Borderlands box art Jennifer loved Borderlands–in fact, the excitement from just the announcement of Borderlands 2 was enough for her to dust it off and put it into play again. Borderlands calls itself a shooter/RPG–and, while it’s a little short on the roleplaying, there are quests, exploration, character improvement, and discovery. Pandora is a fun world to wander; it’s a dystopian, disastrous future, featuring vending machines filled with guns, quirky robots, and lots of mutated critters and psychopaths that need killing.

A big part of the appeal is the zany setting; it’s over the top in good ways. Their new trailer shows off amusing and weird elements of the setting, intermixed with the new features they’re so proud of.

So, what can we steal from Borderlands for our tabletop games?

The Loot Lottery

If you watched the ad, you’ll notice that it concludes with some tongue in cheek numbers. (96.5% more Wub Wub! 870 Gajillion New Guns!) One reason the ad emphasizes “Gajillions of guns”–and how they can include lots of guns without programming them one by one–is because of the loot lottery.

Weapons are generated from component parts, and each part controls some aspect of the weapon performance.

(More detail here.) This is important, because acquiring and trying out cool new guns is a big part of the game’s reward system. As Shamus mentions in his post, seeing what the system generates for loot is like gambling– you hope the right permutations come together to give you the weapon of your dreams.

Generating these components can be very like Matthew’s cascading d10,000,000 chart from Making Complex Encounters Simple. For a sci-fi game, you could whip up a quick chart for each of your components; for example, your “Grips” chart might look something like the following:
1. Sticky: +2 vs. disarms, -1 speed
2. Pearl: +2 wealth, -2 vs. disarms
3. Combat: +2 melee attack
4. Textured: +1 recoil bonus

Once you generate your charts, rolling new weapons is incredibly fast–and can give an illusion of great variety. Porting similar combination-of-parts weapons over to fantasy roleplaying is a little trickier–though picking up a zany “long handled, basket hilted, slashing dagger” might be fun.

Immediate Gratification

While I’ll explain some of the possibilities that made me think deeper, here’s a simple application of “simple components building a greater whole”.

Age
2d6 RollDescriptorCoinSwordGun
2AncientRoman coinsBronze JianTanegashima
3Centuries oldElizebethan poundKhopesh SwordMatchlock Riffle
4-5Decades oldSaddleblanket dollarGladiusColt 1911
6-11CurrentA wallet of billsLong SwordGlock 21
12Cutting EdgeMintChipRapierOne Shot sniper riffle


Quality
2d6 RollDescriptorCoinSwordGun
2CrapClipped and tarnishedRusted/pittedSaturday Night Special
3PoorPesosWrought ironMissing stock
4LowCoin rollsPoint heavyGritty action
5-10UnremarkableDollarsGuard issueMass produced
11ExpensiveBenjaminsDamascus SteelFeather triggered
12ExoticBearer bondsEnchantedPearl Handled

Add another table or two, and you can create “easily unique” items in a flash. There’s no need to write down examples for each (I thought examples would be useful, but they might wind up constraining your imagination instead)–just a few columns of modifiers and you assign modifiers to anything. Ideas for other columns include “Source”, with local the most common, and far away coins at the extremes. (Or even more generically, relative to the current location:

dieW/E Direction
1Off Map West2Way West3Just west4-7Local (E/W)8Just East9Way East10Off Map East

Here are a few quick examples:
Coin – 9 (Current) ,6 (Unremarkable),4 (local W/E), 2 (Way North)= Loonies (Canadian Dollars)
Sword (from Sembia) – 4 (Grandfather’s era), 6 (normal),3 (somewhat west),8 (somewhat south) = A well worn sword, with a Westgate maker’s mark
Gun – 3 (centuries old),12 (exotic),1 (way west), 4 (about same latitude) — A wootz musket of the 1580s

Example over, let’s look at the video game again.

