Tuesday, 22 February 2022

Errant Deep Dive #7: Downtime

 Oops, it’s been a year since I last posted one of these. We are skipping ahead in the book, leap-frogging past The Zealot and The Occult and their respective magic schedules, as well as travel and exploration procedures, to talk about the final (and most extensive) chapter in the book: Downtime. Check out the rules at errantrpg.carrd.co to follow along!

The reason for this, specifically, is because Ben Laurence is currently Kickstarting a compilation of his original Downtime Activities blog post series, which is the main mechanical basis for Errant’s downtime system, along with Nick Whelan’s work. But really, this is just pretext, because Downtime is honestly my favourite part about Errant as a system and what I was most excited to explain in these posts, and I was really bummed I didn’t get to do that while the Kickstarter was running.


If you back modest you're a coward


To set the context for why that is, let me outline the current situation in my home Errant campaign set in Dolmenwood: the players started off in Lankshorn where, after their starting adventure (Winter’s Daughter) they got involved in the local power play between Lords Barrathwaite and Malbleat. They set up a few businesses, which were then promptly sabotaged; they hired a spy to find out who was behind this, and were informed that it was a woman by Madam Shantywood, the madam of a renowned pleasure-house and ruler of the independent territory of Shantywood Isle. After an intervening adventure, they travelled to Shantywood Isle to confront her, whereupon the Madam revealed that this had been a set-up to get them into a room with her, and offered a deal: that the party relocate their base of operations to Shantywood Isle, such that their adventuring proceeds funnel into the local economy and thereby provide resources for Madam Shantywood to grow her sphere of economic and political influnce, in exchange for her patronage (mostly related to increased partying opportunities for more XP and reduced lifestyle expenses because of provided lodging, as well as a more favourable interest rate on her debt). They spent some time doing this, mostly venturing to the nearby dungeon, before they decided to head off north to check out the nearby town of Prigwort. When they got there, they learned it was a renowned brewer’s town, and so they sought to broker a deal with the brewer’s council for a wholesale supply of booze to Madam Shantywood’s brothel; in the course of doing so, they found that both the town’s booze supply was under threat from what was thought to be kobolds (but ended up being a malevolent sentient fungus, the kobolds were chill) and that the local Lord had just died and his children gone missing (the result of a covert plot for usurpation). The party managed to be quick enough so as to narrowly deal with both problems, and for their efforts were rewarded by the local Lord with a plot of land in a northerly hex, which is currently untamed and chaos-blasted; the party’s next move is planned to be surveying and clearing that hex to begin establishing a domain there (though this may contravene the spirit of their agreement with Madam Shantywood). They’re all about level 3.


All of this happened with basically no planning or forethought on my part; it all came together as the result of one fortuitous (or unlucky, for the players) roll that happened in the second downtime turn the party took, around the 6th session of the campaign, which is the sabotage setback that happens as a result of rolling a mixed success. From there spun out pretty much the entire rest of the campaign. And this is not by accident; this is by design. The way the downtime mechanics are structured in Errant basically makes them function as an engine for generating adventure hooks, becoming both the pumping heart of the campaign events and the glue that binds them all together. If you read Ben’s Downtime in Zyan zine you’re likely to experience an eerie sense of deja vu, as he says basically the same thing, but this is something I had planned to write since last year, basically down to the word; we arrived to the same conclusion independently, I think, because anyone who spends some time actually playing with these rules will experience this effect first-hand for themselves.     


This is, I think, quite significant because while there is no dearth of downtime systems available (domain play could even be said to predate D&D qua D&D itself), most of the traditional ones end up being so complex or onerous, involving calculations of taxes and incomes and tithes and square footage of land, so as to predominate gameplay to the point of subordinating traditional adventure based play. If one prefers a phased campaign structure like traditional classic D&D, where there is a transition between the dungeon mode, the wilderness mode, and the domain mode as characters level up, each mode being characterised by a different gameplay structure, this might make sense (though even then, what tends to happen is that the campaign becomes stratified among these modes, with players having characters at every phase, and thus the domain level play tends to need its own special time to occur, whether that be specific domain sessions or as inter-session homework for players/referees). But I, and I would wager most modern players, prefer a variety/smorgasboard/masala style campaign, where each of these elements is present in varying proportions throughout the campaign length, with dungeon style adventuring remaining the focus. 


