Dungeon Mastering 101: Using Downtime

It has been a harrowing series of sessions with many desperate battles and a nearly overbearing level of anxiety as the party rushes to prevent disasters and vanquish their foes. At last, the adventure’s villain has been defeated and the spoils of war claimed by the intrepid heroes. Exhausted from their ordeal, the players need to recharge. Fortunately, this is an easy aspect of the game to handle with downtime.

In this article, we’ll take a look at how to maximize this aspect of your game, ensuring that it is meaningful and productive for everyone.

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What Is Downtime?

Downtime is generally that time during a campaign when the party is between adventures, is waiting on other developments, or is generally not out and about getting themselves into situations of mortal peril. It provides time for players to buy supplies, conduct research, craft items, or just generally take a break from the hectic life of adventuring. It is also a tool to help manage the campaign pacing, stretching out the sequence of events to give more time for the story to develop or providing a much needed breather episode to give the party a reprieve from the constant action.

This doesn’t mean that downtime in your game has to be filler. In fact, a downtime session can be one of the most important in your campaign if you use this time to sow the seeds of future adventures. Some methods of achieving this can be found below.

TIP: If you give your players notice about upcoming downtime, they will have more opportunity to think ahead about what they want to do with it. If you still find that they’re indecisive about what activities to pursue, don’t be afraid to remind them what services are available in the town as well as mention some outstanding concerns that they could use this time to resolve.

Establish Connections

The PCs aren’t the only people in the world, and downtime provides a special opportunity to rub shoulders with important connections in the area. The Downtime Revisited section in Xanathar’s Guide to Everything offers two ways to introduce important NPCs: contacts and rivals.

Contacts are gained through the Carousing downtime activity as characters schmooze with individuals of different social classes. Perhaps a disaffected noble from a well-established mercantile family was pleased to find a kindred spirit in a PC who flaunted decorum at a formal banquet (upper class). A notoriously fickle wizard with a collection of rare tomes containing important lore might show her appreciation when an observant PC notices that her lunch at the cabaret has been poisoned (middle class). A guard captain who is investigating a series of disappearances in town might become indebted to a PC who forgives his gambling debt (lower class).

Rivals are generally antagonists to the party. They needn’t be evil; they may simply have an opposing agenda or a grudge with the party that is based on a misunderstanding. When used creatively, rivals can be excellent sources of new quests. A corrupt senator whose contraband shipment was seized due in part to the actions of the party might blackmail them (through a proxy, of course) into performing a service as restitution, inadvertently putting them in the path of an old enemy. A guard captain suspicious of the party (specifically, the street urchin rogue who was a romantic rival over a childhood sweetheart) might question them about the disappearance of a friendly NPC the party didn’t know to be missing, introducing them to a new plot hook in the campaign.

Share Important Lore

This use of downtime works best when the DM limits the availability of information that can be learned through regular Intelligence checks. While it may be difficult to tell the bard with expertise in Arcana who rolled 25 on his check that he doesn’t know the answer to something, it’s important to remember that it’s the DM who determines what information is available as general knowledge, and sometimes it’s best to avoid sharing critical information to preserve the drama and build the mystery. (The trick in this situation is to simply say, “You don’t recognize it”, as opposed to asking for a roll that would never succeed.)

Remember that learning about lore doesn’t have to come from the party seeking out Ye Olde Library and poring over stacks of dry tomes. The party might be directed to an old historian to sell some of their plunder, who informs them the amulet they recovered from the secret room in a country villa bears a symbol of local significance—something once used by a demonic cult thought to have been exterminated thirty years ago. Alternatively, they might be enjoying a meal at the tavern when a minstrel delivers a creative adaptation of a local legend that is an important clue for the next stage of the adventure.

TIP: To help keep track of what lore the party has learned, prepare a few flashcards with brief summaries to be handed out when the party comes across important information. They can refer back to it later and you don’t have to worry about remembering what information you’ve already shared and what information is left to be discovered. 

Develop Subplots

A tried-and-true method to make your world feel more organic is to include multiple subplots in your campaign. Almost every television series, novel, or movie nowadays has more than one plot thread which intertwines with the others to shape the narrative. Often enough, the B-plot turns out to be the true A-plot, or at least the foundation for the final arc of the series.

