The Dungeon Master Experience - Leap Year

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The Dungeon Master Experience 
Leap Year

By Chris Perkins

I had to cancel my D&D game five weeks in a row due to conventions and vacations. During the break, I decided to advance the campaign timeline by one year. Needless to say, my players were surprised.

Talk about this column here.

Leap Year

Time is one of the most overlooked and ignored elements of a D&D campaign.  Some DMs are fastidious when it comes to tracking it, but most of us aren’t.  For the sake of our own sanity, we’re willing to put matters of time aside.  We don’t care if the party wizard achieves 30th level before his 30th birthday, and we’re okay with an entire campaign transpiring within a year of game time, despite what history books teach us about medieval life, the Middle Ages, and how long it really takes for important events to transpire.  In most D&D campaigns, character age is irrelevant; the chance that the party’s dwarf paladin or elf ranger will die of old age is virtually nil.  A pity, really. – Chris


IMHC (sandbox) we use a one page calendar.  The players choose their own course of action: adventures, NPC interactions, sideline action, etc.  Travel is required to move from point A to point B; not only does this affect the passage time, but it also permits the PCs to interact with the world and its inhabitants on a personal level.  With the exceptions of scattered portals, which the party must gain access to or learn to operate there is no “poof” you’re at your destination.


As time progress along the PCs course the world ages with them, the players must make decisions that are critical at times – do we save the world or save these people – and their actions may have consequences that are yet unknown.  I have had PCs ride their horses to death to deliver crucial aid.  [Oddly enough I never impose an end-time this is solely the player’s interpretations]


ALL PCs and NPCs have birth dates and max ages.  Beloved NPCs die: Nimozaran – old age (102); Sister Linora – murdered (32).  While other NPCs gain in power/levels. PCs marry and have children – and bloodlines are established. 


We are currently playing Gen-II with the first of Gen-III to born soon.  While the survivors of Gen-I have retired from adventuring they are still visible in the world as NPCs and their deeds are remembered.


I also require my players to train in order to gain the benefits of their next level.  While 4E made leveling automatic unlike earlier editions, I’ve incorporated training via guild participation to gain abilities outside of the normal scope.  These include class abilities list in Dragon/Dungeon, and other publications; of course these take both time and money.  I would prefer the older edition requirements when advancement was an actually part of PC role-play.


I only advance the timeline when one PC Gen wishes to retire (after all their quest have finished) and begin the next from start some Player’s may choose to use their heirs while others may want to try something completely different as they begin again from Level 1.  But I NEVER advance a timeline during an adventure.


Moving forward in time shows the players that their characters’ actions have consequences. – Chris


Moving forward in time is more of a cheat for the DM.  It enables them to smooth out wrinkles, cut off some loose ends and prep the slate for a new adventure hooks; this is shown both in Battlestar Galactica and in the developments of the Iomandra campaign.


It does little to show the consequences of PC actions as they should already be feeling repercussions of them.  Unless of course if the live in a time-vacuum due to the ‘overlooked and ignored elements’ of time in the campaign.  This is partially an effect of computer gaming era (where leveling has always been automatic), the gaming mechanics of 4E, and the fault of the DM.


With the looking back we have been doing in Legends and Lore, perhaps we should review the campaign elements of TIME (along with training and aging) again.
As a DM I do not track years, but rather I have the story and the seasons unfold.  Considering that humans have often been a generic race, I do not see a point in punishing players who chose to be a human.  I also do not want to end a fun multi year (real time) campaign because the PC's are to old to adventure.  As a player and DM I have done the next generation of adventurers, although it is usually about the campaign story than children of heroes, due to the starting magical items such children would have. 

As a DM I do not track years, but rather I have the story and the seasons unfold. Considering that humans have often been a generic race, I do not see a point in punishing players who chose to be a human. I also do not want to end a fun multi year (real time) campaign because the PC's are to old to adventure. As a player and DM I have done the next generation of adventurers, although it is usually about the campaign story than children of heroes, due to the starting magical items such children would have.


My first campaign world (1e – 3.5e) ran a “fun” 31 years; and during this time, the predominate race was human then half-elf; followed by elf/dwarf (tied) and a smattering of the other races.  At no time did the toll of years hinder the fun and excitement of the campaign – just the opposite really – and 151 years passed on the game clock. 


Note: we used the ageing tables from the 1e DMG throughout the campaign, which besides just growing old in years also affected the characters stats.


