D&D 5eReviews

Unearthed Arcana: Downtime Breakdown

This is the one I’ve been waiting for, y’all: the rework and expansion of downtime activities in Unearthed Arcana. Between my love of domain rulership and mass combat, which you know about if you’ve been reading my column, and my well-nigh pathological love of crafting in games, which you know about if you read Harbinger of Doom, this is totally my deal. Also, I think there was supposed to be something about spending money at high levels? Let’s see what’s here.

Foils

The most interesting thing in the whole document, by far, is the introduction of Foils. Freshman English class aside, foils here are about enriching the lives of PCs between adventures through conflict, and generally conflict that is… not really socially acceptable to stab. Sure, some of your foils are going to be actual villains that eventually you do stab, but most of them are good people who just disagree with you. This won’t stop every murderhobo, but each DM has to take their own steps toward stamping out murderhobo behavior.

There’s a solid table of 1d20 example foils, a very 101-level discussion of building an NPC as a mostly-non-lethal antagonist, a discussion of how to give your foil a game plan, and two more detailed examples. These aren’t “rules” in any formal sense. What we have here instead is a clear vision of how to go from the seed of an idea for an antagonist to an active NPC who carries out plans and demonstrates that the setting is alive. It’s only about downtime actions because the downtime actions draw on this information, but this is such an important complement to the Event-Based Adventures section of the DMG (pp. 75-77). The DMG says “Start with a Villain,” but this document adds, The best foils are personal and The best trouble for the characters is trouble they created for themselves. Every experienced DM knows this, but even the experienced need reminders, while new DMs may not yet grasp this essential truth.

Because of some sharp criticism of this section that I’ve seen around the internet, I just want to remind everyone that D&D has to target all experience levels of potential DMs. If this looks super basic, well-nigh retrograde, to you, then it’s possible that you’ve already internalized everything it has to teach, and you can just be happy that the next generation of DMs will learn it faster than you did. More than any other tabletop game, or roleplaying game of any medium, D&D is culturally obligated to teach fundamentals. Such are the burdens of being the first and still reigning champion, forty-three years on.

 

Sample Downtime Actions

Now we get to the thing we came to see: Naomi Watts and Kong. It’s behind a screen, very tasteful. (Yeah, I’ve linked that before. Get used to it – this song is part of my daily parlance.) The rest of this document is thirteen downtime actions, some new and some retooled from the Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide.

Quick note about 5-day workweeks. Using Forgotten Realms as the default setting goes to hell in a handbasket right here, because as every schoolchild knows, FR has metric weeks – that is, 10 days long. Silly buggers.

 

Buying a Magic Item

This is probably the most controversial of the actions – I know it’s driving Marsupialmancer to an apoplectic fit right now – because it’s got so much potential to trivialize magic items, let players optimize their equipment, and otherwise just be a total pain in the ass. On the other hand, the point of this action is to put trade on the table only with an investment of effort. This also tosses out any promise of getting you that thing you want, and instead randomly generates the available items. This is also one of the only places in 5e where we see graduated results for ever-higher check results, and… I mean, I have no problem with it, it’s a legit approach – it’s just awful lonely in this edition!

There’s also a sort of guesswork around committing time and money to the effort, and that’s more of a problem. The upfront cost to find a market is interesting, and it means that your final sale price on everything can go for less than “fair”-market value, since there was a cover charge just to get into the marketplace. It’s like buying from a place that requires a membership but offers amazing prices. (100 gp ain’t shit to the pricing of a very rare+ magic item.) But then, to get to the best treasure tables, you’re going to commit more money – sure, whatever – and time. This has a lot of potential to get the narrative tangled up, especially with the Complication system. Having to commit to the number of weeks and amount of money you want to spend before the roll, rather than getting to progressively increase your cash and time commitment cumulatively with each roll, can be a bear when only the high-DC tables are anything but a waste.

