As Time Passes – How to Game in Micro, Macro and Epic Time

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0525

A Brief Word from Johnn

Goblins vs. Goblins

I played in a friend’s Runelords Pathfinder campaign last week. It was only my second session as I missed a few this summer.

I’m playing a magus, which is a neat class that combos casting and fighting.

Some players show up with PC personality in hand. They’ve got their accent down and distinct traits ready to roll.

For whatever reason, it always takes me 4-5 sessions before I figure out who my character is. I do not know why it takes that long.

I like to use my ability scores, race and class to slowly evolve who my PC is. I also like to contrast with the other PCs (so I do not steal spotlight) and mesh with the campaign.

I’ve tried writing backgrounds and profiles, but find I always veer away to something different after I’ve been in a character’s shoes for a while.

Maybe I’m just a bad actor who can’t take a role and run with it.

Anyway, the session was great. We’re dealing with goblin tribes united by a mysterious leader. We captured a goblin and had him lead us to the most powerful tribe. We attacked and nearly TPK’d, but won in the end.

Next session hopefully we find some clues about the mysterious leader so we can end this new menace.

Fitz at interviewed me:

I give him a quick update on my Riddleport campaign, reveal the newsletter topic that surprised me the most, tell him who my idols are and more.

RPG Review Issue 12

RPT reader Lev Lafayette has released another edition of this great PDF ezine.

Highlights include a review of Polish RPG Wild Fields, Medieval Professions for Tunnels & Trolls, realistic biology for alien worlds, NPC characterization and industry news.

RPG Review PDF

As Time Passes – How to Game in Micro, Macro and Epic Time

A reader at posed this tricky question to Mike Bourke and me:

Epic Time in RPG

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?

James S.

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

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.

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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.

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.

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.

Macro Time

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:

(Do you have other resource suggestions? Comment below.)

Epic Time

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.

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Reader Tip Request

Watch Session Recordings?

From Carl

I’m a newbie tabletop RPGer. I added dozens and dozens of good blogs in my RSS reader and I read a lot about all things RPG, especially D&D/Pathfinder, whose settings are the most interesting to me.

Reading only gets you so far. I would like to see or hear what a good game looks like to help me prepare and visualize the real deal.

What would be the best videos or audios of RPG sessions that a new DM should watch or listen to?



Readers, email me your links and I’ll send them to Carl plus include them in an upcoming issue.

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10 Ways to Setback Your Group Without Railroading

Bradford Allen recently wrote a very popular article for RPT called How to Create Blockbuster Box Office Hits with Your Players – Every Adventure.

He advised to present your group a serious setback at the 75% mark of an adventure.

This provides perfect pacing to create maximum tension. Will this be the defeat of the party? How will they get past this seemingly insurmountable challenge? Has the villain finally won?

On top of the great pacing, your story gets a massive boost if the PCs defeat the challenge. Your players will be so excited from overcoming the setback that if you were the worst GM on the planet your group would still be bouncing off the walls and singing your praises as storyteller.

What’s tricky is avoiding scripting. How do you make sure there’s a setback at the 75% mark without forcing the PCs down one particular path?

I asked Brad this exact question, and he said it was difficult. He usually just scripts the first part of an adventure to get the ball rolling with great momentum. Then he reacts for the rest of the adventure.

As he sees the 75% coming up, he looks for opportunities to try to set the group back and wings it.

The good news is you only need to create the situation, not force an outcome. That is the big difference here.

Most plotting GMs start with the outcome and work backwards. Here, you are playing the game until you see a way to place a believable obstacle in the PCs’ path and then you step back again. You are only creating a situation, not directing an outcome.

To help you out, Brad came up with a few setback ideas and situations to get you inspired when the 75% mark approaches in your next adventure.

Note that you need to place a big potential setback in front of the PCs here. The stakes must be high, else tension flattens and the value of this technique fizzles.

According to Brad, “The only difference between a Complication and a Major Setback is the degree. Complications can be overcome, but Major Setbacks are insurmountable without some breakthrough or special insight.”

Hidden Base

The heroes are unable to locate the Baddies’ secret base or other location where they have to accomplish Main Goal. (Final Push: Secret Clue to base’s location.)

Death Trap

Following a series of Complications, the Main Goal is accomplished, but doing so sets off a death trap (roof caves in, volcano erupts, ship self-destructs) that makes success meaningless as all the heroes face certain death. (Final Push: Daring escape plan.)

Beat the Clock

Heroes run out of time to accomplish goal. Failure is certain. (Final Push: Major sacrifice to buy more time.)

Superior Force

Surprise! Baddies have vastly superior equipment or numbers. (Final Push: Come up with Superior Plan to outwit the baddies’ equipment or numbers.)

Secret Weapon

The Baddies have an all-powerful Monty haul weapon that is far above the power level of the PCs. (Final Push: Discover way to disable the Secret Weapon.)

New Bigger Meaner Smarter Baddie

The Big Bad Guy’s boss shows up demanding answers and is way above the PCs power level. Great in an ongoing campaign when the heroes reach the power level of a Big Bad Guy and you want to introduce a new Big Baddie.

We’ve Been Waiting for You

Similar to Death Trap only this time the PCs have yet to accomplish their goal and instead are ambushed and taken captive. (It is likely that one or two crafty PCs will escape providing the Final Push: The Breakout.)

