Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Build, Buy, Bestow, or Bereave: Equipment Acquisition in RPGs

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?

Filed Under: Design - Comments: 17 Comments to Read

  • J said,

    I like “living” weapons, i.e. upgradeable gear. A family heirloom, depreciated artifact or futuristic swiss army weapon that grows in power over time. A lot of systems make this upgrading a non-crafting activity–i.e. kill things to upgrade–but I see no reason why this must be so.

  • WhineAboutGames said,

    In a vague generic sense, trying not to think too much of the needs of any specific game, I think I prefer it if a certain amount of “intro” magic items or crafting components were available in stores, but there were also lots of cool uniques that could not be purchased.

    You can buy a Dagger +1. You can buy a Flame Rune that you can have added to your weapon to add fire damage. You can have your weapons dipped in silver to do bonus damage to werewolves. You cannot buy Rasela’s Sword Of Dancing.

    I like being able to upgrade an existing weapon a bit because I hate the way some more modern RPGs want you to frantically cycle through what used to be awesome magical swords, constantly replacing them with the next model down the line. I want to feel a little more attachment to my sword. That may mean needing to be able to boost it so I can keep using it longer… but if you can craft EVERYTHING there’s no reason to get attached to anything either.

  • Califer said,

    I love being able to craft items in games. Usually. If the system is too shallow then it gets boring. A+B=C can get really really dull if C is the exact same thing each time. ESPECIALLY if you get points towards that crafting skill so you feel you need to just keep making iron swords until you can make something better. Grinding is only fun if the player does it by choice.

    Allowing optional ingredients into the mix can make it more interesting. Okay, so I got a new level of weapon crafting and I can make iron swords. Should I put the chipped ruby (it’s been chipped, so obviously it’s nearly worthless) and the rabbits foot in for fire damage and a boosted chance at critical attacks? Should I put in the essence of sharpness to increase the minimum damage? Adding one recipe gives you a lot more freedom to play the game as you want to.

    Oh wait, you were asking about magic stores. Hmmm. I think it really depends on the world. In a world like in Frayed Knights, where there are lots of adventurers hitting different dungeons, I would expect there to be at least one place where adventurers would go to sell and buy rare loot, or at least a place where they’re willing to trade.

  • Robert Boyd said,

    Have you played any of the Atelier games (or their spin-off series, Mana Khemia)? Those are great examples of RPGs where item crafting is front & center and adds a great deal of fun and variety to the gameplay.

  • John Evans said,

    I think there’s room for both approaches, or perhaps even combining them. The cool thing about crafting your own items is that you can get exactly what you want, both from a vanity perspective and from a strategic perspective. If your mage is dying too often, make them enchanted robes with an armor bonus. …That was said with an eye toward a vaguely defined magic system, BUT you can actually do that in Master of Magic. (Of course, MoM is a strategy game–it’s basically “fantasy Civilization”.)

    What if your quest rewards were really powerful enchantment gems? You can craft some steel and the gem together to make a powerful sword for your fighter, or you can craft the gem and some rare cloth to beef up your mage.

  • Jacob said,

    There are two factors in a game that work together to form a basis for my attitude towards gear acquisition (in computer or live gaming). First, how important is gear optimization? Is my character living on the edge where a better weapon, armor, or spell is going to make the difference between victory and defeat? As gear becomes more important to victory I get more anxious about getting *exactly* what I want and less interested in being happy with whatever I’m given.

    Second, how likely am I to get an item that makes a difference given the world/GM/system I’m playing? If everything is available down at the corner bazaar, then I don’t have to worry about finding exactly what I want because eventually I’ll be able to just buy it. If, on the other hand, I’m subject to a sadistic or controlling world/GM/system then I’m going to be a lot more anxious about item selection and more interested in taking feats/skills/attributes to control my own destiny as much as possible.

    By default, the idea of GMs playing Lady Bountiful may be great for them, but it’s not a system that is inherently attractive to me as a player. I like to control the destiny of my character as much as possible and being dependent on a die roll for gear I need doesn’t have much appeal. So it fills me with apprehension when I have a GM who tightly controls access to advanced gear, particularly if I feel that the gear we are getting is just random. Random can mean all the gear goes to a player who forgets what she even has. Or to a monk we don’t actually have in the party. And what if your GM really likes the idea of equipping your fighter with a salad fork of veggie slaying +4? And then throws you into the plane of elemental meat?

    In short, if you aren’t on the same page with the world/GM/system about gear then players will want as much control as they can find. If you have a thoughtful GM, for example, that you can trust to provide equipment that brings tears of gratitude for their situational perfection, well, then most people couldn’t care less about what they can find down at the magic store. If you suspect you’ll have supply problems, OTOH, then you’ll start looking for ways around them. If you don’t have the equipment you need easily available (at a store or from a quest line or whatever) then your interest in gear will be inversely proportional to your trust that the world/GM/system won’t screw you.

    Trust and control. People will be happy if they trust their needs will be met by the one(s) in control. You can put them in control (through access to store-bought gear, for example), and short-circuit problems. But if players aren’t in control, then the first thing you need to establish as the one in control is the trust that they’ll have the things they need to succeed. If you fail at that, then they’ll be anxious and start looking for ways to take whatever control they can find—including putting the game down and going somewhere else to have fun.

  • Maklak said,

    I think adventurers should be able to make simple things and do basic maintenance on their equipment, but creating something awesome requires years of experience and training. Hence crafting of advanced items should be handled by NPCs.

  • Baudolino said,

    Jay, how about a system where you can gain the best crafting ingredients/resources only destroying legendary (and hard to gain)items?
    Let’s say after a long and hard quest you find Durendal, the mighty sword of the paladin Roland, but unfortunately you are a brute mace fighter, not a swordman. So, what can you do? Whit a system like the one I propose, instead of selling the legendary sword, you can destroy it, retrieve S.Peter teeth and other strange relics, and then use them to make Divine Wrath, the mace of your dream. Of couse, as long as you have required score in crafting.

