Downtime at the Table

It’s time for part three of my entry concerning June’s RPG Blog Carnival. This month the carnival topic was picked by Phil over at Tales of a GM and the theme is “Summerland.” Summertime is all about vacation for many of us and that can include adventurers! In my first two posts, Summertime Downtime and Summertime Downtime 2, I provided some new downtime options in addition to the ones in the Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide for fifth edition Dungeons and Dragons. You can now grab those options in a PDF on the Free Game Resources section of this site along with plenty of other resources for your game like monstersD&D fifth edition rules modules, backgroundsspellsmagic items, and more.

In this post I’m continuing the downtime theme, but instead of providing more downtime options I’m going to give you some advice for running downtime between adventures at the table.

The Problem with Downtime

Many GMs want to tell stories about world-­shaking events with villains and forces who are not off the clock, so the PCs can’t be either. If the adventurers take a year to build a castle, evil takes over the land or worse yet, evil chills out for a second because the DM wants the PCs to be able to build their fort and the story’s sense of urgency is gone. So there is no space between adventures for the PCs to pursue downtime activities. The bard never gets to start his college and the fighter never gets to spend nights gambling with hard won treasure.

To many it may seem fine to ignore downtime activities, but finding a way to fit them into your game will allow each player more role­-playing time and create a richer story within your world. It’s worth going through the trouble of fitting in occasional non-adventure time for your players to explore their characters’ everyday lives and it allows the players to interact with the world they’re trying to save.

There are ways to have your cake and eat it too. Downtime activities and an urgent, world­-shaking campaign story arch can go together.

Fitting in Downtime

Here are a few times the DM can allow more downtime into a game, especially if that game is one with a fast-paced overarching story.

Travel

Sometimes PCs spend days, weeks, or even months traveling from one area to the next with the occasional random encounter thrown in. All that time is often glossed over at the table, especially if that world is as big as Toril, Eberron, or Canus. These travel opportunities are the perfect place for downtime activities, especially if the PCs are part of a larger caravan or ship. Suddenly a boring ride through the plains is a chance for a PC to learn to play an instrument, sow rumors amongst the caravan, go carousing, craft an item, or recruit members of an organization.

Part of the Plot

A PC may want to take time to do some research into the name of the demon lord the party has been hearing on the lips of every cultist they’ve come across. A wizard may have to build an item, magic or mundane, that will aid the party against a threat looming over the land. The bard may want to stop and sow rumors about a villainous overlord to his people or gather supporters to form an army to takedown a dragon. If there’s a piece of the main story only one character can tackle during downtime, the rest of the party is free to do whatever they like. Be sure that this burden doesn’t always fall on the same PC so that everyone gets a turn affecting the main story and likewise a turn doing whatever they want.

Of course there are other instances of downtime being part of the plot. Perhaps a villain fakes death and lets the PCs think they’ve won the day for a time, allowing the PCs a break before the villain comes back stronger! The villain’s trail could just go cold and the PCs have downtime to kill until signs show evil has returned. Maybe the PCs have to lay low in a city or town and wait for a messenger or patron until they can continue their quest. Even Batman takes breaks when there is no crime to fight.

Death of a Fellow PC

If a character dies, the other PCs might need to spend some time looking for a new adventurer to take the deceased’s place or find a diamond and spellcaster powerful enough to bring their comrade back from the dead. This might require the full party’s efforts, but in most cases it does not. While someone works on filling the gap in the party, the rest of the team is free to spend downtime however they like.

Slow Down the Events

Some world-shaking events take years. A campaign driven by an overarching story does not need to be so urgent. Perhaps a campaign’s villain is only active during certain seasons or parts of the lunar cycle. Maybe the villain bides time between schemes, lying low until the heat dies down, or spending evil-won spoils during evil downtime. What? Evil has to build castles and carouse too, ya know.

Perhaps the evil scheme the adventurers are trying to thwart takes time. It’s not easy to construct a doomsday device, build an undead army, unravel the mysteries of a complex tome, or become a lich. While the baddies are doing their thing, the adventurers have some time to do as they please without sacrificing the importance of your main story’s events.

The Downtime Round

During downtime it can be easy to get caught up in what one PC is doing while ignoring the rest of the characters for a long time. If this kind of thing is happening at your table, think about instituting the downtime round. This rule makes sure everyone gets a fair shake when they’re chilling betwixt adventures.

Before discussing how each PC spends downtime all players roll initiative. Then in initiative order downtime turns are resolved. Each player has 3 to­ 5 timed minutes (determined by the DM) to explain what they did during the downtime and resolve it using the appropriate rules for the downtime activity. Usually only one downtime round is needed. If some PCs need more time to resolve their actions, their turn still ends when the timer goes off and then there is a second downtime round which they can use to complete their downtime activity. There are only two downtime rounds total so PCs need to wrap up their activities by the end of round two.

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