As well, in traditional gold-for-xp campaigns players tend to amass wealth so quickly that the question of why they would continue to adventure becomes ridiculous in the face of the diegetic logic that they could just retire and run a bakery; and when players are allowed to open their bakeries, both the low-risk and simple pleasure of it, and the fact that there isn’t any structure to facilitate the running of the bakery thus requiring the logistics to be handled on a sort of detail-by-detail basis, threaten to turn Dungeons & Dragons into Danishes & Donuts. Which is a fine game and all to play, but not the one I signed up for. I want to allow my players to make meaningful investments in the world without the game becoming a bean-counting or business-management simulator.


Ben and Nick’s systems, with their abstracted turn structure and generally simplified accounting, go a long way on their own to reducing the overhead downtime exerts on play, but there’s a few things Errant does that I think facilitate this even more. The lifestyle rule, which sees an errant’s remaining money halved at the end of their downtime turns, in addition to simplifying book-keeping, solves the accumulation problem and keeps an incentive to adventure. In addition, it encourages players to spend, waste, and invest all their money so that they still gain some value from it, rather than it being removed with nothing to show for it; the net effect of keeping the players cash-strapped is preserved, but the players become more invested in the game world. 


The fact that the downtime structure proceeds such that players spend fixed amounts of money (on buying equipment and investing in businesses/training/etc.) before proceeding to a phase where they waste a random amount of money often means that they will end up wasting more money than they actually have; this nets them extra XP, but puts them in debt, essentially allowing players to level up on credit. But the debt rules mirror the lifestyle rules, with debt doubling at the start of every downtime turn, which prevents them from gaining any XP; this tends to light a fire under the ass of players to go adventure and get enough money, and tends to push them to take bigger risks going deeper into dungeons than they usually would, while the power bump they got from their “credited” XP usually means that they just barely have the capacity to take such risks. (I discussed these two rules in a previous deep dive somewhat).


The other factor that keeps the focus on adventure is an innovation that resulted from the admixture of Ben’s 2d6 downtime rolls and Nick’s complications table from the haven turn hazard die. For several activities, but most notably improving an institution, in Ben’s system, a mixed success of a 7-9 indicates a setback that requires the completion of a task (generally understood as an adventure) to resolve before that activity can be completed; in the case of institutions this also renders the players unable to benefit from the institutions benefits until the setback is resolved. This dovetails nicely with my waste rules, so I specified that such setbacks grant XP to the players when they happen; I then adopted the 2d6 structure Nick uses for encounter tables for the downtime complications table, so that I could make the result of 7 automatically trigger a setback for one of the player’s projects. This means that about 5% of the time (closer to 3% but let's round up to nice d20-based numbers) the game itself will proc an event that both passively rewards XP to players without requiring an action or resource to be spent, which incentivizes them to make such investments so that it can pay dividends so to speak, but also by its very nature spawns an adventure hook. The rest of the downtime complications table also in general create hindrances to what the players may normally want to do during a downtime turn, which is why downtime turns are structured so that the event die is rolled before player actions, allowing them to “suspend” the downtime turn so they can go on an adventure to remove the complication. This mechanic, and also the fact that I expanded the “on a mixed success, go an adventure” to be on almost every downtime activity (Ben and I differ slightly in this regard, he prefers to reserve the rolls that have mixed successes a bit more judiciously) means that the game will constantly be generating adventure hooks for the party to capitalise upon. 


The other results of the downtime event die serve to prevent the game world from becoming staid, by introducing prompts that make the game world change dynamically, much like random encounters do at the wilderness and dungeon level. This also introduces spaces for collaborative worldbuilding, as downtime offers a space outside of the challenge-based gameplay of exploration, and so allows for more “white space” where the DM can share authorial control; a prompt of “a new NPC arrives in town” is a chance for the DM and players to collaboratively work on adding to the setting. Other mechanics such as accounting for the presence, movement, and activities of rival adventuring parties, long-term campaign threats/BBEGs, and factions are all mechanically pinned to downtime turns and the downtime event die, allowing all of these factors to neatly coalesce around a singular mechanic rather than having to manage them all in turn. This provides the DM great latitude in allowing for the machinations, conspiracies, and agendas of all manner of world powers and secret societies into their game without great burden. It also means that when the players ascend to that stage themselves, they will be slipping into an already pre-existing structure designed to facilitate their desires, like a pair of already broken-in shoes.


