D&D (2024) The Importantance of Time

Once upon a DMG, one Gary Gygax went on pretty extensive near-rants about how important time was to DND. And that made sense in his DND, given how much of what he wanted to run was balanced out by FOMO and what have you.

But in 5e, time only sort of matters, and its very DM dependent, as the rules are wishy washy in how important time should be.

The most egregious example is that many spells have an explicit casting time, and yet we have no explicit mechanics to account for the passage of time at any scale.

The game was originally designed around Exploration turns, which gave you a mechanically defined way to track time, but these were chopped up and scattered to the winds during the Next transition, and while restoring them works, you'd have to go digging for out of print PDFs to even really understand that much of that system is still there, or do the even more rigorous and piece it together from whats left in the PHB and DMG.

And of course, theres the ever contentious question of the Adventuring Day, a time based measurement thats perhaps too overly emphasized by DMs, which suffers just the same. Short rests and long rests take time, but as far as most tables are concerned these may as well just be buttons.

So the question becomes, is time important, and should there be more of an emphasis on it given the state of 5E?

Personally, I agree with Gygax. At least in spirit. Time is everything, and Id even go as far as to say it should be the absolute core of a well functioning system. Which all makes sense to me, given I tend to prefer sandboxy open-world style play, which without time becomes very...unoptimal.

But even for the more modern, story emphasized playstyles, time I think is pretty crucial. Time gives context to stakes, and what stakes are there if the apocalypse can wait until tomorrow or the profane ritual rescheduled for Tuesday?

I do not think Gygax's idea of the gameworld ticking along in real time even when the players aren't actually playing is very ideal (and especially so outside of West Marches style play), but keeping a consistent clock going does a lot for the game not just narratively but also mechanically.

With well tracked time, skills become more valuable than spells as they cost less and take less time. Rests aren't so easy to abuse, and spell durations actually matter. Survival has more of a backbone, and seeking faster transports is encouraged, letting for more ways to spend gold. And so on and so on.

Just becomes a question of how best to track time, and Ive always been a fan of AngryGMs Time/Tension Pool.

It just makes a heck of a lotta sense for a mostly system-agnostic mechanic, and the mechanical benefit of sharing some of the control of complications and random encounters with the players is pretty substantive.

Lot easier to justify shaking things up in an adventure when the players have some meaningful choice in the matter. Play risky and risk a complication, or play it safe and lose out on the potential rewards of success. Its really great, and Ive enjoyed using it in 5E, PF2E, and DCC
 

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aco175

Legend
I think a time restraint should be used only some of the time. I do not want everything to be a life or death push to complete right now deal. If the Pcs show up to the tomb that has been sealed for 100 years, what is another hour to take a short rest. Maybe there is a wandering encounter check, or just let them rest since I likely made the dungeon based on the group having all or most all their strength. If the group knows that the temple is going to collapse in 1 hour and they need to get the mcgruffin, then they should be restrained. I would likely have planned the dungeon to take this into account as well.

I like the Matt Colville (MCDN) video about time and his saying, "The clock is always ticking." I think it is more for larger spans of time and general adventure picking. The idea of having a few hooks at lower level and letting the group choose one. Say they go to the swamp and deal with the lizardmen at level 1-3 instead of dealing with the orcs, well now the orc chief is gathering more troops and might have some ogres with him. That threat does not remain static and moves with their own goals. It is a way to boost a low level threat for higher level PCs, but also to show the players that putting things off too long has consequences.
 
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cranberry

Adventurer
The only (regular) situation where I think time matters is when a player casts a spell lasting more than a minute.

For example, some summoning spells last an hour. After combat (which rarely lasts more than a few rounds), it's necessary to keep track of time to ensure that the caster can't use the summon indefinitely.

Afterthought - time is also important when tracking a condition and it's effects, (or end result)
 

Pedantic

Legend
I'm immediately put in mind of Chamomile's Strangers in Ramshorn adventure path, which had the most effective relationship to time of any module I've run (and is absolutely going to form the basis for a lot of my homebrew going forward). It used week-long long rests as a base assumption, and essentially had several threats floating around a central town that could theoretically be tackled in any order over the course of 5 "weeks," really 5 rest periods regardless of how long the party spends adventuring between them.

