This month’s theme is: Time. At the start of a new year many of us are looking back at the year behind us, and forward to the future ahead of us. But what is a new year? Why do we have the months we do, and more importantly for your game, is this the only way?
This article is going to deal with the measurement of time in the grander scale, dealing with days, weeks, months, and years and the formation of your worlds calendar. Many games can run just fine, never having considered the idea of years and months, but when a player asks, what the date is, the GM better have an answer. An unprepared GM may be missing a very important piece of their setting, not to mention missing a chance for some great world building.
So let’s start by looking at days, weeks, and months. We’ll have other articles looking at the smaller passage of time, another looking at the measurement of years relative to major events, and one about naming your units of time. So first I’m going to explain what a Year, Month, Week and day actually are, and that might be a bit unnecessary but it’s important for what follows after, which will be some interesting alternatives.
Firstly let’s consider how long a year is in your setting. Normally, a year is simply how long it takes the planet to revolve around the sun. That on it’s own is simple enough to grasp and easy enough to change or modify, assuming you have a solar system with just one sun and a relatively even orbit. Of course even this most basic idea can be changed. Perhaps your world doesn’t rotate around a sun, or perhaps it rotates around or between two or more.
Next let’s take a look at a month. A month is generally agreed upon to be marked by a full cycle of the phases of the moon, with a few variations on how that’s measured precisely. But in effect it’s just hat, measurements of lunar cycles. So any game in which you have a different solar system from ours, even down to just one or two extra or fewer celestial bodies could have different months, or even no months at all.
A month is usually broken down into weeks. But the real problem here is that a week doesn’t really mean or measure anything physical about the world. Historically many cultures have used weeks, and most often they are seven days, usually due to religious context, but some have had weeks as short as 4 days or as long as 10 or more. So consider carefully what a week means in your setting, if anything at all.
A day is of course easy enough to define, it’s a single rotation of the planet. The world goes from dark, to bright, to dark again, usually anyways. Many tabletop games have effects dependant on days, and they happen often enough that changing the length of a day could impact most games at least a bit. In a setting where the planet does not rotate, or where it’s rotation doesn’t have a clear way to measure, such as having multiple suns, or civilization growing and evolving on a pole, your world might not even have traditional days at all.
With that out of the way lets look at some interesting variations:
The Perfect Year:
Perhaps your world, your universe, is a little more flawless, a little simpler, a little easier and more predictable. A setting with this option has a perfectly even number of days, instead of our 365.256 days perhaps your setting has 400, or 1,000. And from there each step down is precisely measurable.
A 400-day year breaks down evenly into 10 months of 40 days each, which might reflect an equally reliable and obedient moon, or a month may simply be a measurement of 1/10th of a year. And each month might be 4 weeks of 10 days, or even 10 weeks of 4 days, and then it would be easy to tie each day of the week to some significant event in a particular culture, or tie them to some other celestial phenomena. Your days could be of any length, though 24 hours still works well, being neatly and easily Divisible, and keeping it the same would mean not having to alter any in game abilities reliant on a day.
A 1,000-day year could be precisely 10 months of 100 days, each month being 10 weeks, each week being 10 days long, and even making each day just 10 hours. This balances out to a year being equivalent to about 416.6 of our days in length, but far more neatly organized.
Not everyone has brilliant scientists mathematicians and astronomers measuring and divvying up our days. Consider this time telling approach for less civilized or enlightened races. Many societies have to rely on measuring time through events they can see and understand without study.
A life: The time it takes someone to grow old and die of age. Usually used in measuring buildings or history. “We have lived in this cave for 6 life and we will live here 6 more”.
Season: Any species can figure out that it’ been cold for a long time now but then it gets warmer again. This can of course vary wildly based on the climate
Moon: A fantasy classic, measuring a month by the phases of the moon is very true to life and again something even primitive races can manage.
Day: Days are pretty easy to keep track of really. Well for most people anyways.
The world Calendar:
Even in a world like ours it’s possible for a single united group to decide on the equitable and fair passage of time, and for that idea to spread all across the world. This real calendar takes our own irregular year and makes it much more even across all months.
Every year is divided into 12 months he same as normal. However each quarter of the year begins on a Sunday and ends on a Saturday and features 31 days in the first month, 30 days on the second month, and 30 days on the third month. On the day following the 31st of December there is a “World day” which counts outside of regular days and is intended as a world holiday. And on leap years there is a second world holiday at the end of the second quarter. Information on a world calendar is readily available online and it is a neat and efficient way of maintaining order and rhythm without changing the length of any time periods in your setting while still reflecting a world with a little more organisation.
