Stick with me, folks, this is going to be meandering, but I’ll hopefully reach some kind of point by the end!

I think about crafting in games a lot. Part of that was designing a crafting system for an MMO that was seemingly well-loved by the small playerbase (which owed a lot to Brandes’ work on Fallen Earth and the crafting systems in Elder Scrolls and Star Wars Galaxies). Part of it is that I’m an avid hobbyist crafter myself (all available surfaces in my house are presently largely covered with miscellaneous resin and woodworking experiments as I try to get to the point I feel like I can make a resin river table without wasting hundreds of dollars of supplies). Part of it is that I just love to tinker on customization in games when I’m a player. This week, though, it’s because the Angry GM wrote a big article about crafting.

Angry’s system is a pretty big advance on the common, afterthought D&D crafting system. After all, it’s very similar to my system for Pathfinder Online, and likely draws inspiration from the same sources (such as Elder Scrolls). But even if it’s interesting, I’m not sure it feels like crafting.

Crafting systems (like those used in virtually every MMO) where you put one or more components into a recipe and get out a predefined item are basically just optional quests. If an NPC in town offered you a mission to collect five iron ingots and turn them in to him for a basic iron sword, that would have no difference other than fiction to “crafting” that same sword using a recipe that requires five iron ingots.

The last MMO crafting system I remember feeling like it wasn’t just a quest was in Star Wars Galaxies (which was why it was an inspiration for PFO). But that worked by virtue of having lots of extremely granular and important stats such that minor variations in materials and skill could produce items with meaningful differences in use. That’s a hard enough sell in a video game (where your programmers don’t want each item in the game to be a complicated special case record and the other designers don’t want to make an extremely complex system just so items can have a bunch of things to adjust) and it’s an even harder sell in tabletop (where you don’t have a computer to run all these complex calculations for you).

Angry is right that what a lot of players seem to want out of a crafting system is a way to customize their characters. I have some reservations about that, particularly in D&D, revolving around making found treasure seem less interesting because everyone just wants to have nothing but flavorless, specialized items. But I also don’t know that you need a crafting system to achieve it: players seem just as happy to turn over custom treasure coupons to the village blacksmith or guild quartermaster and get their items, independent of the fiction that they, themselves, are crafters.

In my personal experience, particularly as a hobbyist, crafting is never like putting in a few items and getting a standardized result. While to a certain extent it is probably like that if you make the same thing repeatedly as a profession, my experience with people on reality shows and skilled crafters in real life is that even full-time creators are interested in opportunities to make something special and unpredictable. When you’re working at the edge of your skill, it’s a long fight with your materials to get them to make what’s in your head: sometimes it’s not as good as you hoped, and sometimes happy accidents make it even cooler.

This means that, despite Angry’s reasoned points about it, some kind of randomness is probably essential to coming close to being “crafting” as opposed to quest (though Ars Magica makes a good argument that you can do something interesting as a between game system… by virtue of, like Star Wars Galaxies, having a lot of complexity). And I did a one-off crafting system in my Beyond the Wall game where a PC had one shot at making a cool magic weapon and made a lot of rolls, testing multiple traits, to find out just how cool, so I don’t think it’s a foregone conclusion that one PC making gear has to be boring and time-consuming at the table.

But randomness isn’t enough. The randomness, like most randomness in RPGs, is largely about capturing the variations in skill, circumstances, and focus that can’t be measured at the level of granularity most games sit at. When one of my resin projects doesn’t go the way I want, it’s not really random so much as my lack of complete understanding of the chemistry and problems with the environmental conditions (turns out there’s a reason serious resin-crafters invest in a vacuum chamber…). What really makes things feel like crafting is watching as raw materials become finished product one step at a time.

I… may have spent a lot of time this weekend making this and have boxes on the brain.

Let’s just look at a simple wooden box (of the kind that MMOs would say involves throwing a bunch of one raw material type together):

  • You have to measure out all the boards carefully, and cut them to size. Minor variations in measuring, starting board standardization, and tool precision can make things not line up, having you sanding furiously just to keep there from being obvious gaps when you’re done.
  • You have to fasten and/or glue everything together. Even if you cut the pieces exactly right, it can be challenging to get corners at exact angles and joints pushed closely together. There is a lot of clamping and waiting involved. And if you get glue that leaks into the inside of a corner, it can be really annoying to sand out later.
  • You have to sand down the whole thing and do any detailing you want to make it look interesting, and getting impatient can result in accidentally adding flaws that you then have to sand even harder to get out. If you’re going to add paint, stain, varnish, or other protective finish, you have to figure out how to apply it evenly and keep it from pooling up due to gravity.
  • You have to apply hinges and fasteners. At this point, any imperfections in the alignment of your pieces becomes really obvious when it’s hard to get the hinges to bend straight. And if you made a small box, trying to add fasteners can wind up splitting the wood and ruining everything at the last second.

And that’s one of the simplest things you can make. Once you’ve made a few, at each stage you start to get a sense of how it’s going. Early successes can lead to later despair as you make an error at the last second and ruin what was shaping up to be a really good piece. Early failures might be something you power through, something that causes you to adjust your final plan/expectations, or something that causes you to cut your losses and scrap the project entirely.

Does every crafting system in an RPG need to be multiple stages heavily informed by simulation? Not necessarily, but there is probably some juice in breaking it up into increments to increase anticipation. Each stage could carry over a modifier to the next stage based on how well it went, or grant a fraction of the final score that will be used to judge how good the final result is. Either way, it means multiple rolls, which is often a good way to bend dice luck towards the average (whereas one-roll systems make extreme results happen a lot of the time). It will vary from game system to game system and crafting type to crafting type how you capture the thrill of a stage turning out better than you hoped or the pain of deciding to make due with a mistake and continue forward. You might even save this for the really big projects (like how Fallen Earth had vehicle crafting happen in stages).

Ultimately, as Angry points out, if what your players want is a system to customize their gear loadout and you want something that’s not a distraction at the table, a recipe-based “quest” system is a fine solution. But if you want to capture the feel of actually doing crafting, I believe you have to capture the variability and sensation of chasing a masterpiece.

Only cooking and baking really use recipes anyway, and there’s a reason (other than not being able to taste it at home) why cooking shows spend hardly any time on “mixing together the recipe” and so much on all the parts that aren’t the recipe. There’s so much there there, when it comes to crafting, it seems a shame to relegate it to mixing A, B, and C to get an item off the gear list.

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