Updated: Dec 17, 2022
Often when playing TTRPGs, whenever the characters return to town to sell their items or lick their wounds, there ultimately should be a period of time in which they rest and get their bearings and enjoy the fruits of their labor. However, far too often, busy GMs or bored players or both skip over the time in town by reducing it to a randomly generated event table or straight-up using narrative tools like fast forwarding the time. I believe that to fully immerse the players into the game world, downtime should be utilized to its max potential. Here are some ways in which you could achieve that yourself as a GM, or even as a player by suggesting to your GM any of these tools that you might like.
THINK ABOUT YOUR CHARACTER'S BASIC NEEDS
One of the simplest ways to think about what to do during "downtime" is look at your character's basic needs and wants. Have you just been on a forced march for days or weeks at a time? If you think about your own time traveling in the real world, even just traveling by plane or bus or train can be pretty exhausting. Now, think about how much harder and exhausting the travel would be if you were traveling on foot or by horse for days and weeks at a time, sleeping on the cold, hard ground. Perhaps getting by on foraging or eating your Iron Rations. I'm guessing some of the very first things a typical PC would want to do is feed and water their horses if they have one and grab a hot meal and some ale or spirits and then rest their travel weary body for a day or two in the tavern. Maybe their clothing was torn or soiled during travel? Maybe a weapon or two was broken or needs mending in some way? Maybe they need to refill some ammunition or buy some more rations? Maybe during travel, they discovered their saddle wasn't working out for them, or maybe in the last battle they were in they realized they didn't have the right tools for the job? In either case, these simple necessities shouldn't be looked over. No, you don't need to spend several hours on these things, but I prefer to have a session where we just explore the town and have *ACTUAL* down time from adventuring. You don't need to move the narrative along at breakneck speed. Not every interaction must result in a plot hook. Let the characters explore the town in full if you're the GM and if you're a player, explore the town as you would if you were traveling to that town yourself. GMs should have a list of interesting sites in the town. You can use generators, such as the one here on our website, which may contain a "draw" to the town like a historical site or famous bakery or infamous battle. Really take the opportunity in a single session (or even two if your players are having fun with it) to dive deep and give the players a satisfying amount of time to further their character development. Maybe the players really begin to gel with the local tanner, and he ends up giving them a discount because he likes them? Maybe they make the local tavern keep suspicious? The possibilities are endless - but to make the town feel more real, don't ignore the basic necessities.
THINK ABOUT YOUR CHARACTER'S DESIRES
With the basic needs of the characters out of the way, you can then move on to the second tier in the downtime hierarchy, which are individual character desires. If you play D&D, Xanathar's Guide to Everything has a beefed-up section on character downtime activities. There are numerous tables that can give ideas as to what extra-curricular activities a player might want their characters to engage in. Perhaps they want to buy a magic item - well, that character must spend time and money to find a seller and acquire the item in question. Perhaps the player wants their character to craft an item or two - well, if the player has the tools, the time, and the cash then it's possible that the character can create a desired item. No matter what the characters wish to do, whether committing crimes, going gambling, pit fighting, working for a temple, scribing a scroll, or even selling their own magic items - it will usually require more than a day's worth of time. True "downtime" is at least a week or more. If the characters are only in town for a day or so, you can obviously do some things, but the more complicated tasks require more time and money so think about that before doing a town session. If a character wants to participate in a certain activity, make sure that the players have enough time and money to do so.
DON'T IGNORE YOUR CHARACTER'S BACKSTORIES
If you've followed our blog at all, you may have seen a post I made about incorporating your player's backstories into the ongoing narrative, WHICH YOU CAN FIND HERE. Downtime in a town or city is the perfect time to explore individual characters and their relationships with their fellow party members, their mentors, plot hooks that may involve individual characters to develop their story arcs, and narrative information that may prompt players to do certain things with their characters like finding someone to silver all of their weapons, or purchasing a local business, or building a stronghold. Again, I must stress - don't skip over all this opportunity to further the immersion in your world and in your campaign. In my opinion, each trip into town should equate more narrative advancement, more fleshing out of the characters, more intertwined relationships between characters and NPCs, and more opportunities for adventure.
THE DEVIL IS IN THE DETAILS
One last area I'll mention is that towns should not all FEEL the same. If the characters buy rations in one town, they might be slightly different than in the last. If the characters examine the architecture, it should reflect the area in which they're in (for example, in areas with lots of wind perhaps the structures are all squat and flat) and in the case of your characters spending downtime in the town or city, they should not immediately become bored because the town shouldn't feel exactly like the last town the players were visiting. Change things up, whether it be accents or even something purely aesthetic like architecture or perhaps the style of armor created in the blacksmith's shop. Amp up the creativity and the players will react to it in a very positive way.
We hope you've enjoyed our advice about utilizing downtime between adventures. If you need a great tool to help with making a town feel alive, make sure to check out our very own system agnostic resource ORGANIC TOWNS. Or if you just need to generate some NPCs or even some gossip, we've got you covered there, too. Let us know how you spend your downtime in the comments below! We're always looking for new ideas. - Joe