The Currency of Time

Time is the currency of opportunity. This is true in life and in games, and lately I’ve had some small thoughts regarding this.

In life, the act of saying yes to something that takes your time is also the act of saying no to other opportunities. Of course, new freelancers will trip on this and say yes to things they can’t truly commit to, but overall time is your currency for opportunity. We see this in small-scale ways (choosing between dinner with friends in town or going to your regular game night), in medium-scale ways (picking between two job offers or two major contracts when you only have one), and in large-scale ways (deciding whether or not to be a parent).

In games and stories, this philosophy is useful for creating drama and consequence. The classic is the superhero “save the person you care about or that busload of orphan nuns.” In games, we highlight this tension by creating mechanics that promise the chance of getting both results, though the likelihood that you’ll get only one (and the risk of getting neither.)  Great mechanics for this can be found in the various *World games (like Dungeon World[1], Apocalypse World, etc.) and its predecessor Otherkind Dice.

Fundamentally, this is where skill rolls for observational/informational tasks can become interesting: does this task cost you an opportunity? And that is where tension lies. If there is no cost, then such things are free. And basic human psychology tells us something key: we don’t really value things that are free. So let’s make such things cost.

But this isn’t just an “indie” thing. Most games have this built it as a function of, well, linear time and turn-taking. When you do an action of some sort of Pathfinder, you’re doing that action to the exclusion of similar actions. Which spell are you going to cast right now: the one that buffs your friends or whacks a foe? Do you do the attack that is riskier but with a better payoff, or the attack more likely to hit but not as strong an effect?

So, when we’re designing systems, let’s not just look at binary success/failure, but at relative cost. Let us engage emotionally with the moment because we’re risking the most basic currency we all have: time.

– Ryan

[1] I think at this point, Dungeon World has more mindshare than Apocalypse World does, at least outside of indieland. Which is, at least to me, an interesting and important observation about our communities.


5 Responses to The Currency of Time

  1. Random thought (probably ill-formed): What if the gameplay mechanics explicitly included the time to make the decision? I think that could make for some interesting stuff, especially in the horror genre.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Some of the stuff we played with in Dresden Files is using the time increments chart (which you can see here, though you’ll have to scroll down or search for “Time Increments” to see the boxed text).

      Knowing how long a task would likely take, like “a few hours” to search in a library, and rolling to achieve it: success means you find it, failure means you’re interrupted by a crisis (or find it but there’s a crisis, maybe, if you just miss by 1). Shifts beyond success could be spent to reduce the time on the increment ladder.

      Of course, all that gets simplified with Core’s “Success with style.” :)

      – Ryan

  2. Totally. And consider player time as well as character time! When balancing game resources, some have called player time a “shadow cost” (not to name names, but Andrew Rollings and Ernest Adams. Whoops, I named names.) but IMO it’s the real cost that everything else is measured against – wrote a longer post about it here, once: http://www.gamedevblog.com/2012/09/game-design-101-player-time-is-the-gold-standard-of-game-resources.html
    I think this shows up in Mouse Guard – people are reluctant to defend because it draws conflict out, even if it is a more-likely-to-win-the-conflict move.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Totally! In Dresden, one of the options for increasing your bonus on a Thaumaturgy spell is to sit out of a scene you would otherwise be able to be a part of — in essence, you’re in your lab doing prep shit. We acknowledge that this is the most boring option, but it’s a legit one if you really feel like paying for it. But that’s us intentionally playing with that, not a side effect of mechanics having unexpected time costs.

      (Also, if you go out to get pizza, it sort of rewards you if you’re in that situation. Thus, there are ways to mitigate player time cost with other rewards beyond social capital within the group.)

      Also: system mastery as time cost — but that goes more into life than it does into momentary design. Or maybe equally in both arenas.

      – Ryan

  3. Marshall says:

    This would be great to apply to troupe play where each session/scene you could choose one or more characters to play and apply the rest to off-screen agency. If you want more on-screen agency, keep more characters in play. That seems like a fun decision to make.