 

Carousing

Shifting Carousing to a 5-day work-week scale demonstrates the professionalism with which hard-living adventurers approach inebriation. Really, though, this action should be called Cultivate Contacts, because the point of this action is to turn cash into friendly NPCs. Much like Buying a Magic Item, this operates on a graduated Charisma (Persuasion) check. In this case, I think the table of outcomes is ill-made, progressing from a hostile contact to no contact to an increasing number of allied contacts. This really needs to be something more like:

  • 1-5, 1 hostile contact
  • 6-10, 1 allied contact, 1 hostile contact
  • 11-15, 2 allied contacts, 1 hostile contact
  • 16-20, 3 allied contacts, 2 hostile contacts
  • 21+, 3 allied contacts, 1 hostile contact

My point here is that anything resulting in fewer interesting outcomes and fewer opportunities for conflict could be more awesome. Now, the Carousing rules of the DMG are a quick-and-dirty content-generation tool, while these rules divide Carousing into Lower, Middle, and Upper-class Carousing, with increasing costs and presumptive rewards, and with individual Complication tables for each class.

Be careful how you treat alcohol abuse jokes, questionable-consent jokes, and Those Wacky Poor People. Not all Complications are created remotely equal, and these are written to be a lot more embarrassing than other downtime actions. Make sure you give players a chance to say they’re not comfortable incorporating a particular consequence, and modify or re-roll that consequence until it’s equally negative, but not overtly discomfiting.

These rules also embrace the power of the un-collapsed waveform, giving players a chance to declare that they recognize someone from carousing (and have that be supported by the rules, not just a random declaration). The rules also support naming and introducing new NPCs at the time of the action, so there are good options here. At this point of reading the document, though, I’m starting to get a little uncomfortable with how much love Charisma (Persuasion) is getting, and just how much it pays off for rogues and bards to spend an Expertise slot really cranking up that math. Let’s see how that develops.

 

Crafting an Item

As suggested in the intro, this is a topic about which I care so fiercely that I may be less kind than is my wont. I mean, unless they really blow the doors off it.

Hmm. The nonmagical crafting side is unchanged from the base rules, except that labor was repackaged into weeks rather than days. So there are no actual skill interactions beyond a yes/no test for proficiency. A suit of armor that would be an upgrade – hint, that’s the main kind that PCs want to make – is generally a huge investment of time, except for studded leather. Even though studded leather is as good of an upgrade for Light armor wearers as a breastplate is to a chain shirt wearer, or splint is to a chain mail wearer… sure. Things are priced pseudo-naturalistically, rather than through gamist logic, but that’s one of the points that favors Dex. It is, at least, probably why Light armor doesn’t get a further mundane upgrade past Light armor, the way it did in some D&D Next iterations that I recall as through a glass darkly.

At least these rules make it clear that you can turn a profit equal to half the cost of the item when you sell the finished product. On the other hand, there’s no reference to working as an artisan automatically paying any of your upkeep, as there is in the PH. I don’t know if that’s just not a thing anymore, though it’s probably easier, mentally, to put downtime action income in the Assets column and upkeep in the Costs column, rather than downtime actions covering costs up to a certain maximum, but not in a non-monetary way.

These crafting rules are still boring and not really offering anything to make you want to play a smith, for example, as your core concept. The DMG is rife with small, not-quite-magical modifiers that magic items might come with; why not expand this into small, not-quite-magical (and not-quite-mundane either, but whatever) modifiers that PC smiths can attach to new creations? Basically, this section is disappointing and could show a lot more exciting ideas than it does, but D&D has never really engaged with the idea that crafting is for PCs – they’ve always dismissed it, going back to 2e at least, as getting a job rather than being a hero. I… have actually read some fantasy novels in my life, to say nothing of a myth here and there, and I know that this is crap.

Moving on, Crafting Magic Items.

Okay, so formulas are now 100% required, except for potions and spell scrolls. Cool, that’s fine. We should have a little talk about how those enter play, get copied, and so on, but I’m not upset that this document doesn’t drill all the way down to that.

