Today's elements are Combat and Real-Time.
I'm pretty sure this is covered in the rulebook of the majority of RPGs that I own but if in doubt revert to D&D.
Combat in any RPG is an abstraction to give it structure. Some combat systems provide mechanics to influence that structure but for here I'm going to give it the high level view of what is actually involved in tracking time in Combat.
Situation - 5 smugglers (characters in the party) facing off against 4 Minion groups of Stormtroopers on the streets of Nar Shadda, Tatooine.
Measurement - For me the number of players influences the overall time measurement here but to keep it simple the easiest way to measure Combat is as follows.
- Round - Combat Rounds are where the actual Combat takes place. So these tend to be between 6 and 10 seconds long and are to represent a complete sequence of combat involving 1 character. This is also used to timebox any non-Combat actions that a character may take during Combat. e.g. To buy them more time the tech decides to try and lock the door of the docking bay the characters are in.
- Turn - A combat Turn is to capture the completion of every character (and non-player character) having their turn within combat. Using the example of the 5 smugglers and 4 Minion groups of Stormtroopers above this would mean 9 rounds are required to ensure that that they have all acted during a round of Combat (in the case of the Minion groups these would act together depending on what system you're using).
Combat would then continue (assuming there is still someone left to fight with) with a new Turn composed of Rounds.
- End - Once all the combat Turns are completed there is mop up time which is normally used for healing, rummaging through the supplies of the fallen and other stuff.
I like this measurement for when the party are in a pressure situation as it applies that same pressure onto the players to ensure that they remain focussed! It can also be used to shine the light on a particular character to demonstrate their skills. Plus I like to use it to strengthen the collaboration between the players .
Situation - John Summer is frantically trying to get this safe open as in about 3 minutes the alarm is going to go off after his sister, Jenny, failed at shutting off the alarm system.
Measurement - So the way I'd do this is quite simple. Explain the situation to the players, ensure they understand this is real-time and also (optionally) let them collaborate "out of character" to build that team feeling around what they're trying to achieve. Once I've explained things I set an alarm for 3 minutes and start the countdown. This is really to recreate that shot in the movies where the heroes save the day with 3 seconds to spare. The GM might also want to give the players a number of "pauses" if what's they're trying to do isn't working, especially if it's the dice that are acting against them! These pauses are just that, a pause for normally 15-30 seconds for the players to get the plan back on track. No actions can be taken during these pauses, only planning for actions!
So that's the fine tuning elements of time in RPGs. Let me know if I've missed any situations where time could be managed differently.