Monday, November 4, 2019

Downtime Activities: Cultivating Relationships

This is a continuation of my series presenting a system of downtime activities. The idea is to introduce a downtime minigame that encourages the players to pursue various avenues that make the world a more dynamic place, choosing at most one downtime action. You can find the rest of the series here. I'm going to let you in on a secret. The way I'm developing this system is by asking myself, "What do my most engaged players already do that is generative of dynamic and fun games?" My goal is just to create a system that reminds players who maybe don't intuitively do this kind of stuff that it's always an option.

So here's something that player characters often want to do in downtime in my experience: cultivate relationships with people. Here are some real examples from my game.

  • A player character wants to befriend the guards at the Pagodas of the Hanging Merchants to use as a source of information. 
  • A player wants to spend time with a boy the players rescued from a cult, trying to acculturate him to the waking world, and undo his brainwashing. 
  • A player wants to seduce the Chatelaine of Storms, the evil witch queen of Rastingdrung. 

The basic mechanic I propose continues the use of clocks from earlier posts. When the player announces the intention to cultivate a relationship of one kind or another, the DM should set a clock. Sometimes this clock will be a generic relationship clock. In other cases, where the stakes are higher and the goals more specific, the clock will tailored to the individual and relationship in question.

For generic clocks there are four ticks representing four levels of intimacy of relationship: Acquaintances, Associates, Friends, and Intimates. To advance the clock on a relationship, the player says how their character is strengthening the bond between them. This is connected with one of Vincent and Meguey Baker's koans: "If you want to do the move, do it." In this context what this means is that you cannot deepen a relationship by saying "my character deepens the relationship". You must say how the character does this, how the relationship is deepened. The DM will judge if this makes sense. If so, the player will roll 2d6 modified by charisma, and advance the relationship clock on a 7+.

However, in some cases it makes sense to give a tick for free, as people who share an adventure, for example, will be acquaintances, or someone on whom the character has lavished extraordinary and much needed generosity will be associates. By contrast, for many people and relationships, it makes sense to put a hard limit on the clock, absent an extremely convincing way of deepening the bond. Sometimes it is hard but not impossible to overcome barriers, and so a penalty may be applied. On the other hand, there may be excellent reason for the NPC to be receptive, in which case, there may be a bonus.

Each level allows the character to draw on the relationship for information or favors to different degrees. However, in some cases it says that favors "may come with a cost". In these cases, to draw on this higher level of favor may strain the relationship, and so comes with stakes. The player rolls a reaction roll (2d6) modified by Charisma. On a 6 or lower, the NPC will decline the favor. On a 7 to 9 the NPC will perform the favor with the DM reserving the option to introduce a complication. For example, they might do it, but it might remove a tick from the clock, or they might do the favor but request one in return, which if unrequited will remove a tick. Or they might get the wrong idea about the character and what they want. Or whatever. On a 10+ they will simply perform the favor.

As a side note: You might wonder why not also have a mixed result on a roll of 7-9 for advancing the clock on a relationship? My answer is influenced by an insight of Emmy Allen's on twitter. Old-school D&D is a different game than Apocalypse World and its progeny. The game is not generally driven by escalating consequences of partial success, "faustian bargains", and the like. It is rather a game that is structured around resource management and high-stakes success/failure rolls, and "fictional positioning" is about tactically setting the stakes of those rolls, and avoiding them where one can. One thus must introduce mixed results carefully into this style of game or they will make players feel like their characters can't do anything, since crummy or mixed success is not generally a thing. (After all, Apocalypse generalizes the sole mechanic in old D&D that worked this way: the reaction roll.) In this kind of a game, it's better to reserve mixed result rolls for optional situations that involve pushing the limits, where the players know the stakes and that mixed results are possible as a special outcome. My thought is that merely trying to get to know someone better is not such a situation.

The Generic Relationship Clock

1 Tick: Acquaintances

Someone who you know from around the way.

  • There is an easy opening to casual conversation. General information that the NPC has nor reason to keep secret will be easy to extract. 
  • The NPC will do small and costless courtesies.

2 Ticks: Associates

There is some bond of a lesser kind between you, some shared pleasure, common interest, small shared experience, a minor debt of gratitude, etc.

  • The NPC will share or keep an ear out for gossip. 
  • The NPC will do small and costless courtesies.
  • The NPC will do minor favors, although they may come at a cost. 

3 Ticks: Friends

There is a serious bond between you, real pleasure in one another's company, a common cause, a major shared experience, a debt of real gratitude, etc.

  • The NPC will be willing to share what information they have unless they have a very good reason not to. 
  • The NPC will do small favors.
  • The character may request major favors, although they may come with a cost.    

4 Ticks: Intimates

There is a deep bond between you, like true or very old friends, or those who fought in war together, or lovers, or someone who looks up to you with deep respect.

