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When Adventurers Aren’t Adventuring
Mike Mearls

O ver the past few weeks, I’ve talked about exploration and interaction. I also mentioned in passing that we’re working on a set of guidelines for what happens between adventures. Because we've had many questions about this topic, I'd like to focus on that material this week and circle back around to save or die mechanics in a future article.

The idea behind the three pillars of D&D Next—interaction, combat, exploration—is to ensure that the game is as immersive and flexible as possible. If a group wants to focus on one pillar, that’s fine, but the game as a whole needs to allow for all three to play a role in a campaign. Those three elements don’t stop when you leave the dungeon, defeat the big bad guy, or come to the end of the adventure. The space between formal adventures is just as rich in gaming possibilities. If anything, encouraging groups to think about the campaign from a wider perspective opens up a lot of possibilities.

Our goal with these rules is to deepen immersion in the game, prompt players to develop their own plots and adventure goals, and create a richer narrative tapestry for gaming. In some ways, this part of the system ties everything together.

To start with, we’re tentatively calling this our downtime system. The downtime system covers what happens when you aren’t on a traditional adventure. The system assumes that when you’re not adventuring, you spend time resting, practicing your class abilities, socializing, and so forth. In addition, each week you can choose one special task. This task is your focus for the week. The task isn’t the only thing you do that week, but it represents where your focus and attention rest.

Here are a few sample tasks:

  • Craft an item, such as a suit of plate armor or a sword
  • Take a job or practice a craft to earn money
  • Study or practice a craft to become better at it
  • Develop social connections and alliances
  • Build, create, and/or manage a castle, business, temple, or similar institution
  • Manage your followers
  • Raise an army

Those are some basic ideas we’re working from. The tasks boil down to four categories. They are as follows:

  • Influence: Actions that win you friends and political or social power
  • Economic: Actions that deal with earning and investing cash
  • Knowledge: Actions that allow you to train abilities or uncover secrets
  • Dominion: Actions for managing your personal followers and holdings

Although some actions can be completed in one week, others require more effort. All the benefits offered under backgrounds can be earned through this system, but they take a fair amount of time to master. If you have two months between adventures, you can apprentice yourself to a jeweler and learn the basics of gemcutting, spend hours in the great library and earn a new area of knowledge, or personally oversee an expansion to your keep.

In addition to time, many of these actions require money. Having liberated treasure from a dungeon, you can choose to invest it in a business or a castle, or you can spend it to win power and influence in town. A rogue might spend a week carousing in the dockside taverns, shifting a few nonplayer characters in that part of town from neutral to friendly.

Your location determines many of the actions you can take. A small settlement on the frontier offers the chance to win influence with the locals and research lore at the library maintained by the order of mages based in town. You can also mingle with adventurers and scouts to learn about the dungeons and wilds around town. In the capital, you can attempt to win the emperor’s favor for a land grant and the imperial writ needed to found your own duchy.

The real interesting part comes when you integrate backgrounds into this system as your starting point. Are you a noble? Then you begin play with the social standing needed to interact with other nobles. You are on friendly terms with a few nobles, while others consider you an enemy. An artisan can set up shop and earn money in town. The background system allows Dungeon Masters to match nonplayer characters in their campaigns to the characters as friendly, neutral, or hostile, as per our system for interaction. It also gives characters expanded options for things to do outside of adventures. Those options are the starting point for your character’s actions in town.

The downtime system is at its best when it serves to drive the next adventure—one sparked by the players’ ideas of what they want to do next. Does your group’s wizard Kanaea lust after a staff of power? With enough research, she can uncover stories of one lost in a distant dungeon. Has your fighter Haydar sworn vengeance against the Three-Eyed Prelate of Chaos? He can hit the bars, talk to wanderers and adventurers, and attempt to learn that fiend’s whereabouts and its secret weakness. A group of pilgrims bringing a holy relic to the cleric’s temple go missing, prompting the group’s next adventure.

As a DM, think of the downtime system as your chance for the campaign to stop and catch its breath, while also giving the characters connections to the world. If a dragon rampages through town while the characters are away, things are more interesting if the player characters have lost friends and the tavern they purchased, renovated, and operated profitably.

The downtime system provides the characters with a set of strategic goals that can help define the entire campaign. Building a castle is something that might start at 1st level, with the characters saving money and finding ways to win the support of a noble who can offer them a land grant. Many of the most rewarding elements of the system require months of work, making them span multiple levels and adventures.

Mechanically speaking, we’re aiming for a simple set of rules to develop the characters’ ties to the area and provide them with long-term goals. So, what do you think about all this?

Mike Mearls
Mike Mearls is the senior manager for the D&D research and design team. He led the design for 5th Edition D&D. His other credits include the Castle Ravenloft board game, Monster Manual 3 for 4th Edition, and Player’s Handbook 2 for 3rd Edition.
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