Downtime in Role-Playing Games

We all know that the Internet is full of people disagreeing. On rare occasion, that disagreement is actual civil and worth conversation. I believe that a quick little bit over Twitter between myself & the esteemed Jeff Tidball is one of those times (along with a question provided by Rich Rogers of Canon Puncture):

RyanMacklin: I wonder if I’m just tired of goal-focused RPG campaigns.

orklord: @RyanMacklin if not goal-focused RPGs, then do you want sandbox ones, or something else?

RyanMacklin: @orklord I guess I’m just tired of character exploration bring sacrificed on the altar of “plot advancement.”

jefftidball: @RyanMacklin Plot, though, is the best way to *do* character exploration, because then it’s exciting. To choose just one is to #fail.

RyanMacklin: @jefftidball I don’t always agree with that.

RyanMacklin: @jefftidball More specifically, since it’s too complex for a tweet: downtime from plot is where I see a lot of awesome exploration.

So, here’s my open reply to Jeff, in a space where I can actually talk about something in more than 140 characters.  Maybe it’ll be something even worthwhile.


Now, before I start, I will wholly admit that (a) I could be wrong and (b) maybe we’re actually talking about the same thing, only the limitations of the medium make us fill in more to the conversation that ends up being incorrect assumptions.  (I say that partly so that people who have a need to read what I say on the internet as uncharitably as possible can check that shit at the door.)

Here’s my thought: in moments of crisis, which tend to be focused around plot, we see certain sorts of character exploration — we see what people are willing to do in order to achieve something, we know how far people can go.  To draw parallels to fiction, specifically to the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica, we see what sort of calls Adm. Adama will make to save the human race, how far the various pilots will push themselves to get the kills and keep the fleet safe, how far the political leaders will go to gain & secure power, etc.

That, to me, is a given in a role-playing game.  Moments of crisis, and of conflict, are maybe even the norm.  But I have grown to see that such moments are only half of the equation — and that when all you do is crisis, conflict, plot advancement, you’re cutting off a really potent avenue of character exploration: downtime.

As I play more, I want more downtime in my games because I want to meet the character not just at moments of crisis, but at moments of calm. I know how the character reacts to some Centurions crash-boarding onto Galactica — she fights like hell.  But I don’t know what happens in the aftermath, like a wake for a downed comrade or looking in on her half-Cylon child, whatever.  Or, rather, I might know in some abstract, but I haven’t really met the character in those moments if I’m denied those moments.

By the way, as the name suggests, “downtime” isn’t meant to be all the time.  Without moments of crisis, downtime doesn’t really impact.  But you can have games that are just crisis-after-crisis or conflict-after-conflict.  My original comment is probably misleading; I should have typed out “I am tired of people turning up their nose at downtime because they think it isn’t ‘playing the game’ or doesn’t have an immediately-presentable conflict or they actually don’t care about the character as much as they want to ‘beat the GM,’ whathaveyou.”  But that goes beyond the 140 characters of Twitter, and is really only the beginning of a conversation rather than the entire thing.

In an upcoming of This Modern Death (maybe up tonight), we talk about this.  We played in a Primetime Adventures game where Shaun & Randy pushed for conflict during scenes that I, as the Producer, was looking at as downtime.  This lead to dissatisfaction overall in the game.  The conversation got heated, partly because that’s always good for “ratings” (whatever the fuck that means in the world of podcasting) but also because we had a serious clash of agenda — I value downtime as a vehicle of character exploration as much as they value plot for that.

To close with a downtime moment from BSG, there’s that one episode where everyone gets together for the no-rank boxing night.  There was no major crisis there, no major conflict.  In that episode, we got to meet the characters not when they were under the immediate threat of doom, but when they had a chance to breathe.  And what did we learn?  That the defenders of the human race need to be violent regardless of whether there are Cylons around (among other things we learned).  We would not have truly met the characters if we only saw them in crisis, because we wouldn’t have seen what they do when they can relax and let go, or what they do to process the aftermath of a crisis.

So, yeah, to me downtime is the best way to do character exploration, but for downtime to be effective, it needs to be surrounded by crisis and conflict — tools that tend to be associated with “plot advancement.”  Sacrificing downtime for more plot advancement is the quickest way for me to grow disinterested in a game, as is “ruining” downtime by engaging in conflict mechanics.

– Ryan

Edit: Nancy posted up a thread on Cultures of Play as the beginning of a response to this.


7 Responses to Downtime in Role-Playing Games

  1. Josh Roby says:

    I’m thinking the best place to respond is over on Cultures of Play, but…

    I think there’s a big difference between “moments of crisis” and “conflict,” and any really good bit of downtime still has conflict — just not crisis.

  2. Burrowowl says:

    If you really want to have a game that just jumps from crisis to crisis until reaching its conclusion (for good or ill) without pausing for any character development, you’re probably looking for a board game, not a roleplaying game. There are several on the market that can scratch this itch quite nicely.

