Tracking time in the dungeon

Posted on May 24, 2021 by


One of the things that still gives me a little bit of difficulty when I’m DMing is tracking time in the game’s fiction when the characters are in exploration mode. Combat is simple, the 6 second rounds are codified, and we know that 10 rounds is a minute in the game world, 5 rounds is just :30 seconds, and so on. Which means most fights are resolved in just under :20 seconds! Wow! 

Social encounters are also fairly easy to determine, as it’s usually real time conversations, with perhaps some minor adjudications of time passing as you negotiate and wait around for the car salesman to go talk to his manager about the offer you made him, etc… 

But inside the dungeon, as the players are exploring, that’s a whole different…eh… monster. Now, the game offers a bit of rules in that regard… the DMG tells us that PCs moving at a normal pace can travel about 300ft. per minute, which is fine, easy enough to figure out, but we know that PCs aren’t zipping around dungeons without stopping to search, explore, and fight–and that’s where I run into issues with time management. 

You see, my players love to search and prod every room in the dungeon, whether it’s looking for traps, or opening up chests, peeking behind curtains and under rugs… they look through everything. And they love asking “how much time has passed?”

So I’ve decided to try to codify it a bit with something I’m calling The 5-10-15 Exploration Method

Simply stated, it assigns an amount of time based on how long PCs take searching an exploring areas or zones of a dungeon (although you could take this and apply to other things beyond a strict dungeon). 

My basic rule of thumb will be the following: If players decide they want to search a room fairly quickly without being very thorough about it, it’ll take them about 5 minutes, with Disadvantage on their Perception checks (and Passive Perceptions become -5) to do so. If they decide to spend a reasonable amount of time searching the room, this will take them about 10 minutes and their Perception rolls won’t be affected either way. Now, if they decide they want to be through, and spend 15 minutes going over everything in the room, this will grant them advantage to their Perception (and their passive Perception will benefit from a +5 as per 5e rules). 

It’s a simple system for me to be able to track time spent exploring, along with spells and certain effects that last 1 hour, for example. 

Let’s look at this bit of text from Rime of the Frostmaiden as an example:

Secret Door. A character who searches the walls for secret doors and succeeds on a DC 15 Wisdom (Perception) check finds such a door behind the brazier in the southwest corner. This 5-foot-wide, 10-foot-tall stone door swings into a 5-foot-diameter tunnel that leads to a similar door blocking entry to area X3. No ability check is needed to find either secret door from inside the tunnel.

So the characters enter this room and decide to search. If they decide to not spend too much time here and want to get past the room quickly, their passive perceptions will suffer a -5 against that DC 15 to find the secret door.

See how that works? It codifies time spent in the dungeon a bit, allowing me to track it. 

What if the room is so small that reasonably, 15 minutes is too long? Well, then you adjust.

Maybe the room is so small that a quick casual glance that takes no time at all will cause the Disadvantage, while spending 5 minutes will not adjust your scores, and if you really want it, taking 10 minutes will give you that sweet, sweet Advantage. 

Look, this is a rough and dirty system, I haven’t played it out yet. I’m putting it out there as a thing I want to do, and maybe some of you are in the same boat I am in as far as time tracking. 

I also came up with a tool for this, based on another roleplaying game. Blades in the Dark has a thing called the Progress Clock which tracks “ongoing effort against an obstacle or the approach of impending trouble.” It’s not a time tracker, but a progress tracker. I love the idea of a graphical representation of this though, and I yoinked it for D&D. 


Progress Clocks from John Harper’s “Blades in the Dark” rpg.

Basically my version has the same idea… a circle divided into 12 segments, each representing 5 minutes ( a circle represents an hour). As the players explore, you fill in the segments, and keep a tally of how long they’ve been in the dungeon. Download it here. 

Screen Shot 2021-05-24 at 1.32.48 AM

My version of the Progress Clocks, these meant to track 5 minute increments as the PCs explore.

If the PCs took 10 minutes exploring the Chieftain’s Dormitory, fill in 2 segments. 15 minutes? Fill in 3. 

Once a whole circle is filled in, you know an hour has passed. Combined with the knowledge that 10 rounds of combat equals a minute, suddenly you have a better grasp of how long the PCs have been down in the dungeon. 

Again, this is really raw and untested. Earlier editions of D&D had turns and durations in the dungeon that made this type of tracking easy and a bit of a mini-game within the game, and some players prefer to have a more concrete idea of the passage of time in the game. I hope this helps. Let me know what you think in the comments below, or if you have your own ideas!

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