The adventure then specifies a timeline of events for each rest period, noting how each threat will change/grow/interact with the environment and other threats if it's still active. The spiders and skeletons will eventually fight each other if left alone, the bandits will stage a raid on the two after a few weeks, the ability to buy potions/magic items dries up if the goblins raiding the caravans aren't taken care of, etc.

Additionally, a big "event" occurs each week off that's essentially a roleplaying interaction: there are 5 factions, and each threat has at least 2 possible resolutions (i.e., the knightly forces of Lord Darius want the skeleton infested crypt cleared out and consecrated after the, the vampire mafia wants the intelligent undead leaders killed so they can take control of the mindless undead) which will change your standing with the assorted groups. Two factions with a friendly relationship come together each week for a social gathering, war council, arcane conference etc, and if the party has sufficient standing with one of those groups, they'll be invited and gain an opportunity to schmooze favors, more standing or additional resources from them.

And then finally there's a few narrative events scheduled for various weeks that open new requests from the townspeople and an unfolding conspiracy.

I had some problems with other parts of the module's structure, but that core timeline was a lot of fun for everybody, encouraging players to push on longer to avoid the situation deteriorating and giving them a real sense of consequences for their choices. The week per long rest was the biggest rules change to accomplish that, because it specifically gave the threats time to act unimpeded by the players, but I don't think that's strictly necessary for the model to function.
 

I am currently starting tomb of annihilation, and I think the time restraint is too big. I am handling it more freely. The 1 hp loss at midnight (I make it a death saving throw to resist) and the meat grinder mode. I start at DC 11 and go up by 1 every other week, so it feels urgent, but not overly constraining.
 

Enrahim2

Adventurer
I think the big learning between Gary's time and our is the discovery that RPG as a medium is strong enough to support suspense without relying on time pressure. This might be most easily seen in computer RPGs, where time constraints has been almost completely abolished. Just interacting with the world can be made fun enough. And with the freedom RPGs offer, time limits often feeling like an unwanted constraint to what you can do and explore.

Time as a motivator to keep things moving is not really needed, as there are other motivators that still is strong. This as opposed to tactical wargames where the best move without any time constraints might indeed be to put both armies on their own easily defendable hill, and just stand there. Wargames didn't have the same alure of seeing what's behind the next door, or how the story will progress. Hence it was easy to underestimate how powerfull these would be.
 

This might be most easily seen in computer RPGs, where time constraints has been almost completely abolished.

And yet the more you play those games the quicker they become soulless as the veneer wears off.

Limitations make for better and better lasting gameplay.

It can be likened to the effect cheating has on how fun a game is. It can be immediately fun to have all constraints lifted, but it simultaneously makes returning to the original gameplay loop feel increasingly tedius, which robs the game of the ability to provide the same fun you had with it originally.

This incidentally is why I could sit and actually play Skyrim on my Switch but just can't be bothered to for very long on PC, even with mods. But this is also why I can now no longer get into it on my Switch when I discovered (by accident) some exploits.

And with the freedom RPGs offer, time limits often feeling like an unwanted constraint to what you can do and explore.

Players often don't know what they actually need to get more fun out of their experience, and many won't recognize what its doing even when they get it.

Theres a reason, after all, most TTRPGs tend to play better and foster more fun when you play them strictly as intended.

Time as a constraint doesn't stop you from doing things or exploring. It makes the things you do and the places you explore matter, because theres effort being utilized that justifies the reward.

If you remove all effort, the rewards lose their value. Any value that remains wasn't being fostered by the game itself in the first place and is thus irrelevant.

Sure, exploring Moria with no actual constraints or limitations can be valuable, as someone might have designed Moria to be this huge, living dungeon with a deep amount of lore associated with it.

But that all has nothing to do with the game. You don't need a game to explore Moria in that sense. You don't even need Fellowship to explore it either, for that matter.

But if you are going to explore it through a medium other than meta examination, like through a book or a game, then you need to make the mechanical operation of that exploration actually matter.

