Friday Favourite: Time in D&D

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on September 6, 2013

On Friday we comb through our extensive archives to find an older article that we feel deserves another look. From April 7, 2010, Dungeon’s Master once again presents: Time in D&D.

Raise your hand if you’ve ever created a level 1 PC, entered a dungeon, killed a bunch of monsters, gained a bunch of levels while still inside the dungeon and then realized that only a few weeks of actual in-game time passed when you emerge. I know I’m not the only one reading this that has his hand up.

Time in D&D is an aspect of the game I find is overlooked way too often. Tracking time in your game may not be that big a deal, but the longer you continue playing that same PC the more important time becomes.

So just how long does it take to go from level 1 to level 2? In 4e D&D it takes about 10-13 encounters or about four gaming sessions. But what I really want to know is how much time passes in-game between levels?

I think it’s safe to say that for most campaigns, the PCs are likely to take some time off between adventures. But that’s not always the case. The last two campaigns that I’veparticipated in (one as a player and one as a DM) both involve some pretty controlled timelines. If the PCs didn’t accomplish their goals by a set deadline then bad things happened. This motivated everyone to complete the quest as quickly as possible.

In the case of my last campaign the PCs began at level 1 and reached level 11 after only about 1 year of in-game time. So that naive 19-year-old adventurer (and all of his travelling companions) who weren’t anything special when we started became the richest and most powerful heroes in the land before reaching their 21st birthdays. That just doesn’t seem right to me.

As I thought more about this issue, I remembered that in Advanced D&D PCs didn’t just level when they hit the requisite XP. They had to spend time (in-game) and money before they could level. Here’s what I found in the Dungeon Masters Guide (written by Gary Gygax himself).

Experience points are merely an indicator of the character’s progress towards greater proficiency in his chosen profession. Upward progress is never automatic. The gaining of sufficient experience points is necessary to indicate that a character is eligible to gain a level or experience, but the actual award is a matter for the DM.

The character must spend [weeks] in study and/or training before he can actually gain the benefits of the new level.

All training/study is recorded in game time. The period must be uninterrupted and continuous. He cannot engage in adventuring, travel, magic research of any nature, atonement, etc.

Once a character has points which are equal to or greater than the minimum number necessary to move upward in experience level, no further experience points can be gained until the character actually gains the new level.

So what this boils down to is that if a PC enters a dungeon as a level 1 PC, regardless of how much XP he actually earns during the dungeon crawl, he cannot advance to level 2 until he’s spent weeks in training. That is, according to the old school rules.

Now I’m the first to admit that a lot has changed between editions. Just because this is how things worked in the early editions of D&D doesn’t mean that they’re going to work for the current edition. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the old rules were off-base. Perhaps this is one of those times were we should look to the old rules and use them as a guide.

There is nothing in the current 4e D&D rules that says PC must spend time training between levels, but you may want to introduce this into your campaign. There will be times when it’s just not possible for the PCs to take any significant down time between adventures, but I think campaigns that use the “beat the clock” approach are more of a rarity. By introducing mandatory down time in your campaign the players are more likely to develop flavour for their PCs. How did the PCs spend their gold and their time between adventures? Is there an adventure hook that the DM can generate from these activities?

The next time you’re the DM consider how much time passes during the next major campaign story arc. Make sure that you give the PCs ample down time between levels to represent in-game the time required to learn and practice their new powers and feats. You don’t have to actually role play this part of the character development, but spending a minute or two to acknowledge that it happened gives the players a chance to think about what their PC did to get the benefits that accompany leveling up.

How do you track time’s progression in your campaign. Are PCs required to have a certain amount of down time before they can advance to the next level? If not, do you think it’s a good idea to start using this kind of rule? What’s the shortest amount of in-game time that’s passed for your PC between levels?


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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Svafa September 6, 2013 at 9:54 am

The fastest I can think of in our current campaign was a particular battle that leveled the characters in one day of in-game time. They completed, about one dozen encounters between extended rests that day, culminating in a large boss fight. However, while they immediately leveled after the day, they didn’t have any more encounters for another two or three weeks in-game, so perhaps it doesn’t count. The fastest I can think of without a prolonged break afterward is about three days in-game.

The rule of requiring downtime before leveling is something I’d like to do, but will have to wait for another time. It’s a little late to make such a major change in our current game, and would really screw with the game pace as I’m trying to increase its pace toward the climax.