  • Baudolino said,

    * dreams
    *of course

    Sorry, my keyboard sucks :D…

  • Davzz said,

    I think one of the reasons for the change of DM control over items -> Player control is more customizable character building overencouraging specialization.

    In AD&D/older games like Goldbox you don’t have ANY choice whatsoever in building your classes. Apart from stats, your Fighter will be exactly the same as every other Fighters.

    Random items work or at least doesn’t hurt because it doesn’t matter if your Fighter is holding a sword or a bardiche or Falchion etc… as long as it has a big fat + number at the end.

    Then later RPGs came along with the concept of “Weapon Specialization” and now there’s a problem with magic items being in the hands of the game designer.

    Random Drops: Did you create a sword-speciality fighter? Sometimes you’ll get screwed by the Random Number God. 50 great magic axes dropped throughout the game but he’s still having to use a crappy +1 Longsword.

    “Set” items as rewards for quests or dungeon rewards:
    Better read an FAQ before you play the game! Is your character concept “Axe-wielding Berserker”? Oops, you didn’t do your research, the game designer didn’t put it any viable Magic Axes in the game, you made a worthless character.

    And then there are those annoying enemies in RPGs with traits like “Immune to everything except Silver weapons”.

    I think it feels better to let the player craft stuff to deal with situations… as in, I believe there’s probably more of an emotional joy of e.g Crafting Fire weapons before tackling the Ice Giants’ Cave as opposed to “run around scouring the entire world to get some Fire weapons just for that one dungeon”

    Though unless the game is actually focused around crafting (Atelier series), being able to craft EVERYTHING gets kind of lame drawing from my experience with KoTC.

    I think the sweet spot would be something like exploration giving you mostly general, solid “workhorse” items and “Legendary” items with lots of lore surrounding it. Crafting would fulfill the “It would be nice to have niche item X now” scenario.

  • Holsety said,

    I prefer when shops sell only the most basic forms of equipment, and all the cool stuff is gotten by exploring/questing (or stealing it off your enemies!).

    Makes you appreciate the things you worked for, gets rid of grinding for gold and eliminates the ridiculous JRPG system where towns closer to the end of the world sell progressively stronger stuff.

  • Davzz said,

    I don’t know, I would prefer currency to actually have some kind of use.

    If shops don’t sell anything worthwhile (cough Diablo)… well, most RPGs don’t have good economic systems but I’ll start to wonder why you even implemented one in the game.

  • Xenovore said,

    Echoing Davzz: Don’t bother putting shops in the game if all they’re going to sell is basic gear. Likewise, don’t give me gold if there’s nothing to buy. Fallout 3 suffered from this; past level 5 or so, ALL the better gear was found, so shops became mostly worthless for purchasing stuff, beyond the basics like ammo and health kits.

    There needs to be a balance. Yeah, I want to go out, explore, and find cool stuff. But part of the fun for me is being able to shop around and see if I can find any cool new gear. (Especially if I’m not finding anything particularly great at the moment.)

    I think it was fairly well implemented in The Elder Scrolls games where many shops had mostly mundane stuff but you could find decent magic items here and there if you kept an eye out.

    As far as player crafting goes, I guess it depends on the game. E.g. if a game is action/combat oriented, don’t bother tacking on a crafting system. (Looking at you, Diablo 3.) I do like having some minimal customization available (e.g. item enchantments) but I’m rarely impressed with crafting implementations that just have arbitrary recipe lists. I liked how Ultima Online did it; that felt more real than most.

  • Holsety said,

    As for the gold problem, the Etrian Odyssey series handles it deftly.

    Monsters don’t drop gold, because what kind of monster carries gold coins with it??? (Seriously, the trope is ridiculous.)
    Instead you carve off monster parts from the carcasses. (You know, the regular old elastic sinews, adamant shell plates and steelforged horns.)

    And then you SELL those to the weapon shop, in exchange for gold. Which you can use to buy consumables, finance your stays at the inn (cost dependent on party level) and buy all the awesome new equipment you’ve unlocked (hopefully) by selling monster parts to the weapon shop.
    (Selling 3 twigs and 1 piece of rubbery monster guts would unlock the first type of bow, for example, with stronger types of weapon in a category requiring better/rarer materials)

    A very organic (hueh) system.

  • Holsety said,

    Dang, of course it’s good to note that this works great because the entire goal of the game is to fully explore whatever thematic tower-type dungeon the town is situated next to in each game of the series.

    So you come back to the same town in between trips a LOT.

    I doubt the system would work as deftly in a game which had you exploring an overworld a la final fantasy…

  • Robyrt said,

    I love the idea of tying high-level crafting to quest rewards, so that I have a reason to go back to town at high levels but the shop doesn’t have that immersion-shattering Penultimate Sword of Smiting +10. Dark Souls for instance has the local blacksmith give you a side quest to find the holy anvil he needs to craft divine weapons. This gives the player a not-so-subtle hint that they’ll want a divine weapon for the next area, while preventing them from grinding for 20 hours to make a max-level chaos fire greataxe until they get further into the storyline.

  • Giauz said,

    It might be neat if a CRPG didn’t reward repetitive actions at all. I hope no one will be offended, but using Mario as an example, all power-ups are easilly lost and do not alter game mechanics enough to make it “easier” for just anyone at the controller. Getting coins is only achievable by progressing through a game level and taking risks (running down the clock or putting yourself in danger in order to head-butt some blocks). The reward is, again, easily lost and expands what the player can do more than make it easier.

    Now, if you could figure out how to take this into turn-based games.