Rebuilding D&D, part 3: Stuff

Gear, Stuff, Equipment, Weapons and Armor, Miscellaneous Magic Items, Trappings, and all the other bits that matter to a budding heroic adventurer… Call it by any name and D&D is a game about Stuff.

And see, I think that kinda sucks (sometimes)…

Very scientific of me, right? To be serious, I’m not a fan of equipment rules, magic items, and all that other jazz that shows up in D&D. Specifically magic items, but really, everything. Hack & Slash has an interesting post about treasure up right now, and KORPG worked on this idea a few days ago and they’ve both said interesting things worth checking out, but I suppose I really want to drill down a little bit.

Let’s Go Old School — just for a quick minute — and talk about concepts like exploration and such. I mean, when you play some (not all) old school games of D&D it is easy to realize that — taken to inevitable conclusions — “stuff” gets weirdly represented in these games. Encumbrance is a pain to track but seems almost vital to pay attention to since the adventuring party, tromping off into the wilderness is carrying iron rations, ten-foot poles, spikes and mallets, more rope than a hardware store, and a collection of sacks, bags, and pouches for carrying the loot back out of the dungeon at the end. Add in holy water, lamp oil, wolfsbane, tools, and torches and you might load your PC down before you ever even get to weapons and armor… but you probably need all that “stuff” because you need to poke floors and spike doors and set fire to trolls and all kinds of crazy stuff… and you can never have too much rope! I bring this up because in my Kingmaker sessions, when they were exploring the wilderness map, I made them track rations and encumbrance and such because it helped define the pace of exploration and provided a real sense of the need to “return to base” for the PCs. And I enjoyed that dynamic — for a while. But it was awful nice to put in that first “item o’ holding” so that we could start to ignore such things… which was a natural consequence of leveling and felt like a real victory for the PCs. It was actually pretty interesting.

Back in the day, to be honest, we played OD&D (and 1E and 2E) an awful lot like 4E. We tended to have the PCs appear at the site of the adventure, fight a lot, we didn’t give XP for treasure, and we didn’t bother with petty things like encumbrance and spell components… And it took me until I started playing PF to realize the simple joy of using encumbrance (when you don’t let it rule a session).

But my real gripe is Magic Items

Way back in the day (you know, 2005) in the heady world of the 3.5/d20 bubble, WotC released a book for the D&D game that “rule-ified” something I’d been doing for a long time. Weapons of Legacy, love it or hate it, is one of my favorite 3.5 books — and probably my favorite magic item tome from any game — because it worked on the concept of having players stick with the same stuff they got in those formative 1st-level days even when they grow up to be Epic Heroes. I wasn’t fond of the “spend XP on your weapon” bit, but hey, nothing is perfect. But I’d been doing this for years — leveling my PCs items and giving them histories and stories — as a way to encourage PCs to have a deeper relationship with their gear. It seems weird to some I guess, but I’ve always thought that when a PC has that sword their father gave them, that sword they defeated their first orc with, that sword that cut down the evil slaver-master of Skyrock Lake, and then they find a +2 sword and toss it aside — that bugged me.

Which is, I think, the meat of this idea. I used to hate “Stuff” in games — but I’ve learned to appreciate it a little more over the years. But I am a storyteller at heart, and I want stuff to matter more than numbers on a sheet. So when you get Magic Items in my games, they aren’t disposable — they’re worth sticking with — worth holding on to. And they’ll grow with you as your PCs legend grows in the game world.

And that’s what I’d work toward in a new D&D. First — as Hack & Slash mentions, and I’ve pointed out here before — gear should not be a part of the “expected power framework” as much as it should be another cool facet of your character you get to develop. Wish lists are (in my opinion) silly and ring very false. But not because they give players control over the gear they get, but because they are necessary to ensure that PCs have “correct” gear.

I say give PCs what they want, nothing wrong with that, but do it in such a way that it builds into the campaign. Restrict “magic items” to a few items per character and make them matter more and they’ll become items of interest, value and mystery (as well as mechanics) instead of just mechanics.

I propose — in my brave (maybe) new D&D — that PCs “Stuff” should go back to being meaningful rewards instead of suffering from “golf bag” or “I need a neck slot item” syndrome as they have recently. I’d build toward making items less rigid in terms of “headbands improve Int, Wis, and Cha” and move toward a more organic process.

Again, this would allow a player multiple choices. For the guy who builds deep, twenty-page backstories, gear is a great way to integrate elements of that past. That amulet that is all you have left of your mother? Maybe it evolves into something as the game goes on. This also has appeal to the player who never writes a backstory and gives them a hook to hold in game. I mean, that sword you used to kill the slavers? What if it develops an ability to protect you from charm and dominate spells? Now you have an awesome sword, with an awesome ability and you got it due to your in-game actions — and you don’t feel like you have to chuck it because it’s time for a +2 to keep up with “to-hit” values.

Well — this ran longer than I wanted, and I didn’t say everything I wanted, but it conveys the idea. More to come.

Thanks for reading.

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5 responses

  1. I got nothing to add but ditto. I hate power creep as a necessary requirement built into the system by the designers because they’re trying to define some tiered treadmill.

    I like the idea that gear isn’t a constant trade-off in an effort to have the “next best thing” but is nurtured and grows as part of (and result of) the history and actions of the character.

    Also, this idea would easily fold into my level-less D&D concept quite nicely. Good stuff this.

  2. I totally agree. part of my soultion in future 4th edition campaigns is to utilize the inherent bonus progression outlined in the Dark Sun setting to remove the math fix that magic items fill and then add a few key and meaningful items.

  3. I will admit, I was a big fan of the inherent bonuses in 4E. I liked those a lot and I think they were a step (but only a step) in the right direction for what I’d like to see in the game.

  4. […] dash of This by Monte Cook and a bit of This by The Rhetorical […]

  5. […] Rhetorical Gamer also goes into “stuff“, focusing primarily on the dependency on magic items and the consistent churn as better […]

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