Downtime Actions in Tabletop Gaming

It’s been a month and more since Mearls posted When Adventurers Aren’t Adventuring, in which he explains that D&D Next will offer rules for things that happen while the heroes are at home or otherwise off-duty from heroics and/or treasure-hunting. I think it’s fair to say that this has been one of the most frequent topics of this whole blog, from its inception. To summarize, downtime systems equate to attention spent on the broader setting, enhancing the game’s sense of consistency and reality as the PCs engage in a wider variety of actions. The core actions of D&D’s gameplay loop are destructive and (often) reactive; the kinds of things that work well for downtime action are constructive and proactive. This makes it easier than ever for the players’ actions to drive the plot and feel like a living world.
These are, of course, all things that Mearls points out. Is there a counter-argument to be made? Well, I suppose you could want the action to be even more wall-to-wall, but I generally find that players are intrigued with opportunities to do unusual things. I had my PCs manage a settlement throughout a harsh winter, for example, finally facing an incursion of gnolls in the spring. Whenever someone suggests giving D&D a crafting system or discusses just how miserable the Craft rules of 3.x are, it’s inevitable that someone will mention that heroes shouldn’t have day jobs or worry about crafting a sword. At least as long as I’ve been playing (since ’93), D&D has needed to support a variety of tones and styles, though (outside of Birthright) it hasn’t ever handled domain-management or any other kind of downtime activity with particular skill.
As the LARP posts above indicate, downtime actions are a major consideration and a significant percentage of the workload of any event in an ongoing campaign, at least in Ro3 LARPs. Most tabletop games don’t have several dozen players – though it’s easy to imagine these rules bridging the gap between tabletop games and play-by-email games, since Birthright’s domain-management rules have made it a popular choice for PBeMs. Back to the point I was trying to make, a DM doesn’t have to write anywhere from one to five or more paragraphs on the spot, during play, in response to players taking downtime actions, and (I would strongly recommend) doesn’t have to allow three or more actions per character in any one span of downtime. The workload can stay completely reasonable.
On the Other Hand

All of that great stuff about expanding and enriching the world – the real benefit of downtime actions, beyond simply varying the pace of the game – takes work. A game’s content is something you want your players to latch onto at every possible moment. This means names, places, complications, costs – the actions need narration and thought, so that one action sets up the stakes and options for the next action. To put that another way, every tabletop game ever written has advised GMs (and often players as well) to narrate the effects of combat after the dice have been resolved. Downtime actions cannot match combat for visceral power; if the players and the DM don’t seize the fiction and do something useful with it, it quickly passes into a bland passage of time.
Introduce new characters through downtime actions. Make them helpful, indifferent, or malicious, and use them in the narrative. This is tabletop gaming, where players will have a harder time remembering who’s who than they do in live-action gaming, so DMs should be prepared to coach players on exactly who this guy is the first time he shows up in the action, even if he’s been mentioned half-a-dozen times in downtime. Wherever it might be feasible, a brief encounter with an NPC is better than an action that doesn’t include another NPC, but be careful that this doesn’t consistently give one player a solo scene without giving other players roughly equal attention. Since many of the downtime actions Mearls lays out are characters pursuing solo goals, this would be like having social scenes where only one character is permitted to speak.


Up to this point I’ve been talking about advice for how to write downtime actions, because I feel comfortable saying that I have a hefty amount of experience on this front. There’s a lot of other material in the post, though, so let’s get on to that.
Mearls boils downtime actions down to four categories – totally logical, but it sets off warning bells in my head. In a LARP this would be fine, because DtD characters don’t have ability scores or classes for these actions to depend upon. I’m concerned that the WotC designers will do the completely obvious thing and make some ability scores particularly useful for certain downtime actions. For example, how could you not make Intelligence useful for Knowledge actions? To do otherwise verges on nonsensical. On the other hand, fighter-types don’t tend to have great scores to spare for Intelligence, so how do they train their abilities? This has a solution, obviously, but we’ll see if they remember to make the downtime system readily accessible to many different classes, backgrounds, and ability score situations.
I’m fascinated with the idea that characters might be able to earn one or more skills outside of the paradigm of level advancement. I hope there’s an upper limit on how many skills a character can gain this way (possibly taking more time for each additional skill), just so that characters don’t feel like collecting every kind of training the DM allows is the “best” way to play.
I love the ways they’re making this system be about the economy. One of D&D Next’s current issues is that if magic items aren’t for sale (and it seems like they aren’t), there aren’t many reasons to collect huge amounts of money. The economic category of actions suggests more ways to make money (though investments of many kinds can rack up huge costs before failing), but it’s easy to see how Influence, Knowledge, and Dominion actions could be bottomless money sinks for the characters’ goals – much in keeping with the domain-building rules in the 2e DMG.
Within economic actions, Mearls mentions a crafting system, and I would hope that Knowledge actions would include a system for spell research. As these are long-term interests of mine, I dearly hope that these rules carry mechanical interest in their own right. They could be really strong, compelling areas of gameplay, or they could be the barely-functional crafting systems of previous editions, just trading cash for results.
A big part of the idea behind Backgrounds is that they are what your character does when you’re not busy adventuring. The only one I’ve had a tough time supporting in this way in my own campaign is the Bounty Hunter, because I haven’t figured out how to shift the work of a bounty hunt into downtime work. It’s great adventure fodder, though, as I often get to tip the PCs off about villains they’ve seen on the local bounty boards.
Mearls mentions connecting particular options, such as learning a specific skill, to locations in the world. Giving players more reasons to learn about the world so that they know where to go is great. Travel also helps to establish the reality of the world in players’ minds – it carries both the curiosity and uncertainty of a new place and the rewarding sense of familiarity upon returning to a well-known one. I’m also wondering how this design might influence the text of their published settings. Will a Forgotten Realms adventure or setting book explain in detail the skills available for training in Waterdeep and the political options available? It’s unlikely that they’d go that far, but a lot of political figures will need more detail, and probably some additional stats, if PCs can interact with them on more equal terms.
My conclusion on this initial sketch of downtime actions is highly positive. I think that these rules remind players and DMs that other activities and options are available, and provide a much clearer path to the goals that many players hold from the beginning of a campaign but never know how to address. Let it also be a reminder (for the DMs that aren’t already doing this) to let players’ actions and interests guide the course of the campaign: even more so than the main action of the campaign, downtime actions show the DM how the player spends wide-open opportunities, and thus signals what interests the player. On the player side, this makes it increasingly useful for the group to talk beforehand about what they would like to accomplish in the game, so that they can contribute to one another’s efforts and find ways to share in the spotlight rather than competing for it.

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