Everything is subject to entropy. Things wear out, break down, splinter, crack, chip, corrode, dull, and eventually break into so many useless lumps of raw material. Everything, that is, except the gear carried and worn by most PCs.
So my party has been traveling through the Norwegian countryside, and have finally reached a stage of the journey from Canterbury, England to Oslo that requires them to camp. As such, I feel (quite naturally, I believe) that I have not challenged them quite enough to make it actually feel like they are isolated, days from help, and completely dependent on their own wit and logistical skill. Because they are. If something should go terribly wrong, likely one or more of them would die. Even if nothing untoward does happen, by the time they get back to civilization they will be filthy, dirty, smelly, tired, and ready to hole up in a swanky inn for a few days before continuing on. Or at least they should feel that way. I don’t think they will unless I do something to impress upon them that wandering the backcountry is no walk in the park.
So I turned to my usual resource in situations like this, Alexis Smolensk over at his blog, the Tao of D&D. Specifically, a couple of posts titled Breaking Camp and Half Life. He tossed out an idea for the gradual breakdown of gear over time, but didn’t develop it into a full system At the time. But since I’ve been cogitating over a similar subject (primarily with how rapidly clothes deteriorate with constant wear), I figured I’d have a go at fleshing it out a bit.
First, the original premise: each item has a “half life” in days, which may be shortened by extraordinary use, calculated on a sliding scale depending on the durability of the item in question. Second, a character may be more prone to breakage because a random element would be appropriate, and a wisdom check every so often seems like a good way for a character to inadvertently shorten the lifespan of his gear. Alexis also mentioned that some means of restoring lost days to gear could be included.
Now, a table:
So to start, the half life of gear is based on its material and quality of construction. Metal and stone are the most durable. So let’s throw out a number, say, 4000 days for a common metal (or mostly metal) item. That’s a ten year working life, roughly. Even without maintenance, common metal items should last the life of your adventurer. Stone, being less elastic than metal, we’ll assign a value of 2000 days. Wood, we’ll say 1000 days. Leather, 800 days. Cloth, ceramics and glass, 400 days. Paper, 100 days. A common quality suit of clothes should last about a year if well kept.
The point of this half life is, as stated above, to give an indication of how many days any given item can be expected to serve reliably. Each day an item is put to use, or traveled around with, subtract one day from the half-life of the item. If an item (such as a spellbook or glass bottles or some other fragile item) is properly stored and packed for travel inside a dedicated case, I would be willing to class that item as “stored,” and not subject to degradation due to travel. Unless it’s remove from it’s strongbox and put to some use of course. The case itself, though, would still be subject to such wear.
As to the quality of construction, the cost of higher quality items would indicate that an item so made is more durable and longer lasting than a run-of-the-mill item. I’ve kept Alexis’ format of pricing multipliers, while adding a “cheapening” option. The increase in durability isn’t on the same scale as the pricing, as it becomes a game of decreasing returns, as well as accounting for the fact that a lot of cost on the higher end models is accounted for by aesthetics in addition to durability. A note about the “cheap” models: instead of the standard damage die in case of accident or misuse, two dice would be thrown instead of one. I know this is “doubling up” on penalties for cheaper materials and construction, but with a base cost of half the normal item, I felt that further reducing the longevity of these items when used outside of everyday activities was justified.
Now about those damage dice. Every time an item is used for a purpose for which it is not designed, the damage die indicated for the material is rolled, and the result is subtracted from the remaining life of the item. Further, I would consider combat to be an extraordinary circumstance in any case, and would apply that damage for each round of combat that a weapon or shield is involved in, and once per combat for every item carried or worn externally during a fight. Possibly more often, if circumstances warrant. And then, if that isn’t enough, if you wish to target an individual item, each point of regular damage would translate nicely into one damage die per point of damage dealt. That would also work well for things like fireballs, dragon breath, falling into acid, etc.
Also, I really like the idea of rolling a wisdom check every so often to see if inadvertent mishandling has caused the object in question to deteriorate faster than normal. Alexis suggests once a day, but I think, to lighten bookkeeping, I’d check once per week. A failed check would indicated the item took additional damage dice to it’s half-life.
