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Matters of Time in Gaming

Your humble columnist takes a few minutes to worry about something you've probably never though about -- the flow of time in your favorite game. Some might think it trivial but actually, it is critical to every aspect of the game. Take a few minutes and read along with me.

In our continuing theme of self-improvement I thought I would ramble on for a few moments about Time. Well, to tell the truth, I was thinking about different ways to do combat rounds at the same time I was complaining to myself how much stuff I had to do. When my buddy sent me an email mocking me with recommendations on time management, I thought it must be a sign that it’s time to talk about such things.

It is not my intent to ramble on about Time Travel and associated things. I’m sure that Space Gamer has some grand idea on those matters, and I have faith that it will be a delight to play when it comes. Rather, I was talking about turns, combat rounds and the passage of time in our games. Who hits when, how much time elapsed, when could I club my buddy (the funny one above) again. Most of you haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about such things but hey, I got all this free time; sometimes I sweat the details.

Now some would blast me by saying, you got no time, and you’re wasting valuable Space Gamer, the magazine of Free-Style Role-Play (tm), column space with variations on time sequences in games. To that I would say, well, yea.

Next, I have to get the Free-Style plug in. The best system right now, bar none, is of course the Free-Style system. Players are given the opportunity to go first or go last at their option. Foes, Bad Guys and opposing combatants (FBGOC’s) go in the middle. (I had a few minutes and I made up the FBGOC acronym, so if you haven’t seen it before, I’m just ahead of you by a few minutes.) Based on whether the players go first or last, their actions resolve differently. If you go last, you do more damage and can react to your FBGOC. If you go first, you may be able to prevent your FBGOC from harming you by killing him first. And, of course by careful selection of tasks, you can act before and after your FBGOC. It’s a delight to think of the possibilities but please, not while you’re driving.

Otherwise, there’s the standard one minute combat round where you do lots of things and by some complicated calculation weighing statistical probability, weapon selection, skill, ferocity, speed, just plain luck, and dark and sinister forces, you get to do one die six points of damage. You have to wonder if it was just monumental luck that a six-sided die had just the right range (one thru six) to allow for the appropriate number of rounds of combat before someone fell. I liken this to one of the critical distances in baseball (another game you might know of), the distance from the batter’s box to first base. The distance (or time) that the runner has to scamper to first base after hitting the ball affects the entire game. Had the die been larger (or the distance longer), everyone would be dead sooner (or out more frequently). Had the die been smaller (or the distance shorter), no one would be slain (and would thus make it to base). Now, eventually, you would get the runner out, and the orc would be put to the sword, but I don’t have the time to spend three hours killing an orc or heaven forbid two (again, with the time thing).

So, did the ancient ones have some secret knowledge to decide to make the game turn one minute and the number of hit points just right. This balance keeps us interested for just the right amount of time. Or did the Ancient Ones just dumb luck into it. I bet if one could mathematically analyze the whole mess, you would arrive at the conclusion that it’s one over root two pi R. For you math heads out there, you would know that is the period of a swinging pendulum, which is a pretty lethal weapon in that dungeon crawl game, but also used to measure the passage of time. It can’t be coincidence! Okay, I vote dumb luck, too.

I really can’t go further without mentioning “You Go, I Go” (no, not Yu-gi-oh). Almost all games have a form of “You Go, I Go” in which each side takes turns. This is true in almost every form of gaming: backgammon, chess, checkers, black jack, you name it. And of course, when you have more than two players, it just becomes “You, You, You, Me” as in games like Talisman, Monopoly, King Oil, and the always favorite “Chicken, Chicken, Chicken, Duck.”

But what other systems are available? Those of you who play computer games know about real time games. You click as fast as you can and eventually your brain forms new neural pathways as your fingers are capable of doing things at the limit of human potential. Then, some joker with a chain gun sets the world right by graphically rendering you into gore. Good, but not in every case.

You can slow the action and go into what is known as “bullet time.” Bullet time looks good but it only works real well with young ladies or gents wearing trench coats, vinyl, and dark glasses. I don’t know why it works, but it does.

And, now you can pause the computer action and go into what I call Baldur time. That’s when you pause the game (usually by hitting the space bar) and set all your actions and then restart the game (only to discover your buddy is in Baldur time as well). Now, pen and pencil gamers have known this phenomenon since the beginning. We would debate at length what the best course of action was for every situation. For example, say we’ve been surprised, caught flat footed, and blind-sided by an invisible, silent enemy who moves at ten times our speed. The party will generally still debate at length, form committees and sub-committees, order out for pizza, draft a detailed plan of action, revise it, present it to the grand assembly, develop contingency flow charts, and draft emergency procedures. The referee always patiently waits for the players to decide what to do because it always boils down to one of The Big Three: Run, Fight, or CY (i.e. Crap Yourself). (Okay CY means just get butchered in the hall for a round by an impatient ref while you decide to do one of the first two things listed, but CY sounds more edgy.)

