Play, As Time Goes By 7

If this isn’t the first post you’ve read in this blog, you’ll probably realize that I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about crafting in tabletop games lately. Talking around and through the problems with designing a crafting system has brought me to another point that bears discussion, and that separates tabletop games from LARPs, MMOs, and most single-player RPGs: downtime.

The LARPs with which I am familiar have clearly placed, unavoidable downtime in the form of the weeks and months between events. The event’s plot comes to a climax sometime on Saturday night, and while there are ongoing plotlines and things players want to do, those plans are either carried out as BGAs (between-game actions) from a tightly limited set of options, or they are put off until the next event. Production is either mystically handwaved (Wildlands: technically, the exact opposite of magical realism) or treated as if the heavy lifting of the work was done Just Slightly Off-Camera (CI/RBP games). The one game I’ve played that made the full extent of a crafter’s production time an on-camera activity was… not praised for this particular decision. In the case of BGAs, you get three of them, and there are rules for what you can fit into that time. Everyone gets the same amount of that time, with only very rare exceptions.

MMO downtime is when you handle harvesting crafting components, combining components into finished goods, mailing things to and fro, handing in quests, waiting in queues, healing out of combat, recovering mana, playing around in the Auction House, and so on. You’re interacting only with the game system, or you’re interacting only with other players (as in the case of socializing over guild chat, but not otherwise playing the game). As long as other players aren’t explicitly waiting on you to do something (i.e., in the midst of a raid), you can take as much time as you want, and you’re about the only person who will notice. If you’re that kind of player, you could be logged in for twenty-four solid hours doing whatever trivial and miscellaneous tasks you like, and it doesn’t interfere with anyone else’s play of the game.

These things are potentially but not universally true in tabletop games. The DM and each player have functional veto power over any player’s desire for in-character downtime to work on production. Yet players might have skills allowing them to gather information, craft magical or nonmagical goods, perform powerful divinations of a very long casting time (most commonly, identifying magic items), or any number of other reasonable things. This becomes a problem when other players want to do something that will inevitably lead to an action scene, or when the DM wants the world to feel alive and responsive (typically a commendable goal) and expresses this by having problems find the players during their downtime. The problem with other players seeking out an action scene is that yes, you could sit it out, and that’s very realistic (the PCs did, after all, make a reasonably informed choice), but given the pace of D&D tactical combat, you’re likely to miss at least the next hour of the action. During this time, you typically receive 0% of the spotlight, and the outcome of your downtime play isn’t as interesting as the other player’s, either.

The problem with the DM having your problems come find you, or with the DM putting events on a relatively hard-coded timeline is that (in 3.x games especially) it blocks Craft and Production skill use (but generally not Perform or Tumble to earn money – even though those skills already had better and broader application), magic item creation, and spell research. D&D 4e gets around this by removing all or nearly all of the things that would cause these delays. But then, D&D 4e also gets rid of needing more than a day to heal even the most devastating of wounds. This is good for the pure game, and it does work, but there are times when it bugs me.

There’s nothing wrong with setting events on a timeline and letting a villain’s plans advance when the PCs take some downtime. This is considered to be a pretty good practice, especially in published adventures, but one shouldn’t be surprised when this (and the cajoling of friendly NPCs, I’m sure) successfully convinces them that they need to dedicate every waking moment to killing the villain and dancing on his corpse. If the campaign is going to involve a lot of plotlines on deadlines, you could do a lot worse than telling the players this up-front, before they spend skill points on things that require downtime.

The other extreme is also bad for the game. Samhaine tells the story of a campaign in which the players chose the pace and had as much downtime as they wanted in a D&D 3.5 game. The party’s wizard used this time to enchant and sell magic items, making him phenomenally wealthy and setting him up to turn that phenomenal wealth into overpowered gear for the party. (I’m sure Samhaine will correct me if I’ve misquoted him here.) I assume the other characters found ways to turn time into money as well. To be fair to the wizard in this example, this is stylistically very appropriate for wizards. Hint: you don’t build one of these if you plan to be away from home risking life and limb all the damn time.

Some games do things about this problem. I’ve discussed Pendragon in two previous posts. In Pendragon, it is generally true that each session is a year of in-character time, though multi-session years were tolerably common in our recent Great Campaign run; I suspect that the “longest” year was around five sessions. A single year was almost never more than one discrete adventure. The many months that passed between our adventures were spent tending our estates, raising our families, and other things that we handled during Manor Upkeep, the first half-hour of each session. These advancements in the timeline were both good and bad for us, so there was a visible incentive both to allow the timeline to advance (i.e., not complain too much at the GM for not letting as adventure more this year) and a visible incentive not to rush things along too much (i.e., stay at home and avoid adventuring). For the former, these downtimes gave us Year Points (one of the game’s forms of statistical advancement), let us roll our checks (see if our skills went up through use), and involved several rolls that might result in childbirth and/or prosperity for our manors. For the latter, these downtimes pushed us closer to aging penalties or earned us new aging penalties, ran the risk of killing off wives or children, and forced us to pay some number of pounds of silver for our upkeep. I’ve put upkeep in boldface because I think it’s a useful approach to downtime that is underused in other games.

