I am happy to engage in a little roleplay between games (I have friends who aren’t happy to, and most games I go to treat this as an optional thing) but I dislike games where important actions that can define a character happen in downtime.
Downtime has its place. It’s a place for the run of the mill stuff that’s below the abstraction layer to happen. The events are the key thing. Downtimes are a massive investment of time. If you don’t think about how they’re going to work really carefully it can get easy to get carried away with offering players massive possibilities, and then you end up in a situation where each player’s downtime take 3-4 hours to resolve. Even at a relatively small game, about 30 players, that’s 90 hours to do all of the downtimes, which is two weeks of full time work. I don’t think anyone has that much free time to dedicate to running an element of a game. Even 1 hour (Which is enough time to read what they’ve written, and write a short response if they’ve only written one side of A4) adds up to 30 hours total if no one has done anything off the wall, and a lot of them won’t have done anything predictable. It’s remarkably easy to spend an hour on one player without really thinking about it, especially if it’s a game you really care about. If you really want to have very in depth downtimes work out what time you can spend, which characters get them and how you’re making the best use of your time really carefully. Don’t underestimate how long this stuff takes. If you know your players you can pick a small number that get more detailed downtimes between certain events, or you could have group downtimes for subsets of players.
First thing you want to consider is why you’re doing it. You could want players to continue the roleplay, or possibly you want them to have the chance to make decisions that will result in encounters in the uptime game. It can be setting building, game building or both. You need to be aware of how much time you’re willing to invest in it, and also how much time you’re expecting your players to invest. Time spent developing downtime that doesn’t improve the uptime game is lost time for the ‘live’ aspect of your LRP, and whether you’re a LRPer or a Larper it’s right there in the name.
Limiting players to a few options enables you to give them direction and limits the time you need to spend on running this element of the game down. The key is ensuring that there can always be repercussions. Downtime is not a mechanic for getting the most amount of stuff out of the game. As with anything else there should be risk, and there should be a good chance that it will hurt the players if they do the wrong thing. Doing the same thing multiple times should probably get less reward as time goes by. If the players are constantly trying to raid villages on the edge of Fakeopia then the Fakeopians will take exception to this, ask them to stop and eventually burn the fleet to the ground. If law abiding characters discover that one of their colleagues is a pirate, they should probably hand him over to the proper authorities. That’s not the most amusing game, as players being prisoners can get dull fast and so probably shouldn’t be an option.
I personally like NPCs that appear in a variety of downtimes, backstories, and stuff that other NPCs just tell you about. I like the sense that there is a bigger world out there, and it gives a pool of people who already have a sense of existence that you can bring into play for future plot stuff.
With some modern games your players can use twitter, facebook and email during the game, and these can be used between games to continue the conversation. It you work on the theory that nothing particularly interesting happens between events this is fine. You can always work out a list of key news events players may hear about which gives them a framework to talk through. This means that you can create your really in depth backgrounds but since everyone is reading the same that 1-2 hours of work goes to multiple people and has a much better return on investment.
Everyone has a different opinion on downtime. People like doing different things and some players won’t want to do anything at all. Given that the time it takes is one of the more painful parts of downtimes, adding to this by making yourself chase players reluctant to engage is bad. Either have default options or make downtime optional.
Downtime is not a bad thing, but for the unprepared it can eat your time, sap your enthusiasm and give your players a way to ‘not have fun’ in uptime. LRP isn’t about stats and winning. It’s about playing with your friends. If the way you run downtime isn’t supporting your uptime game then, in my opinion, you’re doing it wrong.