Tuesday, February 16, 2010


Now what could a calendar have to do with D&D?

To begin with, it must be pointed out that most worlds are fabricated by DM’s who wish to explore the limits of their imagination without the restriction of anything like earth like reality or conditions. If rivers are desired to flow upwards into the mountains, if seas boil in slow bubbles like hot mud, if the trees are nomadic and march from land to land in the space of decades, then so be it. Magic, if not geography, justifies all.

And I won’t throw water on it. The use of one’s imagination is a holy thing. I defend it first and foremost.

There are some interesting problems, just the same ... beginning with the measurement of time.

Whatever name one posits for the passage of a brief expanse of time, moderately less than or greater than a second, or however long a day lasts or however many ‘hours’ might be in it, it does help to remember that the occasional calculation of time does depend upon a group of circumstances which are all too familiarly associated with earth. If it is wished to calculate the time it takes for a rider recently dismounted from his griffon to strike the earth, it is habitual to use the standardized calculation, 32 feet per second per second ... mucking about with the length of seconds, much less the density of the gravity well and its effect on all physics, has its consequences. But then, there’s always magic. Magic puts all things right.

Since this is a discussion about time – the calendar measures time – having a discussion about seconds, or about years for that matter, seems fortuitous. I don’t want to bore – we know that the second is not a random length. It is a subdivision of the solar day, the length of the earth’s rotation, as broken up into sixty parts of sixty parts, of twenty-four parts, that all seemed very logical at the time. It has to do with the somewhat equatorial culture that devised the early calendar (Babylonian), where night and day are equal for the better part of the year, and both the day and night being divided into 12 parts ... just as the moon divided the year into 12 parts. And as the counting method devised by the Babylonians was a sixty-base system, minutes and seconds became what they are. None of that really matters, except ...

If you change the size of the planet, or its distance from the sun, you change everything. The day lasts longer, the year lasts longer, things fall farther in the space of one second and so on.

The solar calendar was allowed into existence, at least partly, by the ever-clear skies of the desert and the flat horizon. A star rising above that horizon could be calculated to the exact moment, and observed a year later to rise again, on cue, according to a rather complicated set of mathematical calculations (the year not being exactly 365 days long). The ‘magic’ of being able to identify the rise of any particular star created the priesthood, and enabled the preparation of both the Babylonian and Egyptian cultures (the Egyptians getting the hang of it either independently or through ‘borrowing’ the technology) to prepare for floods before the floods came. Rivers operated on specific rules, based upon melting snows which the priests did not need to see in order to predict – to the day.

If you would change the length of the year, how would you judge the rising of stars – if it mattered. It does happen that the prediction of floods, and the creation of the calendar, enabled the existence of widespread agriculture and the feeding of thousands, and later millions of people. The predictability of earth’s environment, from the snows to the stars, profoundly allowed the existence of all civilization ... through the measurement of mere points of light popping up above the horizon.

There are some six thousand stars visible to the naked eye in the firmament. Of these, three thousand are visible, give or take, from any particular point of latitude (the north cannot see stars of the southern sky, and vice versa). While a particular location on earth causes the estimated three-thousand stars to rise above the horizon, through half the day the sun washes out those that might otherwise be see, so that at different times of the year different stars are seen from the side of the earth opposite the blazing sun. In a night, then, some 1,500 stars may be seen (give or take those blotted out by the dusk or dawn). Of these stars, nearly five in six are so dim as to be difficult to detect, particularly near the horizon. Thus, only 250 stars in a given night might be said to be ‘relevant.’

Priests would sit and identify every star, all night long, as it rose, and make calculations. In all, more than a thousand stars were carefully tracked, some of those stars expected to rise in the summer, or in the fall, or in the winter or spring. Each special star had a name, and each star heralded a specific quality or circumstance to be expected at the particular time of its appearance ... in the east.

