Tuesday, February 10, 2015

It May Be Easy, But That Doesn't Mean I Can Do It Right


Time is easy. 

Just look down at the clock in the lower right of your screen and you'll see it marching on at a boring and steady pace. Yet if there is one problem in gaming that haunts my thoughts it's the problem of keeping time. Not the rhythm of how the players interact with the scenario I've laid out, or the way that I play off their momentum, but the actual tracking of time. I'm terrible at it. My notebooks are littered with inane numerical ephemera that look like I've been marking the measurements for impossible women. Then there are frantic scribblings that crowd near the numbers, as though in doing so their meaning might be found, that are no help at all. So I hand wave most of it and pretend that it isn't all that damned important after all. Only I know better. As a player and as a Game Master I know that there is a value in keeping track of how long a spell runs or the number of hours a torch has been lit. Such things have a meaning to the game that runs deeper than the little ticks I mark on the page. 

Why, then, do I have such trouble with keeping track of it all?

For a long time I would have told you that it's because things quickly become overly complicated when I'm running the game as I tend to run on a single page of notebook paper and drop the rest in off the top of my head - not the most advantageous way to run but it prevents me from wasting too much time in preparation. The truth though is that I lose track of time because it doesn't matter to me. As a player the only scales of time that really capture my attention tend to be on the larger side of things: nights, days, weeks, months, seasons, and years. This is because I favor combat classes. My history of characters is made up nearly exclusively of fighters, barbarians, and monks. With those classes I have a natural ability to visualize the terrible things I want to do my enemies. I am unapologetically brutal in combat and it is a lot of fun for me to put the Game Master on their heels by destroying every thing that's fool enough to stand against me. As a Game Master, though, that attitude changes; but my focus on time doesn't.

That's something that I've been working to overcome in recent years. Not the attitude change but rather my focus on time. I've been trying to figure out a way to better track things like torches and the passing of hours. One of my tricks that has been working really well of late is a series of boxes that I draw when some effect begins and I write above it what it's denoting. With torches and similar effects that are measured in hours it has really made things a lot easier for me to keep straight. For rounds though I have typically been so wrapped up in the million things going on that I've continued to have trouble - that is till I brought back in the Arneson Rule.


For those of you that weren't reading me back in 2013 I created the Arneson Rule based on things I had read Dave Arneson would do in his combats. I doubt that this rule is an exact emulation of what Dave did, but for my games it has worked beautifully regardless of the system, edition, or setting.
The Arneson Rule:
When combat occurs any player not involved in the encounter is given control of the monsters involved. If multiple players are not involved in the encounter than the monstrous group will be divided up among them as the Game Master decides. 
My players tend to split the party a lot so this rule comes to the fore far more than you'd ever imagine. The beauty for me is that by giving control of the monsters over to the missing players I'm freed up to keep track of everything that has always eluded me as a Game Master. Suddenly marking the number of rounds that a certain spell occurs or how long an effect lasts isn't such a chore. Now I still have issues when the players are all together but I'm getting better. 

So my question for you all is this: how do you manage to keep track of time in your games?

40 comments:

  1. When I was younger , like right out of high school younger I woudl divide my note book pages into 10 squares each one was a round and I would write what happened in each round in a box. Draw a line through multiple boxes for effects, note held actions / contingencies and all that fun. I would make up a few of these pages before the beginning of the game even map put some planed encounters, like noting in box five "reinforcement orcs arrive."
    That was then.
    now-days I'm lucky if I have a page of notes.
    Time is measured in days, if at all.

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    1. Wow. I bet that drove you nuts when you were younger!

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    2. I think it worked alright , It was a visual way of doing it, which I need. I just dropped it as time moved forward. I might revisit the idea again someday and post a scan of the results.. If I ever get a face to face game again.

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    3. Also I need to do more prep than "1 ice cube and three fingers of Four Roses" for it to be worth while.

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    4. "It was a visual way of doing it, which I need."

