Monday, March 14, 2011

Adding Pendragon Epic-Time to D&D

Given the sweep of subjects it has dealt with in its many editions, D&D has had many curious omissions. Time is not one of them.

Indeed one of the more enduring legacies of the game's older editions has been how time inside rpgs is framed. The handling of game time has become so accepted as a bedrock concept that the founders' creativeness in conceptualizing it is almost purely taken for granted.

Most of D&D's wargame predecessors had rigid conceptions of what a turn was. Turns invariably puttered along on a single linear frame of time units (with the obvious exception of miniature campaigns that alternated play with battle-level time and a campaign-level time).

From the little brown books onward, time in D&D has run on multiple levels.

Given the central importance of site-based exploration, “dungeon time” a relatively small-scale timescale subdivided by 10-minute turns, is stressed as the most basic, fundamental game timescale. (I would hazard a guess that the centrality of this portion of play is why we ended up with “turns”, the most traditional of game terms here).

Right below it lay “combat time”: a quick, compressed timescale broken up by minute or 10-second “rounds” (further complicated in AD&D by “segments”). Right above it lay the longer timescale of “wilderness time” with its game days or day portions.

Much hazier was the layer of time right above wilderness time: “town time” or “campaign time” depending on your druthers. In my own experience both as GM and player this almost always meant the exact amount of time it took the party to heal its wounds, stock up, train, consult a sage, recover from hangovers, etc before promptly returning to the at-the-table time of the wilderness or dungeon. Time in this scale was days and weeks—with months on the very longest side.

(Even rarer was the punctuation of “hand-waving time” as the GM needed to move you great distances to a new adventuring site, but it's rarity makes it a decided exception.)

All good and fine, but did D&D--and the games that trailed in its wake--missed an important opportunity by not hard-wiring higher layers of time into the game?

Think of the some of the problems that we have heard here on running the kingdom-ruling part's of Paizo's Kingmaker series or Birthright. On both occasions players and GMs complained about how difficult it was to integrate play between the long sweep of the domain management pieces and the traditional adventuring timescales we are all used to.

It makes me wonder if the problem is in the domain rules of each product or the entrenchment of what D&D game play should be like in our minds. (Likely both, but why spoil a good set-up.)

Now let's take Pendragon. One of the game's core innovations was its handling of campaign time. Each scenario (linked multi-session adventures never lasting more than a season or two) is supposed to be bookended by a year of downtime.

A simple innovation but one that added several layers of depth. Players could realistically play not only a character but a characters' children and grandchildren. The managing of realms—almost inherently a long-term project needing months if not years of “off-stage” time to be interesting—becomes an easier fit. The real sweep of history, more of a thing of years, decades, and centuries even, becomes something tangible in gameplay.

My thinking out loud thread of today is simply this: would this work for classic-play D&D? Is that hard-wiring inherent or merely an ossified piece of how we play the game? Is epic-scale D&D even a fun prospect?


  1. I like the idea. Yeah, I COULD play Pendragon, but the D&D rules are more familiar to me and it is easier to get people to play. I like the abilty to essentially to "zoom" in or out of the game on a macro and micro scale. So, go for it I say!

  2. would this work for classic-play D&D? ... Is epic-scale D&D even a fun prospect?

    I don't know the answer to either question, but to me the idea of multi-generational play sounds fascinating - the thought of a player's current character having a direct link to his great grandfather, an almost legendary figure who slew a dragon, establishing the family fortune which paid for the castle (and noble title?), as well as finding in the dragon's hoard the magic sword that the current player wields in his own adventures.

    This is not something I've ever tried in my games, but I'm sure the players would get a kick out of it. We all talk about our early or favourite characters, perhaps that sentimentality and fun would be heightened by a strong link between a player's various characters over the years.

  3. I don't see why it wouldn't work, as the downtime phase in Pendragon isn't tied to the ruleset, it's just a way of arranging the campaign. All you need is to have mechanics for stuff to do in that downtime, and D&D already has those in the domain rules.

    In some ways, it makes more sense to play D&D in this fashion; if the characters are only going on one or two expeditions a year, during the "adventure season", then the rate at which they gain levels may seem more plausible.

  4. A yearly "campaign season" is reasonable, and would fit in better with a premodern conception of time. Healing wounds in a year is more reasonable as well.

    On the other hand, you would have to pay way more attention to things like charachter age, where they live (costly to live in an inn for a year), and possibly things like duty and obligations would start to come in once you have the longer time span... seems like it could be a positive change, at the expense of more book keeping.

  5. This idea is full of potential.

  6. seems like it could be a positive change, at the expense of more book keeping

    I think with the aid of some sort of template and perhaps a set of random charts the bookkeeping could be fairly simple and painless for the DM.

  7. I like the idea, the I don't know that its a fit for all campagin styles. Rules for covering this would be awesome though to scratch that generational game itch.

  8. @Hot Elf Chick
    One lesson I have learnt from practical circumstance is that it's much more feasible for me to add elements into my existing Frankenstein monster D&D than it is to recruit people to play a new system. So yeah I agree.

    You pose the "pro" position pretty eloquently there. I love the idea of big time-frame continuity too--but without a mechanism like this I have even less chance of it happening given the more compressed real-time opportunities of adult life.

    Players would have to get comfortable with the likelihood that there characters would die (gasp) of natural causes at some point in the campaign. A bit of a paradigm shift.

    That's a good observation about Pendragon. It's written and expected in the rules, but not integral.

