Shopping scenes and detailed inventory

Whoever asked it, the question in Epidsode 71 is a good one. I quite often list everything that my character has in his or her pockets and car; I am not alone in this; I can think of few stories in other media in which a character’s complete equipment is at issue. It’s certainly not routine.

  • Is there any other form of storytelling in which detailed inventories of characters’ kit and equipment are as important as they are in those RPGs that feature extensive catalogues of gear?

  • Are there genres of story in other forms in which the characters’ selecting and acquiring equipment Are the “Q Branch” scenes in James Bond cognate? The bits in Day of the Jackal in which the Jackal acquires and smuggles his fake passports and custom rifle? The scenes in McGuyver episodes in which he lays out everything in the toolshed in which he has been locked up?

Modern RPG designs have been moving away from that, I think, and towards mechanics like NBA’s Cover, Network, and Preparedness. Is that clearly a good thing, or are they emulating hack screenwriting, and in doing so chucking out something that was actually appropriate to the RPG form of storytelling? Was fantasy shopping for blokes a mistake in early RPG designs, or does it actually have its place? Do exhaustive inventories add a certain gamist something to an RPG adventure that is characteristic of the form?

When I build a complete list of what a character has with them, it isn’t usually in anticipation of needing a particular thing in a scenario. It’s more of an aid to immersion in the world, and to understanding what the character expects to need. It makes my picture of the character more detailed.

I think we started from your suggestion and then branched out a bit.

Generally I like to let small items be in a haze of “you are the sort of person who would probably have this”, though I should let GURPS Gizmos have their value and they really require an exact list.

I have read some military fiction which goes into detail about how an operation is planned and what each man is carrying (first aid kit in this standard location so that his mate can find it to use it on him, etc.) but it’s pretty rare.

For most situations this is how I operate, although when I expect that equipment will be vital to the adventure then I’ll inform the players in advance and take a more detailed approach. That happens rarely because I’m not particularly interested in equipment, I’m interested in how people deal with situations.

Luckily I don’t usually face the problem of a player trying to take advantage of this vagueness, but it really all comes down to being reasonable. Does your typical Edwardian man have matches and a pocket knife with him? Almost certainly. Does a typical 21st century man have the same? Probably not, so make a random roll.

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Lee Child’s Jack Reacher books constantly bang on about everything that Reacher carries. But that everything is: a wallet with some cash, an out of date passport, a toothbrush and the clothes he is wearing. It’s an on-going theme that Reacher doesn’t have any other possessions.

There was a book I heard a passage read from at a Turkey Reading, in which a pulp hero’s equipment was listed in quite some detail (e.g. exactly how long the coil of rope was, and the precise type of knife in each sheath), but then finished it off with “and anything else that seemed useful”.


I wrote:

Roger has commented from time to time that RPGs are a different story form than plays, AV, or the written word, and require their own conventions, structures and matter. This is a topic that I wish he (or someone) would develop at length some day.

This morning, as I was skulking on the SJ Games forums, it occurred to me to wonder whether compendious lists of kit and personal effects are one of the things that RPG requires, or at least makes good use of. I used to think that well-thought-out lists of my characters’ everyday carry and inventories of their kit for special circumstances were pretty clever, and take pride in doing them thoughtfully. As recently as 2011 I made a list of everything that a character had in his pockets and highlights of his luggage; casting my gaze more widely for a moment, I note the popularity of compendia of equipment, such as GURPS ~-Tech. I gather from playing Munchkin that some popular dungeon-bashing games require the player to plan in which hand or on which donkey his or her character is carrying each item. On the other hand I can’t actually think of an example of an equipment-list however carefully written actually having an effect in play, and I do note my relief at game mechanics such as in Night’s Black Agents that amount in effect to “character’s have what they would have, plus whatever they can justify having prepared specially using the Preparedness mechanics”. I don’t recall a GM ever taking any notice of my ammunition supply or care in equipping with a pistol and carbine that both fired the same .44-40 cartridges.

On the other hand, I am sure that there must have been a technothriller or survival thriller on some screen or on the page in which a character’s kit was itemised, and indeed in which the kit he or she prepared (rather than salvaging or being caught with) was itemised. But I can’t call it to mind, and might never have seen or read it. Is pixel-bitching the equipment list one of the unique conventions of RPG?

It occurs to me more generally to wonder whether the activities that surround play (even occurring outside of game sessions) — ostensibly supporting it and preparing for it, but seldom actually affecting it — ought to be recognised as part of the content and appeal of RPG. How often have we met the player who chatters happily about the detail of his character design that he fervently hopes will not come up in play? How often have we ourselves enjoy telling people about the preparations and plans that we made but could never quite bring off in play? Is wrestling with an equipment catalogue, a price constraint, and the Knapsack Problem one of the special joys of RPG? Are contrivances to mentioning kit in play — such as NBA’s manoeuvres involving pool refreshes for technothriller monologuing — actually a desirable thing: do they substitute for the enjoyment of knapsack optimisation, or do they obviate them in pursuit of the superficial form of a movie moment?

There are still some points there I’d like to discuss.

