On Keeping Time

Apparently there's an actual
Trainhenge under consideration
at Stockton-on-Tees. Who knew?
It's a beautiful morning as I write this, riding the train into work. Trainhenge tells me that the sun rises by the time I reach Ashland, so it's only a matter of time before I emerge from the ranks of the mole people and see some sun on both ends of my commute again. Trainhenge also tells me that spring arrives sometime soon.

Since I'm a worldbuilding GM, I got to thinking about ways of telling time without using a mankind-mandated artificial device. How would a farmer track his day? Would the concept of an hour have any meaning for him, or does "It'll be a while before sundown" do the trick? And what happens on cloudy days? Some people can maintain internal clocks or listen to their circadian rhythm or train their bodies to be hungry on a schedule, but do these methods maintain their accuracy through shifting seasons with variable sunlight?

Does accuracy even matter? For farmers, accuracy of days matters from a seasonal perspective, or they'd never know when to plant. But do hours and minutes make any sense at all to a farmer? If a merchant has a busy schedule with several meetings a day then I'd want some way to delineate smaller time segments, but does the populace at large need that accuracy? If you're a tavern owner in a village, wouldn't you just kick people out when you got tired instead of slavishly sticking to an 11PM closing time?

Without magic, coordinated attacks are nearly impossible. Sure, you can use other communication methods, but those rely on the enemy not understanding what they mean before it's too late. If you're coordinating a stealth raid on more than one front, poor timing can get you killed and compromise the entire operation. Our modern minds have become so reliant on watches and radio communications and smart phones that we can't conceive of working accurately without them. But how did our rural ancestors function without them as little as 100 years ago?

I love the idea of Trainhenge.
Check it out.
They trusted themselves. They relied on themselves more than on external devices. They invented systems to keep themselves organized and on time. And those systems worked.

For example, take one of my favorite movies: Hudson Hawk. Yes, it's cheesy and requires not only suspending your disbelief but leaving it entirely outside the theater on the way to your seat. But the idea that resonated with me (pun intended) was using songs to measure time. I sing, and once I know a song in my bones it stays there, timing and all. Once you can feel the music rather than hear it, the song becomes one thing instead of a collection of smaller notes and passages. Having something that you can reproduce at will to mark a 4 minute chunk of time lets you insert some divisions between sunup and sundown. If two people have that talent, then you can coordinate actions down to the second without using any pesky timepieces.

What other time-based mnemonic devices do you use in your games? Or do you stick to some sort of magical timekeeping device?

1 comment:

  1. I've thought about this a good deal in fantasy settings. From what I've read there just wasn't that much importance placed on specifics of time in earlier and more rural times - there really wasn't a need. You milked the cows when they needed milking. For more sophisticated places early water clocks gave rough times, and bells ring out significant times that can synchronize a city. So my general answer in a fantasy setting is "at the fourth bell" or "as soon as you hear the noon call to prayer." Other events (like gates closing) happen at dusk. The bartender kicks people out when he's tired and nobody's buying. :)