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A Look at Downtime in RPGs and Board Games

This article looks at a parallel between RPGs and board games that I find interesting, but fair warning: If the last time you played a board game was a session of LCR with your grandma in 1982, it may not be as interesting to you.

So: board games and downtime.

In board games (and card games), “downtime” is the time you spend sitting around waiting for it to be your turn again, and it’s usually — though not always — a problem. In some games, you have a lot of interesting things to think about between turns, or there’s interaction between players that keeps you involved when it’s not your turn, and downtime isn’t a problem; in others, the game is designed to mitigate downtime from the outset (simultaneous actions, etc.).

In general, if a board game has too much downtime it’s the game designer’s fault. Something in the rules, or a combination of things, means that there’s a lot of wasted time built into the game — and that’s a problem, because downtime is usually boring.

The one major exception is when you play with someone who suffers from “analysis paralysis,” a terrible condition I’m sometimes afflicted with. In layman’s terms, it’s called “Taking way too damned long on your turn.” Board game designers can try to mitigate analysis paralysis, too, but there’s really no way to control what players do with the game once it’s published.

So how does this connect to RPGs and GMing? Because RPGs often have the same problem, sometimes for similar reasons, but in every case but one there’s an awesome built-in correction mechanism that doesn’t exist in board games: you, the GM.

In an RPG context, downtime still means the time waiting for your turn to come up again, but things are much more fluid. Many scenes involve multiple players, and the level of interaction for everyone is high. Watching other people roleplay is also generally more interesting than watching other people take their turns in a board game, too.

But the big difference between RPGs and board games in this area is that when you’re playing an RPG, there’s a leader: you, the GM. That leader is responsible for watching the table, assessing their players’ respective interest levels, and intervening in an organic way when someone isn’t getting enough spotlight time — IE, is mired in boring downtime.

The clearest example of this is splitting the party: If you, as the GM, focus on one sub-group for an hour straight, you can be the other sub-group is going to be stacking dice, playing Xbox games, or slitting their own wrists. So you jump back and forth between the two sub-groups, trying to keep everyone engaged and ensure that both sub-groups get roughly equal spotlight time (and have roughly equal, largely unavoidable, downtime).

This is awesome — it’s a huge advantage that roleplaying has over many, many forms of entertainment, including board games. But it breaks down in one critical area, and it’s one that brings me full circle to “It’s the designers’ fault.”


Even though one player is in the spotlight on their turn, combat is fundamentally interactive: PCs get attacked, actions are held to enable team efforts, characters are revived, and lots and lots of stuff happens all the time. On paper, it doesn’t sound like combat would be the aspect of RPGs where downtime is most likely to creep in, but in my experience it is.

Why? Because unlike almost every other part of a session, the GM can’t really step in to make it interesting for players who aren’t directly involved in the action. In most RPGs, the combat system is a different animal from the rest of the game: time is measuring in miniscule increments, every second matters, actions tend to be more complex and involve more mechanics, and rigid turn order is followed to ensure that everyone gets a shot at doing something cool and interesting. As a GM, that’s hard to mess with.

Any RPG that features tactical combat — D&D 3e and 3.5e being the poster children here, with combats that regularly require hours of real time to resolve seconds of game time — is going to suffer from a downtime problem.

There are lots of ways to speed up combat in games where this is an issue, and groups can do things like agree on an “on deck” system to try to ensure that turns move quickly and downtime is minimized, but ultimately it’s not a completely solvable problem. I wince when I think back to the D&D game where my friend Jaben seemed to spend about an hour in every combat with his character immobilized and unable to act — or have fun.

And ultimately, this is a design problem. It’s not unique to recent editions of D&D, and I’m sure there are folks out there who find what I consider boring downtime in games where combat takes forever to be fascinating and entertaining, but I bring this one back to the designers:

If you created an RPG that fosters downtime, you screwed up.

Building pointless downtime into your game is a failure whether it’s a board game or an RPG, even if the rest of the game is the best thing since sliced bread.

And what really makes me scratch my head is this: If I’m right that downtime is largely the fault of game designers, why do we, as consumers, put up with it?

13 Comments (Open | Close)

13 Comments To "A Look at Downtime in RPGs and Board Games"

#1 Comment By MonsterMike On July 11, 2011 @ 8:55 am

This is a place where system matters. I often game with my children, nieces, and nephews. Attention spans are short, and downtime is a game-killer. We play the BEAN! system which is rules-light and has a group combat mechanic. In a general melee of all players vs. all monsters, everyone rolls at the same time and the group player total is compared to the group monster total. If players are taking individual actions, it takes less than a minute to go all the way around the circle and resolve each player’s action.