And, I couldn’t spend time describing the flow of time without mentioning (and complaining for a moment) about the latest trend in managing the flow of time in combat. That being the roll of a die 20 then adding appropriate factors and having the referee count through the possible numbers for each to take their actions. I’m a busy guy and I just don’t have time for such labor. Yea, yea, yea, I know that the referee can dispense with such things, but it’s just a bad design. I get the impression it was to formalize the rules so players wouldn’t form committees and exploit the rules in a way that makes them look too cool.

So, Ebony June the Assassin goes first to deploy a vial of azure worm poison on Squire Bolt’s jade arrow of smiting as he aims his bow while Morg the Barbarian pulls his arm back at a crippling angle to give the bow maximum velocity while Tantalus the Wizard throws a magic spell on Bolt’s now deformed arm to keep it from shattering, while Claudius the Gladiator distracts the crippled gnoll so maximum damage can be done.

Any way, why not let the player’s look cool if that’s what they want? Bottom line is the whole mess is too much work for not enough return.

Lastly, war gamers will be more familiar with assigning time in pulses of action. You get 20 pulses to move your chits. Bazooka guy costs two pulses to move, and movement is halved in rough terrain. I’ve always enjoyed this variant but it always breaks down with opportunity fire rules, double moves, rounding, and just strange things happening. Look at Sniper or Bug Hunt if this isn’t clear and remember no shooting through the floor, ceilings okay, floors no way.

Now, who has the time to list all the possible techniques? Most are just variations of those above. I thought I would offer a few suggestions (for those that are still following along) to spice up their games.

Real Time Paper Turns
Who says that you have to follow the tried and true “You Go, I Go” (or the more popular “I Go, You Go”). Why not, assign a weight to each action and then track the combat from time zero? For example, a sword takes a die ten pulses to swing effectively, a bow takes a die six, a dagger takes a die four, an axe takes a flat six pulses. Everyone rolls their die and that’s when they act. When you take your action, you roll for your next action, which of course can be different and doesn’t have to be one of the big three. If it is before your opponent, you go again. A sword guy could roll five one’s while a bow guy could roll a single six. (But don’t worry that won’t happen to you.) In this case, sword guy hits bow guy five times. (The sword guy lobby likes that possibility.) The additional benefit is that you get to really track how long combat really is. So, you can stop on pulse thirty and let your fighter in his plate armor throw up, as he would surely do after swinging his blade for an extended period.

Asynchronous but Equal Distribution
Make chits (say three for each player) and put each character’s name on the chits. Throw them in a cup. (New for Xmas, Space Gamer merchandise official chit mug.) Draw one chit at a time. Go in that order. Return the chits to the cup when all have been drawn. Note that you could go multiple times in a row. (But don’t worry that won’t happen to you.) When the cup is empty, repeat. Or allow the fighter time to throw up, as he would surely do after swinging his blade for an extended period.

Draw Lots
Just draw your chits and let the universe decide. Remix after each draw. You could go multiple times in a row this way. (But don’t worry, that won’t happen to you.) I’m not a fan of this by itself, but it would give an interesting slant to some games. And think of the fun listening to that guy in your group, the one who can’t make a roll, as he never gets an opportunity to act, because his chit never gets pulled from the cup. That alone would be worth the price of admission.

Only One Side Goes
Only the players get to go (and always look cool). Just build into the mechanics the opponent’s damage. The best way to do this is to design the FBGOC’s actions into the mechanics. A good example is a quick and dirty table, which accounts for damage from your opponent. Another way, if you don’t have a Q&D for every situation (and why not) is to just assign a threat rating to the encounter. For example, everyone takes five points of damage (or a bruise/cut) per action unless they block it or have some special resistance. This lasts for every action they take, until the situation is resolved. The more they act, the greater chance they take damage. Easy for the referee and after thirty rounds you can stop and let each player throw up, as they would surely do after taking all that damage.

Not all of you have time to ponder the minutia of the gaming universe as I have done here. Hey neither do I, but the flow of time is critical to the success of the game. I focused on combat, but a case could be made for the flow of time in the campaign and just the progress of the mission at hand. I’ll leave that to you to express your opinion. When you get a few minutes, jump to the Vox and let me know what you think.

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