Worldbuilding: Fantasy Calendars for D&D
Salutations nerds! Today, we’re going to talk about another facet of worldbuilding often overlooked at the gaming table for fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons or whatever roleplaying game you fancy. I present to you, the humble calendar. If you clicked on this article, I’m going to assume you’re at least interested in using one. I’m not going to try to convince you creating your own calendars is good idea. You’re either into it or you’re not. Instead we’re going to get into the fun brainstorming part of the article I love so much.
Fantasy calendars for days
Here are some things you’re going to want to think about as you create the calendar for your world
What are your seasons like and how long are they?
I know. Some of you may be thinking “spring, summer, fall, winter – what else is there?” But actually that’s not the case in some places. For instance, near the equator there is a wet season and a dry season rather than a cold season and a hot season. In certain arctic regions there is a light and a dark season instead of normal days. How do these seasonal phases effect the weather of your world? Does it work on a real world basis or is there something different about your setting?
How about seasons of magic that overlap with regular seasons? Perhaps there are times where the natural arcana is in high flux and it causes things like music storms and rains of bones?
Also consider seasonal length. In George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series, seasons last for years at a time and aren’t completely consistent as to how many.
How do you measure a year?
Most of the time, it’ll be a cycle of the seasons, but sometimes that isn’t a rational method of doing things. Do you measure it by a number of cycles of the moon? By the stars? Are years always the same length or is there another mark for the matter like a certain number of births or whenever a certain species of bird happens to migrate through the area?
How long is a year? How does that effect how you track ages? If years are a particularly long affair (for instance if a year in your world is a thousand days instead of three hundred) then saying someone is “ten years old” would mean they were closer to thirty in real world terms.
How many days make up a week or the nearest unit of measurement thereof?
In the Forgotten Realms, they don’t have “weeks” as we know them, they have “tendays” and every month is exactly three of them and as a result, exactly thirty days long. In the Gregorian calendar, our months aren’t consistent in terms of how many days are in them so Wednesday is not going to be the third of the month every single time.
Do you name the days of the week? Are you just using the standard set from the Gregorian calendar, or making something else up to go along with your world? Bear in mind, if you differ too much the players aren’t going to be able to keep track anyway, and using “Tuesday” might feel a little weird but it will for sure be playable and that is valid.
What are the major holidays in this culture and how are they celebrated? Do you have your PCs birthdays written down if such a thing is a matter of import in your game?
Typically, in a world where the seasons cycle from hot to cold, you are going to have holidays for the solstices and both equinoxes as well as the midpoints between each. You may also have holidays commemorating certain events (the anniversary of a country’s independence, for example, or the birth of a historical figure; feast days for saints or something like them can also be worth noting).
I fully endorse going nuts with this, but if you want to play it classic remember there will usually be feasts at midwinter and midsummer, as well as during harvest, and some kind of fertility festival in the spring.
Is there one standard calendar in your world, or is this something that might serve as a point of confusion between continents or even countries?
Even now in the modern day the Gregorian calendar coexists with several others that don’t necessarily keep the same format. In a world less unified than ours, this is almost bound to happen. Of course, you aren’t obligated to play it that way; there are plenty of reasons even a fantasy world might have it standardized. A large empire leading the charge, for example, or a calendar that, for reasons unknown to the players, is simply the accepted norm everywhere and no one quite remembers why until something from the old empire comes barreling through to remind them. Maybe it was given to them by the gods that, no question, exist.
That said, if you want to run multiple calendars at once it’s easy enough to fake it. Mentioning the Elven New Year or having a merchant get confused when a player talks about what day it is because they are from another region is a good way to suggest that there are other calendars without actually having to spell them out for people.
Do you have months and if so what are they named? Why are they called that?
The Gregorian months used to be pretty much numbers until Caesar screwed it up. Who named the months of your calendar and why call them that? Are they named after historical figures? Simply characteristics of the month itself? For instance, in Dishonored the calendar has things like The Month of Songs and The Month of Rain. Sara Douglass does something very similar in her Wayfarer Redemption series.
Meanwhile in the Forgotten Realms you get months like Hammer and Flamerule alongside ones like Tarsakh and Kythorn. The effect is jarring, yes, but it makes perfect sense for the hodgepodge of cultures that make up Faerun.
Another thing to consider is how many months you have in a year. Faerun has twelve. Dishonored has thirteen. My brother once ran a campaign where the months were quite literally entire seasons long and there were only four acknowledged.
Is there anything particularly strange about your calendar? Leap days?
In real life, our Gregorian calendar isn’t perfect and any calendar based on celestial events is of course going to have some residual weirdness leaving us with extra days some years (leap days), and in some cases days that simply do not belong to the calendar at all (intercalary days).
And your world has magic so this goes double for you.
For example, if your world regularly has three days of night as some kind of magical celestial event, do they still count as days on the calendar or are they lumped together as The Long Night? Are there nights that only exist for mages? I have a setting that has an entire hidden month that can only be reached in a certain place while the rest of the world freezes in time.
Magic changes things, and even without it, some things just aren’t going to fit. Don’t be afraid, if something doesn’t seem to make sense with your calendar, to make an exception. There’s nothing unrealistic about it, we do it for realsies.
How do the various lifespans of the races in your D&D game interact with the passage of time? Do elves have a longer unit of measuring time than a year, for example?
Really, just considering the relationship between the flow of time for something as long-lived as an elf or a dwarf as compared to a human’s can be an interesting exercise, particularly if you’re playing one. We break our years up into months, into weeks, into days. I mean days are a given, it’s a solar cycle, that makes sense, but weeks? Weeks are completely arbitrary so who’s to say a cluster of years for an elf wouldn’t merit a different unit of measurement? Perhaps they simply take decades and centuries as we do years, and speak of things in broader sweeps.
What about dwarves that still live underground? They don’t have the sun to track days by, how do they measure time? Most calendars are, in some way, based on celestial bodies but when deprived of those what do you do to keep track of the passage of time? For that matter, what about the natural sleep patterns of other species?
For instance, the average natural sleep pattern for a human is actually longer than our solar cycle. We line up better with the days on Mars than we do our own planet and if left alone in a place with no way of telling what time it is or the position of the sun most humans will slowly jack their sleep schedules up.
Further resources for calendars
Now, Matt Colville has an excellent video on this exact subject, where he makes an amazing case for why you should have a calendar, and there are a few very amazing and detailed videos on the Artifexian YouTube channel as well if you want to get down to the brass tacks of calendar construction.
Additionally if you’re looking for something plug and chug and very easy, there is a Fantasy Calendar Generator on donjon that allows you to toggle how many days are in a week, how many months in a year, how many moons and their cycles and things like that.
And over at DriveThruRPG you can check out the Maelstrom Fantasy Campaign Setting Sourcebook from Darkfuries Publishing. Included in this 150 page PDF book are details on five distinct calendars complete with their own festivals. While you’re there you can use Nerdarchy’s exclusive coupon code DTRPG-Nerdarchy for a one-time 10 percent discount on orders $10 or more. [This coupon code is applicable to digital products only.]
Whew! That was a lot, but hopefully it gave you a lot to chew over and sparked some ideas for your own worldbuilding. Do you track time in your D&D campaign? What are your seasons like? Your calendars? Anything amusing and holiday related about your game that you’d like to share with the rest of the class? Please, give me a heads up in the comments below I’d love to know about it.
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