Magic Items and Item Creation Rules in RPGs
This monogram is based upon the first query in this video of “Office Hours”, by Adam Koebel. I summarize: “How do I create a system for magical item (MI) creation that is meaningful and interesting, requires special ingredients for each item, but isn’t cumbersome?”
And an offensively short summary of Adam’s eloquent discussion: “Most games have MI creation rules; most of them are terrible. Even indie RPGs tend to handle it poorly. Blades in the Dark (‘Blades’) is my new hotness, and does it well.”
False. I will elucidate: Blades is not my kind of game. It is well-designed, and does almost completely mechanize MI creation. In fact, Blades mechanizes everything…in the most basic lesson of abstract algebra ever game-ified. It’s quite elegant in its design: ‘this’ is an element, ‘that’ is an operation. One combines two elements with one operation to create a third element. A player creates a character with a ‘playbook’ of tags and moves, uses ‘units’ of resources and discrete 'ticks' of ‘clocks’ to further goals. Randomness is handled by a d6.
I’m not a fan of this new genre of RPGs—that of ‘fictional positioning’, ‘narrative focused’, ‘grab and go’ RPGs. It’s a genre on which White Wolf tried to capitalize in the 1990s with their ‘Storyteller’ system, failing because their mechanics were nearly as complicated as those of other games, but confused its players because it was trying so hard to wave the ‘No Mathz!’ flag that there wasn’t enough room in the game book to actually describe (and balance) the system’s stats model.
Of course, this new genre of RPG isn’t trying to appeal to me, nor does it lie about its impeti. I play games with complex, strategy/tactics-first mechanics. The ‘story’ of the game is not created by the narrative actions in-game, but by the twelve successes that turned my basic ball of flame into Jessi’s Raging Magma Storm of Deathstomping, or by applying a bleed effect on a hasted opponent, watching it die because of its own celerity! My RPGs (Coming 2018!) are mechanized w/out regard to fictional positioning—I don’t want to spend twelve years explaining the swings I take with my katana, I just want to roll my dice. I want my comprehensive knowledge of game mechanics and tactical risk-minimization to determine most of how the game goes.
‘Fictional positioning’: the gaming philosophy which requires two criteria be met for an action to be attempted by a character in the game: (1) it must be mechanically possible—the game must have a mechanic that allows the character to attempt said action; and (2) it must make sense within the past or current fiction of the game. That last part is always poorly phrased—rephrase: the stage must be set in such a way that the action may be attempted.
Poor example: proper fictional positioning, sans mechanics: ‘I stand next to this NPC.’ ‘You are standing next to the NPC.’ ‘I would like to give this NPC a great massage.’ ‘Okay…there’s no Massage skill, so…you succeed? Or fail? Roll a Flirt check.’ ‘I’m not flirting; I just want to ease this NPC’s back tension.’ ‘Okay…roll a Medicine check.’ ‘I’m not trying to be a massage therapist.’ ‘Uhh…roll a Perform check?’
Poor example: proper mechanics, sans fictional positioning: ‘I would like to buy power armor.’ ‘Okay: you find the local armorsmith.’ ‘I would like to use my hauntingly beautiful charisma to get her to give me 8% off the purchase price.’ ‘Cool! What do you say to her?’ ‘I rolled a 27 on my Charisma check. Yes! That actually gets me a 13% discount!’ ‘Right, but how do you convince her to give you this discount?’ ‘By using my massive charisma.’ ‘Right, but how? Do you flirt with her?’ ‘No, I don’t have a Flirt skill. I use my Charisma.’ ‘Right. So do you try to befriend her?’ ‘Wouldn’t that be Diplomacy?’
Good example of positioning and mechanics, so good that millions of RP Gamers use it every week w/out realizing it: ‘I move adjacent the goblin.’ ‘You have 10 meters of movement, and can take a Move action to stand adjacent the goblin.’ ‘Do I have any modifiers to attack this goblin?’ ‘Yes, because your friend taunted the goblin’s mother with a successful Taunt roll.’ ‘I would like to stab the grot in her kidney region.’ ‘You already declared that your dagger was readied; are you actually attempting to hit the kidneys?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Then your called-shot penalty cancels the taunt bonus. Roll to hit.’ Roll successful. ‘Ha, ha! Die, you pathetic greenskin!’ 'Not on 3 damage, she doesn't....'
