Monday, July 8, 2013

Gear vs. Character

One of the stated goals for Shadowrun 5th edition is to have more of the power that a character has come from the character him or her self more and not from the gear that they carry. Essentially they want to make the stats and skills that the character has on their sheet mean more for what is going on at the table, and for the quality of their weapons to mean less - while still being meaningful. Today I want to talk about that, and what it means for you and your game.

The Question Of Excalibur
From a game design perspective, when you are balancing between power coming from gear and power coming from the character you are essentially asking what I've deemed the question of excalibur. What is the question? Well, it goes like this:

Do you want your PC to be legendary because he wields Excalibur, or is Excalibur a legendary sword because it was wielded by your PC?

Neither Is Right
Like with most game design questions neither answer is actually correct. It all comes down to the game and story you want to tell. For example, Dungeons and Dragons (at least up to 3.5)has most of its power in the gear. For all the feats and powers your Fighter can have, if you don't have that +4 longsword by level 10  than you are going to be having a hard time when it comes to winning a lot of the fights you have. On the other hand, L5R goes to the almost opposite extreme where it is very hard to find gear that is above average, and all the power comes from the character. In L5R both the Rank 5 and Rank 1 bushi wield a katana that does 3k2 damage and it is the difference in the characters that make the difference between the damage that sword does. In D&D the level 10 fighter has, generally, a better and more powerful sword than the level 1 fighter.

Now these are two successful games (D&D may be a bit bigger ;) ) that do things in near opposite ways. Neither is right, they both just present their own challenges.

Power In The Gear
When power comes from the gear that means the power creep will come with money and the acquisition of gear. It also means that the game is going to encourage players not to get attached to a particular item, but to be willing and looking to upgrade to the more powerful stuff as it becomes available. This means that you can face the problem of artificially boosting PC power level with top of the line gear by making it available early. It also means that if you don't provide gear upgrades that the PCs power level will more or less stagnate.

Aside from D&D, another good example of a game like this would be the Warhammer 40k games being put out by Fantasy Flight Games. In those games, while the character's base abilities do have an impact, there is always going to be a lot of power coming from gear. Give a Rank 1 Dark Heresy Character a Good quality Bolter with Accuracy on it and they're going to chunk the opposition put against them. Of course, they've also pretty much piqued in their damage output at that point too.

Power In The Character
Power coming from the character means that your power creep will happen with XP and what your characters buy with their XP. In these games a PC can make attachments to their gear without the lack of upgrades holding them back. However, this also means that older and more established characters will always have an edge over new characters. See, when power comes from the character you can't help even the playing field by giving the new PC some bad ass gear, because gear doesn't do as much as it could in other games.

L5R is the best example I know of where the power comes from the PC. Edge of the Empire also does this fairly well with its die rolling mechanic. The same is also true of FATE and other narrative focused games that I have seen.

So Which Is Right For You?
This move that Shaodwrun is making means that there should be, hopefully, a more normalized curve in the power of the characters and that hopefully the GMs can scale things along that curve. It also means that Runners will need to be more established - have more XP - before they can do some of the bigger and scarier jobs.

How about you< Which is right for your game? Most people will fall somewhere in the middle. And remember, just because gear is important for power doesn't mean that the person who wields that gear isn't also important.


  1. A key focus in the Dark Heresy campaign I'm running is that the world makes sense & so justifying the players limited access to armor/weapons, which as you remarked are a significant factor in PCs power in Warhammer 40k games, is a recurring theme & challenge for me.

    If I was starting again I would try to come up with a better topline cogent narrative reason for the equipment limitations - but I think it's just an intrinsic GM challenge in this game given the setting & the PCs assumed very powerful employer.

  2. Having the power come from the character is one of the major selling points on why I like 4e D&D. When they released the inherent bonus with dark sun it made it so you could have the narrative of having that old family heirloom sword because the +x gets mostly ignored.

  3. I'm glad to hear they brought power back into the character as well in D&D. Personally, I kind of like both. I mean, it's really awesome to have that family heirloom sword and have it matter throughout the game. Sometimes though, it's also awesome to find that legendary blade and make it your own.