Lessons from the Isle of Joy: Time Records (Strict and Otherwise)

This post is, yes, me trying to convince you to check out my latest RPG project, the Isle of Joy over on Kickstarter right now. However, since I’m not used to selling my stuff, I am going wrap the sales pitch in bacon some short essays on actionable related to RPGs. Maybe they’ll be things most GMs have figured out for themselves, maybe not, but I’d like to share what I got from the experience of designing and playtesting the book. 

Today, I’m going to address how time and pacing works when it comes to worldbuilding or, rather, when it comes to the GM’s task of world-revealing. 

There’s a passage in the 1st edition AD&D DMG that gets quoted a lot:


Often, when people quote this, they’re using it to make fun of Gygax’s writing style and attiude, and let’s be honest: it’s a pretty doctrinaire-sounding dictum, especially when it’s in all-caps like that. It also clashes with experience: I’ve had “meaningful campaigns” where I didn’t keep strict time records.

Of course, that just raises questions like what “meaningful” is supposed to mean, or how “strict” one’s records really need to be. One of the more compelling arguments I’ve seen for what “meaningful” means (based on the examples Gygax uses to support this claim) is that it refers to a specific style of play where multiple groups of players are interacting with the same setting. In Gygax’s example, one group of players might clean out a section of a dungeon, and then a group visiting a few days later might discover that area already cleaned out. If you’ve got multiple groups of players interacting with the same dungeon or landscape, along different in-game timelines, and you want to maintain the semblance of a single world for whatever reason, then yes, you will need to keep somewhat detailed time records. If you don’t, well, good luck to the GM trying to keep all that straight in their head. (See this post over at The Wandering Gamist for an fuller exploration of this interpretation.)

Meanwhile, I’d argue that “strict” probably does has a context-specific meaning, and it almost certainly doesn’t mean “highly detailed.” (The example Gygax provides in the DMG isn’t more detailed than “Day 53” or “Day 54,” for example.) Is it possible that “strict” here just means “clear” or “firm”? Might it simply mean, “detailed enough to know who got where first”?

Of course, most of us don’t play with the same setting and multiple separate groups of characters. Even in a modern West Marches game, built around the idea of multiple distinct forays into the wilderness by a changing group of player characters, doesn’t tend to involve completely separate groups of players interacting with the same setting in overlapping groups over an extended period of time, with play occurring over interlocking, non-sequential timelines. (I suppose someone could do that, and it might even be interesting, but that’s not necessarily a built in assumption of West Marches play and most groups don’t do it this way.)

Still, I think time records can be useful for other things. In Isle of Joy, for example, I advocate using time records as a tool of pacing for worldbuilding. There are three examples I would point to:

Events Tied to Natural Phenomena

In Isle of Joy, the phases of the moon matter when it comes to the setting. Specifically, there are some magical complications associated with lingering too long on one part of the Isle, and those complications tend to kick in at certain phases of the moon. These major events are foreshadowed with minor events—nightly ones, mostly—but the big events almost certainly don’t happen for a few days after characters arrive on the Isle. I think these kinds of events are useful for a few reasons:

  • It helps you pace how you parcel out the details of your worldbuilding. Frankly, this is useful because when one is introducing an imaginary setting, it can be challenging to figure out what stuff characters should discover when. Making some events tied to natural phenomena means you can set the timing of those events and then not worry about them until the natural phenomenon happens. (If XYZ happens on the first night of the full moon, all you need to know is how many nights after arriving the full moon begins.) 
  • It helps players to develop a sense of meaningful choice: if they know XYZ happened on the first night of the full moon last month, they can speculate about whether it may happen again, cyclically, on the first night of the full moon every month, and it lets them take steps to prepare for it. (This also gets them actively tracking time, which can be helpful.) A sense of meaningful choice and investment in the timeline of events are pretty criucial to having a meaningful campaign, if you ask me.  

Events that Start Clocks Ticking

These have been around since the start of RPGs, I’d argue, but it was an innovation by John Harper in Blades in the Dark to make ticking clocks explicit and player-facing. That mechanic is great, and deserves all the discussion it’s gotten online, though it’s not fully implementable in an OSR-styled game. 

I think, though, you can make ticking clocks a little more visible to players in other ways. In Isle of Joy, I made sure to include a set of periodic events that inevitably occur on the Isle. Sometimes they take longer to start, or to complete, and sometimes they come and go much more quickly, but what’s common is that each time they’re set in motion, a clock begins ticking… every time. Characters may or may not discover why that event is happening, but in RPGs the truth is that how a mysterious event works tends to matter much more than why it’s happening

This offers a lot of potential in a game, especially for GMs who’re willing to trigger events such that they’re tapping into the dramatic potential.

Like what? Well… a common example is when a clock starts ticking at the worst possible time—especially when the player characters are already dealing with some other problem, or more than one other problem at once. However, if you design those events well enough—often with some potential benefit available to player characters for a limited time—this sense of drama will come automatically: players will get swept up in the sense of urgency to get this or that thing done before the clock runs out. (I can think of at least one example of each that happened during playtesting, mostly because of information player characters received through bartering infromation with NPCs they ran across.)

