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How to Create Engaging Narratives with Downtime

In our first article we talked about what downtime can do to revolutionize your game, opening up play and empowering characters to get involved with the campaign. In the second article in this series we covered how the rules of downtime have evolved, adding new elements. That article reviewed all of the downtime activities and provided a reference list you can download and use at the table.

Now we want to focus on how to run downtime so it engages the characters. Like many rules, they can be cold and mechanical, but we can also learn how to breathe life into them so they feel natural, dynamic, and engaging.

Illustration by Sam Wood, originally accompanying my very first Dragon article, Step into the Ring

How Downtime Can Fall Flat

Here’s the scenario to avoid:

DM: “Tara, you said your character wants to do a pit fighting downtime activity. It takes a week. First check is a… [rolls 2d10+5]… DC 16 Strength (Athletics) check.”
Tara: “My barbarian Zanure gets a 17.”
DM: “Success! Now give me a DC… [rolls] 19 Dexterity (Acrobatics).”
Tara: [rolls] “She gets a 14. Darn, I fail.”
DM: “Now you can do an attack roll with a weapon or a Constitution check with a d12 bonus. DC is… [rolls]… 12.”
Tara: “I’ll go with Con. [rolls] I get a 15! Success!”
DM: “You win 50gp. Who else wants to do downtime?”

The above can be okay at times, but even mechanically focused players want a little drama. And, the whole point of downtime is to create interest and open up the campaign. Let’s look at a different way of doing this.

Guidelines for Running Downtime

I think Chapter 2 of the Acquisitions Incorporated book has excellent guidance on running downtime. (I’m biased… I helped write it.) Those rules suggest ways to take a narrative approach. I add to that advice here.

Think In-Character and In-World: Our first guideline is to approach these worlds from the perspective of the campaign. Whenever possible, visualize the scenes and understand the characters and NPCs. This will in turn help you describe to players in a way they can visualize.

Establish Goals: When a character chooses an activity, make sure to ask and understand what the character is doing.

Tara: “I think my barbarian, Zanure, is going to go pit fighting.”
DM: “Cool. What are your motivations, and going in, how are you feeling about this?
Tara: “Hmm. I guess it’s less about the money for me. It’s the reputation. I’m feeling frustrated by what went down in that last dungeon and looking to show competitors that I’m a bad-ass. I want to be taken seriously, away from wizards and bards and the like.”

Now, players won’t always open up like that, but we can ask more questions and continue to feel out character motivations as the scene plays out. We can also turn to the character’s personality traits, ideals, bonds, and flaws for inspiration on how a scene can play out for a character. For example, if they have no compassion for the dead, being confronted by a dying foe in the ring could test that.

When we understand character goals, we are more prepared for improvising a scene. As with all things, we will get better at this with practice.

Take Notes: Let’s pause and state that most of us have flawed memories. If you will run downtime scenes for several characters, you want to take notes. Note what happened, note NPCs that were met, and particularly anything you can use as fuel for later events. In the example above, we make a note of the motivations, so we lean on that in future scenes, even if the character takes on different downtime activities. How cool would it be for the player if while on a visit to a library some young scholars come over and ask for autographs because she’s their favorite pit fighter, causing a ruckus in the library?

Set the Opening Scene: The Acquisitions Inc book stresses this step. We want to describe the scene, painting a picture the way a movie sets an establishing shot. This is your first chance to draw the player(s) in.

DM: “It’s a cold night as you head down the dark alley, following directions given to you by a gap-toothed urchin. It’s a hole in the wall, literally, with only a heavy black curtain serving as the door. Even from the outside you can hear drums beating and the chant of a crowd, calling out one word over and over again. Blood. Blood. Blood! Do you go inside?”
Tara: “Zanure shoves aside the curtain and enters.”
DM: “A cage fashioned from scraps of metal, wood, and even bone fills the center of the room from floor to ceiling. Crowds scream and trade bets as a Halfling with a nose ring and a Dwarf with a Mohawk trade bloody blows. Two toughs move to stop you… but they see your muscled form and relax. ‘No one talks about the pit, got it? Sign up with the Lord of the Pit over there.’ One of them points at a tall and muscled dark-skinned woman flanked by half-orc guards.”

