Once upon a time, I took a course in critical reasoning. Apart from learning the entire suite of Kepner-Tregoe problem-solving methodologies – to the point where I swear the course was frigging sponsored by the Messers Kepner and Tregoe, whoever the hell they are – apart from a bunch of KT problem-solving stuff, we mostly spent our time solving logic puzzles. Not that I’m complaining, mind you. I have always loved puzzles. Especially the ones where you have to read a passage and then answer true-or-false questions based only on exactly what it says in the passage and which everyone always gets wrong because the passages are designed to trick off all sorts of assumptions and preconceived notions. And I have especially always loved those puzzles where five different people at a dinner party eat five different entrees while wearing five different ridiculous accessories and you have to figure out based on a serious of ridiculous clues like “the person who wore the cowboy hat didn’t care for the anecdote that the woman who ate the prawn told” that it was Mr. Dupree who spilled lobster bisque on his ascot. So it was nice to get course credit for that crap.
One of the very earliest problem solving discussions we had in the course – this was during the introductory part of the class when we were still just dicking around with logic puzzles to make sure people had at least two brain cells that could fire at the same time without electrocuting them – one of the earliest problem-solving discussions we had was the old classic whereupon you assume you’re stranded on a desert island and, for some inexplicable reason, can only bring three small items with you. What items would you bring? And I said, “I would bring a deck of cards.” “Why,” my teammates asked. “Because,” I explained, “whenever you take out a deck of cards and start playing solitaire, some idiot will always turn up behind you and tell you what move to make next. And then that idiot can rescue me.” And then I would get a bunch of blank stares because it was 1996 and I guess analog solitaire wasn’t as big a pastime as it used to be. Whatever.
These days, though, my answer would be different. I’d bring a notebook. Because whenever you start designing game mechanics, a thousand idiots will turn up behind you to tell you everything you’re doing wrong.
No, but seriously. I love all y’all. I kid. I kid. But here’s the thing: although I am READING all of the comments on these magic item crafting posts and I will call out anyone who has a good idea, especially if I steal it, I’m not going to respond to them anymore. No clarifications. No expounding on why I did the things I did. I know why I’m doing what I’m doing. And I’m going to keep doing it because I know the end result will be pretty much the most awesome slapdash crafting system you could ever cram into a game that wasn’t designed to handle it. You all feel free to talk amongst yourselves. I’m just going to go work over here. Though, if I hear any more people being major assholes, I will delete their comments and kick them out. And the ban on discussion of why crafting systems are a bad idea or why these articles are pointless remains in place.
Okay, that’ll serve for a Long, Rambling Introduction™. On with the show!
The Story So Far
So far, we have decided that the basic gameplay loop for our Dungeons and Dragons 5E runs like this: during their adventures, the heroes will turn up raw materials. Then, outside of gameplay, they can combine those raw materials into a finished mundane or magical item. That’s the actual crafting part. Obviously, a lot of details need to be filled in yet. Remember that, because we’re going to come back to it. The fact that we have that summary and that details need to be filled in.
The raw materials will be classified in three ways: rarity, type, and optional additional descriptor. Rarity corresponds to the rarities for magic items that exist in D&D already: Common, Uncommon, Rare, Very Rare, and Legendary. Type describes the physical form that the raw material takes: metal, precious metal, wood, herb, hide, bone, fluid, mineral, gem, and essence. Those are all just working names. Placeholders. We can adjust them later. Additional descriptors will primarily be used to describe which magical effects the raw material can be used to power. We’re not going to try to list them right now. We’re going to circle back in and see what we need based on the list of stuff PCs can craft. But, as a starting point, we’re going to assume that all of the various elemental damage types will be there, along with a few others for magical effects that aren’t damaging. Like lifegiving and glamer and corruption and stuff. Like I said, we’ll circle back around to populate that last list.
And although I am currently LISTING the raw material descriptors as [rarity] [type] [quality] because that’s the logical way to think about them, in the text they will be WRITTEN as [rarity] [quality] [type]. Rare fiery fluid. Common frosty wood. But, frankly, we don’t CARE ABOUT THAT CRAP AT THE DESIGN STAGE. WE NEED A WORKING SYSTEM FIRST!
