Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Time Out!

For those of you wondering if I will be at DunDraCon this year, have no fear. Unfortunately, Adventures in Oz will not be there in an official capacity. It seems that real life intruded at just the wrong time and I missed the event submission deadline this year. Unofficially, if anyone wants to play Adventures in Oz, I and my adventure notes will be there and there's lots of space in the Open Gaming room.

In the meantime, I've been catching up on expanding my podcast listening to the System Mastery podcast. They review old and (best left) forgotten tabletop RPGs with a healthy dose of humor.

It should also be noted that they have a few biases and pet peeves regarding the games that they review. The one that I want to address in this post is the requirement of extensive downtime, especially with regards to healing and recovery. It was a common feature in games for quite some time and some treatments of the subject are indeed worthy of mockery (How it's discussed in the Prime Directive RPG is something of a running gag for these guys).

But it doesn't have to suck. I ran an Old School campaign for many years with all of the downtime rules switched on and that was overall a success. Here's a few tips that I've picked up from my experiences.

1) Give every player a character to play. The first time I did this was back in my Cartoon Action Hour campaign. The party was split, with only one character remaining at the site of the big set-piece battle I had devised. So I decided to give each of the players whose character was not present a temporary character to play for that battle.

For the run of my Old School campaign, each player had several characters, some of whom were in downtime at any given moment. When the characters were high enough level to attract henchmen, those henchmen were also available as alternate player characters while their main character was unavailable.

2) Make downtime worthwhile for everyone. My earliest experience here was kind of a bad one. By Third Edition D&D, most of the required downtime rules from earlier editions had fallen by the wayside, except for those required by wizards. Spellcasters still had to take time out to make magic items, like scrolls and potions, as well as to add newly acquired spells to their spellbook. So for the megadungeon game that Kris Newton ran, the party wizard tended to be something of a drag on the rest of us. It didn't help matters that we had a rival party exploring the dungeon, so whenever we took downtime, we felt the need to negotiate with the rival party to keep them out of the dungeon as well.

I had better luck running the Pathfinder version of the Castle of the Mad Archmage. By the time i got that organized, Paizo had published their book Ultimate Campaign which featured, among other things, a detailed downtime system. Now, while the spellcaster was making magic items or was otherwise holed up in their sanctum, the rest of the party has activities that they can do as well. Earning a few gold pieces, building credit with the locals, or even catching up on experience points for when the player misses a session.

3) Use downtime to provoke dramatic choices. At least some of the problematic treatment of downtime, specifically as it relates to injury, is the assumption that attempts at recovery must happen immediately after the injury. But what if there are still things to do in the adventure? The System Mastery guys suggest that the injured character must go into recovery mode immediately and the player must avoid the gaming table because their character is functionally useless.

But what if the character doesn't go immediately into recovery? While I didn't have this happen due to injury, I did have players make the choice to not take the downtime required to level up immediately in my Old School megadungeon game. Because leveling up not only takes time, it takes money in those rules. In the early levels of the dungeon, there was not a massive amount of treasure, so it did sometimes happen that a character would earn enough XP to advance in level, but not enough money in the bank to pay for the training.

In a slightly different game, that could be a dramatic choice. If the villains of the adventure are working on a timetable, the heroes will have to act quickly and decisively to thwart them, which may not leave significant time to heal up between fights. The big fictional example is the first Die Hard film (The only Die Hard film I've seen). John McClane is increasingly battered in his fights with Hans Gruber's henchmen over the course of the film and the increasing difficulties those injuries cause him are not shied away from. And since he is isolated in the building, the best he can do for healing is some improvised first aid.

The Burning Wheel RPG makes this sort of decision a little more interesting. Since skills only advance in those rules when they are used for increasingly challenging tasks, characters are encouraged to attempt more difficult things. But there are also a lot of mechanisms for making tasks easier. The result is a tension between making the task you're rolling for hard so you can advance your skill, or get lots of help so the roll is easier and you're more likely to get what you want.

When a Burning Wheel character in injured, they take wound penalties to their die rolls, making things harder until they recover. So again that tension comes into play. Do you take the time to recover and remove those penalties, or do you accept the penalties and use them to make tasks more difficult and therefore more likely to improve?

Any other thoughts on making downtime a more natural and interesting part of your game?
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