Time Management

Today I finished Critical Role season 2 episode 74, and I noticed the players exhibiting a strange habit I’ve seen countless times in my own games. Specifically, it seems to me that most players have a lot of trouble managing two disconnected time lines, namely real world time and in-game time. It’s not terribly surprising as that’s a pretty strange concept to grapple with, but I find the counter-productive behavior it elicits quite fascinating.

So let’s look at that episode of CR — and by no means am I bagging on their game here, it’s just a convenient example. In this episode, the players discover their goal (the den of a white dragon) is 350 miles away from their current location. They are presented with multiple routes and methods of travel to get there, all of which will take several game days at minimum, and up to a couple weeks at the far end. The players then spend a huge amount of table time plotting ways to get around this. They come up with elaborate plans involving multiple hops of teleportation, they spend a lot of time negotiating with NPCs to get access to a teleport circle, and call in favors and spend a lot of gold to pull it all together. The net result is that the session is over just as they finally reach their destination. I was left with this question – why didn’t they just start walking?

I suspect that most players have this tendency to see game time as precious, even when it is clearly not. As far as I could tell the group wasn’t in any particular time crunch to complete their task. Sure, maybe there are some risks in travel, maybe they’ll encounter some monsters or something along the road, but I suspect they’d have spent a lot less total real world time getting to their destination than they did. Had they just started walking right away, they might have gotten to fight the dragon before the end of the session, or if not I suspect it would have been because they had an exciting encounter with something else along the way. Instead they saved themselves two or three imaginary weeks by spending a lot of play time in negotiation and debate.

OD&D (or specifically OED) brings this issue to up frequently due to the slow rate of natural healing. Players often seem very hesitant to spend weeks of time between adventures recuperating, even though the cost could be as little as a couple minutes of table time. “You spend three weeks relaxing in town and enjoying the comforts of home.” There, bang, three game weeks have passed, and everyone heals up.

Sure, there can be some other in-game costs to doing this. Presumably one must pay basic upkeep costs for the time passed, though I would expect this to be fairly minimal to experienced treasure seekers. Possibly the DM will also introduce some new elements as a result, as it’s not like the world stops moving while the players sit on their laurels. Depending on how the players left things this may be undesirable, as their enemies could further plots or increase defenses, but I feel like this is rarely the thing that prevents the players from taking some R&R time. I suspect far more often this kind of activity is rejected due to “not wanting to waste time”. Unfortunately that’s just what it actually does – it wastes valuable real world time in deference to near valueless imaginary game world time.

I fear Ten Dead Rats will inherit this problem, possibly even more so than OD&D since magical healing is even less accessible. We’re now five sessions in and already half the party is nursing grievous wounds. Will they even think of stopping somewhere and just taking a little down time to recover? I’m not sure. I’m a little worried experience in other games where recovery is near instantaneous in game time may be warping their expectations.

But as CR shows us, this is not an old school vs. new school problem. Even in 5th edition we see players spending tons of real world time trying to save their characters a few imaginary days of imaginary drudgery. My advice to players everywhere is this – give your characters a break! Look at game time as a resource just like any other, and start spending it.

As computer RPGs have taught me over and over again, completing the game with the most unconsumed healing potions does not increase your score. Game time, just like healing potions or in-game currency (another thing players love to horde) is a resource that should be spent. Sure, spend it judiciously, but spend it anyway. Be willing to let your characters have a boring couple of weeks sitting around the house. The in-game clock will move at a variable speed to ensure that the most real world time is spent on the exciting stuff regardless.