In Fellowship, the group spends days traversing the mine with a modicum of stealth, and they must do this as their mission must suceed.

But, eventually, they fail, and inadvertently disrupt not just the Goblins but the Balrog too, leading to a prominent character's death and an ongoing tragedy and sense of loss in the survivors.

You couldn't accomplish this outcome without the constraints of time, and any attempt to do so would fall short, as the many cruddy derivatives of LOTR over the near century have proven.

And in a TTRPG, the same exact problem presents itself. If time doesn't matter, then anything you're doing is at best a facsimile of what it could be, all because we for some reason don't want to put in the bare minimum to make the gameworld feel more real.

And its not like time can't be used incorrectly; it absolutely can and has in many iterations. Even in DND, we see that fundamental problem with the traditional focus on Rests being used to restore game resources.

Rests are not only a poor means for this, but they also put undue constraints on how the gameworld can progress in terms of time, and any unbalance in that system leads to even more problems.

That people believe Gritty Realism to be better for the games mechanics is the best example of this, with the mechanics being so out of wack that entire weeks worth of time have to be abstracted just to make the game work.
 

Stalker0

Legend
I thnk the biggest number 1 thing missing from the game timewise is.... how long to search a room.

Again, the goal is to make this easy and generic. Say for example (pure example don't take the numbers as gospel).

A small area (10x10 or smaller) takes 10 minutes to search. This is looking for traps, for loot, for clues, etc.
Quick Search: 5 minutes. Any check is at disadvantage.
Detailed Search: 15 minutes. Any check is at advantage.

Large Room (20x20 or smaller)
Normal Search: 30 minutes
Quick Search: 15 minutes.
Detailed Search: 45 minutes

Large Room (40x40 ish)
Normal Search: 1 hour
Quick Search: 30 minutes
Detailed Search: 1.5 hours

And of course add some modifiers. If the room is bare bones, half the time, if its filled with stuff, double it, etc etc.


Part of the problem is, many dms and players alike have no earthly idea how long it takes to do the most common of dnd tropes....looting a room. And I would bet good money in game people are blitzing by this part in game time, assuming a task that probably could take half an hour is only taking a few minutes. Putting a least just a bit of time guidance in the core game would give people a consistent baseline to work from.
 

aco175

Legend
A small area (10x10 or smaller) takes 10 minutes to search. This is looking for traps, for loot, for clues, etc.
Quick Search: 5 minutes. Any check is at disadvantage.
Detailed Search: 15 minutes. Any check is at advantage.

Large Room (20x20 or smaller)
Normal Search: 30 minutes
Quick Search: 15 minutes.
Detailed Search: 45 minutes

Large Room (40x40 ish)
Normal Search: 1 hour
Quick Search: 30 minutes
Detailed Search: 1.5 hours
I might takes these times and lessen them depending on the number of searchers. A small room might only fit 2-3 PCs but if 3 people are searching then it might take about 1 minute.

Another idea of to take the DC and add time to lower the DC until the roll is made. Say the DC you are looking for is 15 to find something and you say it takes 1 minute to search. If the roll was a 12 instead you can take the difference and add time to allow the check to succeed at a price. The PCs find the thing, but it takes 10 minutes and now you roll a wandering monster check. There should be some sort of offer to the players to see how long they plan to search though.
 

Stalker0

Legend
I might takes these times and lessen them depending on the number of searchers. A small room might only fit 2-3 PCs but if 3 people are searching then it might take about 1 minute.

Another idea of to take the DC and add time to lower the DC until the roll is made. Say the DC you are looking for is 15 to find something and you say it takes 1 minute to search. If the roll was a 12 instead you can take the difference and add time to allow the check to succeed at a price. The PCs find the thing, but it takes 10 minutes and now you roll a wandering monster check. There should be some sort of offer to the players to see how long they plan to search though.
sure, the Dm can always adjust. However, in 5e style, I would make this very very simple. No real math, no major alterations. Just "it takes about this long", and then the DM can always adjust as they see fit.

The key is to put some number on paper to create a consistent start point. Because I guarrantee that some players that thought that massive treasure room will only tkae 1 minute, when the book says like 30....it resets some expectations.
 

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