Five RPG Systems With Downtime Mechanics

A painting of a sleeping soldier.

Downtime is an important concept in roleplaying games. It represents whatever time passes between adventures, whether those adventures are old-school dungeon crawls or awkward socializing on prom night. While the narrative focus may be off, PCs are intelligent beings with free will, and players will often want to do things while waiting for the next plot hook to find them. Sometimes these actions are just flavor, but other times they have important mechanical considerations.

Until recently, most systems left downtime completely in the GM’s hands, with little or no guidance on how to handle it. This can be a real problem if the system has mechanics that are mainly limited by time, like how characters in various Mage editions can cook up unstoppable rituals of death if they have a few weeks to spare. Even when there aren’t overpowered exploits to consider, it’s still a shame that so few systems pay any consideration to what the PCs do when they aren’t fighting for their lives.* Fortunately, the paradigm is changing. More and more systems are including rules to manage downtime, so let’s take a look and see how well they do.

1. Burning Wheel

The wheel and fire imagery from Burning Wheel's cover.

Burning Wheel is an exceptionally crunchy game. It has a detailed character-creation system where players receive skills and traits based on where their characters were born and what professions they pursued before taking on the life of an adventurer. Attributes are determined by how old the characters are, and there are even mechanical consequences for having birthed a child.*

Considering this abundance of crunch, it should be no surprise that Burning Wheel’s downtime rules are extremely detailed, even though they’re fairly limited in scope. Rather than provide any sort of narrative instruction for what a PC does between adventures, Burning Wheel is completely focused on how long it takes for characters to raise their attributes and skills through practice.

That sounds simple enough at first. Spend a few weeks working on your parry and riposte, increase your sword skill. But Burning Wheel would never do anything so pedestrian. Oh no, it has rules for how long each training cycle lasts based on the type of skill or attribute being practiced and how many hours per day a character must commit. This is all modified by what difficulty level of training a PC wants to undertake, of which there are three. Naturally, there are tables like this one to help you out:

A table of practice times and cycles from Burning Wheel.

If that looks complex, it is. PCs don’t just practice one thing at a time in Burning Wheel, oh no. If a player needs a routine academic test, they study 2 hours a day for 6 months. That leaves 10 whole hours each day unclaimed,* so they’ll also spend 4 hours each day getting a difficult military test, 2 hours for an easy social test… the list goes on.

Players will need spreadsheets and complex calculations to get anything useful out of this system, and therein lies the problem. Math nerds may have a lot of fun calculating the most efficient practice combinations, but most other players will get fed up and toss the whole thing out, leaving them at a major disadvantage compared to anyone who was willing to crunch the numbers.

I don’t hold with mechanics that penalize players for not wanting to do extra homework, so it’s hard to imagine using these mechanics outside of a thought experiment. Beyond the extra work, this system encourages a scenario where PCs spend their every hour in the training room rather than, say, having some kind of life, let alone any meaningful relationships. If you actually followed these rules to their natural conclusion, every character would be nothing but a meat-suited, deep-learning algorithm.

So our first entry is a bit of a bust. No need to worry – Burning Wheel is the oldest system on this list by a significant margin. Let’s see what newer entries bring to the table.

2. A Song of Ice and Fire

Robert Baratheon fighting Rhaegar Targaryen from A Song of Ice and Fire.

If Burning Wheel was super focused on how individual characters spent their time, it makes sense that a roleplaying game set in Westeros would be about grand politics. A Song of Ice and Fire’s downtime rules come in the form of its house-management system. First, the players build their noble house as part of character creation, and then they decide what it does during play. They might start work on a new castle, invite more common folk to farm their land, or even wage war.

At first, this all seems fairly simple. The lord of the house only needs to choose one action per “turn,” which is about a month of in-universe time. So while there’s always the possibility that a lot of downtime might pass, requiring multiple actions, PCs will usually only need to deal with one action at a time.

As you may have guessed, it gets more complicated from there. Many actions have important prerequisites, and they all have a whole bunch of possible effects, each of which needs to be carefully considered. Unless the players are really familiar with the system, they’ll spend a lot of time paging through the rules, making sure they’re making the optimal choice. It doesn’t help that the two sections with the most important information are separated by over a dozen pages dedicated to designing the house’s coat of arms.

These rules also require a fair amount of bookkeeping, as many of the actions take multiple months before they come to fruition. Players have to keep careful track of passing time, counting down months until their best-laid plans are finally completed. With some actions, this can take an absurdly long time. Building a castle, for example, takes an average of 10 years,* and that’s not even the longest one. Such long time frames might be realistic, but they also mean the PCs need to track things that will probably never matter in the campaign they’re actually playing.

