|Art from Battle Chasers by Joe Madureira|
Tell me if this seems familiar. A party of low level adventures embark on an epic quest. They are young but plucky and decide to take on the world. Eventually, they become pinnacles of their respective classes, with the power to reshape the futures of kingdoms! But there is something odd about them. It has only been 3-4 years of “in-game” time and they have spent all of that time adventuring. Despite their vast power to affect the world they are not really tied to the world. They have no homes and no real goals in life other than seeing how much a random wizard in a bar is willing to offer them explore the next dungeon or slay the next dragon.
This is because most D&D games move from adventure to adventure at a breakneck pace. In many ways this makes sense. After all, the adventure is the exciting part and the players have limited time. Nobody wants to spend a whole game session where fighter is running that bar he always wanted to own, the wizard is researching a new spell, or the cleric is tending to the poor.
However, D&D 5E includes an underutilized mechanic that can help with this: downtime! First mentioned in chapter 8 of the Player’s Handbook, this often ignored or misunderstood mechanic is further expanded upon in other supplements, notably the Dungeon Master’s Guide and Xanthar’s Guide to Everything
Most D&D 5E games I have been in completely ignore the downtime mechanic. Even when I have seen it used, it seems to be used somewhat begrudgingly. “Oh, you want to sell a magic item?” DM checks the DMG. “Oh, it looks like that is a downtime activity? Er, so I guess everyone sits around for a few days? And you make a roll? Well, it looks like after three days you find someone willing to pay one-quarter price. I guess you can keep looking for a buyer. Er, lets just say you found someone.”
The reason for this awkwardness in using downtime is that most DMs don’t include built in downtime in their campaigns. So when a player wishes to do something that would logically happen during downtime, it intrudes on the natural flow of the game. It doesn’t have to be this way though.
Imagine a different scenario where the DM tells the group at the beginning that there will be substantial downtime breaks between the major adventures. So maybe that wizard in a bar recruits the group to explore a dungeon. That takes several sessions and once the dungeon has been explored, the DM lets his players know it will be four months until the next “call to adventure occurs”, so be aware that they will have four months of lifestyle expenses and four months of downtime activities to present at the start of the next session.
Now imagine Bob the Fighter. His player decides Bob lives a modest lifestyle, which means he burns about 1 GP / day. If Bob does nothing during those four months he will be down about 120 GP. Bob’s player decides he doesn’t want to be out that gold just because time has passed, so he decides he worked as a bartender earning 1 GP / day. Nice and simple.
However, we have now established that Bob tends bar when he is not adventuring. That means he probably knows NPCs that work in the bar and they could potentially be used as plot hooks in future adventures. It also ties him to the town in a way that he wouldn’t be if we chose to ignore downtime entirely.
This is only the tip of the iceberg. Even just sticking to official WOTC books, there are downtime rules for things like volunteering at a church, scribing scrolls, doing crimes, and other activities which have unique rewards beyond covering your living expenses. Maybe next time downtime comes up Bob’s player decides he isn’t happy just breaking even and decides Bob will spend some of that downtime gambling in hopes of making a little extra gold.
When downtime is used well, it can really give a more lived in sense to the world. Bob the Fighter isn’t just a murder hobo; He is a bartender at the Cranky Goat who also spends some weekends gambling at the docks. It can make the world feel lived in, just by making your players answer a few questions about what they are doing when they aren’t slaying dragons.