Take a Breather - Character Downtime

It is a well known fact that it is important for us as human beings to stop working and take a break. Vacation and downtime are incredibly important for our mental health. Stress has a huge impact on our bodies. Too much of it can cause depression, sleep problems, weight issues, and physical pain just to name a few. This is something that I have actually had to deal with quite prevalently in my real life.

If all my stress comes from running Nerdolopedia and going to work, imagine the kind of stress that adventurers experience on a regular basis. Not just that, but your players will want to take a break from all the combat and looting to get their characters rested and purchase and sell items and equipment from their recent travels. Also, who doesn't love a good tavern brawl to pass the time. It is also incredibly important for players to bond in ways that don’t involve deadly traps and monsters trying to eat you.

Difference Between Downtime and Adventures

Where do you draw the line between downtime and an adventure? One person might say that it's when your immediate goal is a quest. That definition can be blurred by the player having a long term goal and trying to get as much information about it. They want to find the Lost Sword of Marmalade! Is going to the local library and spending the day in research considered an adventure or downtime?

It's not an easy distinction to make, and not being able to define that makes it difficult to plan for. I have come up with my own definition. Downtime is the time when the actions of the party do not advance the plot of the "active" campaign. The "active" campaign is the quest or story line that is directly in front of them.

In our D&D stream the party was tasked with finding the corpses of a dead merchant's family that had been stolen from the crypt. That was the party's "active" campaign, even though the campaign revealed more questions and personal quests, those were not the "active" campaign. So downtime was anything that they did that didn't get them closer to finishing their job...this included getting drunk and going skydiving.

This also meant that after they resolved the active campaign that the game immediately went into downtime. They started buying items and doing research. Visiting friends and giving them news of their recent travels. It gives me the best opportunity to get them going to the next active campaign.

Running Downtime

Downtime during an active campaign actually requires little other effort on your part aside from possibly having to come up with NPC names and places that you never thought the player would go. Largely, your job as the GM is to be the world, as it normally is, but be very reactive to the things your players want to do with their downtime. If they want to shop for an item you determine how difficult it is to find or who they have to talk to. You also enforce if they have to roleplay with NPC's to accomplish certain tasks.

Running downtime is an exercise in improv GMing. Unless you have every store, tavern, and house filled with NPC's descriptions and plot hooks you are going to have to learn to make up content on the fly. This is mainly a result of players being given near unlimited options as to what they do with no fixed goal in front of them. With most adventures you know the players goals, you know the different ways it resolves. With downtime that is not always the case. Usually, it will come down to the most open ended question, "What do you want to do now?" For the GM's that plan everything, this is going to be your worst nightmare. I recommend creating some random charts you can roll on to fill out details, and know how much magic items cost. Instead of planning everything in your world, just give yourself the tools to generate as much of it as you can on the fly. As with everything to being a GM, ask your players out of game what they plan to do the next session. That will at least give you a starting point for where they plan to go and what they plan to do.

Try Getting Players to Experience it Together

There is nothing like getting players and their characters to bond than having a few drinks, getting wasted, and beating up everyone in the tavern. Support players going and performing downtime activities together, but don't try and force it. This is where you be much more lenient with the rules and let your players go wild. All of the crazy stories you hear people say, "that one time when we got drunk and found that sled," are the kind of moments you want your players to have, this is called "bonding." You might even be able to reveal an NPC important to a later plot, or have an NPC they did something to come back to bite them. The best part is that if the players experience downtime activities together, there is less you have to improvise.

The wonderful thing about groups is that people are fantastic at bouncing ideas off one another. If one player has an idea for something, the other player(s) might have something even better to add to it. It brings up the opportunity of players spending entire portions of the game with you the GM just sitting there watching the players unfold events only asking you for the world's reaction to it. Let me tell you, as a story focused GM, that is one of the greatest feelings in the world.

Plot Hooks

At some point, you will want to pull your players out of downtime and back into an adventure. This is where you take those adventure ideas you have and find a way to present them to the characters. After a quick twitter poll I will actually be writing up some adventure hooks for future articles.

However, one thing to keep in mind for plot hooks is that when you hook the players, you don't pull them out of downtime like a fish. The players will want to pursue the adventure regardless, but they might have some other things they want to take care of. If they don't take up your new adventure make sure to write up some changes that happen each day they choose not to take it up, maybe even an expiration date. This makes it so your world moves with or without the players. Adding expiration dates allows you to plan for if your player's don't like a plot hook put in front of them, and how the world reacts to the player rejection of the call to action.

Expect the Chance of Not Rolling Dice

I have run entire sessions of downtime where the players have not once rolled dice. Normally, you think of Dungeons & Dragons as everything being controlled by the roll of the dice. In my opinion, when a session goes without rolling dice with events still occurring I call it a win in my book. This isn't because I didn't have to come up with DC's, but because the actions that transpired were resolved without the need for an extra mechanic.

Rolling the dice is when the degrees of success or failure matter. When doing a job for an NPC you might have them make a roll to see how well they performed, having the NPC pay them according to how well they did. Convincing a shop keep to give up the +3 Flaming Raging Sword of Destruction for a thousand gold less than he is selling it might end in him telling you no. Not everything has varying degrees of success. You don't need to have your players roll to see how well rested their characters feel after spending the day relaxed on a beach somewhere, you let them decide the effect it has on their character.

I've outlined a lot of what you will need to prepare yourself for running downtime. If I could cover everything you would possibly encounter with downtime then I would. However there are some awesome resources you can use to help cover some things. Wizards of the Coast put out this Downtime article in their Unearthed Arcana articles. It has supplemental rules for determining outcomes of certain downtime activities, rolls, and possible foils that the players will end up dealing with. Hopefully, you have found this information useful and if you have any awesome downtime stories of your own please be sure to throw them at me in a tweet or leave them in the comments below.

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