Friday, July 31, 2020

Fifth Edition Downtime

I'm running a new 5E campaign in quarantine, and I'm trying not to get ahead of myself. But I'm also finally reading Matt Colville's Strongholds and Followers and I'm pleasantly surprised. It's very tempting to go all in and use. Demesne/domain level play is something I've always really wanted to try but I've never had the chance. I've never played more than a session or two of the oldest D&D editions (back when demesne play was just an assumption of the game) and even then, only as a low-level murderhobo. I've read some of the rules for getting castles and whatnot from BECMI and I'm not crazy about the old system. But the idea is really cool to me.

Actually, just doing a lot more downtime play is something I want a good experience trying. I think in my mind, it is one of the biggest elements that makes me really think of a game as a "campaign" rather than a bunch of one-shots strung together. I do, after all, basically just play a bunch of mostly-unrelated miniseries of dungeoncrawls and mysteries. I've never fleshed out a sandbox world that my players have the freedom to invest in easily. One of the things that makes downtime play really sing is a well-realized world full of potential. I tend to design isolated scenarios, but for a player to feel inspired to delve into the world and start moving mountains and making their impact feel real, they need a place that's got some jen-yu-wiiine verisimilitude.

This has been one of my design goals for Brave, and so far it's going fantastic. But I even want to try it for 5E as well. Like, I might even be able to trick my players into liking the Forgotten Realms if they get really invested. So read on for some bizarre ideas about how I might achieve this.

For this campaign, I already decided to do milestone leveling. But because it's a sandbox, it's gunna be more of a "for every 3-4 quests you complete, you level up" basis. Still not linear or scripted story beats or anything. And to try to implement downtime play early on, I set the rule that, "once you hit a milestone and qualify to level up, you still don't actually finish the job and gain the benefits until you've taken some time off from adventuring." You have to spend a number of days in downtime equal to the level you are gaining. For example, to reach 4th level, the PCs will have to spend 4 days in downtime. I plan to give them a fat-ass list of suggested activities to still stay productive during that, mostly taken from the DMG and Xanathar's Guide to Everything. And I'm hoping they get into that kinda stuff enough that they begin coming up with their own activities and gain some ambitions and might even voluntarily take days/weeks off just so they can gain the benefits of some of those downtime activities (e.g. doing research on their next quest so they're more prepared going in).

Well, reading Strongholds and Followers and thinking about demesne-level play and controlling regions of people and armies and whatnot, I'm now thinking that these are events that should probably play out over the course of months. And if, say, in the time it takes to raise an army, the PCs decide to kill time going out dungeoncrawling... I bet that they could get through a fuckload of dungeons. Like, I feel like some of the demesne stuff needs to be involved for the PCs, and that the easiest way to encourage them to invest in that is to "force" downtime on them with the leveling system. But even their maximum level is only going to ask of them 20 days off.

...So I had a weird idea. I'm just spitballing, I haven't taken a serious gander at the classes and whatnot to compare against this. But what if the rate of leveling changes in each tier. I think 5E has 4 tiers (levels 1-5, 6-10, 11-15, 16-20). The first thought I had was, "first tier takes that many days, second tier takes that many weeks, third tier takes that many months, and fourth tier takes that many years." Then I thought, "fuck, going from levels 16 to 20 would require 90 fucking years. 16 years + 17 years + 18 years + 19 years + 20 years = 90). So yeah, even if I think Pendragon is badass and I love that idea, that's a bit much.

Second try: the numbers always go "1, 2, 3, 4, and 5" but the unit just changes. So in tier 1, each level takes 2 days, 3 days, 4 days, then 5 days (you already start at level 1 so don't worry about that). But at tier 2, it takes 1 week, then 2 weeks, then 3 weeks, etc. So for tier 4, it would be 1 year, then 2 years, then 3 years, etc. That feels a lot more sensible.

I don't imagine most people, at first glance, would like this at all, but think about some of the implications. I like the idea that unlocking the 9th-level spell slot takes two years of research and focus. That learning how to cast Wish requires that you really spend some time trying to unlock the secrets of the universe. Plus, you know, it's always just been kinda weird that you can go from levels 1-20 in about a month if you just adventure non-stop. I do want it to take years of hard work to get there, and I think the sorts of things that qualify as "quests" in tier 3 should take a lot more effort and downtime-preparation than the quests in tier 1.

Again, I'm just spitballing here. But I'll be thinking further on it because this is one of my weirder ideas I've had in a while.



  1. first .... sorry I'm so late to the party. Just FOUND you this week.
    second ..... not a fan of the "training to advance a level." I prefer to think of XP's as on-the-job training. But I DO like this idea. Thinking of combining and running the time clock from the time they START a level. Example: when a character hits 3rd lvl four days of game time need to elapse before they can advance to 4th. If they hit 5th lvl a week needs to expire, etc. Reduces the down time but still brings home the work involved.

  2. Wowzers, this is a blast from the past. One of those posts I kinda just forgot about.

    First, thanks for reading and commenting! Second, I basically agree. This was written at a time when I was still trying really hard to reshape 5E D&D to look more like OD&D. I still play 5E, and I still include some OSR-ish houserules, but this is one seems like me just overthinking stuff at the time. Most of what I wanted to achieve with this was much more elegantly attainable with Gritty Realism, which I have a pretty post about if you're interested.