Crafting at the Tabletop

skyrim_smithingA lot of computer roleplaying games and especially MMOs often feature crafting. In games like The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim or World of Warcraft players can craft a plethora of items from raw materials. Yesterday I was playing Skyrim again and I noticed that I basically spent all day disenchanting magic items, mining ore and crafting armor pieces and weapons, which I then enchanted with the effects I wanted.

Curiously not many tabletop RPGs feature player-created items. One of these few games is D&D. Especially when the Eberron campaign setting came out I hoped someone would run an Eberron campaign for me so that I could play an Artificer. Artificers are a special kind of magic users that instead of throwing fancy spells around, they create wands, scrolls, rings, etc. or put enchantments on items. Usually characters had to pay item creation with experience points and was not that popular because of that, but the Artificer actually got a certain pool of points every level that he could use to create items without having to pay from his experience points directly. I thought this could be a fun character class and I definitely wanted to play one.

I also faintly remember that my first Earthdawn character I ever played was a Weaponsmith. And when I am not mistaken, every discipline (Earthdawn’s classes) had various crafting abilities from creating runes to forging armor. For some reason I can’t remember anymore I played this character only for a few sessions before switching to a Scout, but I still think that a travelling craftsman could be an interesting alternative to the usual adventurers.

My game Warrior, Rogue & Mage actually features crafting skills as well, like Alchemy, that allows the creation of potions, but I never actually wrote down rules on how this is supposed to work. Yesterday while creating Iron Daggers in Skyrim to improve my Smithing skill, I pondered why player-crafted items usually don’t play a big role at the tabletop. Even in the computer games it feels a lot like work, but still we do it to get exactly the items we need. Or creating and selling player-created items is a good way to pay the bills. But I can’t remember the last time one of my players wanted to forge his own sword.

I think one reason why crafting items is not common at the game table is that it’s not what adventurers usually worry about. In most cases – especially in fantasy games – the game is about killing monsters and taking their stuff, not standing for hours in the smithy. In a lot of campaign settings magical shops are quite common and you get magical swords at every street corner. So why bother creating your own sword, when you can easily buy one? And what killed the idea for me in the D&D games I participated in was the fact that I had to pay magic item creation with experience points.

But I still like the idea of allowing players to craft their own equipment if they wish to do so. And perhaps there are already a few games out there that support this kind of gameplay. I ‘m actually almost certain that I own a couple of these games but I never actually paid too much attention on this aspect before.

What are your thoughts on that topic? Player-created items in your tabletop RPG? Yay or nay? Please share your comments below!

Michael Wolf is a German games designer and enthusiast best known for his English language role-playing games blog, Stargazer's World, and for creating the free rules-light medieval fantasy adventure game Warrior, Rogue & Mage. He has also worked as an English translator on the German-language Dungeonslayers role-playing game and was part of its editorial team. In addition to his work on Warrior, Rogue & Mage and Dungeonslayers, he has created several self-published games and also performed layout services and published other independent role-playing games such as A Wanderer's Romance, Badass, and the Wyrm System derivative Resolute, Adventurer & Genius, all released through his imprint Stargazer Games. Professionally, he works as a video technician and information technologies specialist. Stargazer's World was started by Michael in August 2008.

7 thoughts on “Crafting at the Tabletop”

  1. Actually, this is a topic I gave some thought to.
    I’ve got a few things to contribute:
    First, a crafting skill/ability allows characters to make money in downtime – pay the bills, as you said.
    Second, I think crafting is usually implemented with very little award or achievement to things you make. D&D has convoluted rules to create something of subpar power compared to things the adventurers will find.
    Third, I would love to see my players take on more than going out and killing and looting. I would like them to live in a simulation, rather than a game.

    How I think I will jury-rig crafting to existing games and implement it in Fantastic Tales:
    The basis is that a character has no interest in investing time – game or session – in creating mundane items. They are Heroes and as such should not invest active screen time in mundane work. Expanding on that, I want to give players the tools to create interesting items
    I think the most important bit to that end is to give simple rules with a lot of options. So I plan on making it very binary in the way that both development and eventual outcome are resolved very easily.
    After that, is what the items are. Alchemy should be straight forward, but maybe something a bit like Skyrim – divide the reagents into general classes (Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta and so on, for instance.) and have the characters just generally mix them up. Weapons and armor should be tied to using rare materials in order to create a specific weapon of the player’s design.
    The final part is rewarding characters crafting over other things – special bonuses, expanded options or something of the like.

    An application idea I just had:
    Depending on materials and a few other factors, the weapons have organic growth over use, making them better. These are exclusive to weapons crafted by *a* character, meaning all characters may ask a single character to produce their equipment.
    This, of course, also applies to armor.

    As for wondrous items… Essentially, all it really takes is a flexible point based system. Legend has very simple and clear guidelines for race creation. Wondrous items could have something similar.

    Those are my thoughts on the matter.

  2. I’m fine with players in tabletop RPGs crafting their own stuff. But I don’t think the game needs to be burdened with those mechanics.

