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I usually run published adventures which may or may not be related to each other. During and in between the adventures there are often times when the two main facets of RPGs, story role-playing and combat, aren't happening which I refer to as "In Between Times".

Examples of in module "In Between Times": travel, preparing for adventure in town, night time when some characters are sleeping and others are on watch, etc.

Examples of between module "In Between Times": socializing in town, running a house or a business, etc.

I know that some RPGs have mechanical rules for downtime, i.e. "You make X gold with Y profession which supports Z lifestyle." which is not quite what I'm looking for with this question. I'm interested in how can I, as DM, facilitate fun and meaningful downtime situations.

Similar to this question, my players say they're on board for doing downtime activities but when the time comes in game we always just seem to hand wave it away mainly because I am intimidated by it:

  • I don't know how to run downtime activities for individual players in an efficient way that does not drag the game to a halt for the other players (for too long, anyway, I know some people will be bored with anything that isn't their character).
  • I don't know how to depict a complex town where the PCs can go to any (and maybe every shop) without putting hours I don't have into prep time.
  • I don't know how to fill nights with interesting experiences for the characters keeping watch. I don't want to blather on about things like "You hear 3 crickets making beautiful music." but I also don't just want to roll a d20 per watch shift and move on down the road.

It's general inexperience that causes me to not be confident in these types of situations. Good specific advice is great, good general advice applicable to many different similar scenarios is even better. I don't have many hours to throw into more prep which is why I run published mods so ideal answers will keep that in mind. I want everyone to enjoy the game while also maintaining a moderate level of realism and immersion that is consistent with the things that happen in between plot-based role-playing and combat.

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One of the primary activities in an RPG is problem-solving. Make sure that each scene you run has a problem to be solved!

(If you can't think of a problem with a given scene, don't bother running it. It's okay to skip the boring bits!)

Here are some examples.

  • The local army recruiter has decided that your character would make a great recruit. He keeps visiting you during your downtime and trying to convince you to join the army. He says things like: "It's your patriotic duty to stand with your brothers and sisters on the front lines!" and "Just think what a soldier of your caliber could do for the war effort!". It's clear from the way he talks that the army would be a terrible fit for you: he wants you to do eight hours a day of drilling, he wants you to be a pikeman/pikewoman when you've never used a pike before, and the unit he's recruiting for keeps getting used as cannon fodder and taking horrible losses. How does your character deal with the problem?
  • You come upon a merchant in a bitter argument with some townsfolk. The townsfolk desperately need the merchant's supplies -- seed corn for the planting this spring, perhaps? -- but the merchant's prices are way too high. This merchant visits your town regularly and always brings much-needed supplies, but it looks like he's about to get mugged, and frankly it's possible he deserves it. How does your character deal with the problem?
  • You're walking through the rich part of town when you spot a thief breaking into someone's house. The thief is someone you know, who you wouldn't have thought would commit a crime. Do you turn them in? Do you offer to help, in exchange for a share of the loot? Do you ask them why they're doing this, and if so do you believe their answer?

A good downtime activity should have multiple good solutions, so that the character can pick one that reflects their personality. In general there's not a need to offer "bad" solutions; this is an opportunity to character-build, and players will be more willing to do that if they're confident a misstep won't cost them their character.

If you're running separate scenes for each character, try to make them short. Long scenes will bore your other players. (Or run scenes while people are doing some other activity, such as leveling up, so they won't get bored.)

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    \$\begingroup\$ Might I also add a generalized and not directly quoted bit from the DMG. If it doesn't add fun to the game, throw it out \$\endgroup\$ – Zakier Jul 18 '15 at 5:11
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Others suggested adventuring or intensive RP in downtime. This has one important feature: it basically turn downtime into another adventure. This is not a bug, just a feature: you roleplay all the time a similar way. As long as you are fine with playing small encounters and de-emphasizing the "big adventures", it's OK. However, this is harder to do properly, especially if you don't have much time for in-depth preparation. It's even harder if those downtime adventures usually concern only one character and the others may get bored. Either you must ensure that all the players have some adventure and cut scenes, which is hard, or play these solo adventures 1:1. Or do it as I do and skip them completely.

I distinguish "quick" and "slow" activities. The quick ones are adventures, or anything "important" in most adventuring games. The "slow" ones are not meant to get much spotlight, but are somehow important as well. The party should have an outpost - a town where the PCs live, a castle they conquered over bandits early in the campaign or like. The main advantage is that the PCs can "stay at home" in the off-time, and have some agenda there.

All my players/PCs must have both quick and slow agenda, corresponding to quick and slow activities. Quick agenda could be "find the best sword in the world", slow one could be "make the best sword in the world". The best goals have both compounds - for example our mage found some strange magical stone and makes experiments with it in downtime; he may also travel to distant libraries to find what others discovered about it, probably in downtime as well; or he may go to a dungeon to find a similar stone or a journal of a famous mage who researched it before. Some players (especially the one playing this mage) require a lot of downtime, so that they PCs may develop their "slow" agenda. Another case was a knight who was more interested in developing his fief that in adventuring, which he saw mostly as a source of money to invest in his little baronny.

