Truncating the Calendar Year like in Stardew Valley

I want my game to be epic, spanning many years, with the potential for characters to grow old; for new generations to come to the fore and take up the mantle; and for nations to rise and fall.

Problem: Even with a game/system which is well designed for that kind of long-term view, everything takes about 2 to 4 times longer than I expected to play out.

Untested potential solution I have not seen touted before: Truncate the calendar year down to 112 days. (This could also serve as a worldbuilding spark.)

Stardew Valley

Stardew Valley is a Harvest Moon-like video game where you have run cute, artisanal farm. As its a farming game it wants the seasons to change so crops can rotate and you can experience the bountiful summer and fallow winter. However, it doesn’t want you to have to play out about 90 in-game days for the season to shift. That would be tedious.

Instead it uses a 28-day season. Four weeks of 7 days makes up a season. There are four seasons – Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter.

If my fantasy game is in a secondary world (not Earth), then I could truncate the world to have 4 seasons of 28 days – a 112 day year.

This would roughly third the number of days in the year, which is convenient since games take about 3 times longer than intended to play out.

Stardew Valley’s calendar, Winter edition

How to manage a truncated year

We need to change the durations of everything in the setting to fit our new 112 day year.

  • Events on the day-scale should still take roughly the same number of days as usual
    • Cows can be milked once per day
    • You eat three meals a day
    • You can walk about 3 miles per hour for about 8 hours without exhausting yourself (though you will still be tired)
    • Chickens lay eggs every couple of days
  • Events on the year-scale should take roughly the same fraction of a year as usual
    • Human pregnancies last for about 3/4 of a year (roughly 3 seasons or 84 days)
    • Humans legally become adults after 18 years
    • Lambs are born in the Spring

There are some events whose new durations will have to be chosen by you (as a game-master or as a table of players). Everything in your game is levers, and you need to decide which setting these levers are on.

  • Does health and illnesses resolve on the day or year scale?
    • Year-scale means quicker healing but quicker deterioration times when unwell or injured.
  • Do weather phenomena change on the day or year scale?
    • Year-scale means volatile sudden rains and storms. However, day-scale means a dry spell or cold-snap could have a massive destabilising effect on the crop growth of that year, as there is a smaller band of days to plant and harvest within.
  • Are settlements 3 times closer together than normal?
    • A 30 day round trip takes a whole season now (rather than a third of a season).
    • Closer settlements facilitates better trade and a more in-contact world, with closer cultural ties. It also increases the ability for centres of power to project their influence (though tax collectors and military patrols)
  • Does learning occur at the day-scale or year-scale?
    • Year-scale means skills and knowledge will match our expectations for the age of a character. However it will mean that learners progress more quickly day-to-day, probably though improved memory/retention or through increased rates of comprehension.
    • Day-scale means that everyone learns at the same rate, but it takes longer to build up a knowledge base.

There are so many areas to consider that you would probably have to discuss them a the table as they arose.

A rule of thumb is that day-scale results in a grittier game and year-scale in a more epic game.

What’s the use of this?

  • A thought experiment to help you think about how parts of your game are connected to time (and each other)
  • A worldbuilding spark (ask yourself “if this is true, what else is true?”)
  • A sci-fi world (take this idea and stick it in your traveller/star trek game).
  • A design principle. Just as DMs have talked about attacking every part of the character sheet, worldbuilders and game designers should challenge every assumption of the setting.

Maps from my games: lessons I’ve learned

This is a look at overland/campaign maps from my games, not tactical ones. I’ll note a few worldbuilding/prep lessons I’ve learned along the way.

Worldbuilding is highly connected to mapmaking. You can do one without the other, but I’ve never made a map without building the world with it.

Caerune

Caerune was the second rpg I ever ran. I spent ages on this map and prepping the game every week. There are cults and lairs and dark, dangerous forests. It has theocracies, elected monarchies, tribal peoples, all of which are shown differently on the banners. The banners even tell you if the lord who resides there is a King or Duke or Count or Mayor. It also tells you which Duchy its in. I’m actually really proud of the density of political information on display in the banners.

