Finally! On to some real content!

I had an idea a little while back while I was thinking about randomness, specifically while I was thinking about a series of articles by Steve Winter over at his blog (The excellent Howling Tower) and at Kobold Quarterly. Specifically these entries on using random encounters in games.

While I was thinking about those ideas I was also thinking about treasure distribution and how I’d like to do it in a future game. I don’t hate the way 4th Edition does it (by default at least) but I’ve thought or a while now that if/when I run another 4e game I’ll use inherent bonuses (still don’t really understand why this wasn’t the default in 4e…) and distribute treasure much more randomly.

Anyway, while I was thinking about these two things an idea popped into my head about auctioning off magic items and letting the PC’s participate in those auctions. It suddenly occurred to me that this could be a good way to employ randomness!

So the basic idea is this: You have a chart that determines what the various NPC’s the PC’s are bidding against do in a given round of bidding. Each NPC has their own set of modifiers to that chart that effect how they bid in any given round of bidding at the auction, whether they sit that round out, whether they try to outbid the most recent bid and by how much, or if they stop bidding entirely. I liked this basic idea a lot. It lets you as the GM determine some things about what sort of people these NPC’s are and then let the dice decide how they reacted to the PC’s. The players then only need to know what the results are for the NPC’s and bid or not bid accordingly. If they know how an auction works they can do this without any other knowledge.

This lets you make an auction exciting for everyone, and avoids the problem of it feeling like the GM is just using auctions as a way to decide how much the PC’s are going to have to pay for an item while wasting their time with a phony bidding process (since she presumably knows ahead of time at what point an NPC’s will stop bidding).

My initial thought was of a simple, but custom chart for each NPC, or a few standard charts that would be used depending on how rich they were. But I realized that just a simple chart you roll on might be too static and won’t really provide much in the way of reactions to what the PC’s are doing,. I also realized making up a new chart for every NPC would get pretty tedious.

So after some thought I think a better and simpler way is to create a standard chart and then add some modifiers to the NPC’s to add or subtract from their rolls. You can then set some thresholds to subtract from these modifiers to represent the bidders being less and less likely to keep bidding as the price goes up.

For example lets say we have a chart with 10 entries on it.You’d roll a d10 and then look up the result on the chart. It might look something like this (this is by no means a final chart, hasn’t been play tested or anything just an example):

1. Bidder stops bidding entirely
2. Bidder sits out for the next two rounds
3. Bidder sits out this round
4. Bidder sits out this round
5. Bidder bids the price up one increment
6. Bidder bids the price up one increment
7. Bidder bids the price up one increment
8. Bidder bids the price up two increments
9. Bidder bids the price up two increments
10. Natural 10: Bidder bids the price up three increments (otherwise only go up 2)

However, since, at least in the first few rounds of bidding we probably don’t want our PC’s competitors dropping out of the auction immediately, (or at least not have exactly an equal chance of dropping out or bidding an absurdly high sum), we add in the modifiers depending on both how much the character wants the item and how rich they are.

My thinking here is to make these simple three step increments. The NPC is either interested (+1), very interested (+2), or desperate (+3). Likewise their wealth follows a similar set: average wealth (+1), wealthy (+2), very rich (+3). These bonuses (one from each category) would then be added up and that would effect how the NPC rolled on the chart (at least initially). So pity the PC’s who want the same item as a very rich, and desperate competitor who would be starting out with +6 to her rolls!

Now I say “starting out” because my thinking is that as the auction goes on and the price goes up you would subtract one from their modifier every round of the auction. So the modifiers would go down, and perhaps even eventually go negative making it increasingly likely that the NPC will drop out of the auction (or at least stop bidding long enough for someone else to win).

Now remember, I’ve done no playtesting of this at all at this point, and these numbers may be way too big (maybe we just need 2 for each category?). I’m also envisioning an NPC that starts with the maximum bonus being a very rare occurrence indeed. Most of the time rivals should probably be starting with only a +2 or 3 at most.

 There are certainly some potentially big problems with the system. The first being that this may simply be a lot of work and take too much time for something that most players and GM’s won’t really enjoy. I personally find auctions to be fun and exciting but it’s possible others don’t (or wouldn’t at the table. Heck, I might not either once this is tested out!).

After running this by a few friends some other possible issues have also been brought up. For example: players sitting at a table may be a lot more detached and rational than they might be in a real auction, so they may stop bidding really early rather than getting caught up in the excitement of the auction, and continuing to bid for a while.

Some ideas friends have suggested that I’m certainly thinking about, both to modify or even replace this system:

-Simplify and abstract things further so that the PC’s only end up bidding against the “top” competitor for the item.
-Use some sort of character skill to the process and maybe abstract it into a few die rolls using that skill.
-Add in some sort of “compel” mechanic so that the PC’s actually have to make a will save or something in order to avoid making a bid if they want to try to stop. This would represent their character getting caught up in the frenzy of the auction.

For the moment I still kind of like the simple and straightforward system where the players don’t need to know how to do anything other than bid in an auction, but this hasn’t been play tested at all and the system as is may turn out to be too cumbersome or tedious.

A friend also suggested maybe this could be turned into a way for the PC’s to sell their items, perhaps even a way to fence ill-gotten goods. I’m still thinking on that one a bit, but it might be an interesting (though perhaps a bit too complicated as is) way to determine what sort of price they can get for items they bring back from adventures.

So what do you think? Does this sound like something worth pursuing? Do you have an suggestions for improving things? Is this a terrible idea and I should just scrap it? Is there another game I don’t know about that’s already covered this territory? Let me know! 🎲

Stephen B @DrOct