This entry is part 7 in the series Lessons From The West Wing

One of the best pieces of writing/direction that I’ve ever seen in a TV production takes place in a later episode of the series, in season 6 or perhaps 7, and it’s something that has made an indelible mark apon my awareness and handling of the passage of time in my campaigns.

The Scene

One character (Josh Lyman) has been away from the West Wing for some time, and the narrative in preceeding episodes has been following his story out on the campaign trail. When he returns to visit his old haunts (and try to arrange a photo opportunity between his man and the President), one of the supporting cast (Margaret Hooper) is visibly several months pregnant, and he makes the observation, “Wow… I didn’t know she was even married.” It had been several episodes since we had seen this cast member, and would be several more before we saw her again; when we did, she was no longer pregnant.

The Lesson

Without making a big deal about it, this scene put the passage of time within the plotline front and centre for a moment, letting us see the changes that had been experienced while we were away. Josh was speaking for all of us in his astonishment. It’s one thing to tell the audiance that “eight months have passed”, it’s quite another to make them actually feel it. This achieves the task effortlessly, in such a way that it doesn’t have to impact the plot; it just lets it happen in the background and then gets on with the story. All told, the scene lasts for only a few seconds before returning to the main plot, but the impact of the scene lingers.

We often face a similar conundrum in RPGs; either we make a great fuss about how much time has passed, and how things have changed, or we ignore the passage of time and have everything be exactly the same as it was the last time the characters passed this way. In other words, it’s either a central plot point in which time has brought about a change in circumstances that directly and significantly impact one or more PCs, or time has brought about no changes at all.

Often, as GMs, we feel compelled to ensure that the players are hit over the head with the reality of the time passing by forcing them into such a “things have changed” scenario. I know I’ve run several such.

There’s a better way, and this partial scene from the West Wing demonstrates it perfectly: let time have just… happened. To everyone.

The Implications

The success of the scene is that it doesn’t talk about time passing, it demonstrates change that is commensurate with, and a reflection of, that passage of time. It shows, it doesn’t tell.

Let’s think about change over time for a moment. Examine your own life over the last six months; what has changed? What has visibly changed? A different hairstyle? A different fashion? Visible lines and wrinkles? New scars? New clothes?

How about the environment around you – different posters on the walls, different adverts on the billboards and TV, a different station on the radio, a room that’s been repainted? Different decorations?

In the local neighborhood, a store or two may have closed or changed, the forthcoming holiday being promoted within those stores has changed, some new product lines have come and some have gone. Prices have changed on some items, and new government regulations have perhaps made a mark. A neighbour has a new car, or a new baby, or a child who has started school; someone has gotten married, someone’s moved out and someone new has moved in, someone’s lost their job or are now working for a different company.

Politically and socially, not much may have changed on the surface, or a lot may have changed; six months is a long time in such circles. At the very least, the practical considerations that frame the exercise in politics will have changed, as will the topics on everyone’s lips. Perhaps some of the talking heads have changed. Socially, there may be a new hot party site, there will have been changes in the favourites of other things like the most popular TV programme for water-cooler discussion, and so on.

And some people will have died. Either naturally, or in tragic circumstances.

One of the major sources of humour in Back To The Future was the difference in experience and expectation, in look-and-feel, between the modern world (exemplified by Marty McFly) and the world of a generation earlier. Everything, even cultural idioms, had changed.

All that is needed to make the passage of time seem real to the players and to the characters is to drop a line describing a change into every major narrative passage. You don’t have to beat their heads in with a “everything has changed” adventure (usually, a “gone to hell since you’ve been gone” adventure), which always seems shallow and short-lived in terms of the awareness of the players.

In Practical Terms: Differences In Day Number

I’ve long been an advocate of maintaining an index of NPCs met in the course of a campaign and a summary of the things that the PCs have learned about them, enabling depth to be added to characters cumulatively, and ensuring consistency in characterisation and other details over time. But this lesson in imparting a realistic sense of time flow necessitates a change in that position. From now on, I’ll also be recording the day number of the last encounter with that NPC.

