Can Training Times Work in an RPG?

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I have seen in various roleplaying games a sort of “training time” mechanic. Basically in addition to gaining the needed experience points/levels/whatever to gain a new skill/power/attribute, your character must also devote a given amount of in-game time to training. These times pretty much invariably are too long to ever be accomplished in a typical story arc, so they seem to basically just wall off powers unless the GM basically allows a period of extended downtime between adventures for players to train, which puts the powers squarely in the realm of GM fiat.

In practice, people I play with have always ignored these rules; in my opinion, this has always led to more fun experiences. I was curious if you have ever had good experiences with these rules, or had seen a good justification for their inclusion in a system?

Thanks in advance for any insight.

Hey Sean, thanks for writing in!

You’ve hit upon a really important concept in RPGs that I wish more designers understood: real units of time, from minutes to years, are a terrible way to measure time within a game’s fiction. Small units of time are a huge pain to keep track of, so they end up being lumped together anyway. You can see this in games like Mistborn, where you’re supposed to keep track of exactly how many minutes and seconds each ability lasts. Not to be punny, but no one has time for that!

If you make the time limit long, then it’s basically off limits for most games, since few GMs are going to plan six-month breaks into their stories. This is the case for a lot of the training mechanics you’ve mentioned, whether they’re required for certain abilities or just intended as a way to get bonus XP. Burning Wheel has rules for year-long training cycles, as if most PCs go home to winter in the Shire between adventures.

And of course, the fuzziness of these time units within the fiction leads to a lot of arguments between players and the GM. No one is really sure how much time is passing because the GM needs to keep that flexible. This is vital, but it also means no one is really sure where they stand, so more assertive players will try to push things to their advantage. You see this a LOT in games like Mage, where downtime allows PCs to cook up incredibly powerful spells, and isn’t arguing about ritual times the real reason we play these games?

The only way for training time to actually work in an RPG is when it’s an abstract unit that fits into the game’s broader structure. Most systems don’t have a structure robust enough to handle this, but for those that do, this can be really fun. In Blades in the Dark and Torchbearer, training isn’t handled in days or months, but in turns during the downtime phase. This comes after an adventure phase and creates a natural rhythm for the game’s fiction.

From there, things are abstracted. A fighter’s training might just represent a few sparring matches. Meanwhile, the mage learning a new spell could represent several months of work within the fiction. What’s important is that those abilities are available now, and they’re governed by clear rules so everyone knows where they stand. The GM can still change those rules if necessary of course, but they provide a foundation on which to build.

That’s a bit beyond your question, but I just find this topic fascinating. I hope it helps!

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  1. El Suscriptor Justiciero

    This reminds me of the ‘Winter Phase’ in Pendragon: you are supposed to go adventuring in the summer, then in between adventures the party spends the winter in their fortress taking care of stuff. Would this be a good example? I have never played Pendragon so I can’t say how well it actually plays.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Depends on how it’s executed I suppose. Mouse Guard and Torchbearer both have downtime phases too, so if it works like that then it could be great.

    • Greg S

      It works beautifully in Pendragon. It works pretty well in Cubicle 7’s One Ring RPG too.

  2. BeardedLizard

    I’ve used this style of progression in my home grew for a couple of campaigns and I think it can work wonderfully if you got the right style of play and if the rules support it well enough.

    In the system I use, players are sci-fi adventurers doing jobs and living together in an apartment, base or spaceship. The game is built around a loop of : Do jobs, pay your rent, use the free time to pursuie side mission or train until you need more money so you can pay the next rent, do jobs, etc. Each day is divided into three 8H parts and the main quest is mostly delivered through the jobs the PC does. I also made it so that the better their home is, the quicker they can train new skills (but their expense will also be bigger, requiring to take more and more dangerous jobs to pay their bills).

    I found that it’s a good way to simulate the kind of ambiance you could find on the Serenity spaceship for example, or a detective agency similar to Angel’s in the buffy’s spinoff. Unfortunately, I found it also could be quite limiting in the kind of campaign you can do and still allow players to progress.

  3. GeniusLemur

    I think the central point of the “training time” idea is to make sure the players can’t spend xp in the middle of an adventure and suddenly improve/acquire skills between scenes, or in the middle of scene.

