As Time Passes – How to Game in Micro, Macro and Epic Time
A reader at CampaignMastery.com posed this tricky question to Mike Bourke and me:
My campaign recounts the development of a world in constant change. But because things like cities being built, Empires going to war and technologies being developed do not take place within mere days or weeks, I feel it’s only logical for years to pass during the campaign. If not 2-3, then half a decade or even a full decade.
The PCs will age. At the least, these time skips will happen every couple of sessions. Kind of like playing the Sims, and once things are settled, you press fast forward.
The players will have a good idea of what’s going to happen to their characters. They’ll also likely take back their characters for one last spin before starting the next session as their character’s children (if that’s the case, or new characters entirely if that isn’t the case).
How do I handle all this time passing?
That’s an interesting campaign premise, James! The time shifts from rounds to decades is indeed something that could give you and your players difficulties. I’m going to offer a couple of tips in this issue of RPT, and then let Mike answer in the future at Campaign Mastery.
I advise creating three time types for your campaign, and GM them accordingly:
- Micro Time
- Macro Time
- Epic Time
Micro time covers the daily life of the characters. Often every action gets accounted for, including rest, training, socializing and encounters.
I always struggle with this time scale for sandbox or civilized campaigns. There is so much to do every day that time slows. A game day per session would be average.
Dungeon crawls are different. They are more dependent on your group’s recharge cycle. Minutes, hours, or days could pass per session, depending on recovery rates.
“Drama is life with the dull bits cut out.” – Alfred Hitchcock
I would devote micro time in a campaign like this to key events. If running adventures, then frame each scene as the next important encounter, and just narrate in a minute or two the dull bits in between. Just like a movie.
However, you mentioned the PCs possibly having children and then players playing that new generation of adventurers. So, you cannot purely run adventures, because details like meeting someone special and eventual marriage result from a different type of play.
Sure, you could narrate such a relationship forming and progressing during an adventure, but would you do this for all PCs? That stretches belief too much.
Your micro time needs extra details outside adventures that generate lifetime events including relationships, places lived, getting wed (or not), having kids, making enemies, developing land or a business, and building a legacy.
Here are three ways to add such details in micro time without bogging down adventure play.
1. Ask Each Character For A List Of Daily Habits
- Where do you live?
- Where do you eat? When?
- Do you buy something each day, such as produce, bread, water? Where and when?
- Do you study or train? When, where, with whom?
- Do ever you visit anyone? Where and when?
- Do you work? Where and when?
- Do you have hobbies or special interests? How do you pursue them?
With this bit of information as part of character background, players only need to tell you when their PC deviates from their habitual schedule. That saves a lot of game time.
Use these habits to keep time clipping along. Players will also no longer feel like they need to fill a vacuum each empty day with activities. Their characters have daily lives.
Next, work details into and out of each PC’s habits to help your campaign: plot hooks, encounter seeds, relationships, motivations, and rewards.
Finally, use this information to trigger key life events not related to adventures or story for use in Macro Time.
2. Give Action Windows Per Day
Decide what pace you want for your campaign. Then divide each day into blocks, and give each player, or the group, one action per block.
Compare this to average session length and whether your tendency is to GM a lot of side plots and encounters or if you prefer to stick to the main threads.
You should get a good idea about campaign pacing from this, and can then tweak to make it slower or faster.
For example, you might offer each of your four PCs one activity during the morning, afternoon and evening. That’s three basic actions per day, times four characters, for a total of 12 actions per day you need to GM.
If you average 5 minutes per action, that’s an hour of session time per day. A four hour session would probably get you through three game days, accounting for breaks, laggards and other typical session slowdowns.
Want a faster pace? Then decide how much game time you want to run though in Micro Time each session, and adjust allowed activity levels.
Using the example above, offering two actions per game day would get your group through an estimated five game days per session (2 actions x 4 PCs x 5 minutes per action divided into a four hour session with about half an hour lost from slowdowns).
One action per week gets you about 10 weeks game time played per session (1 action x 4 PCs x 5 minutes per action / 4 hour game session – 30 mins in slowdowns).
This just gives you a framework. Player expectations will drive pacing. If you ask, “What do you do now?” you will get an answer full of actions. Rare will be a player who rejects the spotlight opportunity or the opportunity to act. If you ask that question after each action resolution, you end up with a long chain of actions, making for long game days.
Instead, quit driving so much action if you want faster pace, and offer a limited number of encounters or actions each day.
The encounter budget system still gives players choice and control. You are just throttling how much gets gamed out in a day.
