Calendars

What does your game calendar really need to do for you?  In D&D, just as in the real world, calendars are methods of tracking the passage of time over long periods, generally through the observation of astronomical events, but possibly other regular (and preferably predictable occurrences).  The reasons why we have different calendars throughout the real world is that they are all designed to emphasize different things as they mark time.  Real-world calendars are typically based on either the motion of the Earth around the sun, the motion of the Moon around the Earth – or perhaps both.  It is because these are not simple, clockwork motions which are precisely the same all the time and easily divisible into regular, equal units of measurement that our real world calendars can become very complex.

The simplest measurement of time over a relatively short duration is the length of the day – how long it takes the Earth to spin completely around on its axis.  So, EVERY calendar in the world uses that as a basic unit of measurement – all calendars are marked in days.  But the total of days is not an evenly divisible number within the time it takes for other astronomical events to occur.  For example, the time it takes the Earth to complete a revolution around the Sun is 364.24219 days (or thereabouts).  That’s an extra Ľ day that sneaks in every year largely accounted for in the Gregorian calendar with Leap Year.  It’s a phenomenon that all real-world calendars have to account for in one way or another.  It doesn’t improve if your calendar is based on the motion of the Moon around the Earth.  That is easily observed as the time between one new moon and the next.  That takes 29.5305886 days so again you don’t have an evenly divisible number to correspond to the basic unit of one day for marking that lunar cycle.  While simply alternating the measurement of that cycle between 29 and 30 days will account for most of it you will STILL have error in your calendar.  At some point it will become necessary to correct it, say by adding another day every 32 lunar months, or else it will become obvious that your calendar is not doing what it needs to do.

So let me restate a question – what is it that a calendar NEEDS to do?  The answer depends on what your society finds important.  If, for example, you worship the full moon you simply need to mark precisely when that will be and the rest of the calendar may be unimportant (as in not needing to precisely mark the length of the seasonal year.)  For the real world Christian calendar (the Gregorian calendar) the importance was in knowing exactly when to mark the celebration of Easter.  In a fantasy world it may only be important to know when the comet that is prophesied to destroy the world will return.  If it returns every 253 years then the calendar will be concerned with marking time in 253 year periods more than anything else, perhaps by counting DOWN every year until year 0 when the comet will return and (maybe) destroy the world.

What you’re going to notice in looking at fantasy world calendars is that they are almost entirely concerned with marking events that occur every year – holy days or festivals for example, but seldom indicate WHY the calendar is otherwise arranged as it is.  There are plenty of websites where you can read all about various real-world calendars, how they came to be used, how they have been changed, and how they work.  I have no desire to repeat a lot of that although a certain amount is necessary and useful when deciding how (and why) to organize a calendar for your RPG world as you will.  Maybe the best way to go about this is to simply list the ways in which calendars are divided and then leave it up to you to decide whether and why those divisions should be different from the real-world calendar.  What I hope to actually discourage is the use of a weird calendar just for the sake of being different from the real-world without explanation or background that accounts for the differences.  If you're going to use an odd calendar then you ought to have a role-playing or game design reason for bothering to do so.

Take the calendar that everyone is going to be familiar with – the Gregorian calendar.  It is based on a calendar originally used by the Romans which was a disastrous mess.  It started on March 1, had 10 months and was 304 days long followed by an unnamed and unnumbered winter period.  The days were not numbered in ascending sequence but as, “'x' number of days before...” relative to three specific days in each month.  It was heavily manipulated for purely political reasons (such as in order to keep favored politicians in office) by inserting days and even months of time into it.  In 45 BC Julius Caesar had had enough of it and instituted reforms to create the Julian Calendar which would be used to keep time without the calendar being altered for casual, personal reasons.  Later, Pope Gregory XIII had some corrections made to the Julian calendar because it was still much too inaccurate, and to better determine when to mark Easter.  This is the current Gregorian calendar used throughout the Western World, although several other calendars are still being used – even simultaneously.  For example we mark Hanukkah not by looking at the Gregorian calendar but by use of the Hebrew calendar and then transposing.  And of course many people also note the passage of the New Year on the Chinese calendar and similar events.

Making Your Game World's Calendar

The first thing you can mess with is the length of the day itself.  I wouldn’t really recommend it.  It’s less well-suited for a fantasy game than speculative science fiction about how more/less daylight hours affect weather, seasons, and secondarily the social and cultural developments.  Players, as a rule, need to be grounded in a fair amount of reality.  In a game where you’re postulating all kinds of radical changes because the length of the day itself is radically changed players are going to spend more time wrestling with practical scientific aspects of your game world rather than simply enjoying playing the development of their characters.

