This is part 11 of 18 of the series: Hacking New Rules

Crafting Herbcraft (Part 1): Conceptual Herbology

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I’m basically the Batman of RPGs. Admittedly, I’m not rich. And I don’t use my ninja training to assault the mentally ill in a deranged attempt to discharge the lingering survivor’s guilt leftover from my parents’ murders. But I do follow a set of arbitrary rules that I invented to maintain a sense of moral superiority over every other member of society. And a lot of people hate me and consider me a villain. And I frequently embarrass respected professional by doing their jobs better than they do. But most importantly, when someone on social media has an RPG related problem, I swoop in with a solution. If it isn’t too hard and I’m not too bust and there isn’t something else I’d rather be doing.

That’s what happened back in April. Or May. Sometime. I don’t know. Who remembers this s$&%? Someone on Twitter – I don’t remember or care who – someone said “one of my players has the herbalism kit proficiency in D&D 5E and they are really disappointed in how it works. He wants to gather herbs and make things during the game. And the system really doesn’t let him do that.” And with that Bat Signal shining bright in the sky, and with me not in the middle of anything else and not needing a nap, I swopped into action. An hour later, I had developed the skeleton of a system for herbalism. I threw at it at him, told him how to extend it and make it his own, and then swooped away again. I think he yelled thank you or something, but I wasn’t listening. Because who cares.

I didn’t stop there, though. After I invent a system like that, I go back and play with it myself. I give it to a few friends to try out, share it via secret channels that aren’t open to anyone who doesn’t already know how to access them, and I also put it to work in my own games. In short: I tweak, edit, and refine. And that’s why YOU didn’t hear about my brilliant herbcraft system until now. Well, until last week. That’s when I posted it with the promise that I was going to come back and talk about how and why I had made it the way I did. I figured it would serve as a nice, simple tutorial for some basic game design concepts.

Well, holy f$&% was I wrong. Based on the comments and criticisms, this isn’t going to be a nice, simple tutorial. We need to have a long, complicated discussion. Because holy s$&%. Some people really need some very basic concepts explained in detail.

So, we’re going to go step-by-step through the development of herbcraft. In two f$&%ing parts. And in so doing, we’re going to discuss a lot of aspects of game mechanics design. In this part, we’re going to talk about concepting. That is, the thing you do BEFORE you start building a mechanic to figure out what your mechanic should actually look like when you’re done. The part that, apparently, no one ever does. And we’re going to cover at least two very important aspects of amateur game hacking.

But first, a warning.

Be Ye Warned

I had this long diatribe prepared on the difference between constructive conversation and being a useless dick with an opinion. Because lots of people shared their useless opinions with me. And, frankly, I don’t care. Because opinions are like a$&holes. Everyone assumes that just because they have one, that gives them the right to s$&% all over everything. And now, in the editing phase, I’ve decided to cut a lot of the diatribe out and get right to the point. Because I can’t cure a$&hole and I don’t care to try anymore. Here’s the point.

If you want to actually talk about the ideas and concepts I’m discussing, fine. If you want to address particular concerns, fine. If you want to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of my rules, fine.

If you don’t like crafting systems, I don’t give a f$&%. If you have never seen a good crafting system, I don’t give a f$&%. If you have no use for this system in your game, I don’t give a f$&%. If you leave a comment that is just an “opinion,” I’m going to treat you the way I would treat anyone who came into my home and left a steaming pile of “opinion” in the middle of my floor. And no matter how much qualification you add you to your opinion, you’re still just polishing a turd.

And if I edit your “opinion” down to accurately reflect its true value in my comment feed, do not try to argue. You won’t win. And when I get bored of editing your further comments, I will just ban you from commenting on my site.

Got it? Good.

Speaking of Turds: Crafting in 5E

This whole thing started because some player decided they wanted the herbalism kit proficiency and then, when they discovered how that proficiency actually works in Dungeons & Dragons vis a vis crafting, they were utterly disappointed. And since we want to find a way to make that player happy by improving that system, it helps to take a look at the system that so disappointed the player in the first place and see if we can determine why it sucks.

In D&D 5E, crafting is a downtime activity. That means, it’s done between adventures. According to the rules on PHB 187, a downtime activity is something you can spend time on between adventures if your GM offers you the option. Each activity fits into an eight-hour workday. But you can string multiple workdays together to complete tasks that require more than one day.

Crafting is a specific downtime activity. To craft an item, you must have a proficiency with the proper tools and have access to any necessary materials and facilities. To craft an item that is worth 5 gp or less, you simply have to spend a single day crafting the item. No die roll is needed. There are no explicit costs. Just spend the day and its down. To craft a more expensive item, simply divide the item’s cost by 5 and spend that many workdays. Simple, right?

The herbalism kit is described on PHB 154. It works within this framework simply enough. If you have a proficiency with the herbalism kit, you can use it to craft potions of healings and antitoxin. Both items are described in the Equipment chapter of the PHB. Both potions of healing and antitoxin cost 50 gp per dose. So, under the crafting rules, a proficient character merely has to spend 10 days between adventures to create one potion of healing or one dose of antitoxin.

Sort of.

Technically, by a strict reading of the rules, you CAN’T craft potions of healing this way. The description of the potion of the healing in the PHB specifically refers to it as a magical item. And the crafting rules in the PHB specify that you can only craft non-magical items. The PHB actually offers no rules for crafting magical items. Those are found in the DMG. Specifically, DMG 128-131 lists a number of option downtime activities that the GM can allow to supplement the list of optional downtime activities in the PHB. Because, remember, this is all at the GM’s option. The ones in the DMG are just MORE optional, apparently. Somehow.

