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.


AD&D 1st Edition Player's Handbook Cover
The imprecise nature of “Turns” and “Rounds”, especially the 10 minute turn and 1 minute round of Classic Dungeons & Dragons are frustrating and imprecise to many players. Modern life is very much time focused, and extremely granular - hours, minutes and even seconds are both important to track and available with almost no effort. It’s not wrong to say that D&D timekeeping is not as precise as it could be, but it’s as precise as it needs to be. To dig deeper and pare the turn or round into ½ actions or partial turns is a danger, succumbing to simulationist thinking that leads almost inevitably to reducing the timescale of the game to seconds or minutes of action (or round Segments if you use the raw AD&D rules) which overwhelms the GM’s ability to track time, while demanding constant calculations and decisions when the player ingenuity provides novel schemes. How long in minutes or seconds does it take to rig tripwires or divert the flow of a fountain to flood a pit? I’m sure a diligent GM or fan of physics problems could provide an answer to these questions, but ten minutes of scratch paper calculation and google searches to determine how many random encounter rolls to make is not a fun or useful way to spend game time for most players and GMs. The answer to these questions is much easier when the absolute unit of dungeon time is the turn - a rough and undefined period of time. Yes this is gamification, but it’s useful and it’s a transparent mechanic that defines risk and reward clearly for player and Game Master alike. Actions either take no meaningful amount of time (a quick first impression of a new area) or they take a turn (almost everything else) and result in a random encounter check and the decline of resources, primarily light. This mechanical appeal of abstracted timekeeping and indistinct turn lengths is also easy to support with a diegetic rationale, that is reasons that make sense in the fiction of the game.

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.


Even 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 difficultDungeon 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.
  1. Encounter
  2. 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).
  3. Torch[es] burn out. 
  4. Lanterns burn ½ a flask of oil.
  5. Spells Fade (spells with a duration of 6 turns/1 hour or greater may last through multiple Spell Fades).
  6. 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.

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.


Timekeeping and the use of time aren’t for every campaign, style of play or scenario - and timekeeping is one part of a larger set of subsystems that help make exploration play more exciting. Without these other aspects (resources depletion and random encounters) timekeeping of any sort is largely a pointless chore. Like most Mechanics or Principles I talk about in this blog, Timekeeping, Turns and even Dungeon Time alone are relatively useless at improving play, however even if you are playing a heroic game focused on encounter based or scene based design it can be useful to think about players resources and how your play style manages them and depletes them. Likewise, following Gygax’s first obsession with campaign time described above timekeeping need not be simply for exploring the dungeon, and the same principles of abstracting and gamifying time units can be used either on the macro scale (using the session as a unit of game time rather than a week or day) or at the tactical level (the round need not be a certain length, representing only a exchange or some other portion of combat) and this, at minimum, can help avoid disputes about what is and isn’t possible for the characters in a given period of time.


  1. I sometimes think that the ideal location for resource-management focused play would be deep underwater or in the vacuum of space - where it's understandable that the available resources would be severely limited, that you would want/need to track the depletion of resources very closely, and that each unit of resource depleted doesn't buy you very much exploration time.

    We generally accept that each character can only wear two oxygen tanks, that carrying extra oxygen is EXTREMELY cumbersome and difficult, and that it's both possible and very VERY dangerous to replace someone's oxygen tank if they run out early. It's harder to see why an entire party of adventurers would fail to bring 2-3 torches apiece into the dungeon.

    There's also plenty consensus that those are environments that inherently antithetical to human life, in a way that "building that happens to be underground" is not. Like, in a crypt that's no deeper than my basement but filled with skeletons, or a human-built fortress that's been taken over by goblins, I accept that the skeletons and goblins are dangerous, but it's harder to BELIEVE that the environment itself hates me, even if I agree in principle that the underworld SHOULD feel like that.

    The other nice thing about oxygen is, when the characters run out, they die. I'm not really sure what's supposed to happen if you truly run out of light sources. Is the DM really just supposed to say "it's perfect darkness, you can't see anything" and then let the players try to describe shuffling around with their arms outstretched, groping with their fingertips to try to feel the wall? I really don't think I could do it, as either a judge or a player. I just don't have it in me.


      re: what to do when the lights go out and it's not in combat: yeah, I'd want to abstract that. FUMBLING HOME IN THE DARK: If the game had an Architecture check, I'd use that, otherwise I'd use a difficult wisdom check. Succeed and the players move to the next room they want to go to; if they fail, randomly determine the next room from all exits including the one the players want (if you roll that, they THINK they're lost, but they accidentally went the right way.) Roll an encounter check each time.