Most games, and most gamers, count on a natural social mechanism w/in a gaming group: compromise, give and take. ‘I will give you two lines about what I say to her.’ ‘Excellent. That, with your Charisma roll of 27, enamors her to you, and you get that 13% discount.’ Or: ‘If you recognize that nearly everyone on the planet can perform a decent massage if pressed/motivated to do so, I’ll agree to a DC 5 Medicine check.’ ‘Excellent! You roll a 14. It’s a decent massage; not the best he’s ever had, but welcome.’ And not at all awkward for you to perform in the middle of the tavern.
Adam’s discussion began with the D&D perspective on magical items: find better items to kill bigger monsters to find even better items, et cetera, ad eternia.
But there’s a larger schism at work behind this query, because gamers in their 30s and 40s played D&D in a time when magical items were, simultaneously, the source of great tales and legends, but also essential to one’s survival. In the days before DR (damage reduction; 3.0+ D&D), you just flat-out couldn’t hurt a shadow without a +1 weapon. Werewolves used to be ‘gear checks’; they only had four hit dice, but if you hadn’t accrued enough money to have that spare silver weapon on your person for just such an occasion, they might as well have been invincible.
Yet, from Level 1, each and every one of us were drooling for the day when we’d finally be able to cut off our dominant hand and stick the Hand of Vecna in its place! Because D&D was based upon fantasy literature; a common theme of which is the ultimate quest to retrieve Merlin’s Great and Long Staff of Omnidicking! Every NPC in Ye Olde Land knew (a) the names of every major artifact in the region, (b) the badass dictatrices who currently wield them, and (c) the terrible curse that befalls all whose hubris makes them think they are worthy of the legendary life’s-work of Grit-gnat the Horrific Kneecapper!
Time has since flown; 21st Century RPGs are either combat simulators or narrative-focused ‘Choose Your Own Adventures’. Adam accurately identifies the flaws of magical items in most games: (1) If you go questing for a specific item, you won’t need it when the quest is complete; (2) If you let PCs buy (and sell!) MIs, you’ll ruin the game’s economy; (3) if you make MIs too difficult to build or too rare to find, the PCs will be continuously under-powered. The latter is especially true for non-spellcasters—I don’t care how many bonus feats the fighter gets, if she doesn’t have a magical weapon at level 10, she’s in for a rough time.
Or in modern/sci-fi games: ‘What’s to stop my players from buying the best armor, the most explosive weapons?’ Nothing, unless you (1) force the PCs to go abroad to find them; (2) allow them to sell fifty AK-96s for one suit of power armor; or (3) force the players into isolation with only 9-mils and two magazines. Respectively.
Adam also mentioned creation-focused character classes. Nearly every RPG has one: Deadlands Mad Scientist, Pathfinder Artificer, Rifts Techno-Wizard, Apocalypse World Savvyhead, etc. And any RPG that doesn’t have an explicit item-creation class has skills, feats, and other rules that govern the blueprinting, creation, and repair of objects. And yet, these classes/skills tend to be rarely used!
‘But why, Jessi?’ Fair query. Crafting mechanics have become so important to computer RPGs that a good one often correlates directly to a game’s success. Some of the most popular games in the world have as free-form a crafting system as possible—e.g. Terraria, Minecraft, Legos. And yet, many table-top RP Gamers ignore, subsume, or handle item creation exclusively during downtime. Why??
My theory: item creation systems allow creators to directly affect game mechanics. Minor, incremental changes—a +2 longsword to replace the fighter’s +1 sword; a +1 optical sight for a gun; a nitro tank to a car—are fine. In fact, the GM can simply offload the responsibility for providing such upgrades onto the party’s crafter. How would anyone know--your gaming group has five people! After the first few levels, the group would settle into a routine: give the crafter 10% of your loot, so she can upgrade your favorite submachinegun with an extra-long magazine, stability stock, faster smarklink, etc. Now the group is spending their money on upgrades instead of frequenting local arms dealers; they spend 50 credits every week, instead of 200 credits a month. Balance maintained, while the GM still uses ‘item scarcity’ to keep the grenade launcher out of their hands for a few more levels.