I suspect that there are some activities surrounding role-playing that correspond notionally to mere chores in screenwriting — or that writers don’t even do — and to nothing that is seen to happen in stories in other forms, and which some game designers have striven to minimise and eliminate, but which are sometimes and for some players either not merely a drag to do, but that can be an engaging activity that some players get enjoyment and satisfaction out of. Optimising character design, for instance, fantasy shopping for guys, pixel-bitching the budget and load-out, designing vehicles, rolling up worlds. These aren’t always and entirely chores and yak-shaving. They are some times and for some players a worthwhile, albeit gamist, part of the activity of RPG.

I think there’s been a cultural shift here, and not just the usual “I have a job and therefore less free time now” one. When I started gaming in the 1980s, I generally met the people I gamed with only during sessions, and for the rest of the time I was surrounded by non-roleplayers; if I wanted to do more role-playing-related activity than the game time allowed, that desire could be satisfied by things like character design, vehicle design, and the other things that @Agemegos mentions.

But now we have forums/facebook/etc. and I can chat about role-playing all day if I want to.

The same is true of boardgames – Battletech and especially Car Wars were at their best when you were designing your own units rather than using the stock ones.

For the screenwriter, I think it is because some of the equipment is the costume designer’s remit, not theirs. A screen writer only mentions plot relevant items: Indiana Jones’ hat and whip and handgun are plot points. If the screen writer wrote Indy glances at his watch and realises he is running out of time, it is an instruction to the actor/director and a beat to rack up the tension for the audience, not because the writer cares what make of wristwatch Indy owns. And Indy’s pockets are like Schrodinger’s Cat in its Box - they are neither empty nor full until the plot requires that he look inside them for a particular item.

Exhaustive equipment lists in RPGs tend to butt up against several of my annoyances.

  1. Encumbrance/Fatigue. It bores the tits off me having to write down the weight of my character’s underwear, wallet, handkerchief, wristwatch, leather jacket, hat, handgun and bullwhip, so that it can all be added up. With the specific intent of telling me that I am ‘medium encumbrance’ and can therefore do fewer cool things because I will be at a dice penalty.

  2. Poverty and Bean Counting. I’m Indiana Jones, so I should have a hat, a handgun and a bullwhip. Unfortunately the game system only gives me $100 to spend in chargen and the hat, handgun and bullwhip total $320. I can only afford one of them.

  3. Character concept vs game mechanics. I want to be an Indiana Jones clone with hat, handgun and bullwhip. Unfortunately a bullwhip isn’t in the weapons list. A hat only gives 1 point of armour so I’ll be dead in the first fight unless I wear a space marine’s battle helmet. And there are 40 pages of handguns to choose from, all of which have variant rules I need to read before I can pick one.

Therefore I am all in favour of systems that assume you have ‘normal stuff’ and ‘job related stuff’ on your person without having to list it.

Or systems that have the Preparedness roll mechanic.


I think some of your points run up against the idea of power level - *D&D definitely ran on the basis that you had to start out as a first-level nobody and work your way up to Epic Hero, and certainly in my case it took a long time to get away from that and accept that you could play a powerful character from the start of a game. (And Traveller doesn’t have much development – four game years of part-time study for a 42% chance of getting some temporary skill points, and the same again to make them permanent – but also seems to assume that characters are often nobodies in terms of skills.) So similarly you might decide to play Indy but end up with Whip-2, Pistol-1.

Agreed, encumbrance can be deadly dull. I think when modern systems use it they tend to do it more video game style: one thing in each hand, so much in your backback, etc., and either it works or it doesn’t.

The Gizmos advantage in GURPS allows you to produce (once per game session for each 5 points you spend):

  • “an item you own but did not specifically state you were carrying”
  • “an item that you probably own, and that is in keeping with your character concept, but that is minor or ignorable enough to leave unspecified”
  • “An inexpensive device widely available at your tech level”

and I confess that I am inclined to allow all those things most of the time for most characters, though I’d roll the inexpensive device into “an item that you probably own”; the non-smoker doesn’t get to produce a cigarette lighter. (The special exemption, and I wonder whether it might justify the points on its own, is that you can produce this stuff even after you’ve been robbed, searched, etc.)

I don’t really see that as an issue. I’m currently running two campaigns: A GURPS campaign where all the player characters’ gear is specified down to the quarter pound and the GURPS$, and a Mage campaign where the player characters have a Resources score and own anything that’s consistent with that. Each of those approaches seems to allow unhindered play.

In a high-detail game, I think there are two different ways limitations come up. First, there’s “your character only has so much wealth; do they own this expensive thing?” Some players like to fantasize about their characters being rich, just as others like to fantasize about their characters being lethal combatants, or socially skilled, or intellectually brilliant; but if anyone can have expensive stuff, that fantasy is devalued. Second, there’s “your character is getting ready to do something physically strenuous; what’s their ‘stripped for action’ gear?” I’d really rather not have characters going into combat loaded down like the White Knight’s horse.

I’ll grant that the kind of restrictions you describe sound excessive. But the fact that there’s a bad way to implement a rules concept doesn’t mean that the concept is bad.