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Crafting Systems in Tabletop Games: Part One

Start with the understanding that I love crafting and crafting systems. This love comes first from MMOs, but it also applies to LARPs. I like spending my time and energy to get stuff in a way that I can control. I like feeling that I've exerted that degree of control over the gameworld, sufficient to go from Thing A, Thing B, and Thing C to the new and much more interesting Thing D. (Okay, I'm not explaining this well. Nothing labeled "Thing D" is "much more interesting.")

I have also played crafters in D&D 3rd edition games for a long time. My spellcasters tend to need an interesting way to spend feats, and my fighter-types want something to spend skill points on that will add the illusion of depth. Particularly with the magic item creators, I've liked spending time and resources more efficiently than just buying the item outright (if, in fact, it was available for purchase in the first place) to make the game more fun for party members. Further, characters who can make magic items are just neat. I liked making a magic sword in KG for this very reason, and I liked making imbued (minor magic) weapons more frequently.

Ultimately, though, my experience with crafting in tabletop games and LARPs has had a number of dissatisfying elements. My character in Arcana Evolved has faithfully improved his Craft (Armorsmith) skill every level. From the lofty height of 12th level, I have buyer's remorse. If I had spent those skill points in anything other than a Craft or Profession skill, I think that I would get more joy of them. This is because, in a pseudo-simulationist way, it takes several months of uninterrupted effort to turn a small amount of money (material costs, which are directly part of my character's stash of gold) into, if I'm lucky, three times as much money (the value of the finished piece). For my character to have these uninterrupted months, the story has to completely stop, since it takes all of my character's time and energy to do this. Alternately, I can work on it only in my spare time, stretching it out to a year or more of work. No thank you.

With magic items, I'm again relying on the other players and the GM to agree to character downtime. Further, it needs to be actual downtime, not fakeout downtime in which things look calm only to erupt into plot happening (this is called "rising action" and in most other ways is, you know, good; in this case, the game says that I can't participate even after my 8 hours of labor are done for the day). There's also no game to the crafting of magic items in 3rd edition. I satisfy the spell prerequisites or I don't; struggling to learn Nystul's Magic Prerequisite so that I can make Maxwell's +1 Hammer of Banging doesn't sound like fun when I already satisfy the spell prerequisites for Trogdor's +1 Burninator Sword. This is because, well, the party is going to have to go out of its way to get something, so we might as well cut out the middle man (that would be me) and quest for something even better for Maxwell, which will presumably be +2 and silvered. Making the game more fun for Trogdor is as good as making the game more fun for Maxwell, and doesn't frustrate me or annoy my party members with my unreasonable demands that we do something other than follow the main plot.

It also isn't interesting because I'm just subtracting a known number from the number next to g.p. on my character sheet, subtracting another known number from the number next to XP on my character sheet, and telling the fighter that he now has his +1 Burninator Sword. That's a transaction, not a game. It's more interesting than an interaction with a merchant NPC only in that I can feel a little bit good about spending feats to make that transaction more efficient (but it also cost me a feat and some XP). In addition to not being a game or challenge of any sort, it's also entirely antiseptic.

AD&D 2e tried to handle this with a page in the DMG offering two different general approaches to players making magic items: one in which the party quested for obscure things that did exist, and one in which the party quested for obscure things that, at least on their face, didn't exist. I appreciate that they were trying to sustain some mythic feel here, but this goes back to some of the problems I mentioned earlier on a much grander scale. The logical flow of desires from initial want to final means of acquisition went way out of its way. If this is all an excuse on the DM's part to make the acquisition of the magic item a multi-step process, I can respect that, but that loses what I like about crafting: I had to get so many other people involved that I've lost what I like about crafting magic items for party members in the first place. I can no longer say, "Here, look at this neat thing I made for you." Now I'm saying, "I am the plot device by which all of these things that you struggled to gain are made into your final goal." To which the recipient responds, "Uh, what?"

I want to feel like my crafting involves taking materials in the game and turning them into something useful. Dumping gold pieces on a merchant to buy unstated materials (and no, 4th ed, residuum is not an improvement) lacks story and interest. The obvious response is to make either the player or the DM describe what it is that I'm buying from the merchant at Supply Chain Unlimited, and if a DM told me that I couldn't make the magic item I wanted because I had exhausted my ability to convert cash to unspecified material components, I think I would be justifiably annoyed. What I'm getting at here is that the items don't have an independent reality in the game, and asserting that there are totally-arbitrary components that do have an independent reality and limit in the game without changing any other part of the system is ridiculous.

I'm ignoring here the logical problems of absolutely fixed cost that attempt to avoid gameplay problems. One mission at a time, and fixing D&D's economy is beyond my poor brain anyway.

In my next post in this series, which I will probably write during the day tomorrow, I'll lay out an approach to a new crafting system for D&D 3rd edition (well, 3.x) that Kainenchen and I worked out on Friday. One could reasonably wonder why in God's name I'm designing for 3rd edition when 4th is all that I'm running right now. The answer here is twofold: first, that I am considering running an E6 version of 3rd edition (if you don't know what this is, don't worry for now; I'll explain it in a future post); and second, that kitbashing is a thousand times more fun in 3rd than it is in 4th.

Moreover, I am aware that I have raised the point of crafting in LARPs only to drop it again, but I don't want to make this about the design of Forge Magic in DtD at the moment.


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