‘What about that new hotness?’ Tha’ fuck would it matter? In narrative-focused games, what’s the point of having a new magical item? To allow access to a new action? It’s narrative-focused. ‘I would like a cape like Dr. Strange’s cape: I want it to pull me out of danger.’ ‘Okay, you’ll need to kill Empress Redcape to get it.’ ‘Nah, I wanna make it.’ ‘Alright. I’ll give you a 42-tick clock. You’ll need to spend a downtime action to tick it forward.’ ‘Any way I can reduce that?’ ‘Sure, you can go to Redcape Mountain and retrieve the Cape of Creation.’ ‘Eh. Can I buy one with money?’ ‘Yep: it’ll take you 42-ticks worth of missions to collect the requisite money.’ ‘What if I steal the Candelabra of 42-Ticks?’ ‘No problem! It’s currently in Dr. R. Edcape’s private collection, just 42 units of Money across the ocean.’ ‘I’d like to make a special class move/book/feat that would allow me to mimic the effects of the cape.’ ‘Excellent choice; just the way I would do it. For completely non-arbitrary reasons, it’ll take 42-ticks worth of Experience to get the first level of this special class.’ ‘Why??’ ‘Because you must cross the Red Ocean, fighting your way through the Creation Pirates to study the 42 Ways under Mistress Cape.’
My apologies; that metaphor just wouldn’t end!
“Office Hours” likes to give specific information and guidance; I share that philosophy:
(1) Game balance is fluid, varying, and subjective. GMs are consumed by game balance. Some have to be, especially if, like Adam, you GM in front of thousands of people. But for your own table top group, one’s only concern is if the players feel like the game is balanced. Often, this means that each player feels s/he brings something unique and powerful to the group’s exploits. If the bard feels like she doesn’t contribute as much as the fighter with the dual vorpal katanas, focus less on combat. Or allow the bard to discover the Melody of Superhotness—a scroll that can only be read/sung/played by a bard that allows her to, 1/day, force her target to remove all of her/his/its clothes in eager anticipation of coitus. My dear friend Sam GMs with this maxim: “Give every character a chance to shine in every adventure, during every game day.”
(2) There is no such thing as a creation system that is meaningful, special, and unencumbered. A system either describes crafting mechanics ad nauseum (e.g. Pathfinder, Deadlands), or places the responsibility of player projects on the shoulders of the ill-advised GM (e.g. nearly every other game). My advice: pick two of the three.
* Special and Unencumbered: Item creation is limited to classes or skills, and those who focus on them—at the expense of other skills and talents—should be allowed to create items on demand, en masse. D&D 3.5’s system does this best: a flat gold fee, a number of 8-hour shifts directly proportional to that fee, etc. No XP cost, no lengthy quests, no special items required. When I’ve played with this kind of system, I even let the players break down old/found items to ease a fraction of the build cost/time for new ones. (See (3), below, for more info.)
* Meaningful and Unencumbered: At regular intervals (e.g. level up, boss completion, shard acquisition) the party can create or commission the creation of an item. This process is unencumbered because the party has control over when this milestone is achieved. Important to this kind of system is to make it as transparent as possible—and in this one regard, Blades in the Dark does player projects well: creating red.Cape requires ten ticks of this clock; it will cost 1 Money and 1 Downtime to tick the clock.
* Meaningful and Special: This was the original standard, in the 1980s RPGs. ‘You may be awarded a daiklaive only by challenging the pack leader to first blood under Luna’s warrior phase while maintaining a Caern’s blessing!’ I want to ensure that you understand: this method of item creation is shit. I just flat-out refuse to play games that use this model of item creation. They’re either stupid:
(‘You now wield the Foot of Smork!’ ‘Okay, so what’s its bonus? +2?’ ‘It is the Foot of Smork! It will make the downfall of your enemies 5% more likely!’ ‘Okay, +1 then. Anyone need a dumb +1 weapon?’)