Shadows of Azathoth approached this from a very different direction that is appropriate only to the particular format of an SoA campaign: your character’s downtime is spent frozen in cryosleep. You don’t craft anything, you don’t converse with PCs or NPCs, you don’t do anything but possibly lose some memories. This is certainly coherent and consistent, but not a lesson that generalizes well to other games. On the other hand, you can do some neat things on your ship in the time between waking up and deploying for your next mission, such as screwing with the ship’s AI for fun, profit, or self-preservation. In a long campaign of SoA, I’d expect a sort of episodic mission formula to develop, in which characters have a relatively consistent amount of time between waking and the action picking up. In that sense, SoA’s approach to downtime could come to resemble Pendragon’s.

Writing about AD&D Second Edition last night is what brought all of this to mind for me. As that post reveals, I can levy plenty of criticisms against 2e, but it is written with a long campaign in mind, covering years of in-character time. From one perspective, this means that there is a lot of text in the Dungeon Master’s Guide that one can blissfully ignore; in all the 2e games I ran, I never had anyone get to a high enough level to worry about supporting dozens (or more) followers, and my players weren’t too interested in hirelings. I also ignored Table 22: Player Character Living Expenses. Now, the scaling on this table is pretty ridiculous, but the core idea at stake is pretty good. Time costs money, and at higher levels, time costs a lot of money, since for whatever reason the top two upkeep categories are listed in cost per character level. (Another example of this concept is found on page 110, totaling up the monthly wages of the officials, craftsmen, and soldiers supported by this PC; it is just shy of 3,000 gold a month.)


So let’s talk about upkeep. Pendragon characters pay for their quality of living between adventures in varying amounts of money: £6, £9, or £12, for Ordinary, Rich, or Superlative. (Poor is… somewhere south of that first number, but Gracchus didn’t have to do that more than maybe once, so I’ve blocked it out of my mind.) Higher quality-of-life standards result in pushing some very undesirable results off the table for yearly random rolls, such as the death of young children, wives, or horses. (Things Pendragon Players Treat Like Perishable Goods for £200, Alex.) Oh, and you earn Glory, albeit a very small amount, for higher grades of upkeep, because the game rewards spending money rather than hoarding it. I like this design decision: the lower grades of upkeep have the unstated benefit of, well, letting you spend money on something else (or squeak by if you had a bad year financially), while the higher grades give you a statistical and surprisingly strong emotional benefit for paying extra money.

The economies of later games, in which month-to-month upkeep is treated as trivial, focus on players accumulating wealth to buy better magic items. This drives a lot of DMs insane, because they feel like it makes it all into a big shopping trip, and I’d be inclined to agree. Having players treat the Adventurer’s Vault books like a shopping list drives me a little bit nuts. In Second Edition, the core rulebooks assumed that purchasing magic items from anything like a store was flat-out impossible, though you might scrape together enough money to convince an NPC to part with one specific magic item. This is too far in the other direction for my taste, but the middle ground is shaky and ill-defined. In any case, Second Edition assumed that you would collect your cash and your prizes separately during your adventures, and couldn’t really ever exchange the one for the other. Cash, then, was for the aforementioned forms of upkeep, as well as replacing any mundane gear that had been lost or ruined during the adventure, though this was not common in my experience.

As an off-the-top-of-my-head example, consider this for 3.x/AE:

Squalid: 3 gold per month, -2 to Fortitude and Will saves; for each full year spent at Squalid, the character must save versus Fortitude (DC 15) or contract filth fever, -5 to Diplomacy, Bluff, and Gather Information checks targeting people of higher classes

Poor: 5 gold per month, -2 to Diplomacy, Bluff, and Gather Information checks targeting people of higher classes.

Middle-Class: 50 gold per month, character is well-fed and gainst a +1 circumstance bonus to Fortitude saves against disease. This might be a minimum level of maintenance for some kinds of downtime actions.

Wealthy: 200 gold per month, character is well-fed (see above) and well-connected, gaining a +2 circumstance bonus to Diplomacy, Bluff, Intimidate, and Gather Information checks targeting most people of his culture and comparable cultures

Frankly, this might not be enough statistical bribery to get players to part with hard-won cash, but it’s what I’ve got for the moment.

With upkeep, I’m trying to address the issue of players embracing too much downtime. By discouraging downtime, though, I’m pushing players to forever be on their way to their next adventure, which is something I mentioned above that I don’t prefer. My favorite solution to this is to give everyone a separate “downtime actions class,” as briefly mentioned in this post. Wizards are pretty much always going to need more downtime than fighters, though, unless you do something pretty drastic.

I’ve run out of steam with ideas on this topic for the moment, but perhaps my gentle readers will comment.

