As I've grown older I've found I have a fondness for time as an aspect of story telling and in my RPGs. The passage of time can be very important both for the development of Characters from a story/person standpoint, and from a mechanics standpoint. Having your character actually grow older, and perhaps even grow old, can be an interesting thing to explore and I wish more games I was in - both running and playing - did it. Today I want to talk about that.
My Disappointment With Ultimate Spider-Man
Back in the early 2000s, and the late 90s - I think, I was a huge fan of the Ultimate line of marvel comics. The Ultimate line started with a simple premise: what if the characters we all know and love had their story starting today instead of 30-40 years ago. It had more modern, and thus more nuanced in many ways, takes on the X-Men, Spider-Man, and the Fantastic Four and Avengers. I loved them. I still love them. There is great story telling in those books. But when I found out something about Ultimate Spider-Man I couldn't help but be disappointed.
See, somewhere in I think Volume 15-20 somewhere they point out that the entire events of Ultimate Spider-Man had been about six months in comic. Six months. That was it. 5 years or more of comic books, multiple villains, the high school getting destroyed 2 or 3 times, and numerous 'to the brink of life and death' fights for young Peter Parker and it had only been six months. The problem here is probably personal, but for me it shattered my sense of disbelief.
I couldn't see how even Peter Parker could still be alive having gone through all those fights in just six months. It was too much. He doesn't have Wolverine's healing factor, and he was just a 15 year old kid. He'd be so exhaused, battered, and bruised mentally if not physically he should be little more than a vegetable.
It was a hell of a revelation...then I realized I did it all the time in my own stories.
The Development of Mirumoto Rei
My friend is running an L5R game. It's an awesome game. After about 4-5 years of other L5R games we've completely set up a world for a Third Day of Thunder game where everyone is playing modern day high school kids who find out after all the magic, monsters, and demons suddenly come back into existence that they're the Thunders and fated to be the only ones who can stop things. In this game, I'm playing Mirumoto Rei the Dragon Thunder, the reincarnation of Mirumoto (the L5R character based off Miyamoto Musashi) and a direct descendant of Mirumoto as well.
If you know anything about L5R it won't surprise you that Mirumoto Rei has Great Potential: Kenjutsu, and is very heavily built around fighting with the Kenjutsu skill. When the game started, Rei was 15 years old, lived in a temple where they still taught real Kenjutsu, and had a Kenjutsu skill of 3. 18 months later in game, and she has a Kenjutsu of 9, and a major character goal of reaching Kenjutsu 10 (the max possible rank in the system.)
To me - and this is not the GM's fault who has listed similar feelings at times - this seems a little absurd. Yes, it is a magical fantasy samurai RPG. Yes, my character is the reincarnation of the best sword fighter to ever live. Yes my character has a once in a lifetime/century/age talent for the sword. Yes my character spends almost all their time either sword fighting or practicing. Even then, to go in just 18 months from the equivalent of a newly trained Samurai, to the skill level of perhaps 3-7 sensei/masters in the Empire is a little absurd. It works for the game for a number of reasons - including a strong attachment to cinematics and rule of cool, but what about a less fantastical game?
My third and final anecdote for this comes from the positive I recently got fromthe passage of time. A friend's Star Wars game has me playing a Pantoran runaway mechanic named Rhine. Rhine is an amazing mechanic, but a total pessimist. Rhine always expects things to go wrong, and for all of their friends to betray them/sell them out at a moment's notice. It is part of the character's charm (OOC) and the fun of playing them.
And then the game jumped forward 3 years. We did it because the starting adventure the GM ran went longer than expected and we gained a ton of XP in it. We gained that XP faster IC time-wise than he wanted, so he balanced it out with the time shift. But for Rhine, this time skip basically means I have a new character in some ways. Why?
Because for the first time in Rhine's life since they were a very young kid, they've had stability. They've gone 3 years working with the PCs. Three years of jobs. Three years of scrapes. Three years of daring escapes, fun adventures, and fortunes won and lost. Most importantly: three years of not being betrayed, back stabbed, or sold into slavery, and with 1/2 the group having their characters make 1/3 of the things they could do in the time gap be hang out with and get to know Rhine. Even the hardest of pessimists is going to make attachments in that time. They'll open up some, and with that they may even heal.
The best part about time is it lets you set up situations for characters to reflect back. If you pass time right, play up the aging, and give the characters a chance you'll see things go in new ways. It lets you reflect back on things from 'years ago' and maybe even see them from a different light.
Move time enough and you can even have longer term things come up. Perhaps the kid who the heroes saved in an early adventure calls on them again for help, only now he's a young man with a wife and kid and their village needs aid. Maybe the PCs aren't how he remembers. Maybe they are.
But you'll never get to find out if everything in your game happens inside of 6 months despite years around the table.