Today, I wanted to once again cast a glance over the subject of this month’s Blog Carnival and try to give a general view of the many number of ways that Loot can be made part of the plot, without getting too deeply into specifics.
This article is intended to be a companion piece to my earlier article which analyzed the types of loot that could be made part of the plot, “Loot As A Plot Mechanic”; instead of focusing on what the loot might be, this will look at the different types of activities that players might get up to in terms of loot. While there will be some emphasis on magic items as a central variety of loot, I’m going to try and retain a slightly broader perspective than that.
The title of this article lists seven activities, and those seven activities will be the major headings under which the discussion is organized. So lets dive into the deep end, shall we?
Everything that exists has to have been made by someone or something, even if the ‘craftsmen’ are the forces of nature. That truth is common to everything from a weapon to a meal to a gemstone. Even a title deed had to have been made by someone – in two separate senses of the word – crafting the document itself, and the granting of ownership that the document codifies. Who made something can sometimes be more important than anything else associated with the loot, for example in the case of a famous artist, a renowned chef, a powerful wizard, a nobleman’s rank, or a forger.
Giving the maker an identity can open doors for involving the players with old rivalries, forbidden practices and techniques, hidden agendas, court politics, revolutions, and/or criminal activities. There is a transference of plot significance from the item itself to the maker.
I was going to add an additional phrase to the preceding sentence, “an NPC” – but then the possibilities of building a plot around something that a PC had made in the past, or had paid another craftsman to make in the past, started presenting themselves to my imagination. Hidden extras, dodgy shortcuts in materials or construction that were not immediately obvious, compartments built into wagons to make the PCs unwitting accomplices to smuggling – there are significant possibilities here that should not be overlooked.
The makings of tomorrow
Of course, those all stem from casting the making of an item into the past sense. Casting it into the present sense doesn’t afford many story opportunities, I’m afraid, but casting it into the future tense is a very different story!
Future Tense plotlines that fall under the heading of “Making” involve the PCs either as supporters, opponents, or collateral damage. If supporters, the possibilities fall under the umbrella of obtaining materials (perhaps illegal ones), raising funds, hiring craftsmen, negotiating prices, deliveries and escort/protection services, dealing with anyone who might oppose the creation, and so on. If opponents, then the possibilities are of preventing or complicating the above. The last category, collateral damage, involves the PCs simply being bystanders when something dangerous is created, or potential victims when something extremely dangerous (possibly necromantic) is created.
Another subcategory that holds similar plot potential to the “future tense” creation plots lies in the possible plots surrounding the re-creation of something that was destroyed. This could be the recreation of something evil, to be opposed by the PCs, or something good, to be supported by the PCs (and possibly even granted to one of them).
And still another subcategory of plots deals with magic items whose nature can be modified, for good or ill. The armor of Ashen-Shugar comes to mind. But these are fairly obvious, so let’s move on…
Well, speaking of obvious. Plots in this line range from the sword in the stone (or equivalents) on. Even being granted a title qualifies as “Earning”.
To wring any original plots from this line, a GM has to really get creative. Prophecies and time loops and ironies have to be central to the GM’s thinking – anything, in fact, that can unhinge the perceived inevitability and predictability of the outcome. Metaphors and other literary tricks must be utilized, because there is very little that’s worse than being predictable.
At first glance, this describes the standard dungeon reward, but we want to at least glance beyond the traditional limits. Doing so brings up a single plot hook apon which many things can be hung: the unexpected.
Finding something that doesn’t belong. Finding something that is not where it should be. Finding something that is exactly what was promised – but that is nevertheless not what was expected. This is taking the loot, making it a plot device, and then adding a plot twist. It immediately raises questions of why, and who, and how – and questions and surprises are the heart of plotlines.
Picture the following: The PCs break into the room that supposedly contains the greatest treasure of a notoriously greedy and evil noble, having overcome traps and guardians to reach it and discover:
- The noble’s daughter, who has been imprisoned there; or
- the imprisoned figure of the true noble, whose role has been played by a usurper for decades; or
- the portrait of Dorian Gray (or whatever the noble’s name is); or
- a passageway between worlds; or….
