TIME & THE RISK ECONOMYOnly 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|
CLASSIC TIMETime 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 take.” pg. 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.
DUNGEON TIME - THE DIEGETIC EXPLANATION.
|AD&D 1st Edition Player's Handbook Cover|
Imagine that you had grown up in a society without a distinct concept of the second, where hours or other portions of the day were tracked for most only by the sound of church bells, market bells or calls to prayer. Perhaps the wealthy have access to sundials, candle and water clocks. None of these methods of timekeeping prepares one to break actions down into ten minute intervals, let alone six second ones - if the fantasy quasi-medieval culture even had a modern conception of the second, and time is an imprecise thing. Further imagine that with this imprecise concept of time, one is exploring an underground maze full of dangers with only artificial light. Between the darkness and the adrenaline time becomes seductively fluid, waiting tense moments takes hours or slides by with never enough time for the necessary tasks, while action slows to a crawl. The combination of pre-modern concepts of time, a limited exposure to timekeeping, a lack of reliable portable timekeeping devices and the strange (perhaps even magically hostile) environment of the dungeon should give a Gm plenty of ways to explain the imprecise nature of the ‘Turn’ and silence debates about how long player actions take.
With this explanation it’s easy to see the exploration turn as ‘the length of time it takes to do a significant action’ and activities that take multiple turns as ‘complex and time consuming actions’. There’s little need for more detail, because this abstracts and gameifies - a convenience allowing easy tracking and adjudication by the GM and a better understanding of the risk of a specific action on the part of the players.
EXPLORATION DICE - A SOLUTION TO TIMEKEEPING WOESEven armed with imprecise ’turn’ timekeeping can be a chore, as 1st edition Guide notes “Keeping track of time in the dungeon (or on any other type of adventure) is sometimes difficult” Dungeon Master’s Guide, 1st Edition, pg 39. Understanding that the turn isn’t a linear, coherent representation of time, but a mechanic however offers a solution to this dilemma - the ‘Exploration Die’ also called the overloaded encounter die. First popularized by Brendan of Necropraxis blog, the goals of the Exploration Die is to simplify timekeeping while retaining or reinforcing the resource depletion aspects of dungeon exploration and risk of random encounters. It has the additional effect, because it’s transparently and directly linked to a constant slow depletion of character resources, of making individual turns more obviously valuable and suspenseful then traditional tracking based timekeeping. There are many variations on the system and it’s quite open to being individually tailored to specific adventure locations but they follow a general scheme.
At the end of each Turn (using the abstracted idea of time discussed above) the GM rolls 1D6 - the traditional random encounter roll. The roll functions as normal with a ‘1’ resulting in a random encounter (which is itself a topic worth exploring in a later post). The other dice result in various other effects, generally something that depletes player resources. A sample or base for the Exploration Die:
Roll 1D6 every at the start of every Turn.
- Sign (Indication of monster presence - which can also set the nature of the next Random Encounter) or other regional action (clock to volcano eruption advances etc).
- Torch[es] burn out.
- Lanterns burn ½ a flask of oil.
- Spells Fade (spells with a duration of 6 turns/1 hour or greater may last through multiple Spell Fades).
- Party becomes Exhausted and must rest or suffer penalties (or alternatively suffers one of 3 exhaustion pips which can be cured by rest or food - remember to roll again during the rest).
The die results should each come up once every 6 turns (or approximately once an abstracted, character unknowable hour) but of course only over a long period of time. In play they tend to vary greatly, but even out to a certain extent because a party that has many random encounters will use fewer dungeoneering resources while one that doesn’t will use more. The unpredictable and unbalanced nature of the mechanic can be beneficial even, as it encourages players not to skimp on supplies and strange (but inevitable) runs of a specific result can lead to both players and GM to provide explanations (a leaking lamp, a batch of bad torches, the dominance of a particular random monster within the location or severe hangovers among the party).
The Encounter die both heavily gamifies timekeeping and emphasizes resource depletion and random encounter risk which allows/encourages an additional simplification of exploration - an imprecise approach to exploration movement rates.
In traditional dungeon crawl games the party will generally move a a specific (an fairly slow rate assuming they have armored members) through the location, taking several turns to traverse long corridors or large chambers. With the emphasis that the Exploration die places on dungeoneering resources and the understanding that a Turn is an abstract and imprecise period of time tracking movement per turn is less important and it’s often convenient to make movement abstract as well - and convenience is the main attraction of the Exploration Die after all.
A Turn of movement can be abstracted to be movement from one keyed area to another - or one room to another, though of course there are always exceptions - which like tasks which take multiple turns should be obvious and limited to long twisting corridors, massive halls or huge caverns. Yes, this is a return to the nonchalant attitude towards timekeeping endorsed by the 5th Edition, but it provides the important distinction that the Turn itself still matter and resource depletion, risk of random encounters are retained even as the book keeping aspects of timekeeping and movement tracking are lessened or eliminated.
SKILLS AND FAILURE
While movement and interaction with locations and dungeon furnishings (searching for example) are the most common uses for Turns in an exploration game another place where timekeeping becomes useful is the use of skills. Skill usage in dungeon crawl games is traditionally something that is limited to areas where it’s impossible or impractical for players themselves to figure out an answer (e.g. a skill check wouldn’t be used to see if one can set of a trap trigger with a 10’ pole, one would be appropriate for a character attempting to disarm the trap with thieves tools), but they do get used. One of the the issues with skill checks in games where time isn’t a mechanical concern is the question of what the consequences for failed skill rolls are. This might be obvious when a character attempts to use an acrobatics skill to leap over a pit of flames, but it’s far less so when the character is attempting something that has no clear negative effect - such as searching for secret doors or picking a lock. While it’s obvious that a failed lock picking attempt means the chest or door remained locked, less obvious if and why the character can’t simply keep trying to pick the lock until they succeed? Playing this out, especially with a low probability skill check, can be a profoundly annoying waste of time, but it also doesn’t seem fair to say that the character can simply eventually pick the lock. This leads some Game Masters or rulesets to institute rules about only being able to use a given skill once in a given situation, but this is can be quite harsh as well. The problem here vanishes with any sort of timekeeping, resource depletion and random encounters because time spent repeatedly trying to pick a lock is tense and represent a risk vs. reward calculation by the players - the risk of random encounters and depleted resources from either time or loudly forcing the lock vs. the potential reward of unlocking the lock silently.
With the built in risk of timekeeping skill failure penalties, just as the GM has no inclination to prevent multiple skill checks he has a reduced one to make the results of skill failure punitive. Rather then being spotted with a failed stealth roll the GM can simply say that the character doesn’t see how they could sneak past an alert creature, leaving open the option to wait until circumstances change for another try. This doesn’t mean that skills failures should never have consequences beyond delay, but it does allow for the character to fail less spectacularly, less often at skills they should be practiced in - it helps portray the characters as competent, rather then shockingly prone to slapstick disaster.