People have asked why I’m not just using the schools of magic as the descriptors. And here’s the answer: because they are unintuitive as hell and create all the wrong overlaps. They are a terrible way to classify magical items in a way that won’t come naturally to players. Under such a system, a person could find a crackling energy crystal (rare evocation mineral) and it would serve as an ingredient for a flaming longsword, a prismatic gem, or a cure light wounds potion. And the average player wouldn’t know any of that off the top of their head. Because healing items and flaming swords don’t belong in the same class of item. But a fiery crystal instantly tells you exactly the sorts of game affects you could fuel with that. As does a life-giving crystal. And also, since most magical monsters tie to some sort of magical effect rather than a magical school, it’s easy to figure out that if you want to make a staff of frost, you probably want to kill a white dragon. The spell school system is utterly nonsensical. That’s why the cure spells have changed schools in every frigging edition of D&D. Did you know once they were in the same school as the summon monster spells?! HOLY CRAP!
Okay… I just realized I already broke my rule of not responding to the comments. And now you see why I said that. Because it riles me up when I respond and then my blood pressure rises and my new doctor is very concerned that I routinely peg the needle on his sphygmomanometer. And he thinks the sheer act of taking my blood pressure will shove me over the brink and into a stroke. And this poor, mild-mannered, midwestern doctor can’t handle something as stressful as a patient keeling over on his table and spraying highly pressurized blood with the consistency of maple sugar out of his every facial orifice.
And that imagery is precisely why YOU don’t want me to get worked up. Because then I talk like that instead of talking about magical item crafting.
So, having now effectively summarized our previous work, let’s get started.
Do you remember the part above – before all that blood stuff – where I said, “remember this, I’m coming back to it?” I hope so. Because I’m going to show you a helpful trick when it comes to designing a system. Here’s the trick: once you get to the point where you can summarize the way something will play out in your game, write that summary down. Like this:
The players will acquire raw materials during their adventures. Outside of play, they can combine those raw materials into mundane or magical objects.
No, that’s not the trick. The trick is now to read through every single word – or phrase – and sentence and question the hell out of it. Basically, explain or define each piece of that process in detail. Expand the definition as much as possible.
We know who the players are. And we know what it means to acquire. So, we get to the phrase raw materials. What are raw materials? Well, in the context of our system, raw materials are consumable items that can be used to craft other items. And they have a rarity, a type, and maybe a quality. Fine. And then we come to the “during their adventures” part. And… how? How will the players acquire materials during their adventures?
If you read the comments, you’ll notice that a lot of people are making assumptions that raw materials will all be stripped from monsters. Kill a monster, take its stuff, then take its guts and turn its guts into more stuff. Fine and dandy. But that’s an assumption at this point. I never said that. The only thing I ever said was they acquire raw materials during their adventures. And I did qualify that by saying that the finding of raw materials needs to be incidental to adventure, not a distraction from adventure, though it can create a motivation for adventure.
But now you can already see we have some questions to answer: what are raw materials, how are they acquired during adventures, how do we avoid the acquisition of materials becoming a distraction from the adventure? And we’ve already answered the raw materials question.
But that raises another question. Is there any way to acquire raw materials aside from turning them up during the adventures? You might be tempted to say no. But there’s no reason to assume that’s the case. For example, suppose the heroes really want to make a magical fire sword for their next adventure against an ice dragon. And they have most of the ingredients. Most important, they have the most interesting ingredients. They have the fiery gem that will serve as a pommel stone and the rare metal that will infuse the blade with magical energy. But they are just a little short on plain old ordinary, mundane iron to fill out the recipe. Do you really want to stop them from making the fire sword for want of the simplest ingredient in the recipe? Do you really want them to take a detour from fighting the ice dragon so they can adventure through an iron mine and get some plain iron to finish the sword? No. You’d have to be a moron to want those things. And, hell, that would count as a pretty serious distraction from the adventure. So, do we want the players to be able to acquire ingredients in other ways? Yes. Yes, we do. But we need to keep those ways under control.
Notice what’s happening now as we think through and question each part of the summary. We’re figuring out the bits of the system we need to develop and the questions we need to answer. We need to define raw materials. We need to figure out how raw materials are acquired during adventures. We need to allow for the players to acquire limited raw materials outside of their adventures. And we need to do so without distracting from the adventures themselves.
Now, let’s look at the second part of the summary. The actual crafting part. Outside of play. We know what that means. It means that we’re not going to stop the game to let one player craft items while the rest of the party watches someone do paperwork. And it also means that the system has to work without GM adjudication. The players have to be able to make all of the choices about crafting and executing crafting away from the table. But, just because something is outside of play doesn’t mean it’s not dependent on play. That doesn’t mean it’s not conditional.
