Something Different: Managing Time
Whether we like it or not, D&D requires that we keep track of time. How many seconds has it been since the ranger’s last turn? Is that ten-minute spell still in effect? How about the one-hour spell? My wand of magic missiles recharges at dawn, even though I’m in a dungeon (or maybe even another plane of existence) where the sun isn’t something that has a lot to do with my life. And, of course, there are rests. Long rests, and short rests, and rests that are downtime, and rests that are just long enough to cast a ritual spell… yeah, lots of ways and times to rest in D&D. In the course of running Dungeon of the Mad Mage, I’ve had to come up with ways to handle the passage of time in a place where the party might go for days or weeks without seeing the sky. Only infrequently do they find really safe places to rest, and visits to Waterdeep are few and far between when you have multiple levels of hostile dungeon between you and the surface. Downtime is minimized, because the players know that I’m constantly evolving the dungeon, and resting for a week when a day would suffice means that a week’s worth of havoc might be waiting for them next time they venture down. Along the way, I’ve had to come up with ways to handle the passage of time that aren’t specific to Undermountain, or to environments that are indifferent to days and nights in general. In this article, I’ll share how I’m forcing time in D&D to meet my needs, and even if you don’t share my problems with Undermountain, I think you (or your DM) will find some of it worth considering.
The Worst of Times?
I’m going to dive right in here, because the fact is that a lot of the time frames that we’re told to concern ourselves with in D&D gameplay are not designed to fit with each other. The problem is that the rules are written to work using a combination of ways to measure the passage of time, according to a system that is quite arbitrary, and that we end up contorting game play to fit that arbitrary system.
This article is going to introduce another system… which will also be arbitrary, actually. But the new arbitrary system is going to make our lives easier, because we’ll be able to avoid most of the contortions that make it difficult to translate between “table time” and “world time”.
Table Time, World Time, and Decision Density
First, some definitions. There are two fundamental types of time that we deal with in D&D. The first is “table time”, which is the time that takes place for players sitting around the table, and it progresses forward one real-world minute at a time. And then there’s “world time”, which is the make-believe time that passes for the characters themselves inside the make-believe world of the adventure.
If you want to skip down to the actual application of all of this, go ahead and skip down to “From Arbitrary to Better Arbitrary”, possibly stopping for the blue box in the middle. The next few sections are basically design geekery, and that’s not everyone’s thing.
Still here? Onward, then.
Table time and world time don’t always interact nicely, because world time speeds up and slows down erratically when compared to table time, depending on what the characters are doing. There’s a time-honored quip that in D&D a 4-hour hike takes 5 minutes to play through, but a 5-minute battle takes 4 hours to play through. The reason for this is that the time it takes for a player to make a decision about what their character will do next is usually about the same, no matter what the character will be doing: walking down a trail, sneaking down a hallway, and hitting an orc with a battleaxe all take a few seconds’ worth of player decision time at the table, even though the amount of world time for the character to actually do those things varies from hours to minutes to seconds.
We can think of this distortion of timescales as a matter of “decision density”. The more decisions that need to happen in a certain span of world time, the more table time will be needed for the players to make the required decisions. Overland travel requires a few decisions per hour of world time. At the other end of the scale, combat requires each individual combatant (and there will always be at least five or six of them) to make a couple of decisions per 6-second span of world time.
Enforcing Decision Density
For all of you DM’s reading this, there’s an extra takeaway here. When you’re dealing with low decision density situations, let the players take time to confer. There’s plenty of time to make plans and work out details when the characters are walking down a road. There’s even time to discuss how best to proceed when the characters are facing a puzzle, a locked door, or even one path to the left and one to the right.
However, there are times when a decision needs to be made right away. Don’t be hesitant to say “no time for a conference” and require one of the players to make a decision immediately. It’s not always the nicest thing to do, but sometimes the players are just going to need to make independent decisions that everyone will have to live with.
My personal rule of thumb for this sort of situation is to ask myself whether I would allow any ability checks, and specifically Perception checks, to be rolled in the situation at hand. If I would be okay with players rolling active Perception checks, there’s probably some time for a group discussion. However, if the situation is one where seconds matter, and making the Perception check would prevent the character from doing something else (like attacking, for instance), there’s no time to confer.