In general, the way downtime turns integrate what is generally considered high-level domain play from the very start of the campaign is something that I find incredibly rewarding. It really makes sandbox play cohere on a structural level. Before I implemented downtime turns, I would always have players who had ambitions like starting a revolution or founding a cult or somesuch, which is I think ideal in a sandbox campaign; you wanted players to have self-directed motivation for interacting with the game world and the various powers in it. Hell, The Zealot class basically directly incentivizes players to spread their religion far and wide. But I never had a way to deal with these ambitions that felt satisfying; again, I could resort to dealing with it on a nitty-gritty, detail-by-detail pace at the level of adventure play, or I could just sort of hand-wave it as a reward for doing a given quest, but neither ever felt really satisfying or meaningful, either taking up too much time or kind of agency robbing. As a player I’ve also been in campaigns where I had such goals but would quickly become burnt out on such characters as there was never any game phase where I could handle the advancement of those goals in an abstract level, and so would have to basically always be “on” in terms of recruiting NPCs one by one, managing transactions one by one, etc. Which is a bummer, because those characters are the most rewarding and fun to play, but invariably I would retire them in favour of playing a simpler character who just wants to fight-n-loot.


There’s a lot of functions in downtime turns that also scale and metamorphose into something new as players advance in level. For example, the Supply/Inflation mechanics, which at low levels is there to sort of gate player access to resources like torches, healing kits, armour, etc. at high levels becomes more about managing region-wide inflation as the players undertake the economically taxing work of supplying an expedition for clearing and settling domains and building castles/estates. The progression of settlement types from hamlet to metropolis then also tie in to activities in downtime like setting up institutions and domains (i quite enjoy how there’s almost a step-by-step order for building up a domain from scratch, progressing from expedition to building an estate, setting up a settlement, then a loop in which institutions allow settlements to expand which then allow institutions to expand, with the domain-kingdom level also being added to the loop at a certain point).


Mechanically, the downtime turn essentially functions as another level of “rest” above and beyond the 10 minute dungeon rest or the night’s sleep at the travel level, with the “full HP/exhaustion” restore being pegged at the downtime level (armour restore at the dungeon rest level, and partial HP/exhaustion restore at the travel level). It also creates a little binary between the travel rest classes (The Violent/Occult) whose abilities are hard-coded and resources restore on a night’s rest, and the downtime rest classes (The Deviant/Zealot) whose abilities are soft-coded and resources restore on a downtime rest. It also functions as a “speedbump” moment to deal with all the little things like shopping, socialising, paying retainers, receiving bonuses from institutions, and so on. I think of it almost as equivalent to something like the upkeep/untap phase in Magic: The Gathering.


Because of that mechanical function, along with providing the opportunity to take campaign level actions, downtime turns are a resource that players are generally going to want to take advantage of. This solves the issue many campaigns have of functioning in “Die Hard time” where they’re rushing from target to target, quest to quest, with many significant events happening in a compressed amount of time. Especially, I like to keep them at the level of a “month” because it gives the campaigns the same quality as many picaresque stories like those of Fafhrd & The Gray Mouser or Conan where we follow their adventures over a scope of time, usually with little preambles at the beginning that set the context of what the characters were doing in their off-time between adventures. It also allows the feeling of the deepening of character relationships over time, as in-game time will start to align to real-world time (if you play weekly and take a downtime turn every 3-4 sessions). You get to have cool “getting the band back together” sessions, and if you allow your players to take several downtime turns in a row (say if they take the winter off of adventuring), then you could feasibly start to enter into generational play territory for some characters. Its important to balance downtime turns a little bit, where you generally want to ration out a downtime turn per 2-4 sessions of adventuring, but the lifestyle and debt rules tend to end up self-regulating for players who take too many downtime turns anyway.


On a purely “game-feel” level, I find that the downtime turn tends to make the game feel structurally complete. It slots into the action economy of travel/explore/fight quite well, forming a pleasing chiasmus where there are two turn lengths at a more ‘abstract scale’ (downtime/travel) and two turn lengths at a more ‘concrete scale’ (exploration/initiative), and also two turns where actions are taken at the party level (travel/exploration), and two where they are taken at the PC level (downtime/initiative). 


