The Dungeon Master’s Guide offers tons of helpful world and encounter building content; however, as a new DM, the one thing the DMG didn’t teach me was how to manage and track the in-game passage of time.
Often, players would ask me how long they had been traveling or what time it was, and I would just have to guess. And when it came to timed encounters, I didn’t have a clue.
If you find yourself struggling with managing and tracking time in your Dungeons & Dragons campaign, you aren’t alone. Here are the top tips and tricks to make you a time master!
To effectively track and manage time in D&D, you need to:
- Mark the passage of time both verbally and physically
- Know how long actions take to perform
- Use tools, such as timers, color indicators or charts
If you are running a timed encounter, be sure to:
- Be clear that time is limited
- Count in real-life minutes or in-game rounds
- Give cues verbally and physically that time has passed
Time in Dungeons & Dragons
It is assumed that in any D&D setting a day consists of 24 hours but it can be difficult to keep track of how long all of their actions are taking. Here is a helpful break down of the time it takes to perform certain actions:
|Short Rest||1 hour|
|Long Rest||8 hours|
|Exploration: enough time to search a few rooms in a dungeon or visit 3 shops||Investigation Roll:|
15 or lower: 1 hour
16 or higher: 30 mins
|Basic Dungeon Actions: This would be actions like walking stealthily down a long corridor, searching 1 room, talking/planning, buffing before entering a room, etc.||10 minutes|
|Traveling: Given it is well-maintained roads and they are traveling at a normal pace, players should be able to travel to a moderate distance in this time||8 hours (more or less depending on how far the destination is)|
Walking: 24 miles in 8 hours
Horse at a moderate pace: 30 miles in 8 hours
Horse at a fast past: 50 miles in 8 hours (but this would give the players a point of exhaustion)
I like to share this time designation with my players to keep everyone on the same page. If players chose to explore or investigate rooms, they should have a clear idea of how long that action will take in order to manage their own time wisely.
Players often don’t realize how long their actions take, and making it clear by giving everyone this chart at the beginning of the game will go a long way in managing time effectively.
Marking the Passage of Time
Make it part of the Narrative
For regular gameplay (that is, encounters that are not being timed) I like to simply mark the passage of time narratively. Depending on when players wake up, I describe the sun’s position on the horizon, as well as the weather.
A few hours later, I include in whatever description I am giving that the players hear the bells marking the 10th hour in the distance. Around noon someone’s tummy always starts to grumble, marking lunchtime (I like to have everyone roll a constitution check for this and lowest roller is the grumbly one!).
Around mid-afternoon, I will draw the player’s attention to the fact that the sun is in the western sky. And at dusk, they get a similar description as at dawn. If my players want to stay out late, I mark the evening hours by which shops are open (goods and wares being the first to close, and bars being the last at 3 am).
Making time a normal part of the storytelling experience adds to the emersion of the game and gives players markers for their day.
Although the storytelling method is my favorite, it is sometimes not possible. If the party is adventuring underground or in a dungeon, they need other ways to mark the passage of time.
Adventuring in the Underdark has its own set of difficulties (if you are running a game that is currently in the Underdark, there are some important aspects you might be missing, make sure to check out my post of things DMs often miss while running Underdark Adventures)
Time is one of those. Players often don’t know how long they have been adventuring or what time it is on the surface. In these instances, I like to use the party’s exhaustion level, hunger and actions (using the chart above) as a rough guide. This generally gives a rough idea, though the party won’t know for sure until they get above ground again.
Some DMs like to use physical tokens or marks to show players the time of day or passing of hours. This can be a really helpful way to remind your players to be mindful of the time if they are engaging activities that require them to be mindful of time.
You could use sun position pictures and paper clip them to your DM screen so players always know a rough estimation of the time. (all of these photos are copyright free, so feel free to download and use them!) Or, if you are the artist type, you can always draw your own!
Another option is to use tokens as markers, placing them on the table at different times of the day. For physical markers during time encounters, see below!