See, the issue with crafting is that it should take some amount of fictional time in the game world to craft something. We don’t want situations wherein the players can end one play session in the middle of the dungeon and then start the next play session with a bunch of newly crafted magical items that they crafted instantaneously. It’s okay – desirable even – to set conditions on this. Just like you don’t want players buying new gear if the heroes are currently in some dungeon somewhere and just like good, smart GMs don’t want players leveling up in the middle of an adventure, you don’t want players crafting in the middle of the dungeon. So that’s something we need to address. When is crafting available during the game in a fictional sense?
Speaking of “outside of play,” we’ve said we don’t want the party sitting around watching one person do a bunch of crafting when they should all be playing a fun game of D&D. But does that mean we should forbid players from ever crafting anything during the game? Imagine this: the party travels to a mine because a bunch of people disappeared there. Some menace is killing the people in the mine. They discover that the mine is infested with trolls. The party’s alchemist happens to have the ingredients for potions of fire breath already in their bag. So, it occurs to the party to slap together some potions. But if crafting can only happen away from the table, they don’t have that option. That’d be stupid. We want the players to use crafting as a problem-solving tool. That’s one of the three major reasons we think crafting is a fun idea for the game.
But we also don’t want the game to be bogged down with players kitting out their whole damned party in the middle of the game, smithing new suits of armor and weapons and magical implements and all that crap. Players will do that. They will optimize the fun out of the game. So, just like with acquiring ingredients outside of adventures, we want the players to be able to craft stuff during play, but we have to find a way to limit it. To keep them from doing so much of it that it ruins the game.
Then we get to the part where they can combine the raw materials into mundane or magical items. And man do we have a whole bunch of questions there. How do they do that? What’s the procedure? How do they know what they can make? Can they make every possible item in the game? What are the prerequisites for crafting? And so on. And this is a case where we realize that our summary is insufficient to even tell us all the questions we need to worry about. But we’re going to leave that alone for now. We will have to revisit this part of the process.
And then we get to the period. That means the summary is over. They find ingredients, they make stuff. But is that really all there is? No. Because there’s a big glaring unstated thing that is coming from our lack of precision that could create a huge problem. Let me demonstrate by adding a simple clause:
The players will acquire raw materials during their adventures. Outside of play, they can combine those raw materials into mundane or magical objects to use during their adventures.
See that extra bit? Why do we need it? Because there is something we absolutely do not want the players to use crafting for: opening a magical item shop and turning a fricking profit. That is not a game of Dungeons & Dragons anymore. We don’t want them just making stuff and selling it for a profit. We don’t want item crafting to be done for any reason other than to make useful gear the party actually intends to use. And we have to spell that out. Why?
Because other than GM fiat, there’s nothing that says the players can’t sell the fruits of their labor. The PHB allows players to sell mundane goods like weapons and armor for half the market price. Gems, jewelry, art objects, and trade goods sell for their full value. The PHB also totally cops out and says the selling of magic items is “problematic.” I swear. It actually says that. PHB 144. But the DMG then says, “well, okay, maybe you can sell magical items, but we’re going to make it needlessly complicated and time-consuming and make the result random.” And that system is optional.
By the way, this system is a load of utter crap. Because the DMG also advises the GM to feel free to use random tables to dole out magical items. So, what happens when a party in which no one is proficient with heavy armor – or chooses to use – finds a suit of magical plate mail? Are they supposed to throw it away? “Well, we can’t sell this. No one would pay what it’s actually worth. So, we’ll chuck it away.” I mean, come on, it’s completely useless to the party. Even if they found someone willing to pay the 1,500 g.p. for a standard suit of full-plate armor, they’d still come out ahead. More importantly than just straining credulity though, the game talks a big game about magic items are special and how everyone loves finding magical items and how they are limited things that the party only finds so many of during their adventures. Fine and dandy, but how exciting is it when one of those rare and extraordinary once-in-a-lifetime finds is something you can’t use.
