Take a look at the fictional icons we like, be they in film and television, literature like novels and comics or video games. James Bond to Frodo to Solid Snake are all pretty fleshed out characters, with interactions in both the combat and non-combat arenas. We can see them as whole people, to the point where we can relate with them. Its why we enjoy Spider-man scenes with Aunt May because we relate to them before enjoying seeing the hero go kick some ass.
When it comes to roleplaying, many players and GMs don’t seem to do this. Likely, part of it is because the players need to be part of the story and a lot of players I have been with have not put much work into their characters beyond the points on the sheet with no way to connect them together. An example of this is in Shadowrun 3rd Edition, where in using the freeform knowledge skills, some would take only things with a direct mechanical benefit for their character, such as the cop with Law and Forensics. These characters would have no stats showing their interests, because ‘those can be RPed if they ever come up’. There are sample characters in the book with knowledge skills showing interest in things like Jazz Music, Wine, Combat Biking or even Sim Starlets, because these were as important to their character as how good they are with a gun. Eliot in Leverage is the example I fall back on as people see him as the muscle, but he’s got a brain, is a great cook and such. Our characters deserve that same sort of attention.
I like downtime. That may not come as a surprise to most people who saw my posts on social RP and the like, but I like the idea of not having PCs in a combat-heavy adventure all the time. This way, you can learn more about the PCs. Adventure novels have scenes of groups talking around the campfire about their lives. I think one of the first books I remember seeing this in as a way to ‘introduce’ the character back-stories was with Dragonlance in the first books, they had each character telling more about themselves at different times. It didn’t overload the story with a lot of info dump, and it sort of made sense, especially if you’re looking for a way to pass time around a campfire. Perhaps try this in your next game, and remember that while this is downtime, it isn’t always ‘after one adventure before the next’, as Chrono Trigger did the campfire scene as a ‘plot exposition’ moment like the first minute or so here during the party’s quest at a quiet moment.
Some games try to come up with things to do in the rules outside adventures. Pathfinder brought it into its system, Shadowrun has rules for it to some degree, as does World Of Darkness, with their contacts systems. There’s some way to manage things outside of the ‘job’ of being an ‘adventurer’, and I think this is summed up nicely by Blackjack in Using the Toilet. It’s pulled from the Internet Archives because it is such a good read. It highlights some of the reasons to make use of downtime and how to do so.
To borrow from Blackjack, I like the idea of “Motivational Gamemastering” as he calls it, because it helps to eliminate the ‘Chosen Hero’ syndrome I see in a lot of RPGs I’ve played in. You ‘pop’ into the world which is in some sort of crisis and you are the only ones who can solve it. No one else is capable of doing it, even though there’s usually very little else going on around it. Like in a fantasy RPG, the princess gets kidnapped but usually all you get given is a ‘We know who took her, it was this guy and we sent a few guards to get her back and they were killed’. No ‘We sent the army in and laid siege to his building’ or ‘We had our court wizard try to teleport her out of there’ or whatever. It’s always a GM basically saying ‘Here’s a plot hook, take it, take it’ and the players bite because… usually, there’s nothing else to do. Especially if the GM didn’t design anything else for the night. This is, to a lot of people, an acceptable limitation of the genre. I believe differently.
To quote Blackjack, an example of Motivational Gamemastering can be used in a first session where a game is “100% downtime until YOU find a way to snag yourself that first run and build up a reputation. As your rep improves, the runs come faster, and the downtime lessens.” What this basically makes the initial game is a sandbox game where players have to play their characters as people, not a sheet of numbers and a slew of weapons and items. For a great example of this in video game form is the Nightshade NES game, which was essentially a point and click adventure game where you played a superhero with no popularity. Do random acts of good and popularity goes up, do bad acts or get defeated and it goes down. The higher it goes, the more people recognize you and thus you get access to bonuses that can help you out on your quest if you seek them out. In roleplaying terms, why would someone hire you to do a job versus hundreds of other applicants? Especially when there is no specific training required to be an adventurer, unlike become a Hunter in Phantasy Star 4 video game or Hunter x Hunter anime. You can make it work mechanically if you choose, like how the Shadowrun Genesis game required you to have certain levels of Reputation stat to get into certain areas. So, it is who you know, or at least what they know about you, perhaps allowing the PCs to start spreading a reputation about themselves. Just look at the animated movie Rango, as the titular character spins a story of how he is a great cowboy and people just buy it all.
You may also want to look at a system where you have groups you can gain or lose favor with, perhaps having it be that you cannot be friends with everyone at the same time. This was something which bugged me in some games where you could work for (or even run) the good and bad factions, which could be a major conflict of interest if not hard to successfully pull off, such as the mayor also being the chief of police and the fire marshal and head of the thieves’ guild. However, taking this into a RPG world means that a GM needs to decide how detailed they are going to be looking at the player and group actions for influence changes and what points are important to which people.