(‘You now wield the Shoulder Bone of Vecna!’ ‘Excellent! The first thing I do is use it’s once/year ability to summon an army of 1,000 skeletons!’ ‘Behold! Your fearsome army of the dead awaits your bidding!’ ‘Hey, small shit village from level 1: it’s payback time for refusing to pay us double that 5 gold bounty!’ ‘Let’s see…there were 42 people in that village. Roll 42d100s; one a roll of 1, Vecna consumes your soul.’ Rolls a 1. ‘Oops.’ ‘Okay, Kendra the Paladin Valiant is now Vecna the Returned Bad Time. …Time for a new character? Or are we good here? This a good end point for the campaign? Feels like a good end point.’)
(3) Give game balance, and the responsibility for its equilibrium, to the players. ‘But I am a GM! Heavy upon my shoulders and my shoulders alone rests the burden of Game Balance!’ Feels like it sometimes. But it’s wrong, and anyone who tells you otherwise is likewise. Let the space marine have that plasma cannon—it will occasionally explode. Let the psychic focus on mental domination; when the Warp explodes around her, it’ll be hilarious. Let the ork dual-wield Big Choppaz, and just fucking mow through rank after rank of Imperial Guard. How is she going to be helpful in challenging the planetary governor’s tax tariff policies?
Many GMs offer this advice; ‘if character A is too good at action X, then challenge A with action Y.’ And you don’t have to do it in a sneaky or malicious kind of way. Use this ‘fictional positioning’ to your advantage, and rely upon the abundant cornucopia of game circumstances. Yes, “Court of Swords” spends 2- to 3-quarters of a session in combat, because that was the intended focus of the game—they wanted a tactical, combat-driven RPG…probably to contrast the highly-narrative “Blades” and “Nebula Jazz” also running on Roleplay.
Regardless of the game, all campaign worlds are vast and varied. Simply allow the players to pursue their own agendas. Those who want to banter with and seduce NPCs will choose to do so. Ditto for those who need more heads for their belt. Your job, as GM, is to make both of these opportunities available and engaging.
‘The point, Jessi!’
Give the players control over the crafting system of their game. Make the most powerful items in the game only buildable by the players. This is how I treat item creation in my games, and in games with class-focused crafters. Questioner: ask your players if they want a creation system that is “meaningful and interesting…but isn’t cumbersome”. Tell them that a super smart lady told you they can choose two of the three:
For ‘special and unencumbered’, the D&D 3.5 system is pretty good: pay your gold, spend the downtime, here’s your wand of cure light wounds, 50 charges. If you’re not playing a d20 system, I recommend the creation rules for the Mad Scientist in Deadlands, or that of my upcoming titles [??]: ‘I want a ranger long-rifle.’ ‘Cool. Roll Int + Craft. You get one roll per day of creation. You suffer a -5 penalty for not being Eldar, but you can still attempt to build it since you’re a psyker. Do you have a rifle-smithing flair? Good. It’s an Exotic weapon, so you’ll need to accrue 300 successes/hits/7’s.’ Done. That player can now snipe fools from a kilometer. Still not going to be helpful with that damn governor and her shady tax codes.
Especially in this case, I would just not bother giving too many special items as loot. Sci-fi games get off easier in this respect: ‘Congrats, you’ve killed the Vindicare assassin! She’s got a master-crafted Armaggedon-class sniper rifle.’ ‘Aww…I already have one of those!’ ‘Well, her goons also have 53 lasguns, let’s see…twenty of their flak armors are still usable….’ Giving the players the authority to craft the best in-game items will give them the opportunity to engage with player/downtime projects that have actual meaning, because they’ll craft what they want, when they need it. Then, when it breaks, when it jams, when it gets stolen from an unconscious body, the player will feel that sense of personal loss more powerfully—and your game will be more engaging for it.
If you’re playing a d20 game (e.g. D&D, Pathfinder), just use those systems, and let your ego get out of the way. Unless a master-craft item is required, just gloss over the ‘item’ part. Let the druid collect bark on which to scribe scrolls; the naval alchemist to collect various sands and waters for potions; the urban sorcerer to fashion a wand or rod from a length of lead pipe or rebar.
