One of the most mocked and most important lines in the first edition Dungeon Masters Guide is “YOU CAN NOT HAVE A MEANINGFUL CAMPAIGN IF STRICT TIME RECORDS ARE NOT KEPT” (page 37).
This is one of those great moments when Uncle Gary speaks directly to us, the Dear Readers. It is also one of the places where EGG breaks out the dread ALL CAPS. Two more good examples of the latter can be found on page 39, where we find the rule that PC magic-users gain “1 (and ONLY 1) spell” when they level up and that hench-MU’s will “ABSOLUTELY REFUSE” to share spells. I’m also fond of the all caps Afterword on page 230. You might have missed that bit, as it is right above that charming succubus drawn by Darlene Pekul.
Anyhoo, today I want to yank out two words from the above all caps sentence to focus on: meaningful and strict. I feel if that line is to be anything more than throwaway Gygaxian bloviating, then we need to parse out those two words in particular.
How does one have a meaningful campaign? I think there are two main ways of answering that question. The first is to do the artsy-fartsy thing, weaving a big theme into your campaign. Despite my use of the term “farsty” I am totally on board with this sort of thing, providing one aspires to grand themes while at the same time making sure to leave room in the campaign for regular type players. But then, I‘m perfectly happy having Johnny Beat-Up-The-Orc play at my table. If you only want roleplaying artistes in your superthematic game then you’re probably better off running Nobilis or Dogs in the Vineyard or whatever game the cool experimental rpg folks are up to nowadays. (Don’t let me talk you out of running D&D as hippy-dippy performance art if that’s what you really want. Just warn players ahead of time, please.)
But that’s not the kind of meaning I think Gygax is going for in his declaration about time in the campaign. I suspect he meant something much simpler and more fundamental about player agency in roleplaying games. Meaning in this sense is created by player choice leading to comprehensible (if not always expected) consequences. Keeping track of time allows for the natural unfolding of those consequences, whether we are talking about short term items, like a torch going out, or medium term, like lycanthropy or some other dungeon-induced disease, or long term, like building a castle or the aging rules catching up with you after your consistent, ridiculous abuse of the haste spell.
Now let’s talk about the strict part. Sometimes when reading the DMG the trick is grokking the general principle and ditching Gary’s idiosyncratic execution. So maybe the one day between sessions = one day of campaign time rule doesn’t fit your campaign. Chuck it out. But the basic concept, that you need some standard of how time flows in your game, remains valid. Pendragons use of one year per session proves that other standards work well to produce different kinds of meaning. Since I like to roll dice, I’m considering d6 weeks between sessions for my next campaign.