Campaign Time

Most old school players would remember the (in)famous Dungeon Masters Guide quote:


Gary Gygax, AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide 1e, p37

There are some other curiosities about game time and keeping track of it relative to real-world time which appear in contemporary game products. For example, the same section of the first edition Dungeon Masters Guide advances that “it is best to use 1 actual day = 1 game day when no play is happening”. First edition Chivalry & Sorcery is perhaps even more interesting:

The time frame of Chivalry & Sorcery as a game is different from other games of its general type, for the one day = one game day concept has been dropped in favour of a more telescoped time period…

The recommended time period for individual adventure campaigns is roughly on a one to four basis, with one real week equal to one Game Month.

Ed Simbalist & Wilf Backhaus, Chivalry & Sorcery 1e, p2

In fact, Chivalry & Sorcery 1st edition goes further, noting that different seasons provide less adventure time (e.g. Winter) and therefore recommending a shorter real world time be allocated to their play. The table below is adapted from Chivalry & Sorcery 1st edition:

SeasonGame World MonthsReal World Duration
SpringApril and May2-3 real weeks
SummerJune to October8-10 real weeks
FallNovember and December2-3 real weeks
WinterJanuary to March1 real week

Not quite the same but similar is King Arthur Pendragon‘s suggested campaign structure, where each session of play corresponds to one year of campaign time. Although I try to adhere to this fairly strictly, there are some years where this is impractical and the year has to be split between two game sessions.

It is rare that modern games make such links between real time and game time – even though rules for downtime abound. This is even true in modern OSR games which actively attempt to recreate old school playing styles from the 70s and 80s. This is commented on in Courtney Campbell’s excellent On Downtime and Demesnes (affiliate link for B/X and 5e):

Classic Dungeons & Dragons by Gygax used the Gregorian Calendar, and had one day pass in the game as one day passed in the real world. But Gygax and co. ran their games much like a tabletop massively multiplayer role-playing game. Modern players are much more likely to have weeks of downtime pass in a few minutes.

Courtney Campbell, On Downtime and Demesnes, p206

In my Lamentations of the Flame Princess campaign, I track each day of game time closely. There’s a little downtime, and quite a bit of journey time, especially when the party is travelling by ship, but our campaign is over two years old and we have only advanced one year of game time in that period. My sense is that this is typical of other campaigns even where strict records of time are kept. One of the reasons I backed the Kickstarter for On Downtime and Demesnes was to give interesting downtime options for players, in the hope that in my D&D games the players would start choosing to allow more game world time to pass. There’s an interesting difference, I think, between what my players seem to want out of game world time and what I want as a referee. In this campaign and in others I have played, players seem keen not to “waste” game world time on uninteresting downtime. As a referee, I would like for more game world time to pass during a campaign, to allow characters and the broader game world to credibly develop in significant ways, and for those developments to have time to “be felt”.

For example, in my Lamentations of the Flame Princess campaign set in Civil War England, the Civil War is still in its infancy, and both aliens and monsters have been loosed on 17th Century England. More game world time progressing would allow both the Civil War itself to progress (which would itself drive the characters forward since they wish to affect the outcome of that conflict), and would allow a game world which predates mass communication to slowly become aware of the alien civilisations now at large on the planet’s surface, and to react accordingly. At the moment, most Londoners still scoff when they hear that a giant coral castle on the back of a dead giant turtle is slowly rotting in a field in Lincolnshire. As a referee, I am perhaps more engaged in the development of the game world itself than are my players. The players, for their part, are urgently carrying out their purposes with an efficiency more typical of the 21st Century military than the rank amateurs of both the King and Parliament’s armies in the Civil War’s opening months. I can’t fault them – they are right to do so. Up until now neither the game rules nor I have provided them with any interesting options for downtime rather than leaping into the next adventure.

I am about to start a Chivalry & Sorcery 5th edition campaign. We had our character generation session last weekend, and the first actual play sessions should be in a week or two. Just as it always have been in Chivalry & Sorcery, downtime is especially important for magick users, and several magick user characters were created at last weekend’s session. It takes anywhere from 2 to 130 days for a mage to reduce the magick resistance of materials in order to allow them to be enchanted, for example. It takes between 7 and 21 days to learn a spell. Magick users need downtime. Nor is downtime a waste for other characters – all characters can gain experience points during downtime, although magi, priests, and scholars gain more experience points than other character types by spending their time studying, researching, meditating and so on. Characters of all types also need downtime to learn new skills – with most skills taking approximately one month of game time to learn depending on a character’s Discipline attribute, whether they have a teacher, and on the difficulty factor of the skill (learning how to count is a lot easier than learning how to cast magick, for example). So not only does Chivalry & Sorcery benefit from downtime in the ways I think my other games could benefit, it actually needs downtime as a core game mechanic, and this will require keeping track of time (and downtime plans) rather more closely than some campaigns do, even, despite Gygax’s admonition, some of my own.

One final piece of wisdom from Chivalry & Sorcery 1st edition which I will apply in my just starting Chivalry & Sorcery 5th edition game:


The important thing to establish is the relation of real time to game time, so that all of the players know what the game date is in a particular week of play. Once general agreement is reached among the players, everyone knows how much time is passing. This fixing of a definite calendar for the game is especially vital for Magick Users, who operate on a very strict time scale when learning spells or doing enchantments.

Ed Simbalist & Wilf Backhaus, Chivalry & Sorcery 1e, p2

Wisdom which I think equally applies to the Chivalry & Sorcery 5th edition game we are now starting! To facilitate this, I will give every player a calendar with which to track the game world date and record/plan their own downtime activities. Hopefully, that will prove to be detail they enjoy, rather than resist.

Time will tell…

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