Saturday, 18 October 2014

Kitting Monitors, part 1

So next on my list of Monitors tasks is Generic Equipment, which is to say, stuff that isn't weapons or armour which probably means stuff that isn't weapons or armour, but let's wait and see where the rest of this post takes me. This is an, um... interesting one. I say this about quite a lot of aspects of games, but equipment is one of the things that defines what a game is like. Actually, I'm going to break that down a bit more, because I think there are quite a lot of ways in which equipment affects a game.

This analysis is in no way procrastination.

Some questions that I think are worth asking at this point:

  • Does game-mechanical equipment exist at all?
  • What equipment exists?
  • What is treated as Equipment rather than just stuff you have?
  • What technology is assumed to exist, to be available to PCs, and to be available to common NPCs?
  • How do you get Equipment in the first place? How easy is it to get more, both in the long term and the short term?
  • Maintenance? Breakages? Upkeep costs? Do these things exist, and if so, how do they work?
  • How reliable is equipment?
  • How, if at all, is equipment limited?
  • What is assumed normal equipment for a PC? How useful is it compared to what NPCs have? How much and how often does it affect the basic resolution mechanics? (are you adding bonuses to every roll? etc.)
  • Is equipment assumed and subtractive from, or optional and additive to die rolls?
  • What non-mechanical capabilities can equipment provide?
  • How crucial is the possession or otherwise of specific equipment to success? Are activities, or even missions, allowed to fail because PCs don't have particular items?
  • How vulnerable is a PC without their equipment?

Let's have a closer look at some of these.

Equipment's existence

Designing the equipment section of a game seems like a very natural step, but I feel like it's important to stop and note that it is absolutely not an obligatory one.

In trad roleplaying games like D&D, which aim for a kind of simulation, equipment is important. Dungeon-delving is dangerous, and equipment allows characters to mitagate that by preparing and by making clever use of what they have. Resources are limited, and so important. On the one hand, there's an angle of making do with what you have and only that; on the other, there's the triumph of having come prepared for this specific eventuality. This ties into the source material, where Chekhov's Guns are fairly common, unassuming items being acquired along the way to avoid a deus ex machina. It's also, frankly, just fun (for some of us) to pore over shopping lists of weird items, and to find uses for the random junk we loot.

Call of Cthulhu and similar also model equipment, although it's much less significant in play. One of the interesting factors here is the distinction between the research and investigation phases. In research time, Investigators often have the money and the opportunity to obtain just about anything that currently exists, even illegal items. In many cases buying aeroplanes, heavy weaponry or enormous piles of meteoric iron is nothing to the party budget. Once they're on location, though, they are suddenly tied down to exactly what they have to hand. This drives up the horror aspect by creating a restriction, but also helps to (once again) reward planning. It tends to bolster realism in the sense of giving people only what they thought to bring, though this can also lead to characters doing excessive preparation and carrying implausible loads everywhere just in case.

That being said, games do not have to mechanically support equipment as a distinct entity with mechanical implications. Storygames are obvious contenders for this, but systems like Dungeon World seem to minimise it with their focus on actions rather than tools. You can assume that characters have "appropriate equipment" and can get on with their tasks without worrying. You can handle it with generic "do I have the right stuff?" rolls, rather than modelling specific equipment.

In a game that's All About decisions, emotions, slapstick mishaps, Deep Meaningful Themes or generally isn't that interested in being a simulation, this may be a better option.

Big-E and little-e equipment

Once you've looked at whether you want equipment rules at all, and assuming you answered "Yes", there's a decision to be made about what will constitute game-mechanical equipment.

In many cases, you don't really want every single item to be treated equally seriously by mechanics. Differentiation here is one way to help shape the game experience, emphasising things that add to the tone you wish to create, and backgrounding other things. You can do this through aspects like whether equipment has to be specifically taken by characters; by where you offer variety in types of equipment; and by where you decide to implement actual rules for equipment use.

In a game about pre-modern humans, it may absolutely make sense for Writing and Reading to be separate skills, and for writing implements, inks and paper types to be modelled in detail. Some will last far longer than others, but others are reusable. Vellum offers enormous, expensive prestige. Leaves are plentiful but fragile. Stone-carving is very slow. The ability to communicate without speaking, or keep records, is important; so is the risk that someone else can secretly read. But in a modern police procedural that is an annoying distraction from the focus of the game.

In that same police game, your radio probably should be an abstraction you just use to communicate. But in a military game, particularly one where you play something more senior than "guy with gun", radios could offer important mechanical effects: coordinating fire for maximum effort, getting information that other games would give through perception rolls, minimising exposure to shellfire or other ordinance, requesting information you can't personally recall, and so on. And in a resistance game, radio use could be an entire subsystem involving multiple rolls and skills connected to decisions about where, how and when to make the call.

Most games don't consider your clothing to be relevant, except occasionally for disguise or getting into parties. It doesn't generally matter what kind of shoes you have. Maintenance supplies are rarely modelled in game, even though keeping gear in good shape is vital. In some games, all kinds of equipment may be listed as available, but most of it has no mechanical effect and is therefore not Equipment. A calculator is not normally considered Equipment, but in a post-apocalyptic setting it could be incredibly useful in later-stage survival - providing someone has access to the right textbooks, it offers a massive advantage in building up your settlement or rebuilding technology.

Addition and Subtraction

Counterintuitively, I suspect that the rather dry decision of how to implement equipment modifiers is going to be important in establishing game feel. There are basically two approaches to this, assuming that some kind of modifiers will exist at all (not a given).

In the first approach, Equipment is an asset to what you're attempting. It makes it more likely that you will succeed at some task, granting a bonus over and above your current ability. This is the basic approach taken by Deathwatch and its kin.

