I was thinking in the shower about that oft-quoted bit of Gygaxiana:
YOU CAN NOT HAVE A MEANINGFUL CAMPAIGN IF STRICT TIME RECORDS ARE NOT KEPT.
His detractors use it to make fun of him - look at this guy, taking strict timekeeping too seriously and getting mad enough to put it in all caps. His adherents take it as dogma.
But I got to thinking about Boot Hill's perspective on campaigns, and started to wonder - maybe he meant a structure with much more autonomy for individual players than we typically think of in campaigns. He's not talking about an "adventure path", obviously, since the quote is from the AD&D 1e DMG and Dragonlance was yet a twinkle in Weis and Hickman's eyes. Less obviously, I think he's not even talking about the way OSR campaigns are usually run, where the party has a lot of autonomy but players are more or less bound together by it. One example of this position from Dungeon of Signs - "Old style D&D is not a story about any one PC, it's a story about the adventuring party as a whole, or ultimately about a fictional world as a whole."
I got curious about the context around the Gygax quote, so I dug up my previously-unopened pdf of the 1e DMG and lo and behold, a paragraph after "YOU CANNOT HAVE...", we get:
For the sake of example, let us assume that you begin your campaign on Day 1 of the Year 1000. There are four player characters who begin initially, and they have adventures which last a total of 50 days — 6 days of actual adventuring and 44 days of resting and other activity. At this point in time two new players join the game, one of the original group decides to go to seek the advice of an oracle after hiring an elven henchman, and the remaining three “old boys” decide they will not go with the newcomers. So on Day 51 player A’s character is off on a journey, those of B, C, and D are resting on their laurels, and E and F enter the dungeon. The latter pair spend the better part of the day surviving, but do well enough to rest a couple of game days and return for another try on Day 54 — where they stumble upon the worst monster on the first level, surprise it, and manage to slay it and come out with a handsome treasure. You pack it in for the night. Four actual days later (and it is best to use 1 actual day = 1 game day when no play is happening), on Day 55, player characters B, C, and D enter the dungeon and find that the area they selected has already been cleaned out by player characters E and F. Had they come the day after the previous game session, game Day 52, and done the same thing, they would have found the monster and possibly gotten the goodies!
Some penalty must accrue to the non-active, but on the other hand, the over-active can not be given the world on a silver platter. Despite time differences, the activities of the newcomers to the campaign should be allowed to stand, as Destiny has decreed that the monster in question could not fall to the characters B, C, and D. Therefore, the creature was obviously elsewhere (not dead) when they visited its lair on Day 52, but it had returned on Day 56. Being aware of time differences between groups of player characters will enable you to prevent the BIG problems. You will know when the adventuring of one such group has gone far enough ahead in game time to call a halt. This is particularly true with regard to town/dungeon adventures.
Can you imagine the drama that would ensue if two new players joined your campaign (group?) and your existing players decided to not go adventuring with them? I suspect that even in the vast majority of OSR campaigns today, this would be seen as a gross violation of social norms. Even the West Marches assumes a cooperative community of PCs, a sort of "whoever's at the table that day goes adventuring together". And yet here Gygax writes as if it were perfectly normal, as if association within the game-world was never taken for granted (and this example wasn't even one of those 20+ person campaigns mentioned in OD&D Book 1 - this is six players!). This is what I mean by "no party" - there are player characters in the world and they interact with each other as they will. Sometimes they work together to achieve their objectives, but that's a choice. A party exists only for a single adventure. Outside of an adventure, you can do as you please. You want to go haring off after some oracle (for about a month, in the paragraph following the quoted one)? By all means! You want to spend a month just resting and healing? Sure! But you might get scooped on treasure.
It makes a lot of sense that if you have that norm, of players going off and doing their own things, and splitting into multiple parties, then yeah, you are going to want timekeeping! As he says, to prevent "BIG" continuity problems.
The time lines of various player characters will diverge, meet, and diverge again over the course of game years. This makes for interesting campaigns and helps form the history of the milieu. Groups of players tend to segregate themselves for a time, some never returning to the ken of the rest, most eventually coming back to reform into different bands. As characters acquire henchmen, the better players will express a desire to operate some of theirs independently while they, or their liege lord, are away. This is a perfectly acceptable device, for it tends to even out characters and the game. Henchmen tend to become associates — or rivals — this way, although a few will remain as colorless servitors.
You may ask why time is so important if it causes such difficulties with record-keeping, dictates who can or can not go adventuring during a game session, and disperses player characters to the four winds by its strictures. Well, as initially pointed out, it is a necessary penalty imposed upon characters for certain activities [mostly magic item creation]. Beyond that, it also gives players yet another interesting set of choices and consequences. The latter tends to bring more true-to-life quality to the game, as some characters will use precious time to the utmost advantage, some will treat it lightly, and some will be constantly wasting it to their complete detriment. Time is yet another facet which helps to separate the superior players from the lesser ones. If time-keeping is a must from a penalty standpoint, it is also an interesting addition from the standpoint of running a campaign.
Emphasis again mine. A couple of interesting things in these bits. One is that the "diverge, meet, diverge again" is very much in the model of, say, Thieves' World, where there are persistent characters who make temporary alliances. I have heard fiction in this form referred to as picaresque, but looking up the actual properties of picaresque I'm not so sure (I do like almost all of those in my D&D though). The temporary nature of "bands" is again emphasized. "interesting set of choices and consequences" is a very gamey thing to say, as is "separate the superior players from the lesser ones". Gygax here is talking about D&D as a game that you can be better or worse at, and I think would not only say that it is acceptable for some players to fall behind as a result of bad choices and bad luck, but desirable.
So, returning to "meaningful campaign". It seems that "campaign" here is meant much like the Boot Hill style of campaigning, a big set of interacting characters and a series of skirmish actions with a degree of continuity. It seems that "meaningful" is meant in some combination of "maintaining internal consistency" and "preserving the agency of each individual player, that their choices about how to spend their resources [time] have consequences."
I'm really curious to see how this notion of great individual agency squares against the practice of having a caller. I get the feeling I'm going to end up doing a lot more reading from the 1e DMG in the near future. I found this a more thoughtful position on time, and better-articulated, than I expected.