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Diegetifying downtime

Xanathar’s Guide to Everything gave us guidelines and outcome tables for actions that are on the scale of weeks, rather than exploration turns or combat rounds, and sometimes that works great: “I wanna spend three weeks trying to learn archery” but more often than not, actions on that time scale is not very appealing to many players.

Let’s say you’re looking for a seller for a Wand of Yak Shaving you’ve found. Sometimes it’s fine to go “Now that we’re here in Jumlat, while Alice is doing that stint fighting in the arenas and Bob is doing temple service, I spend a week asking around for a seller, and don’t worry, I’ve got money to spend”. That’s fine. But some players are inclined to play things a li’l bit more zoomed in and moment-by-moment. “I look at the other people in the tavern… Do I see any adventurers who might wanna buy a Wand of Yak Shaving?”

It’s not reasonable to operate in terms of “workweeks” in that situation.

So this house rule is to replace every “workweek” with 1d100 hours, and every hour they must spend one fiftieth of the Xanathar “workweek price”.

Using this math, this means:

Everytime they spend time on the activity, and you consult the gloracle by rolling, note two things:

Roll a d100. Low is good for this one.

If they roll current attempt time or lower, then they need to spend the rolled number times a fiftieth of the Xanathar “workweek” price, but then they immediately succeed. Workweek over.

Otherwise, if they roll the total time or lower, then reroll the d100. Keep rerolling until you don’t get this result.

Finally, i.e. if they roll higher, they need to spend money for every attempted hour, but they don’t succeed.

Let’s say they are looking for a seller for a Wand of Yak Shaving they’ve found, and it takes 3 hours (diegetical hours, not real-time hours, I hope), maybe they’re at the hairdresser gossiping about it, and (including those three hours) they’ve spent 25 hours total on the search so far, and you’re all (DM and players) wondering “did we find a seller”?

In this example, the two numbers are 3 and 25. Current attempt time, and total time.

The “hourly rate” is 5 dirham (a fiftieth of the Xanathar workweek price, which is 250 dirham for selling magic items).

If they roll a 1, 2 or 3, they spend 5, 10 or 15 dirham respectively, and they’ve found their seller after 1, 2 or 3 hours!
If they roll a 4 through 25, keep rerolling until you don’t get a result between 4 and 25.
If they roll a 25 or higher, they spend 15 dirham (the max amount for this attempt) but they didn’t find a seller yet. Their tally is now 25 since they’ve spent 25h total on this quest.

The tally resets on a successful find, even if the players aren’t happy with the info or the proposed deal.

The cool part is that this lends itself both to the zoomed-in style of play but also to zoomed-out, once you’re at the level of “we spend a few days hitting up the usual places, dishing out cash as we go” you’re like OK, a 16h attempt, so that means 16% chance, that’s gonna cost them up to 80 dirham. The math neither punishes zooming in nor zooming out so just let the players set the natural pace of the game.

If the players say “we just keep asking until we find someone”, then that means it’s a max attempt. for example, maybe they already have racked up six hours on selling this wand and then they’re like “and we go on like that for days on end until we find a buyer”, that means they’re willing to spend up to 94 more hours, so roll a 1 through 94 to see how many hours (and how much money) it took.


Payment refusal

Sometimes the diegetic situation doesn’t lend itself to paying. That’s fine. Don’t force it. That just mean the next person is that much more expensive. Hey, times are tough all over, with these stingy delvers running around.

Lack of agency

This system, especially with the kinda illusionistic solution for payment refusal in the previous section, is all stochastic, all Yahtzee, just like chopping at an ogre’s HP with an axe is. That’s true for this zoomed in version; there’s still the “meta-agency” of the system as a whole. For example, if you’re not happy with the price an item seller is offering, you can decide to try another week. Or, for the Crime entry, the player gets to select between different targets with different DCs, and that, of course, carries over well here.

Buuut if you really want to, you can use the universal spray-on solution to this general problem, which is to reward clever interation with the diegesis with advantage, or inflict disadvantage on strained interaction. “Advantage” in this situation means taking the lowest of the d100 roll (I have not mathed out the consequences of that), or grant advantage to one of the checks in the actual activity, like the Charisma check for the price once you’ve found a seller. I’m not sure I think that’s necessary, but don’t knock it as a solution just because it’s so general. It works.

Conflicting diegesis

So what happens if the players already know a buyer for magic items or a suitable mark for burglary? For example, maybe there’s one in the module. Do you force them to go through these hoops?

Of course not. If they already have what they want they don’t need to struggle for what they want, and that’s great. Specific prep overrides general “fact generators”; tier one truths are better than tier two truths.

XGE’s downtime system is an additional tool to create worldbuilding and rival events, it’s a big “tier two truth” machine, it’s not meant to make your life more difficult when the module or city or situation already has tier one truths.