This system is a variant of Tunnels & Trolls, which works in the same way but uses d6 instead of the d2 beans that are used in BEAN!

As a GM, I like to see my players constantly engaged. They are either doing something, or thinking about what they will do with minimal downtime. A good game should be a thrill ride. This is why I like more rules-light systems where action rounds can be resolved quickly.

Another useful technique is to use a countdown. If a player is spending a long time pondering an action in the heat of combat, I give them about 30 seconds to think then count down from 10 to 0. If they can’t come up with an action, they are on hold until the end of the round. They can take their action then and take another action in their normal initiative order the next round.

#2 Comment By Roxysteve On July 11, 2011 @ 8:56 am

Agreed with just about everything here, but because I view boardgames and board wargames as social events, downtime can be part of the experience and make a game worth playing too.

One rather extreme example that springs to mind is an old, OOP SPI game called “Outreach”, which rumbled along with players doing stuff or not doing stuff for four to six hours, with players building star empires that spanned swaths of the galaxy – the board was actually a large slice of our own galaxy – interacting or not as they pleased and suffering AH Civilization-style events that would disrupt their empires at the worst moment. Moves could take a lot of pondering time, but we didn’t play unless we were in the mood to chat.

#3 Comment By Roxysteve On July 11, 2011 @ 8:57 am

And at the other extreme you have Diplomacy, where the “down time” is the part where stuff moves on the board.

#4 Comment By Godspiel On July 11, 2011 @ 10:18 am

This has been driving me nuts for years.

#5 Comment By derobim On July 11, 2011 @ 3:42 pm

I agree wholeheartedly that combat is the worst offender. It’s the reason I absolutely hate D&D, and likely, though I haven’t played it, Pathfinder. It’s why I prefer games like Savage Worlds, where at least most enemies die quickly enough to get the boring combat over with quickly, and Burning Wheel.

Speaking of Burning Wheel, the most recent campaign I played in was Burning Wheel, and the GM made quite a few changes to the system to make it work for a group of six. The biggest change was combat. Instead of the scripting your turns and then having everything happen simultaneously, he came up with a “jump in” system.

For each block of three rounds, each character gets a pool of points equal to his or her initiative score, which ranged from 3 to 6. It costs a point or two to do most actions, like attack or cast a spell, on your own turn. If you wish, you can spend an extra point to “jump in”, allowing you to react immediately to something an ally or enemy is doing. Holding your action on your turn gives you an extra point, to be used for jumping in later.

It doesn’t completely eliminate downtime, but at least makes it more interesting to watch the action, looking for points to jump in. Plus, it allowed the GM to largely fix the problem of analysis paralysis. “If you haven’t decided what to do yet, here’s an extra initiative point and I’m skipping you. Jump in when you’ve decided.”

Though I wish I could have gotten to see the actual Burning Wheel system in action, since it was my first time playing that game, I did enjoy this homebrewed combat system. It might be worth trying, if you find combat to be boring and slow.

#6 Comment By Toldain On July 11, 2011 @ 6:13 pm

Huh. In my circle, combat is the least of the downtime issue. One long-time gm will have no problem spending 45 minutes in a non-combat scene with one player. I avoid that when I’m gm’ing, and focus more on combat, with the thought that in combat, your turn is going to come up again soon.

I play 4e, and most of my players have a few reaction powers, too, which keeps them in the game. Furthermore, I make sure that they have something to do if they are immobilized, even if it’s throwing darts. Immobilized does not mean you can’t do anything, just that you can’t move.

Analysis paralysis is a potential problem, for sure. However, I think that in part, it’s due to pressure from the feeling: “If I screw up we’ll all die.” I emphasize that failures just make more interesting stories, and focus on doing things that are fun. I also work to avoid situations where players call advice to other players. Judgementalness, i.e., “That was dumb…” is not welcome at my table.

Any advice must be pre-vetted by an “Idea roll”. That is, some roll is made to model the player character having an idea. In d20, that’s an INT roll versus DC 12 or something. If the receiving player doesn’t get the idea, the person wanting to give them an idea must STFU.

I find that with this regime, even when the roll is made, the idea is more often phrased as a suggestion.

I throw tough combats at the players, but nothing killer. It’s all about the fun.

