I’ve been DM’ing a 4th-edition D&D game for the past few months. It’s very, very different from earlier editions, and there are lots of little gripes from the group about how things have changed, but one gripe stands out more than others: the loot sucks in this edition of D&D.
When you create any sort of roleplaying game’s progression system, you have to decide right at the beginning how important loot is going to be. You can think of it as a percentage of the player’s overall power. Suppose a character didn’t get any magic items for a whole level. Then they fought their evil doppelganger with all the same abilities… PLUS the magic items they should have gotten this level. How much more powerful is their doppelganger? 5%? 25%? 1000%?
Any decently balanced game is designed with the power of the equipment taken into account. The game designer knows approximately how many magic items you should get each level, and how powerful they should be. That way, the game designer can create monster encounters to challenge players with that amount of power.
In earlier editions of D&D, magic items could make some players many times more powerful. Getting a good magic item would often make you MUCH more powerful than you would have become just by gaining another level. Levels meant very little for most classes, but items were incredibly valuable.
In the new D&D, the potency of magic items has been tamped down to a very modest level. Even the most potent items are mere baubles compared to the stuff you got in the last version of the game. Players become much more powerful by leveling up — that’s where the power comes from now. The magic items are a secondary power source.
This causes players not to care about loot. My players often overlook magical items because they don’t even bother to search around before moving on to the next encounter. Sometimes I’ve had to force magic items down their throat in order to make sure they have their RDA of trinkets, lest they become underpowered compared to their opponents and get killed by some wandering medusa. After all, even though a better magic sword will only make you 5% more powerful, you still need that 5% or else you will fall behind relative to the things you’re fighting. Put another way: without the sword, you’re 5% more likely to die. So players still need magic items, but the magic items are boring.
This is a problem in a lot of RPGs. The whole time you’re leveling up, magic items in WoW and EQ2 are excruciatingly dull. Ho hum, 1% more overall health. Woopie, 3 more damage per second. Yawn. These items are boring as hell. But if you ignore your loot and avoid getting any magic items for too long, you’ll discover you’ve become underpowered. The result of this setup is sad. Equipping your character with the best stuff should be really exciting, but instead, it ends up being a chore that you have to undertake every few levels. You visit the vendor, buy the best stuff, and then ignore equipment for a few more levels. If you’re lucky you get a few usable quest items along the way or run a dungeon or two to get some better loot. But it’s not that important.
So why don’t MMO designers make loot more important? Well, if they could do so by fiddling with numbers, they would. But numbers are boring. Sure, if you raise the numbers high enough they become exciting for a while — a ring that gives you 25% more health is pretty neat — but normal-level items aren’t. A ring that gives you 2% more health is just lame.
So give out rings that give you 25% more health! That’s awesome the first time. But what do you do for an encore? A ring that gives you 26% health? Boorrrrinnng. You can’t just keep topping yourself by jacking the numbers higher and higher — either it stops being interesting, or it stops being maintainable. Or both.
There’s also the problem that your number-jacked items stop being “nice to haves” and start being “must haves”. If your magic ring is powerful enough, it will make you invincible versus monsters your level. Now you need tougher foes. So the game designer makes tougher monsters, to the point where they’re once again challenging to people wearing the ring. But what if you didn’t happen get the ring? You’re screwed. The ring is now “mandatory.” Mandatory items aren’t fun to obtain; they’re just a chore.
So if you can’t just tweak the numbers on an item, what’s a designer to do? A good approach is to use more verbs. Verbs are the secret sauce that makes MMO combat fun. A magic ring that temporarily gives you 25% more health for, say, 5 minutes is more tenable than a ring that always gives you 25% more health. You’ve given the player control, and changed a statistic into a choice. That’s fun. Of course, if you use too much secret sauce you just get a mess. My EQ2 character has over 60 verbs I use regularly. That’s too many verbs; I can’t even keep track of them all. (This contrasts sharply with my WoW character, which has so few verbs that I’m put to sleep by the combat.)
Perhaps it makes more sense for items to have “passive verbs” — that is, verbs that are activated automatically. The ring that temporarily gives you 25% health might automatically kick in when you’re about to die. The flaming sword starts flaming when you critically hit. With this model, we’ve avoided making combat itself more complex, but we have made the pre-combat stage more elaborate. Players now have to carefully choose what items to equip! Assuming a large number of items with different passive verbs, they are free to strategize about the interplay of their items. “I’ll wear the magic sword that does more damage but makes me more vulnerable, and I’ll counteract that vulnerability with this magic ring that heals me when I’m dying.” Suddenly equipping your character is interesting, intricate, difficult. Stressful, too, especially if you have no idea what strategies will work and can’t afford to buy tons of items to experiment.
At the end of the day there are no perfect solutions, so we make trade-offs. Do we want to have a game where people who don’t carefully accessorize their characters are dramatically underpowered? Do we want the complexity in our combat to come during the pre-planning stage, or during combat itself? How “must have” is our equipment? How much of the character’s power comes from items, and how much from innate abilities? And so on.
How do you answer those questions? You determine your target audience. Are you making a game for strategists? For people who want exciting fast-paced combat? Or is the combat in the game not that important at all? Like all the other design decisions about your game, this one is based on who you’re trying to please.
The loot in the new edition of the D&D game is aimed at a different audience than the previous edition. There are fewer equipment choices to make, which means there are fewer “wrong choices”. In other ways, too, D&D has been changed to meet the needs of a new target audience. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Unless you aren’t the target audience anymore.