While the majority of game time is spent adventuring, most characters won’t live their entire lives slaying dragons and looting dungeons every single day. Once an adventure is finished, and often in periods during adventurers where nothing “important” is happening, your character will have “downtime” in which to do perform more mundane activities.
These periods of downtime are great for activities not directly tied to the game’s plot: crafting gear, running a business, settling down and starting a family, ingratiating yourself with local politicians, or just carousing with your hard-won gold.
How your group handles these periods of downtime will vary from game to game. If your characters do little other than adventuring, your DM might simply say that your party spends a week in town doing nothing important, then get right back to adventuring. Conversely, your group might go into great detail about what your characters do with their downtime between adventures.
There is no right answer; it’s simply a matter of personal preference, and even then your preference might change depending on your character’s personality. If your character is a war-weary soldier who lives for fighting, they might not know what to do with themselves during downtime and might just wander about doing nothing noteworthy. If your character is a socially significant noble with deep ties in the local area, they might spend their downtime visiting old friends and greasing palms for the next time you need a favor.
If your group chooses to track lifestyles and downtime activities, they can often be handled away from the table between normal game sessions, providing a great way to keep the group engaged with the game between sessions.
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In some games, some attention will be given to the day-to-day lifestyle of your character. This is most common in long games where you have time to explore the lives of the player characters during their downtime between adventures. In games where you’re following a set of characters for a single short adventure, tracking lifestyle expenses doesn’t contribute meaningfully to the game. Games which take place far from civilization similarly benefit little from tracking lifestyle expenses. If you’re spending months or years navigating an unexplored continent, there’s not way to spend your gold living the life of an aristocrat.
In games where you choose to track lifestyle expenses, there are no written rules for how your lifestyle affects your character. A character who lives a life of squalor is just as effective while adventuring as an adventurer who returns from a quest to a palacial home filled with eager servants. If you want your character’s lifestyle to play a part in the game, discuss it with the Dungeon Master before the game starts and discuss how things might work.
In general, low-cost lifestyles will mean living in worse conditions, eating worse and often less food, few creature comforts, and exposure to disease, violence, and other unpleasantness. As your lifestyle improves, your character’s life will become gradually more sanitary, stable, and comfortable. Expensive lifestyles can open doors for you with aristocrats and nobles, but can also make you the target of thieves and rivals seeking to improve their own lives at your expense.
You can change your lifestyle every 7 days or every 30 days (your choice), but I don’t recommend changing your lifestyle frequently as it can make things complicated for the DM, and it can make it difficult to determine how your lifestyle choices affect your character when you’re alternating between being an aristocrat and living in squalor.
The lifestyle tiers are summarized very briefly below, but are covered in more detail on page 158 of the Player’s Handbook. If you choose to practice a profession during downtime (see Downtime Activities, below), you can support a lifestyle ranging from poor to wealthy without spending the money to pay for it, depending on several factors (see Practicing a Profession on page 187 of the Player’s Handbook or see Work on page 134 of Xanathar’s Guide to Everything). If you are proficient in Survival, you can achieve a Comfortable lifestyle by living off the land (see the Self-Sufficiency sidebar on page 159 of the Player’s Handbook).
|You have stable housing, but its nature is either unconventional (a barn, a shack outside of town) or extremely poor (a rundown inn in the bad part town).
|Stable housing, but likely in a shared living space like a flop house or inn, and poor food. Common for unskilled laborers.
|Comfortable, though simple rented lodgings. Stable food. Common for laborers with minor skills like professional soldiers, hedge wizards, priests, etc.
|Small cottage or a private room at a fine inn. Common for merchants, tradespeople, and military officers.
|A life of luxury and comfort, though not enough to draw wide attention from nobility. A spacious home, likely with a few servants.
|A life of plenty. Excellent lodgings in the best part of town. You will rub elbows with politicians, high priests, nobility, and other aristocrats.
Beyond your character’s lifestyle and the associated expenses and activities, you might choose to pursue a number of other specific activities during downtime. Some of these activities are described briefly below, but for the full rules for those activities see page 187 of the Player’s Handbook or page 125 of Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. The availability of downtime tasks and the outcome of such tasks are subject to DM discretion.
- Buying a Magic Item: Unlike nonmagical goods which are freely traded and widely available, magic items are rare to the point that they can’t be purchased like mundane items. Instead, you must seek them out, you may not find the item or items that you want, their price may fluctuate wildly, and purchasing such items can introduce a number of messy complications to your life. I go into the specifics in more detail from a DM perspective elsewhere on the site.
- Carousing: By spending 5 days doing little except eating, drinking, and socializing, you can establish permanent contacts. However, this is dependent upon successful Charisma (Persuasion) checks, and poor results can lead to hostile contacts.
- Crafting / Crafting an Item: If you are proficient in suitable tools, you can craft nonmagical items related to the tools in which you are proficient. The time it takes to craft items depends on the items’ market value, and more expensive items take more time to craft. The Player’s Handbook provides a basic set of rules, but if crafting is going to be a frequent occurance in your game I recommend using the version in Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, which presents more detailed and more interesting rules.
- Crime: Make a series of ability checks to simulate planning and executing a crime of some sort. If you’re successful you get gold, but if you fail you may end up in prison. You get to select the difficulty of the crime, with more difficult crimes offering larger rewards.
- Gambling: Spend a full week gambling with strangers, and you can gamble your gold. Like real life, you can either lose everything and accrue gambling debts, or you can win a bunch of money, but there is a lot of randomness involved.
- Pit Fighting: You fight gladiator-style in matches put on for crowds. Similar to gambling, pit fighting involves a series of ability checks and has a lot of randomness involved. However, unlike gambling, the worst that can happen is that you don’t make any money. The potential rewards are much smaller, but you also can’t go into debt. Weirdly, losing in a pit fight carries no risk of injury or death.
- Practicing a Profession: Support a lifestyle from Poor to Wealthy depending on a few factors. The rules are vague and seem to heavily favor the Perform skill for no apparent reason, so I recommend using the Work option in Xanathar’s Guide to Everything instead.
- Recuperating: Certain creatures and effects can leave lingering problems like disease or curses which prevent you from recovering hit points. Three days of downtime and minimal activity allow you to attempt to recover from those effects.
- Relaxation: The simplest of downtime activities, your character does nothing significant, provided that they can afford to maintain at least Modest lifestyle. After relaxing for a week, you can recover from some effects similar to Recuperating. This is an ideal option for players who don’t want to participate in downtime activities.
- Religious Service: By performing some sort of religious service for an organization which shares your religion and/or ethos, you can earn Favors from that organization which can be redeemed for a handful of useful benefits.
- Researching / Research: If you want to research a specific topic, the DM may dictate how long it takes to find the information you want and what sort of ability checks you might need to do so successfully. The version of the rules presented in the Player’s Handbook are extremely vague, so I recommend using the version in Xanathar’s Guide to Everything instead.
- Scribing a Spell Scroll: If you are proficient with Arcana, you can create a spell scroll containing a spell that you know or have prepared. Spell scrolls are great for spells you only rarely need, but high-level scrolls are expensive and take a long time to make.
- Selling a Magic Item: Much like buying a magic item, selling one is difficult. You need to find a buyer, which exposes you to thieves and other antagonists, and the price at which you sell the item is unpredictable.
- Training: You can spend gold and time with a willing teacher to gain proficiency in a new language or tool. Xanathar’s Guide to Everything presents a more interesting version of the rules, but the version in the Player’s Handbook works fine.
- Work: Spend time and make an ability check to determine your lifestyle for a week. If you’re especially lucky (and skilled) you can earn some extra gold, too.