Playing D&D In Real Time

by MugaSofer

A lot of OSR players have experimented with running games in “real time”, to varying but generally extremely positive results. 

Gygax famously claimed that “it is best to use 1 actual day = 1 game day”, and even that “YOU CAN NOT HAVE A MEANINGFUL CAMPAIGN IF STRICT TIME RECORDS ARE NOT KEPT”, although even he didn’t play everything in real time.

The way I see it, there are three kinds of “time” in RPGs.

Downtime

This is what Gygax ran – “1 actual day = 1 game day when no play is happening”. Players can contact the GM and say what they want their characters to have done in the intervening time. (It seems to be particularly associated with people calling themselves the “BrOSR” as some kind of macho thing? Which strikes me as silly at best, but we shouldn’t let them hog the cool ideas). There’s been a wave of experiments with this in recent years on the OSR scene:

  • Jeffro extolls the benefits this had for his game (some people have taken to calling it “Jeffrogygaxian time” after his posts popularising it)
  • Aaron “The Pedantic” finds it helpful, particularly for adding impact to time spent healing etc, although he notes that his group do timeskip occasionally
  • Electric Rain uses it for both AD&D and 5e
  • Abrahams_Terror on Twitter raves about it, calling it “the glue that holds everything else together”
  • BDubs ran parallel games both with and without 1:1 timekeeping and declares it superior
  • Mister_Cranch of Vox Arcana podcast declares “I don’t know anybody else who does this, and I don’t know where I heard about it, but it works extremely well.”
  • HumbugNH uses real-world time and weather in their games
  • Musing Mage finds it helpful
  • Restless notes that posting real-time updates for his players keeps them excited for next session
  • Steven Smith has found “a pretty good response from the players… excellent … a lot of fun” as both player and GM 

It may help if you have robust rules for domain-level play and other downtime activities, which this style of play will encourage, but often the GM can wing it.

The biggest issue with this is the question of what happens if you’re not running adventures in real time; the interface between the two different rates of time. In particular, this style of play encourages people to have multiple characters or groups in the same world; but what happens if one group time-skips into next week while you’re playing at the table? And what happens if the PCs are in the middle of a dungeon when you stop? Many potential solutions to this run the risk of time paradoxes.

Incidentally, you could also run a game where each real-world day of downtime is a week, a month, a year etc. I haven’t actually run into anyone doing this with D&D-style TTRPGs, but e.g. many micronation roleplay groups do this, and it could give your world a really cool sense of history. It would also smooth out any shorter time-skips during play, although it could exacerbate the problem of PCs stranded in a dungeon.

This problem of how to handle dungeoneering in real-time play led me to to ponder how one might handle the second type of time in real-time:

Subjective Time

Outside of combat, tasks can take wildly varying amounts of time. Searching one room of a dungeon might take 10 minutes, while trekking across a several-mile-wide map hex might take many hours or even days. Many tasks are boring, and players want to be able to say things like “we wait until night has fallen” – a convention common to all forms of narrative, not just RPGs.

However, a lot of RPG scenarios, and OSR style play in particular, do feature “ticking clocks”. Some might be highly specific; maybe a villain is going to complete their ritual at midnight, or a cave system floods when the tide comes in, or the next orc army patrol will arrive in an hour and you need to be gone by them. Others are more general: how many hours of torchlight do we have? How long can our food and water supplies last? How long do we have until night falls and the monsters of the night roam across the land? (To name just a few.) Tying these into the literal real-life ticking clock on your wall feels like it could make them feel a lot more tense and immersive.

And of course, gaming groups generally have a very fixed amount of time to play in, so it would be nice to encourage speedy play.

The way I see it, there are a few ways you could marry the metaphorical and literal ticking clock:

  • Just declare that the PCs will run out of [thing they need to survive] at [time your play session ends], and ignore the meta-narrative weirdness this produces (e.g. torches somehow burning many times faster during combat). 
  • Estimate how much resources they’re likely to consume over the amount of time you have, and only give them that much (with a bit of breathing room depending on how harsh you want the game to be.) When time runs out, as long as they have any left, you narrate that they hurriedly escape using the last of it.
  • Either of the above could be combined with a more abstract approach to resources, e.g. not tracking individual torches or rations but just “you are running low on rolls dice arrows.”
  • Set up some kind of exchange rate between resources that makes them match up. E.g.:
    1. For every IRL minute spent fighting (however long that takes in your system) you gain an exhaustion point, when you reach [amount of time it takes IRL to play out an exploration turn] you have to spend an exploration turn resting. If you find combat turns and exploration turns take the same amount of time, this simplifies to 1 round fighting = 1 exploration turn resting before you’re good to go again.
    2. Maybe the GP cost or weight of rations and torches/oil (or whatever resource) match the relative amount of IRL play-time they enable, giving weight to the decision of how much of each to bring with your limited budget.