    The real reason players in RPGs don’t spend time crafting? It’s boring for everyone else. In Skyrim you only have yourself to entertain, and the system is designed to entertain you, and get you hooked. In a tabletop RPG when you spend time crafting you are putting the spotlight on yourself to do something that, ultimately, isn’t heroic and isn’t entertaining for the rest of the players.
    Try roleplaying the act of smithing in an awesome or entertaining way? It can’t be done (you can dress up the process with some history or fancy materials, but ultimately that stuff doesn’t matter). You can be an entertaining diplomat, or thief, or reaver, but not blacksmith.

  3. I allow and encourage my players to craft their own items. I threw out the XP cost to create a magical item. In fact, I reversed it. Applying what you’ve learned increases your experience. It doesn’t diminish it. What I do is to take the XP cost for creation and make it the minimum amount of XP the PC must have in order to craft the item. They then get 10% of tha value as actual XP for successful creation. Of course, there are rolls to be made before you can declare your attempt a success, and some things just have to wait for certain phases of the moon, constellations, etc., so this isn’t an automatic way to get XP, but it lets the players put their own touch into the world. One of my most rewarding sessions involved a mixed group of players, some veterans of my table, some newbies. In a run through a dungeon that one of the vets had been through years ago, his PC back then had lost a custom-made sword. During exploration, the newbie’s PC found the sword! (Of course, the vet wanted his sword back, but I had to remind him this was 200 years ago and his current PC had only heard of the sword through legends.) After the game we explained how the sword got there Out of Game. While the newbie was bowled over at the idea of something from a game played long ago still being around to fall into someone’s hands, the player was impressed that something he did so many years ago had become part of this world that we created, “like it was real”. I was amazed that not only was this sword lost long before the newbie’s PC was born, it was lost long before the newbie himself was born!

    Alchemy we handle differently. Half your XP comes from experimenting in the lab, so I get a lot of one-on-one sessions with the alchemist player. (The player is known for his sense of fairness, so he doesn’t try to hog my time just to gte more XP. He usually gets to the table early and we sort it out then.) At first I treated alchemy like a hobby that any PC could have. But learning more about alchemists historically, I realized that it was quite a personal investment. I wound up with a pdf of “The Compleat Alchemist”, and that along with Skyrim’s system for alchemy has formed the basis for my alchemy system. I never did like the “alchemists just replicate magic-user effects” thing. I give the alchemists what he knows about various ingredients and let him combine them in any way he sees fit. Certain things don’t work well together while others see spectacular (and in the case of Castle Hellsinger, historical and far-reaching) effects, but some of these effects he learns about in the lab, or else by blowing it up.

  4. crafting would be fine as a “between adventures activity”, almost like a minigame. 🙂

    in the irc fudge channel, we’ve discussed this and one of my friends is drafting it. 🙂

  5. Like others in this thread, I encourage players to have ideas for their own stuff all the time but the actual act of crafting is done away from the table. This way, we can balance the new item and it doesn’t detract from playing the game.

  6. Would games like Battletech count toward the concept of crafting? It’s not usually looked at like the PC made the custom Mech but the player does.

    Star Frontiers had starship creation rules and so did Starfleet Battles (which we used the rules for while playing the Star Trek RPG).

    The WEG Star Wars had ship modding rules that we used all the time.

    I guess part of the difference is that the crafting usually only takes money in Sci-Fi games. They really need to take some kind of rare resources (in addition to money) so that the players can spend time in game going after those resources. They don’t have to be exotic materials, although they could be, but might make the build job faster or cheaper to get a pre-made part. “I need the adaptor coupling for a Cardassian warp core to a Klingon warp drive. There were rumors that someone in the Mutarta sector was making them, know anything about it?”

  7. I love crafting but it should be done in downtime, per or post game, between games, something.

    Crafting takes too much time for characters to put into something to make themselves but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have something spectacular. I love the idea of templates you can add during item creation. So while you’re on a quest for the smith that can add x y and z templates to your weapon, or armor or possibly some other item. The templates I know of off the top of my head are in Player’s Handbook II, Hammer and Helm, and a few other materials.

    These templates add mundane properties to generally metal objects but I’m sure could be passed to others as well. For instance, Folded Metal increases an objects hardness by 5, grants 10 HP and if a weapon, increases its critical threat range by 1. An obvious improvement even if minor.

    In games I run, anyone that wants to craft is more than welcome to. Out of game. I also increase the speed at which items are made as I reduce the value of everything drastically. So instead of determining progress in cup, a player determines progress in gp.

    At a certain level it should be considered that players have virtual free access to what they need from their sphere importance and financial backing. PCs could travel to the endless city of commerce and find whatever they wanted in materials or wares… for the right price!

    I really feel templates are the way to go but I feel there is a sore lack of them sadly. Too few companies have paid any or little to templates that can be added to equipment and the right amount of time on items from different races. Each race should have its own unique perspective on equipment and crafting techniques and technology. I can find it easy to believe in Eberron that they had power hammers (effectively really fast and strong war forged smiths) that could churn out equipment whereas a rural blacksmith in the middle of nowhere, it takes a minute but their mind sets and ideas of how armor should function are in basics the same, how its achieved is different.

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