An item invariably requires an exotic material and Finding that material should take place as part of an adventure. Okay, this is a bad problem. Let’s say I want to make a magical silver hammer for my buddy Maxwell. I don’t want to hit someone over the head and take their magical silver hammer; then someone would have to call the beadle and arrest me. Oh, but wait, I decided this without already having some heretofore-unspecified component from an adventure, because I had the idea when I had it. If we have to go on a magical mystery tour past the Norwegian woods to find the exotic silver or sky diamonds or whatever, it strips away the illusionism, because it becomes fully apparent that the DM could have put anything at the end of that quest, including the completed silver hammer. My place in the fiction as a crafter is weak, and all the weaker because I still want to spend money and a colossal amount of downtime. It’s not just a day in the life – a rare hammer is a year of labor (50 work-weeks), and it gets a lot worse from there.

Basically, then, this system only makes any sense if the DM includes exotic materials in the treasure of adventures, and the PC essentially takes the DM up on that offer. Here it is incredibly important to make each exotic component work for more than one formula – otherwise it’s the DM handing out specific magic items, but if and only if the PCs complete them with the aforementioned large amount of cash and time.

There’s one good thing here: all that is required to contribute to crafting is either a relevant tool proficiency or Arcana proficiency. That’s the most generous access to magic item crafting I think I’ve ever seen, and that’s great to see. Smith-wizards are a thing in legends, but the great dwarf crafters of Norse mythology do not seem to possess any great rune-lore, as Odin does – just the ability to create Mjölnir and a few other cool things. You know, like Gungnir and Skithblathnir, minor stuff like that.

That means, then, that you could get more than just the party’s wizard working on this. I’m going to go on record as saying that rewarding Arcana but not Religion or (druids are a class in D&D, who knew?) Nature is weird. Sure, druids can pick Arcana as a class skill – clerics, not so much. Anyway, you can get most of the party working on a single magic item if needed, but that undermines the sense of downtimes, and especially crafting, as personal goals. Also, if everyone has to come together eight days a week to get the hammer of this example made, we can work it out, but it’s a five-person party is still taking 10 weeks of downtime to make a rare item. God forbid I should try for a legendary item – I’ll be done when I’m sixty-four. These rules might as well be labeled “Run For Your Life.”

Adding Complications to this is just insult to injury – for significant projects, you have the standard 10% chance per week of getting interrupted with another adventure, when all you want to do is tick down a few more of those interminable weeks. This would have been a great place for more graduated-success rules, granting more progress on a better check or something. By any standard, the rules for crafting magic items are a slog and generate content way less interesting than the content they’re stopping you from reaching. There are ways to make this better; I think I’ve got one and Colin’s got another, and eventually we’ll each finish writing them.

The rules for Brewing Potions of Healing are basically fine. Though I’ll be damned if potions of supreme healing are actually worth the 10K gp that they cost to make, much less their nominal market price. But this document isn’t about the insanity of pricing out consumable items in 5e, so I don’t expect it to get fixed here.

 

Crime

Crime pays. This is a way to let rogues and Criminals in the party go make some cash without dragging the paladin or whoever into it. As a backer of Blades in the Dark, though, making Crime a downtime thing feels like the most wrongheaded of approaches – I mean, this shifts adventures into downtimes as literally as possible. This is the exciting stuff, but the downtime turns it into handwaved non-content unless a Complication crops up.

The PC stakes 25 gp and a week of effort, and chooses a difficulty – 10, 15, 20, or 25. Risk/reward mechanics are in full swing, as you would expect. The PC rolls Stealth, thieves’ tools, and one other check from a short but reasonable list, and receives anything from an arrest, fine, and jail time (for the unlikely three-failures outcome) to a pile of money (for the three-successes outcome), with Complications on one or two successes. As Les Miserables reminds us, though, Complications from crime don’t necessarily show up in the short term – sure, you might get off the hook for the silver candlesticks now, but what you really have to worry about is the guy who looks like you getting arrested for your crimes, years down the line. (Other lesson: Jean Valjean is the worst Criminal ever, and rolls Complications every. Single. Time.)