  4. Reiksson

    I have played Traveller and Runequest where both have real-time training systems which I enjoyed when we started but when down hill fast. Oren, you hit on a key thing about how hard it can be to track so in our game I created a simple app to do it (just a band-aid that meant players still had to be accountants). After a while we decided to go with “you have been rewarded with X wks of training” which at that point is just xp. Also since I run open world games where I allow my players to do whatever they want usually, it seems to make my players want to train for excessive lengths of time. The narrative time increments have been what we have a tendency to move towards when we want to keep training in the game.

  5. Shawn H Corey

    I normally GM GURPS, so when I say the PCs have more character points (XP), they can apply it right away. Think of it as a field promotion.

  6. Michael Campbell

    Actually a lot of RPGs have odd little rules that are suposed to generate adventure hooks but don’t.

    You must find a mentor. If you learn from a book, it’ll cost double XP. If you learn “the hard way” it’ll cost double again.

    Most players say; “I don’t want an adventure to raise my level 7 fencing skill to level 8.
    I’m sort-of in the middle of an adventure wherein I fight a whole frigging goblin army…one message runner or picketing squad at a time.
    And since I and my friends sort-of like this adventure we have now, I’ll just pay the quadruple price tag and keep my friends from getting bored.”

    A Game Master’s guide really should give guidance as to; what to offer to the players, when and how.

  7. Greg S

    Even if you don’t impose training rules, it can actually make story-sense to impose some kind of time limitation on adventuring. I’m a big fan of throwing the occasional year or two of downtime after a major arc.

    It took Conan something like 20+ years to go from the inexperienced barbarian/thief to King of Aquilonia.Otherwise you do some mega-campaign like Rise of the Runelords or Temple of Elemental Evil – a year or two of campaign time passes and your character advances from 1st level to 20th.

  8. Jenn H

    I don’t see the benefit of keeping track of exact times, unless there is a clear mechanic for it and there are balance issues involved. That said, I’m a fan of letting characters spend xp / level up during downtime, especially if they gain new abilities or improve abilities they didn’t use during the adventure.

    Downtime management can be kept simple by the GM allowing 1 major and several minor actions during a given block of time. They can say “2 months is enough time to craft a magic sword or a magic shield, but not both.” As long as the restrictions are consistent and reasonable, it should be fine. And it does mean the characters have to make important decisions about their priorities.

  9. Rose Embolism

    It’s rather an absolutist statment to say “The only way for training time to actually work in an RPG is when it’s an abstract unit that fits into the game’s broader structure.” Especially when I’ve seen and been in mutiple games where training time worked well.

    I would say “Training times work or don’t work depending on the type of game”. They certainly dont work well for “If this is Tuesday it must be Morder” or scripted questgames. On the other hand, we have:

    Runequest: where the week-long training times help emphasize the sandbox nature of the setting: “Well after that Lunar raid, we can either pursue them for revenge, or take time to heal and train. What do we choose?” It also, like the rules for learning spells, ot the procedures for becoming Rune Lords and Rune Priests of tying them into a community; they can’t be random murderhoboes, they have a community to return to.

    Traveller: where journeys between scenarios can take weeks or months of routine trading, and finding a patron can take weeks. Campaigns can last years of game time. The experience rules, such as correspondance courses give immediate temporary benefits to characters, and after a year, permanent ones. The system emphasizes the stretch of downtime, and the maturity of characters.

    Ars Magica: Here training is integrated into the seasons: Adventures only happen duringthe summer, when there’s nothing else that needs to be done, so what are the mages going to do with the rest of their year? Each season they have to choose whether they are going to work on their magical skills, refine VIS for magic, learn new applications of their magic, teach, or so on. the whole point of that systemm is to emphasize that running a convent isn’t a short one-and-done adventure. Learning magic is a slow process with different avenues toward mastery, one that can take a lifetime. Adventures can even be seen as interuptions to that life.

    The bottom line is to decide exactly what the game is going to try to model. If one is going for a generic “zero to hero” dungeon crawl, training time is probably a bad idea. If on the other hand one is modelling a given world that exists over time, it might well work well.

  10. Alverant

    I’m part of a Star Wars RPG organized play called SparksForce 7. To learn a new skill someone else who has the skill at a certain level higher than your stat the skill uses can teach it to you over two sessions. After that, you can use and improve the skill. (They don’t have to be there for the second session, but they can’t teach any skill until then.)

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