The first time I came across phases of play in a Role Playing game was Mouseguard. It’s a game based on a comic book series about mice who adventure to help the mouse territories…it’s besides the point. The comics are great. If you want to know more, check it out here. It’s also based on an older RPG called Burning Wheel. Ok sources cited. The mechanic I want to talk about was the checks during the player phase. Checks were a resource the players got during the player phase to pursue their own stories, get themselves healthy, and take a few other actions that could benefit them during the next adventuring phase. Having been mostly a D&D player up to that point, it shifted my perception of how RPGs could be structured.
Today this isn’t really a surprise. The Between and Public Access have different phases of play which allow for different kinds of actions to be taken. The Forged in the Dark games have their versions of downtime activities. Even D&D has their downtime mechanics where you spend days of time to do things when you’re not adventuring.
This last one, the D&D one, is what I want to talk about because it’s a bit lacking in both presentation and implementation. So here’s a version of downtime rules I cooked up for my D&D game, but realized I could use them in other RPGs.
- Most downtime activities have two resources associated with them. Resources and Energy.
- Energy is the amount of time and effort you can put towards a task.
- Resources are the people, money, raw materials, and other such items an activity may need to be completed. Most of this can be abstracted as money, but special activities may need other more specific requirements. For example, if you want to learn an ancient language the GM may decide that you’ll have to gain the services of one of the three people in the world who can teach the language. That means you’ll have to go to one of these people and negotiate with them for their services as a special requirement.
- A character gains downtime energy each week equal to 25 + their character level.
- A character can only spend a maximum of 50 energy in any one week.
- As soon as the GM declares it’s time for downtime, the PCs can work on downtime activities as long as they have the energy to spend on those activities.
So we have resources and energy. These mechanics are just cribbed from any of those mobile games where you wait to get energy and then spend that energy along with other resources to get things done. Strangely enough, when you just add a little narrative to what you want to get done it becomes a nice little flexible system to show how you can get things done over time inside of a fantasy RPG.
What Are Downtime Activities?
They’re pretty much anything that you can think of that would take time and potentially resources. But this makes the system flexible enough to fit pretty much any situation. Here’s three examples.
You want to be proficient with a longsword, but you’re a human wizard and the only bladed weapon you’re proficient with is a dagger? Ok, We’ll say it costs you 200 energy and you need an instructor. The instructor will cost 40 gp.
You want to learn how to speak elvish and another PC in the party is willing to teach you? It’ll cost you 400 energy to have a basic understanding of the language along with 200 energy from your party member to take the time to teach you.
A basic understanding means you can understand what someone says to you in elvish, convey an intended idea in elvish, or get the gist of reading elvish with an intelligence check.
To become proficient in the language will then cost another 400 energy plus spending a month living among elves to get a functional understanding of the language. This means you’re now proficient in elvish so you can speak, understand, read, and write the language.
You’re the prince of a foreign kingdom of fire elementally infused humanoids that don’t have the greatest reputation. You’d like to have an embassy for your people within the kingdom. First, be a hero with an impeccable reputation. Second, it’ll cost 400 energy. This is to get meetings with the right people, make the proper connections, and go through the process of diplomacy. For every 1000 gold you spend to help smooth the way 25 energy is removed from the total, up to a maximum of 6000 gold spent to decrease the energy spent by 150.
A Bit of Commentary
The first example is pretty straightforward. It’s energy plus a resource, hire an instructor and pay them. This might change based on circumstance. If you’re in the middle of nowhere, an instructor might cost more. If you’re not a wizard but a rogue who’s trained in the short sword, then the GM might rule that it’ll only take 150 energy instead of 200.
The second example has one PC teaching another PC a language. This has a few different things. The first is the idea of a basic understanding of the language. It’s just something that made sense to me as a GM for those things that would take time and have steps and different levels of competency to learn. So once a character has a basic understanding of a language they have the ability and option to make an intelligence check to understand the language. It felt right as I was coming up with the downtime activity.
Second, I decided to say if one of the characters wants to help them learn the language then they won’t have to pay for a teacher. The cost is the teaching character has to spend half the downtime the learning character is teaching them.
Last, I decided that to become proficient in elvish would require the character immersing themselves in the language for at least a month. That felt like a fun requirement to put on as it could create an interesting story.
