Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Downtime: Home away from Home

 I had some more thoughts on downtime I wanted to share. But first, speaking of downtime, it was just announced that my supplement, Downtime in Zyan, is one of the winners of The Awards 2023! You can check out the full list of winners here. It’s an honor I share with my team. Downtime in Zyan is what it is thanks both to the meticulous layout of Lester B. Portley, and especially to Evlyn Moreau’s superb mole rat illustrations, without which the supplement would be a hollow shell. But back to the topic at hand.

My downtime system is designed to deliver various goods. It serves as an antidote to the relentlessly cooperative and world-focused character of OSR play by allowing PCs to develop some uniqueness and depth. It facilitates the pursuit of individual ends in addition to the collective ones. By not gating downtime behind name level play it allow players to pursue their dreams and leave their mark on the campaign world from early levels. It is also designed to be part of a virtuous circle with adventuring, so that downtime itself creates hooks and problems to be solved through adventuring, and adventuring creates the possibility of further downtime.

Last time I was talking about the problem of the transition in an OSR style campaign between the quick jaunts of early sessions, in and out of perilous adventure locales in 1 or 2 sessions, and the more ambitious many (4-8) session adventures that tend to organically arise starting at mid levels. The thought was that if you have reached the point in the campaign where players adventure for 4+ sessions, and you give players one downtime session every time they return to home base, downtime dwindles in significance. To keep players invested in downtime, I suggested calibrating downtime to the number of sessions adventuring, giving multiple downtimes when returning home after longer adventures.

This time I wanted to talk about a different trick you can use to allow downtime to work with longer jaunts into dangerous territory. The setup I’m thinking of here is one where there is a homebase that is safe where downtime usually happens and most or all adventuring happens in some perilous terra incognita, a hostile area to be explored that lies in some sense “outside” the homebase. A classic example would be a megadungeon, where there is a “town”, and all (or most) adventuring happens in the exploration of the hostile subterranean dungeon. Other examples might include a West Marches style wilderness crawl with a town on the edge of some howling wilderness, or what is on the other side of a certain printmaker’s door in the waking world. In these cases, to penetrate deeper you must often travel further and further from home base, which in turn leads to longer adventures.

One way to limit this problem is to create discoverable shortcuts, e.g. secret doors, hidden elevators in a dungeon, or secret entrances that lead directly into deeper levels. But another way to handle it and keep downtime going is to establish possible basecamps where downtime can happen that also serve as staging areas for deeper exploration. These are, in essence, a home away from home. I’ve been thinking a lot about what you need to do to make this option sing.

Introducing a second space for downtime is a delicate balance. If you design the basecamp so that it provides everything the homebase does, and it is more conveniently located, then your basecamp will predicatably become the campaign’s new homebase. While I think it’s great if this arises organically, I don’t think you want to design the basecamp to force that decision. The biggest problem is that many downtime activities are tied to a location and so not transferable, particularly two of the most important: cultivating relationships and building institutions. It’s unfortunately when some PCs have been sinking time and resources into building something special back at the original homebase and the GM more or less mandates that downtime play shifts to a new arena.

My way of handling this problem is to treat basecamps as scaled down version that presents a smaller world of possibilities than homebases. What you want is enough for people to become invested and pursue downtime while on larger expeditions, while also welcoming the eventual return home to the original homebase.

In fact, there is a spectrum here. At one end, you might have locations in the dungeon or wilderness that offer primarily a single unique downtime action. A couple of options to incorporate in a dungeon might include:

  • A perpetual feast of viking ghosts in a Valhalla style mead hall that one can join for spectral revelry

  • A dungeon library, manned by demonic librarians, where can research the kinds of mysteries found in lower levels of the dungeon.

  • An efreet smithy who uses elemental fires to craft splendid weapons for visitors who can pay his price.

This designs a foothold, a stopover where some may want to do the main downtime action, and others might do an alternative one, like engaging in martial training with a drunken viking ghost, or cultivating a relationship with a demonic librarian, without there being much staying power to the location. At the other end, there are basecamps proper that have real opportunity to build something lasting. How can you build a proper basecamp?

