Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Did You Pack Six Iron Spikes, Or Only Five?

I really don't like equipment lists very much. It's usually one of those things the writer/designer either slaps together in about five minutes, or agonizes over for months. In the end, I always throw out 90% of the crap on the list and change around the other 10% to suit my own needs.

Typically, the more "realistic" the RPG system, the longer and more detailed the equipment list is. Chivalry and Sorcery (at least the edition I have, which is a later version) had an entire chapter than was nothing but equipment and pricing, laying down prices for every color of dye you could imagine, thread and cloth of different colors, various herbs (dozens), buying various meats, grains, fruits, and vegetables in several different proportions...it was madness. And of course, all of these hundreds of items had very carefully broken down prices, ranging from hundreds of gold coins to a copper penny or two.

While I cannot fault the creators of C&S for their completeness, and I'll admit it was interesting to read through on a...academic...level (for instance, they didn't list potatoes because it's not a "medieval" food), it was also mind-numbingly boring. In my mind, there is no more sure-fire way of killing the thrill of adventure than to hand the players a chapter-long equipment list and have them constantly reading through it, looking for the price of a bottle of wine or an iron sewing needle or two yards of purple cloth. As one of my players once put it, "I'm here to kick ass and take names, not play dollhouse or go grocery shopping". Truer words were never spoken at my gaming table.

But sometimes, characters need something other than broadswords and mail hauberks. If you're going into a cave, you're going to want a torch or a lantern. If you're going to climb a wall, you're going to want a grapnel and some rope. If you want to open a lock discreetly, you need lockpicks, and once you start gathering up the loot, you're going to need something to carry it in. So there is some use in having a list of stuff your characters have access to in case they need it.

So how to handle this?

First off, I suppose it has to do with the nature of the campaign and the level of detail you and your players are comfortable with. If it's a seat of your pants modern day adventure game, there's little need for an equipment list because hey, here's a Wal-Mart, or look, here's the Internet - just look it up. On the other hand, if the game is set in the future and there's a lot of varying gadgets and alien technology available, you'll need a detailed list because the players will be largely unfamiliar with almost everything, and have no clue how expensive it all is.

There's lots of ways to go about handling the acquiring of all this stuff. Some games just say "take what you like, within reason". This is nice, as it means you just load up on a few things and get to the action. But the problem comes along when the GM has to fight it out with players constantly over what "within reason" actually entails. Others use a "Resources" meter - you PC can buy whatever he wants as long as it is listed as being equal to or under his Resources rating. This isn't bad, since it puts a cap on what they can buy, but if you're not careful, you'll wind up with some dumbass buying 100 broadswords and then arguing why they can buy that, but not a mail hauberk, since 100 swords would obviously cost more.

And tied into all of this is of course the idea of "starting funds" - how much money your character starts off with. Some games just give a flat value. Others make it a variable for each character that is totally random (2d10 x 50 or whatever). Some have a baseline, but you can "buy" more with character points or whatnot. Some go the Resources route as above, and some make that an abstract value, so that you have 10 Resource points, say, and a sword is 1, a horse is 6, a mail shirt is 3, etc.. Anything listed as "0", you can take for free.

But in the end, the most important question to ask is, does all this nonsense make the game more fun and interesting for everyone involved? Does it make it a better game to force your PCs to count every copper penny on their character sheets and constantly agonize over the purchase of every pint of ale, or is this just a lot of bean-counting and dollhouse-playing that's going to slow things down and make PCs scrutinize their "grocery lists" of equipment all the time.

I've seen the symptoms and it always drives me a little batty when a situation comes up in game and the first thing all the PCs do is eyeball their equipment lists to see what they have at hand to deal with the problem. Conan never carried around a backpack full of crap with him wherever he went - it was usually just him, a shirt of mail or less, and a broadsword or dirk. Even MacGyver only ever had a handful of things with him at any one time - it was always about what he could do with the items on hand, not carrying around a forty-pound backpack of random adventuring gear.

So the next time you set about starting a new game and you reach for that sheet of notepaper to begin jotting down your equipment list, just keep in mind that the more choices you have to offer the players, the less the game is going to be about adventure and ingenuity, and more about what they bought at the last town to bring with them.

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