually. Chapter 4 of the Pathfinder Core Rulebook, “Skills,” notes what type of action each skill requires. This can be helpful to determine how much time you want to mark down, though your players will probably hate you if you check the action-typeevery time they make a skill check. Some GM arbitration is called for here.

Outdoor Survival Game BoardThe number of events which consume enough time to be counted as relevant on an overland scale are few and far between. Sleeping tops the list, followed by crafting, and perhaps a few other activities which have their time requirements listed as hours. Overland time might also be consumed by switching to local time for a significant period. For example, if a party can travel 24 miles a day, then the party might travel 12 miles, discover a village, switch to local time, spend 10 10-minute turns in the village, then continue on their way. They could still make it the full 24 miles (since that distance is traveled in 8 hours of the day), while the time they spent in the village would be rounded up to 2 hours, leaving them with 6 hours of rest before needing to sleep for 8 hours.

Tracking time in towns is tricky. As best I can tell, most GMs don’t even bother with it. However, I think there could be some real value to it if you pulled it off. Often, as a GM, one of my players will want to do something in town, while the rest are content merely to wait. This, to me, seems silly. If the player who has something they need done takes 3 hours, then what is the rest of the party really doing? Sitting at a bench next to the town gate waiting? It strikes me that if I actually turned to them and said “What would you like to do during your 1 hour turn,” that might encourage players to engage with the world around them.

Lastly, I’d like to touch on long-term time tracking, which is actually what I’ve found the most information on. The common wisdom seems to be to print out calendar sheets using whatever number of days you have in a month. Many GMs seem to simply mark days off as they pass, which would work fine. However, I think the calendar is a good opportunity to enhance your campaign record keeping. Simple notes such as meeting an important NPC, engaging in a major battle, or recovering a valuable treasure could be notated on the calendar. And, if you’re like me and want to create a living world around your players, you can make notes for things the players didn’t witness, such as the day two nations went to war, or the day your villain recovers the Big Evil Thingamaboo which will allow them to summon demonic servants. You could also use the calendar to plan future events–keeping in mind that you may need to erase them if your players avert those events from happening.

Once again, these are just my musings on how I think I’ll try to track time in my upcoming game sessions. I haven’t done it before, and I’ve found a remarkable lack of information on the Internet about how to do it well. So if any more experienced GMs out there would like to set me straight on something, please comment!

Either way, I’ll be gathering notes on my success and failure, and will revisit this topic once I have a little more experience.

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7 thoughts on “Suppositions on Tabletop RPG Time Tracking”

  1. –This is an imported comment from the old blog–

    Name: Brendan
    Date: Feb 23, 2012 06:58 AM
    Comment:

    3000 feet per 10 minute turn

    Wow, that’s pretty different than the TSR-era D&D standard: 120 feet per turn (seriously). I challenge anyone to walk that slowly. The idea of course is that you are mapping and proceeding cautiously.

    From Moldvay B19:

    All characters are able to move 120′ or feet in one turn when exploring a dungeon. … A base movement of 120′ in ten minutes may seem slow, but it assumes that the players are mapping carefully, searching, and trying to be quiet. It also takes into account the generally “dark and dingy” conditions of the dungeon in which characters are adventuring.

    For wilderness movement, I’ve been considering using a cost by terrain type model, much like the tactical movement in 4E. So, rather than saying that players can travel (for example) 24 miles in a day but mountains can only be travelled at half rate, give a movement cost to enter a mountain hex. I’ve seen some posts about others doing this, and it looks much easier to handle.

    1. Even if You’re mapping and and checking for traps as carefully as possible, I doubt you could move as slow as 120 feet in 10 minutes. Though it would certainly be handy if we had a more manageable number than 3000ft/10 minutes.

      My thinking is that yes, a party can move 3k feet per turn if they want. But if they’re doing that, they’re not checking for traps, will likely be surprised by most wandering monsters, and may not be granted spot checks to find secret doors and other such things. 3k feet every 10 minutes is a pretty brisk pace, and if you’re exploring, any reasonable party should be slowing down to maybe 1/3 of that speed, at least.

      A movement cost per hex is interesting. That does sound significantly more efficient. Very cool!

  2. Here is my corrected movement speed during combat.

    Utilizing the time measurement and Pathfinder hustle information provided above by the author (” A character with a speed of 30 can move 30 feet in a round, 300 feet in a minute, and 3000 feet per 10 minute turn. This may seem ridiculous, but consider that the average human can walk a mile in 13 minutes. A mile is 5280 feet, which actually breaks down to a little over 406 feet per minute.”). I have come to a corrected version of hustle speed during combat.

    Medium Creature at a Hustle
    -Speed of 45 = 45 Feet in 1 Tactical Round = 6 Seconds
    -450 Feet = 10 Tactical Rounds = 1 Minute
    -4,500 Feet = 10 Minutes = 1 Local Turn
    -27,000 Feet (~5 Miles) 6 Local Turns = 1 Hour
    -60 Miles = 24 Hours = 1 Day
    -420 Miles = 7 Days = 1 Week
    -2100 Miles = 5 Weeks = 1 Month (35 Days)
    -21,000 Miles = 10 Months = 1 Year (350 days)

    Work backing up the above scale.

    Considering that a person walks at an average speed of 3.1 mph. That means in 6 seconds a person covers about 18.6 feet. A jog/run speed is about 7-8 mph for an average person. Therefore a person covers 42 feet at 7 mph and 48 at 8 mph.

    -4,500 Feet = 10 Minutes = 1 Local Turn (Add 450ft two times to 4,500. This represents a 12 minute mile) 4,500+450=4,950 // 4,950+450=5,400 (Over 1 mile by 120ft)

    1. Remember that even though tactical movement is at a hustle, it is “Tactical”. That means while they are moving they are also trying to avoid getting hit by their opponents, etc. because everything in a round is happening at essentially the “same time”.

  3. “What would you like to do during your 1 hour turn?”

    How I didn’t think of that earlier, I don’t know. But thanks! Your ideas will help me a lot. :)

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