Downtime ± Crisis

Posted by on Feb 5, 2009 in RPGs, Story | 11 Comments

Here’s the background: Over the weekend, Ryan Macklin (RyanMacklin), Rich Rogers (orklord), and I (jefftidball) went around a little bit, 140 characters at a time, on Ryan’s recent frustration with what he was calling “goal-focused RPG campaigns.”

Ryan collected the tweets in question in a post on his blog and filled out his argument to suggest (paraphrasing) that moments of crisis and conflict are all well, good, and necessary in roleplaying games, but that if that’s the sum total of your game content, you’re missing a second, potent, avenue of character exploration that Ryan calls “downtime.”

Unless you’re on a timetable, read Ryan’s post and then come back, to avoid me having to shout “Donny, you’re out of your element!” down in the comments.

What initially comes off as somewhat antagonistic via Twitter belies that Ryan and I fall close to each other, aesthetically, on the broad spectrum of roleplaying philosophy.

Ryan’s sick of every moment of play pushing only and always toward crisis in service of plot advancement, because such play has a tendency to obscure the character at other moments: moments of rest, reflection, and meditation.

I can’t in good conscience back down from my assertion that a character’s meaty decisions as the story advances are the best way to reveal that character’s nature, because I think that a roleplaying game simply performs better as a story than a biography.

But I also wrote a Thing, in Things We Think About Games, describing how I think that moments of preparation and aftermath can intensify the emotional impact of the other moments when the plot does concretely move forward. Ryan talks about those moments as moments of crisis and conflict. I used the clunky “point of determination” (the phrase makes more sense in the context of its Thing) in this passage:

The excitement of a particular point of determination can be heightened by other activity that points forward toward to—and thus intensifies—the eventual resolution, as well as scenes that look backward and recall it. These “scenes of preparation” and “scenes of aftermath” both essentially increase the drama by multiplying its duration.

I don’t like the term “downtime” for these parts of the story because that word suggests, to me, that the moments aren’t relevant. But I’m also not sure that Ryan and I are having a purely semantic disagreement, because it sounds like he sees value in playing/observing a character even when that character is doing things without any particular bearing on the story at hand, or the story that might logically evolve. I’m usually impatient with that, when it happens in play.

But “logically evolve” can also be funny: With many RPG campaigns showing the influence of Dire Bochcoization more than SydMcKeeThink, this session’s downtime digression can easily wind up being some future session’s crucial seed-sowing. (“Dire Bochcoization” is Ken Hite’s handy term for describing the fact that the teevee shows the kids are watching these days don’t resolve their stories inside their God-given one-hour-minus-commercials.)

But reading closer, I also see that Ryan actually used the word aftermath when making his argument: “We would not have truly met the characters [of BSG] if we only saw them in crisis, because we wouldn’t have seen what they do when they can relax and let go, or what they do to process the aftermath of a crisis.” Clearly we have some overlap.

The value and utility assigned to exploring characters in downtime, as opposed to during moments of crisis, is clearly a matter of taste. What’s your taste? Get specific: What’s the idea ratio of crisis to downtime, in time spent playing? Include preparation and aftermath in your downtime calculation, if you like, but let us know how you’re breaking it down.

I say the ideal is 65:30:5 crisis : perparation and aftermath : pure downtime.

What do you say?


  1. Queex
    February 5, 2009

    By contrast I often try to encourage ‘downtime’ in the games I run, because otherwise there’s nothing but breakneck-pace action.

    I think maybe what these non-plot moments offer is an opportunity to ‘lay pipe’ for later on. As a writer, you have complete control over what pipe is laid and when. As a GM, you have to remember that the other players might also want to lay pipe that explains how their characters behave or make decisions. When writing, if you realise a crucial piece of pipe wasn’t laid when it should you can go back and revise the text, but that’s not often an option in an RPG. It’s better if the pipe can be laid as part of an important scene, but given that players are often jockeying for screen-time in those important scenes some pipe can be missed. It’s worth having a ‘boring’ scene if it allows a player to lay pipe for their character that might otherwise never see the light of day. Of course, it’s best if those scenes are brief and to the point, and canned instantly if it looks like no pipe is going to be laid after all.

