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Learning From Video Games: Kajillions of Weapons

Borderlands box art [1] Jennifer loved Borderlands–in fact, the excitement from just the announcement of Borderlands 2 [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 [3].

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

(More detail here [4].) 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 [5] from Making Complex Encounters Simple [6]. 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”.

2d6 Roll Descriptor Coin Sword Gun
2 Ancient Roman coins Bronze Jian Tanegashima
3 Centuries old Elizebethan pound Khopesh Sword Matchlock Riffle
4-5 Decades old Saddleblanket dollar Gladius Colt 1911
6-11 Current A wallet of bills Long Sword Glock 21
12 Cutting Edge MintChip [7] Rapier One Shot sniper riffle [8]

2d6 Roll Descriptor Coin Sword Gun
2 Crap Clipped and tarnished Rusted/pitted Saturday Night Special
3 Poor Pesos Wrought iron Missing stock
4 Low Coin rolls Point heavy Gritty action
5-10 Unremarkable Dollars Guard issue Mass produced
11 Expensive Benjamins Damascus Steel Feather triggered
12 Exotic Bearer bonds Enchanted Pearl 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:

die W/E Direction
1 Off Map West
2 Way West
3 Just west
4-7 Local (E/W)
8 Just East
9 Way East
10 Off 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 [9]. 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]?

9 Comments (Open | Close)

9 Comments To "Learning From Video Games: Kajillions of Weapons"

#1 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On April 17, 2012 @ 6:35 am

For a further idea to emulate items that are better in overall quality (ie: “blues”) add another die: rarity

1 trash: -2 to the results of all other rolls
2-3 poor: -1 to the results of all other rolls
4-7 normal quality
8-9 good quality: +1 to the results of all other rolls
10 excellent: +2 to the results of all other rolls

Obviously how you want to balance things effects what die you’d use and how you’d set it up. The above assumes that trash and treasure are equally likely and both are fairly common.

#2 Comment By evil On April 17, 2012 @ 1:07 pm

I’ve done similar things with weapons (especially using the gigantic weapon creation chart), but I’ve never used the dice-math trick shown above. This gives me some nice new ideas, especially with my love of wild magic…it’s time to change up some of the rolling, I think.

#3 Comment By Razjah On April 17, 2012 @ 5:50 pm

What kind of games work best for this in your opinion? D&D seems like a good idea, but the magic system shenanigans mean that most times it is irrelevant. While in a game like Burning Wheel, these may almost never come up in a bloody versus test which is more common than the fight mechanic (in my experience).

#4 Comment By Scott Martin On April 17, 2012 @ 7:44 pm

[10] – That does work well–and relieves you of generating most of the trash. Sure, people might bother to check them out…but not as many as a video game, where it’s trivially simple to do so. When the GM’s listing the stats of trash, you’re giving up adventuring time.

[11] – Cool–I’d love to hear about some of the dice ideas. You can do a lot of little swapping; like a d8 or a d4 for a d6, and if you have 3 or 4 dice that aren’t changing, the actual statistical difference is minimal. But there’s something cool about getting to roll the different die; or even rolling d4s to show that Ice is your sorcerer’s passion, not le ‘fireball.

[12] – Working these things into a game like D&D extends the range of non-magical items, allowing you to differentiate rewards without unbalancing the game by handing out big treasure early. (Particularly in pre-4e D&D.)

For Burning Wheel, I’d lean on the generator to prompt descriptions and histories–so “how it looks”, “actual quality”, and “where it’s from” columns, to give a greater illusion of depth and prompt interesting ideas for the GM.

#5 Comment By GremlinTheorist On April 17, 2012 @ 11:33 pm

Thank you for the article.

Regarding damage dice, I recently did a little experimenting, and although it has not come up much in-game (not yet anyway) it has added flavor. My players are based in a small settlement of crazy gnome engineers and magic users. There are frequent explosions due to mechanical failures (or unexpected successes). To show the wildness of gnome contraptions, I have made some of the effects deal 1d20 damage. This means that sometimes the effect is very dangerous, but it has an equal chance of being mostly harmless or middle of the road. 3d6 would generate the same average damage (10.5) but has far less variation (1 in 216, about 0.5%, for an 18. A d20 hits 18 or better 3 in 20, or 15%). A single large die better reflects the unreliability of gnome gadgets/bombs. Also, 20 damage won’t outright kill any of my PCs, so the worst effects will be scary but still non-lethal (and we’re playing 4th ed d&d, with all its loony-toons healing glory).

In combat, I’d feel a lot safer having the party be the ones with the highly variable damage. If my monsters get obliterated by someones 2d12+4 fireball (17 ave, 6-28 range) that’s ok. If I accidentally kill the party, that’s harder to explain.

#6 Comment By Scott Martin On April 18, 2012 @ 9:25 am

[12] – On thinking further (in the shower this morning), two other points.

First: I suspect that incorporating significant effects into treasure is perpendicular to the thrust of burning wheel; counting coppers is important for Dwarven Greed, but in a gritty setting like most BW worlds, a sharp knife, even if rusty, kills as thoroughly.

Second: On the other hand, emphasizing the differences between the races is also an important part of the game. Weapons could easily have a new trait, “X balance”, so “Elf Balanced”, “Dwarf Balanced”, etc. Beyond color, this could work into the game in several ways.

Most people are going to be trained with weapons balanced for their race. If you’re a human who uses dwarf balanced weapons… how did that come to be?

“Elf Balanced” weapons emphasize quickly redirecting the weapon. Typically made for an elf’s slender fingers, dwarves and humans often find their ring and pinky fingers riding around dense, large pommels. Adapting a elf balanced weapon for human and dwarf hands often requires wrapping the hilt with leather to flush the hilt out with the pommel. Elf balanced weapons give +1 to Feint and Parry. [Etc.]

Dwarf balanced weapons are point heavy, good at attack, if slower to respond.

You can 2d6 roll for “significant foes”: on an 11 or 12, they use a weapon balanced for a different race. The vast majority of dwarven steel or elf-crafted items have the balance of their own race.

[13] – Great example! The huge variance of a d20 is an interesting contrast to 3d6, and really should make gnomish contraptions feel random.

I understand your reluctance to give high variability weapons to their foes; it feels like tempting fate. The enemy dice will run cold at the first encounter, making the PCs feel like a fight’s a cake walk; at the second encounter, they’ll roll endless 12s and 20s and wipe out your hapless PCs. (Particularly since you adjusted their number up after the disappointing first fight…)

#7 Comment By BryanB On April 18, 2012 @ 11:07 am

I just enjoy stuff like this. Using simple tools to add an illusion of depth in the variety of gear without getting bogged down in unnecessary complexity.

#8 Comment By BryanB On April 18, 2012 @ 4:32 pm

[14] – By the way, just when are you going to get around to running our group through a Burning Wheel game anyway? 😀

#9 Comment By Scott Martin On April 18, 2012 @ 6:20 pm

[15] – After I run a session or two of With Great Power. 😉