A familiar act—a completely known act—can be very different when time is introduced.

I am away from my wife many weeknights, which is made far more bearable with the panoply of modern communication. We catch each other by cell phone in the evening, and often text or message via facebook, with emails also in the mix. It reinforces that we’re together, even though we’re physically apart.

She recently gave me an interesting gift; a journal that we pass back and forth at each week’s end, writing long hand “letters” to each other. Even though I was already writing and talking with her—and I’m trying not to cut back on our established communications—the new format introduced a different style of writing. I won’t claim it’s better… but it’s a letter, not a conversation, which has a very different feel.

We notice the efficiency gains from faster communication—how disruptive introducing phones into homes was over telegraphs, much less displacing letters with email, IMs, and texts. The same can be true in reverse; if letters are expensive, or only go out on Tuesdays, then you’re encouraged to write more completely, since it will be a long delay if “please explain this sentence” costs two weeks of development while the mail trundles back and forth.

Time at the Table

In roleplaying we often skim over routine actions and events, to emphasize the enjoyable parts of the adventure—and to preserve our precious time for interesting events. As a GM, you can carefully reintroduce description of the ordinary to ground the players in the setting. For a literary example, the second quarter of Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows really drags. The emphasis on despairing travel lasts no more than 1/30th of the series, but it feels disproportionately long in the experience—exactly as a hopeless time should.

A month long journey to a foreign outpost has a very different feel depending on how it is handled. A breezy, “and, after a month of exhausting travel you reach your destination,” is great for a globetrotting game. If, instead, each day’s travel gets a few distinguishing characteristics then it will feel much longer and give a better sense of the landscape changing over the course of the journey. If that journey is instead broken up with nature sightings, wild animal howls, people in hamlets watching fearfully from their doors as the PCs ride by, encounters with bandits, monsters, traveling merchants, and toll collectors… you might several sessions of material. To be clear, taking several sessions just to get somewhere isn’t “better” or “more realistic”, but it does emphasize the elapsed time in a way that the players will feel and reflect.

Taking more table time emphasizes things other than journeys too. If you show NPCs weighing their coin and carefully listening to prices at the inn, it emphasizes how much expense the evening meal is to them. Similarly, if you emphasize the bills and junk mail that build up while the PCs gallivanted about the world, players will be reminded that the world continues in its routine. Even if they’ve had life changing, world shaking experiences, their energy bill is due.

Time and Tech

If you go away to fight overseas, the infrequent mail may be your only connection to home. If your science fiction universe doesn’t have FTL communication, packet ships carrying information might mean that news is months out of date if you’re far from the core—or if traders rarely make their way to your end of the arm, due to lack of trade goods. You can recreate the delays in transatlantic communication—from the modern week or two via airmail, or a month via ship, to several months mimicking 17th century ships—in your science fiction. Of course, if the “mail” has to be physically carried (even if its in the computer databank), that allows for more censorship possibilities for the mail carrier—or opportunities for rebels to develop rival information spreading networks.

Introducing delay allows for interesting divergence, and encourages self sufficiency and independent solutions. If they have to fly an IT guy out to reboot your server, it might be worth learning how to do it yourself, unless your business can handle lots of downtime. On the other hand, if a reboot and diagnostic is just a quick phone call away… why not let the expert do it?

Game Time!

Have you used time deliberately in your games of late? Do you have a good trick for making something feel lengthy, without wasting the whole evening? Please share your experiences and advice in comments.