…well, you get the idea. Any of the above qualify both as a ‘treasure’ in that they are something that can be stolen (or, at least, used) by the PCs, and yet they are clearly plot developments, first and foremost.
Identify: A Venting
In the old days, a character found an item which they knew to be magical, and then had to work out what it did by trial and error and research and, well, by play. Some GMs were generous enough to associate the strength of response of a “detect magic” spell with the overall potency or value of an arcane object, but even that was not mandated by the rules.
This entire plot structure was demolished by the creation of an “Identify” spell in D&D 3.0. On the objective level, I can acknowledge how logical it was that people living in such a world would develop such a spell, if they could; but as a GM who wants his story-telling armory stuffed with as many plot hooks as I can lay my hands on, I deplore it.
And yet, to be honest, it isn’t the existence of the spell that irks me – it’s the infallibility, cheapness of casting, and comprehensiveness of the spell that is the biggest problem. It’s not as though there was no middle ground that could not have been found that was more acceptable; but that middle ground, which would have preserved (even if not unchanged) the plot potential was left terra incognita.
If the detect spell had a chance of failure, that would have made it the equivalent of taking the magic item to an expert – a sage or bard or whatever. The chance of failure could even have been tied to the caster level. Or perhaps the identification of powers could cost a certain amount – say, 100 gp, doubling for each subsequent power. Or 1000gp. Or 10,000gp. Again, this is the equivalent of paying an expert to render an opinion, it’s a labor-saving device; it might void the roleplay of interacting with a possibly-mendacious expert, but something is preserved. Or perhaps a table would determine a smaller amount of information to be accurately related, instead of all details required. Heck, even making the answers a little cryptic would be an improvement. Or making the spell 9th level, so that very few had access to it. Even tagging it as a “Greater identify” and offering a more flawed version at lower levels….
The identify spell is an overt case of pandering to the videogame generation, but it totally kills the potential of plotlines relating to the analysis and identification of magic items, confining the creativity of the GM and the skull sweat that used to be required of players; and in the process, it kills any sense of wonder or mystery about Magic. (Part of the objective in the creation of Legacy Items was to restore that mystery and magic… time will tell how well we have succeeded).
My players will NOT use a magic item until it has been “identified” completely at least twice (they know how I feel about the spell and don’t trust me not to come up with some sneaky way around it – like a magic item with the activation phrase ‘Hastor Hastor Hastor’). Where’s the interest in that? The story potential?
Looking outside the box
Without restoring that mystery by weakening or eliminating “Identify”, we are again forced to look outside the box to find potential plot hooks in the analysis of treasure. The most obvious is using the results of “Identify” to raise questions about the previous owner, ie as a plot device for the imparting of player briefing. If the players capture the sword of an enemy and subject it to “identify”, they might discover that it may only be used by Demons, or by Outsiders. Suddenly, what was a plot endpoint is transformed into a plot launchpad. Even so, there are obvious limits to this type of plot.
Things change for the better when we consider other types of loot that might need to be analyzed. Tapestries and paintings and books and scrolls can all contain clues, puzzles, hints, or background information. This in turn can complicate seemingly-straightforward situations and enrich a plotline. I once hid part of a treasure map on a wall, part of it in a scroll, and part of it in the filigree of an otherwise unremarkable suit of armor that had – incongruously – been given a place of pride ahead of more obviously-deserving treasures of the type. To see the completed map, characters had to take a rubbing of the armor on a sheet of (thin!) parchment, shine a lantern through it so that the dark lines from the map were cast apon the wall, and do likewise at the same time to the scroll. Only then would the complete map appear on the wall – and it still had to be transcribed, translated, analyzed, and comprehended. For days, the characters were plagued by two nagging feelings: that the loot they had found was a twentieth of what was expected, having less value than the resources used to protect it; and that there was something that they had missed. Eventually, they figured it out… I was subjected to many dark looks for the rest of the day!
