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22 December 2020

How to Tell Time in a D&D World Part 1: Calendars


Recently, I had a discussion with one of my players about his homebrew world. He recounted to me how he created his world's calendar, from the days of the week and number of months to how they were named and why certain folk tracked them differently or not at all. His excitement about this lore was palpable. As I listened, I began to drift into my own world and think about how and why the calendar was made the way it was. At that time, I had an extremely basic calendar: twelve months, four weeks each, seven days in a week, all with uninspired names and origins.

Armed with inspiration from this creative player, I set out to research how the modern calendar was made, why various aspects of it worked the way they did, and reinvent my world’s calendar, seasons, holidays, and more.

This Worldforge article encompasses one of those three aspects: we are going to build a calendar, step by step, and learn about Earth’s time-keeping history concurrently. In good time, we will visit seasons, holidays & annual events, which should be a huge part of custom D&D setting. They all add lots of flavor. First, though, we need a calendar.

Let’s delve into telling time in our D&D worlds with part 1: calendars.

The Modern Calendar


While the tracking of time in its most basic sense, counting days and the like, has existed since prehistoric times (the Neolithic, in particular), calendars are also quite old, dating back to the Bronze Age. During eras before the Bronze Age, various peoples used megalithic structures to keep track of time. They would arrange stones in a particular formation and witness the progression of the sun throughout the year. This type of calendar was called a solar calendar.

As soon as ancient civilizations in the Near East developed their own styles of writing, they started tracking time in an organized, easy-to-digest way using written calendars. The oldest written calendar known to exist was the Sumerian calendar, closely followed by the calendars of Egyptians, Assyrians, and Elamites. Many of these calendars contained ten to twelve month-long years. These calendars, generally, were based on the position or phase of the moon and the time of the solar year. Each month witnessed the full waxing and waning of the moon, then restarted. They were called lunisolar calendars.

In 45 BC, Julius Caesar did away with the Roman calendar that was based on the calendars of ancient civilizations and created his own with the help of Greek astronomers and mathematicians. The Julian calendar no longer relied on the observation of the new moon. Instead, it used an algorithm that included a leap day every four years and outlined twelve months. Thus, the Julian calendar months became dissociated from the cycle of the moon. Over 1,000 years later in 1582, the Julius calendar was refined into the Gregorian calendar. That is the calendar most of the world uses today; it’s the modern calendar.

In tandem with the Gregorian calendar, this is how we tell time on Earth:
  • 12 months in 1 year
  • 4 weeks in 1 month
  • 7 days in 1 week
  • 24 hours in 1 day
  • 60 minutes in 1 hour
  • 60 seconds in 1 minute

What to Keep, What to Toss


That’s a lot to take in. With all of it in mind, how does it affect calendars and telling time in our fantasy worlds? What can we learn? What can we twist? What can we innovate? What can we make fantastical? But most important of all: is changing our calendars worthwhile? That’s a sure yes from me, of course. But not everything needs to be changed, else it will feel too alien. We should use Earth as a standard, then shift from it in interesting ways.

For example, we should stick to the following when building our own world’s calendar and system of telling time:
  • 60 seconds in 1 minute
  • 60 minutes in 1 hour
  • 24 hours in 1 day
  • 7 days in 1 week
That knowledge is ingrained in our minds and should be the standard in most of our fantasy worlds as well. If we change it up too much, our worlds will be too jarring to be believable. Our players shouldn’t need to learn that there are actually 30 seconds in a minute and 47 minutes in an hour—that’s rubbish. All of these standards of telling time should not be fiddled with.

What can be changed, though, are the following items:
  • 12 months in 1 year
  • 4 weeks in 1 month
  • The name of the months
  • The name of the days of the week
  • How years are named
  • How time periods are named
All of these can be shaped to our worlds and won’t be nearly as jarring as changing how many hours are in a day. We should leave those type of radical changes for peculiar places in our worlds such as the Elemental Plane of Fire or the Abyss—that’s where we can get wacky. For the Material Plane where the majority of adventures begin, let's keep information related to seconds, minutes, hours, et cetera identical to how they are represented in real life.