Your scenes don’t have to be perfect. You get to add details. But the more you can make the scenes interesting and evocative, the better. Borrow from movies. Use the cage from the movie Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. Make the pit owner look like Tina Turner, or even Grace Jones. Use whatever comes to mind and lean into it. These are short scenes. If a personality doesn’t work, that’s fine… the memorable NPCs can keep showing up and the others can fade away.

Some tools can help you improvise. Mike Shea’s Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master is full of great ideas on running with low preparation. A lot of advice is out there on improvising as a DM. A list of NPC names can sure be helpful, as can a map of the area (whether a city or wilderness). A list of NPC personalities and quirks, as found in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, can be useful. Chapter 4 of the DMG is full of tables you can use, and you can roll some up beforehand to use for downtime activities.

Control When the Dice Start: The point of roleplaying is to have fun. You as DM get to decide when the actual activity starts. Maybe Tara decides her barbarian wants to talk to a few people. Maybe she wants to learn about the Lord of the Pit and the different combatants. Maybe she just wants to jump in the pit. Feel free to slow things down or speed up. “Have a drink with me first,” or “You came to the pit for a reason, right? Get in there and fight Gorg and we can talk later.” It’s up to you and the player(s).

Ability Check Scenes: When the time feels right, it’s time for the action. With practice you can heighten things, making it interesting, regardless of the scene.

DM: “The cage door closes and it’s you and the Dwarf, Gorg. He moves around you, testing you. And then he comes in, swinging furiously! I need a Strength (Athletics) check for you! The DC is… [rolls] 16!”
Tara: [rolls, getting a 17] “Zanure takes a few steps back at first, but then she gets the hang of it. Uppercut! Haymaker, I’m pressing the dwarf back!”

We can make things relatively exciting even in a library, during the Research downtime activity.

DM: “Xandra has been working through a stack of books, and half of them have produced nothing. And then she sees a reference to ‘the lord in chains,’ followed by what could be a coded reference to another book. I need an Intelligence (Arcana) check to see if you can follow the clues!”
Angela: “I spent an extra 200 gp when I bribed the librarian for access to the rare books room, so I have +2 to my check… that’s a 20!”
DM: “Xandra works through the code. It leads to a page number showing a wizard studying a tome, and the binding is distinctive.”
Angels: “I’ll ask that librarian for help.”
DM: “You convince the librarian, Dedros, to help you find the book. He locates the book by the binding, and you soon discover two passages regarding the cult of the chained god. You learn the following…”

Adjusting the Payout: Erik Nowak asked on Twitter, “I’m running in the Forgotten Realms where a week is 10 days. For the end of week checks, do you recommend increasing rewards by 33%, making checks at 7 days, or just running as-is?”

The rules for downtime use the term “workweek” in an effort to apply the rules to any campaign world, regardless of the length of the week or how many non-weekend days are in a week. As written, the intention is that it’s the same in every world. In addition, one of the benefits of downtime is that it can be a way to use up gold.

That said, you should always feel free to adjust the payout up or down to fit your campaign style and what will be fun for the players. One way to do this is to keep the core rules, but periodically alter the payout based on a narrative event. This can also be a good way to encourage a player to do a particular event more or less often. Pit fighting might dry up, with the city cracking down on such fights, and the payoff decreases. Or, the renowned fighter Atauba Blackblade may return to the city, causing bets to spike in value for the next pit fighting activity.

Concluding Scene: When you are ready, you can bring the activity to a close. The pit fight is won or lost, the research has been found or not. Benefits are given out, costs are paid. How long you take to do this is up to you. The scene can always fade away, or you can cut over to another character. Or, you can tie it up with a description.

