Handling Time Limits#

In using Gymnasium environments with reinforcement learning code, a common problem observed is how time limits are incorrectly handled. The done signal received (in previous versions of OpenAI Gym < 0.26) from env.step indicated whether an episode has ended. However, this signal did not distinguish whether the episode ended due to termination or truncation.


Termination refers to the episode ending after reaching a terminal state that is defined as part of the environment definition. Examples are - task success, task failure, robot falling down etc. Notably, this also includes episodes ending in finite-horizon environments due to a time-limit inherent to the environment. Note that to preserve Markov property, a representation of the remaining time must be present in the agent’s observation in finite-horizon environments. (Reference)


Truncation refers to the episode ending after an externally defined condition (that is outside the scope of the Markov Decision Process). This could be a time-limit, a robot going out of bounds etc.

An infinite-horizon environment is an obvious example of where this is needed. We cannot wait forever for the episode to complete, so we set a practical time-limit after which we forcibly halt the episode. The last state in this case is not a terminal state since it has a non-zero transition probability of moving to another state as per the Markov Decision Process that defines the RL problem. This is also different from time-limits in finite horizon environments as the agent in this case has no idea about this time-limit.

Importance in learning code#

Bootstrapping (using one or more estimated values of a variable to update estimates of the same variable) is a key aspect of Reinforcement Learning. A value function will tell you how much discounted reward you will get from a particular state if you follow a given policy. When an episode stops at any given point, by looking at the value of the final state, the agent is able to estimate how much discounted reward could have been obtained if the episode has continued. This is an example of handling truncation.

More formally, a common example of bootstrapping in RL is updating the estimate of the Q-value function,

\[Q_{target}(o_t, a_t) = r_t + \gamma . \max_a(Q(o_{t+1}, a_{t+1}))\]

In classical RL, the new Q estimate is a weighted average of the previous Q estimate and Q_target while in Deep Q-Learning, the error between Q_target and the previous Q estimate is minimized.

However, at the terminal state, bootstrapping is not done,

\[Q_{target}(o_t, a_t) = r_t\]

This is where the distinction between termination and truncation becomes important. When an episode ends due to termination we don’t bootstrap, when it ends due to truncation, we bootstrap.

While using gymnasium environments, the done signal (default for < v0.26) is frequently used to determine whether to bootstrap or not. However, this is incorrect since it does not differentiate between termination and truncation.

A simple example of value functions is shown below. This is an illustrative example and not part of any specific algorithm.

vf_target = rew + gamma * (1 - done) * vf_next_state

This is incorrect in the case of episode ending due to a truncation, where bootstrapping needs to happen but it doesn’t.


From v0.26 onwards, Gymnasium’s env.step API returns both termination and truncation information explicitly. In the previous version truncation information was supplied through the info key TimeLimit.truncated. The correct way to handle terminations and truncations now is,

# terminated = done and 'TimeLimit.truncated' not in info
# This was needed in previous versions.

vf_target = rew + gamma * (1 - terminated) * vf_next_state