Anyway, in the DMG, the rules for crafting magical items are explained. Under those rules, only spellcasters can create magical items. The spellcaster does not need to have any specific proficiency. But they do have to be able to cast any spell that the item replicates. The potion of healing TECHNICALLY doesn’t replicate a spell, so that’s a moot point. Every magical item has a creation cost based on its rarity and a minimum experience level at which it can be crafted. The common potion of healing, the simplest one, has a creation cost of 100 gp and requires a 3rd-level spellcaster. To craft a magical item, the spellcaster does have to pay the creation cost, presumably to purchase materials and supplies. And the spellcaster also has to spend a number of days equal to the creation cost divided by 25. And the spellcaster must have somehow – by way of the GM – acquired the formula or recipe for the item they want to create. Under the DMG rules, therefore, a character has to spend 100 gp and 4 days of work to create a potion that can be purchased freely for 50 gp. If they have the recipe. And if they can cast spells.

Let’s keep this simple. First, I’m not going to comment any further on the rules contradictions. They are endemic in 5E. And, as fun as it is to make fun of them, it isn’t productive. It’s clear that the designers INTENDED to let players with the herbalism kit create potions of healing using the PHB crafting rules. At least, the simple potions of healing that can be freely bought. Second, I’m not going to hold the “downtime issue” against this system. Even though I should. Any mechanic that relies on downtime is extremely unreliable for players. Downtime exists only in campaign play, it tends to exist only in very small amounts, and it’s subject to the pacing whims of the GM.

But even forgiving those issues, you can see how a player might be underwhelmed by the possibilities for crafting and herbalism in 5E, expansive and exciting as those options are [heavy sarcasm]. The system is bad and it should feel bad. And it’s actually very easy to see why it’s bad. All you have to do is pretend you’re the game designer and you want to build a system for herbalism in your game. The moment you start developing a concept for that system, you’ll recognize just what is so wrong with the 5E system.

Why This?

Concepting is the process of figuring out what your mechanic is going to do and how it should look when you’re all done with it. It’s a very important step. And it starts by putting yourself in the brain of the player who is excited about the mechanic.

Imagine there is this player, right? And he’s looking through your rulebook and he suddenly sees “herbalism kit” on the list tool proficiencies. Imagine that before he reads any of the rules or mechanics, he’s already excited. He wants to take that proficiency. Now, ask yourself WHY that player is excited? What does he expect to get out of it? Why would that player choose that proficiency over any other proficiency?

By the way, the answer “f$&%ed if I know, players are stupid, I hate crafting systems, they always suck” is not as useful as you might think here. Believe it or not. DO YOU HEAR WHAT I’M SAYING?!

Obviously, the player wants to “do herbalism.” He wants to gather ingredients and make potions. Specifically, medicine. Otherwise, he’d want the poisoner’s kit. Or the alchemist’s supplies – assuming he noticed they were listed separately under artisan’s tools instead of as their own separate item like the herbalism and poisoner’s kits which just makes you wonder WHY WotC DOES S$&% LIKE THAT. Probably, the player is thinking of that scene in Lord of Thrones where Aragorn and Samwell Tarley are looking for athelas and kingsfoil to make medicine for Frodo after he got stabbed by a White Walker. But he might also be thinking about crafting items to help prepare the party for specific adventures. Making sure the party has some anitvemon or burn ointment, for example, when they attack the poisonous fire drakes of Mount Doom.

The point is that the player wants to gather ingredients during the party’s travels through the wilderness and make potions that either solve the party’s problems or help the party prepare for encounters and adventures.

Now, look at the crafting and herbalism system in D&D 5E. Do they speak to that at all? Is there ever going to be a scene where a character is mortally wounded and the herbalist gets to run around gathering the ingredients to make life-saving medicine? Will the character ever learn that their adventures are going to expose them to cryptworms and prepare a few doses of medicine that cures graverot? Is the character ever going to be wandering the wilderness gathering ingredients to make cool things? No. Not in D&D 5E. Because the herbalism system is something you do after the adventure is over. In town. Assuming you have ten days to waste.

Dear Player: It’s Not Always About You

Some budding game designers are smart enough to get this far on their own. That is, they are smart enough to ask, “why would anyone want this system?” And that’s good. Hell, based on what the designers of D&D crapped onto those pages under the heading of “crafting mechanics,” those amateurs are way ahead of the game. The problem is most amateur designers and GMs STOP there. They stop at “okay, I know what I want this thing to do. Let’s get designing.” And that’s terrible.

Just because something is a cool idea that will make a player happy, that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. Concepting isn’t just about figuring out what cool thing a mechanic should do. It’s also about figuring out how that cool thing fits into the game. And fitting the cool thing into the game usually involves making some compromises. Because not everything fits into the game.

Note that I’m not talking about game balance here. Game balance becomes an issue when you start actually designing mechanics. I’m talking about the broader concept of the mechanic and how it fits into the game. What space does it occupy? And it’s kind of hard to explain that without an example. Fortunately, we have this herbcraft thing we’re discussing.

In theory, herbalism should allow players to scour the world during their adventures, gathering roots and berries and twigs. It should allow them to combine those ingredients into cool potions that can do all sorts of amazing things. It should allow them to experiment and invent and discover. It should let them cure various ailments during the game and prepare for upcoming adventures and encounters. And it should let them fly and shoot lasers from their eyes. And it should solve world hunger and include a recipe for a truly guilt-free chocolate cheesecake.

And that, right there, is the problem with just thinking about that player who is imagining how cool a system is. That player wants everything. For himself. But we’re not just designing a system for that player. We’re designing a system for the entire game and all of the players and all of the players. Right? Well, maybe. Maybe not. That’s something we need to figure out.

