Wednesday 11 March 2020

[REVIEW] On Downtime and Demesnes

Downtime and Demesnes

On Downtime and Demesnes (2019)
by Courtney C. Campbell
Published by Hack & Slash Publishing

Old-school D&D has been fairly well supported by adventures over the last decade. Rules and character options, we have had more than we needed (we honestly didn’t need that many). This book targets a fairly neglected niche: campaign-level play. This is the stuff that happens between the characters go on adventures – when they spend their well-earned money, advance character and party goals, and gear up for the next expedition. In modern models of play, a lot of this has fallen by the wayside; the role-assumption-vs-adventuring dichotomy has taken hold too firmly in peoples’ minds. You are either supposed to be doing silly voices, or you are supposed to be heaving skulls (silly accents optional).

I suspect many old-school games also forgo this element, or simplify it to “okay you buy equipment, you go to the cleric, you ask the sage, what about you?” This is all right. However, OD&D, Ready Ref Sheets, and the Dungeon Masters Guide hint at a game that expands the scope of D&D into domain management, trade, diplomacy, hireling management, and similar activities… something D&D’s “complex wargaming” precursors like Blackmoor and Tony Bath’s Hyboria were already doing. It is a loss that most “OSR” rulesets – even the better ones – have largely stuck to copying the rules or inventing their own, while failing to cover the true scope of expanded play you can find in the AD&D rulebooks.

On Downtime and Demesnes is a supplement meant to introduce these elements to your game. (The default system is B/X, but the lessons apply just as well to all the other D&D variants out there.) Its approach is to create easy, straightforward procedures to turn downtime activities and strategic-level play into gameable content. This is undoubtedly the right way to do it. The guidelines the book offers are not as hard as ironclad rules (game mechanics), but they are also not vague like general guidance – they are somewhere in-between, a tool to navigate game situations in a fair and interesting way, a bit like dungeon crawls have procedures for random encounters, treasure allocation, or light sources. The end result should provide a challenge, have a meaningful stake, and produce a better game experience. As the book suggests, only significant or interesting forms of interaction are worth the attention (a wise principle regarding spending game time), and the subsequent guidelines tend to stick to this maxim.
Laying the Groundwork
Accordingly, the book covers all the varied situations that may come up during downtime. This is a comprehensive work, in that it offers either a procedure, a random idea generator, or at least basic advice for most things that could reasonably come up in a realistic game situation. Healing from sustained injuries – there are guidelines for that. Earning an income – here is a way to handle it. Amassing a library of exotic books for future benefit – yes. Hiring specialists or launching the career of a secondary character to step in the main PC’s footsteps – it is there. Investment in mercantile ventures? Mining? Clearing terrain? Building stuff? Breeding bizarre monstrosities to terrorise the land? Yes, yes, yes, yes and yes.

These guidelines are of varied complexity. None of them would make play burdensome, and most tend to be something you can resolve with a few player decisions and random rolls. Earning extra XP by carousing is a 1d8*100 roll, deducted from gp and added to XP, followed by a saving throw to see if there have been complications. Sacrifices to dark gods can net you gold, XP, a magic item or the services of an evil creature, depending on the implied value of the sacrificed person/animal. Spending a week bragging about the party’s adventures nets 5% more experience (but you have to roll maintenance). Racketeering gains 100 gp per level per month on a successful Move Silently roll (but has a small, unspecified odd of attracting unwanted attention). A few guidelines are on the level of mini-games – designing your own fortress and clearing/developing the land around it is more involved, as it should be.

Making it Come Together
I believe some areas are underserved by this otherwise useful book. I was excited to read the guidelines on political influence, but it only outlines what influence entails, and how you can gain it – not how you might use it in concrete terms, what you may gain through influence (and how much), or what happens when two influence conflict or simply overlap. It seems to be the beginning of something, a thought experiment that was never properly finished. This is the case with a few more interesting guidelines – the author pitches an intriguing what-if, but doesn’t give a satisfying answer. There is an extensive set of tables to ideas and guidelines to build ships with various capabilities and unstandard quirks, but no system for sea battles or just sailing adventures to put these capabilities to the test. The end results are a bit fragmentary and scattershot, even if it is very strong on the idea level.

Where the general procedures are fairly universal, the “random ideas” are oddly specific. A list of 10 bizarre pet stores includes a shop selling attack chickens, an ant farm, and a balloon animal store. Do you really need one of those? If yes, how many times?

