Something Different: Crafting in 5th Edition
Crafting in D&D has been through a lot of iterations, and I really don’t think any of them have hit the mark. There’s a dilemma to be solved, and it’s the difference between a video-game crafting system and a purchasing-equipment system. You can’t have the same kind of crafting system in a tabletop RPG as you can find in a PC or console game, because those systems are so complicated that they need a computer with memory and a processor to keep track of all of the parts. On the other end, D&D already has a system you can use to buy equipment; there’s all of Chapter 5 in the PHB to tell you what you can buy, and they even have something that they try to pass off as a crafting system, although it’s tedious and pointless. Essentially any system that requires you to burn money in order to get an item is just buying equipment, and a lot of crafting systems for tabletop RPG’s just come down to burning money gradually, maybe with skill checks, in order to get an item that wouldn’t normally be for sale. This article is going to cover some general ground regarding crafting systems, but you can skip down to “Crafting As Adventure” if you just want my proposed system, and not all the thought and theory that went into the design. Pragmatism, and saving yourself a few thousand words of reading, are never to be disparaged. On we go, then.
The Current State of Crafting
There is actually a crafting system of a sort in 5E, and it’s a pointless crafting system which is really not worth including at all. Essentially, as long as you have the right tools and proficiency with using those tools, you can craft any of the non-magical items that can be found in the equipment lists in Chapter 5 of the PHB. There are some calculations that tell you how long it will take and how much it will cost, and how all of those numbers change if you have help, and what kind of lifestyle expenses are covered for you while you craft.
This is a pointless system because it doesn’t have the potential to get you anything that you couldn’t just buy instead, and because making anything valuable takes a prohibitive amount of time to complete. The example given in the PHB is that you could craft a suit of plate armor in 300 days of downtime work, as long as you had your smith’s tools and could use them. Or maybe you could just do something else for ten months that would get you the 1,500gp that you would need to just go and buy that plate armor… like adventuring, maybe.
Also, the system relies on downtime, and downtime is also a very arbitrary and rather pointless mechanic. Let’s look at it this way: what do you need in order to have downtime? Almost nothing. As long as you can pay your lifestyle expenses, which are a pittance compared to the amount of coin that adventuring will earn for you, you essentially have as much downtime as you want, or as much as your DM will let you take. Also, it turns out that a lot of the downtime activities you can choose from actually incorporate the lifestyle expense, which means that you could actually do certain downtime activities (crafting is one of them, incidentally) for the rest of your character’s natural life without ever having to stop. But enough on downtime. It might be worth its own article at some point, but this isn’t that article.
To sum up, the 5E crafting system only allows you to make things that you could just buy instead, and essentially that just means that you either get a discount on those things, or else you get them for free, as long as you use enough downtime. And you can basically have as much downtime as you want, because there are no real limits on how long it can last, other than the DM arbitrarily deciding how much you get.
It’s worth noting that your DM might have things happening in the background while your downtime is happening: my players have to consider that if they take a week of downtime when a day would do, there could be any number of situations developing which could be a lot more trouble to deal depending on how long they’re allowed to ferment. However, this doesn’t apply to every group, or every adventure, or every campaign. If you have the kind of campaign where you come to the end of an adventure, and it’s a full stop until the next (possibly unrelated) adventure hooks show up, then you really might have extensive downtime without consequences.
We can do better than this downtime-and-gear-list-based “crafting system”, and we will, but first let’s look at the limitations on a good crafting system. Once we have a good idea of the things we have to steer clear of, we can start talking about how to make crafting meaningful.
How Crafting Can’t Work
There are a few things that a crafting system for 5E, or for any pencil-and-paper tabletop game, needs to not have in it. Quite aside from considerations of how it might be best to implement a system, we have to look at some features that just aren’t available in a tabletop game like D&D.
Recipes and Schematics
One of my favorite crafting systems ever is the one from The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, which is incidentally one of the most aesthetically beautiful games I have ever played, and if you like computer RPG’s, or if you like watching sunsets in the rain, or both, then you should try it. Anyway, the Witcher‘s crafting system is based on schematics and recipes, which you find as you make your way through the world. Every time you get a schematic, you are able to make a new weapon, piece of armor, or potion, but first you need to find or buy all of the ingredients for it, and in some cases get help from a craftsman, like a smith or armorer.