Time To Create


Armed with what we can change, now we need to think about whether we want to make changes. We should go through each of the items of the list above and ask ourselves: does this need to be changed? Would changing it make our worlds more compelling? Unique? Interesting? Could we wield this in our games? Is it just something we want to do? Let's arrive at a yes or no answer for each of the questions and then begin building.

Here are a few questions to ask ourselves while creating our time systems and calendars.
  • Why are months separated the way they are? Is it based on the cycle of the moon or moons? The planes around the world? The seasons?
  • What are the months named after? Heroes of the past? Common monsters? Legendary locales? Words in a forgotten tongue?
  • How are the days of the week named? Using a combination of two languages? A simple word for each? Arbitrarily?
  • Do years have names associated with them? Are they standalone numbers? Do the common folk keep track of the years that pass by?
  • How are time periods named? Have there been multiple ages? Do a certain numbers of years constitute a time period?
As we continue to create, more questions should arise. We don’t always need an answer immediately—not everything about our calendars or time systems needs to be known. This leads to the next part.

Who created our worlds' calendars? That’s an important question we should know the answer to, but doesn’t need to be apparent to our players or most the individuals in our worlds. It’s likely many folk don’t know where the Gregorian calendar originates, people in our worlds might be similar. However, if we have this lore built out, we can make the calendar more believable. The answers to certain questions above might make more sense once we build out a creature, a faction, or even a civilization that created our calendars in canon.

The calendar could be the latest iteration of a thousand calendars, perfected over centuries of study. Or it’s brand new, recently released by a mysterious entity. Or perhaps the calendar is the only one the world has ever known and it was made by a civilization lost to time.

Here are four entities who could have created our calendars!
  1. A cabal of dwarves obsessed with chronomancy who needed a way to orate their findings to simple monarchs.
  2. A god of time and space who thought mortals would want a way to track their existence in the world.
  3. An enlightened nation of philosophers and scientists who knew this would be the greatest tool in history and made everyone aware of that fact.
  4. A humble minotaur who studied the stars and moons and deciphered how and why one day follows the next.

My World’s Calendar


This is an excerpt from my campaign setting guide, Handil’s Atlas of Eldar. It is my world's calendar.

In the common calendar of Aelonis, called the Thimaeven Calendar, days are 24 hours long, divided into day and night. Seven days make up a week, four weeks make up 12 of the months (the first and eighth months are 2 weeks each), and 14 months make up a year. The months correspond to the 14 prime planes of existence (see the Eldar Months table) and the prominent plane influences the name of the month in which its drift brings it closest to the mortal world.

The seven days of the week, in order, are Hrunkear, Tvakear, Trikear, Fottkear, Fiffkear, Aokear, and Morkear.

The common calendar of Aelonis tracks the years since the founding of the dragon Empire of Koth, using the abbreviation AK. The initial domination of Aelonis ended on 8 Hrodis 13 AK. The Wailing was unleashed a little under two centuries later on 19 Urlan 201 AK. By default, a new Eldar campaign begins on 1 Lagar 216 AK.

Eldar Months

How to Use a Calendar in Actual Play

Now that our calendars are designed, what can we do with them?

Every D&D session should have a date that it starts on, right? We can use our calendars to track the length of our campaigns. In my campaign compendium, I always note that start date of the session in-world. It’s a great way to see how long a campaign has been going!

Going a bit further, we could have NPCs casually mention the month or date in conversation. In real life, we do it all the time. That dash of flavor is sure to immerse our players deeper into our worlds. Imagine an elf merchant mentioning she expected a shipment of iron to arrive on 1 Yska, but it never came. She could have said she expected a few days or a week ago, but using the date adds a perfect amount of realism to the moment.