There’s a lot of sources that served secondary influences or reference points for the downtime system as I’ve developed Errant that I think are worth checking out. These include Leback’s Into the Wild, Crawford’s An Echo Resounding, Metzger’s The Nightmares Underneath, Cocking and William’s Beyond The Wall: Further Afield, Diaz Torres’ “Playing Cute”, Kutalik’s article on “Pendragon Epic-Time”, Gundobad Games’ “Simpler Downtime” series, and Manola’s “Meet the New Boss” post.

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Also, I’d like to take this chance to plug a bunch of ZiMo projects apart from Ben’s zine. I would be remiss not to mention Barkeep on the Borderlands, which is a pleasing mirror-reflection of what I’ve been talking about in the way that it turns a traditional downtime activity (carousing) into something played at the adventure level. There’s also going to be a tonne of content in there applicable to more traditional downtime style carousing as well. Also ya girl is an editor and guest writer on the project.





Friend of the blog and contributing artist for Errant Lazy Litch is also running a Kickstarter, completing his zine trilogy of Willow and The Haunted Hamlet with The Toxic Wood. I’ve known Litch longer than anyone else in the RPG scene; we started as accountability buddies while he was working on Willow and I was still developing Errant (yes, he has literally lapped me twice in terms of releases). As a result, I’ve gotten to see an in-depth look at his maturation as an artist and designer, and with no hyperbole every project he does is better than the last. Check this one out.





Finally, there are a few ZiMo projects that are itchfunding right now which I’ll also be editing. These definitely need more love, as breaking off of Kickstarter is really hard.


Emiel Boven is starting the first issue in a series of zines called The Electrum Archives, which will Vaults of Vaarn-style detail a science-fantasy setting of Orn. I previously worked with Emiel on editing DURF and its associated adventure Lair of the Gobbler, as well as him contributing some art for Errant, and everything he does absolutely oozes personality.





The inimitable Evlyn Moreau needs no introduction in the old-school zine. She’s writing a delightfully uncomfortable scenario for Liminal Horror called The Potato King, about an eldritch god who is being unwittingly fed to the inhabitants of a small town via a fast food stand. Besides the merits of the adventure itself, Evlyn is one of the kindest and most generous folks I know in this scene, and I’d love to see her get more support. Oh, she also illustrated the delightful naked mole rat people in Downtime in Zyan, whose majestic bepises were unjust censored by the overlords of the bird site.





Finally, there’s SageDaMage’s city supplement of Discordantopia for Pulka and Troika. Everything I’ve seen of the art work and writing has been stellar so far, so if you're a fan of weird science fantasy I recommend checking it out!



5 comments:

  1. A couple things stand out for me here. One is The use of a campaign events die roll conveyed at the start of downtime—I do that too and it works really well. Another thing that stands out is your rule of losing half your spent money each downtime, which fits the vibe of Errant beautifully. It would really light a fire under players to spend money on downtime or otherwise burn it. In general I think cost of living rules are good and this is the most elegant and hardcore one I’ve seen.

    About mixed rolls for everything, I think the question there is how central you want downtime to be in terms of creating adventure seeds for the gameplay loop. I think that’s sort of like a dial you can kind of set at different places corresponding to how often complications come up. If you want a game where a LOT of the adventuring comes from player’s then pervasive mixed results are great. If you want the adventuring to have it’s center of gravity in some other campaign premise then you may want a lower setting on the dial.

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    1. I fully agree. This might specifically be a me problem, but my players can be wusses and chicken out from adventures halfway thru, so what I usually do is I tie the setback from a mixed result to some already extant dungeon or quest keyed in a hex or somewhere to ensure that they "complete" it so to speak.

      You can also change the dial on how onerous those tasks to resolve the mixed success is, it might just be a quick little thing they can do en route to an adventure, like one of those little check list items in open world games.

      I'm usually ok with including them on everything because they show up as a result of a player-initiated action, which means that if there's a task in need of resolution the player is generally already invested cause its tied to a goal. And it makes my life way easier as a GM lol.

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  2. I've lately been working on rules for a Domain Turn, and using Errant's Downtime Turn as a primary reference. It's just straight-up a more refined version of what I did with Brendan's Haven Turn that there's no real reason for me to reference my own previous work. :)

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    1. I used to print out your blog posts and take them to work so I could reference them while I developed my Downtime system in my spare time :)

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