12 thoughts on “Time Management

  1. I think the 5e mode of play acts as a multiplier for this behavior and Critical Role is really brings the reason into focus. 5E discourse is pretty much rooted from the starting point that DnD is about telling a capital Epic story. The older style of a series of small adventures has been replaced with the idea that a campaign will hinge on a single great, level 1-20, plot. Contemporary DnD discussions on popular subreddits or youtube channels typically focus on “rate my idea for a main quest” or “help we with my Big Bad Evil Guy’s motivations.” These style of game presuppose that a single great threat propels the fiction and PCs forward. If you watch various videos of popular DnD personalities you will inevitably come across tip videos on how to build such a threat, or how to up the level of drama in your Epic Game. The most common and probably effective way to add drama is to create a time pressure. Critical Role does this explicitly, while the characters each have their own “side quests” the entire game in continually played under various clocks; an escalating border war, a cult of evil murdering innocents and threatening loved ones, the explicit request of a God to gather followers on a specific date at a specific place. It’s my assertion that this has become the norm, so I think it is safe to say that fictionally DnD games are structured to promote a “never stand still” experience. Moreover, the short rest / long rest refresh mechanics mean that unless parties are pushed to act under in game time constraints it becomes a lot harder to stress the parties resources and push the characters to their limits.

    TLDR- While this isn’t a new “problem” there are a couple of reason that mechanically and culturally 5e promotes the behavior.

  2. I think it’s part of human nature to feel bad about wasting resources, and in the heat of the moment, our minds can have trouble differentiating whether the resources are real or imagined. I know I’m definitely guilty of hoarding like a miserly dragon when I play video games, and I have to consciously force myself to use potions (or whatever) when I see a reasonable opportunity to benefit instead of saving them for the perfect moment.

    Of course, it should go without saying, but if the CR players enjoyed taking that time to work through their options, interact with NPCs, come up with a plan, and implement it, then whether they could’ve just started walking isn’t really a problem. GMs have enough to do that they shouldn’t complain about the players creating some content for themselves 🙂

    Part of why I like requiring training time/cost to level up (my preferred system for D&D being 1d6 consecutive days/current level, 100 standard currency/day) is because it helps get players used to spending in-game time and money. Yes, they’re doing it for a specific purpose, but I hope that at least seeing they can pass a week or two without everything crashing down around them helps ease that self-imposed time pressure. I think it also helps smooth over the narrative dissonance of suddenly being more capable/competent, which is another thing I dislike about milestone leveling, but I digress.

    For your Ten Dead Rats game, aside from the obvious first step of talking to the players about it, maybe you can look for opportunities to show that people in the world tend to think on scales of weeks/months/years, rather than minutes/hours/days, unless there’s some immediate pressing need to act quickly? Perhaps bring up chances for short-term work they can do to still get some income while healing, but they’ll have to commit, say, a month to doing it? It’s hard to suggest much without knowing what you’ve got planned, and I’m hardly an authority on any sort of psychology, but at least I doubt it can hurt to take a few steps like that in addition to reminding them about the slow healing rates.

    1. You’re totally right that it’s just human behavior, and I agree that the best way to go about it is to have candid discussion with your group. To be honest, in the back of my head while writing this was the thought that when it was done, i would send a link to my group to start the conversation. 🙂

      As for what the CR players did in this episode – quite possibly they do just like that kind of play better, in which case, who am I to judge? Certainly the character interactions are interesting, and they walked away with the perpetual ability to teleport to this town in the future, so maybe there’s a bit of playing the long game here. That said, I found it curious how quickly they dismissed the idea of just riding horses or walking to the destination. It wasn’t even brought up as an option amongst the players, and Mercer commented at the end about how they had cleverly by-passed several obstacles on the journey.

      Reading (listening) between the lines, I think Mercer thought that travel by foot or by horse was the more likely outcome, and was genuinely surprised that they spent so much time finding a way around it. This is what really resonated for me, as I feel like many times I’ve sat behind the screen wondering “why are they making it so difficult on themselves? Just say we walk there and I’ll jump scenes to their arrival.” But that said, being surprised by your players is one of the real joys of DMing, so I guess whatever is fun for the table in the moment, right? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

      1. I can’t comment on the particular situation from CR since I haven’t watched that show in a long time, but I can say that when I as GM find myself baffled by the players’ planning, I try to find a chance to jump in and check their base assumptions. In the case of avoiding a simple trip, assuming they know a route to the destination, I might confirm the length of time for just walking/riding and mention the encounter check frequency/chances (and probably even give a rough estimate for expected number of encounters based on that info, to make sure they have that number clearly in their heads). Hearing that they can probably expect just a 2/3rds chance for a single encounter can get them to favor just moving out, or for the reverse case, hearing that they can probably expect to have 3-4 encounters can get them to actually take stock of their supplies.