Next, we can simply look at the divisions for real-world calendars – the number of months in a year, the number of days in a month, and periodic adjustments to the length of these in order to keep a calendar accurate and consistent.  This is where the fun really begins.

I would recommend not straying too far from real-world examples, and for precisely the same reasons that I recommend not changing the length of the day at ALL.  It’s here that you can most easily impart to players the idea that the world their characters are in is not quite the same as the real world, but too large of a change and the calendar draws excessive attention or even becomes annoying in its intrusion.  It can actually detract from a game to attempt to force players to pay strict attention to a calendar that is not actively contributing to their enjoyment of the game world.

Aside from that – go crazy.  If you need a recommended range for your changes I’d keep the year between 300 and 400 days to eliminate the need to account for much longer or shorter seasons in your worlds weather.  The number of months is largely irrelevant but again I’d recommend keeping between 10 and 14, though that would be for maintaining a useful degree of familiarity among players rather than the logical effect it would have on your campaigns physical environment.  You can arrange the days of your year however you like.  In fact, one of the most frequent changes seen is dividing the months into weeks of anywhere between 5 and 10 days rather than 7.  The greatest advantage of this is just in making the organizing of days in a month easier.  More numbers are likely to be divisible by 5 or 10 than 7.  I’d urge you to keep in mind that a little can go a long way in making these changes.  The more you play around with the life-long conventions players are familiar with in timekeeping the greater the chance that players will not be able to relate to keeping track of time in your game world.  Your game calendar still needs to fulfill the functions that it would if it were in the real world – it needs to be able to provide the users with a means to predict the arrival of regular future events and measure the passing time for other social and cultural purposes.

There are simply too many reasons to arrange a fantasy calendar in a given way to go into them all.  You want your calendar to truly reflect your game world and enhance your player’s interest in it as a result, rather than distract from game-play.  That means you need to think about how and why the peoples in your game think the way they do about time.  For example, you couldn’t even count the number of fantasy games where a barbarian’s age is measured in the number of "winters" he’s lived through.  But what if winter (or also commonly other seasons) isn’t the dominant means of marking another year but instead it’s a bi-yearly event like the phases of a small, red moon?  Instead of assuming manhood after 12 winters a character might only reach the age of majority after he sees the “Great Red Star” return for the 7th time?  Would the calendar then be arranged in lengths of two “years” at a time, effectively making one year for the barbarians equivalent to the passage of eight consecutive seasons instead of four?  How does the “Great Red Star” affect other lunar-related events like lycanthropy?  What if there’s more than one moon (a common fantasy notion)?

Occasionally, the attempt to create an accurate calendar could create an event in and of itself.  In this case I’m thinking of something like Leap Year.  In the real world every fourth year has an additional day added on to February to maintain accuracy.  In a fantasy setting you’d be missing a real trick not to assign some other significance to Leap Day.  The Forgotten Realms, for example, names its Leap Day “Shieldmeet” and takes place in mid-summer.  It is (to paraphrase) a day for tournaments, dating agreements, open councils, somber ritual and wild celebration all depending on where you are in the Realms.

But something very important to keep in mind is that because it IS a fantasy world you don’t need to have oddball days like Leap Day.  A fantasy calendar can be precisely 24 hours in a day, exactly 360 days per year (not a second more or less), and have a moon that completes a cycle every 30 days without a nanosecond’s variation.  That in and of itself can be enough of a distinction between your fantasy world and the real world to suffice.  The creativity would come in the way you explain WHY the calendar is so clockwork-precise.  Or perhaps the NPC’s who made the calendar are dead wrong.  What happens if people who rely on their calendar find out that it’s inaccurate and the degree of its error is now at ludicrous proportions just before an important calendar-predicted event is supposed to occur?