#7 Comment By Martin Ralya On July 11, 2011 @ 10:23 pm

[1] – Okay, the BEANS! system sounds amazing for gaming with kids — I’m going to file that one away for when my daughter is older. I’ve never played T&T, but your capsule description for it also sounds intriguing; another one to look over. Thanks!

[2] – That’s a fair point and a good take. There are some games I play to chat over, but by and large I play to play; the social experience is part of the package, but for me enforced downtime is rarely a good thing.

[3] – I’ve never played a large BW combat, I don’t think, but even with a few people in the mix the scripted combat doesn’t take that long. There’s a bit of a delay upfront during scripting, but everyone is equally delayed; after that, turns play out quickly.

#8 Comment By Cascadian On July 12, 2011 @ 12:23 am

It’s easy to forget now, but the AD&D 1st Edition initiative system had one initiative roll for all of the PCs. So everyone would discuss together what they were doing, roll, and then act. It actually seemed to lead to fewer problems, especially since one player was usually selected as the combat leader.

I liked it when later editions moved away from this because it seemed more realistic to have people going at different times, and not having to artificially separate out the planning before rolling initiative. But the cost for that move has been much greater downtime and longer combats.

#9 Comment By Scott Martin On July 12, 2011 @ 12:40 am

I’m not sure I agree, given the differences between RPGs and board games. In a board game, everyone’s participating–downtime is clearly a part of the design.

But if one player in an RPG goes off on a solo mission, or are even shopping in a different building when the other PCs get jumped, they’re not participating in the combat subgame. It’d be very difficult to have people playing the engaging mechanics [combat] match the time table of people who just aren’t participating. Just like it’s hard for people playing a board game to sync with people who show up later.

The other obvious solution, cutting the real world duration of combat down, would work–but then you’re left with less engaging options when everyone IS in sync and enjoying combat (or whatever complex mechanic is on the table).

#10 Comment By DireBadger On July 12, 2011 @ 1:22 am

The worst offender in my book is when my PC goes to do something that just takes X hours of IG time, and in that time the rest of the party decides to go somewhere and engage in a fight, which usually takes a lot of time. All that time I’m just waiting.

#11 Comment By Lugh On July 15, 2011 @ 1:37 pm

OK, let’s accept your premise that downtime in combat is a principal failure in design. Can you name an RPG that doesn’t suffer from the problem? I mean, a few certainly minimize the downtime, but generally by removing options for interesting combat. If I have to choose between a tactically rich system and a downtime-free system, I’ll take tactically rich.

I think that a certain amount of downtime, especially in combat, is simply endemic to the game. Each player takes a turn, and each turn takes time. Trying to have all the players act simultaneously is a recipe for chaos. (Note that the simultaneous action systems mentioned in the combats have all the characters acting simultaneously, but each player is still taking turns declaring those actions.)

IME, the biggest culprit for downtime in any system is actually the GM’s turn. She must usually do all of the analysis, resolution, and description that each player does, but do it for several participants. During that turn, the players typically do nothing but watch, call out defense scores, and write down damage. One system I’ve come up with to combat that in d20 is to use active defenses, but have the NPCs take 10 on attacks. That is, I have a static number that represents my attack value, but each PC rolls to defend instead of calling out a static defense value. A critical success on defense is just like a critical miss for the NPC’s attack, and vice versa. That way, the players are actually doing something, and not just watching me roll dice and mutter to myself.

#12 Comment By Martin Ralya On July 15, 2011 @ 2:09 pm

[4] – For me, it comes down to degree: Sure, in the majority of RPGs there will be a bit of downtime during combat, but there’s a line past which lengthening that downtime in exchange for a richer array of tactical options and adding depth translates into battles taking waaaay too long for everyone involved.

It sounds like you and I default to opposite ends of the spectrum: I’ll happily sacrifice tactical depth in favor of faster combats, because that allows more time for other fun stuff during the session. I don’t want to lose ALL tactical depth, but I think a lot of games strike a better balance than, for example, D&D 3.x.

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#15 Comment By Svengaard On July 24, 2011 @ 8:31 am

A couple of thoughts on the issue:
1) I played in a low-level Pathfinder game where the monk would spend upwards ot ten minutes to debate his action. Sad when you consider he had at most three options. The DM joked about making him a sheet of everything he could do in a round. Shame he never made that sheet.
2) While reading the article I thought about speeding up split-party combat by having the off-screen players help control the mobs. Not the important ones, just the ones that would do all the dying. That keeps them active, lets them roll dice, and helps keep accusations of the GM fixing rolls down.

Any thoughts on this?