You can get ingredients by harvesting herbs which are growing wild in the fields, or looting the bodies of killed enemies, or breaking up items that you get but don’t want to use or keep, or in various other ways. And there are a lot of ingredients. There are maybe 20 different types of herbs alone, and some of the armor recipes call for ingredients that you actually need two ingredients to make, such as combining wax and leather to make hardened leather. You can even buy the ingredients from different merchants when you get to the point where it’s easier to spend money than wander the fields picking flowers, but the point is that there are a lot of ingredients, and a lot of ways to get them, and a lot of combinations of ingredients in the form of recipes and schematics that allow you to turn ingredients into stuff you want to have. Some of the recipes actually call for components that have their own recipes to make. So yeah, it gets complicated.
D&D crafting can’t have recipes and schematics like this, or the number of ingredients that are required to make those recipes and schematics meaningful. In a very relevant way, the number of different ingredients available dictates the upper amount of recipes you can have in your system: if you’re going to have recipes, the recipes need to be different enough to create a feeling of variety and not seem repetitive, and the only way to make recipes different from one another is to have them contain different ingredients, and in different combinations. Lots of recipes mean you need lots of different ingredients, or else your recipes are all going to look just about the same.
For the sake of an example, let’s just imagine a system that lets you brew the potions that are available in the DMG’s lists of magic items: there aren’t very many different potions in there, and some of them have more or less the same effect but different potency, but there are enough potions altogether to send the number of possible ingredients skyrocketing if the potion recipes are going to look different from each other. And that doesn’t have anything to do with durable items like weapons and armor, or with magic items in general, which would increase the number of recipes and schematics by a lot. A whole lot.
The DM’s brain is in many ways better than a computer for running games that are open-ended and responsive to out-of-the-box and creative gameplay, but computers definitely have it over brains when it comes down to beancounting hundreds of ingredients and using them to make dozens of different items. When we design a crafting system for 5E, it can’t mimic a video game crafting system, because DM’s just don’t have the RAM for it.
Too Many Ingredients
This was partially covered in the previous section, but it deserves a closer look of its own. A D&D crafting system has to have a limited number of ingredients, for a couple of reasons.
Getting the Ingredients into the World
First, any ingredients that the characters obtain will have to be introduced into the game by the DM, and that means that the DM will have to know what ingredients there are out there to be collected, and then will have to integrate them into the world as some kind of “loot” or “drops”.
Depending on how much you’ve played video games, or other games where you collect equipment or resources, you’ve probably come across these terms before. However, they do get used differently by different people who play different games. For the purposes of this article,
Loot is stuff that you find lying around, or in chests or boxes, or as part of a treasure hoard. This includes anything that you have to dig up, chop down, or process into a usable form.
Drops are things that you get because you kill an enemy, and the enemy happens to be carrying that thing, or perhaps because the enemy happens to be made out of that kind of thing.
As the number of ingredients rises, it gets more and more difficult to make sure that the necessary ingredients for the things the players want to make are provided in sufficient quantity. Of course, you don’t want to provide everything in equal quantity, and you also don’t want to provide only the things that the players want. The DM has to limit the quantity of certain items, especially the ones that can be combined to create really powerful items (I’ll mention this again, but for now just realize that you don’t want any surprise items being crafted), and the DM also has to provide a certain level of “trash” ingredients in order to establish that you don’t always get something useful or desirable as your loot and drops.
Second, finding the right number of possible ingredients to include in the crafting system is a quandary. If there are too many, the system becomes too difficult for the DM to manage; introducing a very broad spectrum of ingredients naturally into the game as drops or loot requires either a lot of planning (as in predetermining ingredients an owlbear will drop and how often), or a lot of randomness (you killed an owlbear, roll some dice to see what owlbear parts you can collect), or just reckless abandon (you killed an owlbear, now field-dress that sucker and leave neither a tooth nor a scrap of fur behind).
Ingredients Matrices, and Why They Don’t Work
Some people have suggested creating a kind of ingredients matrix, where ingredients fit into a number of different categories, and combining the categories gives you different types of ingredients. This is actually a great idea on the surface, but is ultimately doomed to failure by mathematics. Let’s suppose that we have a fairly simple system. In fact, this is the simplest system I can come up with that would meet our need to have recipes that don’t all look the same.
Physical Shape: Sticks, Chunks, or Fluids
Natural Type: Animal, Vegetable, or Mineral
Rarity: Common, Uncommon, or Rare
So this lets us generalize different specific ingredients into these categories, which does in fact cut down on the number of ingredients on the list. Rare Mineral Chunks might be platinum coins, gold nuggets, or diamonds. Common Vegetable Sticks might be oak logs, pine branches, or papyrus reeds. Uncommon Animal Fluids could be blood, venom, or ichor from any creature between CR 5 and CR 8. You get the idea.
