It All Comes Down to Time

Sarah Darkmagic - Posted on 24 February 2011

In his very good post, TheAngryDM talks about resource use in 4e D&D. Today on twitter we discussed things a bit more and he brought up that the system needs to address that the players get too much of a carrot by taking an extended rest. I don't disagree, but the truth is the system does address it, just not in a way that makes many DMs or groups particularly happy. It's done by emphasizing time.

Many DMs just hand wave time. Even though a number of skills and rituals detail how much time they take, I really didn't get that keeping track of time was that important. Also, at least for me, it's hard to figure out how much time something should take in a game. Players are used to fixing a flat tire in under half an hour. In a world with magic, how long would it take to fix a wagon wheel? If we have all the time in the world, the answer to that question doesn't matter. If it means the difference between failure and success, time becomes just as precious of a resource when compared to healing surges, daily powers, and trail rations.

However, if we keep track of time in our games, suddenly we have at least a partial mechanical answer to our problems of the 15 minute workday. Here are the basics of an extended rest.

Extended Rest

Duration: 6+ hours
* 12 hours need to elapse between rests
* Light activity only, usually sleep

* Regain hit points and healing surges (Exceptions listed elsewhere)
* Regain all encounter and daily powers including magic items
* Lose all unspent action points. Gain 1 action point at the end of the rest.

* If anything interrupts the rest, add the length of time of the interruption to the time needed for an extended rest. So if a band of gnolls wakes you up and it takes half an hour to deal with them, the total duration is now 6.5 hours.
* Unless otherwise noted, characters need to sleep for 6 hours out of every 24. If they do not sleep for 6 hours, they do not gain the benefits of an extended rest.
* In an area with an environmental danger, characters may regain healing surges lost due to combat by taking an extended rest but not those lost due to failed endurance checks.

In a game where time ranks as a resource, I see right away that the rule concerning 12 hours becomes important. If you only have 2 days to stop someone, each of those hours becomes critical. They are resources you need not only to rest (6+ hours), but to do streetwise checks (1 hour), perform rituals (varies), etc.

So by ignoring time, we are ignoring a critical part of the game as intended. I'm not against that, but it's something we should keep in mind when we start changing rules. So in my mind, we have 3 options:
* Make time matter. (seemingly the default game mode)
* Give the players carrots/hit them with sticks to make them want to have multiple encounters between extended rests.
* Adjust their resource levels to account for the lower number of encounters between extended rests.

Which avenue we explore is determined by the type of game we run and how much we want mechanics versus narrative to provide the impetus. Personally, I'm not a fan of his proposals because I feel they overemphasize PC death to the detriment of other elements. Which one we pick is also determined by how much time we have to prepare. As TheAngryDM stated, we don't always have time to create super creative narrative options.

So where do we go from here? It would be great to see some articles on how to deal with time and its passage in games. I'd also love to see a toolbox full of suggestions for how to handle the issue in games, multiple tools that address particular play styles and adventure types. Together these should help the vast majority of games while not adding constraints that DMs need to pull away.


Of the three options you list, I prefer to make time matter. I see your second bullet as just a means to the end of the first bullet. I don't like the third bullet; it's very "fiddly" and makes more work for everybody.

I don't think the 15 minute workday is a real problem. I have never seen a group take an extended rest after every single encounter, or even after MOST encounters. Who plays that way? It's not fun, and doesn't help with suspension of disbelief. It's fun to be challenged and dance with death. And players play in the way that is most fun. Maybe there are a few groups or players out there who have the 15 minute workday mindset, but I don't think there are enough of them to call it a "problem."

Perhaps not one, but I've definitely seen my players take an Extended Rest after 2 encounters.

Since you did specifically request further thoughts on time and its passage within a game, I don't feel too guilty about posting a link to one of my own blog entries on this topic, though I'm writing more about week-based time scales than hours or days.

Now I'll go read TheAngryDM's post, possibly providing myself necessary context a little too late.

I think the key is that AngryDM and you are talking about two different styles of games, although I'm not sure he explicitly talks about it.

The problem with using time as a solution is that sometimes, especially with published adventures, there simply is no time constraint. Now, one could say, that's where the onus on the DM comes, but I think that to some degree, there does need to be some handholding here, especially for new DMs and especially in published adventures.

The only adventures I can recall lately that even has a time constraint are the 3e adventure Red Hand of Doom, Tomb of Horrors (superadventure) and Bark at the Moon (DDI). However, even for Tomb of Horrors, the restriction on the number of Extended Rests allowed is only in the final chapter, and the other dungeons can be explored pretty much at will, and there isn't even necessarily a dungeon population to redistribute amongst the rooms if the PCs leave.

However, I think you're also missing AngryDM's point a bit. It's not so much the Extended Rests that are a problem, but the lack of any gradation on impact from one encounter to the next.

That is, at the end of each encounter the party examines their healing surges and Daily attack powers and says "Do we have enough to go on for another encounter?" If yes, they do, if no they go for an Extended Rest. They may have their offensive abilities slightly degraded if they'd expended Daily Powers, but there is no reduction in their defenses. They still have all their hit points and enough healing abilities (through potions, Healing Words, Second Winds, etc) for that encounter to pretty much deal with any incoming damage.

