The Alphastream Game Design Blog
A key element of 5E’s success has been that the core books are always important. The rules in the 5E Player’s Handbook and The Dungeon Master’s Guide remain vital and central to play for almost all aspects of the game.
Downtime is one of the rare cases where this is no longer true! Downtime has improved drastically, leaving the original system in the core books behind. In this case, the game is better for it. And, because some sources are far better than others, it’s important to know where to find the rules for downtime activities.
Before we continue, if you missed the first article in this series, you can find it here.
As originally envisioned, downtime is a set of rules for the activities characters carry out in between adventures. It envisions common tasks characters may want to do, such as buying a magic item, and provides mechanics for how they may do it. The first rules appear in the Player’s Handbook (in Chapter 8) and The Dungeon Master’s Guide (Chapter 6)… but these are quite limited and, truly, are now outdated. You can for the most part skip the rules in these sources! Think of these as a first draft, with only a few activities worth retaining (we will point these out below).
Here’s the concept behind downtime in the PH and DMG:
We will talk about tweaking the above process next time. Still, with these rules you have a solid framework to get creative. You also have one of the great benefits of downtime: It’s a really cool way for adventurers to finally use up the gold they earn and achieve cool things doing so!
Further below we will provide examples and review the specific downtime activities in these sources. Let’s stay on the main rules and delve into what other sources offer.
Xanathar’s Guide to Everything significantly refines downtime. All of the activities found in the PH and most found in the DMG are updated to be more interesting in both mechanics and story. Because the activities drive the mechanics we use, these changes make downtime more useful, more engaging, and increase the story potential. Think of Xanathar’s as your actual base set of downtime rules.
Rivals and Complications: Xanathar’s also adds two new concepts to downtime: rivals (organizations can oppose you through downtime) and complications (your downtime actions can trigger interesting events). We will be exploring these fully in a later article.
Acquisitons Incorporated provides guidance on running downtime in a more narrative mode. It also adds 10 new downtime activities. These activities use the rivals and complications rules.
Downtime All the Time: A significant change is that the book now allows downtime to be carried out by allies or employees of the characters. This allows downtime to be run during adventures. Allies, hirelings, or the organizations to which characters belong to can run downtime for the party.
The extent of this change may not be immediately apparent, but it is a game changer! Now, your party can be in a dungeon and you can break away to a downtime activity. This works much as in a movie cut-scene, and it can do wonders to vary up your game. We will talk about this further in a future post, but guidance is also found in the Acquisitions Incorporated book.
Run a Business or Base of Operations: Several of the activities support the new franchise rules, which allow characters to start, maintain, and develop a base of operations or business. The franchise could be a financial enterprise such as a tavern, a guild such as a thieves’ guild, a castle, a merchant ship, and even fantastic options such as a walking statue or a tavern that magically connects to other taverns and allows rapid travel across the land. Franchises grow as the characters enter new tiers of play, and can be customized to have magical features, weapons, and even become a mobile base of operations.
With these new sources, here is our revised process for running downtime as a DM:
Franchise Rank: Some downtime activities refer to a franchise rank. If you aren’t using the franchise rules, you can use the tier of play as they are usually equal. Tier 1 is levels 1-4, Tier 2 is levels 5-10, Tier 3 is levels 11-16, and Tier 4 is levels 17-20. For example, when playing at levels 1-4, you could use a 1 as the franchise rank even if the characters don’t have a franchise.
Let’s take one of the simplest activities, Recuperating/Relaxation. Relaxation is the version in Xanathar’s, and it is better and very simple. You spend a week, paying for modest lifestyle. While doing so, you gain advantage on saving throws to recover from long-acting diseases and poisons. You can also end one effect that prevents regaining HPs, or restore one ability score that has been reduced. Relaxation doesn’t have complications or rivals.
Another downtime activity is Religious Service. The player character goes to a temple with similar beliefs to theirs and does work for them for one week. At the end of the week, the player makes either an Intelligence (Religion) or Charisma (Persuasion) check. A result of 1-10 gains no benefit. 11-20 earns a favor. 21+ earns two favors. Favors can reduce the cost of spellcasting by 50%, but they can also do much more. Political or social support, providing an omen, even a minor miracle could come of it! There is a lot of DM latitude. This activity can have a complication. For this activity, every workweek spent carries a 10% chance of a complication. The DM roles, determines there is one, and rolls on the complication table for this activity. It turns out the temple has a secret sect, and it offers the PC membership in its organization. How that plays out is up to the DM and the player!
That’s generally how downtime works. Choose an activity, spend time and gold, make a roll on a table, and the outcome is revealed with some DM adjudication.