The answer is that you should employ the same techniques you use to build an original homebase, which I talk about at the end of Downtime in Zyan, but give it a more limited and small scale flavor. In brief, since my system of downtime generates problems and adventure hooks with many mixed success rolls it also needs to be a space rife with factions, rival institutions, patrons, in short people with desires and an a potential interest in the PCs adventuring in.the unknown. If we just look at the core of my location specific downtime activities we can see some features we’ll need:

  • Build an institution: There should be some pre-existing institutions, including perhaps rivalries, along with space for building new institutions.

  • Cultivate a relationships and Gather Intelligence: There should be interesting NPCs, who have some tensions, and who may want various things that adventurers could provide through adventure, who have access to a rumor mill, and who may be interested in serving as adventuring companions.

  • Revelry: There should be some possibilities for debauches to blow off steam.

Others downtime actions are either more player driven, or seem more optional, but potential sources of fun might be to include some NPCs that have skills to teach, or some warriors who can engage in martial training, or some special site for spiritual exercises, or a trove of information to engage in research.

To really make a basecamp sing, I think you also need a new version of a campaign events table might used for a homebase, but geared towards the specific nature of the basecamp.

An Example: The Hanging Merchants

Illustration of the Hanging Merchants by Michael Raston

The most developed example from my 3 dreamlands campaigns are the hanging merchants, which is right outside the harbor near the Great Falls of the sewer river mentioned in issue 3 Through Ultan’s Door. I discussed a very early iteration of them on my blog here. (They will appear in a more developed form in the first issue of Through Ultan’s Door that takes us into the White Jungle. I’m not totally sure what number that will be.) The basic setup is this. When the Zyanese still traveled the White Jungle, the hanging merchants were a carnival like attraction for visitors to take a day trip down the sewer river to see the sewer falls and get a little taste of the white jungle. It also served as a staging ground for safaris and travel to the jungle manses of the aristocrats. The idea is that no one goes into the White Jungle anymore, and the platforms are now ruined and abandoned except for four merchants.

Each of the four merchants specializes in a different sort of goods. Two of the are over-merchants, from wealthy houses. Each of these over-merchants is locked in bitter rivalry with the other, and each is beholden to a powerful rival jungle patron who will seek the service of any party that uses the area as a basecamp. There are also two under-merchants, with much humbler shops, whom the over merchants look down upon. Finally, there are the Sons and Daughters of the Vigilant Watcher, a mercenary house that the merchants pay to provide protection against jungle incursion and river piracy.

I model the four merchants as four separate rival institutions the players can choose to bolster. (Certainly the Sons and Daughters taken together as a mercenary house are also an institution.) There is also the possibility of trying to open a fifth shop, or more grandly, of trying to restore the platforms of the hanging merchants to their earlier splendor by fixing the place up and attracting visitors. (Each of these two projects was pursued by in separate campaigns by players: one group tried to build up one of the under-merchants, and the other took on the task of restoring the whole place to its former grandeur.) Furthermore there are plenty of NPCs to befriend here, as well as sources of information. Since the Over-merchant are eager to host lavish parties there is the opportunity for revelry as well, and since each under-merchant has a specialty in respectively jungle botany and animal husbandry, there are skills that can be learned as well. 

 The campaign events for this basecamp includes special goods coming in to the merchants, restocks of sold wears, visitors to the platforms of the merchants from Zyan above, stranger visitors from the jungle below, a couple of jungle related events, and so on.

In short, if you’re doing the kind of campaign where you have a fixed homebase, with all adventuring happening in hostile terrain, consider introducing one or more footholds where downtime can be pursued in the deeper areas of exploration. This can provide variety and keep downtime relevant as the campaign often pushes further from homebase.  