Also, one thing a GM may wish to consider is how each group relates. A good example I saw of how to relate groups was to put their names down in a shape, such as square or pentagram and the connections nearest a point were friendly and farthest were opposed, such as the back of a Magic: The Gathering card. Diaspora had a great system for generating connections between a number of points, so you can use something similar for organizations like the one seen here. I think these are some great ideas that you can whip up in a few minutes and use to come up with ideas that will last a while.
Getting back to downtime, however, by going with this system of giving players something to do outside of just going through the plot hoops, having a world to explore and new encounters to face. Using contacts/allies/whatever as an example, you do need to put some face time in with them, letting them know you understand they are putting themselves out by helping you and you appreciate it. A little wining and dining, some gift giving and the like and they will be more appreciative when you call for a favor. These also make great plot hooks, like John Wick’s article ‘Hit ’em where it hurts’ showed what a crafty GM can do with an DNPC, but even without being as cruel as some people believe he was you can do a lot. Have them contact the players at inappropriate times, such as in GTA IV when you were doing a stealth mission and Cousin Roman would call to ask if you want to go bowling. They can call when they need something done, whether it be something in the PC skill set, like in Payday 2 with a politician hiring the team to change voting results, or just them asking for a favor. This can have extra impact if you have them remember the PCs attitude during the request and the chosen resolution of the issue and use them as a leverage point next time the PC wants something.
Sure, I can do that, but remember when I asked you to get me a new car so I could give it to my son for his birthday? It was stolen and there was a body in the trunk.
Sure, you’ll need some improvisational prep if you’re not able to wing everything. You’re going to want some maps for buildings you can drop in, essentially creating something akin to What’s At This Intersection in whatever setting your campaign is in, with some detailed options. Once you have the places and the general groups, you’ll want some people to populate these places. Of course, don’t make up detailed character sheets. Just use the Skeleton sheet as described by Brian Jamison in Gamemastering. You can pull these people out at any time, and by switching some names and general details, you can populate a city in a matter of minutes. For those who have not read it, I recommend the Vornheim: The Complete City Kit as it has a number of great ‘randomly generating’ type of rules you can use to create places on the fly. Also, think about how you can incorporate these places into your games environment, even sometimes thinking about what might happen if a fight broke out. Shadowrun adventure Food Fight did that, such as with this chart taken from Fifth Edition Rules but in use since the First Edition
All the preparations are to help ease the improv you will be doing, as with this, your players will take the lead on this one. You may need to start with giving details for them to build on, like the surroundings we generated on. Once they know the basics, they can do it themselves. For example, you may need to provide general ideas of shady places if they’re looking for criminal stuff, even if it is abstracted as a ‘Gather Information’ roll a la D20. To see some examples, Elder Scrolls games dropped enough hints to let you contact the Thieves Guild easily enough if you listened and Final Fantasy 6 gave enough hints to know where the Returners were.
The problem with a downtime game for many gamers is that they feel the need to give objectives for the players while they are not directly engaged in action. The mindset being that it is wasted actions to be talking about something not important to the storyline. This is not a life simulator where we want to be doing the boring things in a virtual world. While this is true that this is a virtual world, you’re playing the life of a person in this world. So while you are not going to be doing everything and playing every minute of these people’s lives, be willing to gibe then some time to be real people. Hunter: The Reckoning’s characters had to go back to their jobs and families and friends after the adventure was done and try not to let the creatures know they can see them and they are fighting them. It was like a moment to see ‘what it is you’re fighting for’, as you are thinking of these people as your co-workers, your friends, your family, not as some random words on a page.
Of course, some groups don’t do being taken off the leash well. The best way to remedy this I find is to have events happen no matter where a PC is, but not always a huge adventure. Life happens around you, and there’s always little things going on that PCs can get roped into during their ‘off time’. Leverage had an episode in the first season where they stopped weapons dealers and saved a large group of kids with a just their skills and a movie prop truck. There are many such examples in movies and tv shows, even without going to things like MacGyver. A car accident, a robbery, a fire, even innocuous this like a lost child who wants mommy could be a scene you could throw to your PCs. There are a number of random event generators you can find online if you need some help, but most people can just think of events they’ve encountered in their life. You can have a little fun with this from time to time by playing with the players, like adding some paranoia with little tricks like this. Sometimes this can fuel a scene just with a single line.
Downtime Roleplaying can be hard to get right, as in pure player driven character development of one or more aspects because of how strange it may come off, especially when people are used to being handed plot hooks regularly. However, if you have your players thinking of their characters as real people, and you’re giving them a believable world, they’ll find things to interest them in your world. Just be willing to populate it with opportunities to find out.