Thursday, March 21, 2019

TIME - The Risk Economy Part I


Only when I started running 5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons, and really digging into the rules did I realize something shocking to a player with a background in earlier versions of the game. 5th Edition D&D has no meaningful mechanics about time. Not combat rounds, which it devotes a good amount of space - analyzing how many actions can be taken per round, how many feet traveled and such - but non-combat time. There’s a few mentions of hours and minutes and generalized statements like “It takes them [characters] about a minute to creep down a long hallway, another minute to check for traps on the door at the end of the hall, and a good ten minutes to search the chamber beyond for anything interesting or valuable.” Player’s Handbook, 5th Edition, pg 181.

This nonchalant approach to time is a contrast with that of 1st Edition - where Gygax famously shouts “YOU CAN NOT HAVE A MEANINGFUL CAMPAIGN IF STRICT TIME RECORDS ARE NOT KEPT.Dungeon Master’s Guide, 1st Edition, pg 37. As always Gygax is a bit of a showman and loves an exaggeration, but, while there’s no need for all caps, earlier editions are much more concerned with how time passes for the adventurers and tracking that time then 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons. Today it’s easy to write the concerns about time in 1st Edition Guide off, at least as exaggeration, and the examples that follow in the old book don’t help much - they are focused on the passage of large blocks of time - days and weeks and activities like magic item creation, training and healing - but you shouldn’t dismiss time if you want to run a good dungeon adventure.

AD&D 1979 DM's Screen
Space and the players’ movement through it is the primary focus of the dungeon crawl, but space is meaningless without time. How can any resource mean anything with your game if it is never at risk of exhaustion? Are light, rations, spell duration, even HP (if rests are allowed without risk) meaningful outside their applicability in each encounter or challenge if they aren’t ever at risk of running out? It’s possible to run a game this way, but you’ll be eliding exploration and discovery by reducing it to a boring time waster (because there’s no risk to wandering and investigating everything). I sometimes think this is what happened to adventure design as the editions advanced - players and designers jettisoned the clumsy, somewhat unclear rules for resource management and non-combat time out of frustration and a sense that tracking torch supplies and movement rates outside of combat were unexciting or unheroic. The ascendancy of Dragonlance and its authors’ (The Hickman’s) search for play that feels more literary combined with a distrust for the actuarial, war-game like logistics of Gygaxian play may also have had a role, but by the time the 5th Edition of Dungeons and Dragons was published, 35 years after the 1st edition Dungeon Master’s Guide, non-combat time is relegated to single vague paragraph. Spells, torches and lanterns have durations in minutes, but these are essentially meaningless both because of the vague nature of the 5th Edition minute and the length of the durations - 60 minutes for a torch (which will illuminate an adventuring party’s movement through 18,000 feet of dungeon corridor). It’s no surprise then that time, movement and resource management begs to be ignored in more modern games - and as a result the narratively significant encounter becomes the building block of adventure design over the spatially significant level. It’s even a perfectly reasonable way to play, but this is a blog about running classic dungeon crawls focused on exploration and risk v. reward, so time and timekeeping are extremely important.


Time is important, as important and central to meaningful exploration play as Gygax implies it is, keystone to a set Design Principles that enable the classic dungeon crawl to focus on exploration by creating a risk economy and a spatial environment. Other Principles that support exploration and which I’ll look at in the future are: Encumbrance and Random Encounters which provide time with its dangers, but without which time tracking or modelling simply becomes meaningless drudgery. This isn’t to say that modern encounter based design or the trend away from exploration is a mistake or without benefits, because without the support of other principles time is largely without purpose and the classic mechanics for tracking it (and encumbrance) are irksome at best.

In the 1981 Moldvay edition of Basic Dungeon’s and Dragons time, like everything else in this astonishingly dense and effective set of rules, gets only a short note - but one that is balanced towards exploration.

