The Purpose of Loot

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.

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14 Responses to The Purpose of Loot

  1. Brimoonfang says:

    Good discussion here. I play WoW as a Feral Druid tank on US-Rexxar.
    I’m a little older than the average player, so my reaction time and dexterity isn’t what it used to be. I lean towards items that “proc” (what you call passsive verbs) because it makes my combat
    more effective without giving me more buttons to press. One of the things I really like about my
    Druid is that we have a TON of abilities, but only a dozen or so are usable in each form.
    So it feels like a lot fewer buttons that I have to manage, which makes the game more fun for me.

    In case it isn’t obvious, I am definitely a “strategist” player. I suck at first-person shooters,
    which means I suck at WoW PvP and avoid it whenever I can. If it was possible to play a
    turn-based MMO, I’d be all over that. I also have a lot of time at work to browse Web sites
    and think about the game when I can’t actually play. I find things like puzzling over equipment choices, making to-do lists, etc. quite satisfying.

  2. Rovenkar says:

    That’s exactly the reason why I do not like DnD and prefer World of Darkness approach (old edition, that is, I know nothing of the new one). Take Vampire for example. You have your gun, a pistol in most cases, you got your combat abilities (Disciplines) that cost enough resources (blood) and bestow enough power on you to use to make them valuable and not-so-often used at the same time. And that’s it. There’s practically no loot rush because there’s nothing to rush to. You level your skills and attributes slowly, so there’s no need to invent ‘bigger dragons’ each time. You’re quite vulnerable, so you have to use your brains. Muscle-type solutions often lead to serious injury and death. As a result, it’s more about living in the world than collecting numbers. Statistics do not stand in fun’s way.

    Talking about loot in this game… You may stumble upon a M4 assault rifle in your journeys, for example. Maybe you raided an army depot for some reason. A good gun, definitely better than a saturday-night-special pistol. Lucky you are. Or not. There you stand, a big gun in your hands, in a city full of people not really used to sombre guys in leather jackets carrying M4s around. Of course, you may try to conceal it, but… you get the idea, right? You got to think. And the first thing to consider is – do I need this rifle at all? Items are not be all – end all stuff. They’re tools. Just like in real life.

    Of course there are magic items there, some of them are really powerful. But the game itself is not an arms race. Neither is it a race to level NN. It’s more like a shooter approach. Think Dead Space, with weapons adding variety to tools you have, not raw power.

    Overall I see it a real shame that RPG game developers (and tabletop-RPG game masters) allow themselves to be put on the ‘grind’ rails. There’s plenty of ideas flying around, no need to follow this Diku-DnD nonsense.

  3. Scott says:

    Loot? In D&D? Hmm… granted I haven’t played since the 2nd Ed. days, at *least* 15 years ago but I never played in anyone’s campaign where uber loot was commonplace. Hell, even a +1 *anything* was a HUGE deal, and they were very rare.

    I always read about the Monty Haul DMs though, but I never actually played under one.

    I’m more in favor of advancing my actual character. Gear being the end-all, be-all of character advancement is… well, it’s just stupid. Gear can provide some new variety or enhancements to my abilities, but should never be the sole required path.

    Will someone step up and slam Diku out of the goddamn park already?

  4. Sok says:

    Apart from simple power enhancement, loot can have value by mere scarcity and cosmetic effect. Sure, you can have “a sword”, but if you have twenty people wandering around with generic Norman longswords and one who’s got a “Valtharian yatagan”, an item only found occasionally in a few select ruins, people will notice the guy with the curvy blade. Especially if he gets a crown of blue flame for the duration of the combat once he crits someone with the sword.

    There’s other reasons to care about loot besides potency, particularly in a tabletop game.

  5. Eric says:

    The neat thing about D&D is that it can support lots of different target audiences, to varying degrees. Our group happens to like killing monsters and taking their stuff. They enjoy strategic battles and dicey combats more than they like solving puzzles, interacting with townfolk, or advancing their character’s story. And that’s okay. This edition of D&D definitely supports their playstyle — in some ways it does it much better than the last edition. But loot is not one of those places.

