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Hot Button: Equipping Characters

Back in ye olden times when dice were marked with crayon, notebooks were spiral-bound, and the bombs were going to drop any minute now, what a player character purchased in town was often more important than anything else on her character sheet. Various tools and gear were used in creative ways while we pillaged our way through dungeons, from our 10′ poles locating pit traps to our 50′ of rope we needed to get out of said pit traps (I have a sneaking suspicion the various “oozes” were created to slip under those doors the PCs spiked shut so that they could rest peacefully in Room 24a for the night).

While often fun, at times this micromanagement could become tedious, especially when key gear was forgotten. Amongst my groups, the “adventuring pack” was born, a set of pre-determined items that could be bought at once (IIRC AD&D 2e had something similar). Later, even that became too much and we went with a “if you are likely to have it then you have it” approach.

It’s worth noting that, by this time, we were moving out of the dungeon and even into different games. Some players went so far as to demand, as part of the social contract, that they shouldn’t have to waste time picking out equipment (or it’s close ally, “figuring out encumbrance”). I’ve hardly ever insisted on an equipment list in most of my games, especially ones where the PCs are modern students or professionals.

In my experience, there are two axes involved when it comes to equipment:

Listed or Assumed: On one end of the spectrum, if your PC wants to use something, it better be on her sheet or you must specifically state that she has it on her person. On the other end of the spectrum, PCs have endless pockets so long as the item isn’t too outrageous (Bennie the Cop will probably get away with having a Swiss Army knife and a roll of pennies in her pocket, but not a bazooka). In the hazy middle is a “standard assumption;” the PC has what you’d expect to find on a person in her situation, along with anything related to her profession and personality quirks (Bennie the Cop probably has a smart phone and handcuffs; as she’s known for her sweet tooth she has several chocolate bars stashed in her pockets).

Purchased or Free: On one end of the spectrum, the PC must purchase anything she wants to use, whether listed on her sheet or acquired in game. On the other end of the spectrum, the PC can have anything she wants, within reason, without having to actually pay for it (it’s assumed she bought it in game). In the middle, the character is assumed to have particular equipment on her person, in her car, in her castle, or in her starbase quarters, but anything she wants during the game she has to pay for.

As I’ve implied above, I’m usually sitting somewhere in the middle, but I do find that Listed/Purchased can be extremely fun while playing through an old school dungeon crawl and Assumed/Free works well in superhero campaigns, where equipment definitely takes a backseat to powers.

So how about you? Where do you fall on the equipment graph? Do your players agree or do you sometimes butt heads over it? Have you ever encountered any problems with using a particular point on the equipment graph?

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22 Comments To "Hot Button: Equipping Characters"

#1 Comment By DireBadger On March 5, 2012 @ 5:38 am

I think the Purchased/Free axis is the less interesting one; it may soon devolve into minute tracking of arrows, bullets, meals in inns and so forth. Shadowrun solves this elegantly with the Lifestyle system; you may a monthly amount of money depending on how you live, ranging from homeless bum to disgustingly luxurious. This includes meals, transportation, clubbing and entertainment, clothing, etcetera; you only have to worry about paying for things that are “above your station” for the Lifestyle you use. I think many people apply this to D&D too; just subtracting a general amount of money for a stay in town when they’ve got some loot to burn, rather than tracking every beer bought. I’ve done it for ammunition too; pay a sum of gold now and then and don’t care how many arrows are left.

There’s something to be said for Listed/Assumed, for both sides. On the Listed side, it works for some adventures; imagine being on a spaceship, hunted by aliens, worrying about the bullets left/aliens left ratio. Or in the desert, the water rations/distance to oasis ratio. Or when doing a burglary where you need to climb in, the useful gear/Dexterity penalty ratio.

This is about Encumbrance and Forethought. If Encumbrance is a limit but Forethought isn’t, then players can weigh their options before setting out on the adventure; if they bring more water they’ll travel slower through the desert and need more water. If you bring the crowbar it may come in handy, but then you’ll have to leave something else behind, you can’t bring everything.
Forethought is trickier. It gets into the area of “is my character professional enough to remember to bring X?”, and that’s controversial. In situations where the players forgot X, but the character might have brought it, I like to let the character roll a related stat to see if it brought X. For example, did the burglar bring powder to make the laser tripwire visible? Roll Intelligence+Security.

