Downtime in the Empire

It seems to be a trend these days to include mechanics in your RPG for spending individual downtime between adventures.  Granted I’ve been feeding this trend myself with the many articles I’ve written about carousing, but I was still surprised to see it show up in the official 5th edition D&D books, and was no less surprised to find it now in Warhammer FRPG 4e.  Starting on page 192 (I wish I could call that the “back of the book”, but at 345 pages that’s more like the middle) there’s a 9 page section titled “Between Adventures.”  Last night I chose this section for my bedtime reading, and I’m still not totally sure what to make of it.

Now, to their credit, the authors begin this section with a loud disclaimer about how all this is optional:

Every rule in this chapter is optional. Some will love the quick rules it offers to explain events between adventures, others will prefer to detail this time fully with roleplay, seeing it as as an opportunity to give depth to characters or to pursue leads and ideas that could become adventures in their own right. There is no right or wrong way. Treat this chapter as a source of inspiration and do your own thing!

So, like them or not, it’s hard to be too critical of these rules with that kind of disclaimer.  While the rules are fairly expansive and could be used to entirely replace any roleplay between forays into the dungeon, personally I much prefer the idea of using them as inspiration similar to how I use carousing.  As written the rules present a certain structure: first roll for random events, then purchase supplies, then determine how many weeks the players will spend in town and have them individually attempt “endeavors” for each week.  Endeavors are individual tasks that sound a lot like players do naturally between adventures anyway: gather intel, spend resources trying to obtain more powerful equipment, etc.  I could easily see breaking these rules down and using them piecemeal. 

Perhaps when the group arrives at a town you roll for a random event just to add a little flavor.  When a player says “I want to pay the blacksmith to make some really sweet armor” you can just flip to the Commission endeavor and use those rules. In fact, while some endeavors add interesting mechanics to actions usually not covered by an RPG, I’d say others are so trivial as to barely warrant writing down. For example, there’s an endeavor called The Local News where a player can make a Gossip test and if he succeeds get a rumor about local events. Um, isn’t that just how the Gossip skill works? I’m not sure I needed that one spelled out for me. Though I suppose that if you’re using the super-structure of the Between Adventures system, it’s good to note that this action counts as a player’s endeavor for a week.

Now, the other thing I like about carousing is that it’s a money sink. Prior to using carousing I found my players accruing vast fortunes, and often had no idea what to spend it on. With carousing I’ve had high level players go completely broke, and not even feel very bad about it. Somehow spending all your ready cash on an insane night of revelry is just a satisfying expression of your character and worth every penny.  In this department Warhammer FRPG is no slouch. According to the rules, after all the endeavors are complete, everyone loses all their money. Yeah, all of it. The authors spend a lot of text repeating that fact, and then give this explanation:

What happened to it? It was spent, stolen, drunk, gambled, used for repairs, to pay off debts or taxes, given as a charitable donations or votive offerings, spent on bribes, or used in whatever other way you prefer. You should concoct the best story for what happens to those funds, as it explains a lot about your character.

Personally, I really like this. I like the enabling of players to make stuff up about how they managed to lose all their cash, and I love that it’s just a given that it’s gone. Why else would the party return to the dungeon if they weren’t penniless again? Now, for those who think this is overly harsh, I will point out that there are endeavors to try and hang onto your cash. Notably, there’s a Banking endeavor where you can invest some of your money in local bank or business. The outcome is that the next time you return to town you roll to get your money back – most likely you do so with a small amount of interest, or possibly you lose it all as the business you invested in goes bust.

These rules remind me a lot of the “Roleplay” book that was included in Warhammer Quest. The between adventures tables in that book were pretty ruthless though, and since you had to pay for your levels in cash in that game, losing all your money just returning to town felt a bit oppressive. These rules I think are a little more generous, while still giving the world the proper dark Warhammer vibe. I could easily see playing a mega-dungeon based campaign and then plugging these rules in between to handle the group’s trips back to town. I’d expect it to go similar to the way I saw carousing go in my birthday game: a bit silly and weird at first, but eventually evolving into hilarious stories about the characters who otherwise spent their time murdering goblins and evil cultists.

I have one major problem with that setup though – it’s that for Warhammer, a mega-dungeon feels like a poor fit. Even a series of smaller dungeons scattered about the wilderness doesn’t feel quite right for the setting to me. When I think of Warhammer games, my first image is of crowded medieval city streets. It’s the mingling of destitute peasantry with dark cults, the sewers crawling with footpads and ratmen, and the players desperately trying to make a few coins and avoid catching the krutz. What I really want from Warhammer is a way to make that the focus of our games, the content of the adventures, rather than a few chuckles between exploring abandoned dungeons filled with monsters.  Leave the abandoned ruins full of monsters guarding treasure to D&D, when we’re playing Warhammer, I want spend my time saving the peasantry from a dark cult only to be chased out of town by the very people I just saved for high crime of becoming a mutant.

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