    In D&D 3.5, it was common for a mid-level adventurer to have a half-dozen potions on hand at all times, offering everything from a quick heal to the ability to literally climb up walls. If they lived long enough to find a magic ring, it might be a Tolkein-esque invisibility ring, usable whenever they wanted. They got new verbs, and big ones.

    In this edition of D&D, potions with new verbs are rare, and objects like that invisibility ring might only work once per day. They get new verbs when they level up instead, and LOTS of ’em. But the items are just +1 to this, +2 to that, and occasionally “do something cool for six seconds each day, if you choose not to use any other items that day”. The verb-giving of items has been toned way, way down. I think that’s what the players are reacting to.

  6. clem says:

    One problem with cool effects that rise above “+1 to this, +2 to that” is anticipating how it will disrupt combat. For example, my warlord in the Living Forgotten Realms campaign was awarded a +2 Wolfen Longsword that effectively tilts a surprise round in the party’s favor once a day. The daily power is that all allies within 5 squares of him gets to act in the surprise round even if they failed a perception check. It has cool written all over it, but it’s also had DMs pulling their hair out at having their encounter effectively wrecked.

  7. I haven’t played 4th edition yet, but it really just hasn’t captured my imagination. The accusations that they’ve cribbed too much from MMOs (particularly WoW) seem accurate to me. I think the problem is that they reduced a lot of the unpredictability, and part of that is reflected in the loot.

    For me, the best part of paper RPGs is when I get to “break the rules” of the conventions of the world. The potions you mention, Eric, are a good example: Those archers making your life tough up on the castle walls? Quaff your potion and climb up there and see how they like some steel at close range. You broke the rule by being able to climb the wall when most people can’t. Wands let you fire off more spells than your character could otherwise. Even in low magic item games like what Scott describes above, that rare +1 sword had qualities; “A wolfwere? You have the +1 sword, you go beat on it!”

    The standardized loot in 4th edition takes away the ability to break the rules by incorporating a lot of the special uses into the rules and reducing most bonuses to mere pluses. I think it’s interesting to note that in 4th edition, the magical loot information is right in the PHB, whereas before it was “hidden” in the DMG. The loot has become more predictable and therefore boring. But, there is hope, as clem points out: a sword that lets you break the rules so wonderfully does become a lot more interesting. Eventually, you’ll probably see sourcebooks with lots of interesting magical items listed come out (if not already out).

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  9. pharniel says:

    The main reason to tone down the magic items was the ‘christmass tree’ effect.
    If you played in any organized play (table top mm campaign) like living grayhawk you found out how bad it really was.
    items, classes and feats had to be routeinly tweaked, banned etc. in order to keep up with the twinks.

    And god forbid you’re from a non-maximized region, because you travel and your party looks at you and gives you the ‘why did you even bother to show up, you’re dead before you begin’ look.

    I never played alliance, but i know how retadins feel:)

    and god forbid you have the wrong verbs for the conversation.

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  11. Bryant says:

    Yeah, that. I think 4e loot also suffers from the wishlist recommendation made in the DMG. My players seem way more enthused about loot because they don’t know what they’re going to get. In the campaign I played in, we used wishlists, plus the DM handed out raw materials so we could have absolute choice. Pretty dull.

    Note my long held belief that the gambling/lottery aspect of loot drops is really important in a loot-driven MMORPG.

  12. Tesh says:

    The loot lottery is important to modern treadmill loot-centric MMO design, but it’s poor design.

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  14. Ackleton says:

    I think, barring magical enchantment, items should be about as important as they were in real-life medieval combat: using a high quality carbon-steel sword will give you a marked advantage against someone using a pig-iron sword, but a pig-iron sword can still kill you just as dead. Making loot the end-all of an MMO creates a never-ending “grind levels~grind gear~kill bosses~get better gear~kill harder bosses~get uber gear” cycle that just resets every expansion, not to mention primarily rewarding time invested rather than actual player skill. As MMOs allow for more use of a player’s skill(FPS controls, etc.), they should become increasingly less item-centric.