Even with adventures prepared for a generic party you can still aply PCs motivations to adventures (if your mage is after a special research, add a tome on related topic to your dungeon's treasure) and especially to the downtime. Cooperate with your players to invent some downtime agenda for their PCs, or better, let them do it unless they run out of ideas too early. Encourage the players to tell what their character did before becaming and adventurer, require that every PC must know some craft. Also encourage them to make PCs like their relatives, friends etc. Without such background, playing downtime is boring; with it, downtime can be lmost as challenging as the adventuring itself. The only important factor is that this shouldn't inhibit adventuring too much. Things that must be done 24/7 are a big no-no, but most of them could be improved. Is the PC a barman? It's too time consuming to get out for few weeks every now and then, but it's no problem if the PC has a brother who will gladly work in the bar meanwhile. If a player wants something too good for his PC, make it their goal and find few ways that could lead to it. Did he say he's a local baron? In most campaigns, this is not something for low-level PCs. So the player create a local baron and a reason why the PC might get the fief himself (is the baron a tyrant, who should be overthrown later in the campaign? or is the baron's only child the PC's girlfriend and getting knighted is necessary to marry her and inherit the baronny. The more details the player will invent, the more benevolent you should be. Also, it's fine to agree not to endanger the PCs' background, to prevent fear that you will use it to bully the PC (or even the player).

The downtime is a special minigame. For most rules-heavy systems, there are some rules for this, or you can adapt a subsystem from another game. Unless you really like it (I suppose you don't), leave the burden of the rule-paperwork on players; all you must do is to react and perhaps check if they don't cheat, if they are not honest enough. What's important is that the rules somehow concern the PC's goal. Different players may use very different subsystems - a thief running a pub, a mage researching new spells, a warrior building a castle and a bard trying to impress the mistress of his heart each need a different set of rules.

One way is to make it tell the players how much time they will have after each adventure (I assume each adventure last for more sessions), let them roll and look what the rules say. Then roleplay it! You may need a special session for this, or it might be just a start of the next session, depending how much your players want to roleplay it and how much they take it as a sort of a boardgame. The next adventure might be somehow tied to the PCs' downtime actions. For example the mage might find a quote of The Olde Tome Of Ancient Wisdom, which should be kept somewhere in the Forgotten Castle, along with many other treasures, which means a heroic quest for the party of his friends.

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When it comes to downtime remember that if it isn't fun, hand wave it.

To be honest, Truly interesting downtime requires many different bits to even set up properly. You stated using redesigned adventures. It is in my opinion that downtime events are easier with this adventure type but not as in depth or important as they are when you have designed a world.

The Problem Creating interesting events requires in depth knowledge of the setting you are running in. Localizing these kinds of thing generally mean their going to be in this setting consistently. Why? Verisimilitude That's right. It becomes difficult to make these kinds of events if you've not already drawn your players into what they perceive as a living, breathing world.

The Solution I'm going to break this down into multiple parts.

  1. Your adventuring world needs to be consistent.

If it already is than move to point 2.

If it isn't. These is the easiest problem to solve. Adventure modules can normally be bought in specific settings. This does not limit you though. You can adapt an adventure module to match your world by changing anything and everything in it. If you've built your own world you might find its simple to drop in and change just the names of locations. It may even flesh out your world for you.

  1. Detailed record keeping.

Notes... ugh... pretty sure they exist to torment me but you may feel different. Point is your going to need details, notes and records on just about everything in this consistent world of yours. A single random built NPC may become a real part of your players life if the players focus on them. You will need to know or have access to everything they have done in character. This needs interactions outcomes. You won't need a complete conversation transcript but if you improv a family connection or interesting alteration just write it down under this NPC for later fleshing.

  1. Get the players involved. Now I don't mean in the planning. Instead use things they've done to cause action in one NPC or the other.

Once you have this accomplished its time to move to planning these events out.

Planning Events that do not consist of the usual mechanics of roll than move on usually require as much attention as writing your own adventure. You've been using per made ones so I have no idea how well you can do this but if you've never written your own out than events can be an excellent starting point. Not just for learning to write your own adventure but if you excite the characters with your little side moment they might latch on and wish to keep following a path you have not even cleared yet.

The event will need to be either open ended with no clear solution, a quick side quest that could take 10 minutes to an hour or more or else a closed event that has a clear cut solution.

Don't look at these as aspects of an adventure. Nearly guidelines so you don't detract from the main story if you don't plan to.

