Roleplaying the Galaxy: Where he was. What he was doing.
There’s a universal truth, regardless of whether we’re discussing reality or various fictional worlds; not every single minute of your life is going to be exciting, and, if you plan on nurturing any personal skills, you’ll use the time between exciting diversions to practice those skills in which you hope to improve. In reality, this can be much easier said than done. Many are the times I’ve convinced myself that I was going to use an evening or weekend focusing my efforts on self-edification, and considerably fewer are the instances of my actually following through. I’m trying to do better…
Anyway, while keeping oneself motivated in real life may be a perpetually daunting task, the good news is that constantly finding ways to better one’s character is a big part of the fun in roleplaying. For the uninitiated, any time characters in a TTRPG aren’t adventuring around, blasting fools, or debating on the senate floor is referred to as “downtime”, and practically every system available addresses this time, somehow. Some do so more satisfactorily than others.
The further good news is that, should you find the rules regarding activities that don’t warrant real-time roleplay or initiative slots to be lacking, it’s a relatively simple matter to cobble together some basic, and likely ever-evolving, homebrew rules that can incentivize proper downtime usage by player characters.
But first, let’s address why I think downtime usage is important. First, and, in my opinion, most importantly, it adds to the verisimilitude and immersion of the roleplaying experience. If there are broad swaths of time in which your character is basically sitting around like a depowered android, or tucked away in a digital pocket dimension, like an MMO avatar, there will always been a disconnect between player and character. Yes, to keep things interesting, some activities will move faster in real time than others, and the truly mundane will be skipped over entirely, but there’s something binding in being able to account for the bulk of what a character has been up to in their day-to-day lives, from the moment the campaign starts to when it ends. “Oh, right, I spent that Taungsday researching Black Sun activity,” or, “That was the week we did nothing but play Pazaak in hyperspace.”
Second, good downtime rules should engage a player in thinking about their character’s short-term goals, rather than simply their endgame objectives. This can range from the basics, such as treating recent injuries, to goals more personal or abstract, like hobbies, training to shore up a skill in which failure was recently devastating, or even simply staying in contact with friends and acquaintances across the galaxy. In roleplaying, as in writing, it often pays to let characters actualize more immediate wants and needs, or even just to blow off some steam (and perhaps copious amounts of credits) by putting down a few bets at the podraces. The big, galaxy-spanning goals will still be there when the roar of the crowd fades away.
Third, it can lead to character growth opportunities you wouldn’t encounter, otherwise. Maybe two members of the player group decide that they want to focus on bettering the same skill. Why not have their characters work together, somehow? Is there a project, training arena, or ship repair that might prove more manageable with additional hands (or whatever appendages)? A game master might even decide to incentivize an entire crew to work together during a voyage or time between jobs. How do the characters get along in such close proximity? Is their bond of fellowship further strengthened, or do they find themselves at odds with each other’s way of completing the task before them? Even pursuing a goal alone, however, can inform how a character might proceed. Do they discover something about the galaxy or themselves while performing a seemingly mundane task? Forge a bitter rivalry over a lost dice throw (hopefully only in-game)?
Lastly, it can just be rewarding for players to see their efforts coming to fruition that might not have anything to do with lightsaber-wielding or fancy flying. Maybe their character likes to tinker with machines or build anything from brick ovens to modular civilian housing. Do they have a career outside the excitement of the main campaign in which they wish to climb the inevitable hierarchical ladder? A payoff in whatever a player is pursuing after dedicated downtime and numerous rolls can be just as satisfying as dropping that traitorous Rebel officer.
But, now that I’ve made my case for incorporating downtime activities, how, you conceivably inquire, is this sort of thing supposed to work?
Well…you’ll know it when you see it. And, unfortunately, when you don’t.
The basics are about as bare boned as it gets. Either adopt or invent a system that sees a character actively using their skills for whatever task or achievement they’re trying to complete, and make sure that they have proper reasons in (why the character is bothering) and out (why the player is bothering) of game to be scouring the wilderness for local fruits, or whatever they’re up to. Is it worth the character’s time, or are they fulfilling some personal belief? What benefit, either monetarily or in character stat advancement, does the activity provide to the player?
And, one last little thing I learned the hard way, don’t incentivize too much.
In a previous campaign, I made the mistake of establishing that characters could increase their base stats (Characteristics, in the Fantasy Flight Star Wars iteration) by proper allocating their downtime to supporting activities. This saw most every character swiftly becoming overpowered and severely unbalanced the game, by the end.
My solution, which has proved satisfactory, thus far, has been having players instead advance their ranks in Skills through downtime activity and, of course, dice. This not only makes character advancement more manageable, but it also helps to encourage players to be far more specific about their undertakings when not tearing through Yuuzhan Vong.
So long as your method complements the system you’re using, encourages greater player investment, and doesn’t break the game, however, feel free to conduct your player character downtime however you wish.
Kick back, brush up on your crafting skills before potentially damaging your precious lightsaber components during creation, or keep trying for that Idiot’s Array.
May the Force be with you!