    On the flip side of this, you can run into some pretty bad time management problems when you pursue character development in situations that do not explicitly promote group action. When you’re repelling a Centurion boarding party, it makes a lot of sense to stick together. After the toasters are spaced, the fleet has jumped, and the dust has settled, having a player character spend a bunch of time working out her complex marital and child-rearing problems in private is a sure-fired way to disengage the other players (and switching the spotlight around tends to break the mood). Tell me how much fun Starbuck’s player was having while Tyrol and Callie were doing their private soap-opera thing.

    Everything in moderation.

  3. Jeff Tidball says:

    As you suspected, I don’t think we’re too far apart on this. I’m going to write a Gameplaywright post in response, I think, when I have some time to do it correctly. But as a preview, I think this ties into what I wrote about moments of preparation and aftermath in Things We Think About Games.

  4. […] collected the tweets in question in a post on his blog and filled out his argument to suggest (paraphrasing) that moments of crisis and conflict are all […]

  5. Hey Ryan,

    I don’t like the term Downtime as it seems to suggest that downtime is not interesting time. You know how the touchy folks like to dig for the insults. Knowing this I will use weasel words, you have been warned. Anyway….

    I also don’t think the problem I “hear” you describing is downtime as much as it is scene framing. Scene framing is one of the areas you see a big difference between “Forgie” / “Indie” games and “Traditional” games. There are several reasons I think for this. Let me wander….

    We know that roleplaying is an art, or activity, that is in it’s own literary space. (Listen to Wick talk about that on my 49th episode. Pa-luug.) Roleplaying being a relatively newly codified system of expression it tends to look at other literary forms for guidance.

    What I’ve noticed is that Indie-punks tend to talk about movies when talking about roleplaying and looking for something to cast their allusions, metaphors, and fancy English class terms, onto. If you look at the way scenes are set they’re much more focused on delivering the parts of the story that matter most and moving on. Cut to the important bits, conflict, resolution, and perhaps the aftermath for important emotional or thematic scenes.

    Traditional gamers seem to always be talking about books, and plot. If you look at the classic view the Gamemaster brings the plot, setting pieces, and adversity, and the other players inhabit a point of view and respond to the situations they are thrust into as character. This kind of gaming tends not to use very strong scene framing, so much so that mentioning the term scene framing will cause confusion, it certainly took me awhile to understand the term. I call this gentle scene framing. Scene framing happens, but the cuts tend to be much smaller and more focused on accounting for everything that happens once the characters have been created and the story started. The extreme form of this has rules like travel times, and wandering encounter charts. We might detail every single boring day of the week long trip to recover the macguffin dungeon, and have one exciting night encounter during that time with Frogs who fart area effect flames for 2d6 damage per attack, no save. We might set watches and roll not to fall asleep and write poetry, or use our cooking skill to be impressive, or roleplay a dispute between the Thief-acrobat and the Paladin.

    Now getting back to the Forgie / Indie games, many of them are built on a very cognizant use of Gamism to drive play. Ron talks in his article on Gamism that Gamism is focused strongly on the situation as the center of play. Assuming he’s correct, then it follows that games that intentionally use Gamism as a support to encourage the type of play the designer intended, would be very situationally focused. The rewards are built around that. This can be very disturbing to folks who aren’t use to the type of movie cutting that goes on. Not to mention how destructive it can be to trying to inhabit the point of view of the character.

    As an exercise I can’t think how to reward the type of play you feel you are missing even though I inherently understand what you are talking about. I’ll stop now to let you get a word in edge-wise, plus work calls.

  6. Salsa says:

    Hey, I’m a moviemaker and I have also played a lot of “cinematic” games or made them cinematic with the help of my players. However, I understand your feeling. The downtime should be presented by the characters actions. So it belongs to the players will. Kinda hard of doing it in games where the plot is pushed forward by the GM and scripted events.

    Primetime Adventures allows you to have everybody bring something to the table and simply start a scene in the middle of the most bizarre (and sometimes coolest) events. One thing “conflict” is not a shouting match. A character can brood alone in his own moment of conflict and have the other players meddle on that even though they are not physically there.

    I do have other comments on that, especially, cause I do a lot of screenwriting, but I’m not going to go on and on about it. Either way, the game tells you to bring the conflict as early as possible, though you don’t need that. The term “scene” is not properly explained or used. There’s a difference between a sequence and a scene. Sometimes we do find the conflict in the middle of a sequence but not in every scene, so the conflict is a connection of the scenes.

    PTA, unfortunately, does not explain to the common player that he is allowed to roleplay a bit, conflict shows up, roleplay it, and roleplay some more after it. Now here’s the catch. Spotlight. It tells you how often you should intervene on scenes, not only who can win over who.during the card drawing.

    Anyways, I do have a lot takes on PTA, but I’ll stop here (I’m writing too much). I have played PTA a lot, so my players and I came across a lot of different difficulties, that I can imagine you guys are going through. The thing is PTA helped all of us to implement everything in every other game that we play.