Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Real Time Play vs. Variable Timekeeping

My pal Bdubs1776 has given us the world’s ONLY breakdown comparing and contrasting 1:1 Timekeeping with the conventional approach to rpgs. Here’s his conclusion:

Jeffrogaxian Time Keeping is superior because it makes downtime easier for a DM (and PCs) to manage well, it allows competing PC parties, and it allows Patron play with major wargames etc going concurrently with normal dnd session play. Variable Time Keeping has no clear advantage on anything that makes a good ttrpg campaign.

The list of benefits for running real time is immense and we are even uncovering more things it opens up each and every day in our campaigns.

Just as one more example, we have been running only 11 days past after turning on the Trollopulous campaign with 10 independent patrons operating in sessionless gaming where each faction player makes decisions in isolation and with a tremendous fog of war factor. The two large-scale campaign events we have had so far are each the result of a half dozen independent decisions of individual patron and player characters. The flavor of these events is hyper-specific campaign and are far wilder than anything I would arbitrarily decide would happen for the campaign.

You really can’t make this stuff up. You can’t even fake this sort of thing with random tables. The behavior of even a simple model of a fantasy world is infinitely more complex than anything a single Dungeon Master can conceive of no matter how imaginative he thinks he might be!

What’s the cost, though? Mostly the time I would waste consuming social media and blogs is now redirected into this surprisingly powerful culture generation activity. I plot out the week’s events on one or two sheets of notebook paper. Each morning I send private messages to any patron or PC that would get a report back on an action. Something happens every day. Something newsworthy happens more often than you would think.

Now, very large and very weird miniatures battles can happen. I run things at 1:10 scale with mass scale groups being assumed to have average hit points and doing average damage on hits. Other than that, combat is run with all AD&D rules on. These are theater of the mind battles informed by how things would play out if we had miniatures armies. The details of these battles is a secret, however. The exact nature of the outcome is something that can be revealed only by its survivors.

I had feared that these wars would cause me to have to alter the 1:1 timekeeping somehow in a similar way that people are tempted to freeze time when a session ends and people are still in a dungeon. So far that has not been the case. When I fell behind implementing orders due to one of these, I was rescued by the long real time requirements of some of the orders. Game time and distance constraints meant I could initiate two day old instructions without upsetting the cascade of events the game was producing. When a single day’s battle involving someone in Australia was finished five days after it was supposed to be over, travel times were so great for what the surviving characters wanted to do that we didn’t lose anything by starting the relevant journeys on the day the would have “actually” been initiated.

That’s the amazing thing about this type of gaming. YOU HAVE TIME TO DO IT. You can even run this game with people that cannot coordinate their schedules well enough to attend the same game sessions. And face it, that is one to the top complaints of role-players. If you’re an adult that can only fit in one two hour game session a week, you can still benefit from a modest 1:1 patron game going on in the background creating a living fantasy world.

And to the legion of gaming pundits out there that claim that Gygax didn’t actually play this way and that the real “old school” back in the bad old days didn’t actually play this way, check this out:

You will probably not be able to sit down and play the entirety of Dark Tower in one sitting. It may be
suggested that you allow real time between play sessions equal (on a I /I basis) to the time between
adventures in the game world.

Paul Jaquays wrote that in the opening pages of Dark Tower, his 1979 AD&D adventure. In doing so he would join Gary Gygax, M. A. R. Barker, and James Ward in endorsing this extraordinary style of gaming. But the important thing isn’t that this is the historically correct way to play rpgs. The important thing is how players respond to it.

Exciting. Feels so cool, been waiting in apprehension each day. How could anyone NOT play 1:1 time?!

That’s what one of my players told me when a very time intensive action successfully concluded in the context of an extremely volatile environment. Of course, they have no idea how how close they actually cut it. If you haven’t tried this type of gaming, you are missing out. And what’s worse is you literally can’t imagine what you are missing out on.

5 responses to “Real Time Play vs. Variable Timekeeping

  1. B. Renninger July 11, 2021 at 3:26 pm

    Another advantage is TPKs become much rarer due to parties being both less common and planned better. Individual characters may still die just as often (or more) but the awkward TPK nearly disappears.

  2. Sam July 11, 2021 at 8:05 pm

    I don’t quite understand patron play. Could you write more about it please?

    • jeffro July 12, 2021 at 5:08 am

      Short version: Create a several factions based on the descriptions of men, demi-human, and humanoid creatures from the monster manual. These will include army breakdowns for miniatures battles and several mid-level characters. Give them to other players to play. Ask them individually what they would do as those factions and let it all happen. If anything happens that the other factions would know about, tell them. Then watch how things develop.

  3. Nagora July 13, 2021 at 5:11 am

    BitD the reason we stopped doing this style of play was the battles. We did play 1:1 for the most part and we did dabble with domain-level PCs but none of the group was very interested in miniature wars (we used CHAINMAIL for a short time) and that sort of cut the legs off it. So I’m curious about how you’re doing the battles as TotM. Are you physically playing the battles out with figures yourself at home and reporting back, or are you using a more abstract method beyond simply averaging damage?

    I know Barker played this way right up to the end. Gygax stopped as business took over his life, I think. But Arneson (who of course played in Barker’s world for decades, on and off) I think stuck with it too.

    As the target audience grew it ironically became rarer as the focus on individual adventurers pushed out even playing with henchmen, let alone armies or guilds. And, of course, it’s a lot easier to produce and sell modules for PC parties than anything that would fit into the radically different and “hyper specific” nature of a full domain-level game.

    But I do have fond memories of the short time we spent playing this way.

    • jeffro July 13, 2021 at 5:48 am

      I play 1 figure equals 10 men. At the 1:10 mass scale, figures are assumed to do average damage and have average hit points. All AD&D combat rules (which derive from Chainmail) are in effect. In some cases, I imagine the figures on bases to determine how many may roll their attacks in a given situation. Individual pcs may attack the mass units, but have their damage divided by 10 except when area effect spells are involved. Initiative is of course by side, so players describe their plans and the DM narrates the resulting action.

      Rolling a handful of d20s with all the AD&D modifiers in effect to adjudicate the mass attacks is insanely fun.

      The campaign does not produce “balanced” battles. Controlling the terrain or setup or location is more important than tactics. No miniatures are needed when two masses of infantry are just going to slug it out. The breaking point for theater of the mind would be dealing with a battle where each side has the equivalent of infantry, artillery, and cavalry. That is where maneuver begins to matter.

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