The campaign should always be a balance between story and the heroes who make it happen.  The fact that the PCs may start with an heirloom should not make a difference, unless they were given everything.  In the earlier editions more magic items did not significantly make the difference in play as in 4e were the items also became tiered power.


In 4e, I simply lower the bonus and allow the player to unlock the greater power as their level progressed; not only did this become part of the story arc in itself but the players actually retained these items longer over more powerful ones.

My first campaign world (1e – 3.5e) ran a “fun” 31 years; and during this time, the predominate race was human then half-elf; followed by elf/dwarf (tied) and a smattering of the other races.  At no time did the toll of years hinder the fun and excitement of the campaign – just the opposite really – and 151 years passed on the game clock. 

Note: we used the ageing tables from the 1e DMG throughout the campaign, which besides just growing old in years also affected the characters stats.


A very interesting approach to playing a campaign. I have done something somewhat similar, but on a much smaller timescale (one PC generation)) - iirc the stat mods due to age hit the physical stats more than the intellectual stats (but I may be wrong here). Didn't this create some imbalance on the different classes? Also, did you retire the characters when switching to a new rules edition?

A very interesting approach to playing a campaign. I have done something somewhat similar, but on a much smaller timescale (one PC generation)) - iirc the stat mods due to age hit the physical stats more than the intellectual stats (but I may be wrong here). Didn't this create some imbalance on the different classes? Also, did you retire the characters when switching to a new rules edition?





































Human



Category



Effect [per 1E DMG page 13]



14-20



Young Adult



-1 Wisdom; +1 Constitution



21-40



Mature



+1 Strength, +1 Wisdom



41-60



Middle age



-1 Strength, -1 Constitution; +1 Intelligence, +1 Wisdom



61-90



Old age



-2 Strength, -2 Dexterity, -1 Constitution; +1 Wisdom



91-120



Venerable



-1 Strength, -1 Dexterity, -1 Constitution; +1 Intelligence +1 Wisdom



[Total life changes: Strength -3, Dexterity -3, Constitution -2, Intelligence +2, Wisdom +4]

A human fighter’s prime years were between 21 and 40, but if they rolled well [3d6] they could enjoy their career until 61.  Clerics and wizards only got better with age and the bonuses to wisdom or intelligence added to their spell capacity.   The thief (Rogue) did not truly suffer from aging until after 61 when they took a loss to their dexterity.


Even then aged characters could offset their frailty with magic items (armor, weapons, tomes, and miscellaneous items) gained, which would still give the PC an edge that could see them active into their venerable years.  Due to this we never suffered imbalances between the different classes. 


Each edition’s rule changes from 1E through 3.5 were minimal enough that characters were not “forced to retire”, true it took a little effort to convert over, but we handled this during administrative game days (e.g. level training).  Most player’s chose to retire their characters around 45–55, but this was mainly because of level peaks and growing political responsibility; in addition those children born of some PCs were usually of an age to start their own careers.


Many, but not all, “retired” PCs were still active as NPCs, ran by myself, based on outlines provided by the player upon their retirement.


Only 4E caused forced retirement, but this was upon the campaign itself.  The new rules for character stats, powers, and both character and item advancement were incompatible with earlier editions.  While we still have bloodlines forming and have max ages 4E does not allow for old age to affect the players. 


Note1: Human characters would die of natural ageing between 69 and 139 based on a roll on the Maximum Character Age table [per 1E DMG page 15].  This was rolled by the DM and kept secret from the player.  All Unnatural Aging effects were subtracted from this max age so as not to affect game play.  It was found to be a “pita” during adventures and often cut into valuable game time; for the same reason, we also housed-ruled level draining as -10 years per level this allowed players to remain effective during the adventure, but could result in nasty surprises when a character suddenly died.


Note2: Not all players developed bloodlines and several “regular” players had other characters playing in other gaming parties.  These other groups often campaigned in different world regions, but their actions were felt by others and the legends and bard’s tales of these heroes were known to future player groups

Thanks for the reply and info, morandir62. I will talk to the players about considering a campaign running over several decades the next time, and take the aging chart into consideration (I like the idea of +1 Str to the Fighter when he is at his best, so it is not all penalties for the classes based on physical attributes).
I really like the feel of continuity and progress, not just of the PCs level-wise (which has become the main progress indicator in most campaigns, especially with 4th ed., I think) but also age-wise, entering new stages of life and responsibility, and world-wise (the world around the PCs change as the years go by)
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