And sometimes this happens too. When you’re working through a system, you find a spot in the base game that’s already a problem and that problem will be amplified by your system. Our system has to address the question of buying and selling gear because we don’t want to create a system of for-profit crafting. And in answering that question, we’re coming dangerously close to something in the main system that’s, well, totally borked up the wazoo. So, if we really want to, we can take the opportunity to address it. Especially because…
Now that we come to think about it, this whole idea of unwanted items is a bigger issue than we might have originally thought. Look back at the acquisition of ingredients. The party finds these raw materials incidentally to play. Fine. Now, obviously, a GM who doesn’t want any crafting in the game won’t use the system. But if there’s a group that does want crafting in their game, it’s unlikely they will be able to craft everything. Right? I mean, you’ll have someone who can make magical weapons, maybe, and someone who can brew potions, and that might be it. So, what happens when the party finds a bunch of magical fiery hides? You can’t make weapons and potions out of hellgoat skin. Now they have these hellgoat skins that are useless. And if we’ve balanced the doling out of ingredients with the treasure acquisition already in the game to keep everything fair, the party that finds the hellgoat skins is just the party of skirmishers and wizards who find the magical plate armor. They are screwed. And that’s a big problem because crafting is supposed to be about empowerment and customization. It’s supposed to give the players control over the items they find rather than subjecting them to the whims of the GM and random magic item tables.
And now, the whole scope of this project has expanded. Because now, this isn’t just about crafting items, it’s about revamping the entire system of item acquisition – including buying and selling – in the game. Not only do we need a system for acquiring raw materials and crafting them into useful stuff. We also need to account for what the party can do with raw materials and items that aren’t useful to them. That is, they have to have a way to convert the stuff they don’t want – raw materials and finished goods – into stuff they do want – other raw materials and finished goods. If they find a suit of magical platemail they can’t use during their adventures, what can they do with it? Can they sell it? Can they break it down into raw materials? If they find raw materials they don’t need, can they sell those? Can they then buy raw materials they can use? We have to account for the conversion of stuff into other stuff.
And that brings us to a new question: can a group that doesn’t want to have a craftsman in the party still benefit from this system? If the system is just about turning raw materials into finished goods, the answer is no. But if there’s also a conversion system in place, maybe they can. If our rules allow for the selling of magical items, can it allow for the buying of magical items? If you have the ingredients, but not the skill or tools, can you have an item made? Why not? Just pay a craftsman to do the crafting. And if you find an item you don’t want, instead of throwing it away or selling it wholesale, can you pay a craftsman to break it down into raw ingredients? Why not?
The only thing we have to make sure of is that our system doesn’t break the game balance by allowing the players to get more magical items than they would under the core rules and that that the system doesn’t allow people to game all of this crap into a profit.
And now we’ve come very far afield. But we have a lot to think about. It turns out this crafting thing is much more complicated than we thought. But, we can at least now summarize what we’re going to have to figure out to make it work. So, let’s expand our summary to take into account everything we’ve so far discussed.
The players will acquire consumable raw materials incidentally during their adventures, in limited quantities outside of their adventures, or through the conversion of items or other raw materials. These raw materials can be converted into mundane or magical objects for use by the players. Such conversion normally takes place outside the game but can take place during the game in a limited fashion. Nothing in this system can distract from the core gameplay engagement of adventuring, though it can provide the occasional motivation for adventure. And this system cannot allow the players to unbalance the game by acquiring more magical items than they would be able to obtain under the core rules, nor to earn a profit.
Without any unwanted extra assumptions, that spells out all the possibilities in the system. The players get raw materials primarily by adventuring, but can also acquire them by other means outside of their adventures or convert the items and raw materials they do have into the ones they want. They can then convert the raw materials into wanted items. Note that convert does not mean they have to use their own crafting skills. They can pay someone else to craft the item they want if they have the ingredients. And now we have something to work with.
Now, as we run through the summary, we can highlight all the things we need to figure out: what are raw materials, how are they acquired during adventures, how are they acquired outside of adventure, how are items converted to raw materials, how are raw materials converted to desirable items? And we can highlight the important limitations: raw materials are mostly acquired during play, they are mostly converted to items outside of play, there are limits on finding raw materials outside of play, there are limits on converting raw materials to finished good during play, the system cannot become a distraction from the fun parts of gameplay, the players can’t show a profit by engaging with this system.
That’s our checklist. And we’ve already hit the first one: raw materials are consumable objects that come in different rarities and types, which may carry different qualities. We say consumable because, once a raw material is used in the creation of a finished item, it’s gone forever.
I realize it seems like a lot of this is just rehashing old ground and I’m sorry if that pisses you off. Again, you wanted to see the design process. And, if you didn’t, I’m sorry. If you’re waiting for the end result, you’d still be waiting because I have to work through all this crap whether or not I actually share the thought process with you. The point is that something like this is a very big system. And if you don’t go into it very clear about what you’re trying to do, you’re going to miss something important. Or, worse, miss an opportunity to do something even better than you initially imagined. Because, in the end, what this system is really going to do is revamp the entire treasure and magical item system in D&D. Yeah. I know, because I’ve worked ahead and I’ve seen where this is going. I kid you not. You can already kind of see it in the revised design statement.