Running Timed Missions
When to Run Timed Mission
Occasionally, players will face time constraints on what they need to accomplish. This could happen when the party needs to stop a plot, save an NPC, or acquire an item that is only in an attainable position for a certain amount of time.
Not every mission should be timed. Timed missions are designed to create a sense of urgency because it is pass/fail scenario. With most encounters, players will arrive “just in time” regardless of if they rushed to the scene or if they took their sweet time searching every room. Because players are accustomed to more flexible encounters, you will need to be very clear when time plays a part in the encounter.
If you do not make it clear that time is a factor, then players will feel cheated when they arrive at the encounter too late. Likewise, if you do not make it clear why the encounter is timed, then players will simply feel rushed and will be frustrated.
In a timed mission, there are three relevant stages of success:
- Early enough to easily interrupt the proceedings without time pressure or collateral damage
- Just in time to interrupt the final outcome of the proceedings, but likely not in time to prevent casualties or damage
- Too late, the effects of the encounter are in full swing
This approach to timed encounters requires you to know how long the ritual/event will take and track all the actions of players as even a 10-minute delay can make the difference between getting there just in time or too late.
If you prefer a stance with a little more flexibility, you might try a two-degree approach:
- The ritual (or whatever) is in the final stages, but there is enough time to fight (this means players have minutes or up to x amount of hours to get there to prevent the end result)
- There is a risk that the ritual is finished unless the battle is won really fast (players have x number of rounds to finish the fight before it is too late)
This approach tends to be more forgiving and flexible, allowing players time to do what they need to or solve puzzles and still arrive in enough time to save the day. It also ensures there isn’t a complete failure option.
It can be very disheartening to players to arrive so late that all they can do is watch while ancient horrors are unleashed in their hometown. To avoid the “we don’t even get a chance to stop it?! That’s not fair!” conversation, there are a few ways you can clearly track time for your players.
The Colored Ring Approach
For the colored rings approach, you can use bottle caps, milk rings, pipe cleaners, or anything else you have on hand!
For both of these options, you will want to mark the passage of time in a way that players can visually see. Some DMs use colored rings that they put on the table, going from green to red. Each color category has 3 rings before it moves on to the next one.
For example, if players have 2 hours to find the hag and stop the ritual, then you would break this up into about 13 minutes per ring. After the first 13 minutes (in real life or game, it is up to you) place one green ring on the table. After another 13 minutes, place another one and so on until you run out of rings. As time runs out the colors move from green to yellow to red, visually queuing players to move more quickly.
Once players get down to the final red ring, they will know they need to book it to make it in time. This is a great option for encounters that have a hard and fast time limit. However, if you want something more flexible, you can do the same thing but with just three rings. A green, yellow and red.
Simply start with the green ring on the table, as time progresses, place the yellow ring on the table, then finally the red ring. This can be whenever you feel like players are wasting time or need to move faster. I like to use this approach even when I am not running timed encounters just to get my players thinking about the time they are wasting.
For this approach, you can use an hourglass, alarm clock, phone timer or kitchen timer (although hourglasses are a personal favorite of mine!)
Another option is to set a physical timer on the board. I personally love the look and ambiguity of a sand timer. It fits with the fantasy world feel. But you can also use a phone, an alarm clock, or a kitchen timer, whatever you have on hand. Set the timer with the time limit and let the players manage their time. But be ready for things to get…intense…as the time starts running out.
Finally, if you are going to run a timed encounter, then you need to stick to the time you set and the consequences that follow. No matter how long you spent putting together that amazing encounter, you have to be prepared to scrap it.
If the players don’t arrive in time, then they fail. If you are not okay with this, then you probably shouldn’t run a true timed encounter, and that is okay too!
You don’t have to run timed encounters to create tension and a sense of urgency. You can just as easily do that with visions from deities, scrying spells, or your descriptions.
Always do what fits your campaign and style as a DM. But if you give it a try, these tips are sure to help!
If you want more tips and tricks, be sure to check out my recent posts below! If you have any questions or comments, just Cast Sending!
Until next time,
May your game have advantage, my friends!
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