This article was first broadcast in Episode One Hundred Twenty Five on 1st July 2020.
Ryu (over sounds of multiple clocks): What is with all the ticking in here?! And do I hear water? Did the scrying pool overflow again?
Ostron: It was an experiment.
Lennon: See, there’s this whole section of the guild house called the Gnomish Workshop, maybe you’ve heard of it?
Ostron: Yes, thank you. I was looking into time in D&D and I tried to get the Research Beholders to help. They…misunderstood the instructions.
Ryu: What is there to discuss about time in D&D anyway? There’s only a couple of spells that do anything with time, right?
Ostron: Not the focus I had.
Time measurement shows up in D&D everywhere; rests are measured in hours, spell casting times can be hours or minutes on occasion, and of course there’s the ever-important rule of 1 combat round equaling 6 seconds of in-game time.
Days, weeks, and months don’t show up often in simple adventures, but in campaigns where characters have the opportunity to take downtime, almost all downtime activities are measured in those terms. The funny thing is, most examples of this would be metagaming.
Depending on the setting, D&D is usually touted as a realm with Medieval or an Early Renaissance feel to it. As you get deeper into urban settings like Waterdeep or Baldur’s gate, more mechanical technology seems to show up, and occasionally things like Acquisitions Incorporated, or especially Ravnica and Eberron, will start introducing more modern technologies with a “we used magic instead of electricity” trope.
However, outside of those settings, complex technology is treated as if it were magic; very few people know how to use it, fewer people know how to build it, and most of the examples of it are rare and/or expensive.
The thing is, tracking time beyond the level of days gets complicated fast. If anyone has ever broken a mechanical watch or seen pictures of inside one, the number of small, intricate gears inside is mind boggling. Even larger clocks have a hellacious number of gears, all precisely machined and calibrated.
The practical result is that if you are in a pseudo medieval setting, the concept of hours might be a thing, but minutes probably aren’t and nobody would know seconds are a thing. There’s a reason Neverwinter having really accurate clocks is a big deal in the Forgotten Realms. The most common method to track time shorter than days was an hourglass (or it’s alternately sized brethren) or a sundial. Both of those have limitations on use, so people who travel a lot? They’re making do with a rough guess at what time of day it is until and unless they get to a village with a more reliable tracking method.
So while the wizard in your party probably studied in a place where they could track minutes, and they’d know some of their spells only last for ten of them, realistically if they tried to explain that to most bystanders there would be a lot of weird looks, or at the very least frustration because they wouldn’t have a way to keep track of that.
Speaking of keeping track of things, the reason a lot of sites that have generators include calendar generators is that there is basically no chance a fantasy setting would have weeks and days the same as they are on our planet.
First of all, months. The length of months has been tweaked a few times, but in general it relates to how long it takes the moon to orbit the earth. Now in the Forgotten Realms and Greyhawk, the creators took pains to make sure the moon setup was mostly identical to earths so the months still work the same, but the Dark Sun planet, Athas, has multiple moons. So if you’re taking a campaign somewhere else or you want to throw more moons in the sky because it’s pretty, realistically that would probably mess with how people partition the year.
That also extends to days and weeks. On earth, the origin of the names of days and the length of a week were all based on religion. Judaism gave us the seven day week and Roman and Norse gods and beliefs are responsible for the names of all of our days and months. Given that the Forgotten Realms has an entirely different pantheon and also the members of it might actually show up and voice an opinion on the subject, it’s almost certain none of the days or months are named the same way.
Also, interesting side note – weekends. It is very unlikely anyone in D&D would know or care about weekends. Those only became a thing during the industrial revolution, a little over a century ago here on earth. Agrarian societies that spend a lot of time farming, fishing, raising animals, and hunting have no concept of or need for weekends. If you have any sort of pet, you know they don’t particularly care if its the middle of the week or a weekend; they still need to be fed, and they have certain bodily functions that will occur whether you monitor them or not.
Same story with plants; they will grow and produce whatever they’re supposed to on their own time. If you decide to ignore them for a few days, they are perfectly capable of dying or being eaten by roving animals, who also don’t tend to pay attention to weekends.
Now descriptions of major cities like Waterdeep often include a schedule of working that incorporates at least a day off of work, but the 5 day workweek, 2 day weekend is not the norm, for the most part.
Now, this may or may not matter to you or your players; a lot of people find it much easier to just hand-wave it and say “yes, everyone in this world can keep track of time and has the same basic calendar” because it’s often less jarring for everyone to get into the setting if they don’t also have to readjust how they think about time. However, if you want that extra dose of realism or if you want to reinforce the difference of the setting the characters are in, time tracking is an easy place to do it.
Lennon: Okay, that was a neat little diversion but we have to do something with these clocks.
Ryu: Oh hey, none of them are actually correct, are they?
Ostron: Oddly enough no; all the beholders reset them to whatever they believed the correct time was.
Ryu: Which means now we’re all late to get over to the Scrying Pool.
Lennon: Gah! Can you find Gath and have him banish these? No way we’ll be able to talk over all this ticking.