10 D&D Downtime Mistakes You're Probably Making

10 D&D Downtime Mistakes You're Probably Making

Written by Luke Hart

Today, we’ll examine some practical advice you can use when running downtime for your tabletop RPG. To do this, we’ll touch on many of the mistakes game masters often make when running downtime in their games. However, I won’t be listing them off all purdy like I often do; instead, let’s see how many mistakes you can spot.

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What is downtime?

A – Downtime is a period of inactivity between adventures when the characters are licking their wounds, counting the meager loot they found in the last death trap, and thanking their gods that the game master didn’t TPK them for the fifth time.

B – Downtime is a “period of inactivity” between adventures when characters can train, engage in research, perform mundane tasks, pursue personal pursuits, and interact with the world in ways other than adventuring.

C – Downtime is a period of inactivity between adventures when the players often groan because they are bored, have to wait forever to do their own downtime because the bard is going from bar to bar flirting with anything that moves, and wish they had called in sick to the game session.

D – All of the above.

So, I think a strong argument could be made for D, all of the above, but technically, the answer is B: Downtime is a “period of inactivity” between adventures when characters can train, engage in research, perform mundane tasks, pursue personal pursuits, and interact with the world in ways other than adventuring. At least, that’s how I’ve always interpreted it.

Why should you run downtime?

A – Because it’s in the Game Mastery Guide, a plethora of rules exist for it, and game masters are expected to incorporate downtime into their games.

B – Because downtime serves as a great time filler that buys the game master time while they prepare the next adventure for the characters to go on.

C – Because players are often interested in other things than just going on adventures, such as pursuing personal goals and interests, and without downtime, they’ll probably never have a chance to do those things.

D – A and C

OK, now, as a game master who’s fairly busy in real life and knows that prep time comes at a premium, I can commiserate with GMs who might want to throw in downtime to pad out their game sessions, but really, you shouldn’t do that; downtime should also serve a purpose.

On that note, you don’t want to just do downtime because there are rules for it in the book. That’s a horrible reason to do a thing. Shoot, D&D 5e has chase rules in the DMG, but I would never recommend that anyone use those particular rules to run a chase scene—some rules are best ignored. The real reason is C: Players often have cool things in mind that they would like their characters to accomplish. However, they aren’t activities they can do during standard adventuring.

For instance, I once had a player who wanted to work toward becoming a lich and building his own stronghold. Making room in the game for downtime allowed him to pursue those goals, slowly pushing them along between adventures. If not for downtime, he would have never accomplished them because he would have always been busy adventuring—and those were two things he was super excited to make happen.

Imagine what a letdown it would have been for him if he couldn’t pursue those objectives. Now, yes, those were both long-term goals, and we spoke and agreed that it would take quite some time and effort to achieve—especially the lichdom part. However, the fact that there was a mechanism that allowed him to work toward those goals was huge for him.

Of course, you may find that none of your players care about or enjoy downtime, and they would all be happier to do without it and just keep going on adventures. If that’s the case, don’t be afraid to toss downtime out of your game. My only caution here is that chances are good that at least one player enjoys the idea of pursuing personal goals during downtime or that other players, even if they don’t care about that, like downtime for other reasons. For instance, it can allow them to gather information about their foes, potentially giving them the edge, shop around for particular magic items they might want, or curry favors with certain factions in the game.

My recommendation is to include downtime so that players have the opportunity to use it, and then if you see no one seems to enjoy it, consider removing it from the game after discussing the idea with them.

When should you run downtime?

A – After every adventure.

B – When the characters level up.

C – Whenever it seems most appropriate for the game or storyline.

D – Whenever the players request some downtime.

E – Any of the above.

F – None of the above.

Technically, you can run downtime whenever you want (E). I’ve even seen players retreat from a dungeon to take some downtime—now, yes, there were some severe consequences for doing that because, you know, the baddies left alive in the dungeon were not happy—but they were allowed to do so.