In Modern-Urban settings, I’m pretty lenient with unlisted gear. It could be in your home, it could be in your car trunk, you can quickly get it from the supermarket. In less civilized areas, where those things are harder, then I’m less lenient, because that’s part of the challenge of gaming in those environments.

#2 Comment By mcmanlypants On March 5, 2012 @ 6:58 am

I’m almost wholly in the Free/Assumed quadrant as a GM. I don’t find bookkeeping more interesting than the adventure so I tend to hand-wave all of that away. Can they make a case for their character having it? Great, they have it. Almost any argument will succeed; I’m far more interested in it as an opportunity for the players to develop a sense of their characters’ priorities than I am about the particulars of what materiel that might produce.

I’ve always liked White Wolf’s “Resources” background as a convenient solution to this. It’s a lot like the Lifestyle stat DireBadger describes and it lets the player and/or the Storyteller say, “With a Resources of 4 it’s entirely reasonable to remember there’s a set of really nice golf clubs you never touch out in the garage, so yes, everyone has a melee weapon,” then get on with the game. Anything that encourages creative problem-solving is A-OK with me as a GM.

I once played a character who carried an enormous purse with him at all times, one of the huge ones covered in fake jewels and superfluous buckles carried by everyone’s Aunt Mabel. I’d gotten license from the GM to have, as spelled out in our agreement, anything – literally ANYTHING – in that purse, at any time, as long as it was not a weapon and it cost no more than $20. It was the source of endless roleplay opportunities. Need a deck of cards to break the ice with a new character? A blank VHS tape? Three candy bars and a fountain pen? A box of Cracker Jacks with a temporary tattoo inside so that someone can comically attempt to impersonate a biker? Lipstick to write a creepy message on someone’s bathroom mirror? Done! That freedom never broke the game but it allowed us to be very creative.

#3 Comment By mythusmage On March 5, 2012 @ 8:03 am

It comes down to, how is the shopping done? If it’s the player going down the list and selecting items it can get boring. If you run it as an adventure, the players going from location to location interacting with shop keepers and fellow customers it could get interesting. Strip mall as dungeon. 🙂

And it could act as an introduction to your main adventure. The fighter is in the armorer’s shop ordering his first chain hauberk when a person runs in to tell everybody there’s a robbery at the nearby apothecary, what do the players do?

#4 Comment By Bronco_6 On March 5, 2012 @ 9:09 am

We role-play with GURPS so it’s a little more detailed than most. What I have done in the past is to sit down when a player is preparing their character and have them think about the development of their character and what the player will need. Then they develop a standard list of equipment that they might potentially used based on their character type. From there, I am of the school that if they have a logical explanation for having the item. go for it. Haggling over the existence of an item slows the game.

On the other hand, if it is really an item they need, having the characters look through what they have in order to solve the prblem or potentially create an adventure seed for another adventure seed.


#5 Comment By Roxysteve On March 5, 2012 @ 10:30 am

I do Savage Worlds, BRP- and D20- Call of Cthulhu and the very occasional D20 Conan.

I rule this way: If it is important to you, buy one and say so on your sheet.

People always have anything it is reasonable for them to have *by profession*. We rarely get into the private lives of PCs – because they usually don’t have one outside of the adventure by player choice – so in the absence of information on that I use profession.

If you are a barbarian you have a sharpening stone for your blades, furs and dice. If you are a photographer you have a tape measure and rolls of film and flash bulbs and a notebook and pencil besides your camera. If you are a teacher you always have chalk, writing materials etc. An FBI agent always has a flashlight, writing materials and depending on era, camera and voice recorder. That sort of thing.

If there is disagreement over whether something “would be carried” then we dice for it at 50-50. If I don’t think there’s a cat in hell’s chance, you ain’t got it unless you bought it. Those chocolate bars wouldn’t fly for me because they would melt and be useless.

Encumbrance is important when I say it is, not when the players decide. Players will *always* go for “no encumbrance” so they don’t get a vote. If the plot calls for painful cargo decisions, it matters. If not, it doesn’t. End of story.

#6 Comment By danroth On March 5, 2012 @ 10:39 am

I have my players buy gear, and nothing is assumed. However, the fundamental stuff is bought at character creating (an amount of starting money is determined, based on class), and most everything else is acquired by adventuring. I also like to know not only what they have, but where they are keeping it. If someone gets slammed into a wall, it’s possible that vial of potion in the backpack may break.

