A Year Has Passed… How to Include the Passage of Time in Your Campaigns

Ever rush from one adventure to another, following shiny and wicked connections and surprises alike?  The hooks come hard and strong, as do the monsters and villains you need to chase and cut down. 

And then one day, you suddenly wonder how all your teen or 20-something heroes got to 20th or 30th level in just a few in-game months? 

Got the Glory, Got the Time?

It happens to us all, and has in every edition.  We gravitate towards heroics, whether we’re playing or DMing our D&D adventures, so it might seem strange to take breaks in the story and ongoing campaign. 

After all, what about all those loose ends?  The bad guys that got away?  The treasure maps to places we’ve yet to explore?  The mighty dragons, giants, mindflayers, and assassins that are always on our tail? 

Monsters and evil don’t take a break, so why should adventurers?  The truth is, monsters and evil do take breaks.  They suffer setbacks, scheme up a new or better plan, forge a new alliance, make a new discovery, or simply spend some time with guilty pleasures or entertaining diversions, with or without friends and family.  Just like heroes would!

So before you let your characters level up too fast (in-game, that is), make sure to either plan some breaks in the campaign as DM, or as a player, make time for breaks as well.  Not every adventure, not every breath or moment should mean life or death.  For every incredible, sweeping adventure where it feels like nearly every moment of the heroes’ lives, there’s dozens of book, movie and episodic TV series where adventures are self-contained or only connected later on, with plenty of time passing in between each adventure. 

Try to achieve a balance between the sweeping epic adventure that spans your entire campaign, a few connected adventures, and isolated adventures.  This way you have more organic opportunities to include the passage of weeks, months, or even years during your campaign’s lifespan. 

How to Describe the Passage of Time

Here are some specific example ways you can add the passage of time to the narrative of your ongoing campaign.  Note that you can drive the passage of time as both DM and player:

Days or Weeks

Several days later, you awaken, lying uncomfortably on a foul-smelling bedroll inside a massive canvas tent.  There are others like you, some motionless, wearing similar grotesque bruises and impossibly angled arms and legs.  The white-hot magical blast from the cursed artifact weapon should have killed – even disintegrated – the entire troupe, but somehow, some of you survived. 

A elderly man with a large hook nose and thick white moustache stands next to you, shaking his head.  He sharply pokes you in your ribs with his cane.  “You shouldn’t be alive.  But since you are, you’re going to fix this, you and your friends, soon as you’re able.  You’re going to get back that blade and find a way to make sure it doesn’t… do this again.  So heal up.  You and I both know we can’t bring down the Tarrasque without it!”

Months

Outside the inn window, rumbling over and darkening the shipyard, you see it: heavy clouds heralding the first snowfall of the year.  The leaves had turned and fallen faster than they ever had, and the first snowflakes dying upon the creaky windows spoke of another long, bitterly cold winter.  Memories of the summer and autumn festivals and all their glorious food and spirits seem so distant now. 

Today also marks the day you and your friends agreed to meet again and resume searching for the lost civilization of the Ta’luun werebeasts.  All your other leads on this fabled city of lycans had gone cold months ago – until now.  Your friend Erekard returns this day from his voyage home to the Maelstrom Isles, where he had magically sent to you that he stumbled upon a possible Ta’luun clue during a drinking game with old friends. 

A Year or Years

So much for a time of peace.  Much has changed around the capital city of Cor’thak in the past five years.  The city is now a smoking ruin and ghost town, and a massive, unnatural mote encircles it, its enchanted liquid depths barely visible to the naked eye.  The treaty you helped forge between the Circle of Wyrms and the nations along the Blood Coast was right, necessary and honorable. 

But one man or one dragon broke that treaty, and in a flash, Cor’thak was descended upon by a wing of dragons and storm cloud-riding giants.  Like a swift and horrifying nightmare, Cor’thak was obliterated. 

Mighty dampening magic prevented all communication and teleportation during the attack.  You came through gates, on flying mounts, and through your own teleportation magic as soon as you could.  Who did this, and why?  Your heroics – in battle and in the court of politics, are needed once more.

Be creative and willing to improvise and work off one another when it comes to how and why to fill in passages of time.  Don’t do it too arbitrarily – a few non-critical loose ends are okay to move on from, but major, immediate conflicts or readily accessible villains are not.  The characters still need the satisfaction of going after those if they can taste them. 

In some cases, the how and why of the passage of significant amounts of time can be left unspoken on purpose – sounds like a flashback session some day!  I’ve done this many times myself, using an “The Untold Adventures of…” approach, which can be great fun as you de-level and go back in time for an adventure with your favorite characters.

Also be sure that something important happens or you drive right back towards a critical element of your campaign right after the lull – get your rejuvenated heroes right up for adventure once more!

What Does Your Future Hold?

What else do you recommend surrounding the passage of time in your campaigns and adventures?  What one tip or trick has served you and your playgroup particularly well?  What particular books, TV series, movies or other sources do you use for inspiration? 

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5 Responses to “A Year Has Passed… How to Include the Passage of Time in Your Campaigns”

  1. Dave says:

    Time is really not a difficult thing to deal with, if you, the DM, are willing to track it. An in-game calendar helps you provide the background color needed (“You waken this morning to loud shouts and laughter from the street. Pushing open the shutters, you see many townsfolk draping what appear to be miniature sails from second-story windows. Suddenly, there’s a knock at your door! Griz, one of the serving boys at the inn, says he’s got to prepare the room for the Festival, and to get up already! Ah, the Festival and miniature sails? It must be the locals’ Festival of the Seafaring Winds!”).

    Travel from one location to another takes time, R&R takes time, spellcaster conducting magical research, even simply waiting for that new sword you commissioned from the local weaponsmith can all take time. I’ve also used the passage of real time between gaming sessions to forward my gameworld calendar, but only if the party had reached a safe place, such as a town or village to recuperate in.

    Keep track of all of this time, and make sure you update inworld events that may have changed. Your townsfolk age, the Queen births an heir for the King, the Vizier suddenly dies of old age… all of which lends an air of reality to your world and enhances the players gaming experience!

    • Kilsek says:

      Welcome to Leonine Roar, Dave and thanks for your comment!

      You have some tremendous tips here – I especially like making sure aging and changes to the local folk in your characters’ lives comes to light. Good stuff!

      • Dave says:

        Thanks!

        I can’t claim any of those as my own, however, I’ve been a gamer since the original white box edition of D&D (mid/late -70s), and I think most of those came out of 1e DMG. The only thing I’d claim as original in that comment was the blurb about the Festival of the Seafaring Winds, which came to me as I was typing it. I’ll have to use it now, of course!

  2. Tourq says:

    Interesting post. We (for the first time) are going back to an old campaign – and we’re doing it 25 years later in the story. It’s gonna be a blast.

    • Kilsek says:

      That is going to be awesome Tourq, especially so many years later! Some of my favorite and my players’ favorite – one-shots or mini-campaigns are what I’ve called Flashback sessions since 2e.

      We pick that “lost” or untold adventure and have a great time – especially because we all get to re-visit some favorite old NPCs, places and events in the campaign’s history – and yet as DM, still have plenty of creative space to include new monsters and surprises.

      A cool way to go nostalgic with D&D – good times!

      That said, Flashfowarding like you’re doing, is a lot like Flashbacks – I know you guys will have a blast!

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