A few months ago I started a new playthrough of the tactical RPG Fire Emblem: Three Houses. In it I play as a young, unqualified professor beginning my tenure at a monastic military academy where I am given charge of one of the titular three academic houses studying the art of war under the guidance of the church.
As is par for the course for the Fire Emblem franchise, Three Houses continues the trend of placing more emphasis on the interpersonal relationships within its colourful cast of characters. Between the game’s meaty missions — wherein I am leading sorties against insurrectionists by issuing commands to my plucky, doe-eyed students — I am spending my time at the monastery growing flowers in the greenhouse, organizing guest lectures with my class, cooking food in the cafeteria, and grooming one of my students to be my lover after a 5 year timeskip.
What I did not anticipate when I first picked up this game was how much I would adore this downtime at the monastery. Even more surprising, my favourite downtime activity is not sending my strongest students to beat up students from the other houses in “friendly tournaments”; nor is it sitting down for tea with
Mommy The Archbishop Herself and trying to say something that won’t make her scrunch up her face like she’s eating roadkill.
Against all reason, the thing I loved the most about downtime was just the act of deciding how to spend it.
In Three Houses, I am provided a monthly calendar which is loosely based off of the real life Gregorian calendar; it’s a solar calendar with 12 months per year, roughly 30 days per month, and 7 days per week. The month has festivals and events marked out ahead of time and, once a month (usually towards the end of the month), there is a mission.
The downtime activities I described above are all part of the “free time” I am given each week. During this free time I have a number of action points I can spend on activities, each of which yield some kind of benefit in the mission phase. Food will give me temporary stat bonuses, social activities will improve my relationship with my students, tournaments and errands will reward me with equipment and consumable items, and extracurricular training will improve my weapon proficiencies.
Choosing how to spend these action points — in other words, how to spend my time — was unexpectedly enchanting. I started dreaming about the ways in which calendars communicate setting, how these mundane moments took on new meaning, and how as months passed and the world changed, the passage of time felt tangible. The mission at the end of each month took on a new gravity as I only had so many days to spend in preparation. How had I not realized until this point that I loved time limits so much?
Bullet Journalling is an Action Economy
I’ve been hanging out with a lot of grognards the past few years so the importance of timekeeping in tabletop RPGs is not a foreign concept to me. I am inundated by discussion about “how many hours make up a watch?” and “the importance of strict time records,” but I never found myself interested in this aspect of play, nor did I feel it had ever added anything of value when I tried to make use of it.¹ What did it matter that I had spent 6 seconds casting acid splash on some shambling corpse in this dungeon if nothing changed in that time?
The flow of time counted by the seconds, minutes, or even by hour, was illegible to me. My personal experience of time is not one measured in uniform increments. It is partitioned only by the things I do with it. What’s more, it’s slippery; what I accomplish during the course of a day expands and contracts in unpredictable ways. I feel time like mercury contained only by intermittent periods of rest.
I have, in recent years, come to understand this experience through the lens of crip time. I pull from Alison Kafer’s work in “Feminist, Queer, Crip” here, where crip time is conceptualized not just as a willingness to extend deadlines and allow for more time to accomplish tasks, but as a notion of time as inherently flexible:
Crip time is flex time not just expanded but exploded; it requires reimagining our notions of what can and should happen in time, or recognizing how expectations of “how long things take” are based on very particular minds and bodies. We can then understand the flexibility of crip time as being not only an accommodation to those who need “more” time but also, and perhaps especially, a challenge to normative and normalizing expectations of pace and scheduling. Rather than bend disabled bodies and minds to meet the clock, crip time bends the clock to meet disabled bodies and minds. (p. 27)
As is to be expected for someone with my kind of brain, I tend to wrestle with ways to keep myself organized and engaged with my day-to-day responsibilities. Days slip by in seconds, minutes balloon into hours, and I am often left donning a dead eyed stare as I feel incapable of making time work for me. This became a persistent experience when COVID-19 set in and quarantine cut away all of the social structures that had helped to regulate me. I was destabilized.
I’ve become quite enthusiastic about finding new ways to wade through this mental fog I live in. My current tool of choice (and one on an impressive streak of usefulness) is bullet journalling. Something about the procedure of assembling what is essentially a daily to-do list while pairing colours and shapes using pens I get excited about is enough to make me look forward to refreshing my task list each day.
I’m always adjusting, refining, and experimenting with my procedure for bullet journalling. One of the most impactful dials to turn has been, surprisingly, the number of bullets to set for each day. The content of the bullets has always been flexible; responding to a four day old text and spending a few hours researching grants are both weighted the same and occupy a single bullet. What is important is that I never hold more than a set number of tasks in a day and that every day I have a new set of tasks to work with. Currently, that number fluctuates somewhere between 4 and 5.
