Monday, August 15, 2022

Starting Equipment Packages in Older Games

When new D&D characters are created, you know how the players can be stuck for a long time shopping for starting gear. Yes, that is a drag, especially for new players who often have little idea what each new piece of equipment is for. What are iron spikes for? The delay to the beginning of play can be boring for players expecting to dive right into adventure.

The Prismatic Wasteland blog has an interesting post about different methods for determining starting equipment expeditiously.

P.W.'s post also gives a link to Necropraxis' post from ten years ago in which an excellent table is provided for determining starting equipment packages for OD&D characters. The higher you roll on 3D6, the better the package of gear, with one column per character class.

Inspired by Prismatic Wasteland, this post is just an addendum about the rules lineage of "starting packages" of equipment. I have some notes about earlier RPG rules that addressed the problem of starting equipment by assigning packages.

Maybe new attention to old models will inspire new approaches. It also illustrates how many early games that are not D&D provide much of the basis for all kinds of RPG play today including what is current in D&D 5e. Again and again, you can find that games other than D&D blazed a trail for practices that are mainstream today. The history of D&D can't be told only as the story of D&D editions in series.

Equipment Packages for New PCs in Early RPGs

Early D&D tournament modules often included pre-generated characters. Some of these had assigned equipment lists, especially when pre-generated characters were higher than level 1. I'm not talking about pre-generated characters here, but equipment packages made for starting PCs.

The earliest equipment packages by character background I can think of are from RuneQuest 1e (1978), one of the most successful early alternatives to D&D. In RQ 1e, if your character is a peasant, townsman, barbarian, poor noble, or rich noble (randomly determined with a percentile roll), you started with slightly different basic gear. To give just a few examples, barbarians would have "riding gear" whereas peasants had a "drinking skin," among other items. These bits of gear were just as much for flavor and characterization as utility, it seems, and they were not complete lists of equipment. It was simple, but this seems to be the start of this sort of equipment allotment by character type.

RuneQuest was also the root of "slot-based encumbrance," as JC pointed out to me here (in the comments).

In RuneQuest 3e (1984), the starting packages were developed further to correspond with culture (Primitive, Nomad, Barbarian, Civilized) + profession (which varied by culture). Examples are "Farmer, Barbarian" and "Thief, Civilized." With this edition, each Cultural Occupation had a detailed equipment list of its own. The appearance of a separate equipment list for each character sub-type has proved to be influential until today.

In 1985, Dragon Warriors did something similar to RuneQuest 1e, but even simpler. For example, Knights and Barbarians (two of the character classes) have different starting gear. Little variations give flavor: Knights start with plate armour whereas Barbarians start with chainmail armour.

Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (1e) in 1986 had "Trappings" that went with each starting profession, which was determined randomly. Even within the lists of Trappings, some items were randomized. For example, a character who is a Bodyguard has a "50% chance of shield." The idea that fantasy characters started from humble professions that they left behind took off in RuneQuest 3e and in WFRP, a model still emulated today.

(The idea of background professions and trade skills in character creation goes back to The Empire of the Petal Throne, published 1975. This feature was already in the original manuscript circulated in Spring 1974. These backgrounds did not confer starting equipment but implied skills. If your character was originally a baker, grocer, or sailor, that implied certain kinds of in-setting knowledge. AD&D 1e emulated this background profession table.)

The Talislantan Handbook did like WFRP in 1987. Here we see dozens of fantastic "Character Types," which are basically race/ethnicity + profession bundles as character templates. Each comes with a list of "Equipment/Possessions" and "Wealth." Manra Shape-Changers and Sauran Dragon Riders and Danuvian Swordswomen each have distinct lists of Equipment.

I'm sure I'm leaving other examples out, but this is the early rules lineage of starting equipment packages and random equipment such as we find in Into the Odd and its offshoots like Maze Rats and Cairn. Electric Bastionland's starting "Failed Careers" are a parallel with the earlier Character Types of Talislanta but, in tone, more like WFRP 1e.

Necropraxis' more recent innovation (linked to above), with the OD&D revival of the last decades, was to randomize equipment lists within each class, instead of the original D&D practice of randomizing cash to be spend on custom equipment lists.

The makers of D&D 5e surely knew RuneQuest, WFRP, etc., when they created personal backgrounds that came with starting equipment packages.

Anyway, starting packages have their roots in the late '70s and took off in the mid-'80s.

Alternatively, make your own equipment cards

One fun method of randomizing starting equipment, particularly in classless character creation, is simply to make cards representing individual bits of equipment. You don't need anything fancy. Just write the names of articles of equipment on blank index cards. Throw a few really special or precious items in there, like single-use magical gizmos. If that's too much work, have your players take a few minutes with you to make such cards quickly together on the basis of published equipment lists. Then the players draw a certain number of cards as the Referee decides. You can even randomize the number of cards they get to draw: 1D6 equipment cards, for example. The players write the items they draw in their equipment list, or just hold onto the cards for starters, and you start to play.

Random equipment lists are raw material for background stories. Why does your character have a shovel and a bucket and a blast of wind magically trapped in a glass bottle? Players can have fun making sense out of random gear.

You could just write whole packages of equipment on individual cards. Players draw one card each and that's their entire equipment list. Then you dive right into play.

By this method, players select equipment cards and avoid duplication of rare or unique items or gear.

Using cards to distribute starting gear avoids the need to have everybody share an equipment table for reference, like that one page in the rulebook where all the equipment costs are listed.

I never read it, but it looks like the Index Card RPG has a similar process.


If you know of starting equipment packages in RPGs prior to RuneQuest 1e in 1978, or if you have other early examples that I'm forgetting or overlooking, please leave a comment.

1 comment:

  1. The original Chill (1984) said that equipment was less important than in many other games, but the PCs' supernatural investigation organisation would give them a standard equipment pack: first aid kit, lantern, stakes, revolver, silver bullets, etc.

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