3. Run More Roleplaying Or Skill Check Encounters
Roleplayed encounters are fast. So are encounters resolved by skill checks. Compared to combat encounters, exploration encounters (sequences), and some puzzle encounters, a brief conversation or skill check resolves gameplay in short order.
This lets you develop the plot, pack in a lot of interaction, and give players more choices.
This requires flexibility on your part to reduce encounters and situations to conversations and skill use.
I was editing a section of a fiction book for a friend, recently. My main critique was to cut a lot of the text, mostly the descriptive chains. An author excited about their world and characters wants to share all the details. The reader wants fast action, character development, and steady story progression.
So too it is with GMing. Cut all the fat you can and keep the game moving along. Pick your moments for great detail, slower pace and deeper plot exploration.
Trim fat off encounters you would typically game out round by round with fast roleplay or skill check resolution. If players feel they have input into choices, and that their character abilities factor into results, you can chew through a lot of game each game day.
Moving to the next the time scale, we get a period of a week to a decade.
The need for action resolution often dictates how long the Macro Time period is.
For example, it does not make sense to say a decade will pass and then set about resolving 100 PC actions and world events that take place during that time. Better to go year by year.
A nice rule of thumb mirrors my advice in the Micro Time section. Break your time periods in chunks sized according to how many actions you want to offer players and to how fast you want campaign time to progress.
Ars Magica uses seasons. Birthright also divides years into quarters. That seems a natural framework to start with as it’ll be intuitive to your players. Four actions per year.
A new twist during Macro Time versus Micro gives players opportunity to shape world events, not just react to them. In Micro Time, you’d never play out a PC raising an army. You’d be roleplaying and gaming out every minor decision and situation. You’d need to switch to Macro Time, especially considering typical army movement rates.
So, characters can put their stamp upon the world and cause foes to flinch and react to them. That’s pretty sweet, and I encourage you to allow this to happen by not imposing too many situations each action block that the PCs need to react to.
Do not keep the characters reeling. Instead, let them lead events and cause events about half the time.
Further, you will find a small number of threads will emerge from the PCs, which helps you plan better and more efficiently. For example, a player will rarely raise an army one year, do research to quest for an artefact next year, found a school of magic the next, and travel to another plane for some tourist shopping in their fifth year.
Instead, if they start with a major action, they will likely want to see it through. What are their long-term plans for the army, or their new family or their business?
You can help keep momentum going in certain threads by offering supporting events and obstacles designed to interact with the PCs’ main goals or activities. If they are building an inn, you do not want to offer a plot hook that sends then around the world, for example.
Unifying the party might be tricky. Now you will get into schizophrenic plotting. One PC wants a mage school, another an army, another to go adventuring and the other explore unmapped areas of the land.
The game system you choose to govern PCs actions and event resolution in Macro Time might help solve this problem. Ars Magica gives each player one turn per year to run their main PC as a character in an adventure, for example. Birthright lets PCs do their own thing but with fast kingdom-level resolution that does not need gaming out in Micro Time.
I advise helping your players create PCs with overlapping goals and common ties and bonds in their backgrounds. The more unified the group is in purpose, the fewer threads you’ll need to weave and track.
Potential Games and Books to Help With Macro Time
Dominion rules from the D&D Companion Set or Rules Cyclopedia, also see the Dark Dungeons RPG
(Do you have other resource suggestions? Comment below.)
Decades, centuries, millennia and ages take place in Epic Time.
Use this time scale for interactive world creation and development. You can use it for immortal PCs or blood lines.
You can also use Epic Time to game out the life a special location or entity, like Ars Magica does with the PCs’ home base, called a covenant, or Edward Rutherfurd does with places in his great books.
Dawn of Worlds comes to mind as an example of using Epic Time for interactive world building. Ars Magica can handle this scale of time passing with its covenants system. A setting design game such as How To Host A Dungeon would work here, as well.
GMs wanting to play descendants of PCs could also step into this time scale, as could games revolving around long-lived races such as elves and demons.
I would again break things into time periods with regular player turns. Whatever you and the players are controlling gets to act or change.
I would also create a random events table and make a roll each time segment to keep things from becoming predictable or stale. Natural disasters happen, necromancers bent on world domination step up, particular races and cultures wax and wane, strange discoveries or technological developments occur.
Potential Games and Books to Help With Epic Time
(Do you have other resource suggestions? Comment below.)
Micro Time, Macro Time and Epic Time
The heart of this tip about running a campaign with long timeline is to break time periods into chunks. Give players one action per chunk. Pace things how you want by changing chunk size. Also use non-combat game mechanics to help sessions clip along faster until critical plot points need granular action.
James S. – drop me a note if I have not answered your question well enough here.