Anyway, I feel like shifting heists into a backdrop like this is okay for some groups, but throwing away great opportunities for adventure for others. Is there a paladin in the party? Great, have the paladin roll up a one-shot criminal character to join in the heist, if you can’t work it out any other way. Oh, and I’m thinking rogues with the Thief subclass – like, this action is literally their raison d’etre – should see some kind of knock-on benefit here.

 

Gambling

I love the movies Maverick and Rounders, so this is another one that almost seems a shame to frame as downtime, but ultimately it’s pretty cool. You stake a variable amount of cash and roll a series of skill checks against DCs of (5 + 2d10). This may have some scaling issues in the late game, when even the worst-case DC 25 looks fairly easy, but introducing a high-stakes gambling option so you can stake more money and roll against higher DCs is totally feasible. The Complications are fine too. In summary, then, I like this basic approach but would rather use it as a framing device for adventures on riverboats or in casinos.

It would be worth including different skill lists for gambling that is not poker. Insight, Deception, and Intimidation have a lot less to do with craps (straight Int roll for grasping the odds?) or playing the ponies (Insight, Animal Handling, Nature?).

 

Pit Fighting

This is for bare-knuckle boxing and wrestling, not for live-steel situations, as the text calls out. This functions basically like gambling, but without the initial stake, and with nothing lost but time if you fail all of the rolls. The Complications are pretty underwhelming, and should probably include “you’re injured and have some drawback for X many weeks or the next adventure.” I mean, pro wrestling is more dangerous for the actual wrestlers, totally outside of storylines, than this is. Competitive speed-walking is more dangerous for its athletes than these pit-fighting Complications.

Using Athletics, Acrobatics, and Insight as the skills of record is… fine? It communicates the story of punching, dodging, and reading the opponent okay, but ignoring class features that are greatly enhanced versions of these actions comes across weirdly. Giving PCs more ways to define their own style and at least add some bonuses to their skill checks from salient class features would help a lot. There’s a lot to be said (ironically) for compactness in rules, but this feels like a breach of established fiction.

 

Relaxation

Relaxation is the new Recuperate action. It’s fine – you wouldn’t expect anything unusual here, and it delivers nothing unusual.

 

Religious Service

This action is more or less grinding faction with a local religious hierarchy, potentially earning favors such as help with your problems, political or social support, or reduced cost for spellcasting. The skills for this check are Intelligence (Religion), reminding us of the perpetually brain-breaking why is Religion not connected to Wisdom question, and Charisma (Persuasion), because fuck clerics, that’s why. I’m sure they won’t want to perform this action anyway! The limit on unexpended favors is… great for paladins, at least. But you remember that Charisma is not a primary stat for clerics, right, y’all?

The Complications are basically fine here. I think I’m just surprised that there aren’t any overtly mystical effects or Complications on the table here – this action works almost exactly as well for any kind of political faction grind as it does for temple service, as long as you switch out Intelligence (Religion). It’s good to have a modifiable chassis, but these rules only minimally live up to the apparent promise of the fiction.

 

Research

I made a big thing out of crafting, but the lore game of any campaign is also near and dear to my heart. Ask anyone who played Dust to Dust, the LARP that I wrote (well, a lot of people including Colin wrote, but this isn’t the place for a full credits list, I hope they’ll understand).

Anyway, research carries a 100-gp up-front cost, and you can juice up the roll with an additional +1 per 100 gp. You can also gain advantage on the roll if your library or coterie of scholars are particularly good. Fine so far. This action requires access to a library or sage in the first place… does that include PCs with the Sage background, possibly even the person performing the research? (This is a specific case of a broader criticism that Backgrounds and their Features need to factor into downtimes more smoothly.)

The results of research treat every detail that the PCs do not currently know as equal. There is no concept of a secret you can’t find out in about a week of work, and it’s not too hard to push failure off the table as a 1st-level character with 18 Int and an extra 100 gp. At least the PH Researching rules include the possibility that someone simply never wrote a piece of information down, as well as plausible chances of failure or delay.