The Isle of Caerune

But I always had to explain what the banners meant to the players so it can’t have been that good.

Lesson: Make player knowledge approximate character knowledge as early as possible

A lot of the time I spent on world building went nowhere, and on places that went unvisited. I don’t think it was wasted, but I wouldn’t want to do it again.

Below is an edit with a red line showing where the players actually went during our year long campaign.

There was a lot of There and Back Again

Lesson: Don’t spend too much effort on distant places

Since they spent so long in Barrasin, I also made a city map.

The two armies were on the same side in a developing civil war.

I think the map is fine, but it didn’t see much use. when the city was about to be besieged the players got on a fishing boat and sailed far away. This was not what I had hoped for, but I learnt a valuable lesson about game prep.

Lesson: Don’t make a city map when it’s not necessary

Shattered Isle

This was an archipelago/sailing themed game. I had learnt my lessons and didn’t spend ages on deep lore, I placed some adventures I read on the map and decided some other simple things like ‘there is a medusa on this island’ or ‘this one has loads of dinosaurs on it’. The effort level was exactly as it should have been.

This is the blank version, I had another version with everything labelled for me. The player version is lost to the mists of time.

It’s too big. Players visited hardly any of it, but at least this time lots of energy and effort wasn’t wasted. It was unclear where the focus was meant to be.

Lesson: Don’t make you maps too big

Dragon Isle

At the same time I was running a game on the fabled Isle of Dragons. I’d learnt my lessons though. The pc’s mostly came from distant lands so the character knowledge matched game knowledge. I’d read some adventures/dungeons and crafted them together onto a map, without spending too much effort on the specifics of different places. The lore came out when relevant, aided by a festival in which there was a storytelling competition. I had obvious allies, obvious threats and dubious groups who could go either way.

My biggest criticism of the map is that the island is very rectangular

I really struggle to find anything wrong about the way I set the game up. I think the only real problem was that I had 3 campaign ending threats on the board. It should have been 1 or 2. I remember the players resolving to travel to a location I didn’t really want them to go to, which was my fault as I had had NPCs present it as an option to be dismissed. They were half way stuck between being heroes and being adventurers.

Lesson: Focus the intent of the player characters precisely

Mini campaign: Thaarbi island

This game was meant to run for about 3 sessions for 2 players and ended up running for about 6 sessions. It was a character funnel using ‘level 0’ 5e characters. The premise was that an evil cleric had landed on this backwater island and summoned a shadow, which can drain the strength of its targets to make new shadows.

The island is meant to be about 20miles from top to bottom, so a bit more than a days walk, given the terrain.

This was the exact correct amount of detail and it had laser focused characters, with a clear intent – survive.

The map didn’t take too long and it did its job. The lesson here is more of a ‘what went right’ lesson than learning from your mistakes.

Lesson: Maps are tools, focus on making them useable

March of Kite

This is my ongoing Old School Essentials game. The locations are all either plucked from modules and adventures or they’re reskins of places I designed previously. The player characters are adventurers seeking to maximise their treasure, and have been employed by the local baronet, Sir Jack of Kite, to help him rid his lands of various problems.

From Kite to Brighton is about a full day’s walk, with rests etc.

This is the ugliest map of the lot. By far.

It is the most functional map of the lot.

Player knowledge equaled character knowledge very quickly because Sir Jack took the players up the nearby hill and pointed out the major locations of the valley to them.

There is no wasted prep here.

This is all probably a function of having a full time job, a baby and learning where to focus my efforts.

I’ve probably put too many adventures down on the map. There are 6 or so adventures/dungeons/modules at play here. Which leads me to a lesson that I still don’t seem to have learnt.

Lesson: However long you estimate how long it will take for players to make their way through any content, double the estimation

All the lessons in one place

  • Make player knowledge approximate character knowledge as early as possible
  • Don’t spend too much effort on distant places
  • Don’t make a city map when it’s not necessary
  • Don’t make you maps too big
  • Focus the intent of the player characters precisely
  • Maps are tools, focus on making them useable
  • However long you estimate how long it will take for players to make their way through any content, double the estimation
  • BONUS LESSON: You don’t always need a map

Space travel procedure + random space encounters

Accidental review of Star Trek Adventures

I’ve run Star Trek Adventures a couple of times now. Its core system is feels like a bespoke mechanism for treknobabble and dealing with sci-fi problems, which is pretty much exactly what I need for a trek game.

