Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Magic Items: You Are Your Stuff

Recently playing a little of the "roguelike" computer game Brogue, I was struck by one aspect of its stripped-down design. You are guiding a character through a dungeon, but the character has no variable stats, no levels, no class, no race, not even a name. The powers of this adventurer derive entirely from the items found in the dungeon - magic items to wear and wield, potions that increase strength and health permanently.
He's a bro. He's a rogue.
This brings up loot-based enhancements in a tabletop game. Players' characters can get more powerful and specialized in three ways: through automatic level-ups in the rules; through choices they make in leveling their character (feats, options, spell choices and the like); and through loot, spells and enhancement found in adventuring. While the first two are in the player's hands, the last factor is the GM's responsibility. 

At the same time, especially if you're running a stripped-down system where class choices are few and customization options limited, AND if you put a lot of special flavor into your magic items, the items can end up helping define the character - a dwarf with boots of leaping and a +2 shortsword/dagger combo; a priest with a necklace of lightning bolts; a henchman fighter who prefers a pole arm with a purple worm tooth blade.

So, not just power but fun gets placed in the GM's hands. Let's just dismiss entirely the notion, from later D&D editions, that item gain should be programmed and expected, level by level, as part of a "build." The essence of my old school approach is presenting a world that isn't always built around the saga of the PCs. But some technique needs to apply to these choices. It's one of the most difficult balancing acts in the game.

I suggest an average - not a guarantee - of one permanent and two expendable items per every three character levels of advancement, for each character. This should not be a sure thing for the players or the GM, either, and I find it's better to let magical treasure come up semi-randomly or as a result of other people's modules you use (with appropriate pruning) than to put yourself in charge of rationing out the players' fun. In practice, I've tended to stick to these limits, plus buyable "special" items, but if anything being a little stingy on the expendable stuff.

Is it too much of a coincidence that most roguelike games - including Brogue - go for approximately equal ratios of the three classic item categories: potions, scrolls and permanents (armor, weapons, rings, wands)? That is, a 2:1 ratio of expendable to permanent items?


  1. That's pretty much the exact ratio I used back in my 1st and 2nd edition low powered games in the early 90s. I felt it helped D&D stay at its sweet point longer. Though honestly, it still fell apart for me around 9th.

    Still, I think trying to rely on semi-random, semi-guidelines and published adventure "loot" is not the way to achieve the feeling of "the world doesn't revolve around you." Basically, it sets up a minefield of opportunities where disempowered pcs get bland rewards. I think you'd do better to focus deeply on setting and rewards that flow naturally from that. Random is random, and when combined with limited player agency, what you have is a recipe for a DM enjoying the theory and mathematical cohesiveness of his game-- most of which will be lost on his players.

    Don't get me wrong, I dig what you are trying to achieve. I've just made similar mistakes in the past. Good luck.

  2. I believe this aspect of game design is encoded in the treasure tables. It's unfortunate that treasure tables are so often ignored, because the unpredictability and bathos of treasure table results can be hugely satisfying in a way that is impossible when planning treasure.

    For example, the the PCs in my Vaults of Pahvelorn manage to slay their first dragon mostly by luck: they got surprise, used an instant kill item, and the dragon failed the saving throw. However, I also rolled probably the poorest type H treasure possible: literally only 10k GP (and no magic items).

    1. I agree, and think the tendency to undermine random treasure generation started as early as the AD&D DMG, which overwrote the Monster Manual's treasure type scheme with a much vaguer set of "hoard" tables requiring a lot of discretion to use.