Manipulating time has long been a staple of fantasy worlds and—with a little planning—can add new dimensions to your games and your players’ characters. It can open up new and wondrous locations and leave your players wondering, “When will we wind up next?”
One way to make your players more aware of time is to take it away from them, either as a penalty for failure or as a part of the story. Here are some examples:
- A tyrant captures the player characters and places them in a maximum-security prison. Each time they try to escape and fail, they lose a year of their lives due to solitary confinement or other harsh punishments…
- The PCs defeat a white dragon but fail to escape the icy fortress as it collapses. Instead of dying, the PCs are frozen and suspended near death, only to be thawed out many, many years later when the dragon’s progeny have grown and the world needs the heroes to finish what they started.
- A warlock flees into a demiplane where time moves faster than in the real world. Each time the PCs rest, another year has passed in the “real world.”
To make these big changes easier to swallow, the PCs should remain mechanically the same even as they grow older while the world changes around them. To make the change more noticeable, introduce NPCs or locations early in the campaign that the PCs re-visit often. This makes it easy for them to witness the changes time brings, through their actions or absence.
- An elven village in a great forest has been overrun by humans. Rising buildings and more people replace groves of trees and herds of deer.
- A group of children caught pilfering in the heroes’ supplies early in the campaign are now grown and running the local gangs. If the PCs gave them good direction when they were younger, perhaps these children are running the city guard instead.
- Old enemies change, turning over a new leaf and becoming model citizens. The PCs must decide whether they’ve truly reformed or must pay for past crimes.
Time is on Your Side
If you or your players wanted to make the passage of time have a bigger impact on their characters, you could include aging categories in your game. Consider breaking down an adventurer’s life into the following stages:
- Child—This includes the pre-teen years leading up to when a member of a certain race is considered of age.
- Adult—This could start before the character became 1st level, but it lasts well past what many consider middle age.
- Old—This would be the time most characters retire from active adventuring, when their physical and mental abilities are not what they used to be.
When designing aging mechanics and their effects on a PC, first consider how long that character will be in play. An aging spell that can be removed by a simple ritual or quest can be potent, and possibly given the same treatment as a curse or disease.
- Children are generally smaller than adults, so consider changing their size category.
- Older adventurers may not move as quickly as they used to, and reducing their speed slightly could reflect that.
- Both children and older individuals are considered less hardy than adults, so reducing their overall hp or the amount they recover from magical or natural healing could represent that.
Aging effects that last multiple adventures or an entire campaign, though, require much more care and balance to avoid making the player feel like their character has been handicapped.
- A character created as unusually older or younger than the rest may benefit from a bonus to certain skills: children could receive a +1 bonus to all physical skills for their youthful stature while old adventurers could receive a +1 bonus to all mental skills to reflect a lifetime of experience. This could be used in place of a feat or as a background.
- Characters that age rapidly from a spell or curse may pick up an unforeseen side effect. A hag’s curse to age a young sorcerer may also cause spells to deal slightly more damage while a demon’s spell to turn a cleric into a pimple-faced teen may also give a slight boost to healing due to a child-like faith.
Out of Time
Before using any of these changes, talk to your players and let them know what you’re considering for the campaign. That way, they won’t be surprised when they discover that the times, they are a changin’.
4 thoughts on “Time after Time”
I like the part about giving direction to children and then seeing how they grow up. That would really work with a game that didn’t deal with time effects, but there would just be a much longer gap between seeing them as children and then seeing them later as they grow up. It kind of makes me want to just throw in random kids into my future campaigns and give them a name, then, years down the road, have the kids show up in the campaign again and point and say, “it was that kid from way back when…” but that probably wouldn’t have nearly the same impact.
That’s something I planned in my home campaign; the players at the end of the heroic tier went through a fey portal, and when they returned ten years had passed. One change was the 12-year-old girl that followed them around in the city carrying their things had grown into a 22-year-old rogue and spy for the local ruler.
Have you come across the AD&D adventure Ravager of Time, which features the PCs having to cope with being suddenly aged?
I had not; the premise is certainly interesting, especially the random infirmities. Becoming an old codger with a bum leg, chance to forget your familiar’s name and unceasing desire to get those light-forsaken kids off your lawn sounds hilarious.