Quiet Time in TTRPGs

So that December reboot thing hasn’t really been going according to plan, has it? I’m sure my audience of regulars is horribly disappointed.

Here’s a question that’s been bugging me: Is there room for quiet time in TTRPGs? What I’m referring to is moments in video games right after an explosive set-piece battle when the player is given nothing to do except explore the level for a while, maybe find any spare collectibles they missed, and they can move on whenever they feel like they’re ready for more gunfighting. An important note is that quiet time is not when gameplay is drastically reduced or taken away entirely. Quiet time is not a lobby, especially not a lobby that doesn’t even have chat. It’s not a cut scene (even if it’s a quiet one) and it’s not following your NPC buddy as he walks from one door to another. Quiet time is exploring and taking in a level at your own pace, free of enemy interference. It serves a critical pacing purpose by deflating the tension so that tension can be built back up again, instead of turning into a Michael Bay style constant, fatiguing malaise of maximum energy that becomes dull. I was going to link a YouTube video by game design pundit and recovering hipster Chris Franklin on the subject, but I can’t find the damn thing, so my text explanation will have to do.

How could you translate this to TTRPGs? Direct conversion is clearly impossible. Collectibles just don’t make sense in a TTRPG, not in the way they serve as a vehicle for quiet time, anyway. You could have collectibles attached to random loot tables, like having some awesome magic item like a Ring of Three Wishes be split into components (say, seven golden balls each marked with between one and seven stars) and let players quest for them and that would essentially be a collectible quest, but you wouldn’t find those things by tediously dragging your token across each and every room of a cleared dungeon and rolling a new Perception check each time, and at the end wondering if you should run through every single room again just in case you missed one of those Perception checks. TTRPGs don’t have any sense of movement, which means there’s no sense of exploring the environment. You can have a sense of discovery still, of finding out what’s over the next ridge, but you can’t have a mini-game where you try to find a small and easy to miss thing in a large and complex level.

Unless, I guess, you have complex custom maps which are visually clear enough to communicate necessary information in fights but also visually complex enough that a keen-eyed player can spot a hidden magic item like it’s a hidden objects game. That would be cool and it would be quiet time, but is well outside the ability of most GMs to create, so it doesn’t really solve the problem.

What about roleplay? A bit of relaxed conversation can serve as quiet time, but this can end up feeling more like a loading screen or a cut scene than quiet time. You’re stuck listening to this NPC while the GM deflates the tension so he can build it back up – except the GM is also deflating the momentum, which is different and bad, because you don’t actually care to shoot the shit with these particular NPCs. If the climax that was just reached happens to be of emotional importance to one or more NPCs, or even if it’s only of importance to PCs and the NPC is just there to prompt a discussion about it, this can work great. PCs discuss how they’ve been affected by what just happened or what they just learned. It gives people a chance to establish their character, brings all the PCs’ motivations to the forefront (which helps remind players why they as individuals as well as their teammates care about the quest outside of the metagame reason that they showed up to play D&D and don’t want to leave early), and it releases some tension to give the GM something to build up to again.

You can’t always do this either, though. What if the PCs have little to talk about? What if the events weren’t much of an emotional blow for anyone? What if you’re playing through a published adventure, and it turns out that your motivation of “save the world from Tiamat” is going to keep through pretty much the entire thing, without much need for discussion? What if all your players but one have a barely sketched out motivation to play at all? Having NPCs along for the ride who all have emotional reactions to what’s going on threatens to turn the game into that NPC’s story instead of the party’s, and there’s no guarantee that any of your players will be able to out-soliloquy your NPCs and thus retain the spotlight.

Is there a way to add quiet time into a TTRPG that can be done with the average GM’s resources and skills without relying on the players to have sufficiently well-developed characters to carry a scene with just a little prompting? Bear in mind that the solution (if one exists) doesn’t necessarily have to involve roleplay at all, although I suspect that’s a fruitful avenue of investigation.

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