Friday, June 7, 2024

Making Best Use of Downtime

Many of my players don't like downtime. They want a fast-paced adventure where they know danger is around every corner. They prefer the kind of pacing that you see in modern Dungeons & Dragons play. Downtime for them is like a montage. And for many years, because I know my audience, that was how I played. Downtime only existed between acts or when the PCs decided to- and the unfolding events allowed them to- take a break.

The Evolution of Timekeeping Advice in D&D

As a kid, I missed reading the 1st edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master's Guide, I missed out on its advice for keeping time and running the game (I went from playing with the Mentzer "red box" Basic Dungeons & Dragons to using Mentzer Dungeon Master's Rulebook and the AD&D Player's Handbook, to using AD&D2nd edition. Thus, I missed the best resource ever written on running a D&D campaign. The AD&D2e Dungeon Master's Guide buried its advice a somewhat in favour of optional rules and setting design, and skipped some of the best options. Bu the time they decided to expand it in DMGR1: The Campaign Sourcebook and Catacombs Guide, the developers at TSR had very much moved away from Gygax. Here is the meat of their description of how to manage pacing of a campaign in DMGR1:

The ideal adventure game session plays like a good book reads. There are times when it moves slowly while the players soak up the rich atmosphere of the DM's world of wonder. Suddenly the action builds to a furious climax as swords swing and spells zing in pulse-pounding excitement with little time for complicated planning. Then the rate of play relaxes and once again, the players can take their time to plot and plan and prepare. As a storyteller, the DM must actively control the pace at which events and actions take place in his game. Pace of play is an intangible sort of thing that partakes of the speed, variety, intensity, and continuity of game play in an ad- venture. Speed refers to how fast the action in a game takes place. 

Variety suggests a selection of play styles and encounters, including combat, puzzle solving, and role- play. Intensity has to do with the level of suspense the DM has created in the game—from a peaceful or even silly "none at all" level to the "nail biting fear and frenzy" of- ten associated with movies where undefeatable alien monsters eat everyone but the heroine and the kid.

Advice in DMGR1 on timekeeping itself is similarly scant:

Organized DMs usually keep a calendar of events for their world. They plot the times of recurring major events such as seasonal changes, full moons, eclipses, holy days, festivals, gatherings, and so forth. From here the DM can go on to plot the future of the campaign, primarily those things outside the control of the characters, like wars, invasions, troop movements, earthquakes, volcanos [sic], floods, and so on. Characters al- ways run the danger of blundering into one or more of these events. Furthermore, some of the occurrences in a DM's adventure plots may be time dependent. These too should be recorded as they occur, including any movements by major NPCs.

Thus, it is critical that the DM update the world situation from time to time to determine if the characters might be in a position to be affected by or encounter a time dependent event. Note that troop movements are often wider in scope than the location of the actual army. Recruiting may be taking place in the PCs town, foraging for supplies may bring troops into their area, or scouts may be spying in the area and assume that all armed personnel are the enemy and report the characters' position to their commander. Thus characters may innocently become involved in a war they want no part in, but where treasonable desertion may be punishable by death.

Neither of which suggest that the GM keep strict timekeeping and give the PCs a breather between sessions which the PCs can use to alter the events of the campaign outside of the play session.

I did eventually purchase a copy of The Rules Cyclopedia, but, to be honest, I assumed the advice in it would be similar to the relatively light advice in the Red Box, and so it was years before I bothered with the Campaigning chapter of the Cyclopedia, which was not substantially different from the advice in DMGR1.

The Transition from Approximate 1:1 Time to Story Time

The original Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master's Guide has a substatnially different approach. The AD&D DMG suggests that keeping strict time records in and out of the dungeon is absolutely critical. And because the DM may be running games with multiple groups in the same open table setup (what we might call a "sandbox" today) and would be treating the world more like the free kriegspiel setting.

The is very much a result of the evolution of group size and play style. According to books on early D&D play like The Lost Dungeon of Tonisborg, early groups could often have as many as 50 players, often with multiple PCs dropping in and out as they could to join whatever foray had been planned for that evening. Players with a good lead like a treasure map might arrange a specific night to get together with a specific set of characters to pursue it. As the campaign evolved players started competing for treasure in a dungeon or Dominion-Level PCs started clashing for resources, knowing when things were happening in the world precisely was far more critical. "A good rule of thumb" was to make one day occur in world for every day in real life and encourage players to have a complete expeditions with a beginning, middle, and end

The rules were structured to facilitate this. Rules for extended downtime missions where thieves and assassin characters went on spying missions, for example. Or the time requirements for finding Henchmen or consulting Sages were built to work in a game that runs using this loose structure.

By the mid-80s groups tended to be around five players (including DM) each playing just one or two PCs. You didn't need to balance multiple player team-ups, and domain-level play was becoming relatively rare. DMs had the luxury of controlling pacing. 

Advice about timekeeping, in response, was adjusted from being advice on how to effectively managed massive tables of dozens of players playing in a living, ever-shifting sandbox - and keeping it all straight - to advice on how to use time to create a more satisfying and engaging narrative.

And with this shift the value of tasks like using divination magic, hiring large numbers of hirelings, consulting sages, sending assassins on spying missions, etc. was diminished.

Eventually, between the change in play structure and the advice given in sources like the Rules Cyclopedia and DMGR1, it is easy to play games where downtime is rare and feels alien to the play style. And many players may feel that it is a needless pause in the action, as many of mine have.

One-to-One Time Reimagined 

The BrOSR crowd, and in particular Jeffro Johnson have over the last few years been running with the idea of adding back in more of the wargaming elements from the "white box"/ 0e and AD&D era into their game, with the assumption that Gary Gygax's implied playstyle in the AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide would create a substantially different (and better) play experience to the "trad" style that evolved from BD&D and AD&D2e and became the assumed style of play by D&D3e.