Now, this isn't to say that AngryDM's potential solutions will work or be desirable. And it doesn't work for every playstyle.

But for situations where there is no time constraint, there really does need to be a mechanic that gives an incentive to continue on rather than leaving the dungeon and going for an extended rest.

I didn't miss the point, rather, we discussed a slightly different point on Twitter today that I wanted to address.

I agree that it doesn't help that most adventures don't have a time constraint and that at least the 4e books don't really address the movement of time through the game. I'm not sure I agree that there needs to be a mechanic, but that's because I don't like having mechanics for everything. That's why I argue there should be a toolbox with both mechanics and narrative tools so DMs and groups can create the experience they want from the game. Those experiences vary too much for there to be one set of rules for dealing with it.

Right, and I agree with you for the most part. However, what AngryDM is saying, and I'm agreeing with, is that there isn't a mechanic as an incentive to keep moving on. There definitely are narrative tools, of which many people have posted about.

AngryDM is saying that we shouldn't have to resort to narrative tools...there should be mechanical tools as well, and here are a couple of suggestions (which may or may not work as he has admitted he hasn't tested them).

We have one mechanical tool to persuade players, but I'll agree it isn't as well developed as it should be. That's the action point. If they were better tied into the system and perhaps, had additional uses attached to them, they could provide players with incentives to press on.

In my games, I try to keep time relevant enough to discourage frequent use of extended rests. For example, the first quest that I ran in my current campaign was a pretty standard dungeon crawl, but I added the twist that that the patron paying the heroes to locate treasure in the ruins wanted results within a week. Tracking days is pretty easy (just increment the counter with each extended rest), and I think that deadline worked well to get the players to push a little further between rests than they might have otherwise.

Well, since I run the World of Darkness system, all my "time" increments are in nice flexible units like "scene." In 3e I adopted a similar mechanic-- anything with "minutes" was a limited time, but "hours" became "per scene" or "per day."

In practice, most groups I've seen DID want to rest after every encounter. My solution? Have the monsters organize, prepare, & assault them.

Time is such an abstract concept in RPGs it can often be hard for DMs to track. But most epic stories pit the heroes against some time constraint. Perhaps if time was something you could give your players and they had some physical way of tracking it they might not treat it so nebulously. I think I'll have to look into some kind of time tracking system for my game! Awesome stuff yet again from Sarah Darkmagic!

I will say that in the 1e DMG Gygax pretty much explicitly suggests that you don't let the players hole up wherever they want without consequence.

But as far as I can tell, there's nothing similar in any 4e product regarding that.

I agree with Arcane Springboard, for the most part. There are situations where time matters, and other situations where it doesn't. Generally I try to run series of encounters where there are not convenient places to rest, and if the players choose to do so, there are always consequences. A lot of people don't like random battles, but if you throw a few extra in here and there, it can go along way towards discouraging a party's desire to sleep in enemy territory.

Currently I'm running a game that involves a timed contest to complete a series of tasks around a region. The characters can choose to rest in town more or less whenever they want, but traveling around the region, completing objectives, traveling back to town and resting all accumulates time. Aside from the players, there are a number of NPC groups competing in the same contest-- and they were all scored using a bell curve-ish method... so if the players don't push hard, they're guaranteed to fall behind an NPC group.

The relevance of time is...relative. If the party just cleaned out a dungeon then I don't really care if they take an extended rest. If they just cleaned out the first room of a dungeon and take an extended rest then I simply use logic. There is no way the denizens of a dungeon setting are going to let the characters complete an extended rest. And if the party simply leaves the dungeon, rests and comes back in, they will find that first room repopulated with new monsters sent to replace the guards the party killed.
I don't care that the adventure doesn't explicitly state the monsters will not come looking for the characters. All too often DMs get locked into the encounters and don't look at an adventure as a whole, or they feel they are "breaking" the adventure if they mess with the encounters as they are written. If a DM looks at an adventure as a "real" thing then time does become relevant.
An adventure is in the hands of the DM not the author of the adventure, something some GMs forget.

I'm a big fan of good, crunchy, mechanical rules for time... in good, crunchy, mechanical games. A system like 4E can benefit hugely from the mechanics you describe in this post, and that's because 4E is built to do very specific things at specific time intervals.

On the other hand, in FATE games I've played, time is purely situational. Trying to impose a tight mechanic on it is against the spirit of the game. Even in a Swords and Wizardry game I'm playing right now, time comes in the game when it's needed (the GM making wandering monster checks, the wizard resting to get spells), but passes quickly when it is a distraction.

Back in my 3.5 days, I wrote a quick Java time calculator for the game, because I thought keeping better track of time would lead to better games. The way use of the product interfered with the game proved to be a monumental waste of time--both that of the players and their characters.

At today, I posted on the value of systems, the first in a series that will look at differences between various systems, and evaluate which are helpful to use for particular styles or themes of gaming. It sounds like you're highlighting one of the values of 4E: using elements of the characters' environment to help make story elements into carrots and sticks for the game.

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