Alternatively, a game may assume you have adequate Equipment when attempting a task. Lacking the usual equipment will impose a penalty, possibly including a flat denial - some things just can't be done without some kind of vaguely appropriate tools. D&D tends to favour this approach, with penalties to lockpicking without Thieves' Tools, and so on.

There are mechanical reasons to choose one or the other, depending on how much equipment is likely to be in play and how often you expect it to be used. Generally, in design matters it's a good idea to choose the option that means doing the smallest amount of maths, to save frustration. This would mean that if equipment use is common, penalties are simpler; and if equipment is rarely used, bonuses are similar. However, other factors also come into play.

Psychology is important, and it does tend to feel different getting a bonus rather than a penalty. Bonuses give the sense that you are being rewarded (for forethought, planning, resource management, generally being awesome). Penalties give the sense that you are being penalised (for not being prepared, inefficient use of resources, mistakes, or simple bad luck). I suspect that bonus-heavy games will tend to make characters feel more empowered and create a more positive impression. Penalty-heavy games will tend to make characters feel got at, and create a sense of pressure or concern. Psychologically, it feels important to try and avoid penalties, whereas it feels less important to obtain bonuses.* This makes sense when you think about it, because penalties chip away at what you already had, while bonuses are extra rewards that would be nice to have.

This is musing, not science; I don't have actual data on this.

Deathwatch is an interesting case here, because as I've mentioned elsewhere, it comes across as surprisingly penalty-heavy for a game about superhuman heroes. However, equipment is very much a case of bonuses. In fact, the absolute basic space marine gear provides a load of constant (and rather complicated) bonuses, while other equipment available adds yet more. This contributes to a sense that your enhancements and constant-companion armour make you inherently superior, and that being well-prepared for a mission will vindicate itself mechanically - even though that isn't necessarily true in practice...

This bonus/penalty thing comes about basically because the game line was designed rather oddly. It was built for the needs of Dark Heresy, a game mostly about relatively normal humans with relatively normal (sci-fi) equipment; it also insisted on mirroring the statlines of the D6-based tabletop game while building a percentile system. This was more or less okay for one game featuring people with pretty similar statlines. When people or creatures with different stats appeared, though, some serious hacking was needed to keep something approximating the tabletop stats while also sticking broadly to the fluff. You can't simply translate 3 and 4 on a D6-based table-comparison system to 30 and 40 on a straight percentile system and expect coherent results. The result is that space marines have attributes of 30-40, but special rules are introduced to change how effective these stats are. These include many bonuses to specific rolls based on their augments, implents and armour, which they will have virtually all the time. For example, their armour provides a straight +20 to Strength which applies every single time they use physical force.

The 40K line in general is a bit poor at describing skill use and when situational modifiers apply. For the most part, it seems to encourage the use of penalties; as I've described, this tends to create a sort of pessimistic mood, which actually fits the dark setting quite well, even when applied to space marines. However, it's always assumed that you have appropriate equipment when attempting a roll, so equipment modifiers are virtually always bonuses. For example, an auspex (scanning device) grants a massive +30 to Perception, and surgical equipment offers +10 to medical rolls. This helps create the sense that equipment is a special and is a positive asset, which is both cheering, and fits the setting's treatment of technology as strange and wondrous.

Okay, that seems like enough for now. More later. Feel free to comment.


  1. This is musing, not science; I don't have actual data on this.

    I suspect that it's actually rooted in the similar psychological/economic concept of loss aversion (people will go to far greater lengths to *avoid* paying a £20 fine than they will go to *receive* a £20 payment) so there is real science to it.

    Interestingly I think you can see equipment as being defined on two distinct axes: is it detailed or abstract, and is it mechanical or non-mechanical.

    One might think that these naturally pair up to abstract/non-mechanical and detailed/mechanical, but in fact all four pairs exist.

    Abstract/Non-mechanical is what you get in games that genuinely don't care what your gear is which includes trendy storygames but also arguably includes a great many Call of Cthulhu investigations (at least those that don't assume the players are off on a great trek into the unknown). It's just sort of assumed that you can probably get the right tool for the job, and that's it.

    Abstract/Mechanical occurs in a number of trendy games, and also in things like the White Wolf/Onyx Path Storytell[er/ing] (delete as appropriate) system, where you can get a generic bonus to your dice pool for "equipment" but there is no set list of items and prices. Instead it's "I'm probably really well dressed, does that add to my seduction".

    Detailed/Non-mechanical is what you mostly get in D&D. Rope doesn't give you a mechanical bonus, it's just rope, and you use it for the kind of stuff you use rope for.

    Detailed/Mechanical is what you get in the 40K RPGs, you have a specific list of gear, and each item comes with a specific game-mechanical effect.

    I'd argue that each style has a specific effect on the way the game plays out. Abstract/Non-mechanical means you have no emphasis on logistics, or on details involving inanimate objects. Abstract/Mechanical means you are expected to think about *details* (what are you wearing, what do you say, what are you *actually using*) but not about the minutiae of where everything comes from. Detailed/Non-mechanical implies a focus on immersive exporation - it almost exclusively supports games where you are playing a high-detail simulation of a resource-limited environment. Detailed/Mechanical implies more of a strategic, gamey, tactical-resource-allocation focus - you don't take the surgical tools because you think you'll need to do surgery, you take them because you know they'll give you a mechanical bonus if you do.

    Or something. As ever I'm basically making this stuff up.

    1. That is very interesting, thanks!

      As ever I'm basically making this stuff up.

      That basically described everything on this blog, so go right ahead.