My players have never complained about this sort of thing (or picking up arrows, etc.) to be tedious. Also, it can really add to the excitement of a battle when you only have one dagger left, the others having missed their marks and ending up on the mud pit.

What I’m more hand-wavy on is encumbrance. I go by the “if it makes sense, you’re fine” rule.

#7 Comment By mcmanlypants On March 5, 2012 @ 10:43 am

I note that in the D&D group in which I’m a player, inventory is much more rigidly maintained (and I find it much more annoying but I get over it). I suspect that to some degree it depends, in all groups, on the setting. A modern setting closely overlapping reality is a world of plenty and one can safely assume wide availability of basic goods whereas a fantasy setting is often defined more by scarcity than abundance.

#8 Comment By OrangeYngvi On March 5, 2012 @ 11:02 am

We just started a 2e AD&D game, starting with T-1 (Hommlet). Right now, as the group is just starting out with their adventuring careers, tracking arrows and so on that they have (or not) is important to the game. They are adventurers just starting out, and (like recent college grads, for example), they have to worry about little things like that.

It’s annoying, and I know it is, but I’ve found that much like growing up, when they reach the point of having enough levels/money/whatever that I say “Don’t worry about how many arrows you have,” that moment becomes something very nice (like the first time I was able to think “I can buy this book here, and I don’t need to worry about counting every cent.”

#9 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On March 5, 2012 @ 11:07 am

I played in a PF game (but can’t remember which organization ran it) which used the following system:

Your pack is undefined, but is limited to 100 GP in value. As you define and use things from your pack, mark off the appropriate value. So if you need 100′ of silk rope and a grappling hook, it’s assumed you brought them, and you now have 79 GP of value left. This was limited to standard adventuring gear, so you can’t “just happened to bring” a Druish Royal Guard uniform.

While I’m sure it could be abused, this worked great for a convention game.

#10 Comment By daDiceGuy On March 5, 2012 @ 1:26 pm

I like players to define major equipment but dont want to be bogged down in counting bullets, arrows, or spell components.

#11 Comment By mcmanlypants On March 5, 2012 @ 1:51 pm

[1] – Truly, the Spell Component Pouch is possibly the greatest single item in the SRD. 🙂

#12 Comment By Scott Martin On March 5, 2012 @ 3:24 pm

As both a player and a GM, I rarely want to deal with specific equipment. Jennifer, on the other hand, is happy tracking her arrows and swiftly grows annoyed at others’ imprecision.

It is a setting specific value; if it’s a collapse of civilization or post-apocalyptic campaign, that’s an important trope. That said, I no longer get excited looking over extensive lists of equipment, so I’m still tempted to make my characters “realistic” and carry a bare minimum and hope to improvise on the spot.

#13 Comment By Ben Scerri On March 5, 2012 @ 5:16 pm

As a WFRP2e GM, I should have a hard job in this regard. For one thing, players need certain equipment to level up, and money is supposed to be tight.

But then again, book keeping like that isn’t very fun for me, so I tend to sit in the middle as well. If it is something that costs less than a Silver piece, I allow them to have it (so long as it makes sense). If it is something that is an adventuring staple (illumination, rope, etc) then I ask them to buy it. Food I don’t really care about. Weapons and armour I most certainly do. Ammunition is a grey area. So long as they spend a few coppers when they get to a town, I’m ok with it.

However, my players seem to have Accounting Fever. Whenever I say “Ok, the bar wench brings you your spinach, rat and potato stew”, they all cross off 1 or 2 coppers. Even when I say they don’t have to!

One session we spent nearly 30 minutes trying to convince some NPCs to let them share a room in their house, as they couldn’t afford a room at the Inn. I told them they could just stay there in the common room for cheap (or free), but they insisted.

But, hey, if that’s what they want, then I’m fine with that. It sure is fun watching 4 dirty, blood covered men attempting to convince a weakling merchant that he should let them sleep on his lounge room floor. “Are you SURE you wont murder me in my sleep?”

#14 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On March 5, 2012 @ 6:56 pm

@DireBadger – The minute tracking used to be an integral part of D&D/AD&D (at least in my circles). I’m definitely with you on the modern settings.

@mcmanlypants – Your purse sounds like the “deep pockets” advantage I usually put into my games; very Doctor Who-ish.

