Posted by Rampant Coyote on October 2, 2012
Back in the old dice & paper days, equipment upgrades – the cool, magical kinds – were things you acquired as loot and as rewards. Occasionally there’d be some low-level, generic magic swords for sale at a shop, but magical gear was mainly a reward bestowed by the DM or module designer for surviving and clever play. While it was left the the Dungeon Master’s discretion, the modeling in game modules didn’t include many opportunities to buy powerful gear in those days.
The rules were very vague on making magical items of your own – it involved a lot of money and time spent not adventuring, and weren’t much more than an explanation of how such magical items came into existence in the first place. In other words, YES, high-level magic-wielders like you COULD make ’em, and so can you if you have a LOT of down-time, but it’s generally not worth it to the active adventurer.
Most old-school western CRPGs, following the lead set by Dungeons & Dragons, generally stocked the stores with little more than starting gear for low-level characters. Over time, as Eastern console RPGs started building up steam, stores tended to be stocked with progressively more powerful gear, generally equivalent to hard-earned gear you could have obtained in the previous area.I guess that way there was a minimum baseline of gear, but it felt weird that the ultimate ubersword of the dungeon near the previous city was just sitting on a store shelf in the next.
At some point, crafting became a thing. I blame Ultima (starting with Ultima VI, circa 1990). However, crafting in Ultimas – at least as I recall – was pretty low-key. You either crafted simple weapons that you could easily buy in a store, or crafted as part of a quest to create an uber-item. Otherwise, it was pretty much baking bread and milking cows for personal consumption. As the 1990s came to an end and we started getting cross-pollination between fledgeling MMORPGs and the single-player RPG genres, we got more and more instances of crafting – though still more often than not quest-based with very specific recipes
D&D 3.0 came out, and … well, things changed. Effectively, magic items were put in the hands of players, rather than the Dungeon Masters (or, for CRPGs, the game designers). Go to a large enough city, and you could buy anything short of artifact-level that you wanted, according to the rules. Alternately, you could craft your own, for an expenditure of experience points and gold for the requisite materials. Easy-peasy. I was not too fond of this latter change, as it really turned what I’d always treated as an in-game reward into little more than a revenue source. In other words, instead of being thrilled with a really cool magical item found amongst a dragon’s horde, any item that wasn’t exactly what the player wanted was simply thrown into the ol’ Bag of Holding to be sold in town for cash to buy a specific item. It also seemed to take what was once a source of mysterious and … well, magical… possibilities (at least to less experienced players) and turn it into little more than a shopping list.
Pathfinder has resolved this somewhat, by getting rid of the rules that specified that all items were always available within a price range dependent upon settlement size, and instead making random items available. This, in my mind preserves the excitement and … well, I guess the gambling thrill… where you never know quite what you are going to get. Finding out what seemingly random items are available for sale within a town is almost as exciting as identifying what seemingly random items you discovered in a dragon’s horde. I suspect this change was also made to make crafting feats more valuable. In D&D 3.x, crafting wasn’t really much more than a way of getting items for half-price (but at an experience cost that really sucked). Pathfinder did away with the XP cost and reduced the availability of items.
So what’s best in an RPG – particularly a shorter, indie-sized RPG? I asked about crafting on Twitter and received a wide variety of responses. Overall, the bulk of the responses came out – unsurprisingly – to “it depends.” Some people love it, some find it a distraction, but overall people felt that it really depends upon the nature of the crafting system and the focus of the game.
For me, as an old-school gamer, I tend to prefer seeing the traditional approach of having the best items in the game as rewards, with the exception of “quest-style” crafting where you can put together a more powerful item out of hard-to-obtain components. Buying or crafting items is better for maintaining a baseline standard of equipment or stocking up on expendable items.
But I have to admit – the extremely free-form, unrealistic, and (in my view) completely non-optional crafting system in the D20-based Knights of the Chalice was pretty awesome. And I can certainly see a number of non-traditional approaches that would make building or buying the focus of the RPG over looting and questing. (For that matter, I’ve enjoyed RPGs with significant equipment component whatsoever). In fact, I have some ideas on the back-burner simmering right now about just that kind of game.
Do you want to weigh in? How should “magic stores” work in an RPG? Do you prefer something like Knights of the Chalice where your most critical equipment in the late-game will be crafted as they are needed? Do you prefer a game where any non-quest item in the game can be made by the player? In a traditional RPG, is crafting something you normally pay attention to?
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