One last thing to mention before giving some examples is the names that relate to a calendar.  I don’t think I should need to tell you that making up new names for “year”, “hour”, “day” and so forth is going to wear thin awfully fast.  Think the old “Battlestar Galactica” TV series.  Yarons, sentons, sectons, gluons, and morons or whatever else it was they were using - nobody but the most fanatical fans really knew.  You had to figure it out from context which wasn't always easy.  If one character said to another, "Detonate the bomb 2 sectons after I leave," does he mean 2 minutes, 2 seconds, 2 HOURS?  A little of this kind of thing (very little) goes a long, long way.  That extends down to providing names for the days of the week and the months.  If you expect your players to use all the names you make up you’d better make sure they know that.  Give them each a nice calendar that shows them all the equivalents so that they know that when you say “Frostdeath” you mean the equivalent of December (not April, or Tuesday or Leap Year), that Torbrek is the equivalent of Friday, and so forth.  Personally, I have never had players who gave much thought at all to the calendar so all the nuances and funny names were absolutely lost on them right at the start.  I ran Forgotten Realms games for a decade but I simply used the Gregorian calendar throughout and they never really knew or cared - and because game events that the player characters were concerned with were never tied closely to what the calendar happened to read it didn't matter.  Don’t put too much effort into your game calendar if it’s going to be wasted effort.  Even if you’re doing it all for your own amusement don’t expect your players to be as amused as you.

The calendars below are color-coded not just for visual interest but to indicate seasons.  Blue = winter.  Green = spring.  Yellow = summer.  Brown = autumn.

A Basic, Generic Fantasy Calendar

You could just use a standard Gregorian calendar but there are a few drawbacks to that.  The Gregorian calendar is oddball – it has to be in order to accurately represent the real world which doesn’t keep an even, orderly schedule.  That’s why you normally have 28 days in February instead of 30 or 31; an indivisible 365-day year instead of a more cooperative 360; leap years, and more.  The one real advantage to using the real world Gregorian calendar is that a DM can use real-world calendar tools like desk planners, day-runners, wall calendars, or the like to keep track of time in the campaign.  The downside is that in keeping truly accurate track, every year is different from the year before.  The date and days of the week are not the same month to month or week to week, much less year to year.

This generic fantasy calendar is a bit of a compromise between an utterly bland, even, regular fantasy calendar and the real world.  It has 12 months with varying periods of 30 and 31 days.  January, April, July, and October have 31 days, the rest have 30.  That’s 364 days.  Why 364 and not 360?  Because with 364 days in a year you have 52 full 7-day weeks.  With 364 you also can evenly synchronize a full 28-day lunar cycle to the calendar year.  All of which means your campaign timekeeping and records are perfectly regular and you don’t have to arrange a new calendar for every game year to keep the names of the weekdays and lunar phases in their proper places.  Every calendar year is exactly like the last.  And speaking of the lunar cycle it is timed in this example to provide a full moon on October 31st (Halloween) simply to show how it can be manipulated.

If you feel you just have to have a 365-day year you can just add an extra day as a “festival” day wherever you want and don’t count it as part of any month or assign it a weekday. Just assume it gets “shoehorned” in and ensures that things keep in sync.  The festival day doesn’t have to stay in the same place every year either.  For example, in even years you could add it between January 15th and 16th and in odd years between July 15th and 16th (mid-winter or mid-summer).

The Wilderlands Calendar

Known as Balozkinar’s Corrected Commoners Calendar (BCCC) from the Wilderlands setting by Judges Guild.  This graphical representation makes a few assumptions about the calendar because the provided information in the Players Guide is not comprehensive.  Based on the names of the months it appears to me that the BCCC New Year begins with the spring, not in mid-winter like the Gregorian calendar so I’ve arranged it accordingly.

Secondly I provided lunar phases.  Now there’s no mention in the Wilderlands Players Guide about the lunar cycle at all, so for no particularly compelling reason I decided it to be 15 lunar cycles of 24 days to enables the lunar cycle to fit evenly into a 360-day year but forgot that the BCCC year is 365 days.  I changed it to 13 lunar cycles per year of 28 days each (364 total).  That means the match of dates to the lunar phases regresses by another day each year.  Any other lunar pattern could be applied to the calendar (and in the Judges Guild's promulgated spirit the judge of the individual campaign can make any changes he likes to the calendar - and it seems he MUST make up his own lunar cycle as I've not seen any information anywhere that provides it.)

As a side-note: although it isn’t noted in the Players Guide, Bob Bledsaw, the creator of the setting, has stated on the message boards for Judges Guild/Necromancer Games that there is a stellar band across the sky of the Wilderlands.  During the day it is pale blue.  At night it glows silvery with tinges of scarlet.  Every 52 years the band turns golden for a period of 90-96 days.  It is this phenomenon that becomes a regular 52- and 104-year marker for the Wilderlands calendars.