It’s space combat system feels like playing FTL: Faster Than Light, where either you wipe your enemies or you engage in a manic struggle for survival. The ground combat system is similar, but without the threat of ejection into the void or a warp-core breach.

It’s relatively difficult to find the information you need when running the game, so much so that I created this google slides doc to ease the running of combat when I was prepping my second campaign. Even then, combat took a while.

The game also has a great online character generator.

The characters pick several beliefs and then receive meta-currency for engaging with them. I struggled to make that work in my games, just as I struggled with Burning Wheel’s meta-currencies and belief system.

Star Trek Adventures has lots of material about the federation and trek-stuff in general, and I wonder what it’s for. I assume most people buying the core book know a reasonable amount about Trek already or they wouldn’t be buying it. But if you didn’t know much about Trek, the best way to find out is to watch a few episodes or movies, not read a dusty tome.

There is even a series of missions available for free on their website which I used when I was getting started. TOS and TNG eras supported.

The biggest problem I had was with a total lack of procedural tools. The game assumes you’re playing in an episodic fashion and provides no support for a sandbox. And I wanted to run a sandbox.

So I made up a space travel procedure. Below is a modified version based on what did and did not work.

Optional musical theme for this post. I used to play it at the start of every session. In the second campaign I ran I used the opening and closing credits from The Orville.

Sagittarius, by Sidney Hall and Richard Rouse Bloxam

Actual Space Travel Procedure

I’m assuming the use of a hexmap, and that each hex corresponds to a star system. Hexes can also be empty, and there are space features which span several hexes such as nebulae.

Your ship has two main actions when travelling: Scanning and Moving.

When your ship Scans, choose one option from below

  • Detailed Scan: receive detailed sensor information on any one adjacent hex (the star’s class; along with an estimate of how many space ships or other constructed space entities there are; and how many planetary bodies there are, divided into small (roughly Earth sized and smaller) and large (ice giants and gas giants))
  • Rudimentary Stellar Scan: receive sensor information about two adjacent hexes. Rudimentary sensor information just gives the class of the star (if there is one).
  • Detailed FLT trail Scan: receive detailed information about faster-than-light trails in any one adjacent hex. This might detail the number and direction of any trails, and information about the size and speed of those ships. The information may be up to a week old.
  • Rudimentary FTL trail Scan: receive information about faster-than-light trails in any two adjacent hexes. This is just an estimate of number and direction, and only pertaining to travel from the last day or so.

When you Scan you should make some sort of roll or check that will determine the quantity of information revealed.

When your ship Moves you go from your current hex to an adjacent one. Choose one option from below

  • Cruise: Travel at your ship’s standard speed. You can Move to one adjacent hex
  • Sneak: Travel at half your ship’s standard speed. You can Move half of a hex’s length and it is much harder for you to be spotted by FTL trail scans (get advantage or something)

Each day your ship can choose two actions from the above list.

  • If your ship will Cruise twice, you can go an additional hex. This is called Maximum FTL. Sustaining Maximum FTL for more than one day will require an engineering check.
  • If your ship will Scan twice, then you can scan not only adjacent hexes, but also hexes adjacent to those (ie not only the nearest 6 hexes but also the 12 hexes surrounding that.
  • Your ship can also spend its actions repairing but that is probably too system-specific to get into here.
Infrared image of the Andromeda Galaxy

Random Space Encounters

I would use a hexmap that’s about 10×10 with star systems no further than 4 hexes from each other.

Once per dey, roll on the Initial Encounter table. If you get an encounter as the result then also roll Complication table.

d6Initial EncounterComplication
1Interior EncounterInterior Encounter
2AnomalyInterior Encounter
3Exterior EncounterExterior Encounter
4No encounterExterior Encounter
5 No encounter No encounter
6No encounterNo encounter

If you want to have less encounters, keep the table the same but use a larger dice (d8/d10) and make all results above 6 result in ‘No encounter’.

