Thoughts on time as a narrative overlay



A couple of thoughts about using time as a map of sorts. This isn’t revolutionary, but it’s been poking me in the brain.

  1. Using the timer to show opportunities expiring.
    Just this. We use timers to show a countdown until something happens, but we could use the same device to show that job boards, rumors, and other information has a shelf life. This will provide urgency, which adds tension, which makes excitement. This doesn’t have to ape RL anymore than a timer telling you about an imminent crisis apes RL; it’s an artificial narrative device to make things more fun and provoke interesting choices.

  2. Using enumeration of encounters to trigger events. This I stole directly from Professor Dungeon Master of Dungeon Craft. He suggested that to tie a character’s background of a lost father into an adventure, that on the third room explored, the character would find graffiti left by the father. This is an interesting way to handle plot elements: not tied to a location or to a time, but to an ordinal designation. I love this idea because it allows the GM to ensure certain events will intersect with the party without forcing them to be in a certain place at a certain time. It takes a back way around the quantum ogre, by tying the encounter to time and space in a particular way. If the PCs leave the location before a thrid encounter, the event remains unused, and it’s up to the GM to decide whether to reset the timer for the location.

  3. Using a timeline to create a living world independent of the PCs’ actions.

thinking of events in time as an overlay to the setting should give the PCs a sense that their actions matter, sort of. In other words, if x happens in three days, y in four, and z in a week, and the PC’s have a reasonable stake in hearing about it and caring, then the world can feel more alive. On the other hand, in a truly epic campaign, the PC’s should be at the heart of the events that matter the most to the campain world and an overlay of ordinary events won’t really add anything to the game. This is just food for thought. Not sure if t really is worth it to subjugate myself as a GM to tracking things the PC’s aren’t involved in. Almost feels like I"m not making good enough adventures if I have to do that…Hm.

Thoughts? How have you used time to engage your players and make your worlds feel urgent and alive?


I typically use the third example…the world is moving on regardless of the PC actions. Only the parts they are having input on interacts with them as they come through. Often the PCs make that timeline go sideways…but it is how I map things in my mind.


I use all of these. I like a living world. I like my players knowing that there is a lot going on outside of their little experience: it gives them motivation to find out more about the world, and this in turns helps me know what to plan for future sessions!

For example: Is there a big war going on? If so, then news from the front should trickle back to the villages. Supply lines should be set up, and merchants can’t sell to the players because they’re sending all their best works to the war effort. Stories of heroes should loom larger than life in the pubs, and named NPCs the players haven’t met yet should be talked about often.

If the players make their way to the front, they’ll have some basic connection to the goings-on. They’ll have names of people, and stories of their deeds, to ease their way into the confusion of war. Are these NPCs anything like the stories tell? How much exaggeration has taken place as these stories make their way from the battlefield to the pub?

All of the above happens in dribs and drabs as the game plays out at the table. It helps create a more dynamic world.

In my current Gamma World / post-apocalypse game, there are two large cities, a couple hundred miles apart. One is very welcoming of mutants, one is human-only and super xenophobic. A race war is brewing. Spies and militants and pacifists and regular schmoes are all going about their business while the party has their adventures. Each adventure reveals a little more of the larger machinations of the factions. Depending on how the players react to situations and NPCs, I tweak the overall narrative to ensure things keep moving. This is mostly #3 from your list; but I do a bit of the second item as well, ensuring that plot devices appear in time+space.