Who Are You Working For?

Here’s the deal. When you design a mechanic or system for your own, personal home game, you know exactly who is using your system. You and your players. You know exactly what they want and how much complexity they are willing to deal with and what they will and won’t tolerate in a game and how much homework you and your players are willing to do.

For example, if you were designing a complex crafting system – not just this little herbalism hack – and you knew that your players were all number crunchers who loved doing game stuff away from the game, you could make it just as complex as you wanted. You could have pages and pages of ingredients and recipes and rules for experimentation. And because you are – presumably – happy to exchange e-mails with your players between sessions and adjudicate a bunch of s$&%, you can include all sorts of ways the players can experiment and invent new recipes. And because it’s your system, you can revise and edit and tweak and expand to your heart’s content. And that’s great. For you.

But the moment you start designing a system for anyone else, things get a lot more complicated. Because you can’t just consider what you’d tolerate, you have to consider what everyone who you want to use your system can tolerate. And the broader your target audience, the more approachable your system has to be. The more complex and obtuse and esoteric your system, the fewer people will want to use it. The more time consuming and work-intensive your system, the fewer people will want to use it. It’s as simple as that.

When concepting, it’s important to think about who you’re designing for. If you’re just designing for you and people who think exactly like you, that’s fine. It’s easy. Just build what you like. But if you’re building for anyone else, including strangers, you have to think very long and hard about what they want. And what they don’t want.

You also have to consider whether the system is something that is primarily for players or primarily for the GM or for both. Because that has implications too. GMs are generally more tolerant of complexity and workload provided your system is adding something neat to the game. And GMs are usually savvier when it comes to understanding complex mechanics. Most players have less tolerance for complexity and workload and players tend to be less predictable in terms of system mastery. But when you’re designing a system primarily for players, you have to be cognizant of the GM. If you design a system that gives one player in a group a cool option, but creates a lot of extra work for the GM in the process, most GMs won’t want to bother with it. They are going to way the extra burden against the fact that it’s just giving one player a new option. Not worth the cost.

When it comes to systems that are primarily for the players’ engagements, whether just one player or the entire group, it’s always a good idea to think about what might entice the GM to say yes to the system. That is, what sort of carrots does your system offer for the GM to enjoy.

Where Does Your System Fit?

Apart from deciding who your system is going to benefit and who is going to pay the costs and how broadly you want your system to appeal, you also need to decide when your system is going to come into the game. And there are two possibilities. Either your system is designed to work at the table or away from the table. And it turns out – based on some conversations I’ve had and some comments I’ve received – that this is a massive f$&%ing revelation of mind-blowing proportions.

RPGs are made up of lots of systems. There’s character generation, action result, combat, gaining levels, buying and selling stuff, possibly crafting, and so on and so on and so on. Some of these systems are meant to happen while the game is in progress. You know, during the actual playing of the game. For example, combat. Combat happens at the game table, during the session, when the game is actually happening. On the other hand, character generation happens away from the game table. It happens outside of the game. I know some pedantic jacka$& is going to point out that they have their players generate characters with them at the table. I know that. I know you CAN have players generate characters AT THE TABLE, but AT THE TABLE doesn’t mean AT THE TABLE! Character generation happens outside the game itself. Same with leveling up. And buying equipment. Yes, you can do those things at the table. But they are still away-from-table mechanics. Because they are outside of the game and can be done at home. Alone. Between game sessions.

When you are concepting a system, it’s important to decide whether your system will fit in at-the-table or away-from-table. Because, believe it or not, there is a world of difference between the two. And it’s always the mechanics that fail to recognize that difference that utterly fail. Simply put, smart designers recognize the differences and work with them. Don’t be one of those OTHER designers.

Obviously, the first big difference between at-the-table and away-from-table mechanics has to do with complexity and cognitive load. Game sessions have to keep moving and they have to remain focused on choices and actions. At-the-table mechanics can’t be burdened with too much complexity or too much effort or too much paperwork or too much math. That’s why ability damage in D&D 3.5 was such a reviled mechanic. Every time you took ability damage, half the numbers on your character changed. Temporarily. You had to make all of those changes – or remember them all – and then you had to change them back when the ability damage went away. That’s also why encumbrance systems are so hard. Because there’s a lot of math and paperwork inherent in that sort of tracking and it bogs down gameplay.

At-the-table mechanics need to be simple and snappy and easy to remember. They can’t break the flow. Away-from-table mechanics can be more complex and more involved. But that shouldn’t be taken as blanket freedom to add as much complexity as you want. No one likes homework. And you don’t want to bog down the players or the GM with too much extra homework. When I’m designing an away-from-table mechanic – especially one for players – keep it firmly in the “thirty-minutes-before” realm. That is, I assume that the only time players will do anything for the game is in the thirty minutes before the game when they are sitting around waiting for the game to start. Or the thirty minutes after the game. Games are allowed to break the thirty-minute-before rule precisely one time before players start to rebel. And that break is character generation.

Of course, the more optional the mechanic and the more limited the audience, the less complexity matters. It’s okay to build a “hardcore” system. One that is clearly and obviously complex and exists only for players who think that complexity is worth whatever the system has to offer. Or for players who actually LIKE lots of complexity. Those people do exist. A complex crafting system COULD survive as such a mechanic. But remember that a highly complex system that is limited to only the most hardcore of players also requires the GM’s buy-in. If the system is very complex for the GM to adjudicate, you run the risk that GMs are just going to say, “no way” to the players who want it.