The one exception that I make to this almost constantly is allowing a player who’s planning on casting a healing spell to briefly ask if anyone needs healing. Everyone at the table has enough numbers of their own to remember without having to keep track of other players’ damage taken. Aside from that, I don’t allow players to discuss their possible spell choices or targets with the group.
Be willing to rule that a quick decision, or an independent decision, is required when it’s called for. It’s not the most popular thing to do, but it’ll keep your game running instead of bogging down over every little thing.
We can break down the relationship between table time and world time based on decision density, and the breakdown actually comes down to three basic categories. You have low-density time, where a lot of world time passes, but not much table time; this is your hike in the woods. You have high-density time, where small amounts of world time require a lot of table time; this is your combat situation, or any other encounter where turns need to be taken to figure out exactly who does what and when. Finally, you have what we might call “real time”, where table time and world time are about even; this is where the PC’s are standing around deciding what to do, while the players are sitting around deciding what the PC’s should do.
This is going to be important, because decision density is the conceptual basis for the still-arbitrary-but-better system of time scaling that this article is about. If you care about conceptual bases, that is. The practicalities are much simpler, but as usual I like to explain how and why I come up with these things, for those who are interested. And for everyone else, at least you know that I don’t just pull this stuff out of my… ear. Right, the ear.
Time Spans that Matter
Moving on, then. There are plenty of time spans that are put forth by the 5E rules, and many of them have common and direct effects on game mechanics. The time spans given below are units of world time, but more importantly they’re a specific type of world time, which we’re going to call “clock time”. Clock time just means the variety of world time that comes with a solid number of seconds, minutes, or hours attached based on explicit statements of the rules.
If we’re going to develop a system for dealing with the passage of time, there are certain time spans that need to be considered, because they are the basis by which we establish clock time. That makes them very relevant to eventually connecting world time to table time:
The Six Seconds. This is the smallest unit of world time that we need to worry about, and it’s arguably the smallest unit of world time that really exists. The combat round is 6 seconds long, which is enough time for each combatant to take their actions, and no longer. Because it’s the smallest unit of world time, it’s also the smallest span of time that spells and effects can take. For the sake of the concept, remember that everything that happens during the round actually happens simultaneously; we just have to take turns because otherwise it would be impossible to figure out, and the initiative order is just an impartial way to decide which combatants get to make their simultaneous actions “first”.
The Minute. The combat round is defined as being 6 seconds long because the designers wanted 10 combat rounds to equal one minute of time spent in combat. The minute is also relevant because it’s one of the common lengths of spells and other ongoing effects, specifically the ones that are meant to last the length of a battle and not much longer.
Now it gets a little tricky. Remember, we’re defining time spans based on decision density, so combat rounds and minutes are part of high-density time. When we start talking about lengths of more than a few minutes, we get into that real-time density, where table time and world time are running at the same rate for a while. There will be a balance to strike here when we get into the actual proposed system.
Ten Minutes. Even though this is still based around the minute and the related combat round length, we’re moving into real-time when we start dealing with spans of time that last more than a minute or two. Even really long combats seldom last more than 10 rounds, which is by definition one minute of world time. The reason that ten minutes is a relevant time span is because it’s a common duration for spells that are meant to last beyond the length of a single combat.
The Hour. The hour is solidly in low-density time, because if your players are sitting around for a literal one hour block of table time just deciding how to open a door or something, you have table management problems that are beyond the scope of this article. In terms of game mechanics, an hour is also a common duration for spells. Also, an hour is the official length of a short rest in 5E.
The Adventuring Day. This is kind of a strange one, and there are a number of different ideas out there as to what it ought to mean, and even whether it means anything at all. I’m including it because the 5E designers claim to have used it when balancing character abilities and challenge difficulties. Short version is that an adventuring day is the time between two long rests, and the party is intended to take two short rests, and engage in 6 to 8 battles of a particular difficulty, at some point during that time.
The Day. The day is important for a few reasons. For one thing, the party is supposed to take one long rest per day, which takes up eight hours of resting or sleeping time. Also, a lot of magic items recharge partially at dawn, which of course happens once a day. Finally, downtime activities and expenses, as well as the duration of spells that last a really long time, are measured in days.