My bullet journal is part of my action economy. Like the Professor at the Monastery, I have a set number of action points to spend on a work day. I choose to spend them one-by-one on a selection of activities, each of which I evaluate based on the impacts each has on my life. Maybe I don’t end up spending all of my points in a day and choose to rest instead. Maybe I don’t succeed in the tasks I spend my points on. Maybe I have to reallocate the points I planned to spend on one task to another because I need more of the benefits it provides. Some things, like dysregulation and illness, can temporarily subtract my points, and on rare occasions I will get a burst of energy, giving me an extra one to spend. Each day my points are restored and I can choose how to spend them again.
For the Love of Calendars
Like many others who take medication regularly, I use a weekly pill organizer. Mine is not very complex — it’s a little blue plastic box with 7 compartments, one for each day of the week. I stole it from my partner one day on a whim because I kept skipping my medication doses or forgetting if I had taken them at all and I figured it might be useful in mitigating that habit.
Thankfully, it was highly effective. Now I rarely miss a dose and, when I do, the pills remaining in the organizer the next day communicates that to me immediately. The cognitive load of having to remember what pills I have taken each day has been virtually eliminated. The only effort I exert is part of a simple procedure: at the beginning of each week, I drop little tablets and capsules in to each compartment. It makes a satisfying click when I close the lid.
In one of his lectures on the neurodevelopmental psychology of ADHD, Dr. Russell A Barkley refers to the importance of designing what he describes as “environmental prostheses” as part of the treatment of ADHD. These microprostheses function much like any other prosthetic limb or organ: they are an extension of the body designed to fulfill or assist in the fulfillment of a function on behalf of the organic body. Barkley describes an abundant use of sticky notes, journals, and calendars as examples of these environmental prosthetics — little secondary brains that can hold information that’s otherwise lost quickly.
Like the pill organizer, the calendar is a microprosthetic I have incorporated in my environment to aid my memory and executive dysfunction. Again I am like the professor, using my calendar to track critical appointments in my future. When I use a calendar, I am establishing a timeline for myself and recording events that I otherwise would not remember until they arrive. It is the sequence of events that I use to inform the choices I make with my actions.
Using calendars or timelines in RPGs has, in recent years, gained traction as a method for tracking the flow of time. Below are a few examples of games that utilize calendars.
I think I first touched on calendar play as part of an early playtest of Snow’s Songbirds, now in its third edition. Songbirds provides players with a short, blank calendar and encourages use of the calendar as one might in our ordinary lives: players mark off birthdays, festivals, and special events on their own. This is a shift from the playtest version, which assigned one player with the task of timekeeping for the whole group.
Before the third edition, the calendar read as if derived from the Gregorian Calendar but arguably shared more similarities with the International Fixed Calendar, with uniform 7-day weeks and 28-day months. The calendar was significantly shorter, however, with only four months per year, which allowed for a much more noticeable passage of time, even when you are playing out scenarios on a day-by-day scope.
In the third edition, however, the calendar has been expanded significantly and made much more cultural-and-setting-specific. The year is divided into three seasons that loosely correspond to expected weather patterns. Across those three seasons are 7 months that still follow the old 7-day weeks + 28-day months structure. There is one week that exists outside of all months and seasons as well, The Blue Moon, which is described as “the time of the wyrd, where the world is not itself and neither are we.”
My favourite part of Songbirds’ calendar, however, is in the structure of the day itself which has been mostly consistent since the first time I picked up the text. Each day is a three-segment clock corresponding to morning, evening, and night. Characters can do one “big task” during each of these segments. Characters usually spend night resting, too, which leaves only two activities per day. This chunky time tracking means that in game days move at quite a clip and you really start to notice the days on that calendar pass by.
The calendar in Iron Valley by M. Kirin also uses a truncated calendar to speed up the passage of time. There are no months to speak of — the calendar is only composed of 5 days per week and 5 weeks per season for a grand total of 100 days per year. The seasons correspond to those defined in the colonial west: spring, summer, fall, and winter.
The unique parts of the calendar structure inject a little bit of the game’s signature quaint energy into the passage of time. The days of the week are named to suggest traditional practices in the town and what folks might do to spend their time on any given day. For example, Laundry Day (day 4 of the week) becomes a day for household chores.
Each season also has holidays scattered throughout, each with a short description about what to expect as each one rolls around. Holidays also tie into the game’s “favour economy” by providing bonus favour with the other villagers when you give them a gift corresponding to the day.
