Crafting in Tabletop RPGs

Posted Sunday, January 13, 2013

One of the systems near and dear to my heart in MMORPGs is crafting. I love being able to make things from materials that I’ve collected myself, and in so doing improve my own capabilities without having to rely on an external source (e.g., loot, or vendors). Very few tabletop RPGs have ever attempted to include a crafting system, and those that have (Dungeons & Dragons, I’m looking at you) focus primarily on high-cost, high-powered magical items. Here, I explain how a crafting system for a tabletop RPG might work, taking several cues from MMORPGs. Crafting in MMORPGs has three primary component systems - gathering, refining, and building finished items. Gathering is the collection of raw resources from the world. This usually takes the form of withdrawing units of resources from a resource node that randomly spawns in the world. Refining takes those raw materials and works them into usable forms. For example, smelting iron ore into iron bars is one such process. This step is sometimes optional. Building finished items takes resources and puts them together into a final usable form. In MMORPGs, the process of actually crafting the item is abstracted away such that the player doesn’t need to worry about things like quenching steel in the proper temperature of liquid. Tabletop RPGs generally can’t follow MMORPG mechanics, since a lot of the latter is based on intensive calculation behind the scenes. With crafting, my perception is that it’s not popular because it’s not a story component - in a tabletop gaming session, anything that smacks of busywork is not going to go over well. To address that concern, there are two possibilities:

  • Make the whole crafting process fun and exciting, or
  • Make the crafting process something that happens between adventures.

Personally, I think a mix of the two is ideal. The gathering process should be divided into two parts - acquiring rare raw materials through normal adventuring, and acquiring mundane raw materials in a quick process that occurs between gaming sessions. The refining process should be purely between sessions, unless it’s something story-bound like imbuing a raw material with a specific magical aura that can only be done by a powerful hermit-mage that lives in the…. you get the picture. The crafting of the final item could go either way, though I’d tend to put it at the very beginning of a game session before the actual adventure starts to “prime” players’ minds. A big component of crafting, and one of its greatest variables, is time. In real life, it takes a long time to smith a sword. In World of Warcraft, it takes seconds. Crafting in tabletop RPGs, as a character activity, should take little time. Crafting is a secondary system, and it’s not epic to say that your character spent a month of in-game down time smithing a new longsword in a borrowed forge while the other members of the party twiddled their thumbs. This problem can be explained away in two ways:

  • Give the character NPC assistants to do the crafting for him, or
  • Make the crafting process itself something magical that takes little time.

I prefer the first option, since it involves more story hooks and feels less like a deus ex machina. If a player discovers he has the materials to make an upgraded suit of armor just as a session is about to begin, you can allow him to do that and retcon that he contracted the work out while he was adventuring in the last session. This can tend to make retconning a standard, accepted practice for crafting, but I think that’s of minor concern in this case. The other consideration when designing a crafting system for use in a tabletop RPG is the effect this can have on player equipment and expectations of loot. As such, it can’t be designed in a vacuum - it needs to be part of the system from the beginning, or you risk turning a game into a Monty Haul campaign inadvertently. The secret here is in the timing - you can gate the frequency of crafting more powerful items by introducing a crafting skill advancement system and making it as restrictive as you like, thereby keeping crafted items in line with looted items (or not, if that’s what you prefer). The Dungeons & Dragons system of spending experience to craft powerful items is one way to gate the acquisition of crafted items, but I think it’s fundamentally flawed in that it makes little sense from a story point of view. Sauron didn’t lose part of his essence to craft the One Ring - he just lost time and resources. To make something, a player has three resources available to him - Time, Money, and Effort. The ratio can vary between those three, but if you abstract out those concepts, you can arrive at a more sensible requirement ladder than Dungeons & Dragons’. In the end, crafting is a perfectly viable addition to a gaming system, as long as it’s well-integrated with the rest of the game. I’m working on one such system for inclusion in a game of mine, and I like to think the players will love it.

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