So, those are the time spans that we need to be prepared to deal with for any new system of connecting world time to table time. That doesn’t necessarily mean that a revised system should be restricted based on the definitions just given, but it does mean that such a system needs to be prepared to deal with those particular time spans. We know that they will be coming up, and often, so any replacement system had better account for them.
Clocks and Mechanics
The clock time that was mentioned above is essentially our enemy here. Knowing how much world time is passing depending on the passage of table time is important, but that doesn’t mean that we need to use clock time to decide. Eventually, we’re going to get rid of clock time, because how many minutes something takes might be relevant when measuring how much time is passing, but it doesn’t matter as much when we’re talking about events happening in sequence.
An important concept here is “mechanical time”, which is kind of a hybrid of table time and world time. Mechanical time just relates to game mechanics: when a player at the table uses a game mechanic (which broadly includes every little thing that the rules allow a character to do), it results in the progression of world time based on what kind of thing the mechanic causes the character to do. This can be a confusing distinction, so let’s drill down on it a bit.
For an example, let’s consider a combat round. In table time, a combat round lasts for a few minutes, which is long enough for the players and the DM to decide what each combatant will be doing. The actions that the players and DM choose for the combatants require a certain amount of world time to complete, and we can measure that amount of world time as clock time. To get clock time, we just need to look up how many minutes and seconds the combatants’ actions will take according to the rulebooks, and then add up the numbers.
The thing to realize here is that we can get by without clock time, as long as we replace it consistently with something else. All the clock time actually tells us is how long things take in world time, and it expresses that as ticking seconds on an imaginary clock. We can replace the clock that ticks seconds with something else, and that’s where mechanical time comes in: mechanical time ticks based on the rules-based actions that are taken by individuals and groups as the adventure progresses, and it works at any decision density because the rules provide players and DM’s with the appropriate sort of actions for any level of resolution.
We can identify mechanical ticks with clock ticks, and the 5E rules lend themselves quite well to that. For example, the rules define a combat round as being six seconds long. That means that for every mechanical tick of a combatant taking actions, six seconds worth of clock ticks go by. However, the clock times are made up: maybe the combat round, which is a mechanical time span, takes 6 seconds of clock time by definition, but there’s no reason that it couldn’t be defined as 8 seconds long, or 12 seconds, or 15 seconds. Any amount of clock time that is mapped onto mechanical time is fully arbitrary… and that means that we can change it arbitrarily if we want to. And if we can change it arbitrarily, there’s no reason why we can’t arbitrarily dispense with it, and get rid of clock time ticks altogether.
The way we’re going to make a new arbitrary system of time spans that’s an improvement on the existing arbitrary system is based on mechanical times, because there’s very little ambiguity about whether a particular mechanic has been used or not. You don’t have to know that a combat round lasts six seconds in order to realize that all of the allowed combat actions have been taken. For another example, consider the long rest. According to the clock time established by the rules, a long rest takes 8 hours and can happen once per 24 hour period. To keep track of when long rests can occur according to clock time, the DM would have to keep a tally (even if it’s kind of a fuzzy rounded-off tally) of how much clock time everything is taking. Frankly, DM’s have enough plates to spin without that particular beancounting chore… clock time is complicated to measure and hard to track, and we’re better off without it.
Keeping track of time in terms of what mechanics are used is simple across the board. Minutes may be hard to track, but everyone can tell when a combat starts and ends. Hours and days can be hard to track, but it’s easy to know when a short rest or long rest has happened. That’s the core of the system: clock time can be safely ignored without sacrificing world time, as long as we have something that can stand in for clock time and tell us when actions can happen… not in reference to a clock, but in reference to other actions. That’s why we’re going to take those important time spans, and express them in terms of mechanical time. Just as long as we make sure to translate all of the necessary spans of clock time into mechanical time, we won’t need clock time anymore. And when we stop using clock time, all of the problems it causes will go away with it.
Okay, the concept phase is now over, and practical considerations are coming up next. If you’re just rejoining us, or if you’ve just been scanning along, here comes the application of the last 2500 words or so.
