When we talk about good adventures (and heck, even good characters), we often refer to “resource management.” A good “difficult” encounter forces players to expend many of their resources in the form of spells, potions, hit points, gold, and other “tricks” that don’t renew until a long rest (think Bardic Inspiration or Rage). A good group of characters makes optimum use of their resources, possibly saving that big trick for later, instead of just using it at the first opportunity.
I think we can all agree that, in that list of “resources” characters have, time should be included. The problem with time as a resource is that time is sort of abstract, especially in an RPG. Much like weather and seasons, there is often no tracking of time within the game unless there is a compelling reason to do so. By and large, I think that’s a good thing. Often time of day is a bit of minutiae that is ok to forget about. But other times, we need something concrete for players to help them visualize the amount of time they have available to them in order to complete a task. Otherwise, you have the problem of the “five minute workday.”
But First, Let’s Talk About Hit Points
Hit points are actually an abstraction that is very similar to time in the game. Think about it: hit points are a less-than-concrete representation of something more concrete within the game – how much punishment your body has taken. You could be more specific about damage if you wanted to; in fact, there are RPG systems that track exactly where on your body a hit is taken, and what, specifically, that hit did to you. They are very niche games, and I feel confident in saying they have relatively small followings because most people don’t find that level of detail fun. It becomes a drag on the game. I believe that traditional time tracking (“What time is it?”) becomes a similar drag on the game without adding much, and therefore can benefit from a similar abstraction to hit points.
Time tracking is a concept that has come up for me a few times in the past month or so. In Hoard of the Dragon Queen Episode 1, the characters find themselves defending a town as it is attacked throughout the night. The adventure gives the advice that the characters arrive at around 9 pm (if memory serves) and the attackers leave at 4 am (again, if memory serves. Look, I’m too lazy to go look it up right now). It also advises that a short rest will take up 2 of those hours. Beyond that, the DM is left to his or her own devices as to how long each mini-mission takes. I’ll be honest: I didn’t track time when I ran this, mostly because it didn’t seem relevant to the episode. I just figured that the characters would have time to do a few missions, and then the attacking force would leave. In-game time tracking was far less important than out-of-game time tracking (we have 6 weeks worth of game sessions to finish this episode). It was merely a bit of bookkeeping that added no value to the fun quotient.
I also began thinking about it again when I was given the opportunity to playtest a new Hero Kids setting for the RPG’s creator. Because that game is designed for kids, it is more forgiving – a short rest basically resets the characters’ resources. As a sometimes author for Hero Kids adventures, I began to think about how I could turn time into a concrete resource for my players instead of simply goading them on with “you should hurry!” to keep them from taking a short rest at every opportunity. Kids are tactile, so they like fiddly bits. If we’re honest, we adults who play RPGs like fiddly bits, too. Otherwise we’d be playing something that was diceless. And that’s how I came up with the idea of Time Tokens.
Time Represented By Tokens
So here’s what I’m going to try: the party gets a set number of tokens at the beginning of the adventure. That is their abstract time allotment. As long as things are proceeding as I expect them to (from a timing perspective), no time tokens are used up. However, when the characters do something that would take a “significant” amount of time, it costs a set number of tokens. Want to take a short rest? That costs one token. Want to take a long rest when it doesn’t really make sense to? Four tokens. Want to really really thoroughly search the room? One token. Want to do it again because “no one rolled high enough”? Hand it over…
When the players run out of tokens, they can still take rests and do things that take “a long time,” but Bad Things start to happen. In the same way that players don’t want to run out of hit points, they will also not want to run out of time tokens.
At its very simplest, this can be a good way to telegraph to players what the expected pace of the adventure should be. If they sit down, and you only hand them two tokens, they know that there will be no long rests (without consequences) until the time tokens reset. And they don’t know necessarily when that reset will happen.
Another way to use time tokens is within an investigative adventure. An NPC the characters care about is jailed, and his execution is set for tomorrow morning! Here are five time tokens and eight leads. Following each lead costs a token, short rests cost a token, and if you decide to sleep, well, your friend will most likely die. Oh, and it’s possible there are other things that could happen that might cost a token. Ran out of time tokens before you gather enough evidence? Whoops, didn’t clear your NPC’s name in time! Better start looking for a cleric that knows Raise Dead. There is a built in sense of urgency as the players see their pile of Time Tokens dwindling, and you as the DM have to do exactly zero bookkeeping. You can’t necessarily say exactly “what time” it is, but “time” has suddenly become very relevant to the game.
In summary: when we start treating time more like hit points, we have more options to track time in the game without dragging it down with unnecessary bookkeeping.
What do you think? Can your game benefit from treating time in an abstract manner?
And what are some of the Bad Things that could happen to a party that runs out of Time Tokens?