During downtime, subplots can take the form of noncombat sidequests that tie back to the larger trajectory of the story (or stories). Perhaps they are centred on one character’s backstory, or perhaps they are the consequences of the party’s actions earlier in the campaign. What’s important is that they build up the story, showing the wider effects of the plot the characters are focused on resolving.

Important information the party needs to find may be contained in a tome that was ‘lost’ while out on loan to a snivelling acolyte of a dark cult who is easily intimidated into revealing all he knows, limited though it is, allowing the party to proceed with the ‘main quest’. Or maybe a business the party frequents is at risk of defaulting on a substantial loan they obtained from a noble family that is suddenly calling in many of their debts, unless the party can ingratiate themselves with the family enough to learn the debts are being called to cover for the disruption of operations in one of the family’s most profitable mines (now under the control of the campaign’s main antagonist) and offer to resolve the disruption, gleaning more of their enemy’s operation (as well as possibly securing an extention—or even forgiveness—of their friend’s loan).

Putting It All Together

Downtime doesn’t have to be unproductive. While meant to offer a change of pace to the intense, dramatic lifestyle that is usually the focus of an adventurer’s life, there are many ways to allow the party to engage with the world and further the story while effectively loafing around town. More so than other parts of the game, downtime is an opportunity to show the campaign world to be organic and responsive to the events that unfold—and thereby, of course, to the actions of the party. It’s a different experience, but one that can be extremely rewarding and enjoyable to both the DM and the players.

Do you have tips and tricks for using downtime to advance the plot? Share your comments below!

2 thoughts on “Dungeon Mastering 101: Using Downtime”

  1. I like the post. Downtime is an underestimated ressource. I want to address something I feel like the article is missing as well as my own experiences.
    I feel like you describe that Downtime is useful, but what is Downtime other than “generally not out and about”? Is Downtime the hours you spend in the local inn for one day or is it complete seperations between adventures and may be 1 year? In the DMG Downtime is mainly focused on as being the time between adventures, but an adventure may last a year in real time. In that case Downtime will feel out of place and maybe the players don’t actually know what to do with it and you as the DM end up explaining all their options…

    I feel like Downtime NEEDS to be incorperated INTO your adventure. Create specific time-related narratives, for example waiting for the full moon to perform a specific ritual, which only occurs once per month or an incoming army will arrive in 7 days, WHAT DO YOU DO?

    I dislike the options that are solely focused on the gameplay aspect, for example Xanathar’s describing “Carousing” as a gameplay feature instead of making it a roleplay aspect.

    If you want to have a continual, fluent and roleplay based experience I strongly suggest implementing these features as roleplay aspects. You should never “roll to get information” or go to the bartender and have him spill tons of exposition.

    This is obviously my own opinion and to give you an example of how I did it:
    The heroes of four are currently exploring the capitol of Mintarn after being sent as spies for Waterdeep to investigate the death of the Mintarnian prince. After being outlawed by the city as a part of the Thieves Guild they find one of their former friends spying on them and by pure luck they chase him down. He refused to tell them anything and will rather die. He does not expect the Zone of Truth being forced on him and he explains how Waterdeep is on it’s way with 10.000 troops ready to invade Mintarn.
    They know how long it takes for them to come and now they have to choose what to do. DOWNTIME. 7 days for the army to arrive, but it still feels like actual roleplay, even though it is, in fact, a gameplay timer ticking.
    Matt Colville has some great pointers on the use of Time in a game, if adds to the roleplay experience and immersion.

    Downtime should always be a part of your adventure, module or not. It adds time! Noone goes about and cleans dungeons, topple dictatorships and defeats liches in 5 days.

    Hope my comment is useful.
    By the way, you spelled centered as “centred”


    1. Hi Simon!

      Thanks for your comment! You make some very good points! I very much agree that Dungeon Masters need to specifically incorporate downtime into the campaign. The entire purpose of this article was to show DMs that it’s a useful aspect of the game.

      As a note, Dungeon Master’s Workshop is a Canadian operation, so we use Canadian spelling.

      the Archmage

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