        In your case, you’re obviously in a better position to judge how to approach talking with your players than me, but maybe reminding them that even just getting shanked by some random thug can spell death if they’re walking around with a critical wound and mentioning the cost to stay at their current inn until they’ve recovered can help highlight that they’re in imminent danger and that they have a way to eliminate that risk (for now, at least). Since Bruno’s leg surgeries have been good enough to get them mostly patched up, it might not’ve really occurred to them that they’re close to sudden death, kind of like what you talked about in a Wandering DMs video that without things like negative hit points or death saves, most D&D players have trouble being aware of when they’re one hit away from death. The gap between being in danger in the fight where they got the wound and then joking about their limp afterwards might be obfuscating that danger, especially if they aren’t used to your death/dismemberment system.

        1. Strongly agree that it’s a good idea to make those mechanics explicit and known to players (exact move rates, chance for monsters/lost, etc.). To make that’s what provides informed choices that make for an interesting game (in the tradition of good boardgames, wargames).

          Also granted that it’s old-style play that so different for current conventions that players can get surprised by it. In an ideal world what I’d really love is to keep that hidden (e.g., in DM’s part of rules for 0E – 1E), and have players keep records and deduce that probabilities on their own over time. But if players are trained to expect a narrative game where everything is by DM whim, then they would have no reason to expect that such mechanics are even in play to be scientifically deduced.

          E.g., Sentiment from this episode of Order of the Stick (2005): https://oots.fandom.com/wiki/Mr%28s%29._Wizard_Explains_It_All

          If players have come to think that an outdoors trek likely signals a particularly crafted, sinister ambush for the session (tailored against their PCs), then they may be highly motivated to dodge that.

          1. Very good observation (here and below) about the importance of considering the players’ conditioning and expectations. I usually find it easier to predict stumbling points for players with no gaming background because they haven’t had experiences with other GMs ingrain habits/assumptions that aren’t applicable in my games. I’m reminded of Justin Alexander’s hilarious/tragic story of running for players used to railroading:

  3. This is such a great observation!

    I will say that the OED (similar to OD&D) slow-healing rule is interesting in that it forces this awareness on players pretty explicitly. There’s usually an initial confrontation in which players trepidatiously ask, “What happens if we rest in town for two weeks?”, and I say “I’ll just wave my hands and two weeks have gone by”. Once that experience is received (specifically: that waiting in town is safe and quick to play), I’ve found they’ve been a lot more willing to pick their times wisely… e.g., they’ve waited for a few weeks in town for bad weather to pass over instead of entering the wilderness at a time of bad move rates, more monsters, and increased chance of getting lost. I’ve really liked the texture of those choices.

  4. I see something similar for the GM side in online discussion.
    Lots of questions about “How to I make the time between X and Z interesting?”

    There seems to be a feeling (that can be hard to shake) that every moment of the game world must be played out.

    Sometimes its ok to just say, its been 4 months since your last adventure and then the Goblins, Klingons, god like beings come a calling.

  5. I love CR but if I were to levy a criticism against it, this would be it. If you’re not a table full of professional actors and improv enthusiasts you probably should not RP every shopkeeper interaction, day of travel, or watch of night. Even if you are, how much is it really adding to your game? This and modern rates of HP recovery are why game time progresses at a snail’s pace compared to real time and PCs can gain 10+ levels in a year of real time but just a few weeks of game time. These are moments of character development and bonding so don’t abandon them entirely, but CR is not the norm for most tables.

    For me the takeaway is to demonstrate time skipping ahead to the players. The specificity and time-scale of player-stated actions is one of the weirdest things about RPGs and new players may not realize they can say “We travel to Vornheim”, or they’re reluctant because DMs hassle them about supplies, directions, random encounters, etc. It pays to be transparent about whether the game is about the journey or the destination and what these decisions mean for play.

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