    Plus, your question about crisis and downtime raises another point- should you measure it in time on the clock or number of scenes? By the former, I think our sessions are generally 8:1:1 (Feng is quite focussed, after all, and some of the ‘downtime’ services the plot bubbling beneath the surface for later on in the campaign). By number of scenes, it’s more like 1:1:1.

  2. Ryan Macklin
    February 5, 2009

    Given the number of people who buck at my use of the word “downtime” and read it with undesirable implications, I’m at that point where I have to say “okay, I totally used the wrong word since I didn’t convey my meaning.” So, I shall remedy that.

    I would blame Twitter for encouraging me to use only an eight-character word, but it’s grown into a shorthand to me for things like preparation & aftermath, reflection, moments of conflict exploration without conflict resolution, etc. I’m composing a post clarifying what I meant with that word I used, and will naturally be interested in your reaction.

  3. Jeff Tidball
    February 6, 2009

    In board and card work, “downtime” is a word that we pretty much always use to mean something negative, to mean the times when a player literally can do nothing to impact gameplay.

    It’s clearly a little different in roleplaying, where a player’s ability to act—in non-structured, non-“encounter” time, anyway—is less wait-your-turn based.

    Regarding the 140-character tweet limit, I once worked on a licensed game where there was a defined-by-the-licensor limit to the number of characters we could quote at a time from the source material. This was interesting. Sometimes it was hard, of course, but it also forced us to get on point with the quotes and cut out all of the stuff that didn’t flavorfully illustrate the section at hand. It also, interestingly, led us to take certain hard-line grammatical positions with them, such as that an ellipsis was a single character (rather than three, or four, or seven).

    Queex, I think it’s most useful to measure clock-time (real world) rather than quantity of scenes. My main reason is that I think the most desirable outcome of a discussion like this is to help us avoid the “twenty minutes of fun packed into four hours” problem.

  4. RyanMcFitz
    February 9, 2009

    Great discussion!

    First off, as for the ratio, I think it risks squaring the circle a bit by quantifying something organic. While I’m the first to say that systems and computers are capable of this, the chief variable involved must be “what kind of story are you telling?” This will rarify or condense the set-up/pay-off closer to 1:1. Dramas approach 1:1 with less urgency than thrillers. This is the chief reason why Hollywood uses the terms “plot-based” vs. “character-based” to immediately provide a frame of reference. No one ever criticized Bridges of Madison County for not having enough gun-fights. Compare Western RPGs vs. JRPGs.

    I do think that the argument is about the definitions chosen and it looks like Ryan has acknowledged this in his choice of the word “downtime.” The other term prone to misunderstanding outside of writerly circles is the word “character.” To misunderstand “character” in discussion of an RPG is the game dev equivalent of the “Who’s on First?” sketch.

    For sake of benchmark calibration, “character” doesn’t mean “blonde hair, leggy, drives fast and is sarcastic.” “Character” means “in times of dilemma, he must fight the tendency to lie to exonerate himself.” Character is revealed during crises. This is why Sol Tigh is actually my favourite character on BSG although Baltar jumped up in the ranks by an order of magnitude with the start of BSG 4.0. Tigh specifically has traditionally made some of the best [read: interesting] choices in times of intense stress. But BSG is a thriller. So much of the time, the crises are physical, not moral, so the spectrum for revelation is thinner in those circumstances.

