Arnesonian Time Keeping

Author: DHBoggs /

The original Blackmoor game as Dave Arneson ran it between 1971 and 1975 may be described as a living world campaign. - meaning that the world moves through time regardless of play. 

In his grand Napoleonic campaign Arneson had scores of players, including many play-by-post participants such as Gary Gygax, and time in the game had to advance on a regular schedule for the game to work.

Although Blackmoor by contrast was played almost entirely in person, Arneson again had to deal with many players who came in and out of the game at various times and locations of play and he again adopted a "living world" approach reflective of his Napoleonic campaign where time advanced regardless of who made it to the table.  Because Arneson had a revolving door of players coming in and out of Blackmoor games, he did not have the "luxury" of pausing the world for a particular player or group of players.

Although this doesn't necessarily mean Arneson would have had to have run Blackmoor with strict 1 to 1 play, i. e. one day of real time equals one day of game time, it does appear that Arneson did something quite close, perhaps even exactly that.  Let me provide some 1 to 1 time examples:

In the summer of 1972, Arneson's most prolific player, Greg Svenson had to leave for a six weeks due to employment at a summer camp.  This occurred during the 2nd Coot invasion, after the Egg's forces captured Blackmoor and the group of heroes who were supposed to be defending it got exiled to Loch Gloomin.  Greg left for camp, but while he was away The Egg of Coot launched an attack on Lake Gloomin and Svenson's iconic character "The Great Svenny" was killed, having been experimentally placed by the other players as the sole defender of the town gate against an army of orcs.  Time did not stand still for Greg or his character, but as a consequence The Great Svenny became almost certainly the first character to be resurrected in a fantasy RPG upon Greg's return to the game.

The next summer Greg again had to leave the gaming table for a while and this time it was decided Svenny went on a business trip to Greyhawk city to explain his absence.  Time marched on.

We can move to one of Dave Megarry's characters for further insight.  David Megarry has actually preserved a log he kept of his character HW Dumbo's activities.  HW Dumbo was Megarry's 5th character - the others having had much shorter careers. It seems the best way to interpret the dates in the table are that they correspond to the real month and day and that 1072 corresponds to the year 1972.  Here is the table:

Note that between June and September Megarry's character was on something of a long hiatus building Freehold.  Freehold was of course Greg Svenson's tower which had been destroyed during the 2nd Coot invasion earlier in the year.  It is apparently not coincidence that while Megarry's character was working on a building, Megarry himself was working on buildings as a house painter and too busy that summer to participate in the games.  Time in the game moved on without him at the table.

In fact, this way of managing time carried straight over from Blackmoor into the OD&D rules.  This isn't especially surprising.  There was only roughly 10 months between the time of Gygax's first RPG experience when Arneson and Megarry demoed Blackmoor to him and the actual publication of the three little brown books.  Gygax did not fail to draw on Arneson's much longer experience running an RPG campaign. In the TIME section of D&D Vol. III (1974) we read:

"As the campaign goes into full swing it is probable thot there will be various groups going every which way and all at different time periods. It is suggested that a record of each player be kept, the referee checking off each week as it is spent. Recon the passage of time thus:

Dungeon expedition = 1 week                                                                                              Wilderness adventure = 1 move = 1 day                                                                                 1 Week of actual time =  1 week of game time...

Actual time would not be counted off for players "out" on a Wilderness adventure, but it would for those newed in their dens, hideholes, keeps, castles, etc., as well as for those in the throes of some expedition in the underworld,"

An entire post could be written about the TIME section, but for our purposes here I only wish to highlight the point of 1 to 1 time being expressed.

No player was seemingly so important that time stood still for them, not even the DM.  In one of my favorite blog posts, HERE Al of Beyond the Black Gates relates an amusing anecdote about a convention game Arneson ran where, 

"Once, when the party's boat was a attacked by a horde of lizardmen, he told us how many there were, their armor class, their hit points, what they needed to hit us, and so on. They were stupid, he explained, and fanatic, and would fight to the death, so we should be able to take care of that ourselves, and he was going to go get a coke and he'd be back in a few minutes to check on us."

As the quote illustrates, the principle of time continuing in motion in the game and the real world concurrently can be found sprinkled throughout Arnesons' gaming, not just in regard to the passage of days and months but in the passing of seconds and minutes.  

Much ink has been spilt in forums, some of it by me, arguing over the intended length of a combat round in OD&D, but whatever the published rules may intend, in early Blackmoor combat took place in the moment.  Attack rolls were often called "chops" and there can be little doubt attack rounds lasted only as long as it took to state an action and roll the dice.  As Greg Svenson Remembered it on Wandering DMs

"At the time I probably thought of it as one swipe with my sword; one attempt or one chop."

Wandering DMs S04 E06 (TC 50:22)

Time at the table was being measured as time in the game, and thus the question of "how long was a combat round" had no meaning for Arneson's players.

"The basic scenario is Arneson telling us, "10 feet, 20 feet, room 20x20 with an up staircase in southeast corner, down staircase in northwest corner, a passage on the north wall and east wall and an ugly troll standing in the middle of the room. What are you going to do?" We had about 10 seconds to react and then he would announce, "the troll is attacking..who is in front?" We would be scrambling like mad to figure out a strategy."

Pers Comm, David Megarry, Jan 17, 2017

We in the traditional gaming community are so used to the carefully sliced time units of our various rulesets of D&D, that the idea of measuring time in the real world as time in the game seems novel and alien, but in fact the idea fit comfortably within the earliest days of play.

That, by the way, is why you can't waste time arguing and chit chatting at the table without expecting a wandering monster roll...

"Usually if they stay in one spot five minutes screaming at each other a (not too powerful) wandering monster shows up to remind then where they are!"  Dave Arneson, ODD74 Forum: Re: Rust Busting « Result #27 on Jan 14, 2009, 6:51pm »


RubeJelly said...

What a shining endorsement of Jeffro Johnson, thank you for writing this!

DHBoggs said...

Heh, I seriously thought this was a spam comment, but couldn't figure out what you were selling! A bit of google-fu turned up this Jeffro fellow as a real blogger. Want to share a link Rubejelly in relation to the topic? I'd love to read it.

Alex J. said...

Jeffro also nods to the even earlier:

Jacob72 said...

That logic might also determine why an exploration turn was ten minutes - it was the measure of time that it might take a party of six to have the situation explained, their decisions made, consequences determined and played out.

paleologos said...

Fantastic post - Mike Carr also embedded the idea that wandering monsters would come to investigate any loud or bickering players in B1 "In Search of the Unknown"

There's a spot or two in S1 "Tomb of Horrors" where Gygax states the DM should count out 10 seconds for the PCs to state what they are doing, in another nod to the relation between time in the real world and time in the game

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