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My group is running a set of published adventures, so there's a pretty linear path between them. But between modules, there is the opportunity to go back to town, spend some money, and get some good old fashioned R&R.

Previous DMs for my group have fast-forwarded this. You find this magic item for sale, you collect your reward for slaying the previous BBEG, 3 months go by and then suddenly a new quest pops up, and we're only 15 minutes into the session.

I don't want to do that.

I want the group to spend a few sessions in town. Have some fun. Meet people. Make the town a real, living place instead of a vending machine they hit up between quests. I've talked to the players directly, and they share my desire to spend some time roleplaying between adventures.

What kind of interesting activities can a group of high-level (epic tier dnd-4e) adventurers do in a medieval town, and how do I fill a session with them?

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Guys: If you have critiques/warnings about this approach, please couch them in an otherwise constructive answer; this comment thread comes across as negative. –  mxyzplk Aug 15 '12 at 4:48
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One thing I would note is that as epic tier 4th edition characters, they likely have almost enough cash to buy the town, raze it, and erect a magical theme park. I'm not sure it's really the scale they would be operating on anymore. Or, to put it another way, I imagine a heroic tier character is the hero of a village, a paragon tier character is the hero of a large town or small city, and an epic-tier character is the hero of a nation. –  Aesin Aug 15 '12 at 17:36
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@Aesin Good point. The group is just reaching epic tier, but haven't spent much time in the city since mid-paragon. So establishing them as the heroes of the city is one of my goals. –  dpatchery Aug 15 '12 at 17:43
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I do now have buy-in from the players. I asked them directly if they wanted to spend a few sessions roleplaying in town, or fast forward and get back to the action. The unanimous reply was to take some roleplaying opportunities. –  dpatchery Aug 15 '12 at 17:49
    
I think you've got to do a montage. :) –  RobertF Jul 10 at 13:44

7 Answers 7

up vote 21 down vote accepted

Background and Legacies

Outside the dungeons, pits, castles and sewers there is the chance to explore what the characters are more than just damage dealing machines, what they want to be their legacies, who they know, what they want to be; encourage players to expand on their backstories - or examine their backgrounds and see what can come out of the woodwork, not even as a battle but as someone to talk to or stories that they can find out about.

Relationships

High level characters should have not a small amount of fame and NPCs should be clamouring to apprentice/advise/woo/get money/kill them depending on what they've become famous for. Think Wizard duels to determine "the greatest magi of the land", building sage towers to tutor a school of magic, creating new religious movements, creating a guild of adventurers to solve all the petty tasks that no longer are worth the time, etc.

The world

At Epic level politics becomes an important factor; characters who are powerful can solve important problems, defeat enemies or swing wars between countries and Kings/Nobles/Wizards will want the PCs on their side - or rid of them - for wider political motives Think scheming political figures "Have this castle as my thank you for your service" (said castle is crawling with dangerous bandits) religious orders that are asking for help with crusades and so on.

Making it alive

And those the players know will have moved on as well; NPCs shouldn't stand still, give a little snippet to important figures in the characters lives to make things feel more "alive", Bob and Bobette have had a baby, Duke Von Bob has created a new trade route, Trader Bob has partnered with his former enemy anti-Bob.

A world of shops and taverns?

Another thing to help the players feel a place is more alive is to add things to the city that are more than rumour-generation taverns and item-trading shops. Don't scattergun these in, you can drip feed them schools, colleges, magical research centres, masons guilds, graveyards and religious institutes to the point that (hopefully) they'll ask "is there an X" in town and then you can sit back and stuff in some generic NPCs for X, give it a name and have them talk to a piece of the city that they've effectively generated for you. Now that's lazy GM'ing and I like that :)

PC: "Is there an alchemist in the city?"
Me: (Checks list of random npc names, rolls a dice for personality on a quick chart), writes 'Alchemist, gruff, slightly mad, level 15' "Yes there is, a few inquiries tells you about Old Bob the Alchemists shop of chemical wonders, it's down old goat street."

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The problem is that in most D&D systems, there aren't any mechanics (and thus no rewards) for these things. –  okeefe Aug 14 '12 at 16:46
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You can always hand out roleplaying-XP, but usually the best part is participating in an interesting story. Getting involved in your city makes your character more engaged. –  Paul Marshall Aug 14 '12 at 17:21
    
@okeefe Assign CR for it; simple minor events PL-3, well done = PL, Fantastic RP, PL+2, etc. –  Rob Aug 14 '12 at 20:19
    
there's also things like 'Lord' level - now you have a keep to establish/run - improve lands - expansion will butt against other NPCs and cause friction, or even politically driven marriage –  Sean Cheshire Aug 14 '12 at 21:20
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@okeefe - Rewards and RP opportunities don't always have to be rules-driven. If you make it interesting and enjoyable enough, the rules should come secondary, and the rewards can be merely the character development, or rewards that come from the same. –  wraith808 Aug 15 '12 at 22:18

Downtime is downtime

True "downtime" is, by definition, uneventful. A rest scene or two here or there is good for breaking up the game, but just stretching out the shopping and relaxation into a whole session isn't going to promote character development.

I think about the best thing you can hope to do with honest-to-goodness downtime is personalize downtime. These are events you're just kinda eliding, so the normal admonitions like "Don't split the party" don't really apply. So, ask the players what their characters are doing, individually, in their everyday lives. Don't play it out in detail, but establish patterns for how the characters live and what they do when they're not adventuring.

Then...

Have some adventures in town

Adventure stories generally aren't about day-to-day life. Look at Indiana Jones: generally, the movies spend no more than 5 minutes each establishing Indie's daily life as a professor. I think you should follow suit. In an adventure game, aside from some super-short scene-setting, the day-to-day isn't important. Therefore, the "interesting" town stuff to do in town is the extraordinary — in other words, having adventures.