Trial and Error

Unfortunately, trial and error tends to be more tedious in an RPG than in a video game. In the video game, you can equip the new weapon as a lark, find a foe in seconds, and after a dozen shots you’ll have an idea of whether the weapon’s worth keeping. The same dozen attacks, in an RPG, might take an hour or two to resolve if you’re waiting for your initiative count in a large combat.

In tabletop roleplaying, the mechanics are often revealed, rather than mysterious. In recent editions of D&D and most other RPGs, the mechanics are in the player’s hand, letting the player calculate exactly how the new weapon will perform before the fight begins. Immediately trying out new weapons is much less a part of the adventuring culture, in part because feats or specific weapon skills (in games like Shadowrun) encourage a character to stick to equipment they’ve already mastered, since the bonus from a new weapon is usually swamped by the lack of specialization.

You can see the evolving role of “mystery ingredients”, as they slowly got sidelined in roleplaying games. Look at increasing ease for identifying magic items in D&D in later editions, or the open catalog of information in futuristic settings. In my own games, I throw weapon information at the players so that I don’t have to keep track of hidden weapon modifiers, multipliers, and so forth as the GM. [I have plenty on my plate without adding numbers to the PC attacks too!] That said, paying attention to modifiers makes scenes more vivid–when a player hits by 1, it’s nice when you work the Bard’s inspiring song (good for that 1 bonus) into the description, changing a narrow miss into a hit. Doing the same for descriptions of a new weapon’s hidden modifiers has worked well–though I usually offload the specifics to the player once they’ve seen it in action.

Some effects are more easily handled at the table, like time compression. A GM can say, “You blow off a few hundred rounds over the course of an afternoon; after evaluation, these are the three best candidates.” Unfortunately, this may have the side effect of artificially narrowing the field of loot, undoing some the earlier efforts to roll and produce a plethora of unique items from simple tables.

Dice Tricks

Some of the efforts to differentiate weapons and spells can rely on the player’s perceptions. A spell or effect can “feel different” by rolling different dice–even if the average or range of the dice don’t alter. For example, a 5d6 fireball does between 5 and 30 damage, averaging 17.5. You could substitute different dice to give it a different feel–even though the average remains the same. 5d4+5 results in the same average (17.5), though the range is narrower–10 to 25. That might encourage you to describe it as more precise, without the wild eddies of swirling flame. Conversely, a more erratic spell might use 5d8-5, resulting in the same average (17.5), but extending the range all the way down to 0 and up to 35. [For more on the effects of rolling different sizes of dice, see Matthew’s Quick and Dirty Overland Template.]

Extending on the above: you could use dice tricks and modifiers to differentiate weapons in limited circumstances. For example, you might have three pretty equivalent weapons–one dealing 3d4, a second dealing 2d6, and a third dealing a d12+1. An easy trick to differentiate them would be to have some foes that take 1 extra damage from each die. Against this foe, the 3d4 weapon shines! But against the next foe, who subtracts 1 from each die…well, that d12 shines with deadly menace. One drawback: Historically, encouraging specific weapons often resulted in golf bag tacticians. Equipment experts cross back into video games, where a quick flick of a trigger cycles effortlessly through weapons.

Know Your Audience

In high school, Kevin was willing to spend more time designing characters, mechs, cars, or what have you than most of our friends. He’d be content to study the math of the various guns between sessions, drilling down to figure out what offsets are worth the trade. Most of the people I’ve played with, both now and then, aren’t willing to burn that many brain cells debating the right gun to equip. (Others happily spend their time researching real life equipment and arguing for their effects into the game world, but that’s its own post.)

What’s the Take Away?

If you want to add variety to your game, creating a simple categories (like age, location, value, rarity) and rolling and give you an ongoing source of superficial depth, making your treasure hordes and enemy equipment a little more interesting.

You can make things feel different in other ways too. Changing the damage dice might not have an effect on the game world–but can make something feel unique. In terms of results, there’s not much difference between 2d6 and d4+d8, but when was the last time you rolled a d4+d8 [other than in Savage Worlds]?