Time and Distance in D&D

You are playing in your Dungeons & Dragons game, and you have been hired to travel South to collect the MacGuffin, and bring it East to use in a ritual. The journey should take several weeks, with only a few days of action throughout. Most of it will be by road, though some of it will require some traveling through the hillside, filled with bandits and goblins. You think back to how long it’s been since you’ve last been in the area, and you know it was three jobs ago, but like, how long ago is that really? Do you still have contacts from when you saved the Mayors son?

There are two ways of noting the Time it takes to get from Point A to Point B, and what happens along the way. Both have pros, and both have cons. You can either ignore it, or pay attention.

Obviously you can ignore time but not travel, and vice versa, but we are going to talk about the Double or Nothing options.

Redlining

Redlining in D&D is different from the practice of denying loans to people who live in low income (or minority filled) neighborhoods.

Here, Redlining is a reference to the Indiana Jones films. When Indiana had to travel to his hidden dungeon where he would try to recover artifacts and be the hero, the trip was completely skipped over. This was mainly due to the fact that watching him be on a plane in a movie is kind of boring.

Indiana Jones Map Gif - Best Map Cities Skylines

However, since then, other movies and shows have used this as a way to show that the trip was uneventful. Either that, or they cut to a montage of the city they have arrived to.

In some D&D games, the travel just isn’t interesting. Maybe you are in a world where traveling by road is a very safe option, where you won’t run into bandits or sidequests, and everyone just wants to get to where they are going.

This is great for keeping focus on the story, especially if the story is already grand, like the Tyranny of Dragons or some Planehopping campaign that cuts through Sigil. When you are involved in such big and important tasks, the idea of pitching camp and knowing how many days you’ve been on the road just gunks up the works, and is boring.

Art] Sigil: The City of Doors : r/DnD
<Víctor M Rodríguez>

However, it does pull a level of immersion out of the game. Your character still has to worry about pitching camp, and knowing how long they’ve been on the road, and so when you don’t, it creates a buffer between you and your character. It breaks Verisimilitude, but how much it pulls you out depends on the Player, the Character, the Table, and the Campaign. All of these should be used to determine if the game will benefit from skipping over this entirely.

Days, Week, Months, and Years

Then, there is the option to actually track distances and time. When you keep track of how long it takes to get from one place to another, you are more likely to actually pay attention to what happened on that trip. If you know it will take you 11 days to get to your next objective, players start to wonder what happened on that trip. Whether you handle this with various Survival Checks, or improvised unique moments, or what have you, when you create that open space, with clear borders, people naturally want to fill that in. Nature hates a vacuum.

This ends up with some really fun situations, as the depth of time your campaign has taken definitely adds to the adventure. Not only do you know how long you’ve spent with your compatriots, but you also know how long it’s been since you’ve seen NPC Susie.

In longer campaigns, you can even decide when your character’s birthday is, and increase the age on your character sheet. How do you celebrate your birthday? When the New Year comes in, does your character have any Resolutions?

Festival Ambience Loop [Art] : r/DnD
<G liulian>

Suddenly the weather can take a more realistic space in your game, where instead of assuming it’s partly cloudy and 72*F (22*C) every day, suddenly you’re packing for the cold months, or you’re frustrated that April Showers are making tracking more difficult.

Keeping track of the days, weeks, months, and even years can do wonders to making your character feel much more real and personal.

My Use of Calendars

However, I had a hard time with it.

I am now finishing up my Eberron campaign. For the first time, I decided I would keep track of the Calendar and Time of my campaign. I made a spreadsheet, and made a line for every day of the year. I put holidays on the appropriate line, gave the PCs birthdays (just the same days as the player themselves), and tracked the days as they passed. Eberron has a huge map, that has each individual road marked how many miles everything is. I used this to measure how long it took to get from Point A to Point B. This led to the first problem.

The map is huge! It was taking weeks to get anywhere! There was so much nothing in between, that it became downright boring! So, I decided to shrink it down. I picked two spots on the map (Sharn and Wroat) and decided how long I thought it should take to get from one to the other (7 days), and used that to shrink the whole map to that scale (Original / 2.6 = new distance) assuming the party was traveling by foot (3mph x 8 hours = 24 miles per travel day).

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Even then, with the map being more than half it’s original size, it was still taking weeks to do any significant travel where the Lightning Rail didn’t service, which I also brought down the cost of, otherwise it would have been unusable.

So we have a fast way to get around the smaller map, and we were off. As of this writing, we are 40 sessions deep, with maybe another 5 to go before we finish, and sitting at level 9. So a pretty decent campaign I’d say. This has included roughly one adventure per level, and a notable amount of downtime between each one, for character exploration. If you start a new campaign, for bookkeeping reasons it’s easier to start on the New Years Day, January 1st (1st of Zarantyr in Eberron). It is now August (Barrakas) 2nd. That means that 9 levels, 40 sessions, over a year in real time, has only taken 7 full months in game.

To me, that was disappointing.

I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I thought stuff like this takes longer. I wanted the idea of characters aging with this new responsibility. At this rate, we’d go from new mercenaries taking our first jobs, to near gods at Level 20, in about 2 years. 2 years! That’s not even how long it takes to go through High School, and we’d become legendary heroes saving the world? Man, those 2 years better be eventful, right?

The surprisingly academic appeal of 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' |  HelloGiggles

Of the 198 days, 131 of those have been on the road, 36 of those have been downtime. So 167 of my 198 days have been non-central to the story. Granted, several of those are either when events of the story took less than a day to complete, or were more than just random encounters, but even being generous, still more than half of the campaign time in-world has been not doing the fun stuff.

Are my adventures too short? Am I not giving enough downtime? As this was my first foray into this new aspect of running the game, it’s entirely possible I did it completely wrong. But either way, looking back on the calendar doesn’t give me the same joy as looking back on my notes. Suddenly it feels like we haven’t actually done anything, even though when we look back at what we’ve accomplished, it feels like this has some of my biggest adventures yet!

I don’t know how I’m going to keep track of stuff in the future, but I know that my next campaign will be Curse of Strahd, where many other groups online say that the entire thing takes place over a few weeks to months, so I’m probably not going to track every day as it happens. Besides, the time lost in the valley of Barovia is part of the fun.

Have you ever kept track of time in your D&D campaign? Let me know in the comments below!

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