  • The NPC will share information freely with you.
  • The NPC will do major favors. 
  • The character may ask the NPC to walk into the flames with them, although it may come at a cost. 

An Example of the Use of a Generic Clock 

Suppose Salinger one-eye has decided to cultivate a relationship with a guard named Pergamor at the pagodas of the hanging merchants. Observing the guards, Salinger learns that they gather around the campfire at the end of the day to drink, gossip, and gamble. He decides it makes most sense to bring a gift of drink collectively to the guards, and sit with them at their campfire. He rolls 2d6 modified by charisma and gets a 9. He is now an acquaintance with Pargamor.

In a later downtime at the pagodas, he wishes to deepen the relationship. In a great victory, the party has recently routed the Lurid Toads who were plaguing the guards and the merchant vessels. Salinger's player says he will bring a drink to Pergamor alone, regaling him with the full tale of the routing of the toads. Since this heroic act has left a favorable impression on the guards, the DM rules this overture will automatically advance the clock. He is now an associate of Pergamor, who drinks and listens eagerly with a dawning respect.

The character now uses his connection to get gossip from the guard. This Salinger can do for free. But as it turns out, this is not enough. Salinger wants Pergamor to do a small favor for him, delivering inside information about the manifests and schedule of the merchant ships that sail up to Zyan. He wants the information now, and doesn't want for the next downtime to deepen the relationship. So Salinger decides he will risk the cost for a minor favor. To sweeten the deal he offers to pay Pergamor for the information. The DM allows the player to make a reaction roll modified by +1 for the generous sums in question. The player rolls a modified 7, squeaking by with a complication.

The DM decides that Pergamor will do the job, but that the offer of money has turned the relationship into a business proposition, and that no further ticks on the relationship clock can be gained. Instead of a potential friend, Salinger is now the bank.

Custom Clocks

Fetching to be sure...
...but she's just not having it.

But that was a little prosaic. Sometimes something special is called for. Let us suppose now instead that Salinger One-eye wishes to seduce the Chatelaine of Storms, the powerful witch queen of Rastingdrung in the waking world. The party knows she takes paramours from time to time, including most recently the visiting nephew of the World Emperor. She also maintains a court that full of backbiting shenanigans worthy of a Jack Vance novel. She is fickle and narcissistic and takes pleasure in humiliating people. She keeps a stable of apprentices, whom she pits against one another. She is, in other words, a real dangerous piece of work. When Salinger's player proposes this course of action, I think, rubbing my hands together, "Well, this will call for a special clock."

This is a long term campaign goal for the character. It is also something fun and dangerous and full of potential consequences. As a DM my thought is: let's keep this going for a while and spin out the drama. Let us say the clock will have 5 ticks instead of 4. I also think that this is a peril-filled proposition that will enmesh one in palace intrigues. So merely to advance ticks should come with some danger. So here's what I have come with.

Some ticks in the relationship have a requirement that the player must meet in order to make the roll. Furthermore, the relationship roll comes with partial successes that introduce complications, to be determined by rolling on the "complications table" to come. Remember that "To do the move, do it"--the player must describe how they attempt to deepen the relationship with the Chatelaine.

Tick 1: You've Caught her Attention

She has taken note of you, and thinks of you as at least, maybe, in the space of romantic possibility.

Requirement: You can only roll for this tick if you rise to the Chatelaine's attention. This requires having done something remarkable that casts you in a favorable light with her. Let's get real: her possible romantic partners are nearly unlimited, and this has got to at least seem like it might be interesting for her.

  • You have the pleasure of being seen by a very powerful woman.

Tick 2: Flirting

She takes pleasure in flirting with you. She is enjoying the game.

  • You have the pleasure of perilous flirtation with a very powerful woman. 
  • You and the party receive invitations to special events at the palace.

Tick 3: A Discrete Tryst

The Chatelaine arranges for a single discrete tryst with the character to be described in collaboration between the player and DM.

Requirement: You must bestow a remarkable gift on the Chatelaine. But what can you get a witch queen who already has everything?

  • You may privately communicate with the Chatelaine by passing notes through an intermediary.
  • You may advance the clock on one NPC at court to the level of acquaintance. 
  • The Chatelaine will bestow a single valuable gift upon you. 

Tick 4: Sometimes Lovers

The Chatelaine arranges romantic dalliances with you now and again. Your comings and goings are noted at court.

Requirement: You must do something unspeakably debonair or fetching, such as to awaken the flames of the Chatelaine's jaded desire.
  • You have open access to the Chatelaine's palace. 
  • You may advance the clock on two NPCs at court to the level of acquaintance.
  • You may advance the clock on one NPC at court to the level of associate. 
  • The Chatelaine will perform small favors for you, but they may come at a cost.
  • You acquire one rival for the Chatelaine's affections. (This is in addition to any rivals you may have acquired through the complications table.)

Tick 5: Paramour

You are installed as the Chatelaine's paramour at court. For the moment, you have captured her romantic attention.

