Saturday, 17 November 2018

Equipment design in RPGs

Two-edged Sword by D4v1d
This is a few thoughts I've had on equipment design in RPGs over the years, and how Player and GM designs can change a game. I wasn't interested in specific equipment design as that's a discussion that will vary from group to group and game to game, but I was more interested in how designs can either unbalance a game, give unfair advantages or simply decide situations from the outset, making incidents and encounters dull and predictable.

Roleplaying games wouldn’t be where they are today without players. Players wouldn’t be where they are today without their characters. Characters wouldn’t be where they are today without their equipment because, let’s face it, walking into a scenario with nothing to hand is usually a no-no. You need the tools of your trade to do your job, and without tools there’s not much of a chance of success. Or maybe even survival.

Equipment is a major part of a roleplaying game. Just look at the equipment available in any game and in various sourcebooks and game packs – there’s whole lists of bits and bobs that’ll help the average character get through the day.

One of the bonuses of many games is that it allows GMs to design all kinds of stuff to suit their campaign and gaming group. There’s always going to be situations where the GM or even the players come up with an idea for a new gadget – the problem facing the game is ‘will this gadget make things too easy for them?’

The last thing you want is for a specialised piece of equipment to ruin the balance of a well-designed scenario or campaign. Having the players run into a situation where the swing of a magical sword or the toss of a special grenade gets them out of it in no time at all will not only ruin the pace of the story but it will soon make things dull and unexciting.

‘Twenty Stormtroopers! What shall we do?’ 
‘Don’t worry! I’ll use my never-failing multi-target-repeat-hand blaster to stop them all!’ 
‘Oh. Great.’


Each and every GM and player have their own idea about what would make a handy piece of equipment. You could design a top blaster or a magical axe; everyone has their own ideas as to what will help them get through an adventure. Most will have more than one idea.

As overall referee of a game, the GM must take into consideration what effects a special piece of kit would do. If they’ve designed an incredible security kit that pretty much adds amazing bonuses to a character’s roll and gets them into anything, that might be fine for a couple of adventures. But what about later on down the campaign trail, when the story might call for the players to stay out of certain areas or help them get out of tight situations too easily? What the GM and players have to realise is there has to be a balance between what the item is capable of and what its limitations are. For every bonus it gives a character it must have a flaw  or drawback somewhere, which may make the player loathe to use it or it doesn’t work as well in certain situations. This will make the items special but also keep the game in balance so that the characters don’t breeze through every situation they’re placed in.

For example, let’s say that Brian, a regular player in Bob’s Star Wars D6 games, decides that he wants his character to have a special targeting system that wires from his blaster’s scope to a pair of goggles he wears.

‘Good idea,’ says Bob, ‘what kind of bonus were you thinking of?’
Brian: ‘I’m thinking of additions to my weapon skill.’
Bob: ‘That’s fine. You can either have a high addition but it doesn’t work well against moving targets, or you can have a lower addition which can only be used with one type of blaster.’
Brian: ‘Fair enough. I’ll go for the higher addition, which is only effective against static targets. What about range?’
Bob: ‘Low range at no penalties, or high range at… let’s say…’
Brian: ‘Every time I shoot there’s a one in six chance of the system failing?’
Bob: ‘Sounds good. It’ll cost you three times the value of your blaster.’
Brian: ‘I’ll take it.’


Belinda decides she wants to purchase a special type of medical unit. She sits down with Bob and they go over the details.

Belinda: ‘What I want is a medical pack that can be used several times and add bonuses to my medical skills.’
Bob: ‘No problem. We’ll say it’s like any other medpac but can be used six times. It can only be used on certain types of species, mind you. We’ll say four different kinds, so that will cover the other players and one NPC.’
Belinda: ‘What about the size of it?’
Bob: ‘It’ll have to be quite large, like a field pack.’
Belinda: ‘I was hoping it could be smaller.’
Bob: ‘Okay… how about it’s the size of a small pack, but because it’s small and delicate it’s prone to damage, say, a two in six chance of it being damaged every time you fall or whatever.’
Belinda: ‘Good.’


Balancing what the character’s equipment can and can’t do, along with it’s usefulness in a game and it’s chances of failure is something best discussed with the players so that you can get an idea of exactly what they want. Of course, you won’t be discussing these things with the players all the time – what if there’s an NPC you’re designing who you want to have a specially designed item?

The first instinct is to design an item that gives the NPC a bonus and then presents a challenge to the players, and that’s fine. A long-range blaster with a great scope, a small tracking device that tracks the players movements, a special grenade that damages organic material and not inorganic – these things would make a great challenge. The only thing is, if they use these items the players will be wise to them, which also means that when and if they defeat the NPC, the special item will fall into the hands of the players! The same bonus-drawback balance has to be reached with NPCs as with PCs – don’t be tempted to simply throw in an extra-special piece of equipment just to make things difficult for the players. It may backfire (so to speak).


This doesn’t just apply to modified equipment that exists within the game system. There may be items the players want to create from other sources or from scratch to help their characters out.

Brian: ‘I want a wrist unit to shoot a sticky web-like substance so I can swing about like Spidey’.
Bob: ‘What the…!’

Don’t panic – simply figure out how that item will fit into the game system and then apply any rules that you see fit and that the player won’t feel cheated on. The pros and cons system still applies so make sure that whatever is designed is, at first, even possible.

And then work out the bonuses and drawbacks.

Bob: ‘Okay, the wrist unit can shoot a long stream of synthetic liquid, like a synthrope but more elastic, up to a range of fifty meters, and can lift up to five hundred pounds.’
Brian: ‘Sounds good.’
Bob: ‘But… it dissolves in water, so it’ll be useless in rain. It’ll cost double the cost of a normal synthrope and launcher.’
Brian: ‘That’s fine.’

But there will be some things that will have to refused straight off the bat;

Brian: ‘I also want some shrug-off-short-range-heavy-blaster-bolts armour’.
Bob: ‘Don’t count on it, bub’.

So, as long as you remember what equipment you give out must balance with both performance and the game you have designed then you shouldn’t have any problems. There will be times in a game when an item will save the day – this is unavoidable and, let’s face it, it’s probably what the item was designed for - but if this item saves the day every time then it may be time to reconsider it's inclusion.

You could even make a campaign out of it; if the equipment is so incredibly good, what will NPCs do to acquire it from the player characters? What will the players do to get it back?

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