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