Looting Characters~ October RPG Blog Carnival

This month’s RPG Blog Carnival is once again being hosted by Campaign Mastery, on the theme of Making Loot Part of the Plot. While I do not generally engage in the genres and styles of gaming most commonly associated with the concept of “loot,” I do think that there are many elements to this topic that are a significant part of what may otherwise seem to be ‘lootless’ gaming, whether we recognize it or not.

Excuse me, could you direct us to the Isle of Dread?

October 2011 - Making Loot a Part of the Plot

Like most my age, I got my start in RPGs with fantasy, namely D&D, and I stuck with it until I found games that annoyed me less systemically, and engaged me more thematically. That said, my first instincts when starting to plan a game session are heavily rooted in my early years as a DM, and I am thankful for it. My early forays into scenario design followed the model of framing the session in a series of questions to establish a sense of what it would entail, and providing an external motivation for the characters. [Who is involved? What is involved? When does the rooster crow? Where is this scenario located? Why the hell are events happening? How might players try to avoid them? + reason(s) to perhaps not want to avoid them]

In my youth the one natural resource I was certain would never be depleted was unsolicited opinion. In those days it was because I was fairly sure we’d nuke ourselves into oblivion before learning the Wisdom of Kirk as it relates to war, but now I must resign myself to the very real possibility that it is instead because the universe hates us.

As a fledgling GM in the 80’s one unsolicited opinion to which one quickly learned to become sensitive was whether your game was a Monty Haul campaign or not. Regardless of the reality of that assessment, to be branded a Monty Haul GM was death if you were at all interested in having the good players sit at your table.

What was the inevitable reaction for newcomers behind the screen?

Stinginess…! This manifested either as a reduction of material and magical gain to the point of inconsequentiality, or putting Tiamat and Bahamut in a small chest protected with four traps, and an army of wraiths to balance out the addition of a generic sword +2 to the campaign. Of course I exaggerate a little, but you get the point. Rarely did I see anyone trying to balance loot with story and character concerns rather than treasure tables, and when I did, I would endeavor to game with those people.

And now, Elric had told three lies. The first concerned his cousin Yyrkoon. The second concerned the Black Sword. The third concerned Cymoril. And upon those three lies was Elric’s destiny to be built, for it is only about things which concern us most profoundly that we lie clearly and with profound conviction.
―      Michael Moorcock,        The Elric Saga Part I 

Most of the fiction I remember being discussed in those long-gone days dealt with signature characters and their signature items, and rarely did this devolve into the sort of kill crap to find rewards sort of routine that so many fantasy campaigns seem destined to do. GMs who saw this, and wondered if there was a way to make the campaign flow in a more immersive and character-driven way, as opposed to a competitive, player-driven way tended to move the story along with quests, favors, and the call to heroism, and I found that in those games the magic and other loot was an extension of the character and their view of the world, not a curious function of surviving the perils. I liked this a great deal as a new player in their games, but found it hard to emulate consistently when running my own campaigns at first because I hadn’t had the opportunity to get jaded and cynical (about gaming) yet. Once I accomplished that feat, it became a lot easier to find the fun in challenge rather than in the rewards of daring. As a 13-year-old, I had no idea that true world-weariness would have to wait until I was 15….

The secret of loot as I saw it then, and still see it now, is to root the game in things which are meaningful to the characters as though they were real people, regardless of the level of immersion to which your game group subscribes.

What that means on a practical level is conscientious campaign design which allows you the freedom to improvise and keep the focus where it needs to be in order to have a satisfied group of players in a game which also satisfies you as its GM, while allowing you to base rewards on things other than relieving monsters of their life savings… and lives. It also means that it is very likely that the truly great items the characters possess will be with them from very early in the campaign and never change, and that the truly great items of the world will be the focus of their adventuring, and should they come to be obtained – the campaign will have run its course.
We’re on a mission from God
                                   -The Blues Brothers
Without the lure of a progression of ever greater items… what keeps the characters on the road to adventure? Gold, jewels, maps to more places with sacks of gold, jewels and maps to even more places, etc, etc…? No. Well, at least not after the new book smell has faded from the core rules. To my mind, all loot in the game is the same – loot is a means of empowerment, no matter what form it takes.
In order for loot to have any allure, it must meet a need, and in order for there to be needs, the players have to experience their characters as more than exercises in adding XP and editing hit points, and the GM must be working in the foreground and background to encourage, engage, and expand the opportunities for the characters to develop and grow more entangled with the world being imagined around them. In plainer terms that means needs come from actual requirements, uses, and purposes attached to who and what the characters are. Without rational and real requirements of a financial nature placed on the characters sparking an outgrowth of need, then gold is nothing more than a number. Without special tasks needing special skills and the tools to accomplish them, then gear and companions are nothing more than things written on the back of the character sheet – burdens to remember, and greater burdens when forgotten and retconned back in.
All for One, and One for All
This is not a factor for games of dungeon crawls and fantasy alone, it holds just as true in the cosmic horror of Call of Cthulhu, the machinations of Paranoia, the gritty cynicism and mercantilism of Shadowrun, the sweeping epic of Battletech, or any game you care to mention. Without character there are no needs, and without needs all that glitters is the sheen on the dice.
2 Responses to “Looting Characters~ October RPG Blog Carnival”
  1. Runeslinger says:

    If the rumours are true, I am an arcane supervillain… but who listens to rumours?

    This month’s carnival really generated a lot of thoughtful and useful articles. I hope when my kick at the can comes around in December, the topic I have chosen, “Heroes, living and dead” will fare as well.

    Thanks for the kind review~

Check out what others are saying...
  1. […] (great name for an arcane supervillain!) gets deeply philosophical in Looting Characters about what makes a great game, and how “loot” factors into that question. If […]

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