The problem is that even though this system allows us to account for all of the ingredients in the world by assigning each of them three descriptors, and then using our imaginations within that framework, the framework gives us the possibility of 27 different combinations. And that’s when I kept the descriptors to the bare minimum. You could really go wild with this sort of thing; just imagine if you had different categories for each of the D&D damage types (freezy ingredients, thundery ingredients, poisonous ingredients), or if you expanded the physical shapes to include things like hides or teeth. Both of those seem reasonable based on either the existing 5E mechanics, or because the representation of actual things found in nature is accurate, but adding even a couple extra terms to the system causes the number of combinations to go through the roof.
Systems that break down the types of crafting ingredients into discrete and meaningful terms are often compelling and elegant as theoretical constructs, but ultimately they all fall victim to arithmetic. Just start multiplying, and you’ll reach a prohibitively large number soon enough.
Farming: Possible or Necessary
Again, for those who are not video game players, and especially for those who don’t play MMO’s, farming refers to obtaining needed materials as drops by killing large quantities of enemies that drop those materials. Another term for this is grinding, which also sounds like a lot of fun. What a great way to pass your time!
A good D&D crafting system should not require, nor indeed allow, players to gain materials in this way. One reason is that characters gain experience for defeating enemies, and the game balance goes completely to hell when the party decides to go into the Forest of Many Badgers and kill a few dozen badgers in order to obtain badger pelts. Also that would be an incredibly boring game session; I’ve been known to do some farming on online MMO’s, but I generally have a movie or something going at the same time.
In short, if the party needed a lot of badger pelts, I as the DM would probably just handwave it and give them however many badger pelts they want, and tell them how long it took to get them. There is no risk in hunting the badgers (which are CR 0, and can basically be one-shotted every time), and there is no cost for hunting the badgers, aside from the time that it takes, which as we mentioned earlier is as unlimited as the DM is willing to make it. That’s another reason that the whole thing is pointless: if you’re going to have the party hunting deer or mining for iron or chopping down maple trees, it’s either going to be a very boring series of dice rolls, or else it’ll just be declared as having been accomplished (which it should be, according to how we resolve actions, because it can’t fail and therefore requires nothing further except some narration).
So why bother with it in the first place? Ultimately, however the PC’s are going to be acquiring the really common and mundane sort of ingredients they need, there isn’t really a happy middle ground between boring gameplay (roll a strength check to swing your mining pick, now roll another, now roll another) and just calling it done (okay, you work for several hours mining coal, and you now have 3d10 pounds of the stuff).
Summary: How Crafting Can’t Work
So, to pull the last section together, we know we can’t have a crafting system with a lot of ingredients, but we also know that if we want to have a lot of recipes we need a lot of ingredients to make them not seem all basically the same. Setting up an ingredients matrix looks like an attractive solution, but ultimately falls prey to the same relentless multiplication problems that make other ingredient systems fail. And, we know that we can’t use the standard action resolution mechanics for harvesting ingredients, because the tedium would be ridiculous, but we also don’t necessarily want to handwave the harvesting process away entirely, because getting something for no work isn’t in line with the whole idea of working to craft your own stuff.
The short version of all this is that D&D crafting can’t work by duplicating or even vaguely emulating the way we see crafting done in video games, and the brief conclusion is that we need to not try to solve the D&D crafting problem with reference to video games, no matter how similar they seem on the surface.
And now that we’ve looked at how things can’t work, it’s time to move on to how things shouldn’t work. So far, we’ve just been coming to terms with how we aren’t computers, which is just a matter of flat fact. There are things that we could do, though… but we shouldn’t. That’s where we’re headed next.
How Crafting Shouldn’t Work
The things we’ve discussed as being impossibilities for a D&D crafting system have essentially referenced problems of a technical sort. Boring recipes, systems with too many ingredients, the problems with accumulating ingredients without unbalancing the game. But, there are still things that are completely possible to pull off in the tabletop environment, but really ought not to be included anyway. Just because a crafting system can actually be run by a human DM with a human brain doesn’t mean that it’s actually going to be fun or interesting… and if it isn’t fun or interesting, why would we be doing it in the first place? This section is essentially about the things that wouldn’t stop a crafting system from working, but that would make it a miserable exercise anyway.
