Review: On Downtime and Demesnes (B/X Version)

The Short Version: On Downtime and Demesnes is an excellent resource for those seeking to take their adventures beyond the dungeon. However it’s eclectic subjects and detailed subsystems make it better suited for solo play – or at most a small group that can appreciate a slower style of adventuring. While the page count has been padded with large lists of NPCs, items, and other curiosities the contents of these distractions are creative and enjoyable to read. While I rarely play B/X the procedures and ideas included in this book are easily adapted to other old-school variants of D&D and it’s derivatives.

  1. The Physical Book
  2. The Tone
  3. Chapter One: Places
  4. Chapter Two: Activities & Labour
  5. Chapter Three: Characters & People
  6. Chapter Four: Wealth & Prosperity
  7. Chapter Five: Construction
  8. Chapter Six: Influence
  9. Chapter Seven: Integrating Rumors
  10. The Appendix
  11. Final Thoughts

The Physical Book

This is a hardcover edition purchased from which currently sells for $20 USD. It’s about 250 pages with an above-average font size and crisp printing which I find useful as a person with poor vision. At a glance the font appears to be a copy of the one used in the original AD&D books, giving it an old-school aesthetic. The cover itself is thick and sturdy, giving it a satisfying weight to hold. However the binding is glue, and thus the book does not lay flat while opened unless the pages are weighted down. Overall I am impressed with the quality of the physical book given it’s price. I must however give a very minor complaint that the name of the book is not printed on the spine.

The Tone

“The game has the quintessence of the eternal conflict between the age of flame and the age of darkness, reality versus subconscious, law versus chaos.”

The above quote is the second sentence of the book, and I feel it instantly captures the framing of the author. OSR writers have an infamous tendency toward darker fantasy filled with struggles and misery. This author expresses some of that darker tone, but to a relatively mild degree. I think that this interpretation is fairly accurate to my own readings of early Dungeons & Dragons content, but the subtle negative bias permeates much of the creative aspects of this book.

Interestingly it also captures something else – and I will stress that the following is my own highly subjective interpretation of probably nonexistent subtext. I find that alignment is one of the most poorly understood aspects of D&D. One of the many issues is the simple fact the word “Law” was chosen. This poor choice of word has resulted in the misconception that D&D equates governance with virtue, which in turn expresses why the vast majority of my own players (who tend to be minorities in some regard) have a severe aversion to it.

Defining alignment in these poetic terms, and explaining how it acts as a fundamental framework of the entire game, challenges the original writing itself. In a sense it says “I can do this better.” in the same way that a good film analysis can make you see a mediocre film in an entirely new light. It is simultaneously a celebration and scathing condemnation of dungeons and dragons. It is cynical perhaps, in a very metagame sense.

Chapter One: Places

This chapter begins with some advice to the dungeon master, provides context to the size of medieval towns, and explores the standard contents of a six-mile hex. All of these can be described as resources for game preparation rather than at-the-table procedures.

The first true procedures come in the form of urban navigation. To put it simply – it’s easy to get lost in an unfamiliar city. If the players are looking for something, how long will it take them to find it? I feel a lot of conventional dungeon mastering would throw this concept straight into the garbage – it gets in the way of The Action.

This is precisely the kind of thing that interests me given my fascination with The Mundane. I know what it is like to be lost in an unfamiliar city, and I found myself reliving an awful day I staggered around Tuscon in excessive heat desperately trying to hail a taxi the old fashioned way in this era of smartphones.

In a game where characters grow old the ability to “waste time” is what gives the sense it had any value to begin with.

The chapter ends with a lengthy list of peasant and patron NPCs. I was surprised this was included in Places rather than People. However without this inclusion it would become quite apparent that the first chapter of this book is extremely short.

Chapter Two: Activities & Labour

Old-school games typically award experience points for gold coins. (In fact, the large majority of a character’s experience comes from the treasure and not the combat.) One flaw of this system is that players usually amass huge troves of treasure with few things to spend it on.

One answer to this problem is the Carousing rules which have become a popular alteration of this concept. Instead of gaining the experience for acquiring the money, you gain experience by spending it. This chapter immediately begins with this idea presented with a series of charts and sub-rules for different types of “Carousing” – including things like charity, studying, and perhaps the my favorite: seeking out new and exciting foods.

This chapter also includes rules for healing, skills, weapon proficiency, and even raising your attribute scores. These things stand out because they directly alter or dictate core game features. I find this unexpected given the books focus on the peripheral. While I’m not opposed to the rules themselves, their inclusion seems odd and clearly within the realm of “Houserules” rather than resources.

Thankfully the chapter ends with additional peripheral resources and systems including procedures for the rapid abstraction of criminal activity (theft, banditry, assassinations, and so on) allowing the thieves to get themselves dirty while the mages sit in their libraries and the warriors forge new blades.

Chapter Three: Characters & People

The rules and language around NPC companions (hirelings, followers, etc) have always suffered from muddled language. This chapter begins with a clear set of definitions, expectations, and rules for various types of allies. While I would be hesitant to hack in things like skills, this particular subject has always been something I feel is worth a complete re-write. I’m happy to say that this book does an excellent job – not only in offering clarity for the standard companion types, but also introducing new ideas like the sidekick and protege.

