Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Counting Coins (Part 1)

I've been wanting to write this post since Friday. Unfortunately, I figured that I should probably write a couple-three other posts first in order to "set the stage" for my ideas. But, well, spending the last two days solid on taxes (just got 'em e-filed at 1am this morning, thank you very much) has pushed back all my posting...and anyway, now I've got money on the brain.

[speaking of push-backed posts: still have returned to the Crowns of Blood series and Game of Thrones just started up least in South America. Haven't had a chance to watch it yet...maybe later today...but I'm sure it'll inspire me to get back to my hack of Pendragon]

One of the things I'm doing these days with my designs is to abstract equipment/items, cutting out that particular "hard aspect" of resource management. This is something that's been evolving for me over the last several years. It started a while back with my B/X play when I created basic equipment lists for each class based on a player's 3D6 roll for "starting gold" (I was kind of tired of low-income characters blowing their wad on plate mail and having nothing left over for standard adventuring equipment). A large part of this was in aid of speeding the chargen process: hand the player a card, cross-reference the number rolled and then note your starting possessions. It worked fairly well.

Later, when working up my DMI (card-based) game system, I was even more abstract...the cards dealt to players determined their "important characteristics" (I think I use a different term in the rules, but I don't want to look it up right now), and diamonds dealt to the character's hand represented any kind of important "resources," including special equipment. It was very non-specific, but (without going into too much detail), say you were playing my DMI "supers" game: a character like the Hulk would probably have no diamonds dealt to him (because the Hulk doesn't use equipment), whereas a Batman-type guy would have lots of diamonds to represent the shtick he pulls out of his bat-belt or his various vehicles and Bat Cave and whatnot. The "items" the diamonds represent might change from session to session (just as the specific gear ol' Batman uses changes from adventure to adventure) but the basis of his powers (lots of goodies/gadgets) doesn't change. A Reed Richards type might have a single (big) diamond in his hand to represent the one Earth-shaking invention Mr. Fantastic pulls out of his stretchy brain every few comics.

ANYway...abstract. But not very Old School.

Cry Dark B/X-based "Shadowrun" style game (which has since morphed into something much more post-apocalyptic) was a return to B/X gear-counting sensibilities. You had "New Dollars" (or whatever) to spend instead of gold, and you were picking up similar NDs from adventures instead of D&D-type treasure...such ca$h being used to provide all the upgrades to your adventurer that you'd expect in an Old School-type game (instead of magic items you're upgrading your automatic weapons and cybernetic-implants, etc. Spell research remains largely the same). Very resource-based in the traditional sense.

However, a funny thing happened during play-testing: I observed (and other groups, too) that players weren't really interested in "bullet-counting." Or worrying about how many hours of juice was in a particular piece of gear. The resource management of individual equipment items was a real secondary concern (if that!) to the slam-bang action of blazing away in cinematic fashion. As opposed to aiding the immersion, forcing players to track every nuanced resource was breaking their immersive process. Asking a sniper character's player what type of ammunition he was going to use for a long shot, he replied "the best one." The granularity of gear wasn't as important to the action at hand. And away, who am I to say how much a bionic limb costs in a futuristic economy?

Plus chargen for a game like CDF takes a shit-long time if players are buying their own gear...there's simply too much, compared to the short lists of D&D.

So when I started revising CDF I figured a way to abstract gear selection. CDF was reworked as a class-based system (with classes determining the character's available suite of cybernetic gear), and then a choice of equipment based on the character's Intelligence (INT) score, such picks being limited when it comes to "expensive" selections from the gear list.

Because no matter how rich characters get, the kind of "missions" they go on in CDF only allows them to carry so much gear anyway. And tying that gear to INT helps to model a lot of real world "inconveniences" in an abstract fashion. Gear that a person forgot to bring (even though he meant to and even laid it out on the table the night before). Gear that's batteries died, or that suffered a break in transport to the drop site. Gear that hasn't been well-maintained due to laziness or ineptitude. Gear that's been misplaced or stolen or sold for food between adventures. Gear that gets brought along but that the character forgets he has in his pocket/pack. Gear that just mysteriously breaks or stops working because you're living in a post-apocalyptic region where resources are scarce to fix or repair've got to prioritize what's important. INT determines the absolute number of "useful" pieces of equipment the character has for a particular session...and yes, the number is modified by the character's level of experience (because experienced adventurers are more prepared...duh).

[characters automatically start with a couple weapons regardless of INT, of course, because those are your livelihood and necessary survival tools and I know you're maintaining those without me having to ask]

The most recent stab at a "new" fantasy heartbreaker (which is currently being revised...see last post) uses a similar "useful item" system, except that it's based on an ability score called Wit (because there are seriously learned wizard-types who are a little too addled/befuddled to remember to pack the tinderbox). Now this was fine when my FHB was about heroic heroes doing heroic things and not worrying about finding treasure (they had a much "grander quest" to accomplish). But with the recent one of conquest and colonization in a Brave New World...there's a need to account for coin counting and the collection of goodies. After all, in a fantasy adventure game based on treasure hunting, counting treasure is the way we count points.

