14 November 2012

Time Dilations

I was thinking just now, prodded on by the inestimable Talysman at the always entertaining Nine and Thirty Kingdoms about the dilation of time.

Not the kind that occurs in some of the more, shall we say, unusual campaigns, but the kind that occurs between you and your game. You know, the one that happens when you say "You walked like twenty miles over to the next town, where a guard stops you and says etc etc etc", or that happens when you go into combat. You know what I'm talking about.

You go from vague minute-long stretches of wandering through the abandoned crypt, and then into precisely timed combat time units, conveniently just long enough to allow a single sword blow or arrow strike. When you win, you might dilate time back to long-term mode, letting time flow freely while describing a couple of sights, or maybe just let them get there instantly and wave it all away with a "you pass by a forest and a babbling brook, but aside from a couple of odd sounds nothing interesting happens. Three days passed."

What if you didn't dilate time? What would that game be like?

In long term time mode, travel would be about like in a standard game. But combat would be totally different. Instead of a zoomed-in tactical mode, you might bring more people and turn the game into almost a pen and paper grand strategy game. You delve into a dungeon; roll for casualties and oh damn, Roglor died. His player rolls up a new adventurer while the rest of you divvy the loot and decide where to go next, what hirelings and retainers to bring, and where to go next. Two cities over there's a call for mercenaries against a rival city-state and that could be interesting if deadly. You decide to go over there and find out.

Weapons and Armor would probably have to be similarly zoomed out, as would troop types. Each battle could be dealt with in four rolls max; one roll for each side's missile combat, one roll for each side's melee combat, and then one for morale. Best overall rolls win, and then you're on to the next encounter. Dungeons and cities and tombs would feel a bit samey without some effort, and creature types would be relegated to flavor text instead of having multiple mechanical differences.
Long-term mode deals with diplomacy and strategy on a larger scale

It probably wouldn't be for everyone- you'd feel more like a manager or planner than a down and dirty adventurer. But I think my old group, at least, could enjoy it. They liked carefully purchasing gear and planning their next move more than fighting things, but I imagine they'd miss the navigation and the immersive feeling one could get from fighting. This is what I understand Birthright plays like, and (in the computer gaming world) Europa Universalis, Hearts of Iron, and (to a certain extent) Civilization play like.

Middle time mode is a bit more like oD&D- travel may be best with hex crawling, where there are a couple of important decisions to be made for each hex. Maybe you should skirt the cave, but maybe you should go in. Should you head north to the coast, or south and go around the forest? Dungeoneering would require smaller decisions than in large scale time mode. You would decide what rooms to enter, instead of whether to enter at all, or what floors to go down. Combat would be a matter of a couple of rolls per encounter, little brown book style. Equipment would be somewhat abstracted. Positioning and movement are abstract as well, perhaps with a simple zone system. You are either "close" or "far" from the middle of the conflict, on either side. You would spend a little more time in the day to day decisions of where to go and what to bring, but everything would take more time. This dilation is a little more immersive, at the cost of sacrificing a certain depth of play. This is where old D&D largely stands, as well as (from what I understand) Runequest is mostly. Palladium can skim this area, when it's not being blatantly stupid.

Middle time mode could see you raiding a village with a half dozen rolls, if you liked

Short time is the default scale of combat for, for example, the Riddle of Steel game, a game that relies heavily on simulating accurate combats. Weapons and armors have multiple important values, and the difference between a good strike and a glancing strike become important. Tactics, not strategy, is what rules the day. Character builds would probably be important. When travelling, each tree and hill and overpass is significant. Local regions are important. It's not possible to play an entire game in short time, but it is possible to play much of it this way, by creating vignettes of slow time within an event. When dealing with hirelings, you'd roleplay each enounter, and then decide who to bring along. You'd decide which individual Inn to sleep at, and which room to take based on personal preference, the quality of the doors and locks, and ease of escape. This would be a game of great detail, and of great immersion, but you sacrifice both a lot of breadth of play. The most common complaint would be that everything takes so, so long and that it's "irrelevant." This is where a lot of new roleplayers go, regardless of game. New D&D often goes this route during combat, as do a lot of more simulation-y games that focus on combat.
Short time mode would let you explore the difference between equipment styles, and give you a glimpse of what life would have been like

I've written way too much about this already, and way more than I intended. Just let me know what you think in the comments.


  1. This seems like a really useful way to think about design decisions in general. Some games focus on one or the other of these levels of time passage (recent games like D&D Type IV tend toward the shorter end of the time scale, while strange experiments like Realm of the Unknown tend toward the longer end), and most games include a way to transition between time scales for different effects - though it would seem that such transitions are usually not dealt with in a clear or helpful manner, so it would seem as though such would be a fruitful area for innovation in design.

    Blahblahblah version: I like the categorization scheme you have here.

    1. I'm glad you enjoyed it!

      I'd love to see a little innovation in the area; it feels like a lot of game designers want to change everything but that. Not that I mind, of course.