@mythusmage – “strip mall as dungeon” is awesome if your players are into it!

@Bronco_6 – I played GURPS pretty extensively during the 90s and we only kept detailed lists if the GM was using encumbrance.

@Roxysteve – Your solution is why I like the Luck mechanic in CoC/BRP. I wish more systems had something similar.

@danroth – My character would be adorned like a Christmas tree in your game (of course, I’d then run afoul of your “makes sense” rule).

@OrangeYngvi- In D&D (any flavor) I’ve always found that poverty was only important until the first dungeon was looted. After that, PCs could pretty much pick up whatever they wanted.

@Telas – I’ve seen a similar mechanic for Contacts.

@daDiceGuy – This sounds fairly freeform to me, as PCs usually write down their weapons and spells.

@Scott Martin – I’m not a fan of big equipment lists either, usually because the types of games I run don’t require them.

@Ben Scerri – I do find that players tend to tick off money if I mention it in-game, even if I’m being liberal with what they have. It is an interesting phenomenon.

#15 Comment By KernelPanic On March 5, 2012 @ 7:11 pm

I lean heavily towards ‘free’, by which I mean I rarely ask players to tally copper/silver piece purchases, especially as they leave the first level behind. It’s Dungeons and Dragons not Accountants and Administrative Assistants. 🙂 That being said, the listed/assumed axis is more tricky. In a dungeon-crawl I usually demand a tally of equipment down to the last bit of chalk and the last foot of rope. After all, a good dungeon crawl is often about managing resources. This is also where I break out the encumbrance rules. However, if the game is largely social and set in a city, the equipment list is a lot more negotiable. Further, no matter what the style of gameplay, around the point where the players acquire economy-crushing fortunes that require dimensionally transcendent containers to store, I generally give up on paying attention to mundane equipment.

To be honest, demanding accounting is something I often have to do as a method of self-defense. I have some fairly devious players and giving them essentially unfettered access to the mundane equipment list would mean that every single encounter would be dealt by a rules-abusing scheme involving ten foot poles, signal whistles and 47 bars of soap. These are the people who turned 50lbs of mundane/alchemical items, a sack and a Summon Monster I spell into, essentially an enemy-destroying nuke.

#16 Comment By pencilneckgeek On March 6, 2012 @ 7:30 am

Traditionally, we go with the “if you didn’t buy it or put on your character sheet, you don’t have it” rule. It’s worked pretty well for us in the fantasy/dungeon crawl style campaigns. Characters had extensive lists of stuff they bought and found, where it was, presents bought for other PCs, etc. And they loved it. “Stuff” was very much an integral part of the campaign.

Now I’m running Serenity RPG, where it’s supposed to be episodic and the rules specifically state that gear just isn’t as important and not to get hung up on it. But, by gum, my players care about the stuff and playing it as a day-by-day campaign, so I’m back to working out extensive gear tables and such.

Suffice to say, I don’t have an answer other than just follow the player’s lead and do whatever adds to the fun.

#17 Comment By Toldain On March 6, 2012 @ 12:45 pm

I’m the sort of player that does have fun figuring out what to bring on the expedition.

In one Call of Cthulhu, we took an expedition from NYC to the Tonguska meteor site in Siberia in 1921. Oh, and we busted someone’s father out of a Gulag. We had to deal with Soviets, Nationalists, Cossacks and Mi-go, though we didn’t know anything about the Mi-go when we started. We had a budget and a cost list.

We would be off-roading. I had a budget and we got vehicles, gas-cans, everything. I made a spreadsheet of what we were taking. The only thing the GM wished I hadn’t taken was the BAR.

In another setting that mixed fantasy and moderns, I had a brownie that wore a fishing vest with pockets. The GM told me “just put stuff down on your sheet and don’t go crazy” as to what stuff I put in the pockets.

My moment of triumph was when I whipped out a mini-can of WD-40 to spray in the eyes of some bad guy. He cried, “Show me that on your character sheet!” But it was right there. I live for that.

Some of my experience, in the old days, of GM’s busting you about “you wouldn’t have that” seemed to come from “That’s not the script!”. And that’s probably a bad place.

I make an effort as a GM to clarify what equipment might be needed with characters who have expertise.