The mythical man month

The XGE rules were designed for one person; if several people split up then their hours can work in parallel, depending on what the mission is, of course.

Design history

One mistake I’ve made over and over again when it comes to the “downtime” activities in XGE has been this:

Players: “Aww right, let’s go see if someone wants to buy this magic item we found. Let’s start by asking a rando at the souk.”
DM (me), out of character: “Hold on there, it’s gonna take at least a week of asking around and it’s also gonna take 25 dinars.”
Players: “Ugh! No. Never mind.”

And they just nope out and they don’t engage with the system, or with any of the systems in that chapter, and you never get to use any of the rivals or complications you rolled up.

With the new rule, this becomes instead:

Players: “Aww right, let’s go see if someone wants to buy this magic item we found. Let’s start by asking a rando at the souk.”
DM: “Are you looking at sellers or other shoppers?”
Players: Other shoppers.”
DM: “There’s a rough-looking guy browsing the lanterns.”
Players: “Hi there, are you interested in buying a Wand of Yak-Shaving?”
DM (as the rando): “Yak-Shaving? Not right now, but have you tried
asking over at the barber’s?”

Etc etc.

Your everyday burglary

For example, for the “Crime” entry, the resolution method works well. It’s an easy frameout to unblorbiliy wing something around.

The character is gonna make three checks overall: One dex (“Stealth”), one thieves’ tools, and one of Int, Wis, or Cha.

Since failing all three checks means you get caught (and there’s even a formula for the fine & jailtime), that means that you can resolve the tension built up after two failures by having the last check be about whether or not they get away. Succeeding once means getting away with nothing, and succeeding twice means getting away with half the payout.

This means that you can… I mean, hold on, this is very unblorb but it’s within a framework that’s supported by the rules and the game’s economy.

You can wing/improv locations, people etc and if they:

As DM, you make up rooms, furniture, guards, locks on the fly etc, guided by those three rolls and the DC based on the stakes of the crime. This approach reminds me of Crimeworld by John Rogers, actually. A great read for running these types of heists. (It’s in Fate: Worlds of Shadow).

This is cheating, from a blorb perspective, but you’re in a subsystem, and, the good part is that there’s a lot of similar interface points to just any old adventuring. So if they do happen to pick a prepped house, prepped guards etc, you’re golden because you then just run that house as a dungeon instead.

A similar approach works for gambling, pit fighting, etc.

And then the best part: a chance to roll on the complications table.

So the resolution isn’t the problem. The problem is the whole “you must spend a week and 25 gp gathering information on potential targets” before that burglary. It’s easy to diegetify the money. “I can give you info, but it’ll cost you” but it’s difficult to break it up over a week, or to, from diegetics, get the players to commit to spend a week on something like this.

I’ve found that players hate “cutting away” from their characters. They just do. It’s dissociating and jarring and they wanna be there all the way. That doesn’t mean realtime: they’re usually OK with “You walk for four hours and you’re there” or “You sleep for six hours and then a new day dawns”. It’s fast-forwarding rather than cutting, it’s clear to them what the character is doing.

I understand that the entire point of the character is to “fast forward” past things. “You spend a month in Ajayib, how did you spend your summer vacation”, everyone rolls through their stuff and maybe rogue is doing break ins and we just roll through them without describing and maybe the fighter is doing arena fighting and we just roll through that without describing… that’s the point of that chapter.

But that’s just not what a lot of players want. I’ve tried to make rules that lead into it, like I’ve experimented with having a long rest be a full week or have missing sessions be tied into “what did your character do during the downtime” but neither of those two approaches has been accepted by the players. This XGE formulation of “downtime” has the stink of “off-screen”.

Maybe days would work?

I’ve found that fastforwarding through routines, through known practices, is palatable, even desired, by many players. Setting up the tents and the campfire is something you don’t even have to mention after the first few nights, while the first night it was very important. You establish whether or not these people use a campfire, what their watch schedule is etc, and then it’s just “we do it like yesterday” and then it’s just glossed over entirely. Until something changes and that’s when you zoom in again.

A “workweek” in XGE terms is, according to p 125, five days of eight hours each.

Breaking the workweek up into smaller parts might be the ticket. Back to the magic item selling example. Two hours, four hours, eight hours. 10 dirham, 25 dirham, 50 dirham. Everyone they meet is nickle-and-diming them, stalling them…

The “helpful” d100

You can enforce this level of zoomed-in-ness by adding stochastics. Dice rolls (whether pure random, or tied into their skills and stuff) is a way to hook time into the procedure. That might be counter-productive if the goal is to eventually start zooming past these weeklong hook-ups&haggle information quests, but, that’s why the “flexible granularity” of this d100 house rule pays off. You can combine any amount of hours into one roll.