But I can also reassure you that this is actually the hardest part. That’s design. Stating the problem and analyzing what the solution has to look like is the hardest part. Ask Kepner and Tregoe. They know. That said, I don’t want to leave this on a sour note. So, I’m going to start analyzing part of that summary from a different angle just to show you what’s coming next. Because, next, we’re going to have to do a lot of math and figure out what we can get away with.
Now that we have our summary safely written down, free of assumptions, and as clear and precise as we need it to be, we can start looking at different parts of it and thinking through it in more practical terms. And since I have about 700 words left in my allowable word count, I’m going to tackle the issue of buying, selling, and conversion a bit. This is just a bit of brainstorming, but it is the brainstorming that will lead to the basic assumption around which we can build all the systems.
Pay attention. I’ve only got 600 words left, so I’m going to move quickly.
The issue is conversion. We have stuff that’s found during adventures and stuff that’s useful to have and we are trying to build a way to convert from one to the other. Well, there’s already a system in the game that handles that. Players find treasure during their adventure and convert it into useful equipment. Treasure consists of gems, art objects, and gold. Useful equipment consists of weapons, armor, supplies, ammunition, healing potions, and whatever else the party can buy. And there’s also lifestyle costs in there and other stuff like carousing and buying transportation between locations and so on. But let’s focus.
The medium of exchange for all of that is money. Coins. GP. And here, I’m going to purposely capitalize GP to indicate that I’m not referring to actual coins. I’m referring the value measure on every object in the game. Every tangible, physical good in the game – every piece of treasure, every equipment, even every magical item – has a value in GP. The coins you find in the treasure, the g.p., are each worth 1 GP, but GP – capital – is a game concept. It’s a measure of the value of any item relative to any other item. And even though magical items can’t be bought and sold, because that’s “problematic,” they still have GP values. The values are vague, they cover a range, but they are there. And the game does offer the OPTION of buying and selling magic items. So they are roughly accurate to what the designers THINK was the expected wealth and equipment progression. Again, we can argue about whether the designers got it right or not and I know there’s other systems out there for pricing magical items which do work pretty well, but I’m not relying on that to build a system that is supposed to lay on the core rules. I’m going by what’s in the rules.
Point is, GP provides a medium of exchange. Treasure is measured in GP. Items are measured in GP. And more interestingly, when the PCs find items in their adventures, they can convert them to treasure, but it’s inefficient. Weapons and armor sell at half their value. And magical items can’t be sold at all. Unless they can. In which case, the suggested system in the DMG also makes it very inefficient. That is, most of the time, you’ll get half, a quarter, or a tenth of the value of the item. Or you’ll get offered the full price by a “shady buyer” which is just giving the GM permission to screw the players for having the gall to try to sell a magical item that the GM purposely picked out just for them by rolling on a random table somewhere. Seriously, check out DMG 129-130 if you don’t believe me.
Anyway, this gives a hook on which to hang our own system. GP is the medium of exchange. Raw materials and finished goods all have values in GP. But the actual efficiency of the conversion – how much g.p. you actually spend or receive to make the exchange – varies depending on what you’re doing. If you’re using treasure to buy items, that’s perfectly efficient. You exchange the treasure for the items at a one-to-one rate. You convert 1 GP of gold, gems, and art objects into 1 g.p., which you can then use to buy 1 GP worth of arrows or rations or whatever. But, if you try to sell rations or arrows, the process is inefficient. You convert 1 GP worth of rations or arrows into ½ g.p., so you need 2 GP worth of rations or arrows to buy 1 GP worth of lamp oil or crossbow bolts.
We just need to fit the raw materials and the conversion process into that system. The rules already tell us how much GP worth of treasure the PCs should find. And it tells how roughly how much GP worth of magical items should be available throughout play. So, if we can set the value in GP on raw materials and set the GP value on finished goods, we can balance it against the existing system. And the way we keep it under control is with the rules of exchange.
Next time, we’re going to be doing just that. We’re going to figure out the basic values we have to work with and the rules of exchange within our system so we can pin down just how much of what the players should find when and how and how much they should have to use to make what they want. At least, we’ll be starting that process. Because that’s going to be a tricky, mathy, complicated process. But at least you can see where this is going.