If you’re playing a d6 (e.g. Shadowrun 5e) or d10 game (e.g. any White Wolf game, my games—coming 2018!), use that system’s d10 ‘success/hit/7s’ requirements, but elide any but the most potent, powerful, or rare ingredients or processes. Allow an hourly check for small stuff, daily check for ‘common/mundane’ items, a weekly check for uncommon tech or basic magic item, and a monthly check for the most potent stuff. Be sure that you and the player define the item’s type and the amount of successes required to complete it. Some examples:
* Improvised explosive (Access to cleaning closet; roll 1/hr, 3 successes)
* Convert semi-auto pistol to full-auto (Access to workshop, the gun; roll 1/hr, 4 successes)
* Armored trenchcoat (Access to medium sized town’s shops; roll 1/day, 7 successes)
* Slinky dress (Access to any clothing/fabric store; roll 1/day, 3 successes)
* Basic grenade x10 (Medium town’s shops; roll 1/week, 6 successes)
* Sniper rifle (Machinist’s workshop; roll 1/week, 15 successes)
* Vibro knife (Scientific workshop; roll 1/month, 12 successes)
* Carrier-class interstellar vessel, w/ full complement 100 attack drones (Every kind of workshop, resources of massive cities; roll 1/month, 5000 successes)
‘Jessi, I can’t let a player build a fucking starship!’ Sure you can. She starts designing it in her garage. After a year of adventuring, her Craft skill increases, specializes—and the work goes faster. She spends the bulk of her income building workshops and factories, hiring engineers. A second year goes by; now she’s rolling 100 dice/month, because of those she’s hired. Our shipwright has increased her social, pedagogical, and management skills to make her employees more effective. Another year: the shipwright’s team defeats a group of militants who’d captured a nuclear submarine; you allow her to jury-rig the sub’s fusion drive (w/ a skill check) in exchange for 100 successes.
Finally, the team is ‘15th level’, and her work is complete! Don’t just let it sit there: make it the team’s HQ! The next five ‘levels’ can now take place all over the solar system! How does the shipwright train the crew she’s hired? How does the system’s police force register the carrier? A few minor space combats, then a couple of massive ones. How does the group’s leader change her command style at the helm of the carrier? Will the team’s physician beg the team to come to the aid of the beleaguered miners of asteroid colony FookMee?
Why not?? Why hold players back from making the stuff they want to make? Why shouldn’t the team’s sniper learn how to custom-make her own rifle and/or rounds? Why can’t the team’s priest make a faithful copy of the Mantle of Piousness? Hey, GM: look at yourself in the mirror: ‘Why am I so terrified of allowing players’ characters to engage the game’s item creation mechanics, in the spirit of the game, with little or no encumbrance on my part?’
For ‘meaningful and unencumbered’, I’d recommend offering items for the completion of missions. It doesn’t matter who or how they’re given to the PCs—steal it from the bandit lord, who is known to carry it; loot it from the necromancer’s library after you’ve driven off her dead; offer it as a reward when the party returns to the quest-giver (who might have secretly hoped that they would die on the return trip…). Be a bit stingy on the gold/credits side of treasure, but be sure that they’re paying that armorsmith for something they actually need. Mask it in a bit of secrecy: ‘The armorsmith has finished her work, and bestows upon you the Mark XIII power armor! It’s stats are basic power armor.’ (But then, during a fight when the warrior is downed, tell her that the meaningful investment in this armor actually saves her from the wound!) The Pathfinder rules will probably suit you as is, but play up the ‘fiction’ of the creation process. Have the acquisition of a special ingredient or material be a side quest, such that the party need not choose between killing the bandit lord or yanking ten bear asses off of ten now-bottomless bears on the other side of the county.
For ‘meaningful and special’, go back to the horror that was 2nd ed. AD&D or the original World of Darkness. May the New Moon shine favorably upon you, because if I find you I’ll create a vulgar Prime effect to rend your avatar right the fuck out of my universe.