Dungeons, Dragons, & Downtime

  • A brief summary of the rules involved
  • The complications that could arise and the rules to determine those

A Note on Pacing

Organizing the rules will help you overcome the major challenge in running downtime. Pacing is challenging enough when the party is together and chasing the same goal. Downtime leads to split parties and varying goals. The paladin might want to relax at the spa while the warlock decides to enter a pit fighting competition. You no longer have a pace. You have a pace per player character. Spend too much time on the pit fighting and the paladin gets bored. We’ll discuss strategies for overcoming this challenge later throughout the article. But your best tool is a well-organized list of rules and options.

Timing of Downtime

When downtime happens matters. Downtime might start off a gaming session. But the dynamic changes when it’s at the end of a session. Let’s take a look at the options available and strategies to make the most of each.

Front-Loading Downtime

Downtime can occur at the beginning of a session. Let’s say the last session ended with the party arriving in town. This session starts with kicking off their adventuring boots. Time to explore the downtime opportunities in town. The last thing you want is for a dull start to a session. It becomes hard to engage the players and immerse them in the story. Downtime poses a risk here because you usually can’t engage the entire party at once. Especially, if each character goes their separate way in town. Research might be exciting for the wizard performing it. But it might bore the cleric who is performing a religious service. She’s not involved in the research so the dice rolls and information aren’t as important to her.

Back-Loading Downtime

Downtime can occur at the end of a session. You may or may not know this is coming. So be sure you have your normal rules organized and ready, as mentioned before. This is much simpler than starting a session because things are winding down. The important thing is to engage each character before ending the session. You don’t need to resolve everything but you want each to have declared their intentions. No one wants to feel left out as the session ends.

In the Middle

Downtime can occur in the middle of a session. This one’s tricky because it’s hard for pacing. You don’t want the middle of a session to be a complete drag. To combat that, start the session strong with combat or high tension. A chance to breathe and relax with downtime will feel more natural when it occurs mid-session. End the session on a high note. Cliffhangers are perfect. A few examples might help us visualize here.

Bad Example

The session starts with a travel montage as the party crosses a few dozen miles of dangerous lands. Whether by your good grace or lucky die rolls, they don’t encounter anything dangerous. They reach the destination city and begin downtime.

Better Example

The sessions starts with a travel montage as the party crosses a few dozen miles of dangerous lands. They defeat a few goblins at the start of the session. Before town, they’re met by a rival adventuring group. The group claims that the party stole something from them during the night. This leads to either a high-tension negotiation or resolves with outright combat. Either way, the party is more than ready for the safety of the city and downtime to breathe and regroup.

Alternative Approaches

Downtime Sessions

Downtime can occur throughout the entire session. This should only happen once or twice over the course of a years-long campaign. Think about the episode of Dragonball Z where Goku and Piccolo try to get their driver’s license. It’s fun and quirky but you wouldn’t want a lot of episodes like that.

Downtime Outside of the Game

Downtime can occur outside of a session. This is my personal favorite. Pacing is a non-issue. One of my groups plays in person (online for the time being thanks to COVID-19). Between sessions, we use a Discord server. I create a special channel for each player to roleplay 1-on-1 with me. I also create a channel for the location of the party while they’re engaging in downtime. Usually a city. This allows anyone to post in the city channel for group downtime activities. Or in personal channels if their character goes off on their own. They can explore the locations and engage in activities on their own time.

The Downtime Event

Downtime should spark an interesting event each time it’s used. I’m not talking about combat or a chase scene. Maybe one party member crafts a better item than they were attempting. Now they can sell it or show others how to craft it. Maybe the paladin at the bath house witnesses a city priest engage in a shady exchange. The event should drop in a story hook or interesting lore about the setting. This helps prevent downtime activities from becoming stale, rote routines. Roll this, get that.

Engaging the Entire Party

Let’s finish out our discussion on downtime with the most important piece. This section assumes you’re running downtime during a gaming session. With each player character performing different activities, we now face the challenge: pacing. As mentioned before, engaging one player’s downtime goals doesn’t usually engage another’s. To combat this, you’ll want to find ways to engage each player throughout.

Summary

Downtime activities are a fun piece of the puzzle in D&D. But they present challenges. Be prepared by knowing the rules. Understand that the “timing of downtime” matters and presents different opportunities for you as a Dungeon Master. Keep it interesting with a downtime “event” at least once every time the party engages in downtime. And remember to engage the entire party often.

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👋 My name is Kirk. I’m an adventure designer and map maker. Most of my maps are available for commercial use. Check them out at https://ko-fi.com/phd20

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PhD20

PhD20

👋 My name is Kirk. I’m an adventure designer and map maker. Most of my maps are available for commercial use. Check them out at https://ko-fi.com/phd20