I started thinking about D&D timekeeping while reading my swagged copy of Adventurer Conqueror King on the plane back from Gencon.
There’s all sorts of rules in 1e D&D that require timekeeping: monthly cost of hirelings; spell research; recovery of HP; taxes; building; aging; income from lands. All that stuff is notable in its absence from modern D&D, and seems like it might be a fun addition to paragon-level 4e D&D. The problem is, tracking the passage of days and weeks is not something I do as a DM in 4e, any more than tracking players’ alignments or using charts to determine the weather each morning. I have an inefficient brain and I always forget anything that can be forgotten (I like to dignify this process with the title “streamlining the rules.”)
What if timekeeping were turned over to the players to track? Well, unless time passing were interesting in some way, they wouldn’t do it. What if time were a resource to manage, and they got some benefit from spending it?
Let’s say that, at the end of any session, the players may choose to spend a month. They can only do this if they’re at a home base where they can reasonably hang out – not if they’re in the middle of a combat or a dungeon. They may only spend one month per session, and they don’t have to spend one at all if they don’t want to.
The DM can also spend one or more months during a session, if, for instance, the PCs are travelling uneventfully.
What do the characters get when they spend a month?
Why not give them some XP? This would represent training and research outside of the adventure – the way normal people level up. If you gave PCs 3% of the XP towards the next level per month, that would be enough for totally sedentary PCs to get to level 10 over the course of a 30-year career. You could set this up as a money drain. In order to get the benefit of monthly training, they need to spend some amount of money on books/training/carousing.
Income from lands! This makes lands and titles an actual type of treasure, not a purely roleplaying reward.
Building! Even dwarven engineers can’t upgrade your fort overnight.
Politics moves at this scale. A month might be the amount of time it takes for a kingdom to raise an army, a spy to report back from a mission, or a caravan or army to travel from one kingdom to another.
Crazy long-lasting magical effects (that are compatible with normal adventuring)! Make a save at the end of every month to see if you are still under the love spell of the Lady of the Fey Grove. On a failure, you spend your non-adventuring time hawking and balladeering with her, and you won’t hear a word against her.
If you’re wanted by the law, you might want to lay low for a month or two until the heat dies down.
Of course, time also takes a toll…
Taxes and rents! At low levels, PCs are more likely to have monthly expenses than monthly income, so low-level parties might not want to spend time willy nilly.
Aging! In a long-running campaign, a human might actually grow up, maybe have kids. Elves, of course, wouldn’t change at all.
This system is unlikely to kill off your characters from old age, since, for a weekly group, time passes, at most, at around four times the rate of real time. In fact, between missed sessions and sessions ended in the dungeon, game time is likely to go about the same speed as real time.
The Month resource allows us some options:
I love in-game festivals! If time is actually passing, you can non-arbitrarily have, say, a harvest festival come up, or the dead rise during an eclipse.
We could decide that all effects of an extended rest – replenishment of daily powers, full healing – only take place when players spend a month. Sleeping overnight might have some lesser benefit, like getting back some number of surges.
You can have time-based campaign challenges. Maybe the orcs raid every winter when their food stores run out. Maybe the treaty with the Empire expires in three months.