Requirement: You must vanquish your romantic rival in a public fashion that the Chatelaine knows about. The Chatelaine must be satisfied that you have defeated them in the struggle for her affection. (Merely making the rival disappear does not suffice, for she will merely pick another.)
  • You now must reside in lavish quarters at the Castle.
  • Each downtime you receive an allowance of 500 GP. 
  • You may advance the clock on all NPCs at court to the level of acquaintance.
  • You may advance the clock on three NPCs at the court to the level of associate. 
  • The Chatelaine will perform small favors for you.
  • The Chatelaine will perform major favors for you, but they may come at a cost.

Complications (1d8)

  1. The Chatelaine gives you an unwelcome gift. For example, perhaps she gives you rare fighting fish from the Silver Skein isles that must be maintained in an elaborate fish tank, and fed rare foods for the cost of 500 gp per downtime. (If you cannot pay, they become listless and then die.) Or perhaps she gives you a cursed locket with her picture that loudly commands you in to look at her face at unpredictable and inopportune times. 
  2. The Chatelaine is receptive, but there is something about you that rubs her the wrong way. She wishes you to correct this flaw. Perhaps she requires you to study tiresome and complicated court etiquette with a private tutor. Or perhaps she wishes you to outfit yourself with a wardrobe up to the latest aristocratic fashions. Whatever it is, it costs an arm and a leg (3d6x100gp) and takes 1d4 downtime actions to complete. You do not receive the tick on the clock until you have improved yourself.
  3. The Chatelaine is receptive, but feels you have been too forward and wishes to teach you a lesson. Perhaps she makes the lives of your friends (the party) difficult, or perhaps she thwarts your other purposes.
  4. The Chatelaine wishes you to prove your affection. She sends you on a perilous and preposterous mission. Perhaps she wishes you to steal back a gift she just gave to the King of Zyan in the dreamlands. Or perhaps she wishes you to recover a paladin's body from the lair of the hydra so that she may question his spirit. If you do not complete this quest by the next downtime action, you do not receive the tick. 
  5. The Chatelaine inserts you into palace intrigue in such a way as to win you an enemy. For example, she asks you to judge the acrimonious conflict between two potentates. Or perhaps she asks you to do the job of someone else in such a way as to humiliate them.
  6. Your rise in the Chatelaine's affection wins you a romantic rival. He or she will stop at nothing to undermine your efforts.
  7. Your rise in the Chatelaine's affection draws the attention of a third party at the palace who seeks to advance their cause with the Chatelaine through you. Perhaps they blackmail you, or perhaps they bribe you, or otherwise incentivize you to achieve their objectives. 
  8. Your rise in the Chatelaine's affection has drawn the attention of a mysterious occult entity. Perhaps it is one of her apprentices, a fairy, a demon, or a spirit. They place a strange curse on you. Perhaps you must insult the Chatelaine whenever you are in her presence. Or perhaps they see through your eyes and ears, using you as a living conduit to spy on her.
Aleks, if you are reading this, this is how we will be handling Salinger's pursuit of the Chatelaine moving forward. In light of his enchanting dance performance at the Festival of the Sybarites, he currently has one tick on the clock. You have her attention! What you do next is up to you.


  1. This seems like a simple rule for something that comes up often, but where there wasn't necessarily a single straightforward solution before. Thanks for sharing it! (Also, these clocks really are versatile!)

  2. Much to digest here, Ben, but I like the concept and structures! Porting this over to a %-based reaction roll for AD&D would allow for some more-granular response ranges, perhaps, but I wonder if the complication is worth the granularity. Will have to ponder a bit!

    WRT your example of the Chateline, one item I'm curious about is whether you allow for a decline in favor as she wearies of her current paramour? That could work in the PC's favor in the short term (as the new hotness at court), but would ultimately seem to doom the PC to being cast aside, eventually, as well. Sustaining such a relationship for more than a season---or whatever the appropriate "long time" window is---would be an achievement! As might exiting the relationship while alive ;)


    1. I agree that would be fun. For sure there would be competitors rising up, but she would definitely get bored one way or another

  3. This is great stuff Ben. I love the categories the clearly delineate examples (both in terms of expectations and requirements of advancement) for the DM and Player alike. I've been doing this kind of thing in an Ad Hoc way based on Urban Hazards. When the PC falls in love there are various consequences, limitations for this horrible event. But there are perks as well. I'll def steal the summaries and broad-stroke guidance as a campaign ref. It has great potential for use even outside the context of clocks.

  4. Tacking this on: I might add a risk complication that Salinger develops genuine feelings for his target. I know there are a lot of DMs that say you can never dictate what a PC thinks or feels. I go hard against that notion for a variety of reasons when special circumstances arise. I think a common worry of undercover work is that the agent's pretense becomes real. Anyway, again, great stuff.

    1. I think that's a great idea. Maybe as a complication for a mixed result roll?