The third example is slightly altered from one of my D&D games. We actually had this activity going on in the background for a while during the game until it was done and an embassy was established. Now, the players sometimes go there and speak with the NPCs that were created inside of the embassy, including a restaurant that features food from the character’s homeland. In breaking it down, this version of a downtime activity allows for the player to throw more resources at a task to get it done quicker.
So now that we’ve seen some examples, let’s put together a pick list structure for you GMs out there to craft your own downtime activities:
- A player says they want their character to do, make, create, or learn something.
- How much energy is the activity going to take? It’s not unfair to keep in mind that between 25 – 30 energy is usually a work week’s worth of effort.
- How much in resources are required, if any?
- Are there any special requirements or resources needed to accomplish the downtime activity that cash can’t handle?
- Decide if this project is one downtime activity or more than one. If it’s more than one, decide what it means when each step is completed.
- Explain the requirements to the player so they can get started on it.
So while I gave three downtime activities as examples, here’s some of the ones I’ve had in my games for your reference, along with the chart I use with the players to track this stuff. I’ll often highlight and move things around to denote that things are done.
|Kisviel – Studying the Book of Sun’s Ire||100/100||Spend Bonus action to switch any spell to become Fire and Light aspected.|
|Establishing an Embassy for Alvar||400/400||It’s done|
|Kerri – Learning Zithian language||50/50||276/1300|
|Kerri – Creating an Outreach program dedicated to the god Gakis Thul||Kerri 50/50||+2 bonus to interactions with the poor in the city of Kingshaven|
|Raiann – making a fire aspected Crosswater crest/collar for Cali Ash their phoenix pet||5 gp||5/5||Uncommon Fire reagent. It’s a tracker.|
|Advance Skill as an artificer||150/1000||Spend 1000 downtime on artificing|
|The Trade Road to Alvar||5/5 – Hammer out the deal||The Plan
|Elementally charged arrows||25 gp to invent
5 gp per set
5 per set of ammo
|For ammo of 20|
|Understanding of the Gigas Helm/ artifacts.||137/???||Something will happen.|
|Elemental bombs||10 gp to invent
5 per bomb created
|25/25 to invent
2 per bomb created
|Uncommon reagent, deals 2d8 elemental damage in a 10×10 ft block. Thrown 30 ft.|
|Kisviel – Scribe Skill||25/25||Forge Documents, Reduce Spell Research|
|Fake Sunlight||25,000 gp||15/300||Permanent fake sun: epic or legendary light reagent and 4 rare light reagents.|
|Raiann – Air Bubble Token||20/20||Common Dark and common Wind.|
|Reinforced Grappling Gun||40 gp||25/25||Uncommon reagent, light, dark, wind, fire|
|Make Condensed Starlight||Collect: 30/30
|Container: rare light and earth
First you need to collect starlight
|Work on Phoenix base wards||200 gp and 2 uncommon reagents of each kind.||25/25||Time and money|
|Fancy Armor||Armor that’s acceptable to parties|
|Fixing the Lair of the Lost Phoenix||300 spent||Kisviel (6)
|Selling the Chimera Equipment||Kerri 5||Sold for 800 gold|
|Tracking down the Phoenix||25 gp for +2 from kids||30/X||Make a d20 roll to find the wayward Phoenix every 5 downtime spent. Add +1 to each downtime spent.|
This chart can read as a bit of gibberish to those who aren’t playing in the game, but it’s mostly just to show some of the different ways I’ve used the resources and mechanics of my very homebrewed D&D game to let these downtime rules function in a variety of different ways.
A worry that’s been brought up when I’ve talked to other people about this is, “Is this game breaking?” and no, the game has not broken. In fact I’m using this system in two separate campaigns that have lasted over twenty sessions each. The groups have been playing every other week for over a year. Both groups are level 8 and the game system has allowed them to expand their characters and engage with the world in a way that’s a little less hand-wavish and the downtime makes them feel like their actions can and are affecting the setting in meaningful ways.
One last bit of advice for those who try this system out. When a PC accomplishes a downtime activity, take some time to allow for whatever the downtime activity has accomplished in the game. For instance, the grapple gun that’s on that list has been used quite effectively, and the embassy has been a location that’s come up in play repeatedly. Also, allow the players to have input into those parts of the setting when they create things like the Embassy. Do it together at the table. It’s fun, takes some of the work off you, allows them to feel like they’re getting the thing they wanted, and creates investment in the game setting.
I know this is a lot. If you read this and find it interesting, but have questions, please feel free to ask. I’ll do my best to answer them.