The passage of each day, however, is a little goofy. Iron Valley, like its progenitor Ironsworn, can be played solo or with others. As a result, calendar play becomes a compelling way of keeping play grounded without relying on typical solo-rpg techniques like journalling. Iron Valley, however, seems to do its best to make that passage of time as frictionless as possible.
Each day in Iron Valley is like a progress box in Ironsworn, meaning you tick boxes as you play. This is proceduralized by the “Time Passes” move, which will most often trigger when you make a move and score a weak hit or a miss. You can trigger this move up to 4 times before the day is over. This means, more often than not, you’re likely only going to get 4-6 moves in a day before you have to turn in for the night.²
On paper, this sounds great — you can only do so much in a day but, if you’re lucky, you might get a couple more things done. In practice, however, Passing Time doesn’t actually mean much for play because the game actively elides consequences for this at every turn in favour of making things cozy for the player. Your crops never wither if you don’t water them. Your livestock doesn’t grow ill when you don’t feed them. Nothing bad ever happens here, and as a result, time doesn’t have as much meaning as it could.
There are other, less conventional forms of calendar play as well. Jay Dragon’s Wanderhome is at first glance almost totally unstructured. There are no set count of days per month, and no formal structure to the week. The delineations between the turning of months and seasons are soft and malleable by design.
The year in Wanderhome is only broken up into 5 seasons, with 2 months per season. Each month is expected to be one session of play and corresponds to one location on your travels. Each season is punctuated by a holiday. There is no procedure for the passing of time, though the text does suggest the possibility that each month might correspond to one location on your journey. It is a game about travel, after all.
Jay described to me how the arc of the year was “a calendar that’s more about how people actually experience the passage of time in the area I live in.” Wanderhome’s calendar is, as a result, less about the mathematics of time and more about the experience of it.
Everything in the world is in motion. When you move into a new month, you choose a few details that become true of your environment. You also collect a few tokens specific to that time of the year. When those tokens reach a certain threshold, it triggers a unique phenomena for that month like “Cicada Season” or “The Eclipse.”
During a festival, things become even more dynamic. Players will also decide on place-specific traditions and gain access to a few festival moves as well. Festivals also double as the trigger for character progression in Wanderhome, meaning player characters literally change with the seasons.
Another compelling example of calendar play is Viditya Voleti’s “Calendar Hexcrawl” tech. While not attached to a specific game, in the Twitter thread linked here, Viditya takes the method of a hexcrawl — wherein players would ordinarily move from hex to hex on a spatial map to travel across a game world — and uses the “map” instead as the calendar of sorts.
Symbols are scattered and interpreted as festivals and other special events. Coloured hexes describe temperature and weather. Most interesting of all, however, is that because hex maps invite nonlinear movement, the flow of time itself becomes nonlinear too. Because of its flexible and player-driven procedure for passing time, a single calendar designed this way will be experienced uniquely by different play groups.
The Calendar Hexcrawl applies a different way of understanding time. At a glance it seems like a work of fantasy; to move back and forward through time seems like impossible in reality. These are ideas about time I once understood as truth — that time is an inert, inexorable, universal, consistent, and always moving forward — but that is just one lens through which we might understand the flow of time. As I described above, however, it’s simply not how I experience it, and I’ll bet it’s a little more complicated for you, too.
Fabula Nova Tempus
I’m currently toying around with my own time model in my current major project. Although it is probably due a proper introduction in the near future, for now I will say that this work is an urban diaspora imaginary by way of JRPG love-letter.
The question of how time looks in this project is important not just because of the way it shapes the procedure of play, but also because it says something about the way I see the world. The particular intersections of my identity have shaped how I understand time, and if I’m exploring diasporic fantasy through this work, it might be prudent of me to pay attention to my experience as the child of an immigrant. In what ways is it different from my father and those before him?
Calendars and timekeeping in general are a powerful social instrument. Much in the way that maps “give physicality to places and things that do not exist”³, calendars give shape and meaning to meaningless cosmic cycles. The Gregorian Calendar and its associated four seasons have largely been naturalized here in the Cultural West as a product of the British-colonial project, usurping indigenous forms of timekeeping and ignoring the forms practiced by other settler populations.
Even individual components of these time structures are sites for political struggle, with labour advocacy groups working to define limits on the legal time owed to employers. There is no shortage of temporal conflict.
Time sets a rhythm for a million beating hearts — what does it mean for us to play with it?
- There are of course lots of examples of ways in which timekeeping tangibly keys into play procedures and does cause things to happen; see usage and hazard dice for instance (Marcia AKA Traverse Fantasy has a great post on this below).
- The probability of rolls in Ironsworn (and by extension, Iron Valley) has been detailed by Marx Shepherd on the PhophoSolo blog post: Basic probability in Ironsworn.
- Colonial Cartography by Apoorva Tadepalli