Then we come to a curious flaw that seems to permeate the whole work. All of this seems to take place on Horror World. I can’t put it otherwise: there is such a strain of pessimism and negativity about mankind running through the book that it seems deeply misanthropic. The philosophy, in turn, messes with the systematic outcomes. This is an implied setting where bad things happen, people are rapacious and evil, and you are screwed from day one. It first becomes visible in the random tables. An early one, “100 Obnoxious Peasants”, should have been rightfully amended “…who Will Ruin Your Life”. These village bumpkins are not annoying but funny louts – these are peasants who will flirt with your characters only to rile up their whole clan against them (94), offer them friendly handshakes while unwittingly infecting them with the plague (86), or buy them a beer while trying to provoke them to say something treasonous (99). Then there are “100 Noble Patrons”, more appropriately “100 Noble Patrons From HELL. Here, we have a lady who invites the party for dinner to pick their mind, only to beat them to the score with a self-sponsored party (03), another lady who hires adventurers to awaken her evil god under the guise of making trade deals (96), a baron who invites adventurers to his castle to use them for flesh golem parts (35), another lady pursued by killers who will try to befriend you (27), and a baroness who runs a charity for orphans, sacrifices 10% of them to devils, and “If killed she arises as a vampire due to a wish she got from hell.” (09) You would think I am cherry-picking, but these are just two sequences of random rolls – most (almost all) of these peasants and patrons are literal or social deathtraps if you interact with them. Or not interact with them, because many will become extremely vengeful and dangerous anyway if spurned, and will come after you if you give them a wide berth.

Random Goblins Destroy Your Life's Work
Certainly, nothing like a corrupt, dangerous fantasy world to generate adventure opportunities. Sometimes it is appropriate – sure, goblins are nasty little evildoers, so 12 horrid goblin pranks are sort of useful (although, being so specific, they have much less use than the procedural elements). But in a bunch of these mini-games, the only winning move is not to play, and that pushes the players towards disengagement, non-interaction, and a foul kind of cynicism. Would you play Russian roulette with one chamber? Yeah? How about five chambers? This is like the social equivalent of a “negadungeon”, those stupid things promising to wreck your campaigns and the player campaigns therein if you play them. Fortunately, this particular mean streak does not invalidate the book, and is much less present on the procedural level than the “idea generator” level. But there, you can run into nasty stuff in seemingly inconsequential situations. Perhaps you were happy to inherit something – but you are fucked, because it is a necklace of decapitation, or a peculiar curse. The odds are really bad, and that makes for dull gaming.

So here is an enjoyable book (handsomely illustrated by the multi-talented author) filled with a whole lot of highly useful guidance for running campaign-level sessions, either to expand on the existing action, or to enter new domains of play. The procedures it introduces are clear, elegant, low-maintenance, and appropriate. In this respect, Downtime and Demesnes is an excellent resource and a great idea mine. It also has aspects which are half-baked, or damaged by a very peculiar view of how your average D&D world was supposed to function. These elements, good and bad, are mixed together in a single volume. You will need to exercise judgement to decide what to use from it (or how to use the flawed content in a fruitful way – this is a distinct possibility). It should be fairly easy. But it should have happened in the writing phase.

No playtesters are credited in this publication.

Rating: *** / *****


  1. We started using Downtime and Demesnes two sessions ago in my OSE campaign. My players liked the carousing and arena rules, but the professional income rules were basically non-existent and I had to improvise it on the fly. There is also a lot of rehashed stuff, but I'm not bad about that, because they are often expanded, and it's nice to have them in a single book.

    I agree about the random NPCs. The chart is full of dickheads of the worst kind, and it's also repetitive. I won't use the charts for what they were intended to do, but I will likely pick them for ideas I can drop in my Zweihänder campaign.

  2. Another well-written review about an OSR-B/X product. I find myself checking this blog regularly, putting it on a short list.

    Sounds like a solid buy for a tool kit.

    Oh, I think you meant "one IN the chamber" and "five IN the chambers." As in, bullets in a revolver cylinder's (usually 6) chambers.

  3. Thanks for the tip for a product. I've recently been looking for old school procedures and found them hard to find. Dungeon procedures are well-described but any procedures for running a sandbox campaign seem lacking.

    Can anyone recommend other products to look for? Maybe some non-hack OSR systems that actually bring something new to the table in this regard?

    I can browse blogs and piece something together but I was wondering if anyone has actually took the time and effort to "design" this properly.

    1. I'm especially interested in whether anyone has created procedures for working with story hook, story lines, NPCs etc... but I'm probably entering story-game territory here.

    2. You should check out "Tome of Adventure Design"

    3. Also, the "D30 Companion" books are pretty solid.

    4. These areas are not very well explored beyond generalities - which is why this book has filled a void, even with its problems. The ToAD is a great resource, but more for developing encounters and adventures than planning a broader campaign - which is where Downtime and Demesnes comes in.

  4. I wrote the peasant and the nobles tables
    SO you shouls blame them on me
    Yes my setting and blog are all like that