Your event can range in design from an encounter with a small goblin hunting party up to dealing with random npc madness. Save traders from devil attacks or chase a thief. Remember the mechanics you hand wave generally are done so for more reasons than intimidation. Who cares about the rolls required to travel across a low lying plain. When neither the story or the DM have any plans for these moments, throwing out the rules is fine. Don't even make the characters roll or better yet skip it. But once you have an idea, go with it. Best to use these momenta for fun toppers. Quick encounters. Short battles or stalling.

If you want make multiple events. Can roll from a table. But remember you need to personally set these things up.

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I think of downtime as a great way to help players develop their characters and for me as GM to flesh out the larger world and help the story along.

Character and Party Development

Characters will all have something that provokes reactions, negative or positive, to downtime situations. For example, a town on the border between Dwarven and Orcish territory might be a curiosity to a human character, a source of pride for a Dwarf ("We keep the Orcs at bay so you all can lounge about in peace"), and a nerve-wracking place for a half-Orc. Playing up the aspects of a downtime setting can help players plant their characters more firmly in the game world and feel more immersed in it.

This can extend to little bits of flavor you can build around player character interests. The cleric who loves rye ale drags the other characters to a pub reputed to have the best stuff in town. That part of the cleric's personality is know no longer just some words on paper – all the player characters know that about him, and the group is now gaining more cohesion from exploits other than dungeon delving. If there's a big brawl because the drunk cleric insulted an annoying monk, it might be worth indulging in a bit of cliché in order to give the group that bonding experience.

World and Story Development

The world is always in motion, and all sorts of things are going on around the player characters. Even if they're Really Important People, their stories aren't the only ones of importance. In particular, giving the players a sense of the day-to-day activities in the game world as well as the broad sweep of history can help bind them to the setting. If there's a war in the East, not only does wine cost more, it affects people far away – "Those damned Lizardmen! Not only are they killing folk, I can't buy a good glass of red without selling everything I own to pay for it!"

I find it particularly helpful to sprinkle bits of conversation like this into common downtime experiences like equipment purchasing, getting healed up at the temple, and finding a night's lodgings. Not only does it make these experiences less mechanical, it gives you the opportunity as GM to sprinkle in information, rumor, and disinformation. Provided you do enough of it, players will understand that not every piece of news you relay to them is intended as an adventure hook, and not every bit is reliable. This will help you later when you do want to give them an adventure hook, because you can tie it in to information you provided them during down time, and it will feel more natural than if it came from out of nowhere.

Prepping

You don't have to put much effort into downtime, as long as you have some quick notes about the locale they're in, what's going on in the larger world, and a handful of NPCs. Ex:

Dust Bog used to be an imperial fort many decades ago, but after the empire fell it slowly became a rundown, dusty trade town, nothing but a stop on the road to the coast. It lies right on the border between dwarven and orcish territory, but never seems to get attacked. Dwarves, orcs, and all others are welcome, but anyone who fights in town for any reason shall not be allowed back, and all members of their extended family will be barred permanently as well.

The dwarves to the east are fighting a prolonged campaign against the lizardmen of the Eastern Marshes, which is driving up the price of wine, dwarf-forged metals, and salt, all of which are imported from dwarven lands. Rumors suggest that the orcs may take advantage of the dwarves' fight with the lizardmen, but any orc will vigorously deny this.

  • Mert Groevner looks like Rush Limbaugh and owns the biggest inn in town. He runs the bar and has been mixing the wine with grape juice and rubbing alcohol. He pours a couple of glasses of the real wine for a customer before shifting to his nasty cost-saving concoction. He dislikes orcs and half-orcs, will try to get an extra copper out of any guest he can, and is full of rumors. In particular, he might tell the player characters a story that the dwarven prince Boldhammer was abducted not long ago by a lizardman war party.

  • Jessafaer Groevner is Mert's sister. She's redheaded, short, and freckled. Jessafaer dislikes her brother intensely. She's also the town constable, and she spends a fair amount of time in his inn, trying to make sure he doesn't fleece customers and give the town a bad name. She's not a warrior, but by way of a magical amber amulet, she can telepathically call the five members of the town watch to her aid. Jessafaer thinks Mert's story about Boldhammer's abduction is a lie spread by orcs.

  • Cux Nettleborn is a thin, tall albino from the distant south. He speaks in a thick accent, is very friendly, and happens to run a small but well-regarded establishment that serves excellent rye ale. The place is packed these days because good wine is costly and good rye ale gets you drunk just as fast. Cux enjoys the company of both dwarves and orcs, and is known as a skilled negotiator. Cux thinks the real Boldhammer story is that he went AWOL on a mission, and the dwarven ruling family is trying to cover it up with this abduction story.

Sometimes downtime can be light and inconsequential, and sometimes it can be more than that. If the players don't know which downtimes will be calm and which will have more excitement, they'll see it as something to look forward to, rather than just a bridge between "real" adventures.

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