Time in D&D adventures is given in turns of ten minutes each. A turn is not a measure of real time, but is a measure of how much a character can do within a given amount of time. A character may explore and map an area equal to his or her movement rate in one turn. It also takes a turn for a character to search a 10'x10' area, for a thief to check an item for traps, to rest or to load a bag with treasure. The DM should decide how long other actions that characters might try will B19

As similar as these ideas are to the 5th Edition notation on time, Basic D&D uses movement much lower movement rates (60’ per turn for a party with armored members) and the longer duration of the ‘turn’ mean that resources are expended far faster. Torches in Basic D&D burn out in 6 turns, or roughly 360’ of dungeon corridor, vs. 5th edition’s 18,000. Moreover early Dungeons & Dragons, including the basic rules above, are part of an ethos where resources are important and spending time in the mythic underworld is risky. One where “It is essential that on accurate time record be kept so that the DM can determine when to check for wandering monsters, and in order to keep a strict check on the duration of some spells (such as bless, haste, strength, etc.)” Dungeon Master’s Guide, 1st Edition, pg 38.

These rules are more emphasis and dire warning then actual mechanics, and place the task of timekeeping firmly in the Game Master’s hands - the GM is responsible for deciding what actions constitute a turn, tracking turns and determining spell, torch and other durations. This is a lot of work, work that distracts from running the more exciting aspects of the game such description or monster motivations and characterization. Second this method of timekeeping opens up space for dispute about what exactly constitutes a turn’s worth of activity, dispute that becomes ever more likely the more important time and resources are to character success and survival.

The rules for timekeeping aren’t especially clear and so can become a basis for in game disputes between players and Game Master, but worse they are rules that impact every action within the dungeon encouraging disputes to be commonplace. Despite this a basic set of rules, largely uncodified, has been worked out by players in games where timekeeping a resources matter.

To understand why this system has been unpopular, and is quickly abandoned - even by the rules of later editions consider that at the core of the classic dungeon crawl is an acceptance of Game Master adjudication and ad hoc decision making. While this maxim is only lightly held in an era where public play and Rules as Written predominate in some communities - the GM exists to do more then set up a clockwork adventure run entirely with rule mechanics or to impart NPCs and monsters with quirky personalities. Game Mastering at its core is resolving unexpected situations and deciding how to model novel player actions. In unprecedented or rare game scenarios the players and Game Master should have room to discuss and determine how to fairly proceed with the GM acting as final decision maker, but this is a time consuming process inefficient for common, reoccurring disputes. For commonplace game event, especially those without clear resolutions, rules are necessary. This is one reason why tabletop games often have a large amount of rules regarding combat, even in games - such as those in the classic dungeon crawling tradition - where combat isn’t a major locus of play. Timekeeping should not be an area for dispute and conflict.

What are the classic rules for timekeeping then? Both the AD&D 1st Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide and the 1981 Basic Dungeons and Dragons book don’t really give much in the way of clues. Obviously one could carefully mark out the movement of PCs on the map - approximately 6 squares per turn and 60 squares with 6 random encounters per torch. Again, all of this falls on the Game Master, and while the tracking can be minimized with prepared sheets that can even include pre-rolled encounters (not really illusionism, because while predetermined by turn there’s no indication or limit on what the players could be doing when the random encounter appears) it makes timekeeping a treacherous chore that takes energy and thought away from a myriad of other Game master tasks. One can also create a menu of how long common dungeon tasks require to perform, but this seems like an interminable chore. Secondly doing so breaks the concept and utility of the dungeon turn, because suddenly there are actions that take partial turns and the minute by minute granularity of time returns. The basic principle of classic timekeeping then is to generalize player actions so that they take a turn each.

This is precisely the route recommended in early Dungeons & Dragons guides. “All referees should keep a side record of time on a separate sheet of paper, marking off the turns as they pass (melees or other actions which result in fractional turns should be rounded up to make complete turns).Dungeon Master’s Guide, 1st Edition, pg 39. It’s important to note that even at this stage of the game’s design, and even with a designer as actuarially minded and simulationist as Gygax, player actions are rounded up and generalized to complete turn to avoid the constant argument of how long various tasks ‘should’ take or ‘realistically’ take. Regardless of if you choose to use a classic tracking system for timekeeping or the ‘Exploration Dice’ method I discuss below the gamification and abstraction of meaningful player actions to turn length is essential to avoid falling back into conflict and the minutiae of adjudicating character performance on a minute by minute or even second by second scale.

Old Games

Let’s talk about old tabletop roleplaying games - specifically the kind of games played in the 1980’s and recently depicted in the nostalgia...