What stars appear in your world? What do they convey? Who watches them? Do they make the world predictable enough to judge its trajectory through the heavens?  I wonder who out there has carefully mapped out the floor of their world, and then turned their gaze to map out the roof, also.

But what am I saying? It should be acknowledged that a world needs no stars, nor even a sun, except to rise and fall in a perfect earth day, without needing there to be any logic. There is an unwritten acceptance in D&D that no matter how strange the landscape, or how odd the weather or the seasons, none of this has any effect upon the will of its inhabitants to build cities or to plant crops which predictably sprout and give forth wheat without any question of the heat of the sun or the length of time it remains in the sky. If there is a calendar, it is almost certain to have thirty days in every month, and seven days in every week, with or without plan or purpose – because the DM does come from a world where this is so, and the DM would have it so in the world of the DM’s devising.

No matter what.


Brian Ballsun-Stanton said...

For interesting player reactions, try breaking this mold.

In a 4e game I was running, I set the game in a world-sized flower, with the petals providing light and heat and time instead of an orbital body.

It... really confused the players. But was fun to play with.

R said...

I think the main reason varying calendar options are left unexplored stems from the amount of work it takes and also the fact that uninteresting things in D&D typically fall under the "same as real life" answer.

"Do boots in this world have laces?"
"Does it snow when it's cold?"
"Are there only 2 genders?"
"Is the day 24 hours long?"

All of those things can be changed, of course, but creating everything from the ground up is not only monumental, but at some point you'd lose a baseline of realistic reactions and expectations of what is probable in doing so.

Admittedly, this blog delves into the minutia of details and provides somewhat of a guide for hammering them all out.

I've avoided making a calendar only because it falls under "time better spent developing other things" in my campaign.

Chgowiz said...

A thought approach that I very much appreciation. Indeed, breaking the mold is a fascinating exercise.

Player in my Dark Ages game: "I wait for the moon to rise so that I can see in the dark."

Me: "Well, see, that's the thing... there is no moon."

Player: "... really? No moon?"

Spring is 45 days. Fall is 45 days. Summer is 60 days. Winter is 90 days. Nobody has asked why winter is so long. The funny thing is, if the players dug into that, they'd get a shock... it didn't use to be that way! I wonder why...

@R: Making a calendar for me was easy... the above paragraph is the calendar. I have a few specific days for festivals and if the players want to get more details, I can come up with them. You don't have to have the entire thing... start small. Let it grow.

R said...

@Chgowiz My issue is I'd have to make a calendar for all the major cultures - I'll get to it, but not until I knock out some more important items

PatrickW said...

My current fantasy campaign does have a calendar: 7 days (each named) to a week, 4 weeks to a month (each named), a week long seasonal festival after every three months, and one Day of the Dead at the end of the year.

My previous campaign had two moons and I did the orbital calculations for them to work out when they would both be full and make certain it would be rare as I was tying a plot point to it. I have not done the calculations for my current world yet, but I will eventually.

2eDM said...

I realize this is just nitpicking, but being on a lunar calendar myself, the solar year is divided into just over 13 lunar months, not 12. The 12 month system came much later and didn't have much to do with the moon.

PatrickW said...

@2eDM - Very true, it was the evolution of the Roman 10 month (plus a span simply labeled "Winter") calendar.

Tangentially, the book "Calendar", by David Ewing Duncan, is an interesting read on the history of the modern calendar and its various incarnations over time.

Alexis said...

2eDM: "...just over 13 lunar months, not 12."

Really. The synodic period (time it takes the moon to circle the earth) is 29.530589 days. 365 divided by this period is 12.36006502 ... decidedly LESS than 13 lunar months. Perhaps this is why (incorrectly) the year was judged to be 12 lunar months plus a year-end period that was judged to be 12 days (a period associated with a peculiar year-end festival).

But however inaccurate, the number 12 was the relevant one.

These sorts of inaccurate nitpickings ... sigh.