I don’t think there is necessarily a right or wrong time to run downtime. However, I’ll tell you how and why I do it in my games. When we run downtime in my games is quite simple: I make it a requirement for leveling up. That means characters could technically not take downtime ever, but they’ll never be able to level up if they don’t. Why do I do it this way? First, I’ve noticed at least one player will always want to take downtime, but there is almost always a reason for the group to not take any.

Taking downtime often comes down to the urgency of the next adventure. “Look, we know the dragon is going to attack that village at any moment. How can we possibly take downtime now?” After they deal with the dragon, the reason will be, “Look! We discovered that letter in the dragon’s hoard about the Duke’s master plan, and if we don’t do something now, he might get away with it. How can we possibly take downtime now?

You see, many game masters have this “ticking clock” element in their games that forces a sense of urgency on their players to get on with it. I think it’s an excellent game component to use, but the downside is that it compels them to rush from one adventure to the next and never take downtime because it would be too great of a risk. My solution to this conundrum has been to require downtime to level up. Now, they can spend their downtime doing whatever they wish; it doesn’t have to be spent on training or anything, but they must take downtime to level up. It’s as simple as that.

In addition, this also allows time to pass in the game world. It’s probably a meme that characters can go from levels 1 to 20 in three days because they piggyback adventures nonstop; the next thing you know, they’re level 20, and practically no in-game time has passed.

Forget a moment about the lack of realism this represents because that’s not my primary concern here. Instead, as a game master, I need time to pass to a certain extent so I can progress certain plot threads in the game world as I run my campaign. The reasons for needing to do this are various, and I won’t get into them here, but having time pass in a campaign is a super useful tool for GMs.

How long should downtime last?

A – Precisely one week, no more, no less.

B – At least a few months so characters can accomplish something meaningful.

C – However long it needs to be, depending on the characters’ activities.

D – Any of the above is fine.

That’s right; D. The exact length of downtime doesn’t really matter and will depend on your game and your players. However, I will tell you how I do it in my games. I have downtime that lasts a minimum of one week because that’s the amount of time generally required to do something meaningful with a downtime activity. It also gives me one week of in-game time to progress campaign events in a meaningful way. Generally speaking, one week is usually good enough.

Now, I leave the option open for my players to take longer if they wish, but I have never had a group do that. Sure, they’ve talked about it, but they’ve always talked themselves out of it, too.

I think having a fixed amount of time and being completely inflexible are pitfalls in taking downtime. Pick a length of time that generally works, and be open to players taking longer if desired—and if the entire group agrees. If the wizard wants to take three months to work on their stronghold, but the rest of the group wants to get on with the adventure, I would move on to the adventure. However, nothing says that the wizard’s player can’t have their wizard sit the adventure out while they work on their stronghold or that they can’t bring in a different character to go on the adventure at hand. Otherwise, the player would effectively miss out on playing for several game sessions.

Now, I have also discovered that having downtime last too long can be problematic. Let’s say that the wizard does take three months to work on their stronghold, and the rest of the group takes downtime, too. Well, now you have three months of downtime to work through and adjudicate. Any guess on how long that might take at the game session? The entire session? Several sessions? This leads us to our next question:

How long should downtime take during a game session?

A – Keep it as short as possible; a half hour is great.

B – As long as needed to adjudicate everyone’s downtime.

C – No time at all; run downtime offline between game sessions.

D – Both A and C

Now, if you watched my video on pacing, you’ll know that to maintain good pacing in your tabletop RPG, you need to move quickly to the next meaningful question and not dilly-dally with the non-interesting parts of the game. Well, downtime tends to be low on drama or action; compared to other parts of the game, such as adventuring, it is much less interesting for most players. There are exceptions, of course—such as my one player who mostly just cared about becoming a lich and constructing his stronghold—but I’ve found that most players don’t find downtime to be the most interesting part of the game.

Therefore, I aim to work through downtime activities as quickly as possible in my games; if I can keep them to a half-hour, that’s great. An even better solution, if you have the time for it, is to resolve downtime activities with players away from the table between game sessions—I call that offline, by the way, even though you’re probably going to be doing it online via Discord or email. I personally don’t have time to resolve downtime outside of a game session, so my groups do it at the table.