The Complications table here is also underwhelming, with only six options, and several of them doing nothing to provide grist for a new adventure or story, just a letter of apology or something. I dunno, I’m just so displeased with the rest of the Research text that I can’t really be fair to the tiny and repetitive list of Complications.

 

Scribing a Spell Scroll

This action is about like brewing a potion, except that taking 96 work-weeks (that’s almost two years, for those of you that don’t math good) and a quarter of a million gold pieces to scribe a 9th-level spell scroll doesn’t even merit discussion. Just… no. Doubling the time and quintupling the cost of an 8th-level spell scroll? This is just not worth doing. This math is a result of rarity scaling causing huge price jumps. I would rather see scrolls completely divorced from the rarity scale and given a price scaling driven by something more rational than the side effects of the rarity chart, even though we clearly can’t revert to the pricing formulas of 3.x spell scrolls.

The one really interesting thing here is that, in a sense, the Arcana skill automatically offers 3e’s Scribe Scroll feat in 5e. And every other crafting feat, except for Brew Potion, which uses Arcana for everything except healing potions. I don’t want 5e to go back to 3.x’s take on feats as crafting prereqs or anything, but I do think there’s a kind of disorganized approach going on here that makes no effort to ground the creation of magic items in a cosmology. Is that a reasonable expectation? Maybe not, as cosmologies vary wildly by setting, but some work could turn all forms of magic item creation from minimally-functional into something compelling.

 

Selling a Magic Item

The logical opposite of Buying a Magic Item also costs an up-front 100 gp, to publicize the sale, but since you can only sell one item at a time, selling Common items generally won’t be worth it (what with that 50 gp base price) until and unless you can well-nigh guarantee hitting a DC 21 Charisma (Persuasion) check. But, y’know, by the time you can do that, Common magic items are probably not worth spending a week to sell. Anyway, the Base Price table here is a real kick in the pants compared to the Creation Cost table in the DMG – Common items start at 50% of Creation Cost, Uncommon and Rare at 40%, Very Rare at 20%, and Legendary at 5%. The game doesn’t want you selling legendary items, of course, and they tend to be interesting enough that if there’s any way someone in the party can use them, they should.

The Complications for this one are particularly frustrating, as most of them mean that either you’re out the whole value of the item, or you need to cancel this week’s attempt and try again next week (with a new 100-gp up-front cost). They could be interesting content, but my memories of marketplace sessions of 3.x suggest that the very best that can happen is that selling happens quickly so that everyone moves on to the next thing. Once you’ve decided to sell, you’ve decided that a piece of content – the magic item – isn’t as compelling as having a pile of cash; you aren’t interested in getting more content out of it.

 

Training

The time requirement for training sure did step down a lot, from 250 days to 50 days or less. The cost jumped up, from 250 gp to anywhere from 500-1000 gp. Probably a good trade in most campaigns. All but two of the Complications amount to “your instructor is broken, you’ll need another one.” One of those two sounds really interesting, but with no room for mechanical throughput, it loses its potential impact. Because some of them are immediately observable traits of an instructor, it would be weird to have them come up eight or nine weeks in.

 

Work

Otherwise known as the Practicing a Profession action, these rules have you make a skill check, and your standard of living for the week comes from the result (not convertible to cash unless you get the 25-gp bonus for a 21+ roll). This is fine, but the text isn’t shy about presenting this as the second-most-boring action, right after Relaxation. It would be cooler if the Complications had more good or mixed-blessing outcomes, I think.

 

Conclusion

This 14-page document has certainly been an endurance trial, which is why it’s a day late and more than 4,000 words long. Thanks for coming with me all this way. The rules and guidance for Foils are great stuff, while most of the actions could use some more work. It’s playtest, that’s a fine place to be, but I’ll keep on wishing that the magic item economy was a little closer to sensible, rather than a handwave to just get past the thing they don’t care about.

