Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Fully formed characters springing forth from the brow of Zeus

One of the things I'd do over with my Autumn Frontiers campaign is to curtail my instinctual desire to give the players pretty much whatever they want at character creation, within the bounds of the typical "buy what you what with your starting money" setup.

We're now 10 sessions into my campaign, which is set up as a location-based fantasy sandbox and interpreted through Savage Worlds. What I'm seeing is that the players are quite content to use their starting funds ($500 in Savage Worlds) to buy a few really cool bits of gear—and then cling to these items throughout the campaign, forsaking anything else that might come up during their exploration of the wilderness. And it's tough to deny them these pieces of equipment because they're so essential to the players' character concepts. (Example: "I want to play a dark elf who fights with a sickle. Can I buy a sickle?") This concept has backfired because nothing they find out there comes close to being as cool as the neato stuff they bought at character creation. I mean, the sickle-wielding dark elf isn't going to put aside his trademark sickle unless it freakin' breaks apart in his hands.

This is pretty much at odds with classic fantasy campaigning, where characters would encounter new and better equipment, weapons and spells, trading up as they went along to increase their overall potency in the campaign.

Here's another example: Out of an abundance of shared enthusiasm and generosity, I allowed our paladin character to pay a ton of money for a magical sword during character creation. It didn't boast outrageous damage, and it fits really well with his character concept (a paladin serving a flame goddess). It's all well and good—but no other magical sword will ever interest him as much as the one he's carrying right now. After 10 sessions, this character has begun to feel like a toy action figure that was taken out of its box, fully formed and ready to kick ass.

I recognized this during our last session, and I did something about it—I had the ghouls scavenge the paladin's magic sword and his large shield from his paralyzed body during a particularly brutal battle. They ran off with it, and the paladin scourged the lands in search of his special sword, which he found at the session's end.

But I felt lame about the whole affair, like I (the GM) was somehow punishing the player for something. We talked it over afterward, and there were no hard feelings, but still.

Should characters get whatever they can afford at character creation? The answer is probably no, but at the same time it's important for GMs to understand that not every player wants to start off as a bottom-of-the-barrel fighting-man who has to go after goblins with naught but a sharp stick and some lucky dice rolls. Heirloom equipment is fun. How can it be employed to both reward players and keep them excited about venturing forth again and again into the wilderness?

I also think I just need to play up the notion of equipment breaking and degrading over time out in the wilderness. Shields and bucklers don't last forever. If a backpack gets wet, it could ruin stuff stored inside. Chainmail rusts and weakens under repeated blows. Cloaks and robes can mildew and rot in damp weather. And magic swords become instant targets for monsters with more than a shred of intelligence...


Joshua Macy said...

That's not a bug, that's a feature!

Really, one of the aspects I like least about "standard" fantasy gaming is the constant trade-up of equipment. Grey Mouser uses Scalpel and Cat's Claw; Fafhrd uses Greyswandir; Aragorn...ok, Aragorn upgrades once when Narsil is reforged; Gwydion uses Dyrnwyn from the time he acquires it until it's wrested from him and carried off and it's rediscovered by Taran. Conan is constantly trading weapons and gear as he breaks and loses it, but none of it is magic.

The commodity nature of magic items in D&D is one of its least attractive aspects, imo, and you should be thankful if all it takes is letting characters choose gear they like at character creation to get them to give it up. If you really think it's necessary for them to get tougher and tougher magic gear, then maybe you can consider having the gear itself improve because of events in the game. E.g. the sickle could become magical after getting coated in the blood of a dragon or something in the process of slaying it.

Golgotha Kinslayer said...

How about a compromise? Instead of replacements for the pc's signature items, try accessories for them. Using the Dark Elf with sickle example, the troupe finds a magic whetstone, or bottle of mystic weapon honing oil. In another adventure--after defeating Jethro, the child-eating Treant--hint that a replacement handle carved out of Jethro's woody hide would improve the weapon. Optionally, reinforce this suggestion by having the old mundane handle crack at the end of the battle with the child-eater.

Golgotha Kinslayer said...

I almost forgot, there is some precedence for this compromise. In Knights of the Dinner Table, one of the characters (El Ravager) gets a magic pommelstone that makes his powerful sword even more powerful. Also, consider Final Fantasy VII, where most of the characters' abilities comes from the materia crystals attached to weapons & armour. These upgrade over time (with use) and can be switched out.

Patrick W. Rollens said...

@Jamused: Yeah, I actually *do* enjoy the commodity economy that old-school D&D espoused. It's an excellent default motivation for adventuring, at the very least. It also helps soften the blow when a character rolls a critical failure and I say something like "The ogre clamps a meaty fist around your longbow, shattering it into a dozen wooden shards." I'm trying to figure out how to replicate it in Savage Worlds while still letting the characters enjoy signature weapons, etc.

@Golgotha: This is a great idea, as is Jamused's suggestion re: dragon blood coating the sickle. I think the players will definitely get a kick out of improving their existing gear, rather than replacing it with GM-designed stuff. Plus this helps keep the inevitable power creep manageable.

Joshua Macy said...

Well, if you like that aspect of D&D-esque settings, I'll point out that

a) There are a ton of other "slots" that characters can equip with magical gear. Just because they don't want to trade their main weapon doesn't mean they'll turn their nose up at a magical cloak, amulet, ring, boots, bracers, belt, suspenders, etc.

b) some magical gear may by its nature require replacement/refurbishment. Shields and armor should degrade over time if they're not kept in good repair, and that can be an opportunity to strengthen the spells or add new enchantments. And along the lines Golgotha was talking about, real swords and axes are subject to repair and modification. Hilts need to be rewrapped, handles replaced, pommel-stones reset, etc.

Pete King said...

I have armour become damaged any time an enemy critter critical hits against a character. I play Labyrinth Lord old school D&D and this is very easy to simulate, simply have the armour lose an AC. This is good at reflecting armour degradation.

I'm also considering doing the same thing on player fumbles, but to their weapons, although the in game effect may be to decrease the damage they inflict by one point.

Nope said...

@everyone: all awesome ideas, much to think about.

@the recursion king: cool! I want to add a simple durability system to my 4e games and that's a good house rule.

Maybe for weapons, whenever you roll a 1 to attack roll a d6. on a 1 or 2 lose 1 point in the weapons proficiency bonus (damaged), on a 3 or 4 drop the weapon, on a 5 or 6 nothing happens.

For weapons and armor if you are flanked or have no shield and critted upon your Armors AC goes down by one, if you are wearing a shield and not flanked then your shields AC goes down by one.