If you want to have more encounters, roll for an initial encounter twice per day instead of once.

d6Anomaly
1A ripple in space-time: ship’s dog Rover is replaced with a cat from the mirror universe that acts like a dog, answers to the name Rover.
2Beachball sized orb follows the ship: Whoever looks at it sees a minaturised version of their homeworld.
3Ion storm causes a momentary lapse in holodeck safety protocols: A historical figure from a holodeck program is made material and sentient.
4Gaseous mind-parasite sneaks in through an exhaust port and infiltrates replicators: Crew’s food becomes hallucinogenic.
5A rapaciously hungry tar-like blob attaches itself to the hull causing minor damage: It will grow and devour the whole ship if left to itself. It is psychic and is very open about its desire to consume the entire universe.
6Wormhole: Takes the crew back to stone-age earth where aliens are trying to mess up the future. The wormhole will collapse in 3 hours.

As I used up events on the Interior Encounter table below, I added more events based on the actions of the party. These are intended to mostly be short social encounters which emulate day-to-day life on the ship.

d12Interior Encounter
1Cultural celebration for one of the less prominent species/cultures on the ship
2Ship’s pilot is challenged to a simulation race
3Physical poetry recital
4Barcrawl of 20th century pop-culture bars and pubs on the holodeck
53rd grade’s production of the first ever FTL flight – Senior officers are invited to performance
6Safety Drill – how to handle a virulent space-plague
7A live-action production of The Pirates of Penzance by Gilbert and Sullivan, performed by engineering
8An attempt to add obscure alien cuisine to the replicators has succeeded and the crew are invited to Exotic Food Night
9Film night and munchies after
10Chief historian interviews senior crewmembers
11Security Chief puts senior officers through a hand-to-hand combat refresher course
12Judging a contest to name a new species of space-whale
Edmund Hillary, namesake of the ship in my second campaign, the USS Hillary. In my first campaign the ship was the USS Ibn Battuta.

In the Exterior Encounters table below, roll d12 twice: the first result is the encountered ship, whilst the second is the mood/motivation of the ship. You may need to roll another ship to interact with the first one for it to make sense. I took inspiration from the random encounter tables in Hot Springs Islands which are fantastic.

The first 8 entries in the table were universal no matter which part of the hexmap the players were in. The last 4 entries changed depending on which inhabited star system they were nearest to.

Because the actual encounters were so closely related to the setting the players were exploring, I’ve genericised them below.

I also used the table below when players scanned a region of space and wanted information on the ships that were travelling through there (or had recently travelled there).

d12ShipMood/Motivation
1Merchant VesselIn distress
2Pleasure craftRepairing
3Insane raiderPatrolling
4Prospector/Mining shipAid Mission
5Archeological/Geological research vesselHunting/Gathering/Mining
6Astronomical research vesselFleeing/Pursuit
7Mind Vampire Psychological warfare frigateIn Combat
8Peacekeeper patrol cruiserCritical Emergency
9Local Merchant VesselSurveying
10Passenger ShipTrading
11Carrier GroupDiplomatic Mission
12Scout ShipEspionage

It would be perfectly possible to re-order the Mood/Motivation column and use 2d6 instead of a d12, knowing that the middle results will be weighted towards much more than the outer results.

Design Notes

I designed the above system for encounters to make it the game feel like Star Trek TNG. Some great bits of sci-fi happen in the less action/diplomacy centered moments of the show, for instance: Data’s excellent poem about his cat, Spot; Worf discussing Klingon mating rituals; and Picard Day. Moments that let us see the characters in a more relaxed setting, or that illuminate and flesh out elements of their cultures.

In my own game the internal encounter table became radically different as play went on and it was increasingly influenced by past actions of the player characters. We had a simulated paintball deathmatch to settle a point of honour; a fashion show to introduce the new ships uniforms; and holographic Steve Irwin examining the ship’s cat, Rover. Our last session had that characters playing a holonovel where they played as their characters playing characters from Robin Hood. It was very meta, very hammy and a great send-off.

The format of the new ship’s uniforms, and probably the best thing to come out of Discovery Season 2