Or, of course:

  • Do away with subjective time altogether. For example, in the ARC RPG (which centres around a ticking “Doomsday Clock”) rests take five literal minutes, during which players step away from the table, get snacks etc. Method Set Madness has proposed this with OSR D&D, with e.g. the length of time the players want to listen to the DM describe something is the length of time the PCs spend examining it. 

Ticking clocks mesh well with the common “no resting in the dungeon” idea. Of course, you don’t have to combine these ideas with the first kind of real-time play – indeed some of them would actively conflict with it – they could bring the benefit of that “ticking clock” on their own. (In principle, none of these ideas even require 1 session = 1 adventure; you could simply pause that ticking clock for your next session.) On the other hand, if you do have one session equal one adventure, it completely eliminates issues with introducing new characters or dealing with players missing sessions.

When I started this post, I wasn’t aware of any prior art on this, but in researching I did find a few examples:

  • I came across a Reddit post from someone who employs the first method (leave the dungeon by the end of the game session or get eaten) to great success. 
  • Similarly, Hemlock on tenfootpole forums reports that it helps avoid “five-minute workdays” and unresolved cliffhangers as well as keep players invested in short games
  • Critical Role apparently used a timer for a specific scene to increase tension, and quite a few other people report having used a physical timer for specific quests and found it extremely helpful (although one says it’s harder on the GM, and another warns that it makes players so focused they role-play less, so they don’t use it every game)
  • Some “BROSR” players have tried requiring PCs to return to town between sessions as an extension of their 1:1 downtime rules; although Stephen Smith says he found it was too rushed in short games, so he only does it in longer sessions
  • The popular Black Hack also has encounter checks every 15 minutes real-time, which isn’t quite the same thing but close

Combat Time

Many have observed that 1-minute combat rounds, played with a simple OSR-style system, occur roughly in real time. 

  • Libramarian on TheRPGSite forum recommends it for the convenience
  • User deltoids_and_dragons on Reddit recommends it for the increased tension

The main benefit of this is that it allows you to set timers in order to track the duration of spells, torches etc, which is very convenient (although of course they may have to be adjusted if you time-skip forward or move into other modes of play; see “Subjective Time” below.)

Many tables have also experimented with giving players a fixed time limit to play out their turn, although in systems with shorter rounds it’s not generally 1:1 just because it would be too fast-paced to be playable. A few examples

  • Quintus_J on Reddit uses a 10-second timer for each player turn
  • Symetrus on Reddit says a 1-2 minute timer (per player?) was “a real positive for our group”
  • Brendsmalls on Reddit uses a 1-minute timer for the entire round, finds it extremely helpful for speeding up play; many comments below from others with the same experience.
  • Dave2008 on EN World forums gives each player 30 seconds, says it’s good at making combat feel more urgent
  • All the respondents to this Quora question recommend a 1 minute timer
  • On the other hand, a couple of people in this DND Beyond thread claim to have tried 30 second timers (per player turn) and found it made things too tense and stressful

The usual reason for giving players a time limit to take their action in combat is just to speed up play. But it also has some benefits for verisimilitude; it obviously prevents the absurdities “talking is a free action”  type stuff occasionally leads to, and might help combat feel a little more frantic and fast-paced. (Some people also like simultaneously-resolved combat – confusingly, sometimes called – “phased real-time combat”, although it doesn’t necessarily take place in real time – for this reason, and you could certainly combine the two, but I think it’s plausible that there’s only going to be one opportunity for a person to really act decisively in a round vs looking for their moment.)

Of course, if you were to try and make this a strict 1:1 thing, the question arises: should each player’s turn equal the in-universe length of the round, or should the entire round be that long? I think that the fact that combat is fairly chaotic and you can think about your decisions while other players are taking their turn helps justify going with the “the entire round is that long” option.

If you’re not using 1-minute rounds and/or a fairly simple system, as most aren’t, then I would guess that playing combat in real time is going to be very difficult. But you can fall back on some of the options I discussed under “Subjective Time” to smooth things out.

Conclusions

The big advantage of playing in “real time” is verisimilitude – players can’t dick around chatting during combat, deadlines feel real and tense, the ability of PCs to show up to adventures matches your players’ ability to show up to sessions. The big disadvantage of playing in “real time” is that players can’t dick around chatting during combat, deadlines feel real and tense, the ability of PCs to show up to adventures matches your players’ ability to show up to sessions. (From this perspective, it’s easy to see why it’s become a favourite of “bro” DMs trying to make a big deal about how “hardcore” their games are.) It’s clear that it’s helpful for some games, but would be annoying for others.

Ultimately, of course, none of the practical benefits are what really speak to me, as nice as they are. 

There’s an inherent appeal to realism, immersion, even LARPing, to tying the game world and the real world together. The vision of a living, breathing world that is what makes me keep coming back to this idea, the same vision that I think lies at the heart of MMOs but few if any manage to capture.

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