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?