"JB, you're losing me," says one of my readers. "I can see simplifying gear selection (maybe), but why does that create any issue with acquiring treasure (and counting it) in the 'normal' fashion? You find 2000 shiny gold doubloons, and you get 2000 big deal, right?" Um, sure, except there's the little part about encumbrance to consider, another thing I intend to abstract.

[see, this is why I needed to log earlier topics BEFORE starting this one]

While I haven't (yet) written about it, I had all but decided to axe STRENGTH as an ability score from the list of abilities describing characters. The multiple reasons will be dealt with in soon-to-be-forthcoming post. But then I got hipped to this post from GusL (remember me talking about him?) on using a super-simple abstract method of counting encumbrance which, while not perfect, is the perfect complement to my abstract gear-selection-process. Because while "what you remembered to bring along" might be set by the limits of your character's Wit, what you find (and pick up) along the way is not.

But THAT is actually putting the cart before the horse. I've been thinking a lot about treasure lately (being in the presence of a lot of real world treasure does that), and then I stumbled across this year-old post from Alexis...

[I can almost hear him yelling at me to leave him the fuck out of my abstract B.S. schemes. Sorry, pal]

...and its precursor prompt post from John Arendt (just for reference; not nearly as pertinent). It's really not a new's something I was blogging about waaaay back in 2010. While Alexis's post points to a different issue (how much treasure monsters have in relation to each other), he rightly points out that the system is fundamentally arbitrary (numbers of value...both for character advancement and for cost of in-world largely subjective). Combined with this earlier post of his...and, yeah, throw in this excellent one, too, on gemstones...and you start to get an idea of where my brain is headed: abstract treasure accounting.

This one's a fancy piece.
[just BTW, Alexis's posts on gems...see here and here...went a long way towards explaining my befuddlement at the rinky-dinkness of medieval jewelry. I've been to a lot of museums over in Bavaria, Prague, Spain, Italy, France...and seen a lot of crowns and tiaras and bracelets and whatnot that looked like so much battered costume jewelry. Granted, many pieces were hundreds of years old, the precious metal bent and dinged, but what really disappointed me were the gemstones set in the pieces. They didn't LOOK like gems (at least, to my UNeducated historical mind) but rather like polished, shiny stones. They were not cut, you see, and were probably plenty valuable for their luster and color and rarity. I was expecting cut gems (like something from, oh say, an illustration in one of my gaming books) rather than colorful smooth circles of what could have been "pretty glass." The lighting in the museums probably didn't help much]

Part of this also has to do with my research into the history of South America's conquest (much of what might have been deemed "treasure hunting" as well). The thing is this: not only is the value of treasure arbitrary and fully modifiable in terms of it's game worth (i.e. what amount of treasure constitutes enough XP to "level up"), but it is of relative value in the game world as well. It doesn't matter that a gemstone is "worth 500 g.p." if my character has no way to determine, nor collect the value. So what if I find a platinum and ruby-studed crown worth 50,000 gold...who will be willing (and able!) to buy such a thing? It's doubtful the local "gem-changer" has 2.5 tons (the D&D weight of 50K coins) of gold sitting in his back room, waiting for such a piece to come along.

It's been an acceptable statement for years that adventurers would much prefer precious items like gems and jewelry over sacks of coins. But sacks of coins are readily spent, easily converted to real goods, easy to divide amongst companions. There's no need to find reliable (competent and honest) appraisers or fences for the loot. There's no need to know kings who MIGHT have access to stacks of coins and be interested in acquiring such items (the wealth of the nobility is mainly tied to their land...and who's to say an unscrupulous lord wouldn't consider treasure found within his domain to be his "by right" and simply take it?). If I want to buy a horse, I can probably get one for a ruby...but I might not get exact change in the bargain.

[and when the local tax man comes a-calling, what are you going to pay him with if all you picked up was a fancy silver bracelet? Your magic boots?]

Treasure is treasure is treasure. Some is more valuable, some is less, but in a primitive society that doesn't have, say, a global economy like ours with auction houses (on-line and off) and plenty of extremely wealthy folks keeping an eye out for desirable stuff...well, you may just be better off with a sack of silver or gold. At least you won't be much worse off than the guy with a sack of "the good stuff." we come back to encumbrance. We have three basic containers in D&D, with (per B/X) an extremely easy measure of how much each holds:

Small sack: 20 pounds of treasure
Backpack: 40 pounds of treasure
Large sack: 60 pounds of treasure

Nice easy numbers, which will be the basis for a whole new method of treasure accounting, encumbrance, and (drum roll, please) experience point acquisition and advancement.

All of which will be laid out in Part 2 (since this post is getting long).


  1. I don't mind in the least being mentioned in any of your schemes, JB. You're crazy, you tolerate a lot of shit from your players I would toss them from my table for, we have almost nothing in common regarding game design or what sort of world we'd want to run . . . but we're brothers, brother.

    Surely you know that by now.

    1. @ Alexis:

      Agreed, man: brothers from another mother.
      ; )