From Arbitrary to Better Arbitrary
So, to sum up the last few sections, there’s “table time” during which players make decisions to play the game, and then there’s “world time” that the characters experience as the adventure progresses. The way players go about playing the game is by using various game mechanics to represent their decisions, and we can talk about “mechanical time” that relates to the sequence of events that happens when mechanics are used. “Clock time” is a variation on world time, and has to do with the specific length of the time spans that we need to consider. Certain time spans come up a lot, and any system we use to replace clock time needs to be ready to handle those common time spans. If we manage the passage of world time by using mechanical time to take the place and functions of clock time, then we get world time to pass smoothly and without having to pay a lot of attention to keeping track of clock time. Whew.
So, let’s run through the major mechanical time elements, and associate each one with the clock time spans that we’ll be replacing. As with any system that we homebrew onto the rules as written, the idea here is to keep it as simple as possible, which means we’re going to keep the mechanical time elements down to just three. Also, there will be a general convention regarding mechanical time: we measure mechanical time based on the end of any time period, because we should always be able to tell when something was going on but is now over. Onward then.
For combat encounters, including any other encounters that require a turn-based approach, we really only need to worry about very short time spans. The six-second time span that defines a combat round will be unchanged, because it works just fine and also because tinkering with it would require major changes to the entire combat system.
The one-minute time span will also be assimilated here, by saying that any spell or effect that has a duration of one minute will expire at the end of the combat during which it was invoked. Almost all combats take less than a minute, which is 10 rounds, but one-minute durations will continue until the end of combat even if the combat takes more than 10 rounds. The simple reason for this is that it means the DM no longer has to count how many rounds have passed for most battles. It’s easy to know when the battle is over, because that’s mechanical time.
Also, the ten-minute time span will fit under the combat encounter umbrella for most ongoing effects, but with a bit of a tweak. If there’s an effect that relates only to combat, it continues for as long as the party stays in initiative order. Basically, as long as there’s a string of combat encounters, the ten-minute effects last until the PC’s either stop charging forward or until there are no more enemies in the area. For effects that are applicable to both combat and non-combat situations, like the fly spell, consider the ten-minute duration in terms of combat encounters plus real-time as needed: don’t actually set a ten-minute timer, but figure that the spell should last for about ten minutes of table time as long as the PC’s aren’t in combat. For effects that have no combat use, like the speak with dead spell, table time minutes correspond directly with world time minutes.
Because working in real-time can be very unfamiliar to many players (we’re so used to erratic clock times by now), DM’s need to make sure that everyone understands when real-time is being used. It needs to be especially clear that time spent discussing what to do next counts towards any effect durations; the DM might want to give a warning that “your spell is about to end, so make your final decision now if you want to use it one more time” in these cases.
Anything that takes more than ten minutes but less than an hour is over at the end of the next short rest. Simple as that. You’re not going to find a lot of time spans that are more than an hour long but less than 6 or 8 hours long, but just in case you do, roll them at your discretion into short rests, or else into long rests.
Any effect that takes several hours (deliberately vague on my part) is over at the end of the next long rest. This can be a little tricky, because “several hours” is open for interpretation. Also, there are a few places where the long rest restriction doesn’t need to apply. Not that it can’t apply, but you might decide to make some exceptions.
Most long-lasting spells or similar ongoing effects that last longer than an hour will last at least 6 to 8 hours or longer. Whether any particular effect meets the “several hours” standard is a DM call to make, and I’m not going to spell it out more than that: do what makes the most sense. This means spells that last more than about 6 hours last until the end of the next long rest, and so the party will get more mileage out of those spells. But it balances out: ongoing effects that last for one day or less also expire at the end of the next long rest, which means that some of your 24-hour spells might get cut a bit short. For effects that last more than one day, someone will have to keep a tally of how many long rests have passed; I generally pass responsibility for that sort of thing to the player whose effect it is.
Also, anything that happens at a set time of day, like dawn or midnight, happens at the end of a long rest. This is especially useful in adventures where the party doesn’t see the open air very often, like in mega-dungeons or the Underdark. Not a lot of relevance for “dawn” when you’re underground. Bear in mind, DM’s, that if there’s a reason for a particular event to happen during a particular time of day, don’t just align it exactly with a long rest anyway. If the Sword of Divine Dawnbeams is supposed to regain charges at dawn, just mark down the end of the relevant long rest and then narrate the recharge to coincide with the next sunrise.
