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In my time playing and running 5e D&D, I've noticed that giving a spell a duration of 1 minute seems to be a polite way of saying "This spell lasts for the entirety of this encounter, but won't last into the next one."

However, there are other durations of spells: mage armor lasts 8 hours, conjure elemental lasts 1 hour, and shield of faith lasts 10 minutes.

In down time, an estimation of how long these spells last is good enough. I can just give a guess at what the wizard is able to accomplish with help from an earth elemental for an hour. But in encounter heavy areas (like a dungeon), it's a different story.

Even the shortest of these lasts an extraordinarily long number of rounds (100!), and I don't track time between encounters with that much granularity. So how do I know when these spells should run out?

Is there any sort of heuristic (like 1 minute = 1 encounter) for spells of other durations? Something of the form:

  • 1 minute = 1 encounter
  • 10 minutes = 2 encounters
  • 1 hour = until a short rest
  • 8 hours = until a long rest

Would be good. Those numbers were my first takes at estimates, but some seem inconsistent depending on which way you look at it (e.g. 8 hours is the length of a normal work day, but an adventurer has 16 hours of waking time a day (with 2 short rests mixed in), so does mage armor last all day, or do you need 2 of them?), and others are just a random guess (i.e. 10 minutes = 2 encounters).

As a player, I'd be looking for some sort of rule in a book, or developer commentary I could point a DM to. But, since that might be hard, as a DM, I'll settle for any heuristic that has been tested or can be shown to be reasonable within the system.

One could show that a heuristic is "reasonable within the system" by showing how a spell (or spells) of some duration is balanced if it lasts for some number (1, 2, 1.5, etc.) of encounters on average in the recommended 6 to 8 encounters a day ("The Adventuring Day", DMG pg 84).

In this case, "until next short rest" would be somewhere between 2 and 3 encounters, and "until next long rest" would be the whole 6 to 8.

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    \$\begingroup\$ "Even the shortest of these lasts an extraordinarily long number of rounds (100!)" Whats your math on this? rounds are described as lasting 6 seconds. 1 minute is therefore 10 rounds (60 seconds) \$\endgroup\$ – Premier Bromanov Jul 12 '18 at 19:58
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    \$\begingroup\$ Sorry, I excluded 1 minute since I was talking about "other durations". 100 rounds is a 10 minute spell. \$\endgroup\$ – awenonian Jul 12 '18 at 20:02
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    \$\begingroup\$ Given that the spells all do have actual time limits and that everyone's encounters and parties will be different, I'm not sure that this is answerable without being opinion. It's a very interesting question and concern, but this seems more like a call for ideas than a specific question that can be answered here on the Stack and may be better suited for a forum. \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Jul 12 '18 at 20:07
  • \$\begingroup\$ [Related] How does a DM handle time limits in-game? \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Jul 12 '18 at 20:21
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    \$\begingroup\$ I see this as a "Good subjective" question, presenting the challenge OP is facing closely tracking the time durations and asking about other DMs experience on ways to handle it better. I think it can be answered with "facts, references, and specific expertise". I've voted to reopen. \$\endgroup\$ – Peter Cooper Jr. Jul 13 '18 at 15:10
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In my experience, I've used exactly the numbers you've proposed with no problems arising. Specifically, spells lasting for the number of encounters suggested have seemed balanced against spells that last 1 minute.

To address your doubts about those numbers:

8 hours is reasonable for the amount of time a party spends exploring a dungeon or traveling. The other 8 hours (those not spent as part of a long rest) are assumed to be setting up and tearing down camp, cooking, tending equipment, etc. (The rules say this somewhere, I'll try to add a reference later. I believe it's in the DMG in the section about traveling.)

10 minutes is a reasonable amount of time to cover 2 battles in close proximity. If you assume (for simplicity) that the first battle takes place in the first minute and the second takes place in the tenth, that leaves 8 minutes to gather fired arrows, check a few pockets, put on dropped backpacks, head back into the hallway and kick down another door. That seems pretty reasonable to me, and has worked well at my table.