Furthermore, what usually happens during downtime is that while you are working with one player to adjudicate their downtime, the rest of the players are mostly just sitting there waiting. It’s like rounds in combat; one person is playing the game, and everyone else is waiting for their turn. Downtime often takes longer than a turn in combat, so the problem is amplified.

This is another reason why I couple downtime with leveling up. While I am adjudicating downtime with one player, the other players are working on leveling up their characters. This gives them something important and interesting to do—who doesn’t love the process of leveling up and getting cool new abilities and spells? We still try to keep the entire downtime and leveling-up process to half an hour if possible. It doesn’t always happen, but it’s my goal.

Here are some quick tips that will help you speed up downtime at your table:

Have a standard price or list of prices, difficulties, and possible results for each downtime activity. Or, even better, come up with a downtime rules template that can be applied to almost any downtime activity—more on that later.

Make sure the downtime rules you use are available to the players to speed up the process.

Limit the number of downtime activities any one character can do during a downtime period (often identified as “game weeks” or “work weeks”). More on that later, too!

Put a time limit on each player’s table time for executing downtime activities. My goal is usually five minutes per player, though exceptions happen.

Which form of pacing should you use for downtime?

A – Now Time

B – Slow Time

C – Abstract or Fast Time

D – Sharp Cut

Now, if you haven’t watched my video on pacing, you may not be familiar with these, but don’t worry; you can check that out later. For now, I’ll just tell you that abstract or fast time (C) is the form of time management that you should use for downtime. Abstract time is when players get something done faster in real-time than it actually takes in game-time.

So, after a player explains what they would like to accomplish, the game master should adjudicate and announce the results—probably after some dice rolls by the player and GM—and then that player’s downtime is done. Usually, you can wrap this up in about five minutes, even though the downtime activity probably took the character a week. That’s why we call it abstract or fast time. Using this method of pacing allows us to keep the amount of time spent on downtime at the game table to a minimum.

However, a pitfall that I have seen groups fall into is running downtime in now-time, which means events at the game table progress at the same speed as events in the game. In other words, you’re roleplaying out all the details of downtime.

For instance, back to our wizard and his stronghold: let’s say for this week’s downtime, he wants to furnish the entry hall of his secret base. So, we then roleplay, in real-time, him going shopping for furniture, talking to the stone mason who’s going to craft a table, and spending time in town hiring some other crafters. You see if we roleplay that all out, it could easily take us a half-hour or more just for that one player’s downtime. Then we end up spending the whole game session on downtime, which, again, is arguably one of the least interesting parts of the game for most players.

Now, from time to time, I do actually run downtime in now-time, and we roleplay it out. However, I save it for special occasions or just for a change of pace. I might also use fast time for five players’ downtime, but use now-time for just one player because what they are doing is more interesting for one reason or another. However, these are rare exceptions. Most of the time, I use abstract time for downtime.

How much should characters be able to do during downtime?

A – As much as they can accomplish during the week (or however long downtime lasts).

B – Just one activity.

C – One activity for every bottle of the GM’s favorite beverage they contribute to the war chest. Bringing pizza to the game session serves as a 5X multiplier.

D – None of the above.

Now, as much as I really want to say that the answer is C in the futile hope that my players will bring me beer and pizza, it technically isn’t. My strong recommendation is that you limit a character to one activity during their downtime. This will serve to keep the length of time it takes to resolve downtime at the game table to a minimum.

Now, it’ll be hard to stick to this rule at times because you will 100% have players say things like, “Come on, buying a magic item shouldn’t take me one week. I also want to do this and that.” Players will sometimes try to stuff as many activities into downtime as possible because it benefits them to do so. Now, sometimes they are right—some things shouldn’t take very long—and other times they are conveniently overlooking the complexity of things like finding a buyer for a magic item—someone who both wants the item and has the money.