Sure, GMs will prefer to play things strictly by the dice, and that’s fine too. It means sometimes these events will go off all of a sudden in the middle of time that’s otherwise unremarkable—travel time, or during camp—and, in a way, that’s also an injection of meaningfulness into the game. It’s good either way. 

Events that Mess with Time

I love timey-wimey stories involving things like timeloops. (Palm Springs was one of my favorite movies of 2020, for example.) They’re also challenging to pull off in RPGs, but in a fun way. For this reason, I included a location that’s trapped on a timeloop in Isle of Joy, but I kept it flexible in terms of how the GM can choose to handle it. One thing I did to ensure this was to make it a locale outside of the (ahem) “normal reality” of the Isle: characters travel there by magical means, and when I ran it, I had to carefully consider how much time passed back on the Isle, depending on how long characters lingered. I think there’s loads of dramatic potential here, especially in the whole, “time passes differently inside the loop than outside it.”

If you want, a timeloop can be just that: a loop in time, from which characters emerge with no time having passed, or the same amount of time as they spent in the loop. That’s a perfectly good choice, if you want to do it that way, and it presents your players with more than enough to work with. If they get serious about tracking events, they’ll soon discover lots of handholds they can grab and hang onto in order to take advantage of the situation—more meaningful player choice, at least in the short term—and that’s more than enough.   

Of course, you can also mess with time outside of the loop, when the characters emerge from it. Consider having a week or a month go by while characters spend one day’s worth of time inside a timeloop. Then compare this to the possibility of having a decade or a century pass in the outside world. In the former case, this is enough time for some of what the PCs have learned to become dated, but only a little bit of it. Maybe there’s been a shift in power dynamics or leadership or alliances and hostilities, but overall the factions they’ve encountered will likely still all exist. Most of the locales they’ve visited will still be there, and still be recognizable. If a decade or especially a century has passed, though, there’s the potential for a lot more change in the setting. Maybe one faction defeated most of the others, and has taken over a half-Isle (or both halves of the Isle) for itself. Maybe the factions were done in by wildlife and spirits, and the Isle is unrecognizable now, once-surviving buildings reduced to rubble. Perhaps certain spirits have been released or have escaped, and others have fallen into those spirits roles? What’s most fascinating about this is the possibility that player characters’ actions could impact the Isle in some meaningful way: maybe their interaction with a faction affected that faction’s future prospects in a way that shaped how things went down while the PCs were away? Maybe some encounter that seemed relatively meaningless at the time has an outsized effect on the slow march of history? This can be a lot of fun to work out, and for PCs to work out, though it’ll take some careful record-keeping and creativity. 

Of course, a locale like the Isle itself could be one of those places where time passes differently than the rest of the world, too. Perhaps characters who spend a half a year wandering its jungles and shores and manage to escape will discover that no time at all has passed, as if it were a mere dream. Perhaps, on the other hand, that half-year on the Isle becomes half a century out in the rest of the world, and everyone and everything they’ve ever known and loved is dust now, the great kingdoms in ruins, the empires collapsed. If you’re the kind of GM who doesn’t mind breaking an established campaign setting, this could be a really fun way to do it.  Also, if ancient history plays an important role in the lore of your game, and you’re the kind of GM who doesn’t mind doing more prep, maybe characters could escape from the Isle only to discover that time in the rest of the world flowed backwards, and they’re now in the ancient age of legends that was ancient to their characters’ culture and society. 

That’s all a lot of work, but it could be a fun thing to explore. Or not, as the GM prefers! It all depends on whether you want time to become an explicit theme of your campaign, and in what way.  

“Strict” Time Records?

For the stuff I’ve mentioned above, I’d argue “strict” isn’t the word I’d be likely use to describe the time records I kept. Nor were my time-records particularly detailed: I’m just not that kind of a GM. Mostly, I tried to keep track of the following:

  • How many hours PCs spent at various locales, or traveling between them (so I could keep the day-night cycle straight). I was pretty loosey-goosey with this, but we often confirmed how much time had passed and what time of day it was as we played. 
  • How many days had passed since the characters had arrived on the Isle. I tracked this against the main group, rather than against any backup PCs who joined after someone’s main PC got killed. 
  • How many days until the next full/new moon. This was important for some major, Isle-wide supernatural events. 
  • How much time was on any given ticking clock. For most of my game, there was only one big ticking clock (that of the Isle passing through the cycle from Sundered to Reunited and then back to Sundered), and it was usually yet another countdown in days, though a couple of times it briefly switched to minutes or hours.  

For me, it was enough to have a few notes on each day. I wouldn’t call those time records particularly “strict,” so much as clear and organized, but then, maybe that was all Gygax meant by the word? I don’t know, but I think that setting the bar higher than that is likely to frustrate GMs. My experiences show me that this amount of tracking is comfortable for most people, but anything more is probably asking too much, and setting GMs up for (largely unnecessary) disappointment. 

If the above interested you, feel free to check out the Isle of Joy kickstarter. As I write this, our backers are on the verge of unlocking yet another stretch goal—a sizeable set of color VTT maps!—and with your support we could unlock even more before the campaign ends!  

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