Game time in RPGs

This sort of takes off from the discussion of basic GMing skills, but I think it’s different enough to merit its own title.

It’s seemed to me for a while that there are at least three relationships between game time and player time in RPGs.

First, there’s game time that goes by slower than player time: one second of game time, for example, may take minutes to resolve for the players. One of the common examples of this is scenes of combat. Most systems I know of have combat resolved on a time scale of between one and fifteen seconds, with actions portrayed in some detail, which takes at least one dice roll to resolve, and sometimes several—and systems with a single roll often involve more work to figure out all the implications of that roll.

Second, there’s game time that’s comparable to player time, though not necessarily identical to it. A typical example of this is conversation, where the pace of character speech is fairly close to that of player speech (it may be slower, if players take time to think of what to say, or faster, if they rely on indirect discourse rather than direct, but how much slower or faster is limited).

Third, there’s game time that goes by faster than player time, at a ratio of several or many to one. This can apply to travel, where even a day of travel played out in excruciating detail will be over in less than an hour; or to work on various tasks, where a day’s work is typically a roll or two; or to character advancement, where a character might spend a week or a month in mastering a new skill and have it covered by a training montage.

A typical game has all three sorts of time, and shifts back and forth between them without players taking a lot of notice. A game focused on physical action might mainly rely on the two extremes, defined as uptime and downtime.

Being able to manage these different sorts of time, and know when to shift between them, seems to me to be a GM skill.


It is. It’s one that I learned by playing RPGs; I’m not sure how people who start up without learning from other players acquire it.

Similarly with wargames, though often they have only one time scale – usually but not always faster than reality. (Harpoon can often resolve a thirty-minute Intermediate Turn – updating positions and checking for radar detections, for example – with a few table lookups and maybe a die roll or two, while a thirty-second Engagement Turn involving SAMs and missile defence gunfire can become quite long and complex.)

I think that the moment one’s game moves away from the “every step is a potential trap” model it becomes clear that there must be something beyond the combat round: D&D’s turns may have been a bit odd and long, but they made it clear that if you weren’t actually in combat you didn’t need the high time resolution of the combat system.

And then there’s “abstract town”, where clearly you don’t need to have every conversation with every merchant selling standard stuff…

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I learned the principles of pacing from other mediums of storytelling.
‘Focus on what’s important and interesting and cut out or gloss over the rest’ is my mantra. So, zoom into micro-time when every second counts, normal time is usually only for dialogue, big chunks of time are covered when what’s going on is boring - or when it could be made more exciting through montage than actually playing it out.

The terms around the table I usually hear for these are:

Combat time => minutes (or hours, Champions I’m looking at you) of real time address seconds of game time.

Table time => real and game time are coterminous.

Narrative time => minutes of real time address as much game time as is needed for whatever is happening.

I’ve never heard “table time.” It seems a slightly odd choice; I could argue either that all game time is “table time” (not that I use a table for much of anything) or that the sort of time that is most closely bound to the (notional) gaming table is actually combat time. But I think the conceptual distinction matters more than the verbal labels.

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Are the intervals that the characters experience but that the players jump over completely—time in which nothing is developed or resolved, even in the most abstract terms—a special case of down time, or a fourth thing?

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The uptime/downtime dichotomy seems to work better for purely combat-focused games (where conversational scenes, for example, would fall into downtime) than for games with a strong roleplaying emphasis. In terms of the three categories I proposed, at least some examples of this might fall into the third: for example, if it’s established that the player characters are travelling from Earth to Mars, a journey taking more than half a year, it might be that nothing is developed or resolved during the journey, which is dealt with by a scene of them boarding on Earth and a scene of them deboarding on Mars. Logically that time is required by the assumption of continuity, but it can be skipped over narratively. But I don’t know if that applies in every case.

I’m currently playing a fantasy game where we’re clearing a large area of unsettled land. As such, a day can go past in a moment, as the DM tells us “You don’t find anything of interest” in that 5 kilometre hex. However, conversations between party members can spring up at any time, often during those days of searching, some of which become quite significant.

I tend to think of your three categories as being real things, but not exclusive states, and sliding between them can happen quite flexibly.

If this is happening as setup, I’ll start the game at “so, you’re stepping off the shuttle onto the surface of Mars”.

If it’s within the game… well, unless they’re hibernating, I would expect that their personal relationships would progress. That might happen out of direct play time, but I’d expect something to happen.

