This post is primarily about D&D’s 5th edition (5e), though it is more broadly applicable. If you don’t know anything about roleplaying games, you might want to read this article first.
This post looks to Apocalypse World (AW) for inspiration on when to take away, use up, or activate the downsides of PCs’ stuff in 5e. Some of these ideas are already present (or suggested) in 5e, but I’ve frequently forgotten to use them. My hope is that this thought-jumble will remind me to use them in the future, and that my ponderings can be useful to other people as well.
Some games are better served by *not* using these ideas. They create a specific tone, more consistent with gritty explorers and dungeon delvers rather than high-powered fantasy adventure or flashy social intrigue.
Lastly, I think it’s important to implement these ideas from the outset, or to introduce them gradually and explicitly. Using these ideas changes the way the PCs’ world works, and might not meet the players’ assumptions. It’s rude to pull the rug out from under the players by making changes suddenly and without warning. I’d want my players’ buy-in before incorporating these ideas into my game, whether that means setting the game’s tone at the start or getting the players’ agreement to them mid-campaign.
With that out of the way… when should we take away the player characters’ (PCs’) stuff?
Some things in 5e have specific inherent limits: you buy 20 arrows in a quiver and use one with every shot, you know how long a torch lasts when lit, or how long your oil burns in a lamp. When you use a one-time item (read a scroll, eat a ration, throw alchemist’s fire) you know you won’t get that back again. These limits are straightforward, though they require some bookkeeping as written. There are interesting ways of abstracting and simplifying that bookkeeping (I suggest looking at The Black Hack’s Usage Die mechanic), but this post is more focused on PCs’ other goods.
So what about all those things PCs collect which don’t have the same limitations—the fighter’s sword, the bard’s fancy clothes, the wizard’s backpack? I frequently ignore such equipment once my players have them. But swords break, clothes get dirty, and backpacks snag and bump inconveniently at the worst times. Some of my games could be improved by interacting more with the PCs’ stuff, and Apocalypse World has done a good job of reminding me of that.
I’m focused specifically on these AW moves:
- take away their stuff,
- make them buy,
- activate their stuff’s downside.
Converting AW moves to 5e is a balancing act. PCs in 5e are frequently expected to roll (and fail) more often—and for less important things—than PCs in AW. Matching consequences to the severity of the situation is crucial. Fumbling this can feel overly punishing, or arbitrary.
Take away their stuff
When a character falls, does something in their pack break? That’s take away their stuff. As noted in AW, this shouldn’t be a ‘gotcha’ or take away what makes a PC cool. It should feel consistent with the fiction and the story-world. Large monsters, terrible luck, or grievous harm could break a PC’s weapons, or damage their armor. I’d avoid destroying something critical to a character’s abilities (a wizard’s spell book or a cleric’s holy symbol) without warning them of the possibility before they take the risk.
This is also part of making the game world feel consistent and real. If a PC in showy garb charges through brambles, those clothes will be snagged and torn. If a PC has a precious, fragile statue in their pack when they’re hit by a big club, it makes sense that they’d worry about whether it’s still intact.
Make them buy
5e, like previous versions of D&D, assumes that PCs’ adventuring will be rewarded by loot. But that loot, and the reward it represents, feels empty if it has no use. Classically, PCs spend money to improve their capabilities with better equipment, and to replace the various expendable items they used in their adventure. That’s all part of make them buy, and it’s built into D&D already.
But paying for repairs to damaged and dirty equipment can also play a role. Following the ideas in the previous section, PCs’ equipment can be damaged instead of destroyed outright. PCs would then need to find someone to fix their gear, and pay them for their help (or do them some favor). It’s also worth pointing out that damage or dirtiness in 5e is easily mitigated with the Mending and Prestidigitation cantrips, and incorporating this into your game rewards spellcasters who take those spells. It feels great to simply wave your hands and dismiss those problems with ease. Plus, having those spells fix things that get dirty or damaged doesn’t prevent storytellers from allowing for different gradations of trouble; eventually, even with Mending, you’ll need a smith to re-fit your badly dented plate mail.
Finally, when PCs go shopping they might want to find a good bargain, or splurge on something especially nice. If my players were enthusiastic about that, I’d probably let them, with some notes to myself about the quality of the goods they just bought. Which brings me to…
Activate their stuff’s downside
Maybe the PCs found a spectacular deal on their weapons, food, or armor. Maybe they bought cheap crap. That lets me activate their stuff’s downside, as crappy equipment might break during normal use while excellent equipment endures. This rewards PCs for finding the really good stuff, and lets them treasure their masterwork or magical toys all the more.
Also, sometimes PCs insist on doing silly things: swimming or sleeping in their heavy armor, or crawling through a narrow and winding tunnel while carrying ten foot poles. Swimming in chain mail is begging to drown. Similarly, sleeping in armor heavier than leather isn’t very restful. I’d use 5e’s Exhaustion mechanics for that, giving any PC who slept in heavier armor a level of Exhaustion, or preventing them from reducing their current Exhaustion. Relatedly, armor takes time to put on, which means that being attacked while not wearing it should be a real concern. And if PCs want to slink down a narrow winding tunnel with oversized equipment, I’d remind them how much fun moving couches up staircases can be.
I think using all three of these concepts in tandem (take away their stuff, make them buy, activate their stuff’s downside) encourages players to think more about their characters as physical entities, and about how they interact with the world around them. Personally, I’d hope that I could implement these concepts without making them into mechanical systems for the players to optimize; I want to increase immersion, and encourage my players to think of solutions without assuming they have to use the toolbox of systems that their character sheet represents. The more they think about the story world as a real place, the better.