Insurmountable Odds

Ridiculously difficult skill checks necessary to accomplish goal (i.e. diffuse bomb). (Final Push: Teamwork. All the PCs work together to increase the odds.)

Betrayed by Ally

An NPC ally turns on the heroes for money, revenge, back room deal or some other cool reason.

Weakness Revealed

A major weakness of the party is used against them causing total failure. (Final Push: Party must overcome their shortcomings and conquer themselves first before facing the Big Baddies). Final Push: Minion Betrays Big Bad Guy

Also, one cool Final Push that can be used to overcome any of the above Major Setbacks is for the PCs to convince a minion to see things their way and betray the Big Bad Guy. (Also cool if this minion ends up dying in the process to help the PCs accomplish their Main Goal).

Not all bad guys should be one dimensional. Good to show the PCs that sometimes bad guys can change sides.

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How-To Game Master Books

In addition to doing this newsletter, I have written several GMing books to inspire your games and make GMing easier and more fun:

NPC Essentials

Critically acclaimed and multiple award-winning guide to crafting, roleplaying, and GMing three dimensional NPCs for any game system and genre. This book will make a difference to your GMing.

Free preview:

Filling the Empty Chair

How to find great gamers fast and easy online with this huge list of the best gamer registries and player finder websites. Recruit offline quickly with 28 new and easy ideas to find gamers in your local area.

Inns, Taverns, and Restaurants

How to design, map, and GM fresh encounters for RPG’s most popular locales. Includes campaign and NPC advice, plus several generators and tables:

Adventure Essentials: Holidays

Advice and tips for designing compelling holidays that not only expand your game world but provide endless natural encounter, adventure, and campaign hooks.

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One More Tip

Encounter Start: Distance Matters

Republished with permission from the great blog Leonine Roar.

One of the quickest and simplest tactical things you can do to create more engaging encounters is vary the starting distance between the party and the monsters. Too often encounter distance – and by extension, all the additional tactical options the party and monsters may have, especially early on in a fight – goes overlooked.

While it may seem easier (and ultimately more dramatic or challenging) to just plop the PCs down in the center of the map or tiles every time, remember that a more immersive and believable D&D game needs some variation in encounter start locations and distance.

Starting Distance

Extrapolating from the information in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, here’s generally what I use for typical starting encounter distances:

  • Dungeon: 0-100 feet
  • Outdoor with significant terrain or reduced visibility: 25 feet
  • Outdoor, typical: 50 feet
  • Outdoor, very clear or open: 100 feet

These guidelines work well. They create a good and believable mix of encounter starting locations.

Dungeon environments can vary greatly, especially with walls and illumination or vision (normal, low light and darkvision) alone typically having a huge impact on encounter start distance, not to mention more fantastic effects or phenomena.

Still, let outdoor terrain, elements (weather), and illumination serve as a reference point for your dungeon-based starting encounter distances.


Variety of tactical play is a simple but important advantage here. Specifically, long distance start encounters mean a greater opportunity to maneuver into more defensible or advantageous positions on the battlefield.

Now, both monsters and the party can move behind a few boulders or trees, or otherwise find some cover or bottleneck they particularly like. With the premium placed on mobility in D&D 4e, characters and monsters with abilities or magic items that increase their movement or help overcome difficult terrain get to shine early on as they move into better position. Spot the Path, anyone?

Additionally, backup ranged weapons suddenly have more value as melee-oriented characters spend time and rounds bearing down on the enemy. Long-range weapons like bows and crossbows, for both PCs and monsters, become a real option, at least for a round or two.

And of course, long-range spellcasters and artillery on either side actual get a chance to measure out and test the limits of those Ranged 20 powers. Even powers within 50 feet suddenly require at least a round of movement and tactical positioning. There’s a reason archers have always had such an advantage at the start of battles throughout human history, and here’s one way to emulate this classic battlefield advantage.

From an encounter design level, greater starting encounter distance also helps inspire more tactical phases, features or challenges in an encounter.

For example, why have those tanarukk demon orcs simply fire their crossbows from 100? out behind a few boulders, when they can still do it from 150? out from arrow slits in a ruined tower just behind those boulders? Now you’ve introduced and highlighted the value and threat of true artillery, combined with its most tactically advantageous terrain: superior cover.

This creates a special challenge for the party to deal with, even while a forward force of tanarukk warriors close in on them from around the blasted rocklands, using boulder cover and possibly a few crossbow shots of their own to harass the heroes as they go.

A couple of very different threats like these always helps a combat encounter come alive, giving the heroes meaningful choices as far what enemies to concentrate on and how best – and who best – to deal with them.

Combat Duration and Starting Distance

The only drawback to using greater starting distances in encounters is they might add more time from maneuvering into the already overlong 60-minute average combat duration – a duration often blown away by truly challenging or adventure/play tier finale encounters.

If this doesn’t bother you or your playgroup however, then go for it – vary up encounter start distance and use longer starting distances often.

Otherwise, one balanced solution is to use large starting distances in minion-only or minion-heavy encounters. This balances the extra time costs of closing and multiple rounds of artillery fire early on with threats that are more quickly eliminated once successfully attacked.

Even a solo encounter with a heavy dose of global encounter elements, engaging terrain features and a host of minions fits the bill. Plus, the dramatic build-up of a few extra rounds of maneuvering in this sort of ultimate fight only fuels the excitement of such a momentous encounter.

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