Designing an RPG: Magic Equipment and Mystery

A friend made a post containing a side comment regarding the “detect magic”/”identify magic item” mechanic from D&D. I hate to latch onto a borderline throw-away comment, and to be honest this post isn’t even specifically about that comment — but that’s how inspiration works.

And in this case, the inspiration is that in a lot of old role-playing games, not so much anymore, your character may come across magic items. But you don’t know that they’re special at first because they look like mundane equipment. So you cast “detect magic” to figure out if any items are special and then you cast “identify magic item” to figure out exactly what it does. This mechanic adds (ideally) a layer of mystery and story telling to a system of clear rules.

My deviation from this set-up came when D&D was proclaimed as “bad” (in the ’80s) and my friends and I took to on-the-fly adventuring without dice or rules. When a situation of discrepancy came up, such as when a character wanted to hit another character, I’d often resort to asking them to pick a number between one and ten — and the closer they got to my number, the better the outcome.

It didn’t take long for me to figure out that since there’s nothing to verify my numbers, I could do whatever I wanted. That led to me generally ignoring the numbers my friend chose in favor of trying to create a gripping story of success and failures — based more on the story’s flow and my friends’ enjoyment/frustration.

Though I always liked this idea, the advent of computer-based role-playing games took things back in the other direction. It’s really easy for computers to work mathematical formulas, but they are not as well equipped for reading a player’s facial expressions. And, slowly but surely, video games have taken the mystery and randomness away and made the formula more apparent.

To be fair, I don’t think this is a bad thing. It is very much a meta-game that many players, myself included, enjoy. With all the numbers fully disclosed, and all the different ways to create and customize characters, the system itself becomes a challenge against which the player tries to create the most efficient character possible. The player is rewarded not just by defeating an ogre single-handedly, but by dishing out 10x the necessary damage for defeating that ogre.

Still, I’d like to see some developers explore the other side of the balance. True, creating a formula-less system for use in a computer game is as close to impossible as game design gets — but I think there are creative ways to work the system.

Let’s imagine that the player is in the Lord of the Rings universe and they find a short sword with some runes carved into the blade. It hums, it glows, it calls to you — it’s obviously magic. The player finds a loremaster who reveals that the runes say “orc slayer” and talks about an old legend of a famed warrior who used the blade to slay dozens of orcs.

And here’s a side note of my own:

How come, in stories, the legends always have heroes who spent their life fighting orcs and at the end of their careers left a trail of maybe 30 or even 100 dead orcs? When I played through Baldur’s Gate or Oblivion or Fable or Ultima, I swear the body count was close to a thousand and that was in a time period of, at most, a game year — and I’ve killed more than 30 orcs in one encounter in games like Pool of Radiance.

Also, I don’t think my character started adventuring at 18 only to retire at 19 (though they would surely have the money to do so), so the body count would continue to soar.

Yes, I understand that fighting is a game mechanic and, if done right, players want to have fun and do it repeatedly. The day I spend an entire life in a game and kill 30 orcs is probably the day my game character dies of boredom. This is a situation where realism differs from fun and so be it. But regardless, I am amused by the discrepancy — though I would love to explore a way to make an RPG that adds significant weight and thought to killing (something I’ve already lost in Assassin’s Creed 2).

Now the player has the blade and is quite excited. They spot an orc, wield their short sword, and rush into battle. In most video games, if the player discovers that the item is +3 to damage or +1 to hitting their target, they’ll compare the item to what they were previously using and, if it isn’t good enough — legends be damned, they’re tossing the dagger aside or selling it to the nearest merchant. If a normal short sword does 1-6 damage, and you gain a bonus of 3 from the magic in one specific instance — are you going to be excited and swap your weapons for that specific incident when your current weapon already does 4-14 damage?

How do you combat that? As I’ve been saying: mystery!