(The exception of course being what Robin Laws would call iconic characters: “Monk” Mayfair and “Ham” Brooks will always be quarrelling at exactly the same level of intensity; it’s practically the only characterisation they have.)

I once said “twelve years later a rescue ship arrives” in the middle of a session.


Yes, absolutely. The intent is not to say “now we have entered a preparatory time phase and you can’t talk with each other or hit each other,” but “what we are doing right now is in preparatory time.” If two PCs get in a fight we shift into combat time. The classification is descriptive, not prescriptive.

Though I would note that my current Call of Cthulhu GM likes to go through events day by day, even if all the characters are doing is getting on with their daily lives and even if no incursion of dark forces is going to take place. I don’t think I find that an optimal style.

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I think there are useful parallels with other fiction. “Six months later” doesn’t necessarily mean we put everyone back in their freeze tubes, but it’s a sort of deal with the reader: nothing really important happened, I don’t want to tell you that, but here’s where the good stuff starts again. Of course, in games with downtime systems (Ars Magica and Pendragon come to mind first) players may have plans for six months of nothing exciting happening.

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Certainly, and I expect that I would in fact ask, “Are you doing anything in particular during the trip to Mars?” They might be using the time to study something, and gaining skills; they might be maintaining the ship and have monthly job rolls; they might be having personal interactions, as you say, and we might have sample conversations. But none of those things is compulsory. If what they’re doing on the surface of Mars is what matters, and they want to skip over the journey, I don’t think it has to be played out. But in that case I think it’s an extreme form of preparatory time, rather than being the sort of null time Agemegos suggests. That may be a general truth, but I’m not so sure of that.

Much as it pains me to say it, I’m not sure this is a useful distinction. As it is, we have things sliding from one category to another without overt discontinuities in play (the only one I really recognise is going into/out of combat time, because in narrative play the detail level can oscillate very quickly without needing any real stylistic change); is there something one can build from having the distinct forms that one can’t without them?

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I agree with @RogerBW that the main distinction I see is the switch from very precise timed game time (typically combat rounds) to narrative play. The challenge for the GM is keeping everyone on the same page with relative times for activities etc. when narrative play is ongoing.

Well, as my example suggests, it may be a basis for a cautionary note. If the decision I announce is “my character is going to study electronics with the aim of acquiring Electronics Repair (Communications),” we don’t need to play out the entire series of lessons; we don’t even need to have a scene of the instructor giving a lecture or answering questions, or of the student reading a textbook, or of the student adjusting the settings on a transmitter to get the right output. We can just say, “okay, it takes this many days before you have the skill.” Or if it’s a situation like trying to master the skill quickly, we might have a single training montage. GMs who have a strong realistic aesthetic may want to be told about each session, or even to roll for something happening during it, treating it as part of the campaign drama rather than as a simple undramatic fact. You may find it so obvious that this is suboptimal that you don’t need a cautionary note, but I find it helpful to diagnose what is going wrong when a GM fails to find it obvious.

Or of course “OK, I’ve just got this book on school-based campaigns, let’s play this out…”

Thank you! But that same book provides rules for abstracting learning to monthly rolls analogous to job rolls. And when I ran my Worminghall campaign, I used that mechanic a lot. I’m not saying you should never treat learning a new skill as something that should be played out on camera; I’m pointing out that a full toolkit should include ways of not doing that if you prefer not to.

I tend to distinguish between Downtime For Book Keeping, Downtime For Character Stuff and then, of course, The Time That People Forgot. :slight_smile:

Generally I define downtime as chunks of game where the PCs aren’t doing plot/mission specific things. So if we were playing another James Bond scenario with @Agemegos then it is the stuff between missions, or on long sea/rail voyages from Place X to Place Y.

Downtime For Book Keeping: this is the GM informing the players than nothing plot relevant is going to happen in this chunk of game-time (“It takes 3 weeks to reach Rio de Janeiro”), and there is a switch to out-of-character game mechanics about how many hit points you heal up, how many hours your PC can dedicate to learning Japanese, etc.

Downtime for Character Stuff: The mission is over, and the RP about in-character side plots springs into action. You are flirting with Miss Moneypenny. Or improving your golf swing. Or trying to avoid your match-making mother who thinks you are a bank clerk.

The Time That People Forgot is chunks of time that is always skipped over with either a bare mention it is over (You wake up next morning and…) or never mentioned at all (like someone pointing out Jack Bauer never visits the bathroom in 24).