Seeing how I touched on this with the ‘My Favorite Dungeon’ post, and seeing how I’m doing my absolute best to procrastinate today, I figured I’d talk a little bit about what I think equipment should be for in an RPG.
For starters, let me vent a little bit about what it isn’t for (or at least shouldn’t be). Equipment should not be seen as something integral to the character’s being. If your idea for a character is ‘a guy who uses two pump shotguns’, I think your idea is lame. The reason is because the shotguns are not and should not be the defining characteristic of your character. I don’t have a problem with a character having or owning a signature weapon, I just want the character to be more than the stuff on their back. I don’t see equipment as deserved stat-boosts for a character so he/she can compete with the bigger monsters (this is one of my primary problems with D&D as it exists today and, indeed, with most video game RPGs). I think a dagger should be able to kill a guy just as well as a broadsword, no matter how experienced he is. Getting stabbed by a bladed weapon hurts, no matter what that weapon is originally designed to do. Furthermore, and related to this, I don’t see there being a compelling reason outside of simple economics that a just-starting-out character can’t be allowed to use whatever piece of equipment they want, no matter how advanced. Naturally, there might be some stuff that is hard to get a hold of simply because of its expense or rarity, but any self-respecting weaponsmith is going to have as many swords as he’ll have hatchets, woodsplitters, and knives. Likewise, if you go to a black market arms dealer, he should be able to sell you all the top-of-the-line assault rifles right then and there, just so long as you’ve got the cash. I don’t care if the PCs are ‘first level’–you want a super weapon, you should be able to get it if you can afford the price.
This brings me to what equipment should be for in an RPG and, furthermore, in any given adventure story in any genre. Pieces of equipment are plot devices, plain and simple. They exist to make the story more interesting, introduce conflicts, and complicate dilemmas. You want a giant, fancy, super-robot? Done–you’ve got a giant fancy super robot. I will let you blow up fools, sure–that’s a given. You know what else I’m going to do, though? I’m going to have somebody try to steal your robot. I’m going to put you in situations where you need your robot but it isn’t nearby. I’m going to beat your robot up so it’s about to explode and you have to make a choice–do I stick here and fix it, risking being caught in the blast if I fail, or do I run and let it go. The toys are not the character, the character are not the toys–the toys exist to make things more interesting.
I’m currently running a game that I’ve designed myself (tentatively titled Frontier 2280). This game is sort of a Mission:Impossible style game, in which the players are given a dangerous mission, a pile of ‘mission assets’ (i.e. equipment), and sent off to do their best. They usually have an assortment of weapons, sensor equipment, vehicles, and sundry supplies that they can use in any combination they like to solve their problem. Will this stuff be useful? Hell if I know–I give them what it seems like their employers would be willing to provide. They can use it or not and it can become a focus of interest or never really feature. I have no compuction about blowing their stuff up, having it stolen, corrupted, or turned against them. To me, doing that just adds a level of complexity to the mission and makes things more dangerous and fun. Nobody complains if their pistol jams (heck, given the system, you are rewarded if you volunteer your pistol for jamming!), because the pistol jamming at the wrong moment is a problem. Problems create conflict, conflict creates fun.
Point in case, a few missions ago the team was sent to intercept a messenger pod coming from a distant planet with sensitive information the company wanted stolen. So, they went. When marching aboard, they brought a flamethrower, just in case they needed to roast anything. In the end (and due to a series of mishaps I won’t bother going through), said flamethrower wound up exploding in a room without gravity, resulting in the whole party being adrift in a room filled with (1) nerve gas, (2) concentrated acid (which caused the explosion in the first place), (3) napalm (from the flamethrower), and, oh yes, the air was being sucked out the back of the pod. Easily the most deadly room in the history of my GM-ing, and endlessly hilarious, tense, and fun. Nobody died (miraculously), but one guy had his leg dissolved away and several were badly burned. If they want another flamethrower, they can have one–they just need to afford it, is all, and they aren’t that expensive–but my players understand that the flamethrower is just a tool, and that tool can (and will) be used to make the game more fun. Not easier.