  • For one, I don’t think you ever tell players how much damage a weapon does nor how much health an opponent has. This will definitely frustrate some players, but I think we’re already seeing some developers take steps in this direction. Fable 3, to name but one example, has eliminated player health to some degree. The screen flashes red when you’re hurt so that you know when to swig a potion. Graphics have improved to such a degree that it’s quite easy to depict an opponent who is wounded and to further differentiate that wounded opponent from an opponent who is mortally wounded. When players have no numbers to dissect, they’re left with trial-and-error: how many hits with this weapon does it take to kill a monster? How long to kill a monster with that weapon? Randomness is an additional filter worth implementing to make this system more mysterious, of course.
  • I think an “orc slayer” sword should feel special when used in combat with orcs. But feeling special is a different story from being powerful — and that gives you possibilities instead of limitations and balancing nightmares. If you’re fighting an orc and your blade flashes a brilliant light as combat starts, that’s exciting. And maybe that’s all you need to make the player proud of their new weapon. If some orcs occasionally cower in fear and refuse to fight back even as they’re butchered, all the better. Maybe even some orcs also glow and seem to writhe in pain or do less damage or die a little more quickly than normal.
  • It’s important to stress that a weapon that seemingly hits more often or seemingly does more damage is a better weapon — even if it doesn’t actually improve your damage or chance to hit. I can think back on instances where a game told me that the weapon was completely normal in every way, but there was something about the weapon that made me really like it and want to use it over theoretically better weaponry. That’s the feeling for which I’m going.
  • If the player comes across this amazing sword that makes them feel special, and seems better than mundane items, players are never going to swap to something else. And that’s no good. You want the player to be excited to use “orc slayer” in a fight with orcs. You want everything to feel special about those encounters. You don’t want the player to find orc slayer five minutes into the game and still be using it in the final encounter. So…
  • Equipment should break. Even magic equipment — though that should be much more rare. Maybe with a normal weapon, every fight after five there’s a 20% chance per encounter your weapon breaks — and with a magic item it’s every fight after twenty there’s a 10% chance. But equipment should break. This encourages players to save special weapons for special or desperate occasions.
  • Players enjoy the near-constant upgrade cycle (finding new and better gear) because it’s a type of character progression. But the upgrade cycle should occasionally take backward steps with, as I said earlier, broken weapons. If a weapon breaks, the player has to rely on a possibly less-than-ideal back-up weapon or their alternative weapon if they’re well prepared. That adds to the story right there.
  • Meanwhile, to keep on the mystery bandwagon, another character may choose to stick with a battered sword over something new-and-shiny because of how amazingly durable the weapon seems to be. If most weapons break after ten fights, a sword that has lasted thirty is going to feel special and the player is going to hold on to it. Or maybe the player will hand off this remarkably durable weapon to a young warrior and become a legend in the process. (I imagine that the game, behind the scenes, tracks notable accomplishments such as weapon age — and then marks the item as special accordingly.)
  • Finally, the game shouldn’t over-encumber characters with magic gear. Maybe it’s not until the last third of the game that the player gets their final set of equipment — the magic equipment of legend, or the items created specifically for your hero by a legendary smith or a smith using a legendary forge. Players might come across the occasional magic items, but I think the system works best if those items are very rare and very specific like the aforementioned “orc slayer”. The player should want to keep it on hand for those instances where orcs are encountered, but otherwise feel free to use their other high-end normal equipment. A lot of the mystery behind magic equipment is muted when the player is inundated with magic.

Games thrive on numbers these days and there is nothing wrong with that. As I said, I enjoy the meta-game aspect. But any time there is an extreme in one direction it makes me wonder about the implementation of the counter to that extreme.

How could a game with no numbers work (and by work I mean be “fun” and “not frustrating” to the player)? This post is a series of thoughts on specific examples of mystery in games with equipment, and so should not be considered an all-inclusive effort on the topic. I’d love to see in a game, or explore in posts, the idea of removing all character attributes and levels and self-awareness of skill proficiency and replacing these things with comparative ratings, i.e. the best tree-chopper in the village, the fastest blade on the coast, or the strongest man this side of Eaventrae — even if you only earned the strong-man title by beating ol’ Jack in an arm-wrestling contest (I ain’t remember a time when ol’ Jack ever lost).

As always, feel free to add other ways that mystery could be implemented or to critique the ideas herein.

3 thoughts on “Designing an RPG: Magic Equipment and Mystery

  1. Isn’t it funny that the FPS genre did away with Health/HP a while ago, and RPGs (i.e., Fable) is only now just adopting this feature. I think Peter Molyneaux even referenced FPS when he was discussing this change.

    I think 4E, with it’s bloodied status, really enables a similar approach for tabletop RPGs. The problem that I personally still struggle with is divorcing a successful hit from the image of drawing blood. And now I’ve been inspired to write a post based on side comment. 🙂

  2. Yeah, for sure. Sometimes it seems like the FPS concept is so simple that they have to be a little more progressive with features. Like, Counter Strike is on the cutting edge of realism regarding weapon accuracy and weight and kick-back and re-load rates and so on. It’s an interesting twist to see a game where you can die from a single bullet — and then not instantly respawn. But yeah, FPS always seem to be doing things first and figuring things out more quickly. I didn’t catch Molyneux’s reference to any specific FPS but I completely believe that’s where he would have been inspired.

    I’ve been playing Assassin’s Creed 2 and thinking about how it compares to Dragon Age. The cities in AC2 are amazing. They feel real. And as I run through them, I have no trouble believing there are homes there for everyone — plus shops, special centers, reaching-for-the-sky churches, and so forth. And over the city walls we move into farm land or swamp — with paths that lead from town to town.

    I never came close to experiencing that feeling in DA. That’s a step I’d like to see the more traditional RPGs take now and then — huge living worlds like GTA or AC, but in a medieval setting. Instead of the typical Lord of the Rings-esque journey from Point A-to-Point B, why not create a few cities and then re-use all of it repeatedly?

    I’d also like seeing them play around with the combat, which is much more believable in AC2. It’s the idea that if you stab someone, they die. But combats can be drawn out for several moments because deflected shots or glancing hits only deal small amounts of damage. Unless you’ve caught someone unprepared, you have to take a few shots to tire out your opponent before you can dish out a kill strike.

    It kind of makes me think about how people get silly about stuff like armor and hit points in D&D. Ya know, the whole “so this guy hit me with his giant axe 15 times and I’m still completely fine?” But it’s a good system. You just have to work with it a little, like AC2, and imagine damage as fatigue — or hit points as a buffer between taking a lethal hit and taking glancing blows. Or, if I’m reading it right (I haven’t gone through the 4E rules yet), the idea behind bloodied. That is, you’ve lost half of your health but only at that point are your wounds considered more serious. It suggests everything up to that point was the aforementioned fatigue or glancing blows.

    Anyway, RPGs will get there. But at this point, it seems clear they won’t be leading the way. Whatever. As long as they keep getting better, I don’t care where they steal the idea from. 😀

  3. Pingback: Learning to describe damage differently - Paths of Adventure - Exploring RPGs through play and design

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