This article was first broadcast in Episode Ninety Five on 6th November 2019.
Lennon: So, what do you think would happen if I tried to make some modifications to ROSTRO?
Ryu: I think KayDee would probably harvest all your organs and then stuff you into it. You know how she is about that thing.
Lennon: As with most subjects where she’s involved, I try not to think about it.
Ryu: Why do you want to fiddle around with that monstrosity anyway?
Lennon: I was hoping to figure out a better way to get magic items made. The regular process is just…ugh.
Ryu: I would have thought Ostron looked into that with all the time he spends in the workshop. Hey Ostron?
Ryu: Making magic items?
Ryu: Wow, okay, I didn’t realize this was that much of a thing.
Lennon: Oh let me tell you …
While it isn’t a staple of many tabletop RPG systems, players and DMs more familiar with video game RPGs often think a key part of the game will involve a mechanic for gathering materials and eventually putting them together to make new and more powerful items. Even players only familiar with fantasy themes and stories often, after killing an evil dragon for example, wonder “Hey should we harvest the blood or the scales or something? Are those useful at all?”
In an example straight out of Wizards’ own resources, in Tomb of Annihilation there’s a possibility that the characters will end up with a bunch of adamantine ingots as a quest reward. If the characters ask “can we make something out of this?” they’re likely to get a mildly panicked reply from the DM.
The truth is that since at least 3rd edition, crafting has not been a major focus in the D&D ruleset and consistently leaves people frustrated if it’s brought up. While there is mention of crafting in the D&D rules, most people wouldn’t call it an interesting or engaging pursuit.
D&D’s approach to crafting usually follows a simple formula: take the item you want to craft, determine its cost in gold, then check the rules to determine what the characters work speed is. Usually the work speed it given in terms of equivalent gold per day, which is a workforce calculation I’m pretty sure no workforce optimization firm has had to deal with unless they’re working for a mining company.
The problem a lot of people have with crafting in D&D is that many feel it’s treated as a footnote, with the designers giving it little more thought than they did to the mechanic for resting or regaining spell slots, possibly to the point of assuming no one would want to do it. If the rules are taken as written it’s also a system that could arguably be exploited.
For example, in the Dungeon Master’s guide, the only concrete restrictions on creating a rare magic item are that the characters have to be level 6 and they need about 2,500 gold per item. Note that rare magic items are things like +2 weapons, a +1 dragon slayer sword, boots of speed, and an Elven chain shirt.
The other restrictions are murkier. For example, the characters are supposed to have a formula for the magic item, but nowhere in the rules does it specify what the formula might look like or contain. Also it suggests magic items might need a special ingredient or special tools but again, there are no details and the restriction itself seems to be optional.
So taken at face value, there’s nothing stopping an adventuring party from looting a few dungeons, each of which will net them an average of 6,000 gold if the DM is using the treasure tables out of the DMG, and then holing up in Baldur’s Gate and churning out +2 magic weapons for the whole party for the next year or so, occasionally running over to Candlekeep to get the plans for whatever magic trinket they’re putting together.
Now obviously that requires the players and DM to subscribe to a fairly narrow interpretation of the rules as written. Xanathar’s Guide expanded upon the system for producing magic items in particular. First, it made the special ingredient a requirement, and specified what CR of creature would be guarding or providing the ingredient depending on the rarity of the magic item. It also introduced some possible complications that could arise from players making magic items that might get them run out of town or attract the attention of rivals. However, it still doesn’t outline what resources the monsters might be guarding or providing, and the complications only arise 10% of the time if a magic item is being produced.
Apart from the Xanathar’s rules, many people will immediately ask what DM would just sit by and allow the players to churn out magic items unmolested and not impose any restrictions at all, but people point out that’s exactly the problem. Whereas some mechanics in D&D can be expanded upon if DMs want, the rules for crafting come very near to telling DMs “if you want to do anything with this apart from telling them they have to work X weeks because the item costs Y gold, you’ll have to make it up yourself.”