Either way, I tell my players that it doesn’t matter. We keep downtime to one activity as a game mechanic, whether it’s realistic or not. Game mechanics in RPGs, by and large, exist to facilitate gameplay while preserving a semblance of realism; if we push too far toward realism, we sacrifice facilitation and end up with nearly unplayable games.

Now, if your players decide to take a longer downtime period, say, three months, you might be tempted to allow them to do multiple things, but then we’re back to downtime lasting the entire game session or longer. I don’t think there is a correct answer here; use your best judgment. I also think it’s not a meaningful discussion for us to have here anyway because, in practice, players almost never want to take longer than the bare minimum for downtime, so it’ll probably never come up in the game.

How should you run downtime?

A – Use the downtime rules for your game system, duh.

B – Make up your own downtime rules.

C – Rules, who needs rules? Just make things up as you go.

D – All of the above.

Generally, most downtime activities follow a similar pattern: A character decides what they’re going to do; the game master determines if there is a cost involved and which dice rolls to make; the player spends resources as needed and makes the dice rolls; and, finally, the game master narrates the results.

So, it might be tempting to just freeform downtime and make things up as you go—but I think that is a mistake. This would be akin to not having any rules for combat and just narrating things however you feel. That said, some systems probably have almost no rules for anything, and free-forming is exactly what they would recommend. However, if we look at the big players on the field—D&D, Pathfinder, and the like—they have rules that govern most major game elements.

The benefit of having codified rules that the game master and players follow is twofold: first, it sets expectations for players. They know how things work and can expect certain actions to yield certain results. This helps them make informed decisions. Second, for game masters, rules help you adjudicate the output based on the input. In other words, you don’t have to pull stuff out of your butt or sit there and wonder how in the world something should work while everyone waits; you just follow the rules for downtime.

So, starting with the downtime rules for your given game system is an excellent place to start. And for new game masters, I definitely recommend that. However, that approach is fraught with peril, as you’ll probably learn after using the downtime rules for a while.

First, you’ll find that following the rules will take some time as you’re likely not super familiar with them since they don’t get used very often. So, you’ll need to read them during the game session to figure out how they work before you can adjudicate downtime activities. Now, yes, you can brush up on downtime rules before a game session when you know there will be downtime—and I do recommend that. But then, of course, that adds to your preparation time, increasing the burden on the GM.

Next, what you’re likely to find is that many official downtime rules follow a similar pattern—declare an action, spend some money, spend more money if you want to gain a bonus to your roles, make one or more dice rolls, learn the result. So, if most of them do follow the same pattern, it brings us to my next point:

Homebrew your own simplified set of rules for adjudicating downtime that can be applied to most downtime activities. If we can still have rules but make them simpler and more versatile, that gives us a multitude of benefits.

For D&D 5e, I’ve simplified most of the downtime activities to follow this pattern: The character will need to make three checks, the DC of which the GM determines. The GM decides what two of the checks will be, such as Athletics and History, and the player can pick the third one as long as it makes sense. The more checks they succeed on, the better the results.

There is a base gold piece cost, usually 100 gp, the character must pay, but they can also pay extra gold in 100 gp increments with each additional 100 gp granting a +1 bonus to any one of the three checks. They can get up to a +5 bonus. Now, sometimes paying gold doesn’t make any sense, in which case that mechanic would be dropped, and the character just makes three checks.

Using this general downtime template allows me to quickly adjudicate downtime without having to look things up in the book. It doesn’t work for every type of downtime, but it covers quite a few situations.

Bear in mind, too, that the cost of a downtime activity should be comparable to the value of the results the player will gain. For example, research for finding simple information in a library may only cost 100 to 600 gp, following my rule above, but finding and buying a powerful magic item will probably be much more expensive.

Also, keep the costs and difficulties low enough to be accessible at low levels, but don’t feel like you need to scale those costs up at higher levels, especially if the rewards (like salary for performing mundane work) don’t improve.

Furthermore, the cost doesn’t have to be money. In the Delta Green RPG, for instance, the “downtime cost” of preventing sanity loss is damaging your relationships with the people you care about.

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