Thursday, 27 November 2014

[Design Talk] The Power of Inventory

Hello World,

Equipment, items, supplies, phat lewts, whatever you want to call them, they make an appearance in almost every RPG system. From the heavy inventory focus of D&D and Pathfinder to the narrative importance of Fate or Heroquest the methods of item representation can be done in countless ways. I am noy going to debate about which game handles inventory the best because each has its strength and weaknesses. Instead I would  like to talk about the importance of how you handle items when designing a game. But first, a story.

About a year ago I was running a Pathfinder game in which one of the players had grown fond of his characters pair of bolas. These weren’t special bolas, just the simple kind which you could buy and any store, but they were his favorite piece of equipment. This attachment developed from a number of encounters in which a good bola throw got the team out of a jam. He could always rely on his trusty bolas. But tragedy stuck...

One fateful night, as a thief was making off with their valuables, a lone bola toss stood between the thief and her escape. The bola flies true, entangling the thief’s legs and knocking her to the ground. The group begins to run up to the downed thief. Seeing her foes approaching the thief begins to panic, she pulls out her dagger and cuts the rope of the bolas. Dropping the stolen goods, she is barely able to make it out of their alive.

In that moment a minor unnamed enemy became the most hated villain of the game. The player was heartbroken at the loss of his trusty weapon, and for some time the campaign became focused on tracking the thief down.

I was trying to make one thing clear with this, stats don’t always make an object important, interactions with that object do. Whenever you are designing a system, always ask yourself, what objects result in the most impactful interactions? I know that may seem like an odd question to ask, but hear me out. Items only matter when they have some form of major impact on, or connection to the player. Unless players within the game are going to be stranded and hunting for resources chances are, things like rations, tents and encumbrance don’t really have a big impact on the game, and may be better left out. In fact a lot of game masters choose to drop these rules because all it adds is needless micromanaging to their game, taking away from the experience they are trying to deliver.

Same goes for weapons and equipment. Ask yourself, what do you want to have a larger impact in your game, the player’s connection to the weapon or the weapons qualities? Do you want your player to use the sword that is passed down from their father or the enchanted blade they plundered from a perilous dungeon? These are all questions which should be asked, and the mechanics of the game should be designed around those answers. Don’t just put in an item list because other games have item lists, put one in if it makes your game better. A good comparison you can do when looking at this is by comparing the Dungeon World fighter with a Pathfinder fighter.  Pathfinder fighters are always on the lookout for the next best piece of equipment, while Dungeon world aims to have the fighter develop their skills with a single weapon. However you go about handling equipment and items within your system, ensure it improves your game. Never add mechanics just for the sake of having them.

Thanks for reading,

-  Patrick

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