Involvement by Everyone
As with anything else in D&D, some players are going to be more interested in certain aspects of the game than others. Some players might not actually care about particular things at all, and crafting is a very likely candidate for a gameplay element that certain players just won’t care about even a little. There are players who are natural crafters, and they get an enjoyment boost out of making their own longsword, even if they could have just bought an identical longsword at the shop next door to the forge. There are also players who don’t care about where the longsword comes from, as long as it does 1d10 base slashing damage when wielded with two hands. Somewhere in the middle are the players who are happy to buy the sword and then make up a story about it, or to remember the war stories they’ve accumulated with that sword, or even to give the sword a pompous-sounding name.
True Story Sidebar
Why would I mention giving a sword a pompous-sounding name? This is pretty much why; cue wavy transition to flashback:
LG Paladin: I attack the goblin with my Vindicator of Virtue.
(dice are rolled, numbers announced)
DM: Okay, with 8 slashing damage, you slice the goblin neatly in half, and he dies in a shower of green goblin blood.
LG Paladin: Okay, I attack the next goblin with my Vindicator of Virtue.
Yes, I actually had a player who named his ordinary non-magical longsword the Vindicator of Virtue, and only ever referred to it by that name. In his defense, though, we were probably both about 8 years old. If I had the same situation today, in a game with grownups, I might have to arrange an unfortunate accident for that sword. Or for the character. Or possibly for the player… freak mechanical pencil accidents claim more lives than you would suspect…
The point here is that crafting is not a necessary part of the game, and that players who don’t care about crafting shouldn’t be subjected to it. It isn’t like combat, or social interaction, which you can’t really work around very much. If a player doesn’t like combat, that’s kind of too bad, because combat will happen, and if you just stand there because you don’t like it, you’re probably going to get killed. Players who don’t like dealing with NPC’s other than by killing them will also have moments of mild unhappiness, because eventually the characters are going to have to converse with somebody; at least standing on the sidelines in a social encounter is less likely to result in character death.
Combat and conversation are unavoidable core facets of the game, but crafting isn’t. So, any crafting system we create needs to be modular enough to be used by those players who want it while still being able to be safely ignored by those players who just don’t care. This comes down to two basic tenets. First, crafting should not take up any significant table time of its own; if anything, crafting-only time should be able to be handled during a break while everyone who doesn’t care about crafting is off getting their snacks. Second, crafting should not be able to provide benefits so substantial that non-crafters will be left at a significant disadvantage because they aren’t interested in crafting.
Rolling of Dice
A lot of crafting in previous versions of D&D, and Pathfinder for that matter, essentially came down to burning money in the form of materials or supplies, and then making a die roll for a skill check of some kind to determine how well the crafting process is succeeding. Sometimes you might have many skill checks. Which might mean lots of dice rolling.
A solid crafting system needs to not include rolling of dice, because it needs to be able to be used when the DM isn’t watching. I basically hold the position that I trust my players not to cheat, and that I won’t check up on them or call them out for cheating. It’s not worth my time or stress to think that way, and most of the time it doesn’t really matter so much anyway. We are all grown-ups, and I’m not going to stand over anyone’s shoulder to be the cheating enforcer. And frankly, it’s very unlikely that anyone is cheating anyway. And if they were, it wouldn’t be that bad.
About the most grievous D&D cheating I can think of is padding your stats when you create your character, and even that isn’t so awful. In case anyone was wondering, with a group of four players each rolling 3d6 for six stats each, it’s not unlikely that just one of them will get that coveted 18 on just one of their stats. Not particularly likely, but not unlikely either. Does that match up with the number of 18’s I’ve seen rolled during my years as a DM? Of course not… people fudge that all the time, but ultimately a character having a +4 to their main stat at first level isn’t that bad. They were going to use their first few stat increases to bump it up to +5 anyway, so who cares? I care a little bit, but not enough to call anyone out about it, and definitely not enough to tell players that they have to roll their stats while I watch, and using my dice, because I think they’re a bunch of cheating stat-padders who buy loaded cheating stat-rolling dice. If I’m going to squander trust and goodwill, I’m going to save it up for something important.
However, when we start talking about crafting, getting good die rolls might matter very much indeed. Because we aren’t talking about boring 5E crafting as described in the PHB: a good crafting system needs to be able to create special items, magical items, items that you can’t just walk into a store and buy, or at least that you can’t walk into a store and afford to buy. If good rolls are needed for your crafting project to succeed, and especially if there are expensive or rare materials that might be lost in the event of bad rolls, and if the ultimate consequence is either getting a powerful item that will affect the rest of the campaign or not getting it and having to try again at great expense and inconvenience… well, probably those rolls need to be made where the DM can see them. It’s unfortunate, but probably better overall for everyone to know that everything is on the up and up. But it doesn’t generate a lot of happiness, goodwill, or camaraderie.