Just on their own, those are cool rules. We can do a lot with those rules. But we can do much more with them than may be initially apparent. In future articles we will see how we can improve upon the basic rules for a stronger narrative and much more fun. We will also make the most of the new rules in Xanathar’s for rivals and complications, and how Acquisitions Incorporated lets us realize one of D&D’s oldest goals – building and maintaining a home base.
Which are your favorite downtime activities? Which ones give you trouble or fall short? Let me know in the comments. And, let me know if you want to see specific topics covered.
The PH, DMG, Xanathar’s, and AI books provide a total of 29 activities! Note that there are also outdated activities, and those old ones are noted in the final column.
Since blog posts aren’t always that convenient and you may want a reference at your table, you can download the reference list here. You will still need the sources to run those downtime activities.
The reference is handy for both players and DMs. Players can use this as a menu of possible options, though they should be encouraged to come up with their own. DMs can use this as a reference to recall key rules and also to select an existing rule to use when improvising downtime (more on that later).
All of the activities in the PH are outdated:
Crafting: Superseded by Xanathar’s “Crafting an Item.”
Practicing a Profession: Superseded by Xanathar’s “Work.”
Recuperation: Superseded by Xanathar’s “Relaxation.”
Researching: Very similar to Xanathar’s “Research” and the activities in Acquisitions Incorporated, including Scrutineering and Schmoozing, offer more flexibility.
Training: Superseded by Xanathar’s “Training.”
Here are the activities in the DMG. First, the following are outdated:
Building a Stronghold: See below. It is largely replaced by the system in Acquisitions Incorporated.
Carousing: Superseded by Xanathar’s “Carousing.” Also, see “Schmoozing” in Acquisitions Incorporated for a way to create longer relationships with NPCs.
Crafting Magic Items: Superseded by Xanathar’s “Crafting an Item.”
Running a Business: Superseded by Acquisition Incorporated’s “Running a Franchise.”
Selling Magic Items: Superseded by Xanathar’s “Selling a Magic Item.”
Sowing Rumors: See below. Consider Acquisition Incorporated’s “Marketeering” and “Shady Business Practice.”
That leaves the following DMG activities that are not superseded, but which may still be limited in some fashion:
Building a Stronghold: This has no real depth to the mechanics. You pay money based on the type of structure and wait for time to pass. The Franchise rules found in Acquisitions Incorporated, along with the downtime activities Running a Franchise, Headquarters Modification, and Franchise Restructuring, provide better depth for any kind of building, business, or headquarters one or more characters may wish to maintain.
Gaining Renown: This is a very simple activity. You spend a number of days equal to your current renown times 10, and you gain 1 renown. It lacks flavor and most campaigns don’t use renown.
Performing Sacred Rites: A very simple activity. You spend at least 10 days helping a temple. For the next 2d6 days you start the day with Inspiration. As with the older downtime activities, it lacks flavor.
Sowing Rumors: The DMG’s activity requires spending time based on the size of a specific settlement, up to a total of 6d6 days in a city. You spend 1 gold per day and make a Charisma (Deception or Persuasion) check. Success shifts the community’s prevailing disposition one step towards friendly or hostile, as the character prefers. Failure prevents any future checks. You can use this for simple scenarios. In many cases, the flexibility in the Acquisitions Incorporated activities Marketeering or Shady Business Practice can be better. This is especially true if the rumors are targeting an organization or are part of larger plans to hurt a rival NPC or entity.
Training to Gain Levels: This is part of a variant rule. When a character gains the XP to level, this variant rule requires characters to train before they gain the new level. The number of days increases by character level, as does the cost. Spend the time and gold, get that level. There is no flavor here, so you have to add it. This one feels like a tax to players, so it would need fleshing out to make it interesting. Also note that this is different than the “Training” activity found in Xanathar’s.
Xanathar’s has the following downtime activities, most of which have complications and can involve rivals:
Buying a Magic Item: You search for a seller of magic items. The check determines the quality of the seller, meaning the table in the DMG to which they have access. 1-4 items are generally available, at a cost determined by rarity.
Carousing: You go out socializing and can make contacts. You choose the class (lower/middle/upper), and upper could be inaccessible unless you have the noble background or other ways in. You might make a hostile contact, fail, or succeed at getting a contact. Contacts will grant you a favor when you ask for it, then are no longer a contact.
Crafting an Item (Nonmagical and Magical): Crafting a nonmagical item takes some relevant proficiency, time, and half the gold cost. Magic items first require a formula which could be acquired adventuring or with Research or Scrutineering activities. The formula requires a rare ingredient, and a creature must be defeated to extract or gain access to the ingredient. Time and proficiency are also required, plus gp based on the item rarity. For both types of crafting the task always succeeds.
