5e: Keeping Track of In-Game Time

Written by Leonardo Andrade

Leonardo is a writer/narrative designer. He spends most of his time crafting stories or immersed in them. Currently, he partakes in several D&D 5E campaigns and likes messing around with other systems such as Heart, Spire and Rats in The Walls. Here's his portfolio.

Most D&D actions and outcomes happen within an hour, but a long-running campaign requires some degree of timekeeping. Appropriate breathing room between a key action and its hard-hitting consequence gives the latter more credibility and oomph. Even in a single dungeon crawl, keeping sound track of time matters for things such as mage armor, buffs/debuffs, wandering monsters, and maybe even traps. 

A round of 5e combat takes 6 in-game seconds; ten rounds make a minute. Outside combat, short rests take an hour; long rests, 8 hours. Chunking time into hours is useful for wilderness exploration and urban activities. For longer trips, days are best. Beyond that, narrative beats set the pace.

There are also spells like illusory script and geas that last for days and might serve crucial functions, creating dramatic races against the clock. Not that you need magic to achieve it. 

Consider the following example:

Armies travel slower than your lean-and-mean group of 5 riders. When last you saw the Draconic legion, it was the day of the Bloody Harvest. They moved with spartan discipline toward the capital, not stopping to pillage, enjoying the rainy season’s cover. 

To take the same direct route they’re following would mean contending with their fastest-moving skirmishers scouting ahead. Instead, you took a more circuitous path around the mountains, riding your horses half to death in hopes of warning the Treebridge garrison in time.

In a situation like this, every additional hour spent on a problem dials up the stress. A blocked ravine or a river to ford (swollen by said rainy season) becomes a major source of drama. A close encounter with unfriendly megafauna? Ow, that hurt! But can they afford to rest and recover? 

If this all sounds complicated, don’t worry, it’s not. Read on, and by the end of this article, you’ll have all you need to competently manage time in your game.

Switching Timescales

We’ve already gone over the lengths of specific in-game time chunks for which we have rules and an example of a race against the clock. 

You may have noticed that even though “for longer journeys, days are best,” I wrote that a mere hour wasted is a big deal in such a scenario. The key takeaway here is that high-tension situations require a more granular approach to time

Minutes of watchful dungeoneering to seconds of frantic fighting. Days on horseback to hours putting together a rickety makeshift bridge before another bout of heavy rain brings the water level even higher.

There is also the matter of Exhaustion, which usually comes with high-stakes situations anyway. 

When pushing one’s limits, time itself is a formidable opponent. Here are a couple of examples (plenty more in our Exhaustion article):

  • In a chase, you can freely use the dash action as many times as 3 + your Con modifier. For each additional dash, you have to succeed on a DC 10 Con check at the end of your turn or suffer a level of Exhaustion. (Dungeon Master’s Guide (DMG), pg 252).
  • When buried under an avalanche, you suffer 1 level of Exhaustion for every 5 minutes trapped under the snow (Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything (TCE), pg 169).
  • Hearing the Mad Winds of Pandemonium, you must succeed on a DC 10 Wisdom (WIS) save after every hour or take a level of Exhaustion. If you reach the 6th level of Exhaustion, you gain a form of indefinite madness instead of dying. (DMG, pg 62).
  • Going for more than 24 hours without completing a long rest, you have to succeed on a DC 15 Constitution (CON) save or take a level of Exhaustion. The DC goes up by 5 each time you do this in a row (Xanathar’s Guide to Everything (XGE), pg 79).

Travel pace naturally plays a role in adjudicating situations like the above. Luckily there’s a table for that.

PaceDistance Traveled Per…Effect
MinuteHourDay
Fast400 feet4 miles30 miles−5 penalty to passive Wisdom (Perception) scores
Normal300 feet3 miles24 miles
Slow200 feet2 miles18 milesAble to use Stealth

Finally, when the coast is clear, maybe between adventures, time can just as easily be hand-waved away

Such periods are when you might give your players generous time skips within which a lot can be achieved. Build a keep, make a teleportation circle, spend time becoming the most famous bard in town, etc. This is the realm of downtime. 

You can check out the plethora of downtime options in the DMG (pgs 125 – 132) and XGE (pgs 123-134). We also have a great article about how to spend all your plundered wealth.

Tracking Tools

You know the different scales of time that apply and how to switch between them, but now you need something to ease the cognitive load of doing it on the fly if you’re a DM.

Writing little logs in between sessions will work for days-week, months, and years. It’s more a matter of diligence than mental juggling, and not all campaigns need super strict timekeeping—depends on the narrative style and stakes at play. 

Where it might get tangled up is for the smaller chunks of time.

Introducing… drumroll… Clocks!

Tracking time with subdivided circles is a Forged in The Dark staple. These are called progress clocks. You can make a circle represent any duration and slice it as thinly as you like. 

A minute circle is good for combat. Most 5e fights won’t take a full circle; you can probably get away with a half-minute circle, even. This makes tracking spell and status effects durations easy, including recharge of abilities. You can also have particular sections of your clock trigger special one-off actions or events!

You can have concurrent hour-circles going when PCs are exploring a dangerous location or sneaking:

  • The patrol circle determines where moving enemies are at any given time.
  • If the PCs stumble upon a problem, you can draw up a 10-minute circle where each fourth represents an attempt to deal with the problem. If the PCs go round the clock with no solution, something bad happens.

Ronny from Dungeon Master Assistance independently came up with a day circle comprised of 24 hour-chunks to track your travels and other things of that nature. Very useful, too.

Worldbuilding and Time

Finally, we come to the really nerdy stuff. Your fantasy world ought not to share our own world’s days of the week or month lengths. 

(It can, and many people don’t give a crap, but this section is for those of us who do.)

It definitely needs its own festivities tied to its inhabitant’s culture and history

Culturally speaking, most fantasy settings feature agrarian societies, so the weather, seasons, and astronomical events play a huge role in this type of thing. 

Then we factor in things like great tragedies and triumphs, and these should cover most of our needs regarding calendars and festivities.

Customizing Your Months and Years

You can have the first month of the year named after a god of beginnings and endings, or forgiveness, the second one named after a particular ritual that’s performed to welcome a new season. Like our very own January and February.

Solstices, equinoxes, eclipses, and the passage of particular comets can be given esoteric and historical meanings specific to your world, which then become festivities. 

A month is named after a hero who banished a great evil, another after a particularly vain emperor who ordered it so, and yet another after a leader so skilled that their name was given to the month posthumously. 

You can read more about the history of our own Gregorian Calendar for some inspiration!

You can keep the same general year length of 360ish days you’re used to, then slice it however you like. 

A culture in one of my creative projects has ten 33-days-long months subdivided into three “onzenas” (Portuguese for something like a “dozen,” but it’s eleven days instead of twelve). 

For more food for thought regarding worldbuilding, which then feeds into this dimension of timekeeping, see our post on immersion

Summary

And this should cover all your time-related needs! Here’s a quick recap.

  • A round of 5e combat takes 6 in-game seconds.
  • Short rests take an hour; long rests, 8 hours. 
  • Chunking time into hours is useful for wilderness exploration and urban activities.
  • For longer journeys, days are best.
  • High tension invites more granular time-tracking.
  • Low tension allows time to get hand-waved away.
  • Time is a flat circle. . . or at least tracking it as one makes things much easier. Use progress clocks!
  • Races against these clocks are great drama but require strict timekeeping.
  • Creating a world’s timekeeping conventions is a worldbuilding task that takes culture, climate, and history into account.

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