2 Madfox11 September 6, 2013 at 10:09 am

The biggest downside of mandatory downtime is that it will enfore a certain pacing on your campaign. PCs will leave that dungeon crawl or stop the quest when they realize they need a week to travel. Furthermore, you do realize that 1 week is noting? Instead of 21 your young and naive PC is now 21.5 ;) In other words, if you care about the rapid leveling compared to time, downtime is a given. Don’t make it a week, don’t tie it to leveling, but simply tie it what you feel is a good pacing and what makes sense storywise.

For example, I have seen systems that simply state PCs will only have one adventure per year tops. The rest of the time is spend travelling, resting and getting involved in local non-adventuring stuff. Both were distinct phases during which the PCs did seperate things. In such a game, getting to level 20 would take 20 years. Obviously, you need to adapt your story though. Players will complain if they don’t level at all in an epic quest like Lord of the Rings ;)

3 Tim September 6, 2013 at 11:25 am

Our campaign sessions often have big breaks between them simply because nobody can ever make the game times and we need to push them back. This allows me to say as a DM that this or that many months have passed since the PCs last did something, sometimes even when they stop mid-adventure. It’s a good system to advance the ongoing story of the world and try to quantify how much changes when they don’t play.

4 Chad September 6, 2013 at 11:44 am

In my recent paragon-tier Eberron campaign, I intentionally slipped intervals of two or more months into the story between adventures, implying that the party continued to take odd jobs and missions during that interval. Since these periods coincided with level-ups, it all made sense time-wise (particularly the six-month gap that preceeded their advancement to level 20, which was entirely dedicated to prepared for a prophecized battle).
For my Epic-tier continuation of that campaign, I intend to introduce far larger time gaps. It seems strange to me that PCs can merely train their way to godlike power. Instead, I’m saying that the power bestowed upon them needs to ‘mature’ over time (lest it kill them) and introducing blocks of multiple years between levels (which, given that half the epic destinies seem to bestow immortality or extreme longevity, aren’t that big of an issue).

5 dan September 7, 2013 at 11:53 pm

I may be mistaken, but didn’t one of the core books for 4e state that the characters are assumed to be experimenting with new things during most time between encounters, such as short and extended rests? For certain things, that makes sense, like one new power, or this or that. Especially if you think of more advanced ones being experimented with multiple levels early. It also makes sense that it would not be perfected until they had reached a certain level of prowess.
For Next, though, it seems easier at lower levels, since the new features are mostly attack bonus, HP, increase to defining feature/day limit, etc. With stuff like the feats, it makes less sense. With some other ones, though, the progression seems too much. However, if you use the logic above, it can still make sense.

6 That one guy September 9, 2013 at 11:59 pm

The thing is that most “rushed” DnD things are cramming things in. Imagine if you actually lived your life that way. Imagine that you went to college as a naive little 17-year old, fresh out of high school. Now imagine that you didn’t sign up for classes, imagine that classes actively attacked you — and if you didn’t eschew all video games, all socializing, everything, and really focus on homework and getting an A almost every hour of every day, you’d die. Basically, imagine yourself living in the world of Ender’s Game at Battle Station.

Under those conditions, it’s not surprising that you can hit level 10 in a little over a year. I trained with a guy in an aikido class and another person asked him when he started training and his answer surprised us both, because he was really good. He told us that he’d been laid off but that he had lived above a judo studio, so he signed up for every class and basically lived there every day, and just practiced for a year. He got really good in that year and was taking the aikido class to expand his martial arts portfolio. (In good news, he’d found another job by then.) What do you want to do with your life? How much time and effort do you want to devote to that activity?

If you find someone with Asperger’s or an extremely high functioning autistic person, basically someone who can hyperfocus, and they get interested in a subject, how long does it take for them to learn just about everything there is to know about a subject?

That being said, most of our characters are like we are, lackadaisical, far less driven, we spend a lot of time in our leisure pursuits. Sure, there were times in my life where I worked 80 hours a week, but not any more. Now I’m just building my retirement. The only trouble lies when most characters in a group are lackadaisical characters but one character is a really driven character, or is a character played by someone who’s just that way in real life. How do you give the same down time to every character in a group when some characters are just naturally going to get “more” out of that down time, yet you don’t want to award more xp?

7 Matt September 26, 2013 at 11:30 am

I remember the forced downtime of 1st edition. And I haven’t found where such is suggested or required in 4th(this just means i havent found it, not that it doesnt exist). I have started putting gaps in my storyline between adventures to account for training, loot spending, story hooks, etc. I agree and currently use this as a pacing mechanism and have found my players are starting to crave the “downtime” for their characters. Interesting as this group started all “go-gett’m and kill’m” and have turned into a more role-playing type of group. Btw, keep up the good work!

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