At the start of every session, we could open up with the date and a brief bit of narration. Doing this consistently familiarizes our players with the name of the months and might encourage them to reference them in actual play.

Some DMs even use a calendar to plot out the major events in their campaign or the plans of a villain. This ensures that our worlds remain alive as the PCs drift away from monumental plot points and into side quests. For example, we might plot out your campaign’s world shaking events on our own custom calendars. On the 20 Lagar, 206 AK, the ritual of the mad mage succeeds. In the evening of 12 Yska, 215 AK, the legendary Rangon’s Comet crosses the sky and lights the northern realms with fire. At noon on the 1 Urlan, 201 AK, the dragon Empire of Koth unleashes forbidden magic upon gnome lands. Especially in a campaign with many moving parts, utilizing a calendar of events helps and with a custom one it becomes easier.

As we play more than one campaign in your world, we might refer to past events or years using the date. The year my old group defeated the tyrannical liches of a fractured nation is named the Year of Dread’s Passing. Or the year my previous adventuring band halted Yeenoghu from entering the mortal world is called the Year of the Yeenoghu’s Denial. Or perhaps people refer to the time when a squad of heroes drove a draconic cult from the realm as Day of Obsidian's Cracking. With a calendar, we'll easily be able to track all these events of our worlds' past with ease. Referencing them will surely excite current players whether or not they were a part of the world’s past in some way; it hints that their actions have impact and will be remembered for years to come.

Lessons Learned


Custom calendars are not only an exercise in worldbuilding, but a welcome addition to a Dungeon Master’s repertoire to immerse their players in their world. Take note of what we learned.
  • Calendars have a long history in our own world that can be mined for ideas.
  • Keep the most familiar and personal elements of Earth’s timekeeping system, items like seconds, minutes, and hours. Customize the rest as you see fit.
  • There’s plenty that goes into creating a calendar for our worlds. What are the months named after? Who created the calendar? Why do the years last as long as they do? We don’t need to have an answer for everything—but we should define the basics.
  • Calendars carry plenty of weight when it comes to usability. They’re fun to build and can be used to improve our games in many ways.
Until the next encounter, farewell!

First time reading RJD20? Begin here, subscribe to my weekly newsletter, and join the discussion in the comments below.

Consider picking up my first supplement, Villain Backgrounds Volume I on the Dungeon Masters Guild. It helps fund D&D supplements of the future.

Provide any feedback or inquiries to @RJD20Writes on Twitter or rjd20writes@gmail.com via email. 

15 December 2020

How to Run Your First D&D Game


Everyone finds Dungeons & Dragons (D&D, dnd, DnD, etc) in a different way. You might play a roleplaying game (RPG) like World of Warcraft, the Witcher III, or one of the Baldur’s Gate games and yearn for a more creative gaming outlet. It’s possible you hear your friends talking about D&D, discover an actual play series such as Critical Role or The Provokers, or spot a funny meme in the wild. One of these events might spur you to seek out a D&D group or better yet, create your own. 

Regardless, for the purposes of this article, you’ve discovered D&D and want to play it.

This article will provide you a pathway to success. There’s no need to blaze the trail if it has already been paved!

Gather a Group


The premier step is to gather a group.

As you will be the one reaching out and gathering members, you should take the mantle of Dungeon Master (DM).

In D&D, the DM is the world. They play the villains and allies, environments and elements—everything besides the Player Characters (PCs). In addition, they are the rules referee. They make all rules calls and decide what goes at the table. When it comes to these two aspects, they are supposed to be impartial. But they should also try their best to ensure the players (and themselves) are having fun.

So, as the DM, you need to gather your group. For your first game, I’d recommend finding four players. Larger groups might hinder your experience.

Mine through people you know to start. These folks could be people you think might have fun playing D&D, have shown interest in the game before, or be complete strangers to gaming in general. Really, D&D is playable by everyone as long as each individual brings their imagination, an open mind, and a pension for fun to the table.