My main takeaway is disappointment that the rules don’t touch on longer-term social or political efforts, spell research, building new structures, or domain rulership – the kinds of things that should define high-level play and eat up huge amounts of money. I appreciate all the ways this document drains money from player coffers in exchange for letting them take risks or advance their goals; I just want to see more about the kinds of goals high-level characters should have, and how to pursue those.

By the time these make it into official release, though, they should be pretty awesome.

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  • Colin McLaughlin

    I took a pass at crafting forever ago – https://standsinfire.wordpress.com/2017/01/10/shes-crafty-part-1/

    Like you, I hate that pure smithing isn’t a way to make something. It’s particularly frustrating when you look at D&D own narrative fiction.

    • I mean, Arcana gets a bit too broad of usage here, but I like that crafting magic items is the relevant type of tool kit proficiency OR Arcana, with no further requirement. I just wish they made it all more interesting and emphasized that the smith’s knowledge is as deep and secret as any wizard’s, you know?

  • Unexpected Dave

    The text makes reference to the downtime rules being suitable for “Levels 1 to 10”, so I wonder if we’ll see some higher-level downtime options (like domain rulership) in another article before the month is out.

    • I missed that in the text! I’m as guilty as anyone of skimming for eye-catching content when faced with a self-imposed deadline and a big document. =/ But yeah, if there’s an 11-20 follow-on, that would be great.

  • Unexpected Dave

    These downtime rules definitely seem geared to the kind of groups that have limited table-time, and don’t like to roleplay mundane activities like buying and eating. I do like the suggestion that a lot of downtime activities that don’t concern the whole party can be played out via email. As a player, there’s nothing more annoying than going to my weekly D&D game after a hard day’s work, only to spend half of that time falling asleep at the table because there’s nothing for my character to do while one or two party members are playing out their own personal dramas as they haggle over the price of a pint of ale. It’s hard enough for a DM to keep everyone at the table engaged with a group adventure; they shouldn’t have to try and keep all players engaged in one character’s personal business (although it is amazing when a DM can do that well.)

    • Yeah, that’s what I’ve taken to calling pass-the-salt roleplay, in which players want to go for minute detail but can’t come up with any better business than the motions of eating dinner.

      I agree that downtimes in email between sessions are all to the good – what in our LARP community we call BGAs, or Between-Game Actions. If you’re interested in a synopsis of LARP BGAs across multiple games, I wrote about them in Harbinger of Doom: http://www.brandesstoddard.com/2012/06/larp-design-between-game-actions/

  • Unexpected Dave

    I can see why you’re disappointed with these crafting rules. They seem like they would work fine for my group, who would only ever want to craft items for their own use, but they don’t really support the Heroic Smith archetype. It’s the same design philosophy they used in the Artificer class: you can make magic items for yourself, but the Rules don’t want you making magic items for other people.

  • Drow

    Shoot, I got my hopes up when you mentioned crafting would be covered, since I have two players who would really benefit from having more than the sparse PHB material. Especially since one player seems to be trying to naturalistically and in-character invent clockwork-punk, and her husband outright designed his character around magic crafting, with an ultimate goal of creating a mobile magical RV/TARDIS (probably beyond the scope of any document, but there’s other stuff to craft in the meantime). There doesn’t seem to be much useful in the document beyond the implicit removal of level limits (we’re already using a sort of “special material” system, which probably only works because the resulting crafted item would be absurd to receive as part of a hoard). There’s also nothing that suggests how to allow independent invention, unless that’s meant to be covered under unspecified lore research.

    Going through Colin’s link now, but you said you’re working on a 5ed crafting system?

    And yeah…speaking as one of that new generation of DMs (literally on my first game run), I’m completely behind making the advice newb-friendly.

    • I’m working on a 5e crafting system, yes, though it hasn’t seen progress in awhile now. It’s still on the agenda, for sure. Believe me, if and when I have a working draft, I’ll be telling everyone. 😉

  • Tim Baker

    I enjoyed the Beatles references.

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