This is obviously where a lot of DMs give up. A crafting system that requires things like harvesting materials from dead monsters involves a lot of work. For example, assuming you come up with a list of crafting ingredients, which is a whole project itself, what monsters provide what ingredients? Do they always provide them, or is it situational, like you can’t use a fireball or necrotic damage? How long does it take to harvest those items, and is there a skill check involved?
While Ostron would probably jump at the chance to design an entire system of ingredients, skill checks, and time formulas that would let adventuring parties cobble together new and exciting weapons and gear, many new DMs and DMs that rely mostly on pre-made materials would find that a daunting task. Heck, I came close to falling asleep just reading that.
Lennon: What? Right, yes.
The other issue with the crafting system as it exists is time. The formulas in the official rules state that most items are going to take days or even months to craft. In some cases their calculations are a bit off; the research beholders did a bit of digging and found that D&D crafting tends to take a little longer than actual smiths in medieval times did, but even if you consider more realistic timeframes we’re still talking probably a month or two to knock out a full suit of plate armor, more if it’s magical.
As we’ve alluded to before, many campaigns don’t consider time in that scale, particularly not published ones. Waterdeep Dragon Heist by design takes place within the context of one season, and Curse of Strahd wraps up in a couple of weeks of in-game time.
So at this point, we’ve determined that if you want robust crafting in D&D, the system has to be designed outside of the rules, and you probably need a custom campaign that allows for periods of extended downtime for the players. So, abandon all hope, yes?
Well it may not be time to douse the forge just yet. First of all, many people who do like designing game mechanics and systems have done the legwork of coming up with crafting systems using ingredients and special formulas for use with 5th edition. A search for “crafting” on the DM’s Guild reveals hundreds of resources, many of which are fairly well produced and inexpensive (remember; it’s always good to pay content creators).
If the time factor is a hurdle, there are ways around that as well. Many people have suggested that introducing magic could make production of items faster; golems and constructs don’t have to take breaks, and a spellcaster who knows the heat metal spell could arguably be more efficient than, and replace the need for, a forge.
But even if you want to maintain more realism, some special or magic items could be produced faster. Poisons and potions, even in medieval times, were often mixed together in a matter of hours, and some players and designers have suggested using magic to enchant a mundane item is a process that might take only a few days or so.
Now a word of caution; introducing a crafting mechanic to the game crates a lot of tracking and planning for DMs and players. First of all, players will need to track what materials they have and, if they’re working on a longer-term project, how much work they’ve completed. If you’re using a system that has specific formulas for crafting items, the players should also be recording those formulas.
Behind the screen, DMs have to decide how the characters producing items is going to factor in to balance. If you don’t want to adjust things too much, the crafting should probably replace most of the instances where characters would just find magic items in treasure hordes. If you just add on the crafting to the normal loot progression, the characters are going to be more powerful earlier, so you may need to adjust encounters to maintain the same amount of challenge. On the other hand, you have to remember to provide the players with the materials they’ll use for crafting, either as things they can harvest from monsters or items available through scavenging or purchasing from merchants.
Ryu: Okay, so yeah this sounds like a lot of work.
Lennon: Still worth it if you can find a few shortcuts, though, which brings me back to modifying ROSTRO…
Ostron: Did I mention the part where if you calibrate the thaumaturgical inflow parameters incorrectly, it results in permanent horripilation if you aren’t constantly encased in opaque substantive material?
Lennon: Oh…wow. Okay. Maybe I’ll try something else then. Oh hey, the listeners might have another idea.
Ryu: Just so we’re clear, you just told him if he messes with ROSTRO he’s going to get goosebumps unless he’s wearing clothes?
Ostron: Yeah, it happens constantly if someone doesn’t install one of the power cells right.
Ryu: So there’s actually no big deal if he fiddles with ROSTRO, you just don’t want him to.
Ostron: Oh no, there is a non-zero chance we’d all get sucked into a demiplane formed out of mathematical probability. Did you know that’s actually how ROSTRO functions most of the time?
Ryu: As much as I try to forget it, I did know that.
Ostron: Really? When did I tell you that?
Ryu: You weren’t….you know what, it doesn’t matter. Let’s get to the Scrying pool before Lennon starts a blacksmith’s guild or something.