But of course, the more it is assumed, the more players will abuse it. In the days when I didn't demand it, I would discover a mage was carrying around 15 daggers, so they wouldn't run out, or that a ranger was carrying 135 arrows - in seven quivers, obviously. All on his person. And this says nothing of players hauling around ten and twenty thousand coins, presumedly in one sack.
Many DMs are fine with that. So long as the daggers are paid for, or the character has written "sack" down on their character sheet, they seriously don't care about the niggling details. I began caring, however; and though my players did complain a little, I found in short order that they cared, too. They especially care when they've taken the time to organize their gear and one player in the party hasn't.
Ages ago, in 2014, I wrote this post about gear breaking down. At the time, I considered it a thought experiment. It was a bridge too far. Essentially, I saw it as a means to give wisdom a little more importance, as I was concerned about dump stats and getting rid of that notion. But I considered keeping track of this sort of thing somewhat less than ideal.
But I was commissioned by Zilifant, who has been a regular reader for years now, to come up with a system for decay ~ the deterioration and breakdown of gear, goods ... even food (which we might deal with separately under "spoilage"). Admittedly, I considered this infeasible. But I do think there might be a practical method, that players could keep track of practically.
However, it could not be simple. Things do not break down in the same manner. Rope will fray, food rots or accumulates insects, metal tarnishes and rusts (and can be repolished) ... while gems show no wear at all. Clothes may be servicable for putting on, but be grimed or stained in a manner that would make the wearer ashamed to be seen in public. Animals get old, or lame, or diseased. It isn't possible to have one across the board system that allows us to plunk in an object and spew out a result with dice. It takes thought and flexibility.
But ... that said ...
I have a rule in my game that when a weapon is fumbled, another die is rolled to see if it breaks. Circumstance, result. The moment the sword is dropped, everyone remembers that it is time to check for a break. If we could employ that same mnemonic to gear breaking down, we'd be fine with remembering to do checks.
What's needed, then, is a system of checks that produces some very specific gameplay results:
- The checks have to be meaningful. Stuff has to break occasionally, and players have to be conscious of that. Sooner or later, something is going to break or fail at the worst possible time, and players have to be conscious of that, too.
- The breaks can't be constant. They have to be rare enough that, for the most part, the players are able to rely on their equipment. If the breaks happen way too often, players will grow resentful of the system and become disheartened.
- The breaks can't be excessively random. On some level, the players have to be able to control the decay, and the rules have to be built in a way that if something breaks, the players are apt to blame themselves, and not the system. This is very, very important, and is often overlooked by a game designer. IF something breaks, the first thought in the player's mind has to be, "I should have ... etc."
- The system needs to have a component that lets players sell off equipment that is in danger of breaking down ... and likewise, to buy used equipment if they wish. If decay occurs, then naturally every object in the game universe will already be in a state of that decay; so this has to be part of the experience. This means there cannot be just two forms of an object's existence (fine and broken); there have to be many.
In broad terms, we can say that "normal use" of any object does not require a roll. Using a sword as a sword, using a backpack to travel, attaching a saddle to a horse ... these are things for which the objects were made and therefore no roll to check their condition is necessary. This means we need only check the decay of an object from new to used to worn to shabby, and at any point to ruined, according to the pressure or tension exerted on the object. And to define that, we should consider unusual stress on an object.
In D&D, what counts as unusual? Well, dungeons, obviously. And moving off road. And any time we use an object in a manner for which it was not intended. Using a piece of clothing as a rope, for example; or walking dressed through a swamp; or falling into a pit trap. These are moments in-game that we can define and apply from case to case. But we should also consider that we are not keeping track of every moment of the character's game-day. A trek across a wilderness obviously has moments where a character slips and lands in mud, or is caught by an old tree branch, or scrapes a boot or pant-leg on a rock, or is nipped by a horse ~ or a hundred other possible moments of stress that wouldn't cause a hit point of damage but would wear down gear. Add to this that much gear of the fantasy game, while hand-crafted, is yet made of materials somewhat less durable than carbide steel. That is, unless your backpack is made of mithril by elves. There should be, therefore, a "general stress" of equipment that comes into play, even after ordinary use.
How then, to categorize this? I suggest that a roll is made for every object that is carried, to determine if that object decays from step to step based, first, on the following generalizations:
- One month of normal use, in normal conditions.
- Three days of wilderness use.
- One day of dungeon use.