    Enough BSG — here’s a gamedev example:

    Elder Scrolls Morrowind and then subsequently Oblivion taught me such an important lesson about computer RPGs that I am utterly convinced that it is the game/series that Jeff & Ryan had in mind while they were discussing their issue and probably couldn’t be convinced otherwise. Morrowind offers players the usual choice of character classes and me being who I am, I tend to choose and develop magic-using sneaky bastards who nevertheless have a heart of gold. (Yeah, yeah, yeah, whatever, save it…) So imagine my distress when I realized:

    a. Every single plot-related quest or story point requires you to kill the thing standing immediately in front of the one and only door you must go through in order to progress; and,

    b. Even if you’re a “hear the lamentation of the women” barbarian of the first order with a Master’s Degree in Brute Force & Ignorance, you STILL get spells and potions and can fireball your enemies if your axe is starting to get old. Sure, you can’t fireball as well as a magic-user specializing in Destruction, but he can’t hold his own swinging an axe against Grognak.

    Morrowing is an RPG but if you don’t choose and develop the R they want you to P, your G is going to suck. Oblivion is better but not much. The plot-related quests are still almost exclusively combat-based but the NON-plot quests offer you a far greater spectrum of stealth missions, magic missions and the like.

    This, in my eyes, constitutes “downtime.”

    Personally, I count my lucky stars that I’m not the kind of guy who is dead-set on specializing in alchemy because even though the world abounds in thstlewhort or whatever, who can give a rat’s ass about collecting ingredients where you can find or buy anything you want with far greater ease than tracking down some rare elusive herb that will give you an invisibility potion that only last 5 seconds? Gee-freakin’-whiz.

    If I *did* have a burnin’ yearnin’ love of playing an alchemist — which the game apparently wants me to have — then I will only be able to satisfy that particular jones by playing the game during the downtime. Utterly crisis free. And when I got tired of stuffing Fluffy Devil’s Molars and Salts of Haberdasher into my alembic or crucible or mortar & pestle, then I could resume the plot by drawing my sword and killing anything that isn’t bipedal and most things that are. Utterly character free.

  5. Jeff Tidball
    February 10, 2009

    While I’m the first to say that systems and computers are capable of this, the chief variable involved must be “what kind of story are you telling?” […] This is the chief reason why Hollywood uses the terms “plot-based” vs. “character-based” to immediately provide a frame of reference.

    Hollywood uses those terms, sure, and they work for the frame-of-reference purpose there. But I think that RPGs—especially tabletop RPGs—tend to fall down when they’re telling character-based stories (as your typical Hollywood creative exec would use the phrase) because the resolution of external action plays so much better than the resolution of internal dilemmas.

    (To make this argument risks misunderstanding the grid that charts character vs. plot on one axis and internal vs. external struggles on the other, of course. Not all plot-based stories are external and not all character-based stories are internal. But I think the generalization is probably applicable enough in the majority of cases that it’s a worthwhile observation.)

    To misunderstand “character” in discussion of an RPG is the game dev equivalent of the “Who’s on First?” sketch.

    A great point and a genius analogy. Nice!

  6. RyanMcFitz
    February 10, 2009

    You raise an interesting point and I’m now doing the e-equivalent of squinting with arms crossed and thoughtfully stroking my chin.

    My D&D days, while far less misspent than a youth of stealing cars, were nevertheless characterized by me DMing one buddy who ran a stable of balanced classes through one plot after another. “Character” was non-existant. Especially with the cleric. I mean, seriously, does anyone really like playing the cleric? But these kinds of adventures left us with a distinct feeling like we were missing something, game vegetables. The RPG version of scurvy.

    Then along came Ravenloft and suddenly we were offered the *illusion* of role-playing. We had ambience, environment, mood, tone, pacing, stakes, even subtext. Beyond horror, we also had modules based on “The Prisoner.” We still never quite into role-playing to the point where one of us would have cause to strike a pose on the folding card table and scream “Excelsior!” but it was close enough for government work.

    Now that I’m a couple decades older, I look with admiration at some of the indie tabletop games like John Tynes’ “Puppetland” or even Steve Jackson’s pre-raid “In Nomine.” I think these games successfully translate the internal/external crisis/downtime membrane because the characters themselves are physical incarnations of moral traits.

    “Interface” means “metaphor.”

