This is RPG-ology #71: Time, for October 2023.
Our thanks to Regis Pannier and the team at the Places to Go, People to Be French edition for locating a copy of this and a number of other lost Game Ideas Unlimited articles. This was originally Game Ideas Unlimited: Time, and is reposted here with minor editing [bracketed].
Isn’t it interesting that there are exactly twenty-four hours in a day? That is, it doesn’t come out to be twenty-three hours, fifty-seven minutes, and thirty-nine seconds or some such thing. It is exactly twenty-four hours. Isn’t that fascinating?
Well, it would be, but for the fact that that’s what an hour is. When you get right down to it, the definition of an hour boils down to something very like one twenty-fourth of a day. It was originally defined by the angular movement of the sun through the sky, such that fifteen degrees–one twenty-fourth of the full circle–is one hour. In short, there are twenty-four hours in a day because our ancestors decided it was convenient to divide the day into twenty-four hours. Similarly, there are sixty seconds in a minute and sixty minutes in an hour because that is very convenient mathematically (sixty is evenly divisible by two, three, four, five, six, ten, twelve, fifteen, twenty, and thirty, and it is also a factor of three hundred sixty, the very conveniently chosen number of degrees in a circle). To be surprised that it comes out the way it does is a bit like expressing surprise that there are one hundred centimeters in a meter. The system was built specifically to do that.
Our role playing game characters often come from other worlds; even when they come from our own universe, they sometimes come from areas in which our definitions of time would appear even more arbitrary than they are. The length of a day on Jupiter (not that we would ever live on Jupiter, but it’s an example) is nine hours, fifty-six minutes, nine seconds. No one would ever define time such that their day was nine hours, fifty-six minutes, nine seconds long. Rather, They would divide the day into equal portions which would be their version of an hour, probably twelve hours each of which would be close to fifty of our minutes.
So where are we going with this? For many of you, this is going nowhere. Your games are set on earth, where the days are twenty-four hours long. If they aren’t on earth, they’re probably on a world that is just like earth, and has days twenty-four hours long, and indigs who decided that it was convenient to divide the day into twenty-four hours. Or perhaps your characters are not on an earth-like world; but they come from an earth-like world, or their ancestors came from earth, so they use earth-based measurements, like hours, for everything. And if there are nine hours, fifty-six minutes, nine seconds in a day, that’s how long the day is, and we’ll just have to build clocks that can count that way. [In Legends of Alyria the human settlers built the clock tower in the center of the city before they realized that their world had a twenty-five hour rotational period, and so every day at midnight someone stops the clock for one hour and restarts it.]
But for some of you, there is something inherently flawed about a world time system built on a twenty-four piece day. Your days are longer, or shorter, and your people have no connection to earth, or a connection so distant that they really should have abandoned earth time long ago for something that fit their environment. Even on earth, different time systems have been used in different times and places. Even if you were in a space colony, there is some evidence suggesting that humans divorced from the circadian rhythms of the planet would settle into something close to a twenty-seven hour day, so it’s likely we would use such a system if we no longer had to relate to the terran sun cycle. You need to know how to build your own clock.
When E. R. Jones created NagaWorld (in Multiverser: The First Book of Worlds), he gave it a forty hour day–quite conveniently, I thought, in that it was twenty hours of daylight followed by twenty hours of darkness, and kept that perfect day/night rhythm even measured by my electronic digital watch. But years later when I ran that world, I realized that to the Dar Koni, high-tech aliens whose ancient ancestors had blundered through a wormhole into this universe, human hours made no sense at all. I had to create a time system for them, since as they interacted with player characters the way they told time would matter. So I gave some thought to how time systems work, and came up with this. The twenty hours of daylight was divided into four parts, and likewise the twenty hours of night. The first part was zero, so sunrise was at zero sunlight and sunset at zero moonlight. The sun (or at night the moon) would be directly overhead at two, and using clock arithmetic, after three comes zero. Then, since there’s no good reason to divide by sixty but for the math, I decimalized the rest: zero-point-one was one tenth of the first quarter, and happened to be exactly half an hour after sunrise. Succeeding decimal places were worth three minutes, eighteen seconds, one-point-eight seconds, and eighteen hundredths of a second, and so on. It was an alien concept of time, springing from an alien world and an alien mind. But it fit with human time well enough that I could use it easily during play (since each tenth of a quarter was half of an hour).
It was easy to design. I began by looking at the parameters of the day–what were the notable celestial events? Sunrise/moonset and sunset/moonrise were the two that would be foundational to any system, particularly since (unlike on earth) they were fixed. Clearly earth uses noon as the measuring point, because it is the most consistent easily observable daily celestial event in terms of the temporal distance between occurrences. Note, though, that there have been time systems that start counting hours from sunrise or sunset, or both. To do this, either the number of hours in a day shifts slightly, or (more common) the length of the hour changes to accommodate the change in the length of daylight–always six hours from sunrise to noon and six from noon to sunset, however long the hour has to be for that to be so. In NagaWorld, noon is perfectly consistent, but the other events are clearer. Once I had that, the next question became how many pieces would be convenient for divisions of the day. Each piece has to be long enough that there aren’t too many in the day, but short enough that it can be measured individually and have some use beyond morning and afternoon. I decided that my creatures would divide the day into four pieces, and do the same with the night; they could have done six pieces, but the conversions to time I understood would have been more difficult. They could have done five pieces, but noon and midnight are obvious celestial events and would probably be marked in any time system, at least in this world. Eight pieces would have worked well, too, but would have been too close to hours to capture the alien concept I wanted. After that, dividing the pieces into fragments was a matter of considering what sort of math system they were likely to use. I had no reason to think they did not have ten digits, and so they would have developed base ten math (and no desire to work in base eight or six during play, thank you); and their concept of geometry was more than I cared to consider (so I don’t know how many degrees are in a circle for them). Testing the decimal places to find out how much time each represented, I got results that were easy to use yet still alien, and I kept them. Had my numbers given me something that didn’t make sense or wouldn’t convert easily, I’d have worked backwards looking for a place where I could do something different to get better numbers.
I know that many games define many activities in terms that use standard time, whether rounds or minutes or miles per hour. You can work with that. Some of those things you’ll convert to your own time frame (for my Dar Koni, what to me is miles per hour is cut in half for miles per tenth); some you’ll settle in earth time (people don’t measure time in combat; referees do). And most of the time it doesn’t really matter quite exactly how long anything takes, as long as it takes about the right amount of time, so you can work in any time system for which you have a general feel.
Your players will feel that much more like the world is alien when they realize their time system doesn’t apply at all; and you will have provided them with that other world a bit better.
Next week, something different.