This would account not only for the wear & tear of scrambling, packing, unpacking, crawling around underground and so on, but also for the stabs and jarrings of weapons blows, should combat occur. None of these conditions would cause a new, used or worn object to break; but would do in a shabby object. Very bad luck and twelve days in the wilderness could wreck a brand new rope, but that is unlikely. In any case, remember that objects such as ropes are often unpacked every night and tied to trees to serve as shelters, tethers, or as a place to hang wet clothes or wiped kitchen ware, which soaks the rope and wears it down. Objects on the ground get stepped on as a character moves into the trees for relief. Or kicked. Or crammed into a pack in a way the produces strain. It isn't just what we normally use an object for; just being along on a journey causes decay.
Exempt objects may be anything that is expressly protected. A scroll inside a scrollcase. A spellbook inside a metal box. If specific care is taken, then the protecting object should always have to make a roll first, before the contents are in the leastways threatened. That will help put some players' concerns to rest.
Second, there are unusual circumstances, things that might occur only a few times in an object's lifespan. A new sword is fumbled. The break load on a rope is challenged. A ten-foot pole is used as a lever. A horse is ridden down a very steep embankment. A galley is used to ram. The possibilities are endless, but manageable. This is not a simple game. There is no way to account for every off-normal thing a player might do with an object. Nor can we account for how much stress someone might put on an object. At some point, we have to use our judgment as a DM. Fairly, obviously, and discussed transparently with the player: "That is a very, very unusual thing you're doing with your crossbow. I'll have to double the normal amount of stress be put upon the object. Seem fair to you?" A good player ought to acknowledge that it is; but if the player makes a sound argument that it isn't that unusual, the DM should consider stepping back. The particulars are not that important, after all, so long as some kind of roll is being made. But a good DM ought to be able to convince the player about the amount of stress being employed, and the importance of more severely challenging unusually innovative tactics.
Overall, a collection of instances, shared by the whole party, should produce a consistent judgement from the DM. Some of these can be written down and codified; but something new is bound to come up at some point and a DM must be ready to make a judgement. I'm not a fan of DM's fiat, but some ideas are impossible to codify entirely. Like a judge defending the law, the key is to create precedents that can then be used to manage future instances. Once many precedents are collected, and remembered, an overall consistency can be obtained.
As a condition, some things may never really experience, at least not short of an earthquake. A stone axe, for instance, would have to be put under a lot of pressure to crack. An immense stone building may survive hundreds of earthquakes. Such things may never need to roll. It still falls to the DM's judgment.
The rolls themselves are not that complicated. A new object becomes used if a 1 in 4 is rolled. At the appropriate time, one die can be rolled per object, or groups of die can be rolled for multiple objects, with a random roll after to determine which object/s were made used. Under stress, a new object breaks on a 1 in 100.
A used object becomes worn on a 1 in 20. Under stress, it breaks on a 1 in 40.
Worn objects become shabby on a 1 in 12. Under stress, worn objects break on a 1 in 30.
Shabby objects become ruined on a 1 in 8. Under stress, they break on a 1 in 6.
Doubling the stress on an object is as simple as saying that something breaks on a 1 or 2 in 100, or 40, or whatever.
The fumble system remains unchanged. Combat is a very, very stressed environment.
The system lets players see plainly that it is time to replace something that has become worn; or to decide that something that's shabby, like a mug (which grows chipped and stained), isn't crucial to life. When it breaks, it breaks.
The system also lets the players grow attached to objects they can now identify as possessing for a long, long time. That mug, for example, will probably acquire a description, and when it breaks its loss will be felt. Some personal attachment to objects will likely be a happy result.
Overall, when a change in an object occurs, the maintanance of the equipment list is very easy. An "n" is simply replaced with a "u." The mnemonic for all the scales is nuwsr ~ which is fairly easy to remember.
Finally, this gives players the option of buying objects that are not necessarily new, for less money. I would suggest objects should cost 100% of list price new, 80% used, 60% worn and 40% shabby. This is a simple set of numbers that many players will be able to calculate in their heads. Objects can then be sold to the merchant for half this price: 50% new, 40% used, etc.
Players will likely choose to pay for things that are new or used, but if they're equipping a force or buying clothes for a hireling, they may choose to buy worn items. The same is true if objects are needed such as swords for training or a disguise is necessary. A shabby set of clothes may be just what a thief needs.
Please give me your insight on any of the above. I'll let the reader know in advance that I intend to delete any comment that tells me how YOUR system works. I don't care. I've seen other systems and discarded them. But please feel free to poke holes in the above, if there's something you feel I haven't accounted for. I feel like there's something I've forgotten, that I thought about yesterday, but for the life of me I can put my finger on it.
Tell me also if you feel this would be an excessive amount of bookkeeping in your game. I'd especially love to hear from anyone who tried it, or talked about it theoretically with their players, to get the feedback from a completely unprepared audience. Please record the response if you have the means.
This could be a monumental add to the game, if it did prove simple enough and immediately graspable for a group of players.