Wednesday, July 7, 2021

Brave Design Notes 2: Items and Shopping

Brave is a hack of Ben Milton's Knave, an old-school adventure game toolkit without classes and a lot more emphasis on equipment. The earliest changes I made were miscellaneous tweaks and houserules I added as I would run Knave, but at this point I've bolted on several advanced play procedures. While Knave is optimized for a DIY "rulings over rules" style of play, I still felt it was valuable to write down many of those rulings that I've made over the years and codify them. One of the best parts of the original Knave were the designer's notes, but I've taken them out because I needed to make room for new stuff and I assume that anyone playing my game would already be familiar with the original version anyway. Instead, you get my blog.

These notes are written for version 1.9, which you can find on the sidebar of this blog or by clicking here.

Items and Shopping

Brave is all about the equipment. And a game that's all about the equipment is also all about the money. Rather than expanding into design areas like backgrounds and classes and feats and whatnot, the thing which gets fleshed out here is everything having to do with stuff. I felt that the original Knave provided a good foundation for this with its simple item slot rules and impressive equipment page, but there's so much more that could be added.

1. Handy Slots
This was added to resolve an issue with action economy during urgent situations. This was inspired by this post by The Man With a Hammer. Here's the thinking:

We might imagine that a big part of tactics in Brave is what you're holding in your hands. You should never have a free hand. You either have a two-handed weapon, a shield, a secondary weapon, a lantern, or something like a potion. And you should frequently feel limited by these two hands of yours, needing to do an action that requires a free hand but not knowing which thing to drop. It's a vital part of what makes the combat system tactically interesting.

But we also must then define the cost for swapping out an item. If it could be done freely, then there'd be no point to the two-hand limit. You functionally have infinite hands because you could swap out items an infinite number of times on your turn. There'd be no distinction between, "stuff immediately available for use" and "stuff that's deep in your backpack." So the first idea to resolve this would be, "to get an item from your inventory, it uses your action." Sounds fine, right?

But that might be a little too costly. It will discourage too many situtations in which the player wants to grab an item but doesn't think it's worth it if it'll take an entire turn. This is especially true for characters who rely on spellbooks a lot. Because a spellbook uses both your action to cast from and is required to be held in both hands in order to use, then using 3 spellbooks in one battle would take at least 6 turns.

Thus, handy slots. Choose which parts of your inventory can be accessed freely and which parts cost an action to retrieve. Prioritize the things you want readily available and what stuff you think you can afford to take a turn to look for in your bag. If you want to cast lots of spells easily, then increase your DEX and keep your most important combat spells in those Handy Slots. This also helps make Dexterity a little more useful in a game that otherwise doesn't have many uses for it, which is nice.

2. Shopping
This is mostly covered in the pages on Settlements, but they go hand in hand. I want to clarify up front that I hate "shopping sessions." They are almost certainly my least favorite thing to do in D&D, and they pretty much instantly ruin game night for me. However, choosing to actively roleplay a shopping trip is not the only way to build on shopping as an element of gameplay, and I think I've instead added other, better elements and twists which make it interesting for players.

So no, when we play Brave we won't (usually) be playing out your shopping trips. I'll just hand you the equipment pages and you tell me what you bought at market and that's that. Here's what's different:

While the game has 1 master list of "all" items purchaseable at market, at any given settlement it's instead actually limited by price range. Towns don't have everything that cities have and villages don't have everything that towns have, so there can occasionally be situations where the PCs need to buy something that they can't get unless they travel to a community 3 or 4 days away. Basic supplies can be found anywhere, but when a knave gets high enough level to afford some plate amor and wants to get suited up, they may be forced to travel to the big city to do so, which helps to drive the sandbox adventure.

Likewise, special commissions are possible within the game, but only from specialist vendors. Specialists are generated as part of the settlement creation rules, so unlike any generic shop, you can't just assume that a specialist of the type you need is in your community. You might have to ask around to find out where the nearest master smith is, or the nearest master apothecary or something. Once again, if you hear that they're a week's journey away across the border, then you have your next adventure lined up.

