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28 August 2014 @ 12:17 pm
Why are crafting rules always so awful?  
In video games, using gear I've made myself is one of the most satisfying ways to overcome challenges. Games like Unreal World make basically an entire game out of heading into the wilderness and turning plants and animals into gear, and even games where crafting plays a minor part like Dungeons of Dredmor or Diablo III draw me into the crafting because of that "I made this" feeling. So why is it that I never play crafters in tabletop games?

Well, basically because crafting rules in PnP RPGs are always terrible. But why is that? I have some ideas.

It's Totally Arbitrary
Video games with robust crafting rules tend to do a lot of world simulation as well, or at least appear to do so from the player's perspective--for example, Unreal World has relatively rare animal spawns, but cheats to spawn animals near traps so the PC can actually live on them. Nonetheless, this is an actual system, and results in the PC being able to go out and hunt for things after having gained some idea of where materials can be found. In Fallout: New Vegas, different animals are found in different areas, so if the PC needs a deathclaw spleen, they can go to the quarry and start shanking some deathclaws.

However, the big benefit of video games is that they run these systems regardless of the PCs actions. Even if a character in Skyrim isn't looking for ore for that sword they've thought of making or more potion ingredients, they might stumble across it anyway. They could open a chest and find a gem they can put in an amulet, or get jumped by a basilisk and finally get the crispy basilisk gall bladder to make to Ring of Protection from Stoning or whatever.

Tabletop RPGs rarely, if ever, do this, since it requires extremely robust random tables and either an enormous amount of rolling beforehand or an enormous amount of rolling on the spot. Typically, ingredients appear in the world in response to PCs seeking them out, which isn't that bad, but it removes the "Hey, I wonder what I can make with this?" aspect that's so much fun in video game crafting systems. The crafting system essentially revolves around the behavior of the PCs and their actions, which is ironically what video games are usually criticized for-- that the world doesn't exist when the player isn't nearby--and doesn't leave much room for unexpected results without a lot of GM time that's probably better spent elsewhere. And if the PCs can only make items when they deliberately seek them out, then that means that making items becomes the focus of the game whenever anyone wants to make one. That's not automatically bad, but it can annoy non-crafter PCs and encourage simplification of finding ingredients, which makes the whole thing trivial and just seem like unnecessary fluff around getting new stuff instead of an interesting part of the game.

Extended Rolls Are Boring
Usually there's not that much difference between video game crafting and tabletop crafting in the actual process--in video games you click a button, and in PnP games you roll some dice. However, one trap I see PnP games fall into is requiring multiple rolls to make a single item. Multiple rolls accumulating toward some threshold are okay in time-critical situations (roll to hack the lock while the group is under fire! One roll per round, three successful rolls needed!), but if there's no immediate time pressure, then there's a lot of rolling dice with no immediate benefit. I don't think I've ever seen a video game where you need to click the craft button three times to successfully make a single item, and there's a reason for that.

A similar effect to extended rolls is possible by making subcomponents first and then assembling them, which might work because at least then the PC has tangible evidence of their progress.

And this isn't universally implemented, but something like Diablo II's Horadric Cube where you physically (so to speak) put the items into the crafting space and then assemble them that way are more viscerally satisfying than just saying, "I make the thing," and there's basically no way to replicate that in a PnP situation without fiddly components.

Craft Skills Aren't Useful Day-to-Day
This is highly variable and not universally applicable, but one problem is if crafting skills are only good for making long-term projects and not good for anything that a PC is likely to encounter in their daily lives. For example, if Swordsmithing can only make new swords from scratch and not repair broken weaponry, or if there aren't even any rules for breaking or repairing anything, than Swordsmithing is going to have to work really hard to justify spending any character resources on it.

As an example that works well, alchemy in Dungeons of Dredmor allows the PC to make potions in the long term and combine weak booze (that restores mana) to make stronger booze in the short term. Even if the player never makes a single potion, they still get the benefit of more inventory space and more powerful mana recovery through their crafting skill. However, since tabletop RPGs rarely have mana-per-turn nor inventory space/encumbrance as a concern, and even those that do tend to default to GMs handwaving it during play, this kind of beneft is pretty hard to replicate in a PnP environment. About the best that could be done is a repair system, and that require equipment damage, which is also usually handwaved if it's even codified in the first place.

Balance Is Nearly Impossible
Okay, this isn't just a problem with PnP games, as anyone who made a potion of +1973473 Intelligence (on a 1-100 scale) for 2381 hours in Morrowind can tell you.

Since tabletop crafting rules rely so much on GM input for both what can be made and what materials are available to make them, it's very easy for crafting to be either so underpowered that it's worthless (the most common, I think) or for the GM to accidentally allow a game-breaking superweapon to be made and then have the game explode in nuclear fire as the PCs win everything forever. If it's underpowered, then crafting never gets used because it's a waste, and if it's overpowered, the entire rest of the game gets ignored because crafting is now the I Win button. Finding anything even close to the middle is really hard if not impossible.

It Takes Too Long
Video games tend to have ludicrously unrealistic crafting systems, like how the Dragonborn can bang out a sword in half an hour before heading down to the tavern for some Nord mead. And that is ludicrous, but it's fun as long as you don't think about the wider effects on the world. Tabletop games tend to have more realistic crafting systems, meaning it takes a lot longer and requires downtime which may or may not be available. If the PCs are fighting the Evil Overlord they probably can't take six months for the wizard to enchant a staff, and even if they can take six months, the other players get a lot of time to do other stuff while the wizard gets to roll some dice and otherwise sit quietly at the table. That's when the cell phones come out and the session degenerates.

So there are some of the problems. I'm not actually certain there's a solution to any of this, though. I suspect crafting is one of those things that tabletop RPGs are just inherently bad at, like fiddly combat with lots of status effects and modifiers, surviving against the elements, or conversations that the players are watching but not participating in.
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q99q99 on August 28th, 2014 07:50 pm (UTC)
Hm, the best I can think of is the Eberron Artificier, which iirc had some options for whipping things together fast.
dorchadas: Pile of Dicedorchadas on August 29th, 2014 11:39 pm (UTC)
Jury-rigging (or similar activities, like first aid or the aforementioned lockpicking) avoids a lot of these problems and can work just fine. It looks like they operate on a similar timescale (I'm going from this description)?
q99q99 on August 30th, 2014 12:20 am (UTC)

They have 'imbuing,' i.e. quickly putting on an ability, as well as full crafting. A way to get a magic item going *fast*, as well as a way to get a better one for keeps.