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RPG Concepts: Items

 4 January 2007

Roleplaying Concepts

Items present in the World

Did you ever play an RPG, wondering why the world is so empty? Do you ever wonder, while entering a noble house without any real permission, why all closets are empty or not even openable? If you happen to like looting everybody’s treasure chests, bepare to be disappointed as some wealthy NPCs keep two single gold pieces in them. Wow! The RPG world “contents” should also reflect the current neighborhood you’re traveling in. Every little item must have a purpose to make the environment more believable. The more you can interact with objects, the better. Of course this concept should not be implemented as a mere gimmick.

Let’s start with an excellent example. In Larian’s first Roleplaying game called Divine Divinity, it was even possible to move closets and chairs and beds. If you really wanted to, you could carry some furniture along with you. Of course that does not really make any sense, unless it’s used in a useful way. And it is: carrying a bedroll will enable you to rest out in the wilderness. You can also grab various types of food, normally only used for display purposes. Every single closet has an interesting item for you, with some value to it. Libraries contain enormous amounts of books (or rather scrolls), which are interesting to read. Baldur’s Gate 2 enabled you to learn about the game’s history via these very same scrolls. Too bad DivDiv’s randomized content system didn’t work out very well since most stuff was severely underpowered.

Yes you can steal bread. But would you want to?
Yes you can steal bread. But would you want to?

I’ll have to give some credits to Bethesda for integrating some of these ideas into Morrowind and Oblivion. If you really wanted to, you could steal every single object in every house: some plates, forks, vases, spices, you name it. If the owner sees you lending his furniture, he’ll react accordingly. At least, that’s the way we’d like it to see. There are enough exploits in these games which makes stealing ridiculously easy, sadly enough. Sell all items and you won’t be needing any money as quest rewards anymore. It would be nice to see these items actually used. Besides, this process hardly involves any role playing.

Addendum - fable at Gamebanshee kindly pointed out that Ultima VI and VII both offered this kind of item interactivity as well, Bethesda merely copied it’s concept. While you are unable to do something useful with most of the items you can carry with you in the Elder Scrolls series, most of them were actually usable in Ultima VII. Larian’s Divinity series was also heavily inspired by the Ultima games.

In contrast, there are more than enough recent RPGs which kindly ignore the “careful item placement” concept. One example might be Troika’s Temple of Elemental Evil. I love exploring towns and houses, but this game laughed at me while I repeatedly tried to open some closets or chests next to beds. You simply can’t open them! They are part of the background. Yes there still are chests enough in dungeons, and ToEE is mainly a dungeon RPG since most of the time will be spent in the Temple. But still… The temple itself contains many large area’s with cupboards and other interesting objects. All part of the pre-rendered background. There goes my Baldur’s Gate-style exploring addiction. Even in all other Infinity Engine games, you could open drawers or check barrels.

Of course it would be impossible to place interesting and relevant items in all houses, spread across all towns, especially in very large worlds like Amn. Waukeen’s Promenade in Athkatla has enough nearly empty houses. But every house is still accessible, and every house contains at least one container, with set loot. A couple of gold coins, some potions or sometimes even gems. This makes visiting non-interesting area’s worthwhile. At least for me.

Left: Temple of Elemental Evil. Right: Icewind Dale II.
Left: Temple of Elemental Evil. Right: Icewind Dale II.

Scripted or Randomized content?

Generating randomized content could be done, but most games failed using this technique. Let’s take a look at Sacred, for example. Most Hack & Slash games strongly favor randomized content - and there’s nothing wrong with that. Sacred includes, like most other games, class-specific items. “Oh good!". Yes indeed, unless you keep on encountering Paladin armor if you are playing as a Dark Elf. These parameters should at least be used while generating items, although obviously not while playing a multi-player game. Well, that’s not the worst part, you can simply sell items you cannot equip, right? Right. But what to do with all that gold? Buy new items you can equip! Right. Unless the weapon store constantly restocks with low level items. I used a dual bladed weapon for 20 levels straight, because all encountered shops stocked junk and all items in various containers were unusable.

Neverwinter Nights also uses scripts to generate container contents. Most boxes or low level chests placed in towns or area’s contain generic non-interesting equipment, also found in normal stores. The most powerful items are set items, as always. BioWare too seems to have embraced the randomized content technique: see the Infinite Dungeons module. In Wizardry 8, almost every chest contains randomly generated items, but this principle is done slightly different. Every chest has a limited amount of set items with a possibility percentage. Upon entering the area, the content is generated by picking items from this list. This method prevents every non-set chest from containing the same “junk items”. Many of the most powerful weapons can be found in these chests, if you are lucky (Rapax King’s Chest, Davy Jones Locker, …)

Blue Dragon's World invites you to check every single stone for items.
Blue Dragon's World invites you to check every single stone for items.

Console Roleplaying games typically endorse placement of less items in better context. Especially with the old but still mainly present Overworld system, you won’t find anything of interest there, except in a very limited amount of set chests. Dragon Quest VIII for example delivers a solid job creating busy and beautiful towns with many hidden items to discover in closets and vases. But once you explore further and exit the town, the over-world has almost nothing to offer, except set chests in semi-hidden locations and monster drops. Utilizing a little too high randomized battle rate, chest hunting can get very frustrating.

The upcoming X360 RPG called Blue Dragon makes these random encounters and fairly empty over-worlds less of a pain by including (again randomized) items in and under various objects. Almost every single stone in the over-world can be pushed aside and almost every container can be opened. However, this does make the game very easy as you’re never short on cash or potions. And every item acquired this way comes from the same item pool, meaning most stuff is useless. All best equipment pieces are again set items…

Avoid at all costs:

  • Avoid not open-able containers.
  • Avoid the “junk randomized item content” system.
  • Avoid scripting the best items (although debatable)

Bad Examples of item placement:

  • Temple of Elemental Evil
  • Sacred and some other Hack & Slash games. Exceptionally, Diablo II did great! Most Console jRPGs (DQ8 is decent thanks to the towns)

Excellent Examples of item placement:

  • Ultima VII (Released in 1992, one of the first games to heavily utilize item placement correctly)
  • Wizardry 8, again (randomized but from a set pool, all best items too)
  • Infinity Engine games (all containers produce something worthwhile)
  • Divine Divinity (although the contents itself isn’t that great)
  • Arcanum (Several not usable items spread but combinable through Schematics)


I'm Wouter, a level 35 Retro Gamer, and I love the sight of experience points on old and forgotten hardware. I sometimes convince others join in on the nostalgic grind. Read more about me here.

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