But complexity and workload aren’t the only differences between at-the-table and away-from-table mechanics. In fact, they aren’t even the most important. The most important differences are the ones that, apparently, no one but me has ever heard of. Judging by the fights I’ve had.

At-the-table mechanics are only interesting and engaging to the players who are actually using them. I can’t even find the words to say how f$&%ing important this is. AT-THE-TABLE MECHANICS ARE ONLY FUN FOR THE PLAYERS ACTUALLY USING THEM. Say it with me. AT-THE-TABLE MECHANICS ARE ONLY FUN FOR THE PLAYERS ACTUALLY USING THEM. DO YOU HEAR WHAT I’M SAYING?

Here’s the thing. When you create a system that only one player is going to use, you have to consider the fact that every other player at the table is going to be bored while your system is in play. That means that the more time and effort your system requires, the more you are demanding that four players sit and watch the fifth have fun by themselves.

The evolution of the combat rules and classes in D&D is a perfect example of this sort of thinking in action. As combat has become a bigger – and less optional – part of the D&D experience, the various classes have become more and more focused on combat abilities. That’s so that everyone has something to do in combat. Something unique and fun. A single combat in D&D can take an hour to play out. Everyone has to be involved. Social interaction in D&D is an example of what happens when designers don’t think about this. D&D has very limited rules and systems for resolving social interactions and thus the number of players who can be meaningfully involved in such scenes is limited. That’s why you always see GMs trying to figure out how to engage players with low Charisma in social-interaction scenes. Hell, that’s why there are so many fights about social interaction scenes and whether they should involve die rolls and when and how to roll and all that crap. It’s a huge problem. But when I point out that the problem STARTS with Charisma as an ability score, people think I’m f$&%ing crazy.

Point is, when it comes to at-the-table mechanics, you have to balance the number of players who will be engaging with the mechanic against the amount of game time that mechanic is going to swallow up. If the system is going to eat up a lot of game time, it sure as hell better engage all of the players AND also give the GM an opportunity to advance the game. If only one player is going to be involved in the mechanic, it had better come and go quickly and easily. That’s why the wild magic, random surge crap sucks. “I want to play a wizard whose spells take two-to-three times to resolve and require extra reference tables! Whee!” Guess what? No one who has ever played alongside a wild magic sorcerer LIKES wild magic.

Meanwhile, away-from-table mechanics have their own limitations. The first is sort of an analogue to the engagement problem with at-the-table mechanics. Away-from-table mechanics can’t rely on everyone in the party being involved. That is, you can’t assume the players will be able to communicate and interact with each other. Yes, it is possible to build an away-from-table mechanic that must be done with the whole party gathered, but it’s a bad idea because it means that you’re either forcing the group to have special get togethers or external communication that they may not want to do OR forcing them to take time away from the actual game to use your mechanic. And that means you may be limiting your audience. For example, if your character generation system requires the players to make some joint decisions as part of the process, you have made it impossible for the GM to ever say “okay guys, I want to run a one-shot, so generate characters and bring them tomorrow.”

Speaking of the GM, you also can’t rely on GM adjudication of away-from-table mechanics. If a player can do something away from the table, the GM shouldn’t have to be involved. At least, not as a default assumption. Players might seek help from the GM, for example, but that’s not the same as a mechanic that assumes the players and the GM have to have an interaction to resolve it. So, your mechanic can’t rely on GM approval or on the GM providing information or specific outcomes based on information only the GM has.

Once you remove the GM from the equation with an away-from-table mechanic, you also have to assume that random chance is basically off the table. You don’t want die rolls involved unless the GM is involved. I believe in trust. I really do. And I believe in the honor system. But everyone is human. Imagine an away-from-table crafting mechanic, for instance, that costs the player a huge amount of resources for every failed die roll. Imagine a player sitting at home, crafting away. Imagine they have a really bad run of luck and roll seven failures before they finally succeed. Imagine those failures cost them thousands of gold pieces. No matter how honest the player, there’s going to be a temptation to cheat. Imagine the opposite, too. Imagine the player who rolls the luckiest damned rolls ever and crafts a super powerful item really cheap under the same system. They show it to you. However much you trust your player, you’re going to wonder.

I believe in trust. But I don’t believe in designing systems that test that trust if you can avoid it.

By the way, that’s why character generation in D&D involves fewer random die rolls now than ever before. Randomly generating ability scores and hits points? That’s the variant system, now. Point buy and fixed results are the standard. Part of it, sure, is because of balance issues. But part of it is because away-from-table systems like character generation shouldn’t put the players’ trust and integrity to the test.

Notice that the D&D 5E crafting system doesn’t involve any die rolls. All you have to do is spend the resources – in this case time – and it just works. And also notice that it doesn’t take very long to resolve at all. It perfectly fits the idea of an away-from-table, thirty-minutes-before mechanic. At least they got that much right.

Concepting Herbcraft

So, that’s the basic theory. Now, how does that apply to redesigning herbcraft to not suck?

First, we don’t know much about the one player who wanted this system. But we can make guesses about the everyplayer. Because we’re designing this system for broad appeal. That is, not only am I designing this system for a stranger, I’m designing this system for lots of strangers. But then, that’s usually my default. I design for broad appeal.

Now, the everyplayer is not looking for a complex, hardcore mechanic. They don’t want a lot of homework. In fact, I can’t imagine they want any homework at all. Players want to do cool things at the table. Not at home. Most players don’t even want to waste more time on character generation than they have to. But then, that fits with our idea of what players might want to get out of this system. They want something they can use at the table. Something fun they can do while trekking around the table.