So let’s just eliminate that whole situation: crafting requires no rolling of dice. That means that it can be taken care of away from the table, and it also means that the DM doesn’t need to be directly involved with it. It also means that a certain amount of undesirable risk is eliminated, because the ugly situation where you roll a natural 1 on your crafting check and blow up the building, lose all of your materials, and get set on fire (1d8 fire damage per round until someone extinguishes you, of course) just doesn’t happen if you don’t roll any dice to begin with.
This is the second part of modularity: if all players have to partake of the crafting system in order to keep up with the players who really love crafting and do it all the time, then it isn’t actually an optional part of the game. It becomes something that sucks everyone in, whether they want to be crafters or not, because if your friend is always getting Potions of Superlative Healing, and Armor of Resistance to Everything, and a Sword of Vorpal Thunder Fire, just because he likes to craft stuff, then you too will start crafting stuff. Even if you hate crafting, you will do it anyway.
Maybe you don’t really need all of that stuff to succeed in the game, but you really want it because your buddy has it and is obviously having a grand time with it. And so you start collecting materials and following recipes and otherwise inconveniencing yourself, even though you don’t really care about the crafting process, because you do really care about getting the toys that come with the process.
So, if you’re going to have optional crafting, you need to make sure that it really is optional, and not just something that you say is optional but in fact places players at a disadvantage (including the disadvantage of having less fun) if they choose not to participate. Otherwise the non-crafters will have to decide whether they’re going to have less fun because they won’t have awesome items that only crafting will provide, or have less fun because they have to muck around in a crafting system that they would rather not have to deal with at all.
Crafting as Adventure
Okay, most of the last 2,500 words or so actually don’t matter very much to the crafting system I’m about to propose. Of course, that wasn’t always the point, because if some other enterprising DM out there wants to create a crafting system as well, there’s certainly room for one, and hopefully taking a critical look at the sort of things that make a crafting system workable or not will help with that. I may even decide to come up with a different system than the one I’m about to propose, and then I might end up reading all of that over again. Take it or leave it, but it’s what led up to the solution I’m now going to offer.
What it comes down to for me is that crafting is really and truly boring, and I don’t like having boring things in my games. I especially don’t like to work hard to introduce boring things into my games, and bringing in a crafting system that requires me to graft some sort of ingredient-gathering system onto the combat system and the item system just so that some players who like to make their own swords can scratch that itch seems like a lot of hard work for not a lot of benefit to me or to most of the other people at the table.
Adventures, on the other hand, are not boring. Adventures are what make D&D a game worth playing, and honestly the ultimate reason that players want to craft things is because having those things will make their adventures more fun. So that’s what my crafting system is built around: having adventures. The requirements for crafting something are met by having adventures, and that means that everyone at the table can be involved. In fact, they really have to be, because completing the adventure needed to craft the item is going to require everyone in order to succeed.
Also, I’m sticking to a policy I’ve held on to firmly when running my games, which is that the players have to tell me what they want to do. Yes, that’s simple, and it’s an essential part of DMing, and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t apply to crafting as much as to everything else.
But we’ll get to that in a moment. First, a breakdown of what is needed to craft an item… any item. It comes down to three things: ingredients, tools, and expertise. If you have all of those, you can craft an item. And the way that you get them is by adventuring… but with intent.
Ingredients, and How to Get Them
There are two types of ingredients: the ones that are easy to get, and the ones that are hard to get. The idea behind easy ingredients is that they can be bought and sold freely. They might not be cheap, but they are essentially commonplace. Even gold, while valuable, is not uncommon to find; they make coins out of it, after all. You can find a lot of the sort of ingredients that you might need to use for crafting in the Trade Goods table in Chapter 5 of the PHB, and you can certainly build on the items listed to cover other materials.
The point here is that you shouldn’t have to do any hunting, mining, or other mundane activities in order to get these common ingredients. They can be bought and sold freely. It’s probably wise to consider that not everything is going to be available in large quantities everywhere, so that farming village probably won’t have a large supply of silver ingots and mithral, but if you go to a decent-sized city, you should be able to buy whatever you need, and most of it will be very cheap.
