Elseplace we got talking about the nifty technology of phased downtime — that is, of downtime as a separate mode of play, enforced by rules. This is not all that new (see Pendragon, for example) but it is interesting. It’s a heartbeat for the game: you do mission stuff, you do downtime stuff, rinse and repeat. You also see it in Jason Morningstar’s Night Witches where you have night moves and day moves, creating two separate but related storylines with slightly different technologies.
Now this didn’t feel all that new to me, but let’s look at other examples and how they are different.
First, though, these examples are of mechanical separation — the rules, not the narrative, define when the phases change and what the rules are during the new phase. But there are other ways to separate phases.
Consider, for example, the Dungeons & Dragons I played when I was 11. You entered the dungeon and robbed the locals until your bags were full, then you left and went back to town to train (you had to train to level up back then), sell your stuff, shop, heal, and look for rumours about where to go next. Maybe you built a keep. On the surface this is not very different from the first examples, but it is. It is diegetic: the rules don’t change (though honestly if the rules only apply in certain circumstances then those rules are really subsystems for those circumstances) but rather the narrative drives the change in context.
NEW CONTENT: I can’t believe I forgot to mention Reign which is kind of a hybrid. Play is in two phases: character and company. But the character phase creates bonuses for the company game and the company game implies missions for the character game.
Similarly in Traveller every time you jump to a new system you have a week’s downtime. There’s nothing in-story to do so you do something else. Most of the time you just tick a week off the calendar and move on — at least there’s a space to pretend everyone got a nap, went to the bathroom, and so on — but you had options to train up skills or use your skills to do something that needed doing. Again, it’s a diegetic phase: it happens in the context of the narrative and isn’t forced by the rules. But it kind of is too: that week in jump space is forced by the rules.
And then there’s the case of session zero games — if you have one session devoted to setting and character creation, that’s surely a mechanical phase even if it only happens once. It has it’s own rules, it’s forced by the rules, and it’s not about the current mission at all. Diaspora is my favourite example so go buy a copy to understand why. And this leads us to the refresh mechanism in fate: every session you have a refresh in which you can update character aspects and skills, get your consequences tended to and so on. That’s not even pretending to be part of the narrative; it’s strictly arithmetic and textual manipulation of your character sheet. Doing your regular accounting. But still a “phase” and very mechanical.
So what’s special about the cyclic heartbeat of non-diegetic phasing as in Blades in the Dark is, I think, that it gives you space for long term projects. You are always guaranteed that space. It doesn’t derive from the narrative, so there is a sense it which it feels mechanistic but because the whole structure of the game is the episodic future of mission after mission, this is fine. It’s easy to wedge the downtime into the not-mission space. The downtime and the mission work together to reinforce their boundaries. Mission is not-downtime. Downtime is not-mission.
Pendragon ties this to the calendar — your phases are seasonal because in a medieval society the seasons matter a lot. There are things you just can’t do in winter (like stage an invasion or harvest wheat). You do things in their time and the seasons become the heartbeat of the game.
This idea of a heartbeat is very appealing. In addition to ensuring you always know at least roughly what’s happening next (during downtime you’re thinking about the mission and during missions you’re thinking about downtime) you also don’t notice so much that you are being constrained to do the things the system does. The game can focus because it deliberately focuses you. And though the phases don’t emerge organically from the narrative, they function diegetically: you tell story inside them.
Would D&D in 1978 have been better if that heartbeat had been formalized? I don’t think it would have been — the thing we pretty rapidly did and that made the game something I’d play for 40 years or so was to break out of the heartbeat. To adventure in the city, to sail abroad, to explore the wilderness. The phases, thankfully not formalized, were easily ejected and the game was bigger for it. As big as we could make it.
These are just observations, not value judgements. These are all good games.