I mentioned that there are cases where exceptions might be in order, and one of those is travel time. If you have a campaign that involves a significant amount of traveling from place to place, it might be a good idea to actually determine distance traveled by hours in order to make the travel logistics work out. (There are some decent guidelines for this in the PHB and the DMG if you need a place to start, although I recommend using them to estimate rather than as a hard-and-fast limit.) An example here would be when the players have to decide how far and how fast to travel in order to arrive at their destination by a certain target time, or to avoid having to spend the night in the Forest of Dangerous Uncertainty, or that sort of thing.
On the other hand, you might find it easiest to just round off travel times to the nearest day: the party sets out at the end of a long rest (waking up in the morning), and they arrive at a suitably distant destination by the time they need another long rest (arriving before dark). It might also be reasonable in this sort of case for the party to stop short of their destination in order to take a long rest after being battered around by the hazards of the road. Of course, there’s no reason you can’t mix and match these approaches.
Rests, Clock Time, and the Adventuring Day
As long as we’re talking about arbitrary systems of time, let’s take a look at the time restrictions on short and long rests, and how they fit into the “adventuring day” put forth by the DMG. Again, there’s plenty of controversy about how meaningful and useful the adventuring day is, but I think we can settle some of that in this article as well. After all, we’re making changes to clock time as it relates to mechanical time already, so let’s go big instead of going home.
The Length of Rests
In the PHB, short rests are defined as taking one hour to complete, and long rests require 8 hours to complete and are limited to one long rest per 24 hours. The fact is that both of these are rather arbitrary, and neither one makes so much sense in terms of a fantasy game world that it should be an absolute requirement. The important factors for taking rests should be time and safety, meaning that as long as the party has sufficient time to spend, and that they have a place relatively free of danger to spend that time in, they should be able to take rests without a lot of the time restrictions in the official rules. Again, we’re replacing clock time with mechanical time wherever we can, and the taking of rests definitely counts as mechanical time.
If you think about what a short rest entails, there’s really no reason that a full hour is needed. Mechanically, a short rest provides a chance to roll hit dice to regain some HP, resets some character abilities (like Second Wind for fighters), and allows some other character abilities to be used (like Arcane Recovery for wizards). In terms of what’s happening in the game world, I envision this as taking some time to bandage wounds (that would be the hit dice), and to take a deep breath for focus (the character abilities). Neither of those things requires a full hour; in fact, you might only need a few minutes between battles. My revision of short rests is that they require only a few minutes of time and safety.
And yes, the bit about which effects stop at the end of a short rest still holds, even if the short rest doesn’t take an hour anymore. We still need that demarcation, where the short rest is a comma and the long rest is a period. Short resting provides a benefit, and ending a medium-duration spell is just a possible offset detriment. If that bothers you, just keep the short rests an hour long, and avoid the problem entirely; it’s really a matter of preference.
A long rest is by necessity more involved, but it doesn’t need to be spelled out quite as much as it is in the PHB. The official length of a long rest is 8 hours, which no doubt is based on the idea that you “need 8 hours to get a good night’s sleep” in the real world. Also, the rules as written say that you can only take a long rest once per 24 hours, which aligns with the fact that most of us only get a good night’s sleep once per day, and can’t really get a lot of extra benefit for sleeping 16 hours a day instead of 8. I prefer to leave the hours for a long rest, and the hours between long rests, to be rather unspecified. In terms of time and safety, what’s needed is “a few hours” of time (also deliberately vague on my part), and a place where the party won’t be interrupted; in terms of game play, I generally let the players know if a particular place in which they want to take a long rest is suitable. If the place isn’t quite suitable, but they want to try a long rest anyway, I generally roll some dice to see if enemies end up interrupting the rest or not, based on the situation and locale.
While we’re talking about long rests, I recommend that you completely ignore the part in the PHB about how much interruption will spoil a long rest, because it operates based on clock time; I personally just make a long rest ineffective if it’s interrupted, and it works out fine that way. Besides, the official PHB version is that a long rest fails if more than one hour of non-resting activity happens during the rest period. Consider how many one-minute battles could fit into that hour, and then ask yourself if the one hour span makes any sense at all.