    I absolutely agree that it makes the power arc of the game much more plausible. I was thinking about my own tabletop campaign in this regards this weekend. The current San Antonio phase of it kicked off in July 2009, but only a year has elapsed in game time! (More about this later as fits in with the theme.)

  9. @Lasgunpacker and Austro
    Putting my tinkering cap on I think there would be several fun ways to introduce something like this (maybe something for a spin-off post) from the hand-waving/narrativist up to a mini-game.

  10. The DMG had a slight nod in this direction with the suggestion that real time = game time; a players days between sessions equaling their characters days of down time. But the scale is far short of what you're talking about.

    I like it, and I agree it opens up a lot of possibilities. There's a lot of things, from spell research to business or politicking to building to real domain management, that you don't get around to when you go straight from adventure to adventure.

    Doesn't Traveler do something similar, or is that only for character generation? (I only know it by reputation.)

  11. I'm surprised no-one has mentioned the extraordinary King of Dragon Pass, perhaps the PC Strategy/Role-playing game that has done the most to shatter my ordinary expectations of what constitutes a great fantasy campaign.

    The seasonal turnover of course applies there- but what really interests me is the focus scaleability- namely that the campaign simulates the unfolding history of an entire tribe or clan rather than a small group of individuals. As the seasonal turns pass, other characters come into focus as notable events revolve around them. with the campaign developing more deeply, central figures age or are killed, and the sympathies of the player are pulled in new and interesting directions. Whilst the machinations of key political entities might have gone awry, the successes of the commoners in dealing with a poor growing season might become of note, for instance. Myriad other scenarios are possible.

    It had occurred to me to attempt a campaign like that with D&D sometime, where the focus on a small band of adventurers gives way to a game centred on the affairs of a small community or faction over a longer period, at least decades. Each player might control different characters at different times, as the focus of the campaign periodically shifts, say from the affairs of a group of militia troops, to those of the Baron's intimates, to the group of ne'er-do-wells who haunt the local taverns. This works particularly well in a round-robin DMing situation.

    In one campaign I was involved with, our party of evil, high level adventurers had recently built strongholds or manses. All players were also DMs in other games. Our DM had an idea- our various enemies were out for our blood, and had hired bands of adventurers to raid our various dwellings whilst our party was adventuring abroad. So each of us had a budget, and designed our strongholds and defenses, then DM'd our own lairs, whilst the others played new groups of PCs- the goodly adventurers performing the raids. It was very, very fun.

    My point is, by challenging those issues of focus in the game, whether on time periods or on a distinct group, a wonderful new sense of depth is applied to the game setting.

  12. I'm all for it. My character will be the lich...

  13. @David R
    Great minds think alike, when I first starting thinking about this post I duly pulled out the first ed. DMG to read that long section on Time. I would strongly recommend that everyone re-read that section as it's just wonderful. A real window into how multi-leveled play was in the founders' home campaigns that sections.

    I had to pull out the little black Traveller books to see what they said about time. Strangely there is no section at all about the handling of time in the campaign. It definitely didn't give much explicitly in the way of direction about what to do between adventures, but I remember that we would play out hours of the trade and commerce mini-game tramping between stars (and adventure sessions).

    Funny thing you say that about King of Dragon Pass.

    One big takeaway revelation I got when interviewing that game's designer, David Dunham ( was that the game had its origins in a tabletop campaign called PenDragon Pass, that put together Pendragon with Runequest to create a multi-generational game.

    That's a great point about focus scaleability. Each time-scale level that D&D added in it's original form created whole new avenues for play. In some ways this could be its last (or latest) frontier in those regards.

  14. Thanks for the interview pointer- I'm very interested in reading that...

  15. Ckutalik, If you think back to First Fantasy Campaign, you'll remember the nemerous passages regarding what characters were doing while not in the dungeon or on adventures. Various characters were frequently off doing there own thing. Arneson's game was definetly a long play system. I'm not sure if you have it, but Adventures in Fantasy builds on the idea more explicitly with the education system wherein characters are supposed to be spending specific lengths of time learning whatever it is they are interested in, all marked out on a specific campaign calandar. Now, I don't know exactly how all was integrated at the table, but I think there was as much discussion of world and character building in Arnesons games as there was monster slaying.

  16. @DH
    Another good call. Arneson was out front on so much and it would make sense given the folding of the dynamics of the miniatures campaign into Blackmoor D&D.

    The education part of AiF was one of the most interesting sections (if a bit cumbersome). I had forgotten how long some of the stretches were: 36 months for bow training, 60 months to be an engineer, 120 to be a jeweler. That would definitely add some longer campaign stretches.

  17. Trey, it needn't be just for generational play, although that is part of the assumption in Pendragon; each "year" could be any length of time.

    Pendragon assumes that the knights go on one adventure a year, then spend the rest of the time at court, dealing with their holdings, attending tournaments, and so on. Using it elsewhere, you could have have any number of adventures a year, or one adventure every five years, or whatever scale you want to use.

    In other words, it's perhaps best to think of it as guidelines for non-adventuring action rather than specifically for generational play; that's just what Pendragon uses it for.

  18. Another thought, make a cost for the players to NOT take the "down time". If they are out adventuring all the time, that's great, just use normal D&D rules, play as normal.

    However, while they are out "having fun", their Manse is rotting, their younger brother is usurping their position, their position at court is falling, no one remembers them etc.

    Think King Richard off on a crusade and Prince John back at home, angling to be crowned.

    Now, there is a cost to going off and getting treasure, leveling, and doing the "fun" stuff. Give them a carrot and a stick, but let them choose which one they want.