      I totally get that, Holmes. It seems like when it comes to anything that isn't visually real to me I have to create a representation that I can manipulate for my own ends

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    5. "Also I need to do more prep than "1 ice cube and three fingers of Four Roses" for it to be worth while."

      Ha! I always do 3 large ice cubes and then fill the glass because I'm against using my fingers to measure liquor! Also, Four Roses? I've never even heard of that before! How is it?

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    6. Four roses is an inexpensive (about $25) bourbon, that I like.
      Their Small batch label is consistently on "10 best lists" at a price of about 35 bucks.
      I'm not a drink snob, but I like a good Bourbon. As a sipping Bourbon I think it's as good as many of the more expensive bottles.

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    7. I've been in a pretty committed relationship with George Dickel and Maker's Mark for the last few years that's slowed down my experimentation with liquors. It may be time to branch out again and try Four Roses though as it's in the right price range.

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    8. I enjoy Makers Mark, have never had George Dickel so I will have to give that a shot...

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    9. I prefer the black label and Coke (RC when I can get it). It's smoother than Jack and has a fuller flavor that I prefer without the harsh aftertaste that can come with sour mash. That said, Maker's is the superior whiskey.

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    10. When I'm being a drink snob I prefer single-malt scotch. mostly the highlands, occasionally islays. the lowlands tend. The rest of the time I tend to prefer Irish whiskey to bourbons (and the difference can be a bit of a shock at first) Jameson is very good for an inexpensive whiskey. Jameson 12 year is a bit more pricey but worth it. For Bourbons I like Jack Single Barrel and Gentleman Jack. Wild Turkey Rye is nice, but I don't think much of their Bourbon. High West makes a number of very good bourbon & rye blends. Don't get too attached to any particular one though, as they tend to do large but still limited production runs, then move on to some other blend.

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    11. that should have been "... tend to be too peaty for my taste. ..."

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    12. I like Jameson's a lot, and it's well worth the cost, but I've never been a fan of Jack. I just don't like the taste very much.

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    13. I don't care for the basic Jack Daniel's either, but their higher end offerings like Gentleman and Single Barrel are a different story. I would recommend that you try them at a bar or a friend's house, as either is pretty expensive for a bottle that you might not like.

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    14. I like Jameson's But have never really liked Jack except as any easy bar drink to order (jack and Coke.)

      I generally don't partake in single malt scotch I think more from not being acclimated to it than any other reason. I just never seem to buy it for myself.

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    15. tom said: "I don't care for the basic Jack Daniel's either, but their higher end offerings like Gentleman and Single Barrel are a different story. I would recommend that you try them at a bar or a friend's house, as either is pretty expensive for a bottle that you might not like."

      Single Barrel is okay, but it's way too expensive for my tastes. I bought Gentleman back in college and preferred Maker's so I stayed with it instead.

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    16. Mark Van Vlack said: "I like Jameson's But have never really liked Jack except as any easy bar drink to order (jack and Coke.)

      "I generally don't partake in single malt scotch I think more from not being acclimated to it than any other reason. I just never seem to buy it for myself."

      Oh you should get used to it though. Great liquor and wonderful taste. I usually watch for sales at Liquor Barn and other big retailers before I buy it though.

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  2. I have the same problem. There were some good suggestions in the comments of a video I put out recently. It sounds like having a blank time template and putting in tick marks works well. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ya9J5LOC89I

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    1. I'll be checking that out shortly! Thank you for sharing the link Samwise.

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  3. Changed rounds in to 10 six seconds slots and tick away with hash marks to track minutes also counted down with the initiative number during that round so at 0 or space zombie attack time the round was over

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  4. To me it seems we're talking about two different things here.

    Turns, rounds, segments, etc. That's not time. Those are abstract, seemingly arbitrary units of measure designed to figure out game mechanics. A Phase in Champions maybe 5 seconds, because there are 12 Phases in a Round (5 x 12 = 60 seconds = 1 minutes), but it doesn't actually represent any length of time for me. The 12 Phases in a Round represent 12 Phases in a Round. That's it.

