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Recently, I was GMing a Pathfinder campaign (we started playing not so long ago) and one of my players told me that it was strange that the PCs went from mere adventurers having trouble with kobolds to great heroes slaying dragons in a matter of days or, at most, weeks. (I'm exaggerating, but it's not much different than that.)

So it got me wondering: how do I make my adventures long, making it pass in months or even years in-game? Is it possible to do this in a interesting way?

We started playing two months ago and have had a total of 5 sessions, so we are all new to the system and to tabletop RPG in general.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Are you asking about real life months or years, or in-game months and years? \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Dec 14 '17 at 0:28
  • \$\begingroup\$ Based on the accepted answer, I'm editing the question to ask about in-game time specifically. (It's quite a different kettle of fish to making a campaign last real life years.) \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Dec 14 '17 at 15:23
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I think a lot of time passage has to happen during the downtime between adventures. Things don't necessarily happen back to back in the game world: the dragon isn't just sitting in his lair waiting for the bandit hideout to be cleared out to attack the town; the royal wedding isn't waiting for adventurers to discover the fate of the missing craftsmen in a hamlet; and even if the next stop is an award ceremony for slaying the dragon and saving the princess, it would likely take at least a few days to plan and setup such an event.

So when planning out the major events in a campaign, I like to sit down and do a timeline: The bandits become bold enough to require a more direct approach of the guards on 7 Neth, 4712; The dragon always attacks on 13 Kuthona, 4712. However long it takes the players to take care of the bandits, they get downtime from then until the dragon attacks a little over a month later. If they still haven't dealt with the bandits, well now there are 2 things going on they need to focus on (though, try to make sure to give them more than enough time between things happening).

There are even some optional Downtime rules around if you don't want to just hand wave "you all go off and live your lives for the next 2 years, everyone add 2 to your age and make 104 craft or profession checks". (Though, I imagine most downtime is in a matter of weeks at most)

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Two rules observations, then a more extended answer:

The Character Advancement section on page 30 says, in part,

The rate of this advancement depends on the type of game that your group wants to play. [...] In the end, it is up to your group to decide what rate fits you best.

So, you're absolutely within your rights to work with your group to find a satisfying pacing.

Additionally, there are certainly some downtime activities available in Pathfinder. However, they're not inherently interesting. They may lead to interest; "to craft this item, I need to sleep in the Cave of Dreams for a night", but they're not interesting on their own.

Time as a Limited Resource

Constraints make for interesting stories and hard choices. Suppose Fred the level 1 fighter just stumbled on the dragon's lair, walked in, and killed it in one punch. Not exactly literary gold.

On the other hand, imagine Fred the Fighter arrives just in time to see the burglar (who has been terrorizing the town for months now) backstab Claire the Cleric and run away. Fred could chase down the elusive thief and leave Claire to possibly die, or he could administer a healing potion and certainly lose track of the thief. The time constraint inherently adds drama to the situation.

Now consider that on a grander scale. Instead of rounds, think days or weeks. You could spend a few days tracking the roving bandits in the foothills, but you may not find them. Or, you could spend a week guarding an important caravan to the next major town. Either way, you'd better be back in a week and a half when the harvest finishes, or the Gnoll tribe will likely steal next year's seed corn.

Think bigger. The 14 year old crown prince can't rightfully claim his throne until he's turned 16. Of course the neighboring kingdom is sending assassins in the hopes of spreading chaos. In the mean time, border clashes are on the rise on the far side of the realm, a three week's journey there and another three back. Oh, and you'd better hurry, because winter is coming.

Looking at the world from this perspective will generally help you make time meaningful. As that time is invested in various story-based activities, I think you'll find the story growing in interesting ways.

And yes, it's definitely OK to hit Fast Forward sometimes, and just gloss over that week long trip. Or the boring winter spent leveling up training at Castle Safekeep.

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A few tricks I use

The following has allowed me to create campaigns that allow the PCs to understand that time passes. I present here a way to stretch out the campaign over a long game period. A number of these from my days of playing or GMing Pendragon or Ars Magica (two great games), both systems that have great downtime and forces you to spend time thinking about what you want to do. Ultimate Campaign has some good stuff too.

  1. Account for travel time. Don't just drop the PCs in one place then in the next without mentioning time passing.

  2. Move the seasons along. It's a very simple yet effective way to make time feel like it is passing.

  3. Adventuring should not be a full-time profession. 1-3 adventures a year is more than enough and gives the PCs time to enjoy. People who travel a lot eventually become weary and seek to stay put for a while instead of always moving. If your campaign is set in a fixed location, then not that many adventure worthy things should happen. ("Look Radioactive Man, the sun is exploding again")

  4. NPCs speak of a time when they will do something. "In the spring, we will attack the orcs", "We will have a festival in your honor in the fall" or my favorite "You will pass winter with us, will you?"

If your players want to get everything now you can institute these rules I used long ago:

  1. Leveling up takes time, the higher the level the longer it takes. (again bringing back to #3) You may require the PCs to spend some time practicing and perfecting their skills.

  2. The PCs should research some of the things they are doing. Especially at higher levels. They should have learned that just heading out into the wilderness to find the One Ring is a bad idea. On the flip side, they should begin the adventure with some elements of information they gained by doing that. "During your research time, you found in the footnotes of the Necronomicon a reference to the location of the Ultimate Item."

  3. Have NPCs demand their time: a noble wants his child to marry the PC (so the PC will protect their place), the king wants a PC's input, the church demands the PC make a pilgrimage, the wizard guild ask the PC write their experience for future researchers.

However, the most important thing you do: while not each of these side-treks should reward the PCs, you should avoid penalizing the PCs for doing so (but penalize them like crazy if they blow off the NPCs). While the cleric's pilgrimage may not grant him a miracle, it may result later in the game-year with people asking him to relate the voyage and generate goodwill, etc.

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