Waiting Without Resting
Something that needs to be mentioned in this discussion is how to handle situations where the party needs to spend time waiting, but not necessarily resting. There shouldn’t be any problem with allowing the players to specify an amount of time that they plan to wait before proceeding with the adventure. Waiting for an hour for the change of guards before breaking into the castle, or waiting until twilight to sneak up on the hobgoblin camp, or just waiting until whenever the baron returns from the fox hunt… there’s no reason why that should cause any trouble for this system.
If the party will be waiting around for a significant period of time, it’s good for the DM to offer an opportunity to rest while waiting, if the situation otherwise meets the safety and time requirements for a rest. If the players don’t want to use up a rest (having a limited number of rests will be coming up shortly), they can wait without gaining resting benefits at their discretion.
Just remember that it might be necessary to roll random encounters or other complications that can come up for a party that’s just hanging around for whatever reason; choosing the opportune moment is a good strategy, but it doesn’t necessarily come without risk.
I also don’t restrict the number of long rests to a certain number per day, because that leads to some foolishness that is best avoided. But, to get into that, let’s take a look at…
The Adventuring Day
To boil it down to its simplest form (ha ha, you’ll see), the basis of the Adventuring Day is the idea that a balanced party (of 4 or 5 characters, requiring an adjustment for smaller or larger parties), encountering balanced challenges (calculated by party level, enemy CR, and number of enemies), should be able to handle 6 to 8 medium encounters (calculated based on the above, and referencing a table in the DMG) in the time between long rests, with about 2 short rests in the middle. This is based on a lot of rather speculative numbers, many of which are subject to various multipliers and adjustments in case you don’t have a standard party, standard monsters, standard number of enemies, and so forth. For the purposes of this article, I’m not going to get into the issues of CR, party levels, encounter thresholds, and so forth. Maybe someday, but not today, and not tomorrow either. Right now I only care about the rests.
The defined number of rests that the party should be taking between long rests doesn’t work nearly as well as it’s supposed to, so while we’re tinkering with measuring time already, let’s just fix adventuring day resting as well. In fact, we’ll have to fix it, because at this point some of you might be wondering exactly how I’m planning on letting the party take really short short rests, and also take long rests while ignoring that 24-hour time limit.
Long Rests, Waiting Around, and the 15-Minute Work Day
A common objection to the notion of the adventuring day is that the party could potentially just take a long rest after every battle, essentially allowing them to recharge all of their HP, spell slots, and abilities before every combat. This is often referred to as the “15-minute work day”, but I honestly think that if players are trying to manipulate the rules in that way then there are more problems at the table than just an abundance of easy battles. Aside from that, and as you might recall from a few sections ago, I’m actually suggesting that you not hold fast to the idea that long rests must take a certain amount of time, or that they must be spaced out a certain amount.
For one thing, I think that the requirement for long rests to occur only once every 24 hours results in a lot of silliness. Let’s suppose that the PC’s wake up in the morning feeling nice and fresh, and head down the road on their way to the Ominous Tower to rescue the beautiful wizard from the evil princess. On the way, the road falls out and they end up in a pit trap full of spikes, and then the spikes fall out and they end up in a pit trap full of acid, and then they climb out only to have to do battle with territorial dryads riding rabid unicorns. They manage to survive this string of misfortunes, but their HP and spell slots are heavily depleted. They certainly don’t want to arrive at the Ominous Tower thus weakened, so the thing to do is to take a long rest and recover… but wait! It’s only been 3 hours since breakfast, which means that they’ll have to wait almost an entire day before they can take a long rest again. A day of not really doing anything, except for waiting out the hours until the long rest is available. Maybe further misfortunes will befall them while they sit around twiddling their thumbs…
So… Why Are We Doing It Like This?
This is an obviously contrived situation, but there’s a certain amount of relevance here. The reason that long rests are defined as limited by the passage of time is because long rests have a lot of powerful benefits, and the game designers didn’t want them to be overused. And I agree, as far as that goes: providing unlimited long rests would completely skew the game balance. Allowing unlimited short rests would also be a problem, because a lot of character resources come back every time a short rest is taken. However, there’s a way other than mandatory time constraints to prevent too much resting… the DM can just give the players a certain number of rests that they can take. They can save them until they need them, and decide when their need to rest outweighs the benefit of saving the rest until later. When they run out of accumulated rests, they can’t take any more rests until they earn some back.
