Down Time – A GM’s Perspective

Groups vary wildly when it comes to down time activities.  I ran an Earthdawn campaign in the nineties which was more about the groups down time activities than it was to do with anything I planned.  The current group of in-person players though do not like down time terribly much and want to be guided through adventure.  Others like a good mix of down time and scripted adventures.

down time
Time to complete the ogre head collection? Krampus masks under creative commons from http://people.howstuffworks.com/culture-traditions/holidays-christmas/krampus-pictures.htm#page=6

What is my responsibility as a GM though?  Where do I draw the line for this type of gaming?  Down time can be a right shock to the system of some players.  The idea of having to decide what they do in a town when they have no direct task to do can be jarring and unusual for them.  So am I expected to guide them through the down time options or just encourage them to come up with what they want to do?

The reason that down time is important to a GM is that adventure ideas can come from a great number of places and the players down time is just as valid as any other.  We need to be able to encourage the players to fill out their characters in their down time.  We also need the crafter characters to be able to find some time to be able to use all the skills/feats that they have invested in too, otherwise the player feels completely ripped off.

Encouragement of these skills is a great way for the player to better feel out their character on a personal level.  For players that are reluctant to involve themselves in down time the GM needs to encourage it;

GM: Colin, what is Vesper the Devious doing with down time?

Colin: Nothing.  I will just wait for the potions to be brewed.

GM:  So Vesper is going to sit in the middle of the greatest city known to man and stare at a blank wall in an Inn guest room for three weeks?  That does not sound like him.  What do you think he would do?

Colin:  I suppose not.  In reality he would likely try and cause some mischief that can be attributed to him later on.

GM: What sort of mischief?

Colin: I don’t know.  Who is in charge of the city watch?  I might see if I can get them arrested.

To my mind this is exactly what the GM’s role is in down time.  In this example the GM said nothing leading of where they wanted the player to put their efforts but they used the leading comment about what they know of the character to get the character involved.  A GM can force the player to do stuff in down time but that idea is something that is best left to the final resort.

GM: Colin, what is Vesper the Devious doing with down time?

Colin: Nothing.  I will just wait for the potions to be brewed.

GM:  So Vesper is going to sit in the middle of the greatest city known to man and stare at a blank wall in an Inn guest room for three weeks?  That does not sound like him.  What do you think he would do?

Colin: No, he has had a hard few weeks so sitting and staring at a wall is exactly what I want him to do

GM: OK, but two weeks into the down time there is a knock on the door

Colin: Vesper answers it after listening at the door

GM: Vesper hears nothing beyond the door and when he opens it he finds a statue of a hooded ogre about to knock on the door standing at the top of the landing.  It has a large iron chain around its neck and an envelope with a wax seal hanging on a smaller chain linked through one of the loops.

Colin: Vesper is going to regret this but he grabs the envelope…

It is a heavier hand that the GM needs to play in this circumstance and may require a little planning but if you do this once the player should begin to see that there is some interesting fun that can be had with down time.  There is nothing worse than the wizard saying they want to take a month off to build some fancy magical pants and just running roughshod over the top of that time for the other players.  let them use it.  Make it interesting.

Let me give you some examples of the uses that have been done in my own games with down time;

  1. Probably the most hilarious was the trip to Space Mart that a group of my Traveller players took on Regina.  They had smuggled some less than legal material into the system and whilst coming out of the Space Mart the enforcers tried to arrest them.  Let us just say that around 7 dead cops and around 80 or so civilians in a multi-storey car park that they blew up were casualties and the rest of the adventure was a bit of an “on the run” montage.
  2. My in-person Earthdawn group so long ago built a tower in Bartertown and based most of their activities from it.  Much of that campaign was built around the ideas that would come out of the events in down time and translated into some of the best gaming I ever did with a group
  3. One of the members of the tower, a T’skrang (lizard man) Nethermancer named Athississ got sick of dealing with the others.  He was around tenth circle at the time (powerful) so he caught a ship out to see and attracted a Kraken, taking along his beastmaster companion Carag.  They caught the Kraken and dominated it.  They then rode the Kraken down a river in which, using his nethermantic magic, Athississ kept it in a sort of alive/dead state and carved a tower out of the gladius (sort of bone) inside it.  It then became his central location
  4. Athississ then went into the forest surrounding his tower and used his magics to cause a primitive tribe to believe he was a god.  He got them to guard his tower and created a haunted forest around the tower to keep others out.

Down time is a really important thing to me in the games that I want to run and run well.  Encouragement to the player goes a long way for the GM to see what is interesting to their character, as well as what is worth expanding out into a plot or sub plot for the main storyline.  Give it a go.  Encourage them to do what they want and follow through with the consequences.  Some of the best games happen this way.  Keep rolling!

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