However, A Song of Ice and Fire is still notably more manageable than Burning Wheel when it comes to math. Players need to be dedicated, but they probably won’t need spreadsheets. Unfortunately, that brings up what I think is the bigger problem: everything is focused on the house lord. Theoretically, this is one of the PCs, and they make all the important decisions. The other players can advise them, of course, but there’s very little they can do to mechanically influence what happens.

This dynamic isolates the house lord and requires the other players to put in a special effort if they want to stay involved. Players who don’t will find that the actions of their house mean little to them. That’s especially unfortunate in a game where the party’s primary motivation is supposed to be furthering their house’s agenda. Even so, this system will work with the right group, and it could at least be made more accessible with a little house-ruling. If the house lord were an NPC and the party voted on what actions to take, that would help everyone stay engaged.

3. Delta Green

A monster sneaking up on an agent holding a rifle.

Delta Green (DG) is a game of cosmic horror and government conspiracies. Unlike the previous two games, it also covers the characters’ narrative experience between sessions, rather than focusing exclusively on mechanical advancement or grand politics.

This is the Home phase, and it’s a great fit for Delta Green, at least in theory. This is a game about secret agents who investigate the mind-bending horrors of the Cthulhu Mythos as part of their job. They face untold dangers to body and soul every time they go out on a mission, so a special phase to see how they process that trauma sounds perfect. But how does this all work in practice?

Not spectacularly, I’m afraid to say. To Delta Green’s credit, the skeleton is there. When the Home phase starts, each player chooses the main activity that their agent will partake in. These options have the cosmic horror flavor I’d expect from DG, and they range from burning the midnight oil on old case files to catching up with all of the agent’s social obligations. Each activity has a different mechanical effect to go with its flavor. Going to Therapy improves the agent’s mental health,* while spending time with family strengthens important social bonds.

It’s the Home phase’s mechanics where things start to go wrong. Most of the rules for improving an agent’s mental health are actually a downward spiral, where an agent needs to succeed with their current mental health in order to improve it. This is really frustrating for players who are expecting a bit of a break after a hard mission. It’s also super easy for a PC to become unplayable if the GM tries to explore the rules for what happens when an agent is accused of a crime, so that’s not great.

Another major hurdle are bonds, numerical values that represent an agent’s social connections. They can be used to absorb an agent’s mental damage, and roleplaying them is super important for the Home phase. Unfortunately, by default bonds are with an agent’s civilian friends and family, not anyone else from the agency. This means that each agent has a stable of NPCs that only they know and who only come up in the Home phase. This makes it difficult for the players to invest in these NPCs, no matter what their bond scores say, and so a major part of the roleplaying falls flat.

Finally, the Home phase makes some unusual assumptions about Delta Green’s setting. There’s almost no setting info in the Agent’s Handbook, but it seems weird that the rules assume your character has a day job they can get fired from. I would imagine a powerful occult agency wouldn’t want its people distracted by a daily nine-to-five. Even stranger, the Go to Therapy option assumes there are no therapists available who know you’re an occult spy, which I assume would be a pretty high priority for an agency that literally battles Lovecraftian monsters.

Delta Green Setting Info

Some of this can be explained if you know where in the Delta Green timeline to set your game. The DG setting is very complex, but here’s the simple version: After the Vietnam War, Delta Green was officially dissolved. It continued to exist, but as a rogue organization with no official resources. Then the game’s plot moved forward, and Delta Green was reinstated, except for a small splinter group who continue to operate on their own because they don’t trust the government.

The Agent’s Handbook wants you to be able to run your game at any point in the timeline. If you choose a period where Delta Green has no official support, that might explain why agents have to work day jobs, but even then, it’s bizarre that no one in DG knows a therapist who’s in on the mythos.

With all these problems, the Home phase feels like a near miss. It has great ideas, but they don’t quite come together. GMs have to put in a lot of effort to make it work.

4. Torchbearer

Soldiers charging each other on a beach from a Torchbearer campaign book.

If you’re a Mythcreants regular, you’ve probably realized by now that I play a lot of Torchbearer, and it would be remiss of me not to mention this game’s excellent downtime rules: the town phase. The idea is simple. After adventurers have delved deep beneath the earth to slay foul monsters and recover glittering treasure, they return to town where they rest and sell their loot.

The execution is more complex, but for the most part, it works. PCs build up a “lifestyle cost” as they do things in town, meaning that the more they take on, the more they’ll have to pay at the end. This introduces an interesting set of choices: Should the players make do with lodging in the stables, or should they spring for an inn? The inn is expensive, but they’re pretty banged up from that last dungeon and could use the extra R&R. Further, can they afford the time and money to research their next dungeon, or should they save the coin and risk being unprepared?