Remember, even those precious metals aren’t exceptionally expensive when you start treating them as bullion instead of currency. A pound of gold will (by explicit definition) cost you 50gp to buy, which means that if you wanted something ludicrous like a greatsword made of pure gold, you’re only talking about 300gp worth of gold ingots as materials. So even ingredients of high intrinsic value are still considered to be common ingredients, because it’s possible to go to the right marketplace and buy them. That’s the defining attribute of common ingredients: you can shop for them.
However, there are also ingredients that are difficult to get, and these are the ones that really drive the adventure method of crafting. This is where we start talking about dragon’s blood, fist-sized canary diamonds, and beholder eyes. Essentially, if you want to get these ingredients, you’re going to have to do more than pay for them. You’re probably going to have to go and get them yourself, and it will not be safe or easy to do so. But, these are the sort of ingredients that are needed to make powerful magic items: flaming swords, armor that resists damage, wands that disintegrate hapless creatures of all kinds. They should not be easy to find, because the items that they allow you to craft should not be easy to obtain.
Essentially, if you want to craft the really powerful items, you’re going to need the really rare ingredients, and in order to get them, you’ll have to go on an adventure. And that sums up the ingredients portion of the “crafting by adventure” system: you can buy most of what you need, but special items will require special ingredients that can only be obtained through great deeds and enormous peril. And when we’re out there doing great deeds and braving enormous peril, we call that adventuring. Simple.
Tools, and Where to Find Them
The idea of tools is closely linked with expertise, and a lot of the time you’ll probably find them in the same place. However, that’s not a necessity, and sometimes you’ll need special tools in order to craft certain items.
For example, if I’m crafting a suit of dragonscale armor, which will grant resistance to fire damage and bludgeoning damage, I won’t be able to use a normal smith’s forge and some iron or steel hammers and anvils to make it. The forge won’t be hot enough to make a fire-resistant material malleable. The hammers won’t be strong enough to beat a bludgeoning-resistant material into the desired shape.
Use your creativity here, because it adds another dimension to the crafting-by-adventure model. The party has obtained the red dragon hide they needed for the armor, perhaps by actually finding, killing, and skinning a red dragon. Now they have to make their way to the sacred lost forge of the Flamefist Clan of dwarves to use their ancestral hearth and the fabled Hammer of Moradin to be able to craft their hard-won ingredients into the armor they’re after.
Does every crafting project need the kind of rare and legendary tools that require their own separate adventure to obtain and use? Absolutely not. Probably the expert artisans with the skills to craft remarkable items are going to have their own tools and workshops, and in most cases those should suffice. But it’s always possible that the rare ingredients by themselves might not be enough, and further adventures will be needed to progress the crafting process.
Remarkable Items Need Remarkable Skill
The final element of the crafting-by-adventure model is finding an expert with the skill to craft the item desired. It’s possible that one of the PC’s might have the needed skill, or that a craftsman with an established shop in town could do it with the right materials. However, some experts come with complications. Maybe the sea elf woodworker needs to be rescued from the sahuagin before she can start work on the PC’s magical longbow. Maybe they’ll need to bring back the gnome tinkerer’s stolen flute before he’ll agree to craft their wand of confusion. There’s a one-eyed dwarven master smith in the nearby mountains, who lives like a hermit in a secret cave; you’ll have to make your way there and impress him with your oratory if you want to engage his services. You get the idea.
As I mentioned in the previous section, it’s not unreasonable to expect that crafters of high skill might have the tools they need for a particular project already. But, as the DM, you need to decide how much trouble should be gone through in order to get a certain item, and adding extra parts as requirements to craft the item is an easy way to adjust that level of difficulty.
A Blue Box for Emphasis
Just to make sure that the last bit didn’t slip by unnoticed, I’m putting it in this blue box, because it’s important.
When the PC’s get powerful or magical items as part of a treasure hoard or other plunder, those items can have significant effects on how the rest of the adventure plays out. And that’s just things that they can get essentially at random: go to the DMG and roll three times on Magic Item Table B, basically. We’ve all done it that way, and we’ve all seen players come up with innovative ways to use those random items that change the way the game plays from there on in.
When the PC’s actually get to pick and choose the powerful items that they want to have, by using a crafting system to create them, the effects can be very far-reaching indeed.
If you’re the DM, you need to make sure that the costs to the PC’s for obtaining the items they craft are in balance with the benefits that having the items will grant to the party.
