TTRPG Item Design #
I wanna get some perspectives established around good item design in TTRPGs.
From my perspective, good items have the following categories:
- They can be used often. When an item is too specific, there’s no real percieved value to the item at all. For example, if an item only works against demons, then it’s totally useless in any fight that’s not against demons. That kind of item is likely to be forgotten or seen as dead weight.
- They should enable and encourage new possibilities rather than making existing possibilities better. I dislike items that are simply defined by a number increase. They’re uncreative and dull and don’t add much excitement to a game.
- They don’t break the game. They shouldn’t be so ridiculous or powerful that they completely invalidate the context of the game that they’re in. An example of this is something like a multi-dimensional portal creator. If the players are just able to leave and go to another world, why would they continue on with their mission. This would also mean the GM has to plan out what’s going on in this other dimension, which can be unnecessarily distracting. the other version of this is something like a genie bottle, where any 3 wishes can be fulfilled. This is one where the players can simply achieve their goals immediately, thus removing any need to deal with any of the game mechanics.
As a follow up, what are the components of items?
- Balancers are aspects that limit the power of items. They do so by only making items effective in certain situations. If items where effective in all situations, there wouldn’t be any need for any item except the strongest one. This aspect encourages creativity and strategy in gameplay.
- One form of balance is a condition that’s necessary for the good effect to happen. The condition needs to be frequently possible, but not necessarily the default state. Items should create subgoals to winning. In other words, they should make players think things like “if I can manage this other goal, I can get closer to winning”.
- No one can see the player
- The player is hit
- The target is wet
- Alternately, we can have a negative condition, where the player can always use the item, but bad things will happen if the proper conditions aren’t met. An easy example of this is a bomb, where you don’t want to blow yourself up, so you need an appropriate situation where it won’t hurt you.
- Area of effect/friendly fire
- Enemies are alerted to a players action or position
- Another balancer can be a bad thing happening. this can also be modified by giving items a probability of a bad thing happening.
- charge/stun afterwards
- lose health
- Can only be used once in a limited amount of time
- Low accuracy
- Effects are generally good things. Ideally, this wouldn’t simply modify a number, but actually enable the player to do creative new things. For example, a piece of armor that reduces how much damage is done isn’t very interesting. However, a piece of armor that stuns a player is much more interesting. A stun would allow players to potentially do actions that have a downside of a long charge time or an action that’s hard to be accurate with.
- A few types of effect modifiers are also balancers. If there’s a probability that the effect will be bad, or fail, that can be a great balancer. Consider, for example, something like a loud, inaccurate, powerful weapon. The lack of accuracy means that there’s a good chance the weapon won’t hit and if it doesn’t work, then the guaranteed cost of being found out will happen anyways. With costs like that, the positive effect of the weapon needs to balance the risks associated with it.
Technically, I could make something that simply randomizes balancers and effects, but there are a few ways in which balancers and effects tie nicely.
- When both the balancer and the effect can be describe with a single term or concept, that feels very natural.
- Gambling effects
- Friendly Fire
- When the balancer and the effect reflect each other thematically, that also feels very natural
- An item that heals one person and hurts another
- An item that allows the wearer to be invisible in shadow
One of the things that’s nice about building out this format is that it makes it very intuitive to think about creative new item combinations. I can look at an item that doesn’t have ideal characteristics and quickly imagine how to improve them.