Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Downtime Thoughts, Part 1

Downtime is a part of the game where players continue to act. It is the 'off screen' section of the game, something that happens but isn't shown. It is not used in all games, but is common in political games, most notably the Minds' Eye Theatre games Vampire: the Masquerade and Requiem, both of which have dedicated subsystems.

Passion Play also contains a brief downtime system, which runs as follows:
"Due to time constraints, players might not be able to finish everything within a game that they need to do. In that case, players can turn in a list of actions they would like their character to perform between game sessions."
To be honest, that's not as in depth or thought out as I'd have liked - hence this essay.

The first thing is to ask "what are downtimes supposed to do?"

Let's try a few answers:
  • Downtime provides interaction between players while the game is off. Given that LARPS tend to be monthly, this is important for maintaining interest.

  • Downtime allows for a type of gaming that doesn't fit the actual LARP session, namely empire-building.

  • Downtime also gives players something to aim for, by giving them the time to set up long-term plots. These plots can be set up out-of-game, with the coup de grace played out in-game, for dramatic effect.

  • Downtime should be simple. I'm a GM who believes that all system calculations should be simple enough for mental arithmetic and that the use of charts is ungesund
So, given all this, what do we do? Well, the first thing to do is see what systems are already out there and what elements are steal...uh...researchable.

The obvious place to look is Vampire: the Masquerade/Requiem (I haven't played Requiem, so my understanding of it is sketchy, but bear with me).

In this system, characters can buy the Influence Background in certain areas (government bureaucracy, crime, etc.) and then spend their influence for certain actions such as furthering their plans, attacking their enemies, or to grow their influence further. They can also use servants for various functions, such as espionage.

In the Requiem system I believe the number of actions available per downtime are rationed through use of the Humanity stat, with bonuses for various skills and vampiric powers.

Either way, this system does not really translate well into Passion Play - as nobles, priests and guilders tend to claim influence in a discrete unit (a fief, company or diocese), rather than the more amorphic 'fingers in pies' form of influence used there.

That said, the actions system makes sense, although obviously the limit would have to be linked to an appropriate stat/skill, which would be Bureaucracy, with a new Metier of something like Seneschal, or some other skill defining the ability to run a fief (technically that's what the Seneschal did, but work with me here). In addition the Assets benefice suits our purposes by defining the size of the character's land and with it, income.

There is also a fief management system in the Lords & Aliens sourcebook. While it is more aimed towards roleplaying and therefore too handwavey here, the basics push in the right direction so we'll ignore the mechanics but try fit in the idea.

OK, let's make a start.

  • Characters gain a number of downtime actions equal to their Bureaucracy skill plus the Marshal metier (it sounds better than Seneschal and means roughly the same thing).

  • An alternative to this system would be to base character's actions upon their rank, representing the ranking person's power. At this point Rank only really serves for contract mechanics, so it gives it something else to do and emphasises the power of the feudal system.

  • An action can be anything from interacting with a third party (no internet or mobile phones here, so it takes time) or recruiting mercenaries, to invading an opponent's fief, hosting balls and other large-scale events.

  • The resources with which a character has to play with comes either from their territory, contracts or other RP sources. Territorial funds come from the Asset Benefice, which determines the fief's income, defence and offensive ratings (Income will have to be tweaked here, to divide by 12 months instead of by 10, as per the rulebook).

  • This Benefice will also be expanded to suit the system - each fief gains a defensive and offensive rating based on the size, representing the forces available to defend it. Other elements will be introduced, such as the ability to bid for mercenary contracts, with Mercs having their own stats. Other Benefices will also be thought up, such as the ability to build defences and recruit other assets, such as spies and assassins (think of Shogun: Total War)

  • The Ally Benefice allows the player to gift one of their actions to their ally, allowing the player to use their ally's social rank for that action.

Anyhow, those are my initial thoughts. What do others think?


  1. Thought provoking essay for a campaign larp. Coming from a MET background myself, the idea of taking the influence action system from the Dark Epics book is very tempting - but your point about the differences between the spirit of downtime actions in the two games is well taken. One aspect that could still be taken from the MET system is the idea of having varied levels of difficulty depending on the downtime action. This way the player has to make a decision about how many points from his/her Bureaucracy/Marshal tally should go towards which actions.

