Design of Dubious Use Presents

Item Classifications

For some time now RPGs include various classifications for items and then link them to certain mechanical benefits or detriments in the rules. For example, the GURPS system not only had types of weapons and damage but also Tech Levels, describing the point in history where the game was taking place and what sort of items could be found there. Obstinately, this was to keep laser guns out of the medieval fantasy, but in my experience, it served only to confuse the players and cause trouble. You can see where Tech Levels get silly quickly with the addition of half levels and the +/- which modifies the meaning of a given TL in an attempt to make it more customized.

Another good example can be found in D&D. Here you find weapons classified as either Exotic or Common, slashing/bashing/piercing, and by their damage die. In purpose, these are all present to give players a strategy to work by. Certain types of weapons do better or worse against certain types of foes. In practice, this causes parties to be concerned not with the story and its elements but often with the contents. How many times have you sat down to start a game session and are hit by a barrage of questions? “Are we going to be engaging undead?” “What sort?” “Skeletons or zombies?”

From such, or because of such classification, RPGs have rules which limit what characters can do based solely on them. Proficiencies, Skills, and Talents are layered with caveats giving players access to one or two of the categories but not all. But do these classifications do anything for the roleplaying experience? Do these rules enhance the drama and the player experience or end up restricting Players and their imaginations?

Here are two situations of high drama which Characters can find themselves in.

Situation 1: Your character has been kidnapped and put in a locked room. You’ve been able to escape your bonds. There’s nothing in the room but a chair, the rope the character was tied up with, and a table. Your character hears the kidnappers coming down the hallway talking about how the ransom hasn’t been paid and they’re going to murder them.

Situation 2: Your character is in the middle of a large battle, both sides have people dying all around you. Your weapon is broken and you’re suddenly faced with an opposing champion. Your only choice is to grab a spear-like instrument currently impaling a fallen comrade.

Both of these situations can apply to a whole party, not an individual. Both have the same problem when having rules reinforcing classification systems. Can the Character take up that spear or grab that chair and make good with their life? In both situations they should be able to because it makes sense dramatically. The system should be focusing on the drama of the situation and not the objects lying about the characters. These are not the plot macguffins you put in there. This is a Character in life and death. The drama of these situations does not lie in the materials but in how they are used.

When creating a system of classification for item you create a certain intent. If that intent is to limit or restrict then you have limited and restricted how your players imagine and react to the situations presented. Does that make for good roleplaying or not?

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