Time is an important part of gaming. It is so important that it is often divided into several different types. For example, Dungeons and Dragons uses Rounds, Actions, Down Time, and even general Time. What is the difference and why does it matter? Well, simply put, the issue of time can be vital because of how it impacts the story.
How do you use time in an RPG to advance a story? Well, if you are me (and you are asking me, or at least reading my opinion) you do it in four major ways:
1. Time is a pressure to keep the players moving and acting.
The concept of time, for me, is best used to ensure that the players (or rather characters) don’t dawdle. Making them move along or getting them to understand that something will happen in “48 hours” or “the guards will be here in sixty seconds” is the primary driver. You can’t spend forever at a door deciding to enter it if you only have sixty seconds. You also can’t waste time if you get a note saying that they will kill the princess in two days. Time becomes a valuable asset in those cases.
2. Time is a measure of success
How fast can you get to the princess? How much damage can be done by the opposing army if you take your time? These questions deserve answers. Not only do you need to know how much time you have, there are things that happen in the background. The Evil Overlord isn’t sitting on his thumb and spinning while you come to attack his tower. You must be able to determine what happens during the passage of time.
3. Time is a tool for tracking
Time is not only good for knowing what is going on when. It is also a great tool for tracking. How many days ago did you get that note? When did that poison get into your system? Time is how you track that. I got Mummy Rot three days ago (or 36 hours), so that would be 4 checks (going on 5). They said 48 hours to get the money to them, and we have been on the move for 21. That leaves us 27 hours to accomplish the mission. Tracking what you are doing is vital to the game.
4. Time is a great equalizer
Not only can you use time to track, measure success, and move the story along, but you can also equalize things with it. If you want to know how to do this, it is simple enough. Time can run out. You fail to save the princess. You die of a disease. The BBEG gets his plan rolled out. Don’t be afraid to do this. Make the players suffer for their mistakes, and for dragging their feet.