    Do you see a downtime system for passion play to be very minimalist (with the GM making up the results as s/he feels fit) or a mini-game into itself that everyone plays in between games? How would you handle PvP (attack/defend/evade?) in the case of minimalism and/or players that are only interested in coming to the larp and not playing a mini-game in between events?

    You mention empire building as a potential downtime activity. Out of curiosity, have you seen the system that Sneezing Lizards put together for this. Their website appears to have been down for a while, but here are a couple of links from

    In addition to empire building, do you have any thoughts on item creation / merchant trade systems?

    Another interesting downtime activity that wasn't necessarily a part of the rules in MET, but was in the Grapevine character database program, was a Rumor systems where the GM assigned different rumors depending on the level of influence you had in an area (ie. higher level could get more details). Is this something that might fit into your downtime system?

    Do you think the existing contracts, 20-questions, and taskmastering systems have a place in downtime activities? 20-questions might be a neat fit into a rumor system, but I wouldn't be sure which would be more appropriate for some of the other downtime activities.

    Great blog! I look forward each entry.

  2. Oooh, lot's of questions, so I'll go slowly. I haven't had much time since I posted, due to having more projects to hand in, but I'll try...

    First of all, I very much like your idea of action tally costs based on difficulty - it's probably more elegant than the other idea I had afterwards of making actions cost time, with the Seneschal tally being spent to reduce action times.

    My vision for downtime is something like a simple minigame that would only cover certain gross actions like raiding others' assets or improving your own fiefs - much like a simple computer Turn Based Strategy game. You get X much money and X many recruits per downtime, based on size or special assets and you can then spend it to improve what you have - defensive ramparts, anti-aircraft turrets, better mining technology, that kind of stuff. The big thing is to keep it simple - only a few characteristics any anything more complex is dealt with by the GM, and probably RP-based.

    As for protecting those less involved in downtime, that's hard to say. I don't think there is much of a way there, and I'm not particularly keen to invoke parity against those who will put in the effort because that in itself is unfair, which is why I was going to make communication a downtime action, to stop those who have the time and inclinationt o talk of nothing else from getting too far ahead.

    That said, I think the biggest force against involvement is complexity; my system will have to be simple but fluid, with variety, like the table-top Unisystem mechanics (my go-to tabletop system). Then even someone who doesn't want to bother with out of game RP still finds it easy to issue orders for their assets. It won't make up for not RPing, but it is better than nothing and, as many computer games tend to show, spending time tweaking your items and equipment is a big part of gameplay nowdays and would hopefully cause people to want to spend time on it.

    Direct PVP would be right out simply because a) it stops those less interested in downtime getting shanked and b) something that interesting should become part of the game itself!

  3. Thanks for the Sneezing Lizard stuff - I'd not come across it before and I thought I knew most of the FS fan sites!

    With trading, I think that on-world trading is pretty much already covered by the contract rules, although I suppose some kind of price list would be necessary. Fortunately, medieval economics weren't really dynamic, with many prices and taxes set by the nobles, which is good because a dynamic economy would be too complex to keep running (unless I can find a geek to write something like that for the game). Off-world trade is far more interesting though, because there are only so many jumpkeys granted by the guild and only so many noble/church charters for trading goods grown/made on their lands. Beyond that, I think I want to properly read through the linked system first to see what I can incorporate.

    And yes, rumours were going to go into downtime as a Rampart newspaper (originally newspapers started as a way for nobles to keep up with court events, so it makes total sense). Hopefully I could find a PC to take the job on, just to add to the fun...

    The plan is for something one part rumours (possibly with a difficulty level in some skill or other to find out its truth) and one part factual observation to allow people to keep up even if they don't take part in downtimes ('Baron Li-Halan yet again marched his troops into the Engineer Freehold, looking for signs of aberrant technologies, but was driven off by their automated defences...').

    Contracts and Taskmastering definitely have downtime applications - I can't see why contracts can't be made for downtime actions and, without looking suspect they already are. There was something in the rulebook about tasks about downtime actions, although there's not really much to add to the basics.

    20 Questions is more difficult I think, simply because of its back-and-forth nature; interrogating an NPC wouldn't be hard, but doing it PC to PC would really require GM moderation - possibly with MSN chat CC'd emails.

    And I'm glad you're enjoying the blog as much as I do. Fortunately more of my time will be my own once the month has ended (I say most - I still have a uni blog site and internet radio station to set up for the new educational year) and I have a bunch of stuff to talk about yet.