    Why? For one thing, it's mechanical, and relates to neither how long of the actions would really take (often less, or more). For another, how many of you have ever completed a Round of Champions in one, real-time minute. No way on Earth that is going to happen. So why bother trying to relate it to actual time?

    Actual time is measured in seconds, minutes, hours, days, etc. and is much easier to contemplate.

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    1. You know, that's a much better way to look at it than what I was doing. I'll have to marinate on this for a bit.

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  5. sheet with big boxes for days, broken down into smaller boxes for hours, turns, and rounds. durations are tracked by circling boxes with a notatio for what is in the box. lots of durations and al thats important is the end time.

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  6. sheet with big boxes for days, broken down into smaller boxes for hours, turns, and rounds. durations are tracked by circling boxes with a notatio for what is in the box. lots of durations and al thats important is the end time.

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    1. I like it even more the second time I see it! :P

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    2. Sounds way too complicated for me. I just say, "Several hours later, at the headquarters of our heroes..." in my best imitation Ted-Knight-Narrating-The-Superfriends voice.

      Seriously, in Star Trek, Star Wars, Superheroes, etc., where things move at the speed of plot, and heroes only have birthdays if there is a good story to be told, I don't really worry about time passing.

      In other campaigns, where sessions are 'a day in the life' type situations, such as Traveller, Ars Magica, etc. I just use the actually day, and date unless we've noted otherwise in the story. Otherwise, I just periodically mention how much time has gone by relative to the starting date of the campaign (both in-game, and in real life).

      As with most elements of RPGs, most people over complicate them. It's all good. Hakuna Matata.

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    3. You know I have got to pick up a good copy of Ars Magica soon. That thing always looks so interesting.

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  7. For dungeon timekeeping I've found overloading the encounter die with various resource exhaustion factors on the non-encounter numbers to be quite good at simulating time passage and making player weigh what dawdling or being super cautious is worth.

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    1. Cool. Have you written a post about how you do that Gus? I'd love to read it.

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    2. I have - Brendan at Necropraxis was the first person who started with the idea, but it keeps getting refined:
      MY POST:
      http://dungeonofsigns.blogspot.com/2014/10/hms-apollyon-exploration-rules-and-my.html

      BRENDAN'S VERSION:
      http://www.necropraxis.com/2014/02/03/overloading-the-encounter-die/

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    3. Oh I should add that it's a very effective system, and it is good because it is a good quick fix and doesn't distract GM time. I hate timekeeping actually and this mechanism sort of compresses it.

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    4. Awesome! Thank you for those links Gus!

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  8. I think many of the people who complain about this just got started too late. ;-) The importance of time tracking was emphasized in the early editions and lots of ink was devoted to explaining it in 0E and AD&D. Not so much in later editions. 3rd Ed and later added lots more timed events to track, but provided little on no helpful advice on how to keep track of time in the game.

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    1. And I think that's part of my problem because I began with Third!

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    2. I think Tom has something here. ;)

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  9. We've tweeted about my quest for an abacus but I'm just now seeing this post so I thought I'd comment. I too feel like I do an inadequate job keeping track of time and I hope the abacus helps. I haven't had a chance to use it yet and I haven't worked out all the details, but right now I'm thinking about using the bottom row to track hours, with 10 minute increments tracked above that, and one minute increments above that. Without getting too anal about it, I'm thinking I can shuffle over a bead or two on the appropriate row when appropriate, and thus (hopefully) do a little better at tracking things like when torches burn out and when lunchtime is. I plan on using the rows from the top down to keep track of things in combat like spell and condition duration as necessary. I'll let you know how it works out.

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    1. I'll be interested in seeing how it turns out!

      My friend Icarus, who I talk about in my actual plays, actually tracks his hit points with an abacus and all of his abilities there too. Never sure how he's able to keep it all straight but he's always right on point when he's been checked. I think it's because he's a genius.

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