I also have a small note on making an honest living during downtime, the role of sales taxes (an important part of Medieval life), and a warning that I don't feel like haggling so don't try it. There's also a bit in there about daily buying and selling caps per district, which matters more for downtime periods when a player might get interested in some economics shenanigans and needs to be limited somehow. Don't worry too much about that if you aren't into that sort of thing, I just have a player who really likes EVE Online.

3. Money
I like different gradations of currency, and I especially like electrum. Here's my original post explaining what electrum should actually be used for, since D&D usually gets it wrong. Much like price limits, having a separate Underworld currency will force players to occasionally be faced with figuring out where they'll be doing their buying before they can resolve what they'll be buying.

See, the Underworld is a dangerous and inhospitable place, so normally the PCs would never have any reason to go down there beyond their brief trips into dungeons where they plunder for loot. But if the loot they plunder is in a currency not accepted in the Overworld, then they'll have no choice but to go back down there and find a market owned by dwarves or kobolds or something so they can spend their money. And thus, you can force players into circumstances where they have to travel the Underworld and interact with its interesting, exotic societies despite the danger involved.

And because electrum has the exact same value as copper, you don't have to make a separate price list for Underworld markets. You just tell the players, "take the prices already written on the equipment page and imagine they're in ep instead of cp."

4. Item Quality
Again, this is in the original Knave but I've elaborated on it a bit. It's a very elegant system for making fumbles and criticals more meaningful. It also gives you a small money sink for PCs who otherwise could have just gotten one axe at character creation and never had to worry about spending money on a weapon for the rest of their life. It's also an interesting thing to target with special monster and player abilities, like rust monsters doing direct damage to one's weapon quality or giving players an adamantine breastplate that never loses quality.

I also added Fragile and Rubbish as another way to play with the quality system and make item breakages even more common. I especially like it as a tradeoff for using a magic starmetal or cold iron weapon, so PCs have to be smart about how often they'll use those special materials. "Why doesn't Geralt just always use his magic sword?" Consider that maybe the magic sword is a bit more fragile, eh?

And putting players into a situation where the only weapons and armor they have access to are Rubbish is a really interesting challenge. Not long-term, mind you, but it can certainly teach a lot of OSR philosophy very quickly.

5. Storage Items
I will admit, this idea doesn't make a ton of sense. After all, I defined item slots as, "an abstraction of weight, space, and wieldiness." If you buy ammunition, it's assumed that you also get the quiver it comes in, y'know? No point even talking about the places in which your items are stored, because that's part of the abstraction taking place.

HOWEVER... when playing the original Knave I constantly ran into situations where a player would roll something like "a sack" or "a backpack" for their starting equipment and would be confused how it works.
"So it takes up an item slot?"

"That's right, just one."

"What would I use it for?"

"It can carry stuff! Put stuff in there."

"Don't I already have item slots for putting my stuff in? What was I carrying all this other shit in if not a backpack??"
Hence, why I realized that for things like sacks and backpacks and bandoliers to be a functional item in this game, they must instead add item slots rather than occupy them. Which is, from a mechanical point of view, actually a pretty interesting type of item to acquire as treasure. Whereas other tools have specific functions to solve problems in the adventure itself, storage items help you combat a problem built right into the ruleset: limited inventory space.

A few notes: first, it's still the case that most things which "store" your items are handwaved. Your sword's scabbard doesn't count as one of your storage items, nor does your quiver for arrows or your canteen for water or your bottle for perfume. This is only for the major storage items, like a backpack.

Second, it's important not to go overboard with these since limited inventory space should still be a major part of the game. That's why I instituted the "3 storage items" limit. And now I have an easy way to explain how a Bag of Holding works in this system: it counts as a storage item that grants 10 item slots.

6. Gunpowder
There are many ways I've seen to include guns in OSR play and while I'll admit that it isn't a huge priority for me, I do want my dwarves and gnomes to be armed with Renaissance-era firearms. So here's the absolute simplest (and definitely not realistic) system I came up with that I thought was fair.

