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Inspired by my friend and incredible game designer, Teos Abadia, I wrote about downtime! Teos has written several amazing posts on the subject on his own blog, Alphastream. You should read them. He writes about how downtime can change your games, how downtime has evolved in fifth edition D&D, how to create engaging narratives with downtime, Acquisitions Incorporated (a book Teos cowrote) and downtime, and how to improvise downtime on the fly. While these articles are all fifth edition D&D focused, they apply to many games.
I wanted to add my own two cents about the benefits of using downtime and how to use it effectively.
Downtime allows GMs and players to reset and make changes to the story. Is it a chance for the players to say, “This is what our characters would like to do now. This is what they are preparing for.” For instance, if a superhero spends her time upgrading all her stealth equipment, that’s a sign to the GM the player wants opportunities to hide and sneak! If a wizard spends time researching demons, that’s a clear indication of the kinds of enemies (or allies!) the mage is looking for.
During downtime, the GM can also grow the world around the characters. New leaders come to power, trends morph, new laws or policies help or hinder the populace, seasons change, and more. Without downtime, these changes seem sudden. You wake up one day and an election happened that you didn’t hear about until now, or suddenly all the weather is wintery. Downtime allows for these story alterations without them feeling like a slap in the face. These changes are particularly great when they occur because of the characters’ actions. For instance, at the end of their last adventure, the characters ousted a corrupt official and installed a new mayor in their hometown. During downtime, they get to see the success (or failure) of their new friend taking office.
While many of us get to have exciting, high action moments at the table, we rarely stop and have more intimate ones. It can be difficult to stop and talk about feelings all the time when there are werewolves to battle and traps to overcome. Downtime allows characters to have quiet-but-important moments with each other and the NPCs of the world. These conversation allow for real development and growth. For many players they are the best part of the game, and we would be remiss to skip over them in favor of another sword fight.
Downtime allows players to make small changes to that characters’ appearance and personality that might normally take some time. For instance, if one character dies, the other characters can use downtime to process grief in their own ways. A player can think about how the death of this specific friend would affect and their character over time, not just immediately. This is true for small events too! How is a character changed after battling giant spiders in cramped tunnels for three days without rest?
Downtime is also a chance for characters to equip themselves, make cool stuff, and work on personal goals. Imagine the story you could have if after downtime the bard suddenly shows up swole AF because he was lifting weights during six months of downtime!
Downtime is also a chance for a player or GM to make big changes to a story. For instance, if one player in a D&D game wants rebuild a fighter character as a wizard, the GM may allow it, but it feels odd if this change happens in the middle of an adventure. Luckily, the campaign is using downtime, so the player and GM craft a story where in the fighter spends all their time studying magic, thus losing a lot of their physical prowess and techniques while gaining the ability to cast many spells.
These changes to the story do not always need to involve mechanics. A GM may decide the players take downtime after overthrowing a tyrant. During this time, the world the villain ruled completely changes from grim dark to high fantasy. The GM uses downtime to move the story forward years, allow the same characters to play in the world they changed.
Despite the fact that pages of downtime rules exist for many, many games, a lot of players tend to ignore them. There are two reasons for this:
- Many games have stories that move at an urgent pace, leaving little room for downtime.
- Downtime plays differently than the rest of our games. To many people the rules feel out of place (since you’re resolving extended courses of several actions instead of a single action at a time) and the action can slow down. It feels like filler before we get to the real action.
Now that we’re aware of these pitfalls, let’s talk about how to overcome them.
Using Downtime in Play
Many GMs think of their longer campaigns as episodic television shows, novel series, or comic book sagas, but often treat the pacing like a Hollywood action movie, giving the characters no time to breathe. I used to do this too. I was worried that a break in the action would mean the tension of the game’s story would grind to a halt. There was constant pressure on my players to hinder their enemies’ schemes!
But if you think about your favorite TV shows, novels, comic books, etc., you realize their is often a break in the action between story arcs and sometimes right in the middle of them! These breaks always have our favorite characters coming back changed in some way, be it more powerful, more jaded, or more resolute than ever in their beliefs. We should use downtime the same way! Breaks in the action of the story are a good thing, and allow you to check in with your players about what they want to do next in the story.
Think of downtime in your RPGs as two agendas working together: the players agenda and the GM agenda. Both agendas are equally important.
When you are playing downtime, have their players set their agenda by asking them the following questions?
- How long a period of downtime do they want?
- What do they want to do during downtime?
Let players decide how much time they spend doing their downtime thing. They set that part of the agenda. (You may decide that if they take too much time, bad stuff happens. More on that in the GM agenda.)
When asking the players what they want their characters to do during downtime, do not restrict them to the options in the game’s examples. I recently ran a The One Ring game where I gave the characters the options for downtime activities listed during the Fellowship phase. They didn’t like any of them, so we made our own, using the activities in the book. Teos has great advice about how to do this for D&D. Keep in mind you should also change any rules you don’t like!
After the characters decide what they want to do, roleplay their actions with them. Don’t just let a character make a roll and get a benefit or hinderance. Roleplay conversations. Describe the book where they find their forbidden lore. Ask them to tell you how their carousing attempt ended with them in jail. Zoom in on the significant scenes and play those out, giving a benefit to any roll or check that must be made for good roleplaying and clever ideas!
You should also allow player characters to take on more than one task if they desire and have the time to do so. Want to research a new spell and pop over to your mother’s house for dinner? Awesome. Roleplay both!
You should have an agenda during downtime as well for the NPCs. What are the significant forces in the characters’ lives up to during downtime? This should include two lists. (Don’t worry about NPCs taking actions that do not affect the characters in some way.)
Your first list is NPCs who’s activities intersect with the characters’ own during downtime. For instance, maybe a characters’ jilted lover with unresolved feelings shows up one day as the character spends downtime trying to romance a new love. Play these scenes out as you would any that are part of the player agenda. Mix them together to make dynamic fun!
The second list you create should be one of activities that do not intersect with the characters’ own during downtime, but will likely affect them later. For instance, the cult of Orcus the characters were battling might poison the water of a nearby settlement, causing all who drink from it to die and rise as zombies. The characters likely won’t find out about this until their downtime ends… though they might hear about it before then at your discretion. If the characters were planning on spending a year as downtime, they might decide to cut it short when news of the zombies reaches their ears. Or they might not! Decide what happens if the characters do not intervene in emergencies like this. Does someone else? Is it a roll of the dice?
You should feel free to interrupt the characters’ downtime agenda, but don’t do this very often. Downtime works best when the players are in control and can really explore their characters. That doesn’t mean you can’t still throw surprises at them (see the jilted lover example above).
Record Results and Move On
Record the results of both agendas’ downtime activities. Refer to this list when preparing future sessions. It helps you remember what your players wish to accomplish and they story they want to tell. These records will also remind you of what the NPCs in your world were up to. After all, those six month of downtime are long enough for any supervillain to build a giant robot!
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