Running an RPG in Real-Time, All the Time
Last year, I got excited about the idea of tracking realworld time over downtime . Shortly after I implemented it in my campaign, and it served the entire table, very well.
The Perspective Flip
Real-time RPGs look strange if you look at them from the wrong end. Let me turn it around for you:
- The players are just anyone who turns up on the day. This could be 3 or 6 players - we don't know who's free.
- As a result, we'll have to wrap each adventure up on the night, because someone might not make the next session.
- Time can become inconsistent over the course of sessions - different PCs arriving in different areas at different times threatens to make some deeply inconsistent and warped narratives.
- We can fix this by making time pass at a rate which keeps everything consistent.
Using 'real-world time' comes as a result of an open table. And the open table has some great benefits.
I didn't have any scheduling problems, and if the memes are to be believed, I'm the only GM in the world.
- If players A, B, and C arrive for the first game, all good.
- For the second, B comes, and C brings along D and E, and they meet in the local tavern, and agree upon a mission.
- Players A, B, and E can make it.
As long as 3 or more players can make the day, the game goes on.
You are Strange
Here is what football sounds like, if you organize it like you organize your RPG sessions:
Fancy a game of football on Saturdays? I mean all Saturdays. Every one, for the next few months. We need you to join to a pivotal part of this grand game. You can't miss one game, or we'll have to call the whole thing off for that week and no-one will be able to play football. Can you make it?
But people say things like this with RPGs routinely, and then wonder why they can't organize a game.
No, wait. Actually they don't phrase it like that, but if someone can't arrive for game night, and you cancel the entire game, because 'Shlogenstok, the half-elf alchomancer just has to be there, because we stopped half-way through the Endless Ice-Caves', then you have basically done this.
Consistent Pacing for Sensible Chronologies
I set my own campaign to run at 3 times normal speed, so 1 week of real-world time equals 3 weeks of in-game time. After ~9 months of gameplay, one player had made almost every session, and their character had gained a hell of a lot of XP. They began as a little gnome, and ended, well still a little gnome actually, but they were deadly. From the perspective of the gnome, this whole progression took two and a half years. That seems a little on the short side, but it's a lot better than so many campaigns where characters progress from zero-to-hero in a couple weeks of game-time.
The narrative of progression makes sense.
Loads of Players
The game had maybe 15 players all in all. I'm an immigrant who knows lots of migrants and travellers. This makes consistent scheduling awful, because some of them arrive, bring friends, and disappear for a month, or forever. Nobody could guarantee they'd be at the table, even for a second session. But that never stopped me welcoming new people to the table - they could rock up, roll up a random character, and start playing immediately.
Problems & Limitations
A player once had to leave after about three hours, which left the current events very unresolved, but I had to resolve them anyway. I did what I could. It was a little awkward.
Lesson learned: ask about people's leaving time at the start of each session.
The rest of the sessions wrapped themselves up naturally. Once everyone at the table understood that the mission would wrap up soon enough, it did. And I say this despite all of my stories going on mad, meandering loops, with NPCs coming in an out of focus, and mission objectives coming at the PCs so fast that they have to rethink their priorities every two scenes.
Demands on the System
Getting PCs back to civilization at the session's end makes a lot more sense if they have a constant, recurring, need to return. This works well for BIND, since it has no healing spells. PCs will also want to return for rations, torches, or just because they're tired.
A game without any fatigue-system, where priests just press the 'HP-reset button' every day before casting Radiant Light, may struggle to provide justification for the sudden endings.
Demands on the Plot
Resource management alone won't make a session's end feel satisfying. The best ends come from resolving plots.
If done well, this should lead to a larger plot in the style of Star Trek: Deep Space 9 - recurring characters come and go, a large war rages - sometimes in the foreground, sometimes in the background - and over time characters evolve and change; but each episode focusses on short-term problems, with fast solutions. Some players may miss the lack of 'cliff-hanger endings', but I suspect that GMs enjoy them far more than players.
Sandbox, not Journey
The standard fantasy trope of the journey will not work out well. The troop cannot travel to Mordor while swapping PCs in and out.
The setting should also come with plenty of resting areas, which BIND does. The entire world presents danger, but every few miles, people can find a town, bailey, or bothy to stay safe in.
This shouldn't pose too much of a challenge, unless the troupe need to journey through 4 deadly encounters to reach a deep dungeon, where they descend through 7 more deadly encounters, grab the prize, then begin the ascent. But at that point, maybe just plan for a long weekend of gaming, rather than cutting the plot into pieces for 3 weeks.
I miss those long weekends of gaming. I wonder if I'll live to see another 20-hour session...