(Thanks to Cherry Picked fan Dylan for this RP Advice suggestion)
Humans love rewards. As long as we are compensated, we’ll do challenging, risky, or terrifying actions. The promise of something at the end of a trial encourages us to keep going; to persevere until we get what we deserve. Gamers familiar with the role playing genre are acquainted with this operant conditioning. We’ll go save a hostage or slay a demon lord if there’s treasure afterwards.
Rewarding players in a role-playing game means giving them experience (direct character growth) or in-world materials (money and gear). Either way, the character gets more powerful and can overcome more challenges in the world. The difficulty for a game master is dispensing these rewards fairly and maintaining interest in the campaign. Scaling levels is typically easier for a game master: as the players gain levels, so do the enemies. Natural progressions with skill trees and later-game abilities keep interest and variety. Giving players new gear is difficult to do in a fulfilling and balanced way.
From the very beginning, your equipment gifting choices dictate the tempo and tone of the campaign. Do you give players weapons specific to their characters or do they all get the same load out? Giving a sniper specialist a sniper rifle clearly signals previous actions. This character has had their rifle and trained with it for a significant amount of time. That player will seek improvements with that weapon, either by modifying it or finding better versions. Now, consider starting every player, including the sniper, with a rusty knife. Despite their skills in long-range weapons on paper, they don’t have anything to actualize that skill. Their early game goals revolve around finding a suitable weapon.
The first time the GM gives an item reward will be radically different in both these scenarios. If you give them a rusty hunting rifle, the player that started with the decent gun will not care. They might keep it as a backup, spare parts, or a bartering tool, but they won’t feel rewarded. That is, however, a grand upgrade from the knife. That character can finally use skills they’ve learned and will feel a surge of competence. Plus, they have accomplished a goal, which is always satisfying. Things go differently if the item found is a 50-caliber rifle with an infrared scope and a back-massager (or whatever accessories guns have…). That’s a natural improvement for the armed sniper, but the poorly-armed player will feel both overwhelmed and excited. If others don’t make an equivalent jump, the sniper will skyrocket in power and be the defining member of the team.
It’s clear to see the thematic difference between the two starting items. One uses their gear to complete challenges, the other struggles with challenges to get gear. The latter definitely sounds more interesting from a storytelling perspective, but depriving players requires a delicate touch from the game master. Players make decisions when picking stats. A Catalyst character may spend an entire level’s worth of growth points to pick up Rifle Focus; getting that ability was a choice. If they rarely use it, it was a bad choice to make, which is not a fun realization. The overall story of a trained-military sniper killing demons with a butter knife may be interesting, the player will be frustrated. A little tension is good, too much spoils the campaign.
So how do we get the drama of helplessness without torturing the player? Present a different choice. Let’s say this military veteran finally finds a sniper rifle, but it only has five bullets. Good gear is rare in your story, so firing this weapon should have a monumental impact in a fight. The rarity of bullets means every shot is a choice. Can the team clutch it out without using ammo? If they hit a later encounter and find themselves cursing about wasting ammo on easier targets, you have succeeded. A wrong choice in the narrative is compelling; a wrong choice in character construction is annoying.
Taking this lesson, let’s reexamine the earlier case of a sniper steadily improving their weapon over the campaign. That’s dull. It’s a Skinner Box giving a slow drip of meaningless gifts. It also breeds bad balancing traits in the game master. If you give players a “+1” sword, then the enemies start having “+1” swords. Oblivion had this problem: once you found top-tier glass armor, random bandits would be wearing full sets of glass armor (yet still mugging you over 50 septims…). Any sense of power the item had is lost when it becomes commonplace.
The solution to this item “power-creep” is to, once again, add decisions for the player. All of Catalyst’s magic items require vigor to use. This comes from the same pool as the energy for general actions and spells. For a player, using a sword’s bleeding enchantment early in a fight might mean an enemy dies sooner, but they may be out of energy when the dangerous demon general arrives. Gifting such items to a party without making them character specific adds even more compelling choices. If they’re debating who should get the “blinding stone” not out of greed, but because they want the most utility out of it, then you have succeeded.
Like most of leading a role-playing game, giving equipment to players requires the game master intuit what the players need. The experience and levelling component of RPGs means players grow more competent, more powerful, over time. Both video and tabletop RPGs also reward players with improved items as the campaign goes on. Better weapons and armor can be exciting on paper, but boring in practice. Conversely, depriving players of items, particularly tools they need for their specialties, tells an interesting story at the cost of the players’ contributions and feelings of control.
Before I wrap this up, I want to mention how Catalyst handles player items. We have a brief list of weapons, armor, and magical enchantments. We stress these lists are not comprehensive and encourage players to create their own gear. There is no table showing what items a new player should get or what rewards a demon general carries. We can’t define this; the GM has to for an optimal story. We also have a concept of item fragility: every piece of equipment has a chance to break after being used in a fight. This adds the inherent choice of using items at the risk of losing them every battle.
We utilize both types of item progression in our campaigns. “Runaways” focuses on difficult challenges to get mediocre tools. It is a bleak story about adversity and loss. Players have to choose between a handful of bullets and being fed. “Fourth World” has a human society with stores and currency. Players are meant to feel powerful and get the tools they need to save the day. They divvy up an ancient weapon stash and use whatever money can buy to hold off a demon siege. Both campaign guides help the game master lead players to interesting decisions and force them to care about their inventories beyond just another field in the character sheet. That’s more entertaining than all the “+1” items in the world.