Then there are the potentials for codes and hidden messages, such as a series of alchemic formulas disguised as recipes – unless you knew the code (‘chicken’s feet = silver amalgamate’, ‘crushed basil = saltpeter’, and so on) it was totally worthless – but someone who knew the code, and that the formulas were hidden in the book kept trying to steal it or buy it from them. And every failed attempt deepened the mystery, and the players’ unwillingness to let go of it. The only fact the players were able to determine was that the book’s contents were somehow proofed against scrying. One player made the mistake of memorizing it – ‘just in case’ – and of course, he had no such protection…
The plots that come under the heading of “Using loot” all revolve around the question of who is using the loot. Is it the PCs? Is it their enemies? Is it a third party, who will complicate their lives?
These plots frequently put the cart before the horse, to good effect; a villain has certain unprecedented powers; players surmise that these are due to the magic items that he is using; players set out to find equivalents, or to steal the villain’s goodies, or to find counteragents. The one caveat to such plots is that the GM must reckon on the items eventually finding their way into the hands of the players, and plan accordingly – and without playing the “Bad guys only” card too frequently.
Fantasy Economic Assumptions: A Venting
This should be a lot harder than most GMs make it. “I have a 10,000gp gem that I’d like to trade in for gold pieces”. “I have a +2 dagger to sell.” “How much will you give me for a Sphere Of Annihilation?”
How many NPCs will have 10,000gp on hand? Of those that do, how many are willing to tie it all up in a single valuable? What is that money supposed to be used for? Who will object to it being used in this way? Who will object to the PCs having such a valuable and wish to redistribute the wealth? Can anyone else lay legal claim to it? Is there a legal requirement to make change when claiming payment for goods or services? (you would be astonished to learn how many countries have no such law – just the tradition of doing so. It is taken for granted…
For every seller, there has to be a buyer. And one of the first questions a GM should ask is “why” does this NPC want to buy the loot? How much is he willing to pay? What expenses will he incur? How much can he expect to make on the deal?
Fantasy economics generally has a number of holes in it in this department. In modern times, a typical business has a profit, annually, before tax, of about 10-20% of its turnover – call it 15% for convenience. In theory, that equates to its markup, or profit margin, on the products and services that it provides; in practice, there are variables that this doesn’t take into account. And a successful business will have 5 years of profits – after taxes – as a cash reserve. So, a suit of full plate costs 1500gp according to the PHB; and it might take a skilled armourer a month to make such a suit. That gives 1500gp x 12 = 18000gp a year income. Ten percent of which is 1800 gp. Apply a modern maximum tax rate of, say, 50%, and you get 900gp per year. Five years at 900 gp gives the NPC a cash reserve of 4500 gp – applying modern standards.
How about less generous standards from a bygone era that is more directly comparable to the game setting? Profit margin: 30%, but 1/3 of the production (perhaps more, especially in times of war – and when isn’t a medieval society at war with someone?) goes to the Lord for free. Three years is a more appropriate cash reserve, because unexpected expenses are much higher and eat into the character’s money. And the tax rate is going to be more like 70-90% – call it 80%. Work out the numbers: 1500 x 3 = 4500, less the profit margin of 30%, means that the levee by the Lord costs 3150gp a year. 1500 x 9 = 13500, times 13% = 4050. Minus that 3150, leaves a net profit of 900gp a year. Take off taxes of 80% and we have net income of 180gp a year. Out of which the NPC has to buy food and pay rents and replace damaged tools and what have you – which might leave 130gp a year, being generous, or (more likely) 80gp. Three year’s reserve equals 240gp. That’s how much the armourer can afford to spend buying unwanted adventurer castoffs, no matter how much he might be able to eventually sell it for. He can’t afford to speculate; the people who might want to buy it from him might take ten years or more to come up with cash (Nobles and governments are notoriously poor at keeping accounts current).