Pros of Firearms:
  • Higher damage dice (a d10, d12, and d20 instead of the d4, d6, and d8 of normal ranged weapons. The musket's d20 is intentionally swingy, to reflect how dangerous-yet-unreliable they are)
  • Damage armor quality on a hit
  • Muskets have the longest range of any ranged weapon
Cons of Firearms:
  • Expensive as fuck
  • Must carry a powder horn in an item slot in addition to the weapon and its ammunition, making firearms overall more encumbering than any other weapons
  • Pistols have the shortest range of any ranged weapon

7. Black Market Items
Most of what's in here was previously found in other categories like Tools and whatnot. But then I realized that I wanted a master list of black market stuff I could always pull up whenever someone in the party is getting a little shady. I think an important part of an equipment-based game, aside from having a large list of items to buy, is for players to have interesting things to discover while browsing. Imagine if, between sessions, your players take a few minutes to casually skim these pages and see something that never would have occurred to them to buy, but which sounds awesome.
"I can coat my weapon with venom? That's awesome! I should do that next session!"

"Huh, why haven't I ever bought a donkey before? I could have it carry so much shit."

"Garlic? Wolfsbane? You know, it would be nice to be prepared if we ever entered Vampire country..."

"Hirelings? You mean I can just pay a guy to clean and carry my shit or hold the lantern? Shit, I'm gunna hire a whole staff of helpers."

"A portrait costs between 100 and 1000 copper? I know what I'm spending my treasure on!"

And of course, a big part of that is the "Black Market Items," the spiciest equipment list in the game. Hell, it even gives you an idea of what kind of stuff you can sell. If you see that monster eggs go for around 300 cp per HD of monster, then maybe that'll inspire you to grab the giant spider eggs in the next dungeon you enter.

8. Domain and Downtime Stuff
Artisan kits are taken from 5E D&D with some stuff added, and can be used during downtime to make an honest living. Foodstuffs are from the original Knave and might be important as a trade good. The original version also had buildings and vehicles you could buy that were pretty expensive. The thing is, most things that tie into domain play are going to be located in the second core rulebook of Brave, which covers content suited for mid-game play (around levels 4-7).

That's the book where you'll find an equipment page for buying buildings and land, warships, siege engines, workshops and sources of capital like mines and mills, and all that sort of stuff. I have a feeling I'll be relocating Artisan kits and Foodstuffs there too, but when I do that I'll have a lot of room to fill on the second equipment page for this rulebook. Any ideas about what other goods and services I could put in the core rulebook that's fit for low-level play? Any ideas about more hirelings and services I could add?

9. Animals and Transport
Why didn't mounts and vehicles have item slots listed before? If a huge part of the game is managing inventory space in a slot framework, and the main benefit to having a donkey or a wagon is more storage space, then surely they should be tied into that slot framework. Well, I've solved that problem. And I threw in saddlebags and barding, too. PCs should own horses eventually.

And of course, if PCs can't afford their own vehicle yet or would have nowhere to store it, then I'd at least offer them the choice to pay for a lift on a per-mile basis. In fact, I made an effort throughout to write down miscellaneous prices of things that aren't exactly "equipment" but just general expenses. Travel tolls, gossip, daily living expenses, etc.


From a "pure game design" standpoint, this is probably my favorite material I've added to the game. Starting with a simple idea and seeing how far you can take it, including every way in which it can be used and made into choices and tradeoffs... that's where you really get cooking. If I were playing a more narrativist or action-heavy game then I wouldn't want all this crap. I'd want items and shopping to be as simple and unobstructive as possible. Some games go so far as to fully abstract them, turning all items into deux ex machinas. But this is a game about equipment, so it's only right that it be given primacy of mechanical complexity and depth.

Leaning into the analogy of "equipment = class" in this game, think about just how much time is spent by players of modern D&D/Pathfinder reading through books and magazines and wikis and blogs and whatever else for character options. People just soak that stuff up and then spend hours and hours theorycrafting interesting builds. A 5E player will gladly purchase a book of new class options they'll never use just to read through and think about.

Well, why not do that with equipment? Spend your time reading through these lists and seeing how the economics works and start thinking about the possibilities. Start thinking about what stuff you'll save up for. Set some goals for yourself. It's almost half the fun!


Go to part 3: Alignment and Combat

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