The chapter is focused, written with precision in intent and execution. While I have few other things to say about the content, I would rate this as one of my favorite chapters in the book.

Chapter Four: Wealth & Prosperity

This chapter begins with procedures for mercantile pursuits, which greatly appeals to my interest in the Mundane. While these rules are brief and well designed, much of this chapter is dedicated to long charts of random items you might find at a bazaar, and descriptions of odd pet shops. While they have many creative entries, my primary interest in this book is the procedures themselves. I’ll have more to say on the various lists toward the end of my review.

The latter portion of the chapter is dedicated to expeditions, clearing out terrain, and generally preparing it for the construction of a settlement. These were by far the hardest rules for me to understand, and I had to sit down with dice in my hand before I could fully grasp them.

That being said I am ecstatic at the idea, as they provide a smooth transition between the adventures of the individual toward their potential domain-level play at higher levels. They also mesh excellently with the hireling(etc) rules provided in chapter three.

Chapter Five: Construction

I have never in my life had a player draft up an idea for a castle, hideout, or anything else of the sort. Yet these rules consistently show up again and again across multiple editions of D&D. Such ideas are rehashed here at the start of the chapter.

Something I would like to see more of – rather than an emphasis on castles and such – is an exploration of building/purchasing civilian buildings. Houses, workshops, farmland, and so on. This subject is touched upon in the lightest possible way by giving a few generic prices for buildings made of stone or wood, with nods to a few other ideas such as shrines and windmills.

Next is the construction of vehicles. These receive a much more detailed examination with various engines, hull materials, special modules, and so on. Much like the castle problem, I have never had players interested in the details of a ship or similar vehicle. At least nothing more than “Lets spend a few gold to sail somewhere else.”

However there is a great deal of potential here for adventurers focused on merchants. If you were to shift your Generic Fantasy Setting away from the noble kingdoms and toward the merchant republics, the rules in this section could provide quite an interesting backdrop for players to carve out the story of a merchant league struggling to profit in a fantasy world.

Chapter Six: Influence

Remember when I said expedition rules were the hardest for me to understand? This entire chapter is four pages and in desperate need of extrapolation. The concept of influence is simple – each settlement has a limited number of Influence spaces on a board. Important people occupy one or more spaces. If you want to do something (like own a shop, practice magic in town, etc) you need to have enough influence spaces to get permission/acceptance.

However since other people are also trying to get influence, it generates a dynamic bit of drama that emphasizes the simple fact that not everyone gets what they want… so what is your character (or NPC!) willing to do to secure enough influence to get what they want?

The problem with this chapter is that the only example of this board is a single rough sketch, and the system requires a lot of rulings and subjective interpretation on behalf of the DM. It’s easy to understand the idea, but the idea is all we really get. I’m not really sure how to rate this chapter since the system certainly interests me, but I would absolutely need to flesh it out before I could use it.

It would be unfair of me to say “I couldn’t understand the rules” when there were in fact no rules to follow.

Chapter Seven: Integrating Rumors

Much like the very first chapter, this is primarily advice for the GM followed by a large table of ideas. It explores the purpose of rumors, and how they create a broader narrative and living world. While this might be informative for a newer DM, I found it to be entirely vestigial.

The Appendix

This section is primarily a set of miscellaneous tables. It starts with a list of seasonal events strongly reminiscent to the charts offered in the original Oriental Adventures for AD&D. Other subjects include inheritances, trade goods, ideas for ruins and temples, and a few example towns exploring some of the rules and ideas outlined earlier in this book.

Final Thoughts

Most of the rules are interesting, concise, and have a lot of potential for interesting experiences outside of a typical dungeon crawl. However they are also eclectic, and I believe many groups would prefer their adventurers to stay focused on stabbing goblins and causing a ruckus. Things like the expedition rules will appeal more to those interested in strategy games than personal character narratives. With the correct group this would create an extremely interesting dynamic world, but may become severely tedious to those who prefer to keep the spotlight on their personal heroism.

Several parts of this book are entirely vestigial, such as the list of unusual pet shops and goblin hijinks. Thankfully these distractions are brief. I should note that I do not mean they are poorly written – they were enjoyable in their own ways, but I prefer reference books to be focused and I sincerely doubt I will ever think of using them.

The tables – listing NPCs, interesting items in a bazaar, etc – are stocked with creative ideas. However they are written as if the writer is the DM, and you are a player partaking in a text adventure. This exposes an interesting strength to this book: It is an excellent tool for solo play.

This is compounded by the eclectic nature of the rules. While I’ve never had a player interested in designing a castle, I may very well be. In the context of solo play I wouldn’t need to worry about slowing things down for other people. The depersonalized rules for things like expeditions and the procedural generation of hex contents set the stage for the book to tell YOU a story.

As a tool for regular group play, I would rate this highly so long as you have the right kind of players. However as a tool for solo play, I would say this is a masterwork combining inspiration and utility. Either way I feel it has a well deserved place on the shelf next to my AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide.

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