So, we have an at-the-table system that is designed for players. And, like most character abilities, the system doesn’t really do much for the GM. Yes, GM’s generally benefit from their players having varied skills and lots of ways to solve problems and engage with the world and yes, any character ability provides some degree of potential hooks around which to build a story. I’m not denying the GM does get SOMETHING out of it. But compared to something like a motivation system or rules for building settlements or something, this really doesn’t pop the GM’s cork any more than the system for barbarian rage or bardic inspiration. It’s a character ability, pure and simple.

Speaking of character abilities, it’s important to note that players do not like to duplicate skills. They like to establish unique wheelhouses as part of their character identity. So, whenever you’re creating a new character ability, you know that exactly ONE player will be using that mechanic at any given table.

So, we have an at-the-table mechanic for one player that doesn’t really do much for the GM. And that means the system has to be lightweight, approachable, snappy, and action-focused. That means we have to fit the mechanic into a very narrow space in the game. If the player stops the game to use herbcraft, the stoppage has to be brief. One decision and one die roll. Done and done. In that respect, it puts no more burden on the game than any other skill. But given that, a player can easily use herbcraft in response to a specific problem. Someone is out of hit dice and needs some first aid, for example. Or someone is poisoned or paralyzed or sick. “Guys, sit tight, I’m going to Aragorn some kingsfoil and fix Alice right up. Success, Alice is fixed because of my amazing herbalness!”

But what if the player wants to prepare for an upcoming encounter or adventure? What if the player wants to create some antivenom or burn ointment or whatever ahead of time because the players know what’s coming? Well, that’s fun. It rewards planning, research, scouting, and forethought. And those are things that can come from any player, so it also rewards teamwork. For example, the rogue might scout ahead and discover the way is blocked by fiery, green-and-red lizards. The wizard might identify those creatures from the description as poisonous fire drakes. And then the ranger can herbcraft up some antivenom and burn ointment. That’s a great exchange.

But now we come to the gathering of ingredients. After all, the fact that the character is using herbcraft and not potion brewing or magic spells implies that this sort of thing is done in the wilderness. I’d argue that being able to gather ingredients from the wilderness is as important as being able to craft things from those ingredients. Otherwise, it isn’t herbcraft. But we can’t let the game stop for too long just to let one player go pick flowers. We want to emphasize that this is something that can be done “on the way to adventure” or “between encounters,” but it shouldn’t become the adventure except in response to specific emergencies.

The wilderness travel rules provide a great place for herbcraft. Those rules allow each player to assume a task while traveling. They can navigate, track, keep a lookout, or forage for food. And foraging for food isn’t really much different than gathering herbal ingredients, is it? So, herbcraft can fit there nicely as an alternative wilderness travel task. Or it can fit into short rests between encounters.

On top of that, by making it part of the wilderness travel mechanic or putting it in the space between encounters, it can play very nicely alongside the random encounter system. Wilderness travel risks random encounters. And staying in one place for too long a period of time also risks random encounters. If the GM is using random encounters, that means there’s a risk associated with gathering ingredients for herbal potions if the party decides to go too crazy with it. If the party does it while they travel, or once in a while between encounters, no big deal. But if they spend days and days on it, random encounters can chew away at their resources.

Anyway, we’re just conceptualizing right now. We’re just getting a sense of where herbcraft can fit into the game. And it looks like there’s some good spaces for it that will make the player using it happy without driving the GM or the other players crazy. But we might also consider looking for fun ways to engage the GM with it just to make the GM feel a little better about allowing the rule.

That’s the good, though. Now the bad. As a single-player, at-the-table mechanic, the resolution has to be fairly simple. We’ve already boiled it down to one die roll. But there’s more to consider. We don’t want to burden the game with a lot of tracking and paperwork. While it might have fun to have lists of specific ingredients the player might turn up and complicated recipes and ways to experiment with them, all of those things would really bog things down. The GM would have to either place or randomly generate specific ingredients in every adventure. The player would have to keep track of their ingredient inventory. When the player wanted to actually create something, they would have to consult their recipe lists and decide what to make with the supplies on hand. If they wanted to experiment, that would have to be resolved. The GM would have to randomly generate a result and record it. Or else there would be more tables to consult. No. Thank. You. Sorry. As fun as that s$&% might be for the herbalist, it’d be burdensome for the GM and boring for all of the non-herbalists at the table.

Currently, the most complicated mechanical thing that any player can do at the table is cast a spell. And casting a spell isn’t terribly complicated. Each spellcasting class is designed to have some short list of spells available during game play – either limited numbers of spell known or spell preparation rules – so they don’t have too many options to choose from. Except for certain special cases, components are not a limiting factor. The spellcaster merely needs to have their component pouch or arcane focus on hand except for particularly grand or complicated effects. The player has to reference a few specific notes about the spell effect, choose to cast the spell, expend a slot, and then make – usually – a single die roll to resolve the spell. Or the target does. Sometimes, there’s also a damage roll. But that’s it. And spellcasting is an iconic and high cost ability. It’s the sort of the thing that the player has to devote the vast majority of the character generation choices to. They need to pick a spellcasting class, they need the proper ability scores, and they need to pick a spell list. Spellcasting is complicated because it’s central.

Herbcraft is not central. It’s a side ability. So, it can’t be any more complicated than casting a spell. And it should be less complicated than casting a spell in terms of time and pure mechanical resolution. That means, all that crap with complicated ingredients and mixing them up? No. No one needs to challenge the wild magic sorcerer for complexity with a goddamned SIDE SKILL.

But spellcasting actually does provide a good analogue for herbcraft. Mechanically, anyway. The herbalist needs to pick an effect from a list and then make a single die roll to resolve the effect. In this case, they are creating an effect that will be applied later, but it’s the same thing.