Obviously, any numbers you decide to use are going to be general starting points with regular exceptions. Long bouts of exploration, NPC interaction, puzzles, and shopping will obviously affect the time between encounters or rests.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Perhaps the one I'm most concerned with is the 1 hour duration, which is too long to run out just because they didn't rush, but not long enough that if they really took their time it wouldn't run out. \$\endgroup\$ – awenonian Jul 12 '18 at 20:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ @awenonian I've taken one hour to mean "it's still up for the next encounter if you don't take a short rest". \$\endgroup\$ – Erik Jul 12 '18 at 20:53
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    \$\begingroup\$ @awenonian Yes, 'until the next short rest' is usually fine for an hour duration, but you would certainly have to use your own judgement if they were not getting into fights but just kinda poking around at stuff and rolling skill checks. I usually just keep an eye out for specific 'time consuming activities' like shopping, traveling to a new location, investigation rolls, searching for a contact, or similar. I tend to figure out-of-combat skill checks as either 'short' (a minute or less) or 'long' (ten minutes or more), with occasional 'extremely long' for over-and-hour kinda things. \$\endgroup\$ – Darth Pseudonym Jul 12 '18 at 21:38
  • \$\begingroup\$ @awenonian What I mean there is, 'short' skill checks take essentially no time as far as spell durations are concerned. 'Long' skill checks expire any ten-minute durations, and three to four 'long' checks or other time consuming activities will expire any hour durations. Any duration longer than that is just up for the whole adventuring day and I don't think about it much more than that. \$\endgroup\$ – Darth Pseudonym Jul 12 '18 at 21:43
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I don't think that you're going to find a whole lot in the official books for D&D 5e. The concept of "how quickly do you progress time in non-combat" is intentionally vague. The rules just assume that time is constantly tracked precisely, while not really showing how that works in practice during a table's conversation. The most the DMG does that I recall is present some options in some cases, such saying that when wandering in the wilderness one can do an hour-by-hour approach or more of a narrative approach, and both can work.

The Angry GM (who occasionally uses, shall we say, "unrefined language") has a whole rant about D&D's lack of structure of handling time, "It Cannot Be Seen, Cannot Be Smelt: Hacking Time in D&D", which includes some suggestions on a "time pool" mechanic to help represent time passing in a visceral way. I haven't given it a try myself, but I can see how something like it could be useful for some scenarios.

As DM, I've basically just handled time in a generic way, "It's mid-morning", and then "you arrive at wherever in the afternoon", and that's been good enough for what we've done. If a player had a 10-minute spell start during one encounter, I'd probably be a bit more careful about tracking how long it takes them to get to their next encounter, trying to present it as an interesting option: "Do you want to spend some more time searching this room, or rush ahead to the next one?", so that it's clear if they're making a tradeoff. Beyond that, I don't track time that closely, and then at an appropriate moment (if I remember) I'll say "Your Mage Armor is almost done" or the like.

The main options I see:

  • Be fast and loose about it like I am, and just not worry about exact durations.
  • Start tracking time really carefully between encounters, deciding how much time each search of a room and going from one room to another takes.
  • Homebrew some sort of "time mechanic" that makes durations tied to other events, like the Angry GM's Time Pool or your proposal to just do things like "1 hour spells last until your next short rest".

I think any of those options can work fine, though different playgroups probably prefer different styles. It may even make sense to track things differently for different adventures within a campaign, if one adventure has a more "time-sensitive" plot than another. Like with any RPG rule, experiment and discover what works best for your group.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ As DM, I have used the time pool mechanic from that link, and found it both useful and an excellent way to solve exactly the problem presented. The hardest part was remembering to use it, but that was on me, not the system. \$\endgroup\$ – Tal Jul 13 '18 at 14:23

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