Thursday, July 21, 2016

Loot! Loot! Loot!

I love loot. Despite that I’ve been accused of being stingy with it. But that comes from the same whiners who say “ooh I don’t have enough points,” “wait I lost how much sanity?,” or “we’re only first level why is there a dragon?” You can get by without much loot. We’re been playing Rolemaster for close to two years in the same dungeon and I think we’ve gotten a handful of gems, a potentially cursed religious chalice, various nuts & bolts, and three actual magic items. Of course, I ended up with the +15 laen sword, so I may be a little biased.

Anyway, on a recent Play on Target episode we discussed loot, treasure, money, items, etc. We were lucky enough to have Sherri on as a guest. She added her player-perspective to our GM focused interests. Below I offer nine additional thoughts on filthy lucre and ancient relics in rpgs.

1. The Pudding Blade: I like weird items with strange powers players have to find a use for. They make my job easier. It means I don’t have to think about the group, their roles, and what they already have. If you’re not using a random chart to generate treasure, then any decisions about drops have the PC group as a context. If you keep dropping flails but no one uses them, and in fact everyone’s invested in everything but flails, that’s a problem. Or if it’s all swords, all the time, and the group ends up with a golf bag worth. I try to skate the line between suspension of coincidence (“look everyone got a magic weapon of the kind they use”) and punishment (“six new helms everybody!”). Bizarre things make it easy. I don’t know where they’ll end up or how they’ll be used.

2. How Much for the Eye of Vecna? Tangential to the concept of Loot as Stuff, there’s the question of the economy in games. How do we handle money and purchasing power? Better minds than I have written about the economic impact of wealth on fantasy civilizations. Money loot becomes more important when the backdrop has scarcity. As I say in the episode less scarcity means you have to shift your picture. If you want players to spend what they want has to be scarce. Night’s Black Agents makes that vital to the set up. It’s costly to run a rogue intelligence operation. You want weapons or cool Q-tech stuff, you need money. And that means doing off-the-books jobs to get that money.

3. Glorious Doom Hammer of Doom: What can we learn from Diablo’s drop system? A. Having cool names makes everything better, but be careful not to repeat. B. An easy means to dispose of items seems awesome but generally devalues them. C. Stuff should have a look, something players can integrate into their self-description. D. Giving sweet equipment to beloved NPCs can be satisfying.

4. I'll Just Pay Then Off: Some games have capital “W” Wealth. These games allow players to roll or spend points to make themselves rich (GURPS, M&M). It’s a thorny question. Obviously the GM can still make that interesting: some choices come with costs or they’re in locations where their wealth isn’t recognized. Call of Cthulhu, Fate, and a few other games have wealth as a skill. I like systems where you can throw your money around but it reduces your skill or effectiveness for future attempts. Taken to its logical extreme, wealth becomes a hit point pool or damage track. You could use that to absorb social attacks or have it assaulted by thieves. But that might be more tracking and recording than I’m good with.

5. You Don't Know, Why Don't You Drink It? Rolemaster has some interesting treasure mechanics::delving and attunement. There’s a whole set of spells (usually for Bards) to figure out what an item does. They can also uncover history and other information, but really it’s about this challenge to the PCs and the mechanics to overcome that. This means you need to be clear to the party how you’re going to handle items. If you tell players what X does, then you potentially negate the need for some spells (and therefore part of a character’s build options). Of course, since its Rolemaster, they add another shade of difficulty. In order to use staves & wands, you have to make a skill check with “Staves & Wands,” aka Attunement. I’ve seen many GMs use this skill as necessary to using any item that doesn’t offer a flat bonus. I’ve done it myself…

6. Torc Grenades: Of course my favorite mechanic for this kind of figuring out is early Gamma World’s flowchart. There you flat roll until you figure it out, break it, or kill yourself. A more interactive approach with some bonuses and skill interaction might be fun. Artifacts of a bygone age are a staple of post-apocalyptic gaming, and figuring them out is important. It’s why I’ve been curious about the long-mentioned Gumshoe PA game. What will discovery there focus on: other groups, lost lore, or how relics work?

7. Wastelands:  Mutant: Year Zero takes a middle path on this kind of loot and I dig it. MYZ has artifact cards, ranging from the obviously useful (rifle) to the oddball (air mattress). Each card has a description of the effects and even the most mundane has some bonus. The air mattress helps with recovering fatigue. Artifacts often contribute dice to checks. When they do so, players add black dice to their pool. If these dice roll 1’s they can wear out. Gearhead characters can then repair them. It’s an easy mechanic and creates opportunity and value for tech characters. The cards help too. As well, some of the more obscure pre-made relate to a meta-plot operating at the back of MYZ. That’s a nice touch and the GM can seed those as they see fit.

8. Power Up: Other genres require a different take on loot. You can still have equipment finds in a sci-fi game, but more often you’re getting money to convert into stuff. Superhero games don’t have loot per se. But we could make some rewards more concrete so they feel more like loot. Accumulating NPCs and contacts is one obvious choice. Worlds in Peril has a bonds system and that offers a mechanical benefit. Bases are another great reward for group long-term play. That’s especially true if players can invest points, effort, or “loot” into making the base better. Never underestimate the power of that kind of shared resource. Particular kinds of reputation can be a reward. It would be interesting to offer loot in the form of rep levels with different segments of the population. That could be a popularity number along with a phrase describing the kind of rep. Finally loot and stuff found in villain lairs, labs, and on downed foes can be “excuse” loot. If someone has cool stuff or strange chemicals, that’s an excuse to buy new powers or enhance existing ones. That’s the whole basis of Base Raiders.

9. Wear & Tear: Finally, I’m torn on something I mention in the episode. Ashen Stars has an interesting system covering cyberware and viroware, both cool things with special abilities. You can pick up more of these in play. Obviously there’s a limit to how much you can have (ala Humanity from Cyberpunk 2020 or the item chakras from 13th Age). In Ashen Stars there’s an upkeep cost to these items. If you don’t pay that, you lose their powers and suffer additional problems as they break down. That’s a cool mechanic for balancing items and giving players something to spend money on. BUT I know that I loathe video games with weapon breakage and item degradation. Would I hate it as much at the tabletop? I don’t know. I suspect it would be an occasional road bump rather than a runaway treadmill. So maybe there’s something worth pursing in the idea of adapting that kind of upkeep (and maybe upgrade) mechanism to a fantasy game.

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