Running Downtime Sessions – Tips and Tricks – Volume 3
Volume 3: How to integrate Downtime Sessions into your campaign
In this series, we are unearthing the arcana of managing downtime sessions and activities in your campaigns. Downtime sessions are those that detail the between adventure activities that the characters get up to. Forging weapons, acquiring lands, or any of countless options. In each article, we’ll offer up some exciting tips and tricks, dos and don’ts, and help you expand this often-overlooked activity of the TTRPG. With well-thought-out downtime activities, you’ll be able to use the Downtime Manager app to keep your players (and their characters) entertained until you all have the opportunity to adventure together again.
This is the third article in our Running Downtime Sessions series. You can check out the others in the series here:
Stopping a tabletop session is hard. Bagging the dice, packing the characters sheet and the books, carefully boxing the minis, rolling up the battle mat… Same goes for online games: the waving on Zoom, promising to create a poll soon about the next session, then switching off the computer and staring at the empty screen until the adrenaline of that climactic encounter fades. We are all too familiar with the feeling of having to wait until we can spend time in our characters’ world once again.
In this article, we’re going to give you some ideas on when and how to plan downtime sessions into your games.
When to Pause The Game?
Ending an adventure, or a quest is the perfect time to introduce a downtime session with your players. But sometimes it’s difficult to tell when and where downtime makes sense for the adventure. The DM/GM is ultimately in control of this decision but it’s important to work it out with your group as well. Do you only use downtime activities during the break between quests, or do you allow it whenever it fits? Afterall, there is going to be some time in the real world that your group could spend still engaging with their characters.
The cliffhanger is an exciting option for when to call a halt to an RPG session. Something terrifying or amazing has just happened and the group will be thinking about what it means and how their characters will react until the next game. This is a great technique to use during a climactic event in the campaign, but shouldn’t be the norm. In this DM’s experience, using cliffhangers too frequently can cause them to lose their impact and ideally, we would prefer to have pre-planned halts to our sessions outside of an immediate cliffhanger.
There is an old saying that the journey, not the destination is what matters. There is some truth to this in RPGs, but time spent traveling long distances in campaigns is often glossed over, or bogged down with random wilderness encounters. What if you plan ahead, and the characters begin a long journey at the end of a session? Do you really need to have them accosted by bandits every time they hit the open road? What if the characters were given that week, or longer, in the game world for their characters to work on a skill, or scribe some scrolls, or other activities? This is a great opportunity for roleplaying as well as for players to stay connected to their characters outside of the action.
Ultimately the best options for when to pause your sessions and if they work with downtime activities are whatever works for your group and your playstyle.
Planning Downtime Into Your Campaign
DMs/Gms all know that preparation is key to any successful adventure (with a healthy dash of improvisation of course). The same can be said for preparing downtime options for your players. If you have a good plan for where your campaign will go, you will be able to better offer interesting downtime options to your group. This is true if you are writing your own campaigns or if you are using published adventures. Preparation is key.
Dissecting the Adventure
Let’s use the published adventure, Hoard of the Dragon Queen as an example. With an experienced group we can assume 6 to 8 hours of play time for the planned episodes. This time may vary of course depending on how well your group can stay on task. We’re going to delve into some minor spoilers here, but as this is advice for DMs it shouldn’t be an issue.
Between Episode 1 and Episode 2 of the modules, the heroes are given enough time to prepare before heading out to find the prison camp and save the villagers. The party has a definite goal, and a bit of a time constraint on it. While they will need some time to prepare if they take more than a couple days they risk failing in their mission. So, let’s say that you give your players 1 day of downtime, not much but enough to prepare some scrolls, or work towards a longer achievement.
Between Episode 2 and Episode 3, the characters have literally nothing to do until the NPC Leosin recovers from his wounds, which is “several days” according to the text. As the DM you have a bit of flexibility here, but can easily offer your characters the better part of a week to attend to their characters activities.
Between Episode 3 and Episode 4, it’s again a few days plus the aforementioned 6 days of traveling. After that, the entire episode is about traveling for nearly a month! The adventure offers cool options for role-playing with the fellow travelers, additional side-quests, multiple encounters options, but there is plenty of idle time spent just traveling that characters could allocate around 10 days to downtime activities.
There is only one day between Episode 4 and Episode 5. But Episode 5 begins with a 200-mile journey, about which the adventure actually says: “Nothing much needs to happen on the trip north of Waterdeep. You can narrate through it quickly”. There’s your clue, it’s time for downtime!
There’s no pause between Episode 5 and 6, and the players can go straight from Episode 6 to Episode 7 if they chose to jump through that portal right away, but nothing in the adventure compels them to do so immediately. And even if it would, you’re the DM, it’s your world, and the players may want to take some time to prepare.
The time between Episode 7 and 8 probably doesn’t offer the downtime options – and that’s the last episode so probably party tension is high. While it’s easy to fit small downtime sessions into other areas of the adventure, don’t force downtime when the BBEG is close!
Given the example of this adventure the characters have the opportunity for downtime sessions from a couple of days to a couple of weeks. The next bit of work the DM will have to do is clarify what the characters have access to during their downtime. There probably isn’t a portable forge with the caravan, so crafting metal weapons or armor might be difficult, but they can learn from fellow travelers, working towards learning languages, tool proficiencies, skills, spells – there are plenty of options for the characters.
Adjustments Are Part Of The Game
What happens if the players move faster than you anticipated? What happens if they are slower? What happens if the Episode you are playing spans multiple sessions or you have a nice long day playing where more than one episode of the campaign is completed? There’s no reason that you can’t spend time as a group taking care of downtime activities if everyone is having a good time. RPGs are games after all, and the point is for us to all have fun! But ideally you can come back to those activities after the adventure session is over by firing up the Downtime Manager app.
There is also nothing that says that you can’t use downtime retroactively. Keep track of idle time that your players happen upon through their actions for them to use for downtime activities later. After you’re done with the session, you can plan a small “flashback” to those 10 days spent traveling. What did the characters do that didn’t directly affect the adventure as played? Did the dwarf spend a few hours a day working on her elven language skills, getting her closer to proficiency for example? Whatever the characters do in a situation like this, make sure they don’t metagame with knowledge they wouldn’t have had at the time.
The characters in a Roleplaying Game, for many of us, are alive. We create these adventurers with hopes, dreams, backstories, and goals beyond defeating the goblin king. Downtime allows not only the players to engage with their characters more, helping to flesh them out for the campaign, but it allows for the DM to expand on their own worldbuilding. All of this can be done with some simple downtime activities and with the help of Downtime Manger, can be achieved in a few minutes a day between the times when the party is gathered to adventure again.
In the next article we’ll give you insights on how to run downtime sessions effectively.