Games Culture Two: Avoiding the urge to shop
There are precious few seminal shopping scenes in fiction. Maybe Harry Potter buying his wander from Olivander in Diagon Alley? The newly-promoted Horatio Hornblower spending his scant monies on his new uniform? It’s not a huge chunk of the genre, is it? However, equipment is crucial – if not critical – to some characters. What would Luke Skywalker’s journey be without his father’s lightsaber? The glowing Sting and the mithril chain shirt are critical in Lord of the Rings. Indiana Jones and his hat, whip, and pistol. You get the idea?
The way equipment is dealt with in many RPGs has to harken back to the wargaming and simulation roots of the hobby. Long lists of detailed equipment to be purchased with intricate coinage and weighing very explicit amounts, accounted against a character’s strength. If you don’t have the explicit piece of equipment, tough luck, you lose. So adventurers travel with an entire branch of Wilkos rammed into a backpack ‘just in case’. The living meme that is the 10ft pole is testimony to a type of gaming that ostensively harkens back to all of the great works in Appendix N, but in fact, has drifted into a far more player vs environment mental challenge game.
Similarly, magic or special items are handed out like candy, hand over fist. I know it’s a cliche, but I remember the days of having your D&D character walking around with a medieval golf caddy of swords – “Ah, an Efreet? Retainer, I think I’ll go with the +3 Frostbrand for this one. Yes, the longsword rather than the falchion please”
It’s all absolute nonsense. So I get rid of it.
You have whatever equipment you want, within narrative reason. So, if you are a veteran mercenary returning from the northern steppes you will have your chosen weapon and maybe a back-up, your armour of choice, a dagger tucked in your boot, sturdy travelling clothing, a heavy cloak wrapped around your shoulders, trail rations, fire-starting equipment, a ragged bedroll and whatever else you might think appropriate. You might want to personalise things further and say that your armour is made from scraps pulled together from enemies on the battlefield. Your cloak has ribbons of cloth from the cloaks of your fallen allies woven into it somehow. The dagger in your boot belonged to your dead best friend, who died saving your life.
So what is the emergent play from this approach? (This is going to be a theme that we will revisit – all these approaches create a domino effect on gameplay)
First, money becomes irrelevant. You either have none, a little, some, or lots. The exact number of copper pieces or credits you need is no longer a factor. So money is pretty much not an issue in the game, in the same way as the fiction we emulate.
Second, the style of gameplay changes. When you no longer need a 10ft pole, you stop putting ridiculous traps into a game. How many times have you walked down a corridor in a castle that was only last year the home of a Lord of the Land and triggered a series of Raiders of the Lost Ark style traps? What absolute psychopath puts that in their own residence?! Nope, get rid. (Oh, and don’t worry gentle reader, I’ll get to traps soon enough…) Rather than being incompetent fools who forgot to get wolfsbane in their weekly trip to the Waterdeep branch of Lidl, the party’s ranger becomes ultra-competent because, OF COURSE, he would bring wolfsbane if he was venturing into the Blacken Woods! He’s not an amateur…
Thirdly, and potentially more controversially, the link between form and function of equipment begins to fall apart. Say, for example, you want your character to use a sledgehammer as a weapon. That could be a warhammer or a maul but you look at the bastard sword and it is simply a better weapon, statistically. Why shouldn’t your sledgehammer be a reskinned bastard sword? Why should your fighter, from a desert, have to work on a lesser AC than a more temperate fighter, because ‘full plate would be deadly in a desert’. I bet the monsters don’t have a lowered AC soft cap? Nah, just reskin it as ‘desert plate’ and have it all bits like a gladiator. The fighter looks thematically cool but doesn’t lose one of its few distinctions.
Finally, magic items become very special and they stick to your character. As in Earthdawn, they grow with your character, rather than being replaced. This in itself is worthy of a different subject (and like everything in this series, has been discussed at length elsewhere) so I may visit it later too.
Essentially, the games culture line here is that equipment should serve the character not the other way around. It should illustrate something about them and their history, rather than defining their actions.
Of course, astute readers will have noticed that I haven’t mentioned the next obvious loss that comes with a lack of intricate equipment … encumbrance and movement.