how’s this for d&d timekeeping: it’s always now!

I’m a logistics-light DM, so I never tracked time. Before the endless 5e playtest, back when I occasionally ran actual campaigns, I’d sometimes have the game weather match the real weather, and that was about it. I think that’s how a lot of DMs play, and I actually think it’s not a bad system.

I have some ideas for pushing this non-system a little farther. Some of the ideas are sillier than others. I’m not sure if I’d always want to play this way, but it’s worth an experiment – next time I run a campaign.

What year and month is it in D&D? It’s always now. For instance, in real life, it’s January ’13. If I started a D&D adventure right now, it’d be set in January ’13. Maybe not 2013, but the thirteenth year in some century.

What century is it? That’s determined by the edition you’re playing. If you’re playing Fourth Edition, it’s January 413 – the thirteenth year of the Fourth Age. If you play First Edition, it’s the year 113. In OD&D, it’s plain old Year 13. This calendar system will work for the next eighty-seven real years, by which time we’ll all be dead.

Tweaks: If you play 3.5, maybe it’s the year 363: 350 + 13. Pathfinder game: 375 + 13. If you’re playing 13th Age, it’s the year 1313. Auspicious!

How time passes: Generally, the fantasy-world date keeps up with the real date. If two weeks pass between game sessions, two weeks pass in the game world. Exceptions: a single day’s adventure might take multiple sessions, or the players might take a five-day boat trip during a session. In this case, fantasy and real time get out of sync. However, between sessions, the fantasy date advances to the current date.

the four-hour work week
Reading 2e books, I discovered that the “adventure” and the game session used to be virtually synonymous. Nowadays, we think of session-based mechanics as strictly indie-game territory. Interestingly, in the “it’s always now” system, you can tie renewable resources to the session. If you play in a weekly D&D game, you can have hit points and spells fully recharge every in-game week. Thus, you can’t rest and recharge multiple times in a single game session. The five-minute workday is gone.

Sometimes, beat-up characters do need rest. I’d say that the players can always rest overnight during the course of a game session, recovering most of their hit points and a few spells. Complete rest, though, requires a week of off-time – for the players AND characters.

Another obstacle to the “it’s always now” method is that you can’t easily hand-wave two weeks of travel. You’ll want to adjust your hex-crawl parameters so that a week of wilderness travel frequently takes at least a session.

A bonus of using today’s date: My DMing practice is that, when the PCs enter a village and ask what’s going on, there’s equal chances of 1) business as usual, 2) supernatural crisis, or 3) a festival. Using the real date helps you schedule real-holiday-appropriate festivals (and supernatural crises, for Halloween). Festivals offer lots of opportunities for silly competitions and quests. I’ve had PCs win ice-sculpture contests at the Ice Festival, compete in pumpkin-throwing and pie-eating contests at the Pumpkin Fair, and look for lost May Queens at the spring holiday.

Another bonus: you can use the real world as your weather generator. If your players come in tracking snow on your floor, you can throw a blizzard into the adventure. Note: This doesn’t work for people who live in California. Those characters, like their players, live in a typical D&D campaign: an unrealistically clement fairyland.


10 Responses to “how’s this for d&d timekeeping: it’s always now!”

  1. PeterD says:

    Heh. This is exactly how I play.

    Here is where I discuss doing this with weather:

    I do it with time, too. The real date is the game date. Even down to 2013 – it’s been 2013 days since the founding of the modern Church of the Good God. Done and done!

    It’s very convenient and it’s very easy for the players to remember.

    One thing my friend Doug ( suggested was just using an online weather website to check the weather in the area where your game supposedly takes place. So if you’re in SoCal but run a game in Muscovy, go check the weather in Moscow for same time of day it is in the game. It’ll be believable, for sure, because it’s quite real.

  2. Jeffro says:

    Car Wars has always been “50 years into the future” ever since Autoduel Quarterly started coming out.

    We have such a large group of continuing characters, that keeping pace with real time in any serious manner is unworkable, though. So our 2029 campaign is more or less permanently stuck in 2029. We may agree to bump it up to 2030 someday….

  3. Cody C. says:

    I’ve always been one to just hand-wave the passage of time in my game, only focusing on it when knowing the exact date, time, and weather in the game would play a vital role. However, I like the way you laid it out and I might try it that way in my next campaign as well.

  4. MormonYoYoMan says:

    Heh! I’ve always cheated in this manner, but far more blatant and – well, I just wasn’t clever enough to finagle the dates. (I’m no Jim Kirk, though I can break computers just as easily as he.) In my old campaigns, it was the same day, month, and year – which meant I had to be Real Careful with cliffhangers. It didn’t work to have someone falling into a bottomless pit for a full week until we met again — though I did try it.

  5. LS says:

    I actually quite like using a game calendar. Even if I stripped away all the other logistics from my game, I think I’d want to keep that.

    There’s something nice about playing D&D on a swelteringly hot day, and describing how cold your player’s characters are.

  6. Brendan says:

    I quite like using session-based resources. I even have players re-roll their hit dice every session rather than bothering with tracking how long healing takes (I generally assume that 1 week passes between sessions, unless there are special circumstances like an active pursuit). I also strongly encourage the PCs to return to town by the end of the adventure (it greatly eases logistics and decreased the amount of hand-waving needed when particular players can’t make a session).

    I do use an simplified made up calendar, and use a 2d6 reaction roll (modified by season) for the weather.

  7. paul paul says:

    A reaction roll for weather – that’s a great idea. Hostile weather!

  8. I like this idea, in theory. But what happens when you have to break for the night and it takes three weeks before you can get the players to gather again? Have they spend three weeks staring at the wall in the dungeon?

  9. […] Last week I suggested that in-game time match real time. If your D&D campaign lasts a real year, your characters grow one year older. You could also try the opposite approach: Leveling up always takes a year. […]

  10. […] mentioned that you can use the game year to denote what edition you're running. Thus, if you're playing 4e, […]

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