posted Thursday, June 24th 2010 by
Dungeon Mastering Advice
A question that is often neglected when initially considering the details of a campaign world is how the inhabitants mark the passage of time. Precision measurements of time are relatively recent, but even tens of thousands of years ago people were calculating and measuring time. For your campaign world, defining a calendar and the common methods of measuring shorter intervals can be a very good way to add verisimilitude and character to your setting.
Tracking time can be considered from the smallest measurements right up to the largest.
Small units of time are likely to be imprecisely measured in most worlds. Seconds and minutes, or the equivalent thereof, are difficult to track accurately even for many modern clocks–the technology or magic available will determine how close to the “real” time one can determine. At the same time, seconds and minutes are less likely to be important to keep track of, for the most part, and rough estimates to the nearest quarter hour may be sufficient. Bear in mind before you decide to create your own small measurements–e.g. one hundred seconds to a “segment”, one hundred segments to a “bell”–that this kind of separation can make your world feel different from Earth, but can also make it confusing for players, who will almost invariably need to convert these times back to more familiar measurements to understand how long “three bells” is. This will probably be true for anything up to and including the length of a day. Simple equivalents (one bell is two hours) are more readily translatable without causing confusion or pauses while your players puzzle out the conversion.
Medium segments of time–days, weeks, and even months–can be changed more readily. A day might be slightly longer or shorter, but should remain fairly close to the 24-hour cycle your players (and you!) are used to, if only because it simplifies things. The concept of a week, though, is fairly easy to play around with. You might have a week be as few as five days, or as many as ten. If you do choose to use a different length for your weeks, it’s worth thinking about why it is grouped the way it is. Perhaps each weekday is dedicated to one of the gods in your world’s pantheon–our own weekday names are largely drawn from the Norse pantheon, in English, at least. You could also name the weekdays after elements, ancient heroes, or anything else you think thematically appropriate for your campaign world.
Months are similar to weeks in that it’s fairly easy to fiddle with the lengths of them. Perhaps on your world all months are of equal length. It can help to decide how many days are in a year on your world at the same time you choose to divide the months. For a 365-day year, wholesale lifting of the Gregorian calendar might work–or you could divide the year into six months of sixty days each, with a five-day period for the death of one year and the dawn of the next at the end of each cycle of months.
As with weekdays, consider what the months are named for. The Gregorian calendar uses a variety of sources for the names of months–September through December were originally named for their position in the calendar, January, March, May, and June take their names from gods, July and August honor Julius and Augustus Caesar, and February and April originate from the words for purification and opening, respectively. Your calendar could copy any or all of these inspirations, and more, for naming your months. Your player characters could even be honored similarly to Julius and Augustus–previously those months were numbered similarly to the latter months in the year. Most players would be fairly excited to have their characters immortalized in such a way.
Tracking the passage of years is relatively simple, by comparison. Pick an important event in your world’s history to start the year numbering from and work from there. It could be an ancient war, a religious event, a great cataclysm, or even the beginning of the reign of a given ruler–and again, your player characters could well be immortalized if their deeds are used as a starting point for a new calendar–”It is the third year since Hulkgar the Third and his stalwart companions overthrew the gods,” for example. If you are feeling truly ambitious you might name each individual year–the Year of the Shattered Sky, the Year of the Sun’s Betrayal, and so on–but it can be a lot of effort to do so for more than a very few years and maintain a consistent level of seriousness. Tread with care, or you may end up with names as ridiculous as Year of the Intimidating Porpoise–memorable, perhaps, but not easily taken seriously.
One benefit to keeping the year at 365 days (365.25, being precise) and simply renaming the months of the Gregorian calendar to match 1:1 with the calendar of your world is that it then becomes very easy to adapt a real-world calendar, electronic or otherwise, to track time in your game. Making your own calendar of a different scale may result in more work to track the time, but is not outside of the realm of possibility, or even an especially tedious amount of work once you have the framework decided on. Either way, knowing how time is measured and days are tracked in your world can add a very large dose of realism to your campaign–your players will be able to feel that things are happening at a much more concrete pace if they can look at a calendar and see what they were doing on a particular day in-game. Also, it can lead to more dimension in character backgrounds, as birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays can all be much more reliably tracked and used as plot hooks or roleplaying hooks if your players can see how the calendar works.