Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Fantasy RPGs and Loot

Our group had a discussion about itemization in fantasy RPGs, you know, your +2 magic sword, +1 chain mail, and +3 ring of protection sort of discussion. What game does the traditional "quest for loot" style of game the best? For this discussion we considered four games:
  • D&D 5
  • Pathfinder
  • 13th Age
  • D&D 4

Why is it Important?

Because...loot! There were some aspects of 13th Age and loot that started this discussion off, but it turned out to be a very interesting comparison between the games that we hadn't thought of. We do have some players with characters in our groups where loot and the acquisition of treasure is a very important thing, so much that systems with great loot rules and selections are a deciding factor in playing the game. Yes, I know, story matters, but I don't feel that it matters so much that it means the loot system needs to be radically changed or thrown out.

That said, this is admittedly a one-sided comparison of the games, and there are a lot more factors to take into account when determining what game is right for your group. Ease of play, ease of refereeing, story support, available adventures, published content, world support and a lot factors should go into that decision. But to just look at loot alone reveals some of the design goals behind the game, and this in turn gets at some of the inner workings of these games that is fun to study.

D&D 4 - MMO Loot

When we played D&D 4 the books were filled with page after page of the same item but with different stats. There were these pages-long loot sections with 'cards' of magic items with +1 to +6 versions of them going all the way from 1st level to 30th level. You had to get the 'best' version for your level, since the system felt like it was designed around everyone having level-appropriate gear.

We had encounters with a party that had low-level gear versus high-level monsters, and you could tell people missed a lot more often resistances rolls were tough to make, the monsters made their saves, and the entire encounter drug on forever and nobody had a good time. It felt like one of those 5 minute fights in an MMO where you spend forever killing a monster, only this was a fight 5 hours long and played on a tabletop.

Yes, D&D 4 had a lot of fun loot, but it was all 'you need to have it' and so evenly striated that none of it felt special to us. the game's loot system tired us out as much as sorting through 55 pages of green magic items in World of Warcraft's auction house tired us out. You had to have it to keep up, so we were left with this mess of a campaign where no magic item felt special and the party sorted through dozens of similar items looking for that next '+1 higher' item to get their character on par with the monsters again.

By he end of the game's life, the loot suggestions for the DM started to get kinda strange for us. Like having the players come up with a 'wishlist' of gear for the referee to hand out during the next few adventures. Sort of like an Amazon.com wishlist, but this one was for the gods (we guessed) and it felt like it was intended to end-run around random generation and avoiding the 'but his item breaks my character build' sort of random magic item handout policy.

And that was the last straw for us with that game. When character power depends that much on specific items for specific builds...no, this MMO feels broken and I am back to playing World of Warcraft.

13th Age - Story Loot

13th Age is almost an anti-loot game compared to 4th Edition D&D. The magic items are like D&D 4's, with a +1 to +3 range this time, and with specific functions based on slot, bracers do one thing while necklaces do another. They do have a cool system where magic item abilities activate on specific die rolls, even or odd results, and lots of cool mechanical interlocking rules - so there is some cool roll playing mechanics in here.

You can't buy magic items, which is a plus, but I find the lack of treasure types, monster treasures, suggestions, or tables of random loot to feel a bit lacking in my expectations for a fantasy game. The adventures I read seem also to be lacking in loot rewards so I come away with the impression that this game is more about story than it is grabbing a satisfying handful of gold coins and shoving it in your pocket. Adding to that is how magic items are handed out, as story rewards or as gifts from higher powers based on the system of faction relations built into the game.

I like loot as incentive in fantasy games, and this feels more story-like than loot driven.

If I had a group completely sick of the loot systems in D&D type games I would definitely go with 13th Age with them, since this game pushes loot to the sideline and focuses more on story and character instead of shiny objects and item power.

To be honest, 13th Age feels like a next-generation D&D 4 loot system with the wishlist feature removed but that referee-supplied loot mechanic still in place with the icon system and rewards. It doesn't feel MMO-ish anymore, but it does feel more like FATE for us, at least in story supplied loot as incentive or reward for story completion.

D&D 5 - Balanced Loot

D&D 5 is a highly balanced game with a lot of consideration to 'bounded accuracy' and other game design concepts. Magic items go from +1 to +3 and there are limits, such as limiting the number of magic items that can provide a benefit to three, as per the attunement rules.