Concept Concepted

And THAT is how you concept a mechanic. You don’t just say “man, I want some herbalism in my game, let me start inventing rules.” At this point, we haven’t even really looked at the mechanics except in a broad way. And yet, we already have a pretty good idea of what the mechanic should look like and how it should be used. We know who will be using it. We know when it will be used. We’ve identified spaces in the game where it will fit nicely and even a few mechanics it will happily sit beside. We’ve even figured out what other game rules it will look kind of like. And you can probably see a lot of how the herbcraft system I invented came out of these concepts. But we’re not done yet. Later this week, we’ll make the leap from concept to mechanics and we’ll consider the balancing act that is… well… balancing. The game. Game balance.

30 thoughts on “Crafting Herbcraft (Part 1): Conceptual Herbology

  1. Maybe a fun-at-the-table rule for one character can spark similar options for others. If the herbalism kit lets a character make useful salves and ointments, maybe proficiency with a gaming set lets someone else make useful friends (and of course gamble for money). One could cultivate a relationship the way he or she could craft an item. Cartographer’s supplies could be applied to uncovering a secret or useful information about an area by making and comparing maps. Maybe some secret societies are built on the backs of guilds, and tool proficiency is one of the keys for entry (e.g. the Carpenter’s Guild is a front for the Noble Houses, a secret society of rich architects). A disguise kit might let someone set up shop as a beauty salon and collect the juiciest gossip. Or maybe making some rolls with other tools can reduce the cost of crafting those fancy magic items; the illogically expensive healing potion is perhaps more reasonable if the makers can collect half its cost in supplies with the herbalism kit and actually make it for 50 gp using the standard (optional) rules. Then, two or three characters working together can collect the supplies a little faster and craft more quickly for a more reasonable cost, especially if the GM allows the DC on the rolls to increase the cost of the materials they collect above the 5 gp per described under crafting. This spreads out a little more fun-at-the-table and maybe creates more opportunities for characters otherwise stuck while someone else needs a lot of downtime to build or research something.

    • Yes. You can build more mechanics around more skills. But none of that will change the fact that each mechanic is still NOT FUN for the other four people to watch if it drags on too long. And if you load them up, then your five hours of play is one hour of one player doing herbcraft, one hour of one player doing gambling, one hour of one player doing cartography, and so on. That way, every player gets one fun hour and fours hours spectating.

      The fact that other mechanics exist to engage other players changes nothing about the fact that any single given mechanic that only engages one player still has to respect everyone else’s time.

      • It seems then that mechanics like these must be quick, simple/straightforward, and frequently switched between to keep the time-I’m-not-doing-anything to a minimum for each player. Most players will want the spotlight or at least the sense of accomplishing something more frequently. Is that why combat is the default game mechanic for D&D and most RPGs, because it requires attention to each other’s actions but also organizes time into turns to make that switching as clear and predictable as possible? Social interactions and skill challenges generally don’t have quite that clear my-turn-is-soon or at-least-the-turns-are-short visibility that combat seems to enjoy. It also makes me think it might be a reason that many GMs are more apt to punish a party for splitting up because it increases the strain of switching between groups or characters to keep everyone involved.

        I’m sorry if I’m tiresome. I think understanding these interactions, way down underneath rules and mechanics and gameplay, are what really make and break games, and I want to get a better command of them.

  2. Thanks, this is really helpful! I’m in the process of designing a mechanic for a homebrew that I just assumed would be at-the-table, and haven’t given much thought except accidentally to what it would look like if it wasn’t. There’s definitely a design space where I put part of the process off table, similar to something like choosing a spell loadout for the entire session at the beginning of the session, that has some promise. I might not have examined it without this article.

  3. I like your mechanic and even more the way you built it, but I don’t understand why you chose to make different DCs available on the same roll :
    “If your check result does not meet or exceed the DC required to craft the lowest quality version of the item, you failed to turn up enough useful ingredients. Otherwise, you turned up enough ingredients to produce the desired item at a highest quality whose DC to craft you met or exceeded.”
    It is at odd with the rest of the rolls being binary success/failures (I think you wrote about it somewhere, and argued against differentiating levels of success in D&D – except for damage rolls). While it can be perfectly fine, I really wonder why you did not to make it a simple “choose your DC, roll and succeed/fail”, instead of a success scale. It would involve a few more decision points (Do I feel lucky/proficient enough ? Do I really need the high quality result ?) for little to no added complexity, and matches better with the rest of the game mechanics. Given that’s there’s no default success on 10+, maybe the DCs should be lowered a little, but that’s minor tweak.

    Maybe you’ll address it in the balancing process, though, and if so, I’ll just wait for it.

    • Alright, suppose that we do it your way. I decide that I’m feeling lucky and call out a DC 15 herblore check to make a better item. And I roll a 14. Oops! Too bad I wasted everything, under your rules I don’t even get a lower quality product for my effort. Feels pretty bad, almost feels like the DM is out to get me. Under Angry’s rules I still get a slightly weaker item as a reward for this ability that I invested time into doing. And if I roll well enough, I can even get a masterwork item as a bonus, feels pretty good. Degrees of success are simply better than binary yes/no results. And to answer your question of “do I really need the higher quality result?” Yes, yes I always want the opportunity to get a bonus if I roll well, duh that’s why we have crits.

