World Building 101 - Keeping Track of Time

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.

Comments (3)

Noumenon (June 24th, 2010)

This is the sort of immersive-but-trivial detail that only a video game can afford the effort to design and keep consistent. And even then the only effect it has is making your quest diary less pedestrian sounding. (I’m thinking of Morrowind, which is the only RPG I’ve ever played that even bothered making a new calendar at all.) Myself, I’ve never even bothered to track the in-game date at all. Sorry for the sour reaction.

Brandan Landgraff (June 26th, 2010)

I can’t help but disagree that this is a trivial detail, and especially that only a computer game can keep track of this. It’s pretty simple to make a calendar, even with a different number of days. If you go with a 1:1 conversion for simplicity’s sake, you literally need only start ticking off days as they pass in your game to keep track of this.

The AD&D DMG has a section on this topic, pointing out that seasons affect adventuring (weather conditions and temperature), as do moon phases (at the very least lycanthropes are traditionally affected by the phases of the moon. The Dragonlance campaign setting took the phases of the moons into account in a unique way, as the moons of Krynn have a direct effect on the magic users of that world. Krynn’s days and months were even given different names across different cultures and regions in one of the campaign guides—though I have no direct link to this information to share. Pathfinder’s Golarion setting has a calendar as well. Forgotten Realms has what appears to be a fairly detailed calendar. Rokugan, setting of Legend of the Five Rings and the 3rd Edition Oriental Adventures, has been given a calendar as well. Eberron was also given the calendar treatment. In fact, a google search for just about any published campaign setting’s calendar turns up results—and only occasionally are they results created by fans alone.

Quite aside from that, in a sandbox-style campaign a calendar can be useful in providing options and impetus for players in making decisions on what to do and where to go at a given time. Seasonal events—a grand market that sets up near the capital for two weeks at summer’s end, perhaps, or a tournament each midwinter with a large purse as grand prize—could give some choices with actual weight about what paths to pursue to your players, as well as force them to be reasonable.

Ticking off days on a calendar also makes it easier to remember to track things like consumption of rations or progression of diseases or other day to day concerns, and helps keep the world from being in endless midsummer, or jumping seasons arbitrarily from session to session simply for convenience.

Plenty of crpgs have calendars and track the passage of months and years. Ultima springs to mind, with its moongates having different destinations based on the phase of the moon—this was even the only way to reach one of the plot-critical locations in several games. The Might and Magic series tracked the ageing of characters and had seasonal events only available on certain dates. Seiken Densetsu 3 tracked the weekdays and they affected spell power. World of Warcraft may or may not count, since it literally uses our calendar 1:1 without renaming anything, but it makes use of seasonal and timed events as well. Persona 3 and 4 have gameplay elements directly and thoroughly tied to the calendar as well—in spite of simply using a real world calendar, I count it here because of how that is used in game, since similar uses would and have been applicable in fantasy calendars as well.

I definitely agree that all this is not necessary for every campaign, however. Just as many DMs don’t care about tracking encumbrance or enforcing that players track their food and ammunition as adventures progress, this level of detail is not always needed. Each group must make their own choices on how immersive they want to make their campaign world. This series of articles strives to provide starting points and resources for those who want to expand their campaign settings.

That said, there’s absolutely such a thing as trivial details that only a video game can or should track. You won’t see a WB101 article about currency, for example, because while it can seem to add a good deal of immersion to create different coins and currenies between kingdoms, with slightly different and fluctuating values, the actual practice of doing so bogs down the game when it comes time to spend money—“Okay so I have fifteen Florinian guilders, ten Guilderian florins, seventy five Tarnan sovereigns, and a couple of Shapeirian dinars…it says this is 100 gold to buy, is that enough?” “Well Tarna’s going through an economic crisis since the demon invasion’s cut off access to their gold mines, so their currency is through the floor…”

Not worth the effort. Calendars, on the other hand? Easy, and judging by the google results, far from out of place in this series of articles.

Zaratustra (June 29th, 2010)

RPG world makers love calendars because they’re easy and fun to sperge on.

Historical early calendars were mostly based on star positions and farming schedules (I believe early calendars only had 10 months because counting days just didn’t matter during the rest of the year). That being said, notable dates for a tabletop campaign are better put “on the run” (like, today just happens to be a holiday and all shops are closed so hey you have to spend the night in the inn AND IS IT HAUNTED) than recorded as one more thing to keep track of.

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