Time passes.

My husband and I raced in the Run for your Lives zombie 5k this weekend. It was largely a good experience, except for the terrible waiting at the parking lot. The race producers had decided to set up a shuttle bus to take people from there to the main site. Cars got stuck in the mud on the way to park, the race had too few buses, there were long lines, and people had time to get grumpy–and to let that grumpiness bounce off of the grumpiness of others and multiply– before they got to the part of the race that had been done well. Unfortunately, the same experience on the way back out meant that a largely positive race experience was bookended by two unpleasant experiences. The result? A lot of needlessly unhappy racers.

As most things do, it got me thinking about games. I’ve generally been most unhappy at gaming tables where the GM forced us to sit through lots of downtime. Everyone needs to look up a rule or adjust a scene at some point, but some GMs do that much more gracefully than others. The right group will chat through downtime and have a good time–but even that will often be out of character and detract from the game. At my own table, moments of forced downtime tend to mean that everyone checks Facebook on his iPhone; God help me if someone has posted a funny internet meme, because then the players pass the phone around the table and talk about the hilarious duck dressed as a fire hydrant for the next ten minutes. Even at conventions, though, where people tend not to feel comfortable enough to check phones, downtime leads to some weird staring at one another.

What to do, then?

First, see if you can’t look through the scenario before you run it and find the places that will require downtime. Will you need to change the scenery on the table? Is there a big battle that will require you to set out lists of NPC stats behind your screen? Is there a moment in town that’s likely to split the party so that some players are sitting with nothing to do while others are going about their PCs’ personal business? Does a scene highlight the skills of one or two characters for an extended amount of time, leaving the others with nothing to do?

I’ve already handled some ideas for what to do while changing scenery, but if you can always give the players some long-term tasks to work on in moments when they’re not directly engaged with the GM or the plot. Here are some ideas for things they can work on during downtime:

  • Make a code for them to work out. You might work your code into the story so they must solve it when you hand it out, but you can also have the code remain a task in the background. They can pull out and decode it when you’re setting up or others are taking their turns in town. The easiest codes are made just by typing something into your word processor, selecting all, and then choosing one of those picture fonts on your computer, like Wingdings; players can figure out how the substitution works from the letter patterns. If you want more challenging types of codes, you can use internet code makers like this one.
  • Ask them to map the area through which they’re traveling, then have them do it. Other ‘produce it during downtime’ moments might be asking them to write and sing a song or draw a commissioned portrait of a particular NPC. Not all groups will go for this type of interaction, but you might try it–you’d be surprised at what your players might enjoy.
  • If in town, have PCs work on individual character development by planning any letters they might send to acquaintances, key contacts, family members, etc., while waiting on the others to take their interactive turns. They can either describe these to the group, or just jot down the ideas and give them to you as future plot hooks.
  • Ask those not in the spotlight to plan actively for the upcoming battle/negotiation. Sometimes players will sit and wait until things are “in the moment” to decide what to do, but if you don’t mind a bit of meta table chatter, you can listen and get a sense of what they’d like to see in an upcoming scene.

Downtime at the beginning and end of the game remains the most crucial. If you want your players to take the narrative space of the world seriously, easing them into and out of the game helps them focus and get ready for the tasks to come. Personally, I like Burning Wheel’s Beliefs, Goals, and Instincts for this purpose. (Yes, I know! I sound like a broken record on this one. But they’re really good mechanically.) If you don’t want to focus that heavily on individual characters, though, you can still start by having one player recap the last session; it’s a good idea to tie a reward to the recap or to require that a different player recap the session at the beginning of each game. Otherwise, the task can fall to the same note-taking player over and over again. You might also want to give the players a moment to lay out some group goals for the game ahead. (If you’re playing WFRP3e, this might be a time to review the standings of Party Tension with the group.) You might even just start with a check-in: “How does your character feel right now as we begin the day? What do the others see as they look at him/her?”

At the end of the game, you’ll benefit by doing much the same. Ask how each character feels now, and get a sense of what his/her goals will be in the upcoming play session. That way, you’ll be able to consider each player’s hopes for the next session as you plan it.

Most importantly, each player will feel as though his time at the table has been used well, and will remember that he had the spotlight at least once or twice during the game. If you can manage that, you’ll  generally have players who feel as though their pastime has been a good use of their day.