      • My point is “rolling well enough” is alien to D&D. Crits and damage rolls are the only exception and Angry raised that point them on several occasion. And still, WotC seems aware of it since both of them are combat-related only, there’s no crit in ability rolls, and very very few second dice roll after a d20 success.
        And yes, if you try 15 and get 14, you fail. that’s how all ability rolls work in D&D. You may not like it, but that’s the entire system, changing that for a minor hack doesn’t feel right under Angry’s (very thoughtful) approach to hacking. There is no “failure/almost there/success/better success” in D&D, only success/failure. I understand the appeal of degrees of success in a game system, but it has to be built in said system, and not carelessly introduced into a side-hack.
        D&D just doesn’t work this way, so my question stands : why would we do that here ?

        • The death saving throw works -slightly- like that, in that there is a critical fail, fail, success, and critical success state, based on rolling 1, less than 10, 10 or more, and 20. It isn’t quite the same as an attack roll because an attack 1 just misses, whereas a death save 1 puts you 2/3 of the way closer to being dead.

        • “there’s no crit in ability rolls, and very very few second dice roll after a d20 success.”

          Much of the explanation for that is that in most cases, there’s simply not a better case scenario. “Wow, you climbed so well you impressed the passers-by! Gain 1d10 gold and a contact” feels very forced. I’m aware some games do structure the entire resolution around
          Success+ complication vs success + bonus etc, like WHFRP v3, but I’ve also heard complaints that DMs find that they struggle to justify what that means and it slows things down.

          Long story short, I think there’s room for degree of success mechanics when the situation calls for it, but we shouldn’t feel the need to universalize it into skill rolls where it isn’t important.

    • I am not Angry, but I suppose, we don’t actually want MORE decision points for such a mechanic.

      They do nothing for GM, they drag out the waiting time of other players, they make the system less satisfying overall.

      So, we don’t want more decision points in herbalism

      • I understand the concern, but it wouldn’t really take more than a few seconds. Choosing the DC gives a little more options that have to be weighted, but it’s either quick, because it’s routine (“Ok, today, i try a little harder/safer”) or it’s a little discussion with the other players (“do we risk having nothing to face the venomous fire snakes ? Or do we stick to the easy low-quality that may not do much for us ?”). But these cases would be relatively rare and the other players are actually involved in the choice then, so it’s not really waiting time.

      • Even better now that I think about it, you can spare two hours while going to the dungeon, you missed the first hard roll, do you play it safer ? Or try the hard one again ? And if you miss again, do you sacrifice another hour, knowing that might later cost you a much needed short rest if you want to be on time to stop the Great Sacrifice of Orphan Puppies ?
        More decision points lead to a deeper game : will you regret trying too hard ? Or will you feel good because it worked ? If the low-grade antivenom don’t work because disadvantage is a bitch, will you not think about trying harder next time ?
        While it may be not so deep, and only on occasions, the complexity cost seems really low here (if there’s any difference with angry’s system), so I really wonder why building such a system with rules alien to the core mechanic of D&D.
        I may be missing something of course, but if so, I can’t see it.

        • I don’t think you should make too much out of the fact that degrees of success are ‘alien’ to D&D. D&D uses degrees of success when it’s considered to be necessary or to make sense (many knowledge checks, attack rolls – though the damage is done by a separate die roll, rather than based off of the attack roll directly, because that’s the way it used to be and apparently no one wants to change it no matter how much sense that would make) and doesn’t when it’s not (most skill checks).

          Crafting seems to be a perfect example of a case where degrees of success make sense. If you’re really skilled (high modifier) and everything goes well (high roll), you get a product of good quality (high result). If you’re less skilled (low modifier) or you make some screwups while working (low roll), you get a lesser but usable product (moderate result). If you’re less skilled AND things don’t go well, you fail altogether (low result).

          While I think there’s something to be said for your risk/reward suggestion, ultimately I believe this method better captures what crafting an item would actually be like.

  4. Well, as usual, your thoughts were thoughtful, your insights were insightful, and your points were pointed. This is excellent and timely material, as I have a player that is eager to use her Poisoner’s Kit. I look forward to the Part 2.

    I do have one somewhat tangential item to point out. I don’t know exactly what you intended when you said, “Randomly generating ability scores and hits points? That’s the variant system, now. Point buy and fixed results are the standard.” If by “variant” you mean those things in the PHB and DMG that are described in sections titled “Variant: blah, blah, blah”, then your statement is incorrect. The section describing point buy is titled “Variant: Customizing Ability Scores”. The ability score generation method mentioned first and without qualification (which would appear to me to make it the “standard”) is 4d6k3, with the option to use a fixed array instead. Somewhat similarly, rolling for HP is mentioned first, with use of the fixed value mentioned as an alternative. If you intended something else by “standard” and “variant”, then I apologize for the intrusion.

  5. This is the kind of article every game should be putting out on a regular basis. A behind the scenes, why we did this, how this interacts with the rest of the game, etc. First, it would make the audience go ah ha! Now I see why they did that. Second, it would let gaming groups have a clear insight into the rules and let them do a much better job of deciding which rules to include, change or remove from their game for their own preferences. And third, and maybe most important, it would force game designers to really analyze their own rules. It’s easy to hand wave off criticisms or stick minor rules in without thinking of them if you never need to explain yourself. At the best, you defend your position with a clear argument. At the worst, you realize something is off and look to make a fix.

      • The designers of 4th spent a lot of time conceptualizing BEFORE they built anything. Predesign began in early 2005 and included multiple design workshops entitled Orcus, Orcus II and others. It wasn’t until a year later that the first playable draft happened in early 2006. There was a teardown, conceptualization, and rebuild in mid-2006 which culminated in the Flywheel and Scramjet teams delivering a new playable draft and concurrent story/world bible at the end of 2006. And that’s when actually PHB development began Then, full on playtesting for the rest of the year.

