Fantasy Timekeeping without the Sun

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A while ago, a friend was talking about running an Underdark-style campaign in a world of his own creation, and was stuck on how people would tell time and handle scheduling/logistics without the sun. The official Underdark uses various forms of magic for this purpose, and it was clear that he wanted something similar that made sense in his campaign. But I reached a different conclusion:

What if societies living underground didn’t actually keep careful track of time?

In the real world, humans deprived of time indicators will usually settle on a circadian rhythm of a little more than a day, but the exact amount varies from person to person. Fantasy races, particularly the long-lived elves and dwarves so common in stocking local underworlds, might have an even longer one. Deprived of an external conception of a day, does a dwarf sleep the same number of times as a human in a given lifespan, the dwarf’s days just longer?

From day to day, in pre-industrial societies, loose timekeeping by the sun has a lot to do with just making maximum use of the sunlight. You don’t want to be caught hunting far from the village when it gets dark, or fail to get vital chores done around the farm that you can’t do in the dark and which won’t keep until tomorrow. But if your fantasy underworld already supposes some form of chemical or magical artificial light, the actual time of “day” doesn’t make much difference to your ability to function.

Longer-form timekeeping is mostly for tracking the seasons, primarily for food production and preparing for winter. But, again, presumably whatever climate and food sources prevail underground don’t really vary that much over the course of a “year.” You only really care how long things take if you’re reliant on shipments from outside your locale, and I argue that you can just as easily judge those by consumption as on time (e.g., “We usually put in a new order for grain from the surfacers when the silos are about half empty, and it winds up showing up in time.”). Rules of thumb based on travel can also emerge (“The regional peddler usually has done three circuits through his territory by the time the grain shipment comes in, and he’s done four so it’s well late.”).

At the very least, a campaign predicated on fuzzy timekeeping would be an interesting head trip. GMs would have to revise their descriptive language. Instead of, “it takes you until noon to get to the ruins,” you say, “it takes you a little while to get there, and you’re starting to get hungry.” You have to track sleeps instead of days and distances traveled instead of hours. I suspect the feel of the campaign could become rather dreamlike, particularly in long journeys through the dark that take as long as they take.

It could also result in some interesting fodder for worldbuilding:

  • Chaotic societies are always awake. Each individual sleeps when his or her own circadian rhythm calls for it, resulting in a haphazard rotating schedule. Canny adventurers can wait for an opportunity when most of the guards happen to sync up their sleep and the fortress is understaffed.
  • Lawful societies are regimented by the ruler’s preferred rhythms, employing loud bells and civil employees to wake the populace with their leaders, and trying to regiment the day as best as possible. Without access to a true mechanical clock, however, it’s all guesswork leading to a layer of frustration and sleep deprivation among many.
  • Crafters, particularly high-end ones, will complete your item at some arbitrary point in the future but can’t give you any specifics. Dwarves are especially likely to zone out on a job: the item you ordered is twice as good as you expected, but showed up excessively long after you needed it.
  • Time varies drastically from region to region, even in lawful societies, as it’s hard to maintain any kind of regularity across distance. Passage from place to place is a strange dream where it’s never the time you expected when you return.

Ultimately, I think it would be an interesting experiment in making the Underdark feel truly alien to the surface world. You go beneath the world and lose time upon your return… not from any faerie magic, but just because of your own untrustworthy internal clock.



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Staring into the Darkness

Hell is underground. In the depths of the mines, in the heart of caves, in the far reaches of ancient cities, it waits. It claws into the darkness of the underworld, flowing through it like sludge through the seas, looking for a way out to the sky. Things move in the hell-tainted darkness, formed from nightmare and black light. They dig towards the surface, lay traps, and always seek to claw their way into our world. Sometimes, they find it, breaking open a dungeon maw, their corruption spreading across the night to terrorize nearby innocents until driven back inside by the dawn.

These assaults inevitably inspire heroes to rise up, put down the incursion, and seek to seal the newly opened dungeon. Sometimes, it is enough to collapse the entrance and hope it will be years, again, before something else digs free. Others establish a vigil of light at its gate, burning great fires so the blacklight cannot slip free and form horrors anywhere in the night, and fighting back the creatures that brave the light. But some, the truly brave or the truly mad, descend into the dungeons, carrying what light they can and seeking to destroy the heart of the incursion, making the warrens safe for an age. These adventurers find more than just danger, however.

Every dungeon has a story, some event that allowed evil to crawl free. Some were the lairs of criminals. Others were dead-ends where innocents fled and died. Many were once great cities, before the last great civilization was struck down by its own greed. A few have gathered new stories of the adventurers that died within. In almost all cases, the artifacts of the dungeon’s story remain, foul creatures forming around them like cysts, living out shadow versions of the tale. If the guardians can be dispatched or bypassed, the artifacts make great prizes, wealth beyond the rewards of honest labor, treasures rarely seen in the modern age. Many that delve into the darkness on a simple mission of hope soon develop another agenda for braving the shadows.

These adventurers find not just gold and magic, but knowledge. Something about fighting these creatures teaches skills long lost to the world. The few great sages claim that the last era of heroes led directly to the fall of civilization and the rise of the blacklight, and the darkness remembers its forebears. Whatever the reason, those that delve into dungeons emerge with prowess and potency far beyond the common warriors and adepts who make up the armies of men. They are paladins and rangers, sorcerers and bards, and many other titles known only in songs. Quickly, their horror-won proficiency makes them without peer amongst normal men. They are sought not just to protect against new dungeon breakthroughs, but to bend the course of wars.

Skilled in might and magic, rich from ancient treasures, and possessed of skills unknown to this age of the world, adventuring seems a noble and worthwhile effort. But there is a secret known only to the few that have delved into dungeons and traded the stories of their journeys. The blacklight creatures are formless nightmares as they lurk unmolested in their tombs. It is perception that catalyzes them into being, and they take their forms and powers from the darkest reaches of the minds that perceive them. Great men have so much more to dread, and adventurers quickly progress from simple things like goblins to much greater horrors than the common mind can conceive. At every turn, these heroes marvel that most of what they face seems just within the limits of their skills, not realizing that what they face lies just within the limits of their imaginations. The blacklight grows stronger with strong minds to pattern it. Breakthroughs near a town with experienced adventurers can be truly terrible to the population, and true horrors lurk in tombs that great heroes failed to destroy. In time, many adventurers come to wonder whether they are truly helping the world, or merely feeding some dark, hellish agenda that seeks to remake the powers of the last age… and once again pull civilization to the brink.