Day Numbers

I’ve seen all sorts of calendars used in RPGs – everything from entirely invented to copies of our own. But little has matched the usefulness of a simple expedient: the first day of play, in-game, is numbered “1″ and the second “2″ and so on until the end of the campaign. Some divide these into years, but I don’t think that’s as useful, as you will soon see.

This information is for record-keeping only; the GM should never refer to a “day number” in his narratives.

Changes In A Difference

So, on day 173, the PCs meet an NPC who they had previously encountered on day 120. It only takes a moment’s maths to see that 52 days have passed in between – almost two months. So all that needs to be done is for the GM to think of something – just one thing – that might have changed in that two months and insert it into his description, as something that’s changed or different. If he hadn’t made a point of whatever has changed in the previous encounter, or the players might not remember that detail, including the way things used to be as part of the reference completes the allusion to the passage of time.

It’s really that simple. On it’s own, this one item might not mean much; but cumulatively, it can be tremendously powerful as well as very subtle.

The Intensity Of Change

An even more sophisticated subtext can be carried by the cumulative effect of these changes – if a time of great turmoil has been experienced in the meantime, it will be reflected in a preponderance of more substantial changes. The subtle aftereffects of war can be implied by having a disproportionate number of the people the PCs met exhibiting some cultural referent to mourning – wearing all black, or wearing armbands, or giving away the dead person’s clothing, or displaying wreaths or portraits, or having service stars in the window – whatever is appropriate to the culture. Throw in the occasional character reference to funerals – “I hate funerals”, “I’ve been to too many funerals lately”, “I was speaking to the Clayton Widow the other day, and she said…”, “I saw something at the Rogers Funeral last week – the younger, not the older – and…”

The same approach works for any source of mass death. If there was an invasion of monsters, souvenirs, signs of hasty window and door reinforcements, evidence of superstition, and so on would reveal the impact on the general populace.

If you enter town and find all the locals have started hanging strings of garlic in their windows since you were here about 4 weeks ago, you could probably guess that they’ve had trouble with a Vampire since – or think they have, at any rate. If only a few houses have done so, and a few have lines painted across the stones outside each window or door, and some more have religious icons displayed more prominently, the impression is of some other kind of undead, against which the locals are unsure – but feel the pressing need to do something, implying an immediacy to the situation.

Equally, once the players get used to this (they will probably be hypersensitive and prone to overreaction at first), it’s absence when expected will immediately create a wary discomfort – just like the town where everyone smiles and is polite no matter what befalls them. It starts to get creepy… and that can be exactly what the GM needs.

In Practical Terms: A Visual Calendar

Another visual metaphor that I like to use to reinforce this is to pick one building or location and make it a visual calendar. This month, it’s an old, run-down building, next month someone’s boarded it up, a couple of months later someone new is moving in, the next month the exterior boards have been refurbished, then it gets repainted, then new curtains appear, then a sign appears about borders wanted, then a notice about a lost pet, then there’s a fire, and so on and on. Every time the PCs visit that urban centre, the description includes a comment about some change on the visual calendar.

This only works in reference to somewhere the PCs return to repeatedly, but in that context it’s better than any number of “It’s been three months” reminders.

The Experience

Incorporating the changes wrought by time into your narrative gives a palpable sense of duration to the players and adds immensely to the verisimilitude of the world. It stops being a static backdrop, like a stage set, and emerges in their perceptions as a living, breathing, environment – but in reality, it’s the exact same static environment which has just been dressed slightly differently. There is virtually no more work involved, the description of a location overall doesn’t have to be completely rewritten; change can occur one line of narrative at a time, and it will be subconsciously accepted and interpreted as a visual shorthand for more substantial alterations. The rewards vastly outstrip the costs involved.

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