After you’ve exhausted that list and aren’t at the recommended number of players, reach out to friends of friends who express interest. 

Art from Rime of the Frostmaiden, by April Prime.

As a last resort, you can post online (I suggest this subreddit) for people interesting in playing D&D. This, however, scrambles things. Since you do not know these people, you need to make sure they're a good fit for your group. In your looking for a group (LFG) post, mention your interests when it comes to D&D, what you’re looking for (and not looking for), and what the plan when it comes to number of sessions/times/etc. With a group of random people, you should run a single session adventure first. Don’t commit to a long-lasting one if you don’t know them.

Here are two examples of LFG posts. One is a poor post, the other is stellar.

I am a DM looking for players to play D&D. Who is up for it?

I am a DM looking for 4 players to play a D&D 5e adventure. It will be one session on Saturday, December 19th, 2020 at 1:00pm EST. The characters will be 1st level and it will last 3-5 hours. Please be mature and looking for a mix of roleplaying, tactical combat, and a tad of exploration. Who is up to play?

If at the end of your search, you have at least one other player, you’re good to go.

If you’ve not succeeded, continue looking and don’t give up hope. D&D is not a game that can be played solo, unfortunately. You can build your world, plan a campaign, and think up cool scenarios in your head for hours. But without at least one other player, you’re not yet playing D&D—you’re just plotting it out! Given time, I am confident you’ll be able to find at least one other to join you in your quest.

With a group gathered, it’s time to stride onward.

Collect Supplies


D&D is a malleable game. You can play it with minimal supplies or an entire basement of maps, miniatures, and other D&D knick-knacks.

To run your first game, you don’t need much. You can even start playing for free using the Basic Rules for Dungeons & Dragons fifth edition, found on the Wizards of the Coat site here.

Otherwise, you’ll need the following:
  1. Paper and a pencil or a computer for notes
  2. The Player’s Handbook to reference rules and help create the PCs
  3. A set of polyhedral dice to roll for attacks, ability checks, and nearly everything else
Ideally, you should also read the Player’s Handbook so you have a firm grasp on the rules. Remember, as the DM you’ll be the adjudicator. You don’t need to memorize the entire book, but you should know the basics and be able to make a call or reference the correct chapter when necessary.

Once you’ve obtained that list of three, you have everything you’ll need to physically play.

If you want to outfit yourself with a few more armaments, take a gander at the following; if you’re set, move to the next part!
  1. The Monster Manual to populate your adventure with monsters
  2. The Dungeon Master’s Guide to help build your world and tailor your game to you and your players
  3. A battle map so you can visualize the battlefield
  4. A set of miniatures to represent the PCs and monsters in combat and exploration
Supplies collected, it’s time to move forward.

Scribe a Start


Preparation is vital for your first D&D game. You have an important decision to make: do you want to run a published adventure or create a quest of your own design?

There are plenty of easy-to-run starting adventures for new DMs and players. Honestly, I’d suggest starting with a written out quest unless you have some semblance of experience running or playing roleplaying games. 

No matter what you choose, though, your first adventure should contain the following elements:
  • A call-to-action and an enticing reward. This thrusts the PCs into the adventure and gives them a reason to hit the road. The blacksmith bursts into the tavern and cries out for assistance against a tribe of goblins. Or a kobold clan collapses the nearby mine. Maybe an ogre is stealing cows from the local farmer. Beginners might need a clear motivation to pursue the adventure: coin, magic items, or perhaps fame.
  • A villain. He or she acts against the PCs and serves as a foil to their actions. They will also take most of the PC’s ire. The filthy goblin shaman who enjoys finely made weaponry and skinning her victims alive. The ambitious kobold chieftain who seeks to draw capable adventurers into his lair for experimentation. The ogre who just wants to eat and was driven from their stomping grounds by a stubborn hill giant.
  • A fantastic location. This place draws the PCs into the world and allows for exploration of the imaginative. The goblin hideout carved into the trunk of a massive tree. The acidic caverns deep inside a collapsed mine. The dilapidated but floating wizard’s tower that acts as the ogre’s simple home.
Art from Lost Mine of Phandelver, credit to Wizards of the Coast.