They not only moved to a much stricter form of one-to-one time, combined with outsourcing the decisions for factions and major villains to "patron" players using a structure inspired by Braunstein. they call this "Strict 1:1" or "Jeffrogaxian" time / play. 

It has allowed for some interesting experiments like the Blood Red Moon event where multiple worlds run by multiple GMs all were affected by a sun god's struggle for survival when a PC attempted to fling Elric's Stormbringer into the sun, and the forces of Law and Chaos fought to determine whether the sword would reach the sun or be turned away before the Sun God;s soul was devoured by the ever-hungry demonic blade. Every campaign connected to the BrOSR network, including the World of Weirth campaign I was playing in at the time were involved. And PCs in every world could use prayers, struggles against evil, and planar travel to influence the outcome of the central wargame.

 In my Silver Gull campaign playing a slightly less-strict version of 1:1 time led to the creation of an NPC party that picked up the slack for the PCs as they ignored certain rumours, and substantially affected the events of the campaign, especially when those NPCs got themselves into trouble.

I have been fortunate enough to play with a GM who was involved in the BrOSR, but was willing to relax and tweak some of the rules, run his own experiments, and wasn't interested in playing AD&D RAW when he could create his own bespoke OSR engine for the setting. Which we have done using both Low-Fantasy Gaming and Blueholme over four years of gaming together.

And one lesson I have learned is that once you have a little downtime every week: you can take your game to a totally different level.

The Power of Downtime

Whether or not you are using 1:1 time, having nearly a week of downtime between game sessions - and really leaning into it -  has given players a serious edge in OSR games. I want to give you some favourite examples.

  • In the Weirth Campaign we were playing through a heavily modified version of The Caves of Chaos, where there were many human captives and slaves. During a two-week period of downtime, my thief Lieres infiltrated the slave pits and gather intelligence. he was able to smuggle weapon caches into strategic places in the dungeon, get rough maps, and establish signals and plans so that our next raid on the dungeon would coincide with a (sadly ill-fated) slave revolt.
  • After the salve revolt led to tragedy, Lieres adopted many of the Orphans in that were left, and used his treasure to build an orphanage. in secret he trained the orphans as spies, pickpockets, and alchemists. the Orphanage was self-sustaining thanks to the hallucinogenics his hirelings sold, and Lieres always had intelligence about the nobles in his home cities. He always ahd a supply of poison thanks to his secret alchemy lab. (To his credit, Lieres also ensured his orphans were literate, well-fed, and had plenty of time to play and learn, funded by successful dungeon delves.)
  • Lieres created a fake faction in Weirth as well: he used coded letters sent by couriers he knew would be intercepted. These letters created in a noblewoman we were in conflict with to expend considerable resources trying to protect herself from assassins that didn't exist and find a non-existent cult worshipping a made-up goddess.
  • The Orphanage was also built into a pretty solid thieves' guild hideout with hidden weapons, careful security measures, secret labs, and escape tunnels. And was guarded by well-armed and loyal henchmen. One faction of NPCs that considered raiding it was deterred by its security.
  • My Silver Gull players have leaned heavily into the alchemy rules in my Xen Setting: they ensure a collection of grenades, potions, and brews are available in every session. That way they always have a few bombs and healing substances they can throw at problems.
  • The players in the Silver Gull have also spent downtime singing and telling tales of their deeds in ways that are likely to spread; they have managed to make themselves famous throughout the empire, with bonuses NPC reaction rolls within a certain range of their home town.
  • The Silver Gull players have spent time training the crew of their airship. Every crew member is proficient in musket, is trained in using the crew's unique pneumatic grappling hook systems, is literate, and had at least some skill in ship-handling. Their henchmen are incredibly valuable allies in an airship engagement.
  • Zeelagur the Monk / Machinist in The Silver Gull has a pet Clockwork Horror. She has devoted a good chunk of her downtime to designing upgrades to the Clockwork horror, letting it "level up" with the party so that it remains an asset isntead of becoming a liability.
  • When we have a little extra gold in the Shadow Over Sojenka setting, we make sure to have extra scrolls so that our Magic users have common utility spells available, and won't hesitate to use their spell slots early in the dungeon, because they will still be useful even once those are expended.
  • When we became aware that a terrible necromancer was planning on raising an elder god and had until only June 8th to stop him, I used my character Scribbles Psionic power to perform one augury a day to figure out how to most safely penetrate the dungeon, tell true leads from false ones, and make sure allies in the dungeon wouldn't betray us. i eventually also paid for communions and used a dangerous oracular mirror in my possession to locate a maguffin the Necromancer was after, and go after it (a much easier task than killing him.) 
  • Then I used downtime to hide it it and move it to a city full of powerful elves not even the Necromancer would likely be willing to attack. Now that I have ruined his ritual, I know how to find his lair, and how to turn his allies against him. Hunting him down will be easier.
  • One of my PCs moonlights as a minstrel and writes songs about the dangers he has learned of, which he performs with his hurdy-gurdy in areas where guild-masters and lesser nobles will hear him. This has changed the political climate of the area, and made the nobles more responsive when we seek aid to deal with those threats.

Thanks to strategic use of downtime the characters in these campaigns have more resources during dungeon delves, often have intelligence about both enemies and monster activity, they have powerful, effective henchmen, and can wield considerably more influence on NPCs than PCs who never use downtime could ever hope to have.

With technology like Discord it is very easy to write up a downtime plan for your DM, and get them to give you a minute a day to answer some divination or sage research question. I highly recommend players try capturing some downtime and taking a few minutes every day to think about what your character might do with that day of downtime and posting it to your campaign's online hub... then see how it makes your next delve easier.

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