Timekeeping in West Marches campaigns

The inspiration for this post comes from reading Papier und Spiele’s article on West Marches campaigns. While a fantastic intro to what makes a West Marches campaign (and why not all hexcrawls are ‘West Marches’), one of the most interesting parts of the article is the discussion on timekeeping.

To briefly summarise, a West Marches campaign likely has multiple different groups of adventurers. Each of them might be active at the same narrative time, despite being played in completely separate sessions.

This can cause weird continuity errors, where one group plays through many narrative days during a session, which means for everyone else the campaign world suddenly jumps ahead that much time. You can avoid this by having those PCs put ‘on hold’ as if they are still out there clearing that dungeon, but now you have to put that entire location into stasis… which can then cause weird issues if there’s larger repercussions to what occurs in the original session.

During my two year long ‘West Marches style campaign’ I at first ignorantly ignored the time issues. There were only really 2 main ‘parties’ anyway, two different real life friend groups, and their goals seldom led them in the exact same direction.

Over time we ran into snags. The effects of one sessions game should be impacting the events in the next… but the continuity was out of whack. As such I switched to 1:1 time after some research and thinking it would solve all my problems. The short description is that the campaign’s narrative time is exactly matched to real world time. Not that you must play out every second of gameplay as the ticking seconds of narrative time, instead that each session takes place on a real world day which matches the narrative’s calendar. So if Group A goes into the Temple of the Frog God on Tuesday, then Group B goes into the Mouth of Doom on Saturday, those events take place 5 days apart in both the real and narrative worlds.

Yet, as Papier und Spiele points out in their article, 1:1 time replaces problems with different problems. A festival which was due to take place on the first week of the year might have no chance of a session taking place during that time. The planned assassination plot against the king might happen when there are no game sessions for weeks.

Switching to 1:1 time meant that my campaigns continuity became better managed, but it meant having to avoid any specifically timed events. By doing so the campaign world seemed almost as if nothing could happen on fixed schedules otherwise it wouldn’t likely take place during games.

“By the way on Tuesday the king was assassinated. You probably would have tried to prevent it, but nobody could play that night so the session was cancelled.”

Then we had a 6 week break from the campaign. Either I changed nothing and the world went into stasis, or I change whole swathes of the campaign to simulate that time passing. I chose the first option, which nobody seemed to mind.

I then started using the ‘stasis’ as an intentional feature – the in game world only advanced when a session took place. With each session being one day of narrative time after the next, at a minimum, or longer if the session encompassed multiple days of narrative time.

This kind of gave me a best of both worlds situations. Each session couldn’t overlap with any others, yet time advanced at a much slower and more predictable place. I could plan for an assassination to take place and know that the next time a group played, whenever that would be, that’s when the assassins would strike.

There were of course still problems. It seems every ‘fix’ solves some issues while simultaneously introducing others. If a single session ended up having a lot of travel and rest it caused multiple days of narrative time being burnt through in one session… but it didn’t happen very often.

The only issue that really felt weird was if one group of players was interested in a timed event, such as protecting the king from the assassins, and yet another group ‘played first’ and did something else. Now either the kings assassins took a few days break to conveniently attack when a group wanted to deal with it showed up, or the fact that the other group didn’t care meant that nothing could be done to stop it… other than trying to organise a hurried session before they could play.

This system of ‘the campaign world moves when you play’ somewhat reminds me of Rogue, where you have an infinite amount of time to act but when you do the whole world acts too.

Ultimately I do not think there is a single perfect system for tracking time in any sort of West Marches style game. Each method has its own merits and flaws.

What timekeeping method you choose for your West Marches campaign will depend on how often your game sessions occur, how many different groups there are active at one time in the game world, whether you care that events seem time-locked until the players show up, and even things such as recovery and travel times.

On reflection it feels like I kind of went full circle with my solution – back to a game world that advances after play sessions just like a regular campaign. The only real difference is in presentation. By forcing sessions to not take up many days of narrative time and push things too far forward for the non-participating characters.

One lesson learnt from my West Marches game was to put the dungeon(s) and adventure sites much closer to the fixed base of the PCs. The Lost City of Barakus has the city of Endhome and then the eponymous Lost City 2 days travel away… which is REALLY far. Too far, in my opinion.

Pathfinder 2e’s Abomination Vaults, and the classic Keep on the Borderlands, do it better by having the dungeon less than an hours walk away. This means that the vast majority of sessions ‘Travel – Adventure – Return’ can be accomplished in only a single narrative day.

All this West Marches talk is making me want to start mine up again!

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