Thursday, November 9, 2023

Further Thoughts on Downtime and the Campaign Arc


Art by Evlyn Moreau

I have been using my downtime system, published in Downtime in Zyan and originally presented across this blog here, for my face to face dreamlands campaign. This is a game with a stable group of 4 players rather than a bigger open table game. Over this campaign and my previous one, which also have shrunk to a 4 or 5 person group of stable players at the higher levels, I've discovered a tendency that undermines the use of downtime over time. I think it's a tendency that arises in games where the initial default at low levels is short jaunts to perilous adventuring locations--getting into and out of a dungeon in one or two sessions. In that context downtime as I've designed it works very well. 

On my system, each character gets one downtime action between adventures from a large menu of freeform options. It involves a 2d6 roll with base and situational modifiers. Generally, there's a tracker with a certain number of steps to complete the project. A 7-9 is a mixed result that often requires one to adventure to make progress or eliminate an obstacle. A 10+ is a straightforward success. The general idea is that in a game relentlessly focused on cooperative play, this allows player characters to pursue their individual dreams and leave their mark on the campaign world. 

In online games I handled downtime actions in discord between sessions. This was fun, because you could prep and go deep with downtime, dropping tons of lore or colorful NPCs. But sometimes it was hard to corral people to do downtime between sessions, and I very often found myself failing to "do my DM homework", which sucked the air out of downtime. In face to face games I've found it works better to resolve downtime at the start of a session in about 30 minutes at the table without much prep on my part. 

Here's how I start that 30 minute period. I have a system of tables for campaign events, along with some clocks that get triggered by past player actions. So I start by telling them the campaign news to give them something to react to if they want to, which every once in a while includes a threat that needs to be dealt with in downtime or the opportunity to perform time-sensitive downtime actions. Then I remind each player of all the downtime actions they had going in the past. Without keeping notes about this and reminding them what they've been doing, I find that they leave a ton of loose threads and have trouble remembering what they had going. This really diminishes the significance of downtime. But with a little reminder of what they've been up to in the past this problem vanishes.

I then move around the table to have them declare downtime actions. I then begin resolving the actions. I find that I weave between different players as they resolve the actions, switching the spotlight at dramatic moments. They often advise one another or make creative contributions along the way, so people stay pretty engaged. This makes for a very dynamic 30 minutes that players look forward to as a reward between adventures. But the main point is that it doesn't involve very much homework for me at all. Sometimes I think for about 15 or 30 minutes before the game about it, but sometimes I don't think about it at all. Everyone understands that it's more freeform and improvisational than the sessions we're running, and I think they like that rhythm of the more structured adventures and the more improvisational downtime. 

The problem I've identified is that as the party rises in level, and gets invested in the campaign world, they start going on longer and longer adventures. What was once one or two sessions in the dungeon becomes six or seven sessions of hex crawling, or city crawling, or hopping between three different adventure locations to accomplish some multi-part mission. I could try to stop this but I wouldn't want to because it feels organic and allows us to play a deeper game driven by more ambitious player objectives. This means that downtime diminishes in significance to a nearly vanishing point since it happens so rarely. People feel disconnected from their projects, which feel impossible to finish anyway. Downtime decreases in importance precisely at the point where it should matter the most, when the player characters become increasingly invested in the campaign world, and ought to care the most about accomplishing self-invented projects. 

My new solution to this problem is to grant the party multiple downtime actions after a longer adventure. The thin rationale is that if an adventure takes 4 or more sessions to complete, then the characters need a longer break and may take an extra downtime action. (This is related to an earlier idea I had about using downtime to model a campaign hiatus, discussed here.) I've found this solves the problem. The difference between 1 and 2 downtime actions is noticeable in play. It allows each character to pursue two different dreams at once, or to suddenly make a lot of progress on one project. Each downtime feels like a big deal. Given that downtime is happening less often, I think it really helps to keep them invested in the downtime phase. When they've just come back from a six or seven session adventure, it also creates a lovely feeling that we're closing one chapter and opening another. In an anarchic game that is a player driven sandbox without narrative arcs or discrete planned chapters, this is a nice organic substitute.