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So I was playing yesterday and our party had been wandering through tunnels and the DM said there was some noise in the distance. So one of the players illuminated an object and threw it down the winding corridor about 80 feet from where my elvish player was at (I had just stepped through a door to another room also and the DM said the player that tossed the light sees a very large blue hand on the corner of a wall).

At that point I said I wanted to cast the Leomunds Tiny Hut, which he said okay to, as other players did exploratory actions. He then came back to me a few minutes later and said it would take 10 rounds because we are in combat now, I believed we hadn’t started combat yet, we are just in a state of exploring still and aren’t aware that the creature means us harm yet. He suggested as the DM he determines how fast time moves and I wouldn’t have had time to cast the 1 minute spell, though about 3 minutes of live time and other players discussion passed before we learned anything about the creature at all, and then he said I can keep casting the spell for the next 10 combat rounds our stop the spell and burn the spell slot. All that is fine, but I was just really confused about the game mechanics at that point.

The question I had was that, this seems like a logical problem because any time you go to cast a spell how do you know if your going to waste the spell because you later find out you are in combat because a creature pops up? Are there any objective aspects that define when combat starts?

The reason I probably am so confused is because I am new to the game and it seems like five minutes of sitting at the table playing and one hour passes for the players in the game, but at other points it seems like time outside of combat can move very very slow. Like if a spell takes one minute to cast and your not in combat, how much time in real time does that take? Thanks

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To answer your question first: the time progresses as the DM decides. Then it's the responsibility of the DM to communicate the passage of time in the game world to players. Sometimes this inevitably fails, be it due to DM being unclear, or the players being distracted. But the DM as the ultimate authority over all aspectes of the game world, except player actions. This is described in the PHB page 6. And it is quite common for the DM to allow players spend more time discussing the situation, than what passes in the game world. There's no hard and fast rule about this.

Then about combat: The point when combat can be said to start is when the initiative is rolled. Actual combat stuff can't actually happen otherwise. This is described in the PHB page 189.

Your DM clearly made a small mistake, when he allowed you to start casting the spell before initiative was rolled, and then said it would take 10 combat rounds to complete the spell. It should have been just 9 rounds (or less), because you had already started the casting.

But would it have made any difference if you would have been given, say, 7 combat rounds (so 18 seconds of general confusion before rolling for inititative) instead of 10 to complete the spell? Probably not. So the DM mistake didn't actually matter.

It would have been reasonable for the DM to decide that combat would start when the rock was thrown. Then they would have asked you to roll initiative right after describing the hand. This is generally wise for immersion, so the players (who are in a cozy room and not really in a dungeon) can enter the right mindset for their characters. But the DM didn't. Perhaps it was intentional, maybe they made a mistake they regret, but most likely they just didn't think about it.

What you as a player could have done more smartly, is to ask "what is the monster doing" before starting to cast a spell with casting time of 1 minute. In the game world perspective, the character either took a calculated risk or just didn't think it through, when they started to cast that spell as a response to seeing an enemy, which most likely did notice at least the light, and the direction where it came from.

In general, a combat can absolutely start in the middle of casting a spell, if casting time is longer than "1 action". Then it becomes a matter of rest of the group protecting the spell caster, if they want the spell to be cast successfully.

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Flow of time

In-game time and real-world-time are most often than not quite disconnected. As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words. The characters sense the world of the game with their eyes and other senses, but the GM has to use (a thousand) words to convey the same to the players. Thus a quick glance at a room you burst into in a hurry might not even take a second for your character, but could take half a minute or more for the GM to describe.

And the reverse is also true. Your characters might spend hours hiking through a forest, but obviously you do not want playing that to take the same amount of real-world-time, and thus it is summarized in a few sentences of narration by the GM.

Do not expect any sort of correspondence between the two kinds of time. If you want to be more aware of the flow of in-game time, pay attention to what the GM is narrating. If they are describing static things (a painting on a wall, a smell coming from a corridor), it is most likely that at most seconds are passing in the game world while they do that. If they are describing actions (your party looking through a room, someone running away), chances are that the game world progresses faster than the real one. If you are not sure how fast things are happening, it is OK to ask the GM to elaborate.

Interrupted casting

According to page 202 of the PHB:

When you cast a spell with a casting time longer than a single action or reaction, [..] you must maintain your concentration while you do so [..] ]f your concentration is broken, the spell fails, but you don't expend a spell slot.

On page 203 we are informed that:

You can end concentration at any time (no action required).

Thus you should have been able to stop casting when combat started without any penalty (besides wasting the time spent up to that point on casting).

Also, it would not really matter when exactly the combat starts, as the in-game speed of combat is the same as the in-game speed of your character casting the spell. Combat starting will not make it take more time. You might decide that your time is spent more wisely on other stuff, though.

The GM might have said that you have already spent some time casting when the combat began, depending on the circumstances, but that is their prerogative to decide.

Not contesting the GM on the rulings was the right decision, and I think you should be commended for that. Unless you can point out the exact rule in play, I advise you to bring up such issues after the game so that it can keep flowing and is not bogged down in disputes and looking up things in the books. This also fosters a better social atmosphere.

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Davis, welcome to the hobby and the stack.

This answer is correct, and I was writing up essentially the same thing, but Szega beat me to it.

The only thing I would have added that is new is this observation:

If I as a GM saw a player laboring under this misunderstanding (even an experienced player-- it took me more than a few minutes to convince myself that that interpretation was correct and that I was not missing something) I would have pointed it out to them. It might not have occurred to me to say, "It will take you ten (or nine) additional rounds to complete the spell-- is that what you want to do?" But by the first or certainly the second round of your inactivity and concentration on the spell, I would have asked you about it.

So it is possible that your GM either was not aware of this himself (it happens) or that he was being profoundly unhelpful to you during the game. You may wish to gently, delicately, tactfully determine which of these cases it was.

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