#18 Comment By crowofpyke On March 6, 2012 @ 1:14 pm

Generally, as a DM, I don’t worry about PC equipment unless a player wants to make a deal of it with their specific character – I have two players like this, the rest don’t care. That’s for DND. Sometimes DND has an exception in setting, such as Dark Sun, where ANY and EVERY piece or scrap of equipment you have matters a great deal, so then it becomes an issue worth tracking.

For other games, such as Shadowrun, equipment you have, or don’t, makes a BIG difference ALL the time. It’s part of that RPG at its core. So then, yeah, it’s definitely worth tracking and being picky about it. Other games, like Stargate SG-1, getting your equipment is a giant pain the a$$ for the players because it can vary from mission to mission and game to game, so the GM doing work ahead of time to make “Equipment Kit” cards is a HUGE time saver.

So yeah, it depends on two things really:
1- What you and your players want to get out of the game, both collectively and individually.
2- The game system itself: Is it part of the core essence of the game? Is it difficult to do quickly? Etc….

#19 Comment By Nice Ogress On March 6, 2012 @ 8:12 pm

I tend to be in the middle of the road on this issue. I don’t want to obsess about encumbrance and cost and lists, but I also don’t want to give the players free license to pull anything/everything they need out of their pockets.

Right now I’m GMing an NWoD game, and I’ve house-ruled equipment as follows: Each character is permitted 3 player-defined containers (1 small/portable, 1 medium, 1 large) that are reasonable for their character to have (or have access to; e.g. a cop could have the keys to an evidence locker and define it as one of his 3 containers), which are full of useful items. When they want to grab a piece of equipment, they must:
1) be able to get into the container that would have it.
2) convince the GM that it’s in there, whether by having a written list of things, rolling their wits + resources, or <1 minute of clever argument. GM's decision is final.

Thus, my players can totes have crazy stuff like bullet-proof vests and countersurveillance modules, but a fat lot of good it's going to do them when it's locked in the trunk of their car, which the angry werewolf has just picked up and chucked into the river…

I'm well aware this won't work for every campaign or every set of players, but it's worked pretty well so far with this group.

#20 Comment By Roxysteve On March 7, 2012 @ 8:53 am

Someone mentioned spell components. I love people who conveniently forget them. Then you can point out at the most inconvenient time that unless a character actually *has* a 100 gp pearl about their person, they ain’t casting “Identify” today, and if they didn’t make a point of getting ground diamond powder, that “Stoneskin” they were about to cast is about to be a bit of an underperformer.

People turn off all sorts of things in D20 and then complain of the “God-like Player Problem”, and the spell components is one of the player-limiting rules that should be carefully thought about before tossing. For one thing it eliminates the basis for an intriguing Lord D’Arcy style forensic magician character.

Walt remarked on the lack of a “Luck” roll in non CofC games. I too miss it when I need it, so I tend to use Wisdom x 5 in D20 when 50-50ing isn’t appropriate. Another way is to simply have the character “search” his person and pack. DC15 for a special item, call it a “Notice” success with a raise in SW.

#21 Comment By KernelPanic On March 7, 2012 @ 9:43 am

[2] – It’s not that people turn off spell components because they think casters need more power. It’s just that keeping track of spells known, spells memorized, the magic items that affect those two AND components for a 12th level wizard, say, would require a staff. And I don’t mean one with a knob on the end. 🙂

The consensus in my group is that you only need to keep track of expensive components. Eschew materials is sort of assumed. This may give players a tick upwards in power, but that’s considered fair price to pay to eliminate an accounting nightmare. The exception, of course, is that a mage can be “disarmed” by taking away his or hers spell supplies.

Frankly, spell components are a poor way to handle the quadratic wizards/linear warriors problem. They mostly affect low level players which is exactly where the wizard needs a bump in power. 100gp is a lot of money for a low level character. A high level mage is far less likely to care.

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#23 Comment By Dante Inferno On March 13, 2012 @ 12:00 pm

It depends entirely on the setting and genre of the game we’re playing. If we’re playing a gritty game of survival where making hard choices is part of the point, then obviously we need to make “Food or firewood?” a meaningful decision.

If we’re playing a cinematic swashbuckling game, tracking every tiny item is rather silly.

So is your dungeon crawl a harrowing journey into a dangerous and dark lair of evil beasts and somewhere that should leave it’s mark on those who dare enter?

Or is it a Den of Insipid Evil waiting for Valiant Heroes to Smite It With Great Justice? Because the answer to that can very much dictate how equipment really should be handled.