A different approach to items

Items are easily liquidated in most RPGs, especially MMORPGs. The main reasons for this are utility, efficiency and flexibility. It allows you to sidestep the minutia of item-for-item bartering, and incrementally build up a fortune. But as with most game mechanics, this is firmly anchored to the one true indicator of progress: the character’s level.

Levels typically work on a logarithmic scale. It takes twice the effort to get to level 3 as it does to get to level 2. More often than not, your skills are boosted by a factor less than 1.5 to give you a sense of progress, but also to lengthen the timescale of the new level by a little. There are several reasons for this. Developers don’t want people to race through their games. MMORPGs want to stratify their players for cultural and incentivization reasons. And when the linear rise in power falls below the exponential requirements for the next level, the gap between these two lines is where a sense of skill can lie.

The problem with this is that this system completely abuses items in a moral sense. Levels are the demonstration that one man’s treasure is another man’s trash. You can strive for that coveted Flame Sword +1 at level 1, but when you’re level 10, you’ve got so many you just stack them in your fireplace for warmth (or at level 20, you weld them into all the spare pieces of plate armour you have so you can have a heated swimming pool, filled with potions of minor healing). In short, once you have one Flame Sword +1, the rest are almost useless to you. They become meaningless. Markets step in and promise to turn your “worthless” items into gold. Once you’ve amassed enough gold, you can start all over again with a Flame Sword +2 or +5+ or +10. And really the better items are just ones with bigger combat bonuses, or a greater density of abilities.

In some games (tabletop D&D for example), they have a two-tier system. There are commodity items like normal weapons and gear, but there are basic magical items too. That’s tier one. Tier two are the artifacts, things with histories and detailed descriptions. And their powers are typically quite different from your usual loot[1. Usually these powers are extraordinary and maybe even game-breaking, mostly because you don’t want them to match at all with the normal gear.]. Games like Diablo and Torchlight give the impression that they are using such a hierarchy, but they aren’t. I was initially proud to have found a bunch of Unique items in Torchlight, only to have my hopes dashed when I found several more identical “Unique” items. You get a similar feel from games like World of Warcraft or Oblivion, just without the blatant contradictions in item text like: “(Unique) Crossbow of Malice (4)”.

In two-tier systems no number of mundane items will ever be tradable for an artifact. In these other games, every artifact has its price. As ludicrous as it might be, the legendary Excalibur might be worth several million rat tails. It might be a better use of your time to go after Excalibur, but there’s always the rat-tail option. Having such a system isn’t completely silly – it allows a continuity of value to smooth over the discrete steps imposed by levelling up. It also gives you an intrinsic valuation of the time you’ve invested in a game.

With Kung Fu Legends, I want to take the stylistic opposite approach to this system of items. The main point it hinges on is telling a story. I don’t want bigger numbers to be the result of a gaming session, but an interesting story. That’s much harder to quantify but potentially more valuable. To this end, mundane items like clothes, containers and other minutia are handled implicitly. If the story needs them, they are there. Perhaps in the background the computer is tracking your inventory, but you won’t have any reason to do it yourself. You are responsible for pushing the story forward, not doing the accounting.

If this were the extent of the item system, then it’s pretty easy to implement and pretty colourless to experience. The sword The Green Destiny was crucial in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The three Sacred Treasures of Japan (三種の神器) were the traditional confirmation of The Emperor’s legitimate sovereignty. And who could forget Monkey’s jet cloud and magical Power Rod from Monkey Magic. And items don’t have to be magical to be important: Ogami Ittō’s dōtanuki sword is important to the story of Lone Wolf and Cub because of the history of violence and what it said about his character. But if you gave that same sword to some other guy, it’d lose its meaning (whereas a Flame Sword +1 means precisely the same thing to different characters in a standard fantasy RPG, ignoring issues of class restrictions). I’d like to have these story-centric items to be like the artifacts of D&D, but without the requirement of being mega-awesome in the hands of anyone. I’d like that weight of time and context to define the item, not what it means to combat rolls. Special weapons in such a case can still be an effective bonus in combat, but because they are finely crafted to accentuate a user’s skills, or because it gives them a psychological edge (like the sword of their murdered father).

I think this is a neat philosophy to hold onto. It would make a refreshing change from the “gained a level, better buy new weapons” experience many other games provide.

3 thoughts on “A different approach to items”

  1. Hear Hear B. In some sense, I think that’s what made games like Ultima 7 (I’ve only played 7…) so good. While there were lots of “standard” items, the few special ones really were special. You had to really hunt for the lightning whips… and there were only so many of them in the game. Each had its own implicit backstory. Or the “Hoe of death”, which, from memory, you got by finding a key in the belly of a fish on the shore of a lake somewhere, after hearing from an old fellow that he lost it one day in the lake… etc. etc.

    Admittedly, once you had these weapons, they did pretty much just affect combat roles, and not much else. But they still *felt* like they were special.

    I guess you’re wanting to take it n-steps further. Go for it, I say! 🙂

  2. I think I get what you mean with all this talk about items, and involving them in the storyline. The sword from Conan the Barbarian was pivotal in the storyline, a shining piece of beauty in the midst of dirty leathers and furs. The movie begins with it’s creation, and practically ends with it’s destruction – the Riddle of Steel.

    Swapping back to your Kung Fu Legends idea, I am intrigued as to how you would implement such an idea. The japanese treated their weapons (particularly the daisho) as though they were sacred, but a samurai was so much more than just a guy with a good sword.

    It’s sad most games nowdays ignore that – it’s the loot = skill idiom. The better the sword and armour, the better the player. Sadly most players just play for the loot. In WoW it’s whatever tier is flavour of the month – old school raids are largely ignored. In D&D, you get the Red Dragon Armour and your’re practically invincible. In Oblivion, it’s Daedric armour. Yippee for maths. But when I finish the storyline and get that super-stuff, to be honest, I don’t really feel inclined to start again from scratch and do it all over again. If I wanted to grind I’d buy a grinder.

    But yes… Take my comments with a pinch of salt. I’m the sort that thinks the AvP games were awesome. (Only the games mind you, the movies were stupid, but I still get a lot of strange looks when I admit that…). Anyway… Love your ideas on Kung Fu Legends, mate!

  3. I am not a game fan, but I like crouching tiger movie, and i am asian as well, so i love everything which is Asian 🙂

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