        • But not only did they want themselves to know why things were the way they were, they wanted DMs and even players to know. I think in cases this was reacted to as too-gamey and they subsequently tried to pull the curtain back less, or made it less of a priority. (I could be wrong, I’m not greatly familiar with 5th edition)

  6. I have the same challenge in my two groups, but more so: Herbalism, Alchemy, Poison Making, and Magic-Item Crafting. I’ve pretty much ad-hoc-ed it, but, as you’ve described, the published rules are severely lacking!

    And I’ve had to fight my innate desire to mimic Elder Scrolls’ system. While comparatively robust, it is far too complicated for a table-top RPG. However, some concepts can be extracted and used.

    I like the approach – quick resolution with no more than one die roll. Though for my purposes, I’ve made it into two die rolls – one for the player (skill roll for success, usually with a low CR), and one for me, the GM, to determine the scale of success (or failure). My idea here is that while the player may be making healing potions, a success doesn’t mean just one vial with one dose, but (depending upon spent resources) xd6+y doses in xd6+y vials. Or something. In this case, x and y are arbitrarily determined on the spot. I would prefer something more specific – a table or at least a clear guideline, but more often than not, this isn’t something I can reasonably prepare for.

    Presently I’m working on mass-combat rules that (hopefully) will work better than the UA variant. I don’t like the UA variant for several reasons – among them: scale (size of units, size of hexes on the map), too much math, and poor balance adjustments for heroic characters (both PC and NPC). The main point I want to make by sharing this is that I’ve followed the same conceptual process: what are the goals? how can I ensure that all players participate (and have fun)? and how can I make the system consistent with existing D&D 5e mechanics?

    • Sounds like your players are telling you they’d like to settle down and open up a fantasy department store together.
      I kid, but for your group you may well want more in depth mechanics. The nice thing is, much of those skills overlap, so if you wanted to make up a recipe system, there could be a lot of cooperation in gathering and sharing ingredients. Maybe the herbalist or alchemist even need to refine the ingredients for the poison maker.
      You might well not want the complexity, but if you and your group does, remember that’s who you are designing for, and you can go beyond Angry’s system (while learning from his approach).

  7. The mechanism is neat and the goals are clear.
    I think that this system is highly dependant on your angry time-clock stuff, otherwise it’s probably easier to just rest and have the “appropriate class” cast the corresponding spells.
    The healing potion can be bought and since gold is useless in D&D then you can assume that players already have as many potions as they want and don’t need a cheaper way to make more.
    Also why would a druid or cleric want to make potions when they can cast an equivalent spell almost at will? The classes that lorewise are very likely to know the skill are also the less likely to use it.
    I think that to be appreciated the skill should give access to things that the party wouldn’t have access to otherwise while keeping in mind the balance issues. I’m not proposing any suggestion because I don’t want to spoil the balance issues that you will be talking about in your next article.

    • I take issue with this statement:
      “The healing potion can be bought and since gold is useless in D&D then you can assume that players already have as many potions as they want”
      Because this is something the DM can mitigate. Angry has written about the value of money in RPGs, and in my opinion, a responsible DM will manage the flow of cash to the PCs in order to keep things under control. Also, just because healing potions are in the equipment list in the PHB, it doesn’t mean that they are always available. If you consider the time, effort, and cost to make healing potions (RAW, or otherwise), my supposition is that most markets won’t have any available, or if they do, they are rare.

      • “The GM can change it, therefore it doesn’t work that way.”

        Come on, that’s a major no-no on my site and you should know better. The GM can change anything. But when we’re evaluating a system and designing rules, we respond to the system AS WRITTEN and assume people aren’t changing it.

      • I agree with you completely. My issue with Valentin is the supposition that “gold is useless” …therefore… “players can have all the potions they want”, which is not consistent with RAW. The economic rules are built around the idea that gold is meaningful and valuable. We both know that this is one of the places where RAW has issues.

        Other than that, Valentin makes valid points and brings up good questions (which I didn’t address previously).

    • While I can envision a nice venn diagram, I would suggest:
      Alchemy is about transformation – creating new effects out of unrelated or unusual substances (like turning lead into gold)
      Poisoning is all about causing damage, misery, pain, sickness, etc.
      Herbalism is about healing, buffing, improving, etc., specifically using naturally grown ingredients.

    • In my homebrew, I’ve conceptualized alchemy as being a fantastical version of chemistry; mixing and distilling raw elements to create alchemical substances based on (fantastical) scientific principles. Examples are Alchemical Fire, Embalming Fluid, Essence of Ice, and Fulminating Gold.

      Herbalism is taking plants (magical and otherwise) and using them to create potions, salves, poultices and ointments that interact biologically in a beneficial way. A kind of fantasy pharmacist.

      And a Poison Kit is used to produced…uhh..poisons, from natural substances, plants, and venoms that react biologically in a harmful manner. So, while an alchemist might create Dust of Desiccation which would be extremely harmful to swallow, it is harmful to swallow in the same way acid would be harmful to swallow.

    • If you are going to have all three, I would keep potions out of alchemy (even though that is easily justifiable) and keep poisons out of herbalism (likewise).

    • How ’bout this: Herbalism is stuff you drink or apply to yourself, Poisoning is things you want other people to drink/eat or apply via weapons (generally not willingly), and alchemy is stuff that interacts with the environment (makes smoke, explodes, glues things, etc.)

  8. heh, I thought I was the one who put this to motion, but then again, maybe you already had it and shared it when I asked for your opinion on what I came up with… It doesn’t really matter anyway, Batman. what matters is that Gotham is a little bit angrier now 🙂

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