The ability to do more than one thing gives the players plenty of control, and it creates natural points where PCs can process their experiences through roleplaying.* After an adventure of constant danger and life-or-death choices, it just feels good to stop and focus on some more logistical problems for a while. Of course this is still Torchbearer, so money is tight, and the townsfolk are mistrustful, but at least nothing in town will try to eat you. Probably.

The town phase feels like a more successful version of what Delta Green’s Home phase was trying to do. Its rules mesh better with the intended mood, and there are fewer mechanical traps to snag an unwary PC. It gives players the opportunity to plan and prepare without overwhelming them with options.

All that said, no system is perfect, and the town phase has a few problems of its own. Most notably, it requires players to make a lot of recovery and purchasing tests. Adventurers need a lot of supplies, and they suffer a lot of injuries,* all of which must be rolled separately. This gets so tiresome that I invented multiple sets of house rules for how to deal with it.

Another problem with the town phase is that it depends on the GM’s being able to properly balance how much treasure the party gets. Too much isn’t a problem, it just means the PCs will be extra prepared for their next adventure. But showing up to town with too little treasure can be a real problem, as the party enters a death spiral of embarking on a new adventure without being recovered from the previous ones. There are ways around this problem, of course – a stranger offering needed coin in exchange for a price is always effective – but it’s something the GM needs to be aware of.

Despite its problems, the town phase works remarkably well and is a major boon to Torchbearer. Surely nothing could be better…

5. Blades in the Dark

A dark alley from Doskvol, the main city of Blades in the Dark.

Here it is, easily the most comprehensive set of downtime rules I’ve ever seen. What’s more, Blades in the Dark even calls them “downtime,” so you don’t have to learn any new terminology. These rules are a work of art, like someone combined the best parts of Torchbearer’s town phase and Song of Ice and Fire’s house-management rules into one, and then improved them. Amazing.

First, there’s character scale rules. After the PCs pull a job, whether it’s a success or failure, they take some time off to rest and divide the loot. This is where characters have to deal with all the stress and trauma they’ve accumulated as criminals in a dieselpunk dystopia. Usually, this means indulging the character’s vice, which can lead to some fun side quests on its own.

After dealing with the PCs’ feelings, the GM figures out how much heat they gained from the last job, which reinforces that this is a living world that actually reacts and changes in response to what the players do. From there the PCs can work on side projects, train, or drown their sorrows in drink. You know, standard protagonist stuff. Each option has robust, easy to understand mechanical effects, so no one is ever left unsure what to do. There’s no tiresome repetition, and the rules fit the flavor perfectly. It’s just a joy.

But would you believe that’s only half of it? The rest of the downtime rules are devoted to managing the PCs’ gang. This is similar to Song of Ice and Fire, but much easier to understand. No one has to keep track of multiyear projects or page through the book every time they want to do something. Everything the PCs need to know fits on a single sheet, and it’s all super intuitive. Should the gang invest in a new boathouse or better guns? Should they respond to a rival with words or fists? Are they ready to take the next step up the criminal ladder?

Best of all, this is a collaborative effort. Not only are the gang’s actions communally decided, but each PC has concrete ways they can affect the outcome through their downtime actions. They might choose to give some of their own money to help pay for a new property or beat the pavement with a crew to scare rivals out of a neighborhood. It really makes the party feel like a team.

Any designer thinking of adding downtime rules to their game should study Blades in the Dark. They have a generous Creative Commons license called Forged in the Dark, but even if you don’t use their rules directly, there’s a lot to learn from the sheer elegance of their system.

It’s difficult to say for sure what direction RPG design is headed in, but I predict we’ll see more and more systems with downtime rules in the future. They offer so many advantages, from pacing a game’s narrative to giving PCs more agency in the story. These five are hardly an exhaustive list, and I’m always looking for more examples. If you know of any systems I should look at, leave a comment and tell me about them.

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  1. Morten Greis

    You missed The One Ring, Warhammer Fantasy 4th edition and to a degree Forbidden Lands, that all have a kind of downtime rules from the winter phase of The One Ring to the castle construction in Forbidden Lands. Those are rules worth having a look at, when using downtime rules.

    I was positively surprised to read that the new DG has downtime rules. That is interesting. Several years ago I hacked the old version of the game and added my own downtime rules. The main rule for them was, that I as the GM never participated in the scenes, and there could be no action, Mythos or the like in the scenes. The players ran all the NPCs taking turns to play family members, friends and colleagues kept in the dark (this was classic DG era, where DG is kept secret). It worked brilliantly as we got under the skin of the characters and really got to know them.

