Fantasy Adventure #4: Downtime and Adventure

After a brief bout of illness, back on track with my routines, including laying down track on my version of challengeful fantasy adventure. The topic this time is bootstrapping for adventure; this is not exactly at the center of my vision as far as my personal interests go, but it’ll probably be useful to understand the context in which the rest of the rules are supposed to operate. This is also an often neglected part of rules in this kind of game design, so it’s good to say a word or two about it now and then.

The Principle of Adventuring

An adventure rpg can have all kinds of character set-ups that vary widely in terms of function and purpose: the original conceit has a group of adventurers get together as a kind of an adventuring co-op that works together for common success, but the variations are multiple:

  • The individual characters might have motivations outside the group agenda or even hostile to it. This is a pretty common and early variant that springs from several motivations, including a wish to explore the fiction in a more complete manner, focusing on the relationships of the character group.
  • The characters might be brought together by a higher authority, which is a conceit often used by more modern games that need to explicitly battle against the drive towards individual play. There’s also less looting riches in this kind of game. Interestingly enough, while a higher authority is used more and more as a sledge-hammer that replaces the dungeon entrance as the entrance to play (“here is the dungeon entrance, and play will only commence if your characters go in”), games have since the ’90s also been hot to make that authority gray and non-absolute, instead of unequivocally good.
  • The characters might have multiple mutual entanglements that draw them together when crisis (ie. adventure) looms near. This is something of a grail quest for many modern gamemasters, who spend a lot of time and effort in the preparatory stages of play in crafting hooks and baits for characters; the ultimate reward in this kind of play is often not success in the quest itself, but rather the realization that the group has actually succeeded in emulating fantasy adventure literature, where characters come and stay together seemingly naturally, with full psychological motivation and suitable specialty role in the dramatic composition of the group.

Anyway, my game will be quite clear in what it purports to do in this regard: characters will go on adventures that are of definite (short) length, and there will be down-time in between them. Character relationships between each other are of no supreme importance and it is assumed that the adventurer group composition will change between adventures. Meanwhile, characters will actually use and need downtime, which will force players to swap characters while the old ones are off recuperating, making magic items or whatever. Alternatively, time jumps are doable, so that all characters use a lot of downtime at once. The end-result is a dynamic party composition, lots of variety in challenge situations, and little long-term continuity, except in character development. I might figure out some way to insert long-term campaign continuity in terms of stringed-together individual adventures into this at some point, but I’m not interested in creating a grand campaign with a full and morally absolute arc. Like many other D&D-stylists, my inspiration is mostly howardian: Conan stories are a composed unity only in the sense of sharing a central character, and that’s pretty much all the unity I crave for a campaign of this game.

I’m not exactly opposed to in-group friction either, though, so I’ll probably have some minor side-quests and personal motivations for the characters to work with, as well as methods for players to create new characters if their old ones are ostracized. Probably some formal rules for voting characters out of the adventuring crew for one adventure at a time and such. Make the players balance party composition on all levels against their strategic interest to have a party at all.

Downtime usage

“Downtime” is, for the most part, the fictional state of characters at rest. The traditional purpose of scheduling down-time has been to appease sense of believability in the fiction when characters do things that would, really, take quite a while of time. Usually this has been very unproblematic and unformal, and it will only really come up when downtime conflicts with the real values of play. The archetypal example are wizards, who will actually, explicitly need downtime under most versions of D&D rules to scribe and research spells and to create magic items. My sense of the rules texts is that these rules were included for sense of believability, but I guess it’s fathomable that they could have been put in to limit wizard power, too.

Another example of down-time are the training times characters need in most versions of D&D to go up levels. Here the motivation has been a bit of believability and a pinch of challenge-balancing: it used to be important for GMs that characters not level-up in the middle of the adventure, but they also couldn’t say so at the time (because “adventure” wasn’t an in-fiction concept, and there used to be a taboo for confessing that meta-issues affect in-fiction events), so instead rules were included for leveling-up to take in-fiction time (and money, at times).

Downtime beats

My version of the downtime thing will most likely include some kind of downtime “beats” or points that are spent for various purposes. I could imagine something along these lines:

  • A downtime beat could represent a week or two of in-game time. Variable, though, as there’s little reason to get pedantic and make adventure scripting difficult.
  • Recuperating from serious injury takes a variable number of beats, so characters who get injured on adventures better have the resources to survive their potentially long convalescence. This will also enforce players to develop several characters, as their primary character might not be available at any given time. A suitable number could be around 1-10 beats or so, perhaps.
  • Class-switching and learning feats should probably take some beats, especially the feat-learning. A beat per try at learning would perhaps be a good baseline for other uses of down-time.
  • As explained before, I’m not opposed to characters gaining experience with mere time, so probably a character with nothing more pressing going on could blow the downtime beats on some experience levels. Probably this would involve some kind of decreasing-returns scheme ending-up with whatever rate of progression an off-stage NPC enjoys. Meanwhile this is an useful conceit for situations where the whole adventuring group intentionally takes off time and all characters need something useful to do.

What I’m doing above is creating a small sub-game of time management. This might not be the smartest move in the long run, as commoditizing time also rewards managing it, which might run counter to the aesthetics of aimless adventuring. I’ll probably make downtime beats an explicit reward that’s mostly involved in longer adventures (like when characters wait for the spring equinox and they have three beats of downtime to blow, or whatever) and skipping adventures (like if a character needs to research a new spell, and therefore is not available for the next adventure that lasts five downtime beats), while most other non-adventuring time is not metered in beats. If the GM (or whoever is in charge of rewards) doles out the downtime beats, then merely not doing anything doesn’t gain the reward.

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