    For this reason, I’m looking forward to the indie MMOG “Lila’s Dreams” where every character is actually a good or bad emotion inside the head of eleven year-old Lila.

    Or maybe it’s time to just admit that once you’re an admitted lit. geek, you need more drinks in you just to be as fun as everyone else starts out.

    Thanks for the compliments.

  7. RyanMcFitz
    February 10, 2009

    (And by “you” of course I mean me.)

  8. Margaret
    February 17, 2009

    Late to the party, I realize, but I suggest that the reason preparation and aftermath scenes (“downtime” perhaps) are so important in an rpg – whether you’re spending them socializing at the Duke’s soiree, hiding from the guard, or looking for work at the local tavern – is that it gives players a little elbow room to explore what their character does when their choices aren’t defined by their combat options.

    I agree with you, Jeff, that the best way to reveal (or explore) character in a script is generally through conflict or adversity, but where conflict frequently equals combat all of the minutiae, optimization, and…frankly…math can easily step on “what my character would do.”

    Ryan’s example of the boxing episode on BSG is interesting. Because yes, no Cylons are attacking, but it works because it is taking underlying character tensions and externalizing them through conflict (punching people in the face – which is itself occasionally a stand-in for having sex).

  9. Jeff Tidball
    February 17, 2009

    Hi, Margaret!

    …where conflict frequently equals combat all of the minutiae, optimization, and…frankly…math can easily step on “what my character would do.”

    This, in a nutshell (and good summary, by the way—that’s put better than I’d probably put it!) turns out to be the gripe I have with D&D.

  10. Margaret
    February 17, 2009

    Hey Jeff,

    As I way typing that, I was of course remembering Anvil throwing himself off a cliff on top of the ogre druid, one of the best moments of “screw the math” combat decisions I’ve ever shared a table with. But not everyone has your sense of style. 🙂

    Glad to be able to summarize your gripe. Do you tend to think that this is a factor that can be helped by the right table dynamic and good DMing, or is it just unavoidable in a game where killing bad guys and risking character death is part of the story, but not all of it.

  11. Jeff Tidball
    February 20, 2009

    I think about that moment a lot, Margaret.

    For those of you who were not in our five-year D&D campaign (and the Gameplaywright stat logs suggest that’s most of you), Margaret’s referring to an instance where my headstrong and outspoken cleric, Anvil the Just, threw himself off a cliff while already seriously wounded in order to launch what he hoped would be the killing blow against an ogre druid with naught but our house-ruled story points (yanked from d20 Modern) to help him.

    Game-wise, it was a ridiculous maneuver doomed to failure.

    Story-wise, the character as established, and as I’d played him for a couple of years by that point, was absolutely compelled to do the thing.

    Today, it’s an interesting story because the ogre druid was slain and Anvil was knocked to death’s door upon crashing to the ground, but resuscitated by his companions. It would probably also be an interesting story had Anvil perished, I suppose.

    Long-winded way to get to my comment about “But not everyone has your sense of style:” The rules of D&D conspire to prevent its players from learning such a sense, or putting it to use once they’ve got it. I suggest that most if not all of the players in that campaign have perfectly functional style-sense, but the game mechanics made it too dangerous to put it to use. Confronted with the choice between (a) taking some interesting and drastic action that’s perfectly in character and well-suited to the unfolding story, or (b) staying out of reach of an enemy with grapple, the latter is the only sane choice. I mean, D&D players, am I right?

    I absolutely believe that the right table dynamic and good DMing help, and that Jer (the DM of this particular extravaganza) was a kindly enabler of lots of great story-based play.

    It’s interesting that you bring up risking character death. Ewen Cluney just posted a set of Things to our Things You Think thread. Part of his 10th item reads, in part “…putting other things at stake besides life and death can be far, far more interesting.” (In fact, he and I had talked a little bit more about that item in the comments of his original blog post on the subject.)

    So, yeah. I think it’s a pretty complex issue.


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