The Alphastream Game Design Blog

How to Improvise Awesome Downtime Activities on the Fly

This is the fifth and final article in a blog series covering Downtime! Previously we covered:

Update: You can also check out this excellent blog entry by James Introcaso on the subject of Downtime! He has some great thoughts on pacing. And, Matthew Colville discussed Downtime too!

Now, let’s take a look at how to create rich awesome downtime activities on the fly.

Art by Howard Lyon

Deciding How to Handle Downtime

The best downtime activities feel like part of the ongoing narrative. They feel like cool scenes in movies or novels and engage the players. To do that, we want to create scenes that highlight the drama and bring it to a crescendo culminating in one or more checks.

A narrative focus also means we want players to be creative. We want players to come to us with what their characters want to do, without concern for the rules. Sure, they can look over the list of downtime activities (see this article for the pdf), but they can also just tell us what they want to do.

Following the downtime process we outlined in this article, we ask our players what they want to do. Their responses could be a bit intimidating at first. Let’s take some examples and work through them.

  • Diego: ” You know how we saved those people in a beat-up boat last week? My rogue, Adros, would like to fix the boat up. It could be useful.”
  • Angela: “Xandra wants to look into her backstory. She wants to track down what happened to her lost brother.”
  • Dwayne: “We have some staff. Could my paladin train them as acolytes to their god and have the acolytes start spreading our teachings around town?”
  • Tara: “If Adros can fix that ship, Zanure wants to have some of our staff patrol the coast, making sure no more pirates show up.”
  • Omar: “I really don’t know. I’m open to ideas.”

Selecting an Approach

I suggest the following process when you may need to improvise downtime:

  1. Understand what the character/player wants
  2. Consider a possible narrative and scenes
  3. Consider gold cost, time, and rewards
  4. Review the list of downtime activities and determine our approach.
    • Can we reskin something?
    • If nothing can be easily reskinned, can we borrow heavily from one activity, or combine existing activities?
    • Last resort: we improvise, with a default approach of 2-3 checks and a story-focused outcome.
  5. Describe the approach and cost to the player to ensure they are interested.
  6. Start with a focus on the narrative by describing a cinematic scene.
  7. Call for rolls as needed and establish the outcome and rewards.
  8. Decide whether complications arise (I like to wing it, but a 10% chance also works well). If there are complications, decide whether a rival is involved.
  9. If future related downtime could further the story, mention that to the player.


Diego’s character wants to fix up a boat. We can turn to the Crafting an Item activity in Xanathar’s. Normally, the activity is for crafting an item from scratch.

We decide that the small boat is largely intact, so we go with a quarter of the normal cost for the activity. We decide carpenter’s tools is the relevant proficiency. Otherwise, we are good to go with this activity. This one was easy!

Angela wants to explore her character’s backstory. Xandra’s brother, a druid, went missing recently and she wants to find him. We decide the Research activity can work, but we want to reskin it to be less about lore and more about legwork, and then add a twist at the end. Because we don’t always come up with amazing ideas on the spot, and because long payouts can be cool, we decide the reward will be a clue, but not the entire story. This gives us time to think of the complete story she can unearth during a future downtime activity.

Research normally takes a week, 50 gp (gain a bonus for spending more), access to a library grants bonuses, and you make a single Intelligence check. We decide to reskin that.

Instead of Intelligence, we use Charisma. Spending 50 gp to gather information, she learns that her brother would restock provisions at a rough trader’s shop. We can make the scene in the shop interesting, like something out of a movie – a combination supply store and pet show with strange supplies and even stranger critters. The owner could have a glass eye and be from a distant land. The owner doesn’t divulge information easily, so the check is to learn her brother’s lost destination. Failure means the trader sends her to someone else, but it ends this week’s downtime. If we wanted to do a bit more, we could have a second check. Regardless of the first check, the owner shares her brother’s supply list. With an Intelligence (Arcana or Nature) check, Xandra can learn that her brother’s supplies are used in summoning spells, either to draw forth or bind a creature. If Xandra succeeds, in the future she can use downtime to find the ritual site, learn what happened, and maybe finally find her brother.

Combining Activities

Dwayne’s paladin wants the characters’ staff to spread the teachings of his deity. We look over our list of downtime activities… and nothing really covers it. “Perform Sacred Rites” has no checks and the outcome is Inspiration. “Religious Service” has the PC work at a temple and gain favors. Marketeering deals with spreading a message and could work… but the benefit is saving money. Sowing Rumors is long term, and changes community attitudes.

We have lots of options, and in this case we choose two and combine them. We decide on a mashup of Marketeering and Sowing Rumors. We use 3 weeks duration (inspired by Sowing Rumors) and the outcome will be to improve the town’s disposition toward the deity. We use the 100 gp cost of Marketering and its three checks: a Charisma check representing how well Dwayne’s paladin teaches his acolytes, an Insight check for how well the paladin understands the populace, and finally a Charisma check that must be made by one of the acolytes as they go around spreading the deity’s word.

