The Alphastream Game Design Blog

How Downtime Can Revolutionize Your D&D Games

Why do we need downtime in our game? How will it make our game awesome? This is the first in a series of articles examining how we can make the most out of the D&D rules for downtime.

Art by Franz Vohwinkel

What Downtime Offers

Downtime can be the engine that opens up our game and empowers characters to:

  • Pursue both their individual and collective goals
  • Secure information or resources
  • Influence, bolster, or hinder other organizations
  • Expand their base of operations
  • Step away from the scripted feel of published adventures
  • Shine a light on their backstory and other normally “off-stage” narratives
  • Allow for collaborative storytelling
  • And much more!

Maybe the above already sounds like your campaign. Awesome! Downtime can serve as a tool to make this easier and give it a stable rules basis. On the other hand, maybe the above sounds different and cool, or even a bit scary. Downtime is a flexible system – you can get increasingly comfortable and develop your campaign’s open feel over time. Similarly, the structure underlying downtime can help players increasingly embrace a more open play style.

Art by William O‘Connor

An Example of Downtime

Here is an example of how downtime can be added your gaming session. The characters finish exploring a hidden temple, finding that the cultists worship some kind of mysterious imprisoned god. The characters find a map, leading to another temple a few weeks away. Normally, the campaign just proceeds to the next temple. Play is confined to the specific scripted locations and play experiences the adventure contains.

With downtime, play can be more open. You can tell the players they can spend one or two weeks in town before heading to the next temple. You ask the players what they want to do with that time, and they choose activities.

At first, this might also feel scripted. They might choose from the list of downtime activities, or be unsure of what they can do. Over time, players get the hang of it, and play starts opening up.

How Downtime Feels In Action

Angela likes being prepared. She decides her character, Xandra, will research this chained god. Her character backstory is that of a sage, and this is the perfect time to visit her mentor, who works at the city’s grand library.

Dwayne and Tara play good-aligned PCs who worry that this cult threatens the city they call home. They decide that before leaving town, they will meet with the local temples and city government to try to raise awareness and make it harder for the cult to establish a foothold.

Diego’s tiefling character, Adros Quickfingers, is all about the thieves’ guild. Adros will let the other characters worry about the cultists, working instead to attain a higher position within the guild. Adros Quickfingers will be guildmaster someday!

Downtime provides a system for resolving these kinds of cool activities. Notice that in the above examples, we didn’t talk about the rules to downtime. We will review the mechanics in detail across this blog series, but downtime works best when we keep the rules in the background and let the narrative and the player goals shine. Never forget the narrative behind downtime activities. That’s what will pay off across gaming sessions!

You can run downtime in just a few minutes and be relatively dice-driven… or spend a little longer and create cool cinematic vignettes. With downtime, you can create stories that take the DM and players far beyond the confines of most adventures and even most campaigns.

The key to downtime is understanding what the rules provide and how to use them effectively. More on this next time!

In the meantime, let me know in the comments: How is downtime working for you? What aspects of downtime work well or work poorly for you? Do you have any questions or want to see specific downtime topics covered in this series?

7 comments on “How Downtime Can Revolutionize Your D&D Games

  1. Robert Dorgan
    November 6, 2019

    I enjoyed this article and am looking forward to hearing more about this. Downtime in 5e is similar to how I perceived skills challenges in 4e. It was something that I thought had a lot of potential that I wasn’t fully grasping how to implement.

    One thing I would like to add more into the games I DM is the feeling of verisimilitude and also player agency. I think downtime can be a great way to increase both of these aspects.

  2. matt
    November 7, 2019

    I love Downtime. The Acquistions incorporated book made it a central part of how the story flows and it really benefits for it.

    I always run downtime at the table, narrating parts that are interesting, and skipping the rest. Normally I give a week of downtime after the party has just gotten back from a dungeon or something, so they have all these little errands to do that I cover during the downtime session.

    My favorite downtime to narrate is definitely the Pit Fighting. Coming up with an interesting fighter as they win or lose in the arena, without needing to create an actual statblock, is fun.

    I never use the complications or rivals. I know the options are there, but I’m not as concern with something that mechanical. I’ll throw in such things as they feel natural.

  3. Kevin
    November 7, 2019

    I have used downtime for awhile now in my campaigns and I always struggle with a couple of things: what to do if one or two characters refuse to engage in the system? (and therefore would want to head straight for that second temple) and what to do if characters engage in activities with varying time frames?

    • Matt
      November 7, 2019

      some thoughts:

      First, ignore the options in the PHB and DMG. Stick to Xanthars and newer, because they use the Workweek instead of day by day. Most downtime works off of 1 workweek, some need a bit more, but that syncs a lot of your players (the exact number of days in a workweek is up to your discretion)

      Second, you can’t have a ticking clock in the background. If the world’s ending there isn’t any time for them to chill for a week making coin. So make sure the players aren’t feeling rushed.

      third, shopping episodes aren’t for everyone. If they feel this is not-D&D, then it might be worth doing it off camera between seessions.

      fourth, make sure there’s something in it for them. I have a special DT activity at my tables called “Practice” where a martial character can gain a special d6 that acts sort of like a Bardic Inspiration. So while the wizard messed around with scrolls for a week, the fighter practiced that one swing making the difference between a hit or a miss.

      Fifth, player’s don’t know their options, because they’re spread across like 4 books, and it’s hard to figure out without a bit of study. Drop an NPC in who sees which ever recalcitrant player you want to target, their eyes get wide and excited, and they pay the character 25 gold up front to participate in a version of Pit fighting customized to whatever the player likes to do.

      Pit fighting is the best, see, because you can swap out the skills and now it’s a beauty pageant. Or a bake off, or a science bowl, or whatever plays into your player’s wheelhouse. and with just 1 success, the payoff is pretty good. You also get the fun of describing the competition, and how the player trounces then soundly or almost wins but doesn’t, depending on the die roll.

      Sixth, tie the downtime into the story. That second temple? Need the key to be charged. Or the location is hidden and the quest giver scribe needs a week to decipher the door.

      Seventh, when all the clever DM tricks fail, I suppose you can talk to the players, ask them why it doesn’t engage them, and if there’s anything you can do.

  4. Frank Chaple
    November 9, 2019

    Loved the article…& I miss my DM that included that…bwaaaaa

  5. DM-Jooser, a-jooser, Josh G
    August 16, 2023

    years later and heard you mention this on Mastering Dungeons – so excited to have the reference that you made

    • Alphastream
      August 17, 2023

      Glad you enjoyed it! And, thanks for listening!

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This entry was posted on November 6, 2019 by and tagged .


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