And that’s why you can have rare ingredients that are dangerous to harvest, and mystical tools that have to be retrieved from deadly dungeons, and master artisans who need significant favors if they’re going to make the item at all. These are ways to dial up the difficulty, and make sure that when the PC’s get that awesome piece of gear, they’ve really earned it. And knowing that they’ve really earned it will make it that much cooler to have, too.
It’s good for the party to get powerful gear, and for the powerful gear to be something that they really want and have a plan to use. But that doesn’t mean that getting that gear should be easy.
“What do you want to do?”
I’m going to get on my soapbox a bit here, because there’s one major failing that I see with a lot of crafting systems, and which my crafting-by-adventure is designed to avoid. I’ll assume for the sake of argument here that DM’s who are reading this already know that they need to get the players to say what they want to do instead of asking “can I use [skill] on it” when conducting the good old RPG Conversation. This should be familiar:
DM: The guard is standing at his post outside the castle gate. When he sees you coming, his hand goes to his spear. “Halt, there. State your business.”
Player: Can I use Persuasion on him?
DM: Why don’t you just tell me what you want to do.
Player: I want to persuade the guard to let me through the gate.
DM: So what are you going to say to him?
Player: I’m going to tell him I’m on an important mission for the king and that he’ll be in big trouble if he doesn’t let me in.
DM: Okay, sounds like a plan. Roll some dice.
I think we’ve all been part of that particular conversation before, many of us on both sides at one point or another. Frankly, if you’re a good DM, this is the way you handle player actions: you make them tell you what they want to do, and how. If you don’t do it that way, you are doing something wrong. Something so horribly wrong, in fact, that I am not going to discuss it here, because this is an article about crafting and I don’t have the space.
But when we get into crafting, even otherwise good DM’s, DM’s who ought to know better, throw all of that out the window. And then, we get things like this:
Player: I want to craft an item.
DM: OK, what item do you want to craft?
Player: Oh, I don’t know yet. Just go out of your way to give me some materials and stuff and maybe I’ll let you know later.
DM: All right, then. I’ll just inconvenience myself and encumber the gameplay to make sure that you get crafting materials, so that you can blindside me later on by crafting something I had no idea was even under consideration. On we go with the game!
Let’s face it, crafting systems are essentially players telling DM’s that they want to “do something, but I’m not going to tell you what, how, or when”, and DM’s thinking that it’s okay because crafting is somehow different. But crafting is not actually different, or at least it shouldn’t be. The same process should apply: tell me what you want to do, and how you plan on doing it, and then we decide if and how it works. Like this:
Player: I want to craft an item.
DM: OK, what item do you want to craft?
Player: I want a sword that does thunder and lightning damage, and I want it to also do like 2d6 base slashing damage, and I want it to be really lightweight.
DM: All right, then. First thing you’re going to need is a bone from a storm giant, and it’s going to have to be at least 3 feet long. And you can give up on the lightweight, or on the 2d6, because you can’t have both. I’ll give some thought as to how one actually forges a bone into a sword, and get back to you next week.
At this point the player decides that this is a worthwhile endeavor, or that it’s too much trouble and gives it up, or maybe decides that this is worth coming back to later when there’s a better chance of besting a storm giant. But, both the player and the DM know where they stand on this item, which is a lot better than the really ambiguous hoard-materials-to-make-something-someday method that you see in a lot of crafting systems.
It’s worth noting here as well that DM’s who allow the players to get away with that “I’ll craft something, at some point, don’t worry because I’ll let you know when” are eventually going to have a player craft something that they really don’t want that player to have. Everything will be going fine, and then Crazy Crafting Charlie will pull out his list of materials and announce that he’s now going to make a Sword of Gratuitous Disemboweling, blindsiding the hapless DM and delivering a significant flick to the unforgiving Gyroscope of Game Balance. I’m talking to you here, DM’s… don’t let it happen to you. Make them tell you what they want to craft, and don’t write any blank checks.
A Few Final Notes
That pretty much sums up my analysis of what makes crafting systems terrible and ineffective, and also provides my crafting-as-adventure solution to the 5E crafting problem. That having been said, you might not need any crafting system at all. There are a few things you can do as a DM to get crafting benefits without having to use any sort of formalized crafting system.
