The Weekly Noun: Time


With Space already covered, it makes sense to next discuss Time. The two can, after all, be considered aspects of the same space-time concept. Time is an important factor in any role playing game, because it is a constant element of our existence, and like space, it forms the framework within which we live.

With Space already covered, it makes sense to next discuss Time. The two can, after all, be considered aspects of the same space-time concept. Time is an important factor in any role playing game, because it is a constant element of our existence, and like space, it forms the framework within which we live.

There are many theories on time, and many people much more knowledgeable than I have written books on almost every imaginable aspect of it. I won't go into any significant depth in discussing these complicated concepts. Instead, I want to focus on how important a good understanding and judicious application of time in a role playing game will make the game much more enjoyable, consistent, and challenging.

I will start small, and work my way up. The obvious starting point would be things that occur instantaneously, or at least reasonably close to instantaneously. This would include anything that travels at light speed or near light speed, thoughts perhaps, and anything that a character does not realize is happening until she is effected by it.

Instantaneous effects are great because by the time you realize what's going on, it already happened. It takes more time for your neurons to register the event than it does for the event to happen. This means that without some sort of precognition, it is impossible to react to an instantaneous event until after the fact. Unless you allow for some sort of time travel into the past, it's already too late.

This means that no matter how fast a character is, she can't dodge a laser, outrun electricity, or duck the rock that just hit her in the head. Time marches forward, and it already happened.

Of course, if a character saw someone aiming a laser gun at her, she could move before the sniper pulled the trigger, but once the beam is on its way, it is essentially there, until you start getting into vast distances that will most likely never occur in your game. How often is someone on the moon trying to pick off an enemy in Detroit?

Another element of time to consider is the time that it takes to do mundane things. This is often overlooked in role playing games because it's rather silly to keep track of how many seconds it takes a character to open a door or walk across a street if they're just going to the store. In some cases though, these small amounts of time can be extremely important.

How long does it take you to get out of your shoes? 20 seconds, a minute? What if your character has stepped onto a glue trap, and a group of thugs is quickly running her way? How long will she need to get out of those great thigh-high laced leather boots that seemed so damn cool 30 seconds ago?

How long does it take you to walk across the room, open the door, run down two flights of stairs, past people in the lobby, and out the front door when your friend is about to start a car in the parking lot with a bomb under the hood?

We tend to forget the time it takes to do things, or at least underestimate it, until it becomes very important, or until we are faced with something that shows us just how long something takes. You probably never bother to take into account the time it takes to draw a weapon when entering battle, you just consider it out and ready to use, and start fighting. In most cases, this works well, but if you're fighting Doc Holiday, you'll be dead before your gun leaves the holster.

Getting further along, consider the things that take up your day. How often does a group split up in town, each doing their own thing, and agreeing to meet back at the inn for dinner? If you get into town at 4 PM, and you plan to meet at 6, does your character really have time to walk around town looking for the right store, browse the merchandise, and find just the right item, then navigate a strange town back to the inn, at night?

Most of us wouldn't just take the first shirt on the display closest to the door and call it good. Why would your character take 30 seconds to buy a weapon that she'll be defending her life with?

Finally, we get into longer stretches of time, days, weeks, months, even years. How long does it take to walk across a country to a town on the other side? Will the weather have changed? Will the people you're looking for still be there? If you come back to a town three months later, how many people will still remember you?

In a violent and ever-changing role playing world, things can be drastically different in a matter of weeks. Players might leave town to go adventuring in the wilderness, and come back to find a different form of government, different laws in place, and maybe a completely different political, religious, or social affiliation. What was once a safe haven may have become an enemy stronghold in a few days time.

Extend this timeline to months and years and entire geographical regions can change completely. Resources can be exhausted or found, towns abandoned or founded, rivers can be dammed, new roads built, governments overthrown, natural disasters can change the entire landscape.

We are use to the relative stability of our lives, but characters in a role playing game should expect no such certainty in their day to day lives. Change and instability should be the norm.

Keeping track of time, when it is important, will add great depth to your role playing games, and make things much more interesting for everyone.

The first time a character assumes that she will be able to walk 5 miles to the pier in time to catch the ship leaving in 15 minutes and misses it, having to wait two weeks until the next one, she'll realize that she has to have a more realistic idea of time. By the time you realize that there's a bullet coming at you, you've already been shot.

Good points all. I can't count the number of times I've had a player try to get away with ignoring the laws of time. If you make a point to always hold true to at least a good semblance of accurate timekeeping, you'll find that your players won't groan and gripe nearly as often when something happens that they can't stop or effect.

Excellent points. Perfect topic. I would only add that another important aspect of time is sleep and food. How long does it take the players to get hungry? To get sleepy? I'd like to see more games introduce a system of penalties for characters that want to walk fifty miles in two days and still swindle their way into the city gates after going hungry and awake for the trip.

It should also be mentioned that, like all things, the laws of time are only as rigid as you, the GM, want them to be.