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When starting a campaign, one of the many decisions to make is how you will handle time. For short campaigns, where the entire story resolves within a few weeks of in-character time, you can probably skip this step, but for longer campaigns, it is an important decision to agree on between the storyteller and players.

For this blogpost, I wanted to explore time for longer campaigns, both the online or chat-based and the regular tabletop ones, and how it can be approached. While each campaign handles time slightly differently, in general it can be distinguished between three main types: real time, narrative time and simulated time.

Real Time

Real time means the game flows in parallel to the real world. While action may slow down to allow for the complexities of combat, in general, a week in real life is a week in the game world. Real time campaigns may actually use real time, where the actual date in the game is the same as it is in real life, or it may lag (for example, taking place 100 years in the past – or future). To better suit the fantasy nature of some games, the names of months might be changed, but there usually needs to be a generic 1 to 1 mapping with our world to be viable as ‘real time’.

The advantage of real time is that it is by far the easiest to track. There is also no confusion between players or storytellers about the date or time. If you are actually using the real world as a setting, you can even mix real world events into the game as they develop.

Real time is especially well suited for LARP games. During a Christmas time session, you can reuse the holiday decorations for your backdrop, while planning events even outside regular game time is as simple as it gets. It also works well for larger chat communities due to better synchronization, though some flexibility has to be had if you have players from different time zones.

A disadvantage of using real time is that it is harder to slow down when necessary. To handle this, it may be useful to use “Time Bubbles”. When things like combat happen and it is necessary to slow down a bit to be able to handle the intricacies, you shift out of real time. Everyone in the Time Bubble then catches up with the regular clock once the battle is completed. Time Bubbles may also be used for longer events that require multiple sessions to complete, even if they would happen in a single night in game.

Narrative Time

Narrative time means the game runs at the speed of plot, similar to many TV series, and is the default for most games. While all games slow down or speed up time by the story, narrative time deliberately does not track time to a specific calender. When you want to run a Christmas event, simply declare Christmas is coming up soon. Doesn’t matter if you had a beach episode last week!

The advantage of narrative time is that it gives the storyteller a lot of control to shape the chronology of stories and match critical events to the session in dramatic fashion. Only exceptionally good planning can make that happen with a real time campaign.

A disadvantage though is that players may feel somewhat disconnected as their sense of time may be very different from that of other players. Worst case, it can result in players presuming an entirely different season for an event. It also places the responsibility of time keeping with the storyteller, as players are inevitably going to ask how long ago event X was, which doesn’t just risk errors unless the storyteller keeps a detailed chronology, but could also lead to players wanting to go back in time to do things their PCs would certainly have remembered. It is harder to say no to this if players have no way of tracking time other then going with the narrative.

Simulated Time

Simulated Time is somewhat in between real-time and narrative time. The game actively tracks time, counting days or even keeping track on a calender, and all events happen in chronological order.

However, the speed by which events take place is not fixed. While one session may represent an hour of in game time, another may represent an entire month. In all cases though, time is tracked and used up, and once it is gone, you cannot go back (powerful magic excepted). Simulated time allows for fancyful calenders that some storytellers enjoy making for their worlds and the tracking of dates, times and seasons can be handed over to a player once they know how the calender works.

This kind of play is most well suited for ‘sandbox’ games where players at least in part set their own goals. The time used for certain projects or plans becomes a sort of in-game currency that can be used in different ways, as players choose how to spend their time. A regular question becomes “what do you want to do during this time period?”, essentially giving the stage to each player.

One disadvantage of this is that it moves some of the control over time to the players and away from the storyteller, making it harder to manage. In particular, it is harder in this model to balance between a player who wants to wait 6 months as his mansion is built and another player who just wants to interact with everything as much and as frequently as they possibly can. To handle this, players will have to agree with one another about the amount of time and the granularity thereof, and it sometimes helps if the storyteller is able to generously reduce the building time of the mansion a bit.

All in all, these are the three most common ways in which time is used in storytelling. In a future blogpost, we may be able to take a deeper look as there are many aspects that haven’t yet been covered.

What time do you use in your campaigns? We’d love to hear about it on the Community Forum!