Edited to add: I forgot to include your multimedia experience of the day. Which is, of course, the title of the post.

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7 thoughts on “Play, As Time Goes By

  • Aberrant Hive Mind

    Been following these crafting posts as it's another aspect I'm interested in tinkering with in my games. Here's the link to a defunct Pathfinder campaign I ran that only allows downtime actions to occur online and in between game sessions.

    There were some pros and cons with the way we approached this. Our groups been thinking about resurrecting the concept for our current campaign, but I haven't had the motivation to do so just yet.

  • samhaine

    Yeah, there were a lot of other bad house rule calls I made that resulted in magic items being too easy to craft in that campaign, but the biggest one was removing EXP costs from items. That's one of the reasons I'm increasingly moving away from allowing magic item feats in Pathfinder: with no EXP cost, crafting magic items will eventually take you out of the expected power band with sufficient downtime. If you allow PCs to sell said items for more than half their value (i.e., more than cost to craft) that "eventually" becomes "very quickly." In theory, all crafting has a chance of failure and ruining materials, but that just becomes a math puzzle to determine the best thing that you can't fail to craft with your current skill level.

    Pathfinder DID formalize an upkeep chart similar in values to the one you list, but didn't really attach any explicit bonuses or penalties to it. As you note, though, any flat-value upkeep chart in D&D is doomed to failure as the PCs level and their income grows exponentially. It all goes back to my issue with levels and worldbuilding 🙂 .

    In a tabletop or video game, the real issue is that players are never going to find money drains fun, no matter how essential the GM/designer finds them to the health of the overall simulation. It's very hard to get player buy-in on an upkeep system: your explanation of the Pendragon one leaves off the terrible gnashing of teeth inherent in having to figure out how to pay enough to minimize the chance of your next character dying when the weather just crit and you made a libra and a half this year 🙂 .

    What I'm saying is, ultimately, maintaining simulation is often at odds with fun. And that may be an unsolvable problem.

  • Shieldhaven


    The approach your group took looks solid. I like the way you've handled (and apparently accelerated?) Craft skills.

    An episodic campaign with clear periods of downtime is one way to run D&D. Despite my comments in the post, it's not the style I am personally most inclined to run: I'm most likely to let players wander, plan, dawdle, pontificate, and so on until they get one or at most two fights in a session, and every adventure takes two or more sessions. With D&D's balance generally pushing toward days with 4 encounters, give or take, the fun and flow of play depends on it.

  • Shieldhaven


    My hope is that a West Marches E6 would handle this. Player wealth does scale up, but maybe I can reward players for spending a week or two in town (with downtime action classes, your Weariness rules that I forgot to mention in this post, and stat rewards for living in the lap of luxury) enough that (much like yearly upkeep in Pendragon) it's just part of life.

    There was indeed gnashing of teeth over finances in Pendragon, but I'm willing to look at it as a good thing: I found that it was a good kind of character stress and conflict.

    Finances of upkeep were, of course, also at the root of the Weaponsmithing ideas I posted some time back. Those ran the risk of being frustrating, but really only if the players approached them expecting them to be something other than what they were.

  • Kainenchen

    @Aberrant Hive Mind– I'm gonna have to take a look at that, as that's something I've considered doing myself, though perhaps not in the game I'm running right now.

    @Shieldhaven– I actually like the money sink… 200gp, depending on who is running the game, doesn't sound like too much for a monthly expense. Also, correct me if I'm wrong, but West Marches E6 seems, in feel, to capture some of the Pendragon or Game of Thrones pacing that would make this sort of downtime natural, yes? Well, as you point out in the above comment. I like naturally built in downtime, and I also like the idea of money sinks, especially in a game where, for various reasons, one _doesn't_ expect to exchange currency for magic items, as that was kind of… not supposed to happen in earlier editions. Other Benefits for Cash sounds a thing. And frankly, I dislike looking at AV as a shopping list as well, which is why I generally, as a player, don't go looking for specific magic items. To do so still feels odd to me, though perhaps efficient.

  • Shieldhaven

    Kainenchen –

    For the record, 2e's monthly money sinks for Middle-Class and Wealthy were 50gp per level and 200gp per level, respectively. I feel like that veers toward the insane, and the advice the DMG offers on the different social classes changing gameplay are a little too… zero-sum for what you're otherwise losing.

    The core of West Marches play does assume regular returns to the home city at the edge of the map, at which point the party has some amount of downtime.

    I wonder how players would take it if adventures often ended with the DM saying something like, "Okay, outline three things you're doing with your time. Particularly elaborate or involved things may take more than one action. Here's a list of things you can't do with your time, like going out to look for a fight."

  • samhaine

    If you go full on West Marches, with the conceit that there will be a larger-than-normal number of players that swap in and out of one or more groups as needed, it might actually be a really good idea to have an expanded downtime system with time-based actions. That way, players that miss sessions will get extra downtime actions to compensate in some small way.