Rests as a Limited Resource
To finish off this article and complete the time management system, there needs to be a way in which the players are given a limited number of rests. If they have to economize on the number of rests they take, then we dodge the problem of having to wait around several hours before taking the next long rest, which in turn fixes the adventuring day basically by making it obsolete: the notion of structure based on a ratio of number of battles to number of rests, based on clock time, is meaningless when we get rid of clock time and allow the party to rest as they need to. The trick is to figure out how many rests the party should be able to take, and then to decide when to replenish their supply.
Long rests need to be limited, because we’re removing the limiting factor of one long rest per 24 hours; there will need to be something else to prevent excessive long resting. Also, short rests need to be limited, because there are lots of character resources that replenish after a short rest: warlock spell slots, ki points, and so forth. The need to limit short rests is especially important if you’re planning on allowing 5-minute short rests, because decreasing the time required makes resting easier: time and safety are limiting factors for all rests, and needing only a short amount of time and brief safety for a short rest means the party can take more of them, as opposed to one-hour short rests which require more time and a safer location.
The way to do this is to award the players a certain number of rests based on relevant occasions, which they can accumulate and then “spend” as they like. That doesn’t mean that they can take a long rest any time or any where, because a safe place and a few hours are required, but it does mean that if they want to gain the benefits of a long rest more than once per 24 hours clock time, then they’re allowed to do it as long as they have sufficient long rests built up.
In its simplest form, the DM just has to award a certain number of short rests and a certain number of long rests to the party. This can be based on progress, such as awarding rests when adventure goals are met, or on merit, sort of like a party-wide inspiration. Based on my experience, the way to do this that requires the least brain-space for the DM is to award rests based on game sessions. My game sessions are usually about 4 hours long (including distracted and BS-ing time), and one long rest and two or three short rests per game session seems to be a reasonable amount. You can always tweak that to suit the group, the overall difficulty of the adventure, and your usual session length.
I expanded my own system of awarding rests to include an hourglass (often called a sand timer), which takes one hour of table time to empty; when the sand runs out, the players gain one short rest that they can then spend when needed, and they can also combine two short rests to gain a long rest instead. I also give them a long rest for free every session, and that makes their “rest bank” balance fairly well. They actually end up gaining rather more rests than they need to spend during the actual adventuring parts of the campaign, but they also burn through several long rests every time they return to town to recover, shop, and take their downtime, so it works out well overall.
By the way, you can always use a digital timer to mark the time if you want to try something along these lines, but the hourglass is a nice touch, especially if you’re an analog junkie like me. You can find sand timers of all sizes on Amazon fairly easily; I think mine cost about $25 (USD) for the one-hour glass and a bonus five-minute glass. I like the five-minute glass to place extra time pressure on the group occasionally when there are puzzles or riddles to be solved.
Out of Time
That brings this article to an end. Just to review, the heart of the improved timekeeping system is using the game mechanics of combat and resting to measure how world time is progressing without having to resort to clock time. There are certain important spans of clock time that come up frequently in the rules, and as long as those are reasonably mapped onto the mechanics, the system can be both simple and (largely, because there are always exceptions) comprehensive.
In order to make the system as a whole work, rests need to be a limited resource. However, they don’t need to be limited based on clock time, which causes all sorts of awkwardness. It’s easy to award rests based on adventure progress, as rewards for worthy play, or by table time. This will vary by group, but it’s not difficult to get it tuned to your own group’s style of play. Don’t worry about giving out too many rests and breaking the rest economy; there are always the time and safety requirements as a further check on excessive resting.
So, I hope that you find this useful at your table, and that it saves some hassle with trying to keep track of table time, world time, and clock time all at once. As with all of my homebrewed rules changes, the idea here is to take something unnecessarily complicated and replace it with something else that’s simple and intuitive to use (even if the design steps are verging on the esoteric). Honestly, I think we all have better and more fun things to worry about in D&D than how much clock time things are taking… especially if we mostly don’t need to know.