The Fantasy Year:
Some worlds don’t work like ours. Some worlds are great flat disks, others rest on the back of a tortoise, some are the fruit on a great tree or rest in the eye of a giant. In a fantasy setting you don’t have to obey the laws of physics any more than you want to, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have to think about the implications of your choices.
A year in such a setting is pretty much a free for all, and it can have whatever rules you decide, BUT you need to always be sure about those rules. If your world grows on a vine tended by the gods then you need to decide if people can climb up that vine and into heaven. If your planet is the pearl inside a great oyster you need to decide if daylight is regular, the shell opening at the same time every day, or if it changes at the whim of this massive entity. Can it be targeted by magic? Does one half the world rest in a sea of slime and soft tissue? Does the hemisphere facing the back of the clam never get sunlight? Not having answers to these questions can make your ideas fall flat, but having them, and even better, building them into your world makes it vivid and memorable. A sect of “Vinecarvers” who want to cut the world from the gods’ tree makes for an amazing cult that only you can have in your setting. And few players would forget a journey into a vast network of bloody caves dug into the great clam where they mine for Orishellum, the opalescent shell of their god.
Days and weeks and years can be whatever you want, but you need to consider how the other details influence your world, when you make a rule you need it to be consistent. If you say “The vinecarves began their attacks two years ago” And your player asks “What is a year?” You need to be able to explain how long it is and why. Because if your planet is tied to a god vine, then it probably isn’t rotating around the sun, and it likely isn’t perpetually rotating in the same direction.
The important thing to remember is that It doesn’t have to be possible, but it does have to make sense within its own narrative. The players and npc’s alike have to be able to live and adapt to the way the world works. That means they have to be able to understand it naturally since for the characters involved, life has always been that way.
The Alternate dimensional year:
Almost everything about our calendar is based on the shape of our world, but some settings aren’t even worlds as we know them. Some settings aren’t planets, or even finite at all. Some places are mere existence, matter existing beyond the confines on a globe.
The most important thing to consider is the basic properties of your setting. A game set in the elemental plane of earth from D&D will likely have very different needs and time measurements from a Superhero game set in a magical astral plane.
The moment you aren’t on a planet anymore everything about telling time the traditional way vanishes. Years, Months, Weeks, Days, none of the things they measure may even exist in a different dimension. To figure out how cultures developing in such a place tell time we must look to observable phenomenon. Again we’re focus on big stuff for now, but a future article will cover small scale.
Fundamental to measuring time is rhythm. Is there any widely observable phenomenon that functions on a set rhythm? It could be a thousand geysers that always erupt in unison, it could be the steady breathing of the titan that the dimension sits inside, it could be regular earthquakes, rising tides of oceans of lava, or it could be a beetle that has an incredibly precise life cycle if tended a certain way.
Whatever it is that forms this rhythm, that is your new metric for measuring time. Of course it’s fine to contextualize this by comparing it to modern time by saying something like “Every 30 hours the astral whales sing their song, and this marks a new day.” But of course in setting they may not have hours or days, they might have “New song” for a day. Or they may have “Song” as a measurement of time equal to how long their symphony lasts. From there one can expand. Perhaps a “Movement” is about equivalent to a minute, and a “Tensong” is a term equal to their week. The core idea is to find something reliable and build form it, and the more people can observe this rhythm unaided the more universal it will become.
The realistic year:
This is a very messy but fun and accurate approach. Consider that in our own world there are more than 80 different calendars that have been used through history. In a fantasy or sci-fi setting with other races, or even worse multiple planets, there are bound to be differences and divergences. Every culture could have a different way of measuring days, months, weeks and even years, including many of the options presented here. Most realistically your setting might have many different calendars and years and months that make converting between one time to the other very difficult. This option opens up fascinating new plot hooks and stories and riddles involving the differences between years and months in different cultures. Perhaps an Elven year is 10 years long, and so their given ages are closer to humans. Perhaps a gnomish accountant clears their records every year, but a gnome year is just three months and the loss of vital records could be a disaster.
Hopefully all of this has been helpful and given you some ideas about how to handle time in your campaign setting. The next time your players ask for the date, you can drop some sick campaign lore on them instead of blanking.