It feels closer to the old-school versions of D&D in regards to magic items, and the game has a nice default selection which reminds me of the old AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide.

If ever there were a baseline game for magic item diversity and population, D&D 5 would be it. They worked hard to get rid of balance issues while still making magic items feel special, and the game has full support for monster treasure, hoards, upgrading equipment, and giving suggestions on what monster typically has what treasure. Most everything is balanced, so as a referee you can hand out a +1 whatever and still be reasonably sure the next game things won't be thrown out of whack too much.

I hear from forum posts that D&D 5's end game balance feels more single-character power oriented, where a one-on-one fight between a high-level character and a single high-level monster tends to go more the character's way. They say the end-game encounters in the game feel like they need to be groups of high-level monsters working together versus a single party and not a single-party against one creature. I need to do more study here (and some playtime to decide for myself) but from what I read, character power at the high-end of D&D 5 is very high on a one-on-one fight between a comparably leveled character and creature.

Pathfinder - Anything Goes Loot

Let's throw balance out the window (given a monty haul referee) and play Pathfinder. You can equip yourself into something like a minor god with some of this loot, and there are no rules on how much you can wear and equip - other than the highest bonus in a category is the one that applies, a +2 bow firing +1 arrows is still a +2 to-hit and damage bonus. Wearing a belt that gives +1 STR and a ring that give +3 STR is still only +3 STR. There are some rules in regards to effective caster level and item size that are worth following as well, which makes rings and wands less powerful than giant tomes or staves.

But if you are into stacking layers of loot and blowing balance out of the water, then Pathfinder is your game. A good game master is needed to keep things from getting out of control, but that insanely high level of crazy character power is there and attainable. Which makes gathering lot all that much more fun. Yes, part of the fun of the game in 3.5 D&D to Pathfinder is breaking it.

It is worth repeating, the referee is the one to blame if things get out of control, and I found they can go more crazy in Pathfinder than in other fantasy games. "But it was in the module," is not an excuse if a high-powered item ruins your campaign. I have had this happen, and the player in question becomes so attached to that item of power it gets tough to take it away. But rule #1 in all my games is easy come, easy go - all this stuff is paid for and you can lose anything at any time.

In other regards, Pathfinder is a lot like D&D 5 in selection, monster guidance, item tables, and loot rules. Pathfinder has been out a lot longer, so the selection with all of the books in the library is immense, so there is that to consider as well. There is almost too much loot at times, and I find myself yearning for the old-school games with the pared-down magic item lists.

In Pathfinder, there are high-level single-monsters that are designed to take on a party, so instead of D&D 5's more typical many-on-may fights you get Pathfinder many-on-one fights. Character power in Pathfinder trends to be more party and CR based, and at least I found as a referee fights are easier to balance and manage in Pathfinder than D&D 5. The traditional CR system carried over from D&D 3.5 to Pathfinder really helps and is still a strong system today compared to other games.

Another article is needed to explore Pathfinder vs. D&D 5 balancing, but it does play into magic items in regards to ultimate character power, so it is worth mentioning end-game balance.

In Summary

Play what you love. They are all different, but again there is this expectations thing with what the game supports versus a view of the game that may be off a little. Every game does something different, and they do it very well, so knowing what you like and what each game provides is a key to finding one that you and your group enjoy.

I admit, my views of Pathfinder before I did this thinking were down in the dumps a little bit, and I had my doubts on if we would play another long-running campaign with the game. Now I realize the power gaming potential here, I can better run this game with players who like a lot of loot and hand our rewards to match their expectations. this is not to say you can't have a high-powered loot game in any of the others, just that both the danger to unbalance the game and to meet player's expectations works for me a little better in Pathfinder than some of the other games on my shelf.

But if I can get a D&D 5 game running as well I would jump at the chance, truth be told. It comes down to excitement level with me and my groups, and what they would like to play. Getting myself excited and ready is the other half, and I suppose I am lucky to have a lot of games to choose from and players who like a diverse group of games. I could do a loot-based game just as well in D&D 5, and really the trade offs are personal preference and expected power level. If players are expecting to break the game (and have it broken over their heads in return with monster magic use), I will go with Pathfinder. For a more traditional experience I suspect I would go with D&D 5.

Again, play what you love and be happy. But knowing how these games works helps you understand them a little better, and also helps you find the right one to match your group's expectations. And it bears saying your experiences with these games may be different than ours, because these games can be played many many ways.