From Dusk Till Dawn: Time Tracking in Your Campaign
I received this request from a new GM:
How do I as a DM keep track of time passage? Suppose the PCs are traveling to a lair and it’s a two-day walk. Should I have them set up camp? What should happen during the camp setup and through the night? How long should I track their time in the lair?
Here are some initial thoughts on why tracking time is essential:
First, consult your game system. It might dictate significant time periods that you need to track. For instance, in Old School Essentials, several activities take Turns (10-minute intervals). Turns result in wandering monster rolls (determined by the region). Therefore, you need to track Turns to know when to roll for events and encounters.
Second, many systems and campaigns offer downtime activities that yield character boons or milieu events, so tracking calendar time in days and weeks becomes vital too.
Third, encounters often involve conditions and critical temporary effects, such as paralysis or the time until a second wave of foes hit. Thus, tracking time in rounds is a key task in most campaigns.
Should I Have Them Camp?
First, refer to your game system to see if there are rules about requiring rest while traveling.
- If the party chooses to rest, let that be their decision, and then apply any camp rules.
- Next, check your adventure to see if any encounters should trigger.
- Then, decide if you want an encounter for pacing and plotting reasons.
Camp offers excellent opportunities for encounters. The party has stopped in one place for a while, which attracts attention and makes them easier targets.
You can have roleplay encounters, combat, or puzzles. All are supported during camp.
Some groups enjoy camp tactics, such as defenses, scouting, hunting, and so on.
However, it is crucial to be clear on any cost to not stopping to rest. Be sure to implement those mechanical consequences based on player decisions.
What Should Happen During Camp Setup and the Night?
Again, let your game system guide you here. If you’re running a gritty game, track resources consumed, broken, lost, and stolen. For example, perhaps animals break into unprotected food, leaving the party hungry and facing fatigue penalties in the coming days.
Defenses are important. Ask players if they stand guard, and if so, establish the character turn order for the rest period. Decide if the party attracts beasts and foes by making noise, building a large campfire, cooking something that smells delicious, and so on.
Should a hostile encounter trigger, ensure everyone is clear and agreed on the camp situation to prevent arguments. “No! I said I was standing guard by the river, not the path. I’d have seen them coming!”
Camping also lets players do a bit of roleplaying, resource assessment, and processing of what’s happened to date. So, it’s beneficial to ask players what they do during camp time when not resting.
Camp encounters can also reward minor skill choices. Insects, disease, hunting, dousing, survival, and the like give players chances to showcase skills not often triggered in cities and dungeons.
Camps also make great Room III: Trick or Setback encounters. You can deplete resources, as mentioned, cause time delays, alert the enemy, and so on.
To decide what happens during camp, create a table of encounter and event ideas that make sense for the region. Decide if you want a random encounter or use GM choice.
How Do I Keep Track of Time?
I use Campaign Logger and create a Log just for session notes, which includes time tracking at all scales.
For calendar time, I use Campaign Logger’s %Date tag:
Make a new tag for each day where something significant happens. For example,
%157 – Meltwater 15 – Elven Greetings.
- 157 is the year
- Meltwater is the month
- 15 is the day of the month
- “Elven Greetings” is a note about what happened of significance on that day.
Quickly fill out details in Log entries during the session. After sessions, transfer anything notable to the relevant timeline page. This provides you with a complete, simple, and fast chronology of your campaign.
Note this hack I’m currently using: %157 – Meltwater 21 – CURRENT DAY
I append CURRENT DAY to my timeline entry name, so I always know the current day in the campaign.
When a day passes, I simply rename the old day and the new day. For example, let’s say the calendar ticks to Meltwater 22. I would rename the old day and create an entry for the new day like this:
- %157 – Meltwater 21 – Elven Sarcophagi
- %157 – Meltwater 22 – CURRENT DAY
If you are not using Campaign Logger, then keep a running document or calendar. Note each day as it begins, so you always know the current date.
If you’re running any kind of background or kingdom events system, update your calendar with what happens and how that might affect future gameplay, such as new Wandering Monster entries or planned encounters.
For Hours, track them whenever such time passes in the game in units or blocks that make sense to your mechanics and story. In my OSE campaign, I only track morning, afternoon, evening, and night unless the precise hour is crucial, such as for a meeting. I note these periods in quick session Log entries.
For Turns, Minutes, and Rounds, I track these using dice. I have large dice for this purpose, so I don’t accidentally roll them. For each time-tracking die, place a poker chip or Post-It underneath.
- Green = Turns
- Blue = Minutes
- Red = Rounds
Only track rounds, minutes, and hours if it’s important. Otherwise, handwave. I’ll often just ask players, “What time is it right now for the party?” and use their answer.
Additional Time Tracking Methods
I’ve had great success using a cribbage board to track time. Use my color codes above for the pegs.
Asking a player to track time for me also works well, though Campaign Logger is now my preferred approach because it turns %Date tags into automatic timelines.
Beads and similar counters track time well, too. Put them in cups or containers. Pack up between sessions.
And, simply using graph paper also works great! Make a calendar page and cross dates out. Draw lines in groups of five for granular time tracking.
I hope this helps!