Together, these three elements form an adventure: a series of encounters that see the PCs interacting with NPCs, exploring the world, and combating foes in it.

If you feel up to the task and are inspired, go right ahead and construct your own short adventure! Otherwise, here are three excellent adventures for a first D&D game.
  • Lost Mine of Phandelver. This adventure is a part of the starter set for fifth edition and can form the foundation for an extended campaign. It pits the PCs against classic D&D foes and contains everything a first adventure for beginners should.
  • The Burning Plague. This adventure is free and written for an older edition of D&D. However, all that needs to be changed are the stats of the monsters inside, which is a super simple task. It was my first adventure and sees the PCs delve into an abandoned mine to cleanse a foul foe.
  • The Delian Tomb. This adventure is free and created by Matthew Colville, a respected content creator on YouTube and elsewhere. It’s simple, brief, and throws the PCs against staple D&D villains: goblins, in a staple adventuring location: an order of knights' tomb.
Once you have scribed a starting story, you’re nearly ready to run your first D&D game.

Set a Date and Breathe


Almost everything is ready.

You gathered a group of ready, able, and willing adventurers.

You collected a variety of supplies for your D&D game.

You scribed a starting story, whether it was one of your own creation or one written by some of the hobby’s greats.

It’s time to set a date and breathe.

Reach out to your players to schedule your first session. Plan whose home you’ll be gathering at, whether or not you’ll all be eating or not, and the general time frame you’ll be playing. Some say this is the most difficult part, but if you’ve found a group of people who truly want to play D&D, to make time for it and ensure it’s a priority, you shouldn’t have too many issues.

Once a date is set, read over your material and write up a few important notes. Your first set need not be complex, just things you know you’ll need: NPC names, monsters the PCs will fight, important plot points, and where you generally want the session to go. As you DM more, you’ll find out what you need and don’t need to take notes on.

When the day approaches and you’re at the head of the table surrounded by your friends, remember to breathe. You’re all there to have fun and play D&D together. Try not to stress about it and focus on having a stellar time instead! If you think it goes poorly, don’t worry: D&D is a hobby wherein you’re constantly improving. And really, all the matters is that you and your friends have fun. That should be the priority.

Art from Storm King's Thunder, credit to Wizards of the Coast.

Lessons Learned


Like I said at the beginning of this article, everyone discovers D&D in a different way. You might not get the chance to prepare a ton and read this article before your first session. Your friends might ask you to run a game in a few hours time and you might do it, armed with a pencil, some dice, and a fierce imagination. And that's not wrong. You can still easily run a successful first game that way.

I'm just here to try and help the discerning, first-time DM.

Here’s the gist on how to run your first D&D game:
  1. Gather a group of people who want to play D&D.
  2. Collect supplies for D&D—this can be done for free!
  3. Scribe a starting story that contains a call-to-action and enticing reward, a villain, and a fantastic location.
  4. Set a date and remember to breathe at the table.
Once you’ve run your first D&D game, odds are you’re hooked. If you want help growing your pool of knowledge or learning about D&D, don’t be afraid to roam the rest of my articles. I’m here to help you become the best DM you can be.

Until the next encounter, stay creative!

Related Articles

First time reading RJD20? Begin here, subscribe to my weekly newsletter, and join the discussion in the comments below.

Consider picking up my first supplement, Villain Backgrounds Volume I on the Dungeon Masters Guild. It helps fund D&D supplements of the future.

Provide any feedback or inquiries to @RJD20Writes on Twitter or rjd20writes@gmail.com via email. 

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