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?