Complete Improvisation

Sometimes we don’t see an obvious fit. Or, we might not want to take the time to look over different downtime activities (though the reference sheet makes it easier to do this quickly). When this is the case, we can completely improvise the scene using the following process:

  1. Use a cost of 50-100 gp and 1-2 weeks.
  2. Think of 2-3 scenes that could progress the outcome.
  3. Describe the first scene and tie it to a relevant skill.
  4. For checks, either use a randomly determined DC of 5 + 2d10 (the method used in Pit Fighting), a DC based on the typical difficulty classes (Chapter 7 of the Basic Rules/PH, also shown below), or simply call for a roll and use the result to decide an outcome (similar to how Carousing works).
  5. Based on success or failure, advance the story or describe a setback.
  6. Repeat this for the additional scenes. The final scene provides the payout or stops progress.
  7. If there were major failures or interesting developments / roleplaying, add a complication and perhaps a rival.

Tara wanted Zanure to use Adros’ new boat to stop pirates. We decide 50 gp must be spent on dock fees and to learn the most vulnerable places. Zanure must patrol for a week. We think up 2 scenes: searching for trouble and dealing with it. It’s dark and the water is calm… and a successful check spots a small ship. We might ask Tara what Zanure does, and this might create a single attack roll to determine how combat goes or a Stealth check to follow them or something else. When the scene has finished, we adjudicate the outcome. They might have loot, or there might be a reward when authorities apprehend them. Or, Zanure might overhear important information regarding a villain. Lore is often a satisfying reward.

Art by Adam Paquette

Improv Tips

Skip the Dull Stuff: When running downtime, avoid unnecessary exposition. Keep things focused and sweet. If it gets dull, wrap it up or fast-forward. Just as in movies, we can cut away from one downtime scene to another. Fade out when something gets dull and fade back in with the next scene. For example, if we are in a gambling den, start the scene right as the character walks into the main hall, with the person they want to speak with plainly visible. Get to the fun parts!

Engage Everyone: When possible, involve other players. I generally allow the other players to offer suggestions and to weigh in on the scenes. This keeps everyone engaged.

Enable Staff Communication: With franchise tasks, where staff are carrying out activities, consider providing the party with magic items that allow communication. Sending stones, a crystal ball, or similar magic can let them participate remotely. This could allow characters to roll the check themselves in some situations, or if the staff member could logically have learned how to handle this situation from a character. “Your acolytes are spreading your message, so I’ll allow you to make this Charisma check.”

Running a Section of an Adventure as Downtime

One last way to improvise downtime. Sometimes we can run a section of an adventure as downtime. This can even be a section from another adventure. This is an especially great way to handle a player that doesn’t know what to do with their downtime.

Omar isn’t sure what to do. “Your in luck,” we say. “Your employer/ally contacts you and tells you she has a job for you.” The mission can be a small adventure section, such as one of the treks in Jungle Treks. Or, it could be an actual part of the adventure. A location in the jungle in Tomb of Annihilation that they otherwise might miss.

I used this technique recently with “Detour to Neverwinter” in episode 3 of the adventure in the Acquisitions Incorporated book. It could take hours to play that out, but I wanted to get to the next section. I gave it out as a solo mission and gave three checks: 1 at the bar to learn what happened, one at the jail to get in, and one to get out. It was great fun and took about 15 minutes! The whole table was engaged, offering advice and laughing as it all played out.

It Works Even If You Don’t Normally Run Downtime

It’s worth noting that you can run a downtime activity, whether out of the book or improvised, even if you don’t normally use downtime. For example, you are running a murder mystery and a character wants to flush out suspects. You can use the downtime system to accomplish that.

It’s worth keeping the downtime activities and methodology in your back pocket for any occasion where you need a format to resolve a character’s more interesting goals.

On to New Topics!

And so, our focus on downtime comes to a close. Next week we will switch to a different topic I’ve had on my mind.

Let me know in the comments what you think about downtime. What are your favorite ways to handle downtime? Best activities to use as templates for improvising? What is the most fun downtime scene you’ve played or run? Have you ever used downtime to handle a section of an adventure?

2 comments on “How to Improvise Awesome Downtime Activities on the Fly

  1. Victor Navone
    June 9, 2023

    What a great and useful article, thanks so much! Question: when you create scenes in these downtime activities, are you actually role playing them in real time, or just summarizing the actions and events with the players?

    • Alphastream
      June 9, 2023

      Thanks, and good question. I vary the technique based on pacing and the player. My default is to listen to the player’s intent, which is often out of character. Then I describe a scene that takes place and we roleplay the scene, using skills when a major part of the scene comes up.

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This entry was posted on December 11, 2019 by and tagged .


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