Calendars in gaming

The beginning of the year also seems like a good time to address calendars and worldbuilding. Does your game setting have a calendar? Do you keep track of time within it?

A calendar can be a really valuable piece of worldbuilding, and a quick way of conveying a good sense of place to players. For example, the current year in my Calteir fantasy setting is 156 SD (Semlaren Dynasty). That instantly communicates several things: that this culture considers dynasties to be pretty important; that the current dynasty is something called Semlaren, so whatever Semlaren is, it’s pretty important; the current dynasty isn’t very long-lived; and this culture doesn’t keep track of history on a wider or absolute scale. The players have continued to keep track of days using this calendar, and at our most recent session, I briefly forgot how many days there are in a month and a player quickly reminded me (28). That tells me that the players are into the setting.

There are lots of other forms of calendar. The Chinese calendar traditionally used a combination of reign dates (auspicious names given to the reigns of particular emperors, sometimes with more than one reign date per emperor) and the Heavenly Stems and Earthly Branches system that gave a cycle of 60 years.

Thus, I might tell you something happened in the Xingchou year of the Chang’an reign date of Empress Wu Zetian. If it’s currently the Renzi year of the Ruizong emperor, and you know your calendar, you know that the Xingchou events happened 11 years ago.

This calendar tends to emphasize imperial rule and the cyclical nature of time; again, important aspects of traditional Chinese culture.

Other cultures, naturally, have different ways of keeping track of time, from South Asian kalpas to Lakota winter counts. All can convey different senses of place. Tolkien’s millenia-long ages (3021 years, for the Third Age) convey the sense that someone in the world has a very grand, but not infinite, sense of time. Other forms of time-tracking will convey different values.

The trick, of course, is how to use these in an RPG. Should you even use a calendar in a game? It depends on your game, of course. If it’s a modern, cinematic game, it’s probably enough to say “It’s the beginnging of the year, around January”. Or even leave the time unspecified until it’s dramatically required. As an extreme example, characters in my current occasional Og game can barely tell time at all, much less keep track of months or years. Tracking a calendar there would actively go against the flavor of the game.

Even in a crunchier, more detailed game, calendars aren’t strictly necessary. Would I, for example, ever make my players learn a 60-term cycle and know the reign dates of all recent emperors in order to understand when a historical event happened? Probably not, mostly because it’s too little reward for too much effort. But I might well sprinkle in those kinds of details when giving other information:

“Really? The grand minister was assassinated? When did that happen?”
“Make a History roll. Ah, a success! You know it happened 27 years ago, during the Broken Temple year of the Sironok emperor.”

If and when it’s appropriate, an in-game calendar can be a valuable tool.

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