Rather than requiring an economic analysis of every prospective purchase by the GM, there is a simpler answer: the NPCs have enough coin on hand to meet the GM’s story needs – no more, and no less.
What would more normally occur is this: The Blacksmith would offer to approach various people on behalf of the prospective seller, at a price of 50gp a day (1500gp divided by a month, neatly rounded), paid in advance, as an introduction fee; if the visit results in a sale, he would get a commission of 5% or perhaps 10% from the deal. He would put a cap on how much time he risked that was equal to half his gold reserve divided by 50gp a day – so a reserve of 250gp would permit him to spend two-and-a-half days trying to sell the armor. Anything more than that risks his livelihood. If the prospects were good, he might go as high as three or four days.
Throw in bureaucracy and red tape and travel time, and he will be doing well to approach more than two prospective customers in that time frame. If they aren’t interested, neither is he.
There is one point in the text of Assassin’s Amulet that Johnn, after reading it, said completely changed his views on game economics in at least one respect. I pointed out, in the section on the price of an assassination contract, that whatever the fee charged was, every assassination required someone to have paid that fee. Which means they had that much money on hand to expend on the assassination, and were willing to expend it – that was how much it was worth to them. If their motives were profit-related, they had to expect to make at least that much more money from the deal in the long run.
The same applies to every purchase of an item from a PC. The character doing the buying must have that much on hand, and owning the item in question has to be worth their investing all of it in the item. How do they have that much money? Why do they want the item badly enough to buy it?
Selling a magic item – or a rare gem – or a work of art – should immediately raise serious questions in the mind of a PC. If it doesn’t, it’s a sure bet that the GM has been neglecting this type of plot hook.
Mordenkainen’s Disjunction: A Venting
I’m pretty sure you know what I’m going to say here. Where would the Lord Of The Rings be if Gandalf could simply cast this spell to eliminate the One Ring? As I’ve written in the past, a DC25 is ridiculously easy to achieve at high levels, which you have to be in order to cast this spell. Sure, there is a small risk of total failure with consequences, and only a moderate chance of success, but those odds are the wrong way around for my tastes.
At 18th level – the minimum needed to cast the spell – you have an 18% chance of destroying, permanently, an artifact. At 18th level, you have a base Will save of +11. Most Wizards will have WIS scores of at least 14 in my experience – that’s another +2. Even without feats or spells or magic items to boost the Will save of the character, that’s a total of +13. So the wizard has to roll 12 or better to make the save.
On the face of it, that’s a reasonable number. But it only takes +2 from those other sources, or from an improved WIS score, in combination and it’s a 50/50 shot. Wisdom 18 would do the job. If the Wizard can come up with +3 from those combined sources, the odds start to favor him. If he can come up with a total of +6, difficult but not impossible, he needs only 4 or better – roughly an 80% chance. From roughly that point on, his risk from casting Mordenkainen’s Disjunction is less than his chance of failure.
Next, consider the situation when Epic Levels are involved. At 35th level, for example, the character has an additional +8 to his Wis save from level alone; that’s a base Will save of +19. Even with WIS 10, he needs only a 6 or better to make the save. If, as is more likely, he has +4 from other sources like his WIS stat, he only needs 2 or better.
The effects of the spell are just too darned big for the risk. And the chances of getting rid of an artifact with the spell are just too darned high – and tend to be campaign-devastating when used successfully.
I should probably add that my players and I have a gentleman’s agreement – They won’t cast Morenkainen’s Disjunction willy-nilly just to get around plot difficulties they may face, and I won’t cast it at them. After all, I have an effectively unlimited number of mages to call apon… (we have the same agreement on “save or die” spells, which we also dislike.
With Possibilities Restored
So, let’s assume that there’s been some way found around the Mordenkainen’s Disjunction problem. Or this is a campaign without epic levels, and the Wizard considers it too big a risk for not enough chance of reward. Suddenly, offering an alternative means of destroying an item becomes an option rife with story possibilities.
And that’s what Loot should really be all about from a GM’s perspective: options that are rife with possibility.