They can be different adventures from the ones you usually have. For instance, if your primary paradigm is quests — going to forbidden places, facing monsters and obstacles, overcoming an evil force or finding a lost treasure, and the personal growth associated with undertaking the journey — then the town stuff can involve intrigue-based adventures — uncovering mysteries, navigating a web of relationships and loyalties, and making moral decisions that shape the future of the locale.

A good way to set these up is to encourage personal goals from the players. "High-level" PCs are usually wealthy, important, powerful people: so, what are they going to do with that wealth, power, and status? Ask them about their aspirations and set up NPCs with complementary or rivalrous agendas.

Many quest stories are fundamentally reactive: the PCs are preventing catastrophes or restoring lost balance. Town-focused adventures can provide your players with an avenue to make more proactive change in the world, which in turn makes their questing to safeguard it feel all the more relevant.

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It depends. First, this is the sort of thing I'd clear with my players. Sometimes little breaks from the action and drama can be absolutely essential. Assuming that they're into the idea, then...

There are two basic things you might want out of this time - background detail and experimenting with narrative techniques.

This is a great time for background detail because, let's be honest, if you've just hacked and slashed through hordes of monsters with someone, you're going to talk to that buddy. If you weren't already you buddies, it's hard not to be now - the whole band-of-brothers thing is a real, reproducible (not at home) phenomenon. Or maybe they'll talk to other people, or interact somehow, and that's when all the fun stories fall out of the woodworks.

Maybe one of the characters just loves getting in fistfights in fine clothing stores, or maybe one's a raging alcoholic. Have messengers track down your characters in these towns and explain problems that are going on at home (if they have a home), to see what the characters' reaction is. Share gossip with them! The other answerers gave you excellent suggestions in that regard.

You might experiment with how you tell stories here because it doesn't jeapordize the main plot if you do something silly. Maybe the pointy, star-field wizard's hat just doesn't do it for your players. Maybe you have so much purple prose that it's smothering the plot. Maybe you don't have enough. Maybe this is the time to distribute snacks, because it's okay if people don't hear everything over the crunch of doritos. Try things! The best storytellers (obviously integral to being a good GM) are constantly improving their technique.

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+1. I've added a simple idea for the latter in a separate answer. Downtime is a good time for playing around the style and technique. –  phareim Aug 17 '12 at 10:52

Starting a business, group, school or Order

I sometimes present situations to the players where they might see a notice for a shop or building that's for sale...Or its inherited in some way. Maybe someone they meet is setting up a small mercenary school and needs people to teach the new recuits? - even these might have their own challenges. Where do you get equipment? How do you find followers/workers for your project? maybe some of those followers are troublesome? Maybe the building the players buy needs repairs, or is haunted and needs exorcizing? Maybe they need to win over a patron or crowd to kickstart their business?

The main thing is to first give the players the opportunity to set up a goal, or ambition, to make a name for themselves. The fun part is overcoming the problems and building something that lasts...don't just give them a ready-made shop/house/cult/wizard's tower, make them work on it over time and make it their own. They'll treasure it even more.

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It doesn't even need to be bought/inherited. Given that the OP says these are epic-level characters, they're probably in a position to build their own castles/towers/businesses/whatever. –  Dave Sherohman 2 days ago

I don't know if you find this suitable to your style, but last time I had to face the same problem (downtime in a large Fantasy city with the party recovering/preparing before the next instalment) I found "Cities" by Midkemia Press an invaluable resource.

It was decades ago (literally) so maybe this kind of product is not the right answer anymore (it basically had well done encounter tables for various areas of a generic fantasy city, plus a simple downtime management system when you wanted to just zoom past weeks or months).

If you are interested in giving it a spin, it's still available as a pdf for 5 US$.

The encounters are just sketches and leave the GM plenty of room to invent and improvise. It worked great both for just having something fun/interesting happening to players going around and in at least a case provided a springboard for a whole series of adventures.

(the page looks a bit "old" but I wrote to the provided email and can confirm they are still in activity).

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Make them play it out

Here's a simple idea to jazz up a stay at an Inn, a city or other pause in action, without much work on your part.

Opening scene: Your troupe is sitting around a large table enjoying ale and small talk. Some NPC is introduced, the inn keeper or something, who does/says something to set the mood, "Gentlemen, have you heard!?". And in mid sentence you start describing the viewpoint drifting away from the table, out the door and up, ending in an overview of the city. Now describe the movement of time: morning to evening, evening through night to the next morning.. what ever suites you. Zoom back in. The same group around the same table.

introduce the hat: pull out a bowl or a hat with some small folded notes in it. Now! Each player pulls a note, describing some small thing they have done, something they have found, someone they have met.. Make up some cool stuff. If you want, color code the notes so that two people with blue notes have shared some experience, or say that the yellow note has had a fight with the green note.

There's some fun in not knowing what note that'll go to what player.

an example: You are sitting with your feet on the table, a black eye covering your left eye, and with a huge grin on your face. A steady stream of serving maids stop by to check on you and bringing you fresh ale and snacks.

play it out: Now, your troupe spend the evening telling each other about their day. Normal rules apply, when something is said it sticks. Fights can be played out with normal dices, obviously everyone has to survive. Encourage the players to make up some outlandish stuff.

... For a group that knows each other well, it can be fun way to mix up your usual playing style. For the GM it can serve as a way to introduce some friction or movement in a group set in their ways.

Ideas introduced by the players could also serve as starting points for new sessions.

Good luck :)

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if players are still resting in same city/village name all npcs, let bartender wont be a bartender, let him be ie mike
even when they sell their equipment make each shop different, describe them, role play each events like training, shopping etc (might help you latter to send players on adventure)

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