Crime: The character attempts a robbery, choosing a DC to establish both the difficulty and potential payout. Three checks are made, and this can lead to fine and jail time, getting away but empty-handed, or scoring half or all of the payout.
Gambling: The character visits a gambling den, puts down a bet of 10-1,000 gp or more, and makes three checks. The DC is determined randomly, reflecting the gamblers who happen to be present. The results can vary from losing twice the bet to gaining twice the bet.
Pit Fighting: Get in the ring! Spend a workweek and make three checks against random DCs. You might lose what you bet or gain up to 200 gp.
Relaxation: Spend a week on modest lifestyle and gain advantage on saving throws to overcome diseases or poisons. At the end of the week, end one effect keeping the character from regaining hit points, or restore an ability that has been lowered below normal (as long as this is not caused by an active magical effect with an ongoing duration).
Religious Service: Spend a workweek at an allied temple. Make one check, with a total of 11-20 granting one favor and 21 or higher granting two future favors. Characters can have a maximum of 1+Cha modifier favors at any time.
Research: This is your default option for finding obscure knowledge, such as an answer to some campaign plot question. A workweek and at least 50 gp are spent, with more boosting your chances. Access to a good library or sages can grant advantage. You can learn 1-3 pieces of lore.
Scribing a Spell Scroll: Scribe a scroll by spending time and gp based on the spell level. Success is automatic. The spell must be known or prepared and the character must be proficient in Arcana and provide any material components.
Selling a Magic Item: Find a buyer by spending 1 workweek and 25 gp. Make a check to determine the quality of the offer, which is from 50% to 150% of the base price based on rarity.
Training: Receive training in a language or tool. This requires a lot of time (around 10 workweeks) and thus is generally done over several months of play.
Work: Get a temporary job. Spend a week and make one ability check based on the task. Gain a lifestyle (from poor to comfortable) based on the result and at the highest success level you also gain 25 gp.
AcqInc has the following downtime activities, most of which can include complications and rivals:
Explore Territory: You explore your surroundings. This is typically around your base or dwelling, but it can easily be used in other situations as well. Successes uncover something of note in the area, which can often be beneficial.
Franchise Restructuring: Fine-tune your business or operation to lower its costs. First make a check to design the changes, then a check to implement. The checks receive bonuses for more time, gold, and franchise positions. Successes decrease monthly operating costs for 1d4 months.
Headquarters Modification: Change an aspect of the business or franchise you run. The aspect is typically one gained with franchise levels. Make a check to draft the modifications, then two checks to make the change. Gain bonuses for hirelings and franchise position. If you aren’t using the franchise rules, this could be a cool way to allow features to be added to a building, headquarters, or vehicle the party is using.
Marketeering: Launch a marketing scheme to decrease monthly business costs. Make three checks representing the marketing plan, gaining bonuses for additional gold or certain franchise positions. The DC is random: 2d10 + 5 for each check. Success lowers operating costs. This activity could also be applied to another organization. For example, characters could run this activity to help a faction such as the Emerald Enclave to make headway in a new location.
Philanthropic Enterprise: Help others (or pretend to help others) to gain gold or operating cost discounts. If the party isn’t using the franchise rules, this could also be used to help another organization or faction lower its costs, gaining the party favors.
Running a Franchise: Must be run at the end of each month of game time if using the franchise rules. Percentile dice are rolled, adding in the number of days spent on the activity by the characters or staff. The result increases or decreases that month’s base operating costs.
Schmoozing: You develop contacts who can help your organization. You spend at least a workweek and gold based on the social class of the target. Make a check, gaining a bonus for relevant background or franchise position. If you succeed, you gain a contact. These contacts last longer than those in Carousing, and may also provide a favor.
Scrutineering: Learn important information, by any means necessary. It is similar to Research, but it covers more possible ways to gain the information, including tactics such as… oh… kidnapping. May require spending some resources initially, then at least 1 workweek plus 100 gp per franchise rank. Make a check with an applicable skill, with a bonus for spending additional gold or having an appropriate franchise position. Learn from 1-3 pieces of lore.
Shady Business Practice: Dirty deeds to raise cash! This activity is similar to XGtE’s Crime, but involves the franchise and in addition to gold it can generate a minor or major benefit as determined by the DM.
Team Building: Your party or franchise tries to become a better team. All participants spend at least a workweek, and the event requires between 50-250 gp per franchise rank. Participants bond over a negative backstory quality (a drawback, tough event in the past, etc). Success grants advantage on future downtime checks, and can provide a teambuilding memory that can be used as a bonus action to enhance an ability for a short time.
We will look at the art of running downtime activities and how we can weave a narrative around them and the resulting complications and rivals!
Did you miss the download? Download the reference list to downtime activities here!