  2. Oddly I find the idea of playing or GMing an effort to escape from some underworld hellpit after running out of light to be pretty cool. Alternatively one could create a horrifyingly punitive table (that J. Rients on about camping in the dungeon comes to mind)for trying to escape in the dark.

    I agree that airless environments antithetical to human life would more immediately create the sense that character supply was deadly important and would emphasize the danger of time. However, I don't necessarily find that lacking from a good sized dungeon crawl of the standard 'building underground' sort. Above I mention that the time element discussed is one part of a triad of mechanics (random encounters and meaningful resource depletion being the others) which make exploration tense.

    With resource depletion I've found the key is encumbrance. Yes characters should take multiple torches, lanterns and vials of oil into the adventure location - but with a strict encumbrance system, and I like STR = Significant Items, that comes at the cost of other supplies: rope, weapons, scrolls, rations, and other tools. It also plays directly into treasure recovery because most treasure (jewelry which thus becomes more valuable) has encumbrance value as well.

    I like the way all this interacts - the questions of safety vs. potential wealth and such.

  3. The first thing I addressed in my upcoming bx-ified hack of 5e, was tie in a much stricter adherence to time mechanics in all phases of play (though I renamed the dungeon turn to "exploration segment" since turn means something else in 5e). I also use necropraxis' idea (I call it the event die) and have adapted it to all phases of play (even an optional rule for using it in combat).

    I think for old school play, it is an essential element that time is working against you viz a viz resource management.

    Want to take a short rest? np, but it's another roll of the event die as it takes one segment. Once the group gets a feel for how each meaningful set of actions for the party means time advancing and the event/exploration/hazard die rolling, it changes the feel of exploration completely.

  4. Although I have left 5e for a modern BX clone, I did run and old school dungeon crawl 5e campaign.

    A simple way of tracking time is using poker chips. I have 5 alternating white and blue chips (wbwbw) and a bunch of red chips. After each turn I add the next chip in the stack. When a blue chip co,es up it time for a random encounter check. When i run out of chips I replace the stack with a red chip (signifying a hour), torches have to be replaced, and roll for an encounter.

    The next turn I start the process over again by stacking a white chip on top of the red chip.

    This makes it VERY easy to figure out how much time has passed - just count the red chips for hours and the other in 10 minute increments. I never forget to roll for encounters,use up torches, etc.

    I could use a black chip at hour 4 to require the use of a flask of lantern oil, but haven't.

    Time problems solved! Between this and having the players keep track or certain things, it has increased both my fun, and the engagement of my players, as they can SEE the time management economy play out (time = risk).

    1. That's a neat way to track time. I've seen the recommendation of using a cribbage board as well as a visual track, but personally I still prefer attaching supply loss to the random encounter die -- not the least because I am a profoundly lazy GM and don't want to get need poker chips or any sort of track for timekeeping.

      For 5E however one of the big issues is the length of time required to use supplies and the speed of exploration. 5E's minute long turns mean that the the 4 hour flask of lantern oil lasts 240 exploration turns...

      As you appear to have done, you can go back to the longer turns(still 24 turns for oil, which feels long to me but...) found in earlier systems, but playing 5E RAW, clever timekeeping still won't help much, because the supply economy suffers from such serious deflation. Why track oil use when you're never finishing a flask of oil?

  5. This is a great read. I intend to use the exploration dice method, too. Just to point out though, you have a direct contradiction in the text; "At the *end* of each Turn the GM rolls 1D6", followed a few lines later by "Roll 1D6 every at the *start* of every Turn. I'd actually like to know the answer to when the dice is rolled.

    1. So yeah - this is a blog post, not a ruleset. You get what you pay for?

      Still the only answer I have is both the end and the beginning? Now as far as when I'd roll an exploration/Overloaded Encounter Die, I think one rolls it (or - and I personally enjoy this - have a player roll). The roll exists in that liminal space between turns. It's almost a ludic, meta-narrative pause in play. An oracular appeal to randomness that marks the characters future. Perhaps I shouldn't day drink when I answer these.

      So yeah, there's maybe two ways to to handle this:

      A) You roll after the action of each Turn and before the next (when the random encounter might occur).

      B) The GM rolls a whole mess of rolls prior to play.

      I don't really like the second as it recreates the record keeping that the roll avoids - you're not tracking torch burn down anymore, but you're tracking something and that's GM effort that could be better used describing bugbears.

      One thing I'd like to add is that while I think things like torch burn down, exhaustion and spell duration - supply concerns or player focused events should occur at the immediate start of the turn following (see I don't have to answer the question...), encounters, omens and such can occur at any time during the turn. For encounters one might even place them on the map nearby -- if a sudden invasion of the room the PCs are in by beasties makes no sense.

      There's still a fair bit of room for GM interpretation, and frankly I don't have answers on the modalities of that.


Old Games

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