DM: “The crowd chants over and over again. Zanure! Zanure! Zanure! You spot the Lord of the Pit. She nods approvingly, and approaches with your payment. More importantly, she says, “Keep fighting like that and you will become a legend in this city.”

Ongoing Story: Downtime tasks are great campaign seeds. The Lord of the Pit… what’s her story? Is she secretly a noble? In the employ of one? The librarian… why does his library have so many books about cults? The Halfling pit fighter… could he become an ally? As you run downtime, make a note of the NPCs and story elements and weave them into your campaign. Better yet, weave them into other downtime activities. Why is Dedros the librarian at the pit tonight, betting against Gorg the Dwarf? Why did Xandra, talking to someone about the cult, see Gorg the Dwarf duck out of sight the moment he saw her?

With practice, the NPCs in your downtime can flesh out your campaign. The next dungeon has four cultists. Why not make one of them Dedros? Now we really drive home that the city is being infiltrated. And that captured NPC… let’s make that Gorg the pit fighter instead… his mother is a cultist and Gorg wants to convince her to turn away from evil.

When these kinds of connections show up, it’s immensely rewarding for the players. Tara’s character fought and beat Gorg, but now she has a reason to work with him. Angela met the librarian, and know that’s a key NPC. She knew that going to the library would pay off!

A classic tavern brawl, by Todd Lockwood

Complications and Rivals

Most of the downtime activities in Xanathar’s and Acquisitions Incorporated have a Complications table. When a character takes part in downtime, check for the condition of the complications table. In some cases it’s based on failure. Other times, it’s a flat percentage chance. And you can always decide to throw one in… that’s your call!

For pit fighting, there is a flat 10% chance per workweek that a complication arises. Xanathar’s gives us 6 possible complications. You might defeat a noble’s servant, drawing the wrath of the noble’s house. Or you might be accused of cheating, even if it’s not true. You can pick the complication you want, roll, or make up a complication. Regardless, it can be fun to weave that complication into the campaign’s story.

When a complication result has a star next to it, that complication might involve a rival. The noble’s servant might have been drugged on purpose by a cultist, who hopes that the noble house will strike out against the heroes, weakening them.

Rivals can be existing villains or villainous organizations. They can also be new entities. The noble house can become a rival, never believing in the heroes’ claims that a cult threatens the city. The nobles speak out against the heroes, making their job harder, even though the nobles have no actual tie to the cult. Enmity with the noble house could play out even after the cult has been defeated, becoming a recurring (but fun) thorn in the heroes’ side.

Xanathar’s has a table of rival NPCs in Chapter 2 you can use for inspiration, as well as guidance on rival goals, assets, and plans. You even get a few example rivals. Acquisitions Incorporated uses downtime in the included adventure, with many opportunities and examples for using NPCs in downtime and as rivals. How the adventure uses downtime is a great example and reference for your own campaigns.

Oh, and when a complication is revealed, you don’t have to act on it fully right away. You can hint at something taking place, and later think on how to flesh it out.

DM: “As the Lord of the Pit pays you, you can’t help but notice the sharp-nosed well-dressed woman watching you from the shadows. The Halfling you defeated joins the woman, and the two of them leave the pit together.”

Next Time!

We focused on downtime in between adventures. Next time we will focus on using downtime while the characters are adventuring. This is a huge boon, allowing you to bring life to adventures such as Tomb of Annihilation Dungeon of the Mad Mage, and Descent Into Avernus, where dungeon delving can truly benefit from a break through downtime. We will also talk about how the Acquisitions Incorporated book finally gives you the support you need to deliver on one of D&D’s oldest promises…. having your own castle!

Thank you for supporting my work on the DMs Guild!

2 comments on “How to Create Engaging Narratives with Downtime

  1. Eric Kamander
    November 26, 2019

    “but now she as a reason to work with him”

    • Alphastream
      November 26, 2019

      Corrected. Thanks! I always appreciate any typo corrections. I try to catch them, but they have high stealth checks.

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