The Forgotten Realms Calendar of Harptos

Probably the second most familiar calendar to players because the Realms has been so pervasive for so long.  It consists of 12 months of 30 days each arranged in 10-day weeks (called Rides in the setting).  In addition there are 5 festival days throughout the year in between certain months to make a 365-day year.  Every four years an extra festival day is added, called Shieldmeet.  In other words, except for having rearranged some deck chairs the Realms calendar is all but identical to the real-world Gregorian calendar.

The moon, Selune, makes 48 equal revolutions every four years.  The leap day that is added every fourth year enables the lunar cycles and the calendar to stay in synchronization.  So, for practical purposes a DM can simply have a full moon on the first of every month without having to worry about the minor leftovers of time.

If anything this is perhaps an even simpler calendar than could be expected for a fantasy game.  My only real objection is the use of 10-day weeks because it is a span of time that players themselves simply do not have as ready a grasp of as they do a 7-day week.  But it’s a minor objection easily written off as being the desired indication to players that this is NOT the real world.

The Greyhawk Calendar

The Greyhawk Calendar is perhaps more of the clockwork-style of calendar I would normally expect to see in a fantasy campaign.  It has 12 months of 28 days each, each with four 7-day weeks.  To make the calendar more closely approximate the length of the real world year there are four additional weeklong festival periods between certain months.  This makes a 360-day year.  The lunar cycle of 28 days fits exactly into the year with no need for leap days or other odd calculations.

The Eberron Calendar

Now this is just a little too simplistic for my tastes, but I have to confess that its very simplicity has appeal and I’ve considered using a calendar exactly like it before.  As I’ve stated, an overly-complex calendar can be a waste of time if it doesn’t do anything to really add to the campaign.  The Eberron calendar is 12 months of 28 days in 7-day weeks for a short 336-day year.  That’s it.  No extra festival days or leap days.  The lunar cycle is a bit different.

Eberron has 12 small moons and, depending on the month, each of the 12 in turn reaches its apogee and dominates the sky during that month.  This makes tracking phases of the moon on the calendar rather superfluous.

Using the Calendar In-Game

As mentioned way up at the top the purpose of a calendar in D&D is for tracking the passage of time.  Generally, the person at the table with the greatest need to do that is the DM.  It's another reason why players tend to be much less interested in the details of the game calendar - because they don't need to track time like the DM does.  It's best to have something like the graphical calendars as presented above for players to consult if there are significant changes in how the calendar is arranged and if there are alternate names that they are expected to use.

For taking notes you need something other than the graphical displays above.  This does not have to be anything fancy.  In fact, for the vast majority of my 30+ years of gaming I've used nothing more exotic than basic notebook paper.  It's always served the purpose, but it's not at all sexy or fun and DM's need a certain amount of gimmicks and widgets like this just for the fun of it.  Many years ago when Dragon magazine was still being published they printed a series of special time-keeping charts.  They had different ones for tracking years, days, months, hours, even rounds.  The only one I saw a use for was a calendar-month chart similar to this one:

This is a simple, blank, generic form that is adaptable to lots of calendars as described above up to 35 days.  You can print this very one out or draw something like it in your word processor or a paint program.  You can even just use a ruler and pen on blank paper, then take it to a store to photocopy, or scan it and print copies at home as you need them.  I drew this up using Campaign Cartographer so I can resize or modify it any way I care to with minimal effort.  Depending on the extent of changes you make to your game calendar you might even be able use desktop/wall planners, day-runners/appointment books, or even schedulers in Blackberrys, Palms or the like.  If not an actual calendar application then just some kind of notepad app would suffice.

As far as WHAT to note on a sheet like the above, well that's for you to decide.  I've always just limited it to the briefest of notes to refresh my memory about PC and NPC travels, plan out near-future events (within a few days or weeks), and keep tabs on things the PC's are doing.  A few sample entries on ANY time-keeping sheet might look like this:

Feb. (Yarubref) the 2nd, Tuesday (Saltday)
Party finds the dungeon.  Falstaff killed by an orc, reincarnated as a turnip.  Dungeon cleared.  Party heals up that night for trip back to town.

Feb. 3, Wednesday (Yarubref, Sneezeday)
Party begins trip back to town.  No encounters.  Arrives Feb. 6.  Marcus finishes making his poison and begins prep to assassinate Falstaff on Feb. 7.

Concluding…

All of the above calendars are good examples that you can base your own calendar upon.  Whether you want simplicity and ease of use, or a complexity that is closely tied to campaign occurrences you’ll find something useful above, either in the examples provided or in the notations on how/why to design a calendar.

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