    • Leon

      I think I’m going to steal your pc’s play family members idea.
      In my homebrew, the pc’s are a cell working for a nonexistent super villain, whose main activities are infiltrating borders to deliver aid, conduct rescue missions, insert revolutionary leaders, and strike at despots (disillusioned patriot wish fulfillment). So down time is like a cruder version of blades in the dark, with the fun of maintaining cover & relationships, while the pc’s also have close relationships with each other.

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        Yeah that sounds like a good plan!

      • Benj

        What an awesome premise, Leon!

      • Leon

        I just noticed that i wrote pc’s play family members. A typo, but it may actually be a fun idea, especially if the viability of the team (for supply chain reasons; access to skills, funds, assets or social circles) depends on the pc’s functioning together outside of trigger time.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      To be fair, I didn’t miss them so much as there are only so many hours in a day and only so many systems I can play in enough depth to write articles about them.

      • Morten Greis

        I know that feeling. So many games so little time.

  2. Lizard with Hat

    You did it again, whenever I work on my homebrew system you make a post about the topic I’m thinking.
    That’s some funny coincidence.

    It’s a great article, very intressting

  3. Leon

    Has anybody tried to implement skills as stress tests (in the same way that madness meters work in UA)?
    The idea is to roll on daredevil skills, social maneuvers or acts of violence – though you always roll because you need a number for degree of success/failure.
    I figured the thing that would make this interesting would be down time action where other pc’s keep their buddies grounded and humble, so they don’t become reckless and arrogant (the consequence of too much success) and failures could be overcome with various training and r&r.

    • Michael Campbell

      My home-brew system has skill points to purchase attributes and skills.
      The optional aging rules, basically say that as the person gets older, they reach a certain threshold where the percentage of attribute based skill-points as a fraction of the total skill points granted to the character, will exceed the listed percentage.
      The character must then “buy” a lower attribute value in order to bring the character back under the percentage limit.

      Thus you can generate a 65 year old admiral, but he won’t be winning any prizes at the gym.

      • Leon

        That sounds interesting, if a bit crunchy, it would probably be excellent if you could put it into an app. You could could choose which stats and skills you want to stay where you put them while you let the other stats rise and fall depending on the adjustments you make (like tuning a guitar with a whammy bar).

      • Leon

        I think you would have to be careful how you apply the numbers though; a 30 year old officer may have learnt more in 5 years than a grey beard has through his entire career.
        Likewise, there’s no reason a 65 year old admiral can’t be one of the hardest warriors on board, obviously age will have an effect but unless the good admiral is engaging full time, professional, gun-fighters, age will be far less of a factor than lifestyle and training.

      • Leon

        You may like to try this;

        Skills improve with use but degrade quickly if ignored (but return quickly with practice).
        Stats are more permanent but are subject to injury.

        So the down time decision could be wether to focus on skills training, rehab or any number of other choices that aid in one area but consume time and energy for addressing others.

  4. Leon

    Lol. Tired… because the “hardened” box’s represent skills, the end box gets a Hat. The hat represents the pass/fail mark and only moves up (until something horrible happens). Checks continue to function similarly to UA stress tests.

  5. Brick Steelhead

    This was a very helpful write-up!

    I’ll add some other systems with interesting (not all good, but all interesting) “downtime” rules:

    – MUTANT: YEAR ZERO (with its Ark-development phase)

    – The various editions of VAMPIRE and their approach to feeding

    – MOUSEGUARD (not like this site needs any more plugs for that game)

    Now the question of why it should be called “downtime” and not “upkeep” is an interesting one, and where the “downtime” ends and the crafting, social, or otherwise “less stressful” portions of the game begins is a different (but compelling) one.

  6. Shawn H Corey

    A Song of Ice and Fire is modeled after the misconception of “only one boss”. Medieval nobles families didn’t work like that. For example, the Master at Arms may be the Lord’s bastard brother. His butler (and secretary), his cousin. Everyone that lives On the estate (not the farms) would be part of the lord’s extended family, as would those who run the farms and villages. Only a foolish lord would try to micromanage all those people. Instead, he would make sure they were well trained for their jobs long before they got them.

    And that’s why the PCs would be will to help any leader on their lord’s lands. Because if the noble family goes down, they go down with it. If fact, that’s how the PCs became adventurer’s in the first place. They would be the SWAT team for their times, going where is needed to help manage the lands and deal with any bandits or troublemakers. And yes, they all would be part of the extended family.

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