For one thing, let your PC’s use their tool proficiencies. Lots of races and backgrounds come with the ability to use tools, and mostly those skills seem to fall by the wayside, because they aren’t the kind of proficiencies that improve your skill check rolls. If you have a character who can use smith’s tools, let that character make their own mundane weapons. Let that character make weapons for the party. Figure that it’s less expensive to buy some steel ingots and rent some time on the local smith’s forge than to go buy that axe in the market. Those players who have a lot of desire to craft their own things are going to feel pretty good about doing it that way, even if the only tangible benefit is getting the axe for a lower price (remembering that adventurers’ incomes usually make everyday expenses negligible); sometimes the intangibles are important, and giving some good DM narration about how they’re hammering and bellowsing and anviling will just make them get the warm fuzzies. Also, don’t use the idiotic 5E method for calculating how many days of work it takes to make something. Just ballpark it instead. There are modern artisans who make plate armor in the traditional method, and they don’t take 10 months per suit. I think that more than about 2 weeks is excessive to make any piece of mundane equipment, but your mileage may vary.
Another thing you can do to get around having to do a lot of crafting is just to ask your players what sort of magic items they want to get during the campaign, and then arrange for them to get some of those items, at appropriate levels, as the game goes on. There are lots of random d100 magic item lists in the DMG that you can use to roll up random treasure hoards with random magic items in them, but there’s no reason why you have to make it random. A lot of crafting desires are going to center around getting a particular type of magic item, and if a little metagaming and communication with your players will let you turn a flame tongue longsword into a thunder crash warhammer and then plunk it down in a treasure hoard for your dwarven fighter to find, that’s probably much easier overall than trying to graft on a crafting system just so that your players can satisfy their desires for specific items. Communication is key, so make sure that your players really want to do crafting before implementing any kind of crafting system; if what they really want is to choose their own special gear and they just think that crafting is the only way that’s going to happen, it might be time for a compromise.
Finally, it’s completely reasonable for certain magic items to be purchased in a large enough population center, or to be crafted by commission using the services of a master artisan. Giant in the Playground user Saidoro came up with a list of magic items from the DMG which are assigned prices in GP that actually make sense: Sane Magical Item Prices PDF. If you want the simplicity of allowing your players to just save up for a particular item, or if you want to exchange a magical item rolled on a d100 table into cash, that document will be invaluable. Just remember that the DM can always tweak the prices, or even make something not able to be bought at all. It’s also not a bad idea to just ask your players flat-out why they want a particular item; sometimes there’s a planned synergy or other clever plan that they have in mind, and it’s better to find out what that is and whether it’ll break the game, and negotiate a reasonable way for their idea to work without making everyone miserable. If you don’t have that kind of relationship with your players… well, that would probably be yet another article, or possibly an opportunity to support your local psychologist and buy some group therapy sessions.
The official crafting system in 5E is horrible, because it just lets you take forever to craft items that you could just go and buy anyway. There are a lot of limitations to the form a crafting system can take, but there are definitely ways to avoid those pitfalls and design a crafting system that works fine alongside the normal 5th Edition rules.
My personal favorite is Crafting by Adventure, in which the players say what kind of item they want to craft, and then have to go out and find the materials, tools, experts, and other means of making that item. How much adventuring is required is totally dependent on the value or complexity of the item, and upon the capabilities and determination of the party. This crafting system works perfectly with the 5E rules, because it takes something that was already there – adventuring and getting treasure for it – and makes it into a way to craft items.
Don’t forget that crafting is often just an itch some players need to scratch, and let them use their tool proficiencies to make their own standard weapons; give them a bit of a discount, but give them plenty of narration about how they fashion the item as well. Remember that a lot of the reason for crafting is to get a specific special item, rather than hoping to find one at random, and that it’s okay for the DM to put some of those items into treasure hoards to be found on purpose. Finally, magic items can be bought under the right circumstances and in the right locations, and that handy PDF will start your PC’s on their way to getting that perfect piece of gear, and also helping them to find some way to spend the insane amounts of cash adventurers are always accumulating. There are only so many suits of plate armor and spyglasses that you can blow your winnings on.
No matter how you choose to do crafting, if you want to do it at all, remember that D&D crafting can’t be like video game crafting, and trying to make it that way will never work unless you have some sort of cyborg DM. D&D uses a person with a brain to make the game possibilities wide open in a way that a computer could never handle, but the trade-off is that human brains can’t stack up to computers in some things… like managing complex crafting systems.
Nevertheless, it’s a good trade-off. You might not get a crafting system with a hundred ingredients and fifty recipes, but you get freedom to try anything you want within the world of the game… and that’s what keeps us all coming back.
And with that, I will wish you happy crafting… but of course you know by now that what I really mean by that is happy adventuring.