In a campaign world, the higher level a character (PC or NPCs) is, the less he or she represents the size of the population. For example, it may not be hard to find a 3rd level Fighter in the local town, but if you find a 15th level Fighter, she’s a pretty big deal.
So why is it that in most games (including my own), PC characters rise from 1st level to 20th level in usually a few months to a year of in-game time? Even if downtime is included, it is a random “Okay, you have two months of downtime. Tell me what you want to do.” Then the game picks up the next session, incorporating some things from the downtime but not having too much effect on the overall game.
The PC says he’s going to research a spell and make a few wands, maybe even build a small wizard’s tower. It happens and, other than a few incidences for flavor, everyone jumps right back to the plot, probably leaving the tower behind.
Part of the reason this happens is because, from a meta-gaming standpoint, the game is too often about the plot. The DM has worked in his secret lair for weeks or months to craft the game so, clearly, the PC is there to defeat the overlord Ensydious Tyrent, not grow petunias in his back yard and take care of his son, Little Jimmy.
Players usually follow the same mindset, which might be part of the reason most PCs have parents and siblings (albeit missing or recent converts to Tyrent’s cause) but rarely have children or even spouses. Who has time to care about a family when there’s a +5 Dancing Sword out there with your name on it?
So the campaign speeds along as PCs jump from one adventure arc to the next, with a smattering of downtime thrown in to add any semblance of realism. Soon enough, the world is saved, the PCs are 20th level, and one of the party even had a single birthday during all that time. While the PCs are probably far above the norm, how does one account for such incredible level advancement in such a short amount of time?
Let’s try a different approach, one that makes the story about the characters and not only the plot. What if the campaign takes, say, fifty years of game time? I think it makes much more sense for a 1st level character who’s 20 years old to be 70 when he finally hits 20th level, not 21 years old.
It should be noted, of course, that fifty years is a long time to a human but “last Tuesday” to an elf. So one has to consider why all elves aren’t in the upper-teen levels as compared to humans.
Maybe the answer is as simple as, while the elf can have a lot of adventures over the course of her life, it isn’t simply the actions that matter. Wisdom is a reflection on our experiences, not the experiences themselves. Elves take longer to reflect and learn from their experiences because their perspective of time is so much different than that of a human.
Over the course of the PC’s fifty years, they will have varying periods of downtime. I will also suggest up front that the term “downtime” should be renamed. The name suggests it’s the less important time used for less important things, ie “not the adventuring job”. But just because a soldier or police officer is on leave doesn’t mean what happens in his daily life isn’t just as important to the entire scope of his life. So let’s call these time periods “intervals”.
The first adventure arc might encompass, for example, levels 1-2. Then the characters might have an interval of 3-5 years where they are doing other things. Whether they are running businesses, working their 9-5, starting a family, or whatever, these things matter.
Likewise, the rest of the world is moving on as well. When the adventuring party reconvenes (for whatever plausible reason) they reencounter the bartender at that first tavern where they all met (and had a brawl because that’s what taverns are for). The barkeep, Bart Ender, having seen years ago that tavern work is dangerous, quit bar tending. Bart went to trade school and got his private security license (with a minor in business management). Five years later Bart is the owner of “Behind Bars”, a security firm that maintains safety in taverns across the region; mostly by keeping an eye on any character found sitting at the shadowed table in the corner.
Maybe a PC has met a fine woman and they now have a three year old son. But the spouse’s father recently passed away, the mother-in-law has moved in, and she is quick to argue that no self-respecting father would go hunt renegade orcs and leave their wife and child at home.
Often, in comics or movies as well as games, these sort of things aren’t included. Part of the reason is that it is, actually, a challenge for Peter Parker to justify his adventuring ways when he has a wife (or if he had a child). But that is exactly the sort of thing that Parker has always done, even where it concerned his Aunt May. And, not only did he still put on the tights, but he is a more layered and interesting character for it.
During the intervals, the DM could have a session or two to cover events and RP that occur during the interval. The PCs are likely split up during this time so it may require shorter individual sessions. But the goal of the game isn’t to get to the end as much as enjoying the entire thing from top to bottom.
Work with the player to help them develop their life; the life they would try to live if they didn’t suffer the call to action that all heroes must suffer. If the PC’s time is spent researching then give them extra ranks in that Knowledge. If they decide to help the city watch patrol for those orcs then you likely don’t want to give them levels, as that would unbalance the group, but they certainly earn ranks in Spot, Listen, and Survival.
Each PC gains some number of Skill points, distributed based on their activities. They also gain RP connections to other NPCs that might prove useful during the adventure arcs. A good DM can easily incorporate the interval activities to the adventures themselves.
Then, after a couple weeks of real time as the players and DM work on the intervals, the PCs will be able to have a more realistic feel to the passage of time when the party gathers once again as Ensydious Tyrent’s forces are spotted in the western marshes. Peace has been a pleasant reprieve for the party but destiny calls.
It should be noted that the DM might have to take a different perspective on how their campaign is organized. A game with impending doom just around the corner doesn’t leave time for many breaks from the action. But, again, I assert that doesn’t have to mean 20 levels of non-stop adventure.
For all the things Frodo Baggins did during his trip from the Shire to Mordor, the time involved still wasn’t enough to account for 20 levels of advancement. If you look at Frodo from when he started to when he reached Mt. Doom, that arc might have been only five levels or so.
So think of these arcs as mini-campaigns that, together, comprise the breadth of the PC’s life. If the focus is on the characters living in a vibrant world, they will find no end of plots (which may even ultimately all connect together).
This cycle of adventure/interval repeats over the lives of the characters. Fifteen years after that first meeting at the tavern, the party now owns their own town and land. But those fifteen years have been enough time for Bazterd Tyrent, son of Ensydious, to grow up and seek vengeance against the party for killing his father years ago.
Decades later, the party (now Lords, Arch-Mages, and all-around heroes) meets in the flying crystal castle of their Fighter’s cloud kingdom. Maybe they will enjoy stopping by the Auld Lang Syne (formerly Bart’s Tavern) for one last drink and reflection on their fifty years together.
Someday, the elves and dwarves in the party will sadly move on, after the funeral of their less-long-lived comrades, still holding much adventure and intervals to come. But that is another story.
Extra: It should be noted that the Pathfinder SRD has information on the use of downtime.
The rules seem rather too convoluted to provide the sort of story flow I am suggesting. But the concepts might be useful to a DM in handling the mechanics of events during the intervals.
(co-written by R. Currence and Michael N., aka Navarre)