But what about maintenance and repair? That should be an option, right? Of course right. So, let’s say that with the expense of some time, minor materials (needle, thread, wax, oil, tools, etc.) and expertise you can restore days lost to damage or misuse to your poor items. After 20 minutes working on one item to be maintained, make an Intelligence check (or a craft check, if that’s a thing in your game). On a success, add a damage die back to the available life of the object +1. If the intelligence check fails, take that amount away. Add your craft bonus to the days added, or subtract your craft bonus from the damage dealt. Cost of materials could be 1% of original price per repair, or some sort of multi-use “kit” could be worked up. There is only so much maintenance that may be performed on an object however, so each additional 20 minutes spent in a week would impose a (cumulative) -2 penalty to each intelligence check and damage die roll. Eventually you’d just be replacing finish or stitching unnecessary holes or scrubbing an already clean pair of pants.
Once the item has at long last worn through it’s useful life, and the remaining days equal 0, the item must make a Constitution check each time it is used. If it fails the check, the item is broken and unusable until it is repaired. The table indicates the effective Con score for each material type of common construction. Each step up on the construction quality gives a +1 bonus to this score. The Con scores for cheap items are at -2.
Once the item is broken, repairing it will take more time and material, as well as money if you don’t have the skills yourself to effectively repair the item yourself. Exact prices negotiable, but I would lean towards 25% of the original product’s price in material, and that amount again in labor. Further, since the original item is being used as a base, that raw material is more worn than the new, so any repaired item would have a half life of half it’s original life span.
What role could magic play in all of this? Well first of all, all magic items are of mastercraft quality, so they begin with the highest half life available for items of that material. Second, they will endure more abuse by only ever rolling a d4 damage die, and replace the standard Con score with the spellcasting ability score of its creator if that is higher.
All of that boiling down to yes, your magic items can break, and will, eventually. Which just means you’ll have to find the magical weaponsmith (or jeweller or whomever) to get your precious things repaired. And spells? Well that all depends on the spells you have access to. There aren’t a whole lot of spells that deal with repairing items, but as a general guide I’d consider them to only work on broken-broken items, or if they restore hit points or something similar, swap in returning damage dice like attacking individual items does.
So what do you think? Are your PCs going to start breaking their stuff and wearing out their boots? What’s that? They don’t want to track all of that? What if I gave you a handy-dandy spreadsheet with all of that information built in? What then? Then it’s just a one-time process to put everything in, and then add in new stuff as it comes. Easy-peasy. Here’s a link. I’m sure you are smart enough to figure out how it works. Feel free to copy and reverse-engineer. Or just paste it into your Excel- (or Google Sheets) based character sheet.
Wait a minute! Food! I forgot to address the issue of food. Well, almost forgot, anyway. Food is a special case, because it’s got a half-life of days, not months or years. And I could work up a separate table for how long various foods last. Oh, I guess I did. Here it is:
The categories could use some elucidation. Hardy produce is everything like carrots, turnips, parsnips etc that can be stored in a root cellar for a while. Durable hardy produce would be apples or potatoes that can last longer. Delicate produce would be things like stonefruits, berries, leafy greens, etc. Durable delicate produce things like citrus fruits or melons. Hardy dairy would be cultured milk products, butter, thing like that. Durable hardy dairy is hard cheeses encased in wax or other impermeable rind. Delicate dairy is fresh milk or cream. Durable delicate dairy would be soft cheeses, or cottage cheese, perhaps yogurt, and eggs. Dry goods are flour, meal, cereals etc. Durable dry goods things like whole grains, rice, seeds. Fresh meat should be self explanatory, though durable fresh meat would be meat that has been lightly treated with some form of light preservation such as gravlax. Preserved meat is things like salted meats, durable preserved meats being totally dried like jerky. Baked goods would be bread, rolls, or cakes, durable baked goods being things like hardtack or crackers.
Foodstuffs lose a day off of their lifespan every day, regardless of whether they are being transported or in storage. Rough handling or extreme changes in temperature (what constitutes “extreme” will vary by food type) will apply the damage die. Once the lifespan of the food item has expired, it is spoiled. If it is eaten after it has spoiled, the character doing the eating has a percent chance to get food poisoning (or other diseases if you want) equal to the number of days since it has spoiled TIMES the percent given. Thus, four days after delicate dairy has gone off, there is a 100% chance that a character consuming it will get sick.
Cooking food after it has spoiled will reduce this chance to 1/10 of the disease chance, with a minimum of the base percentage. Note that 100% is not the maximum percentage for the purpose of this calculation, and the percent chance of disease will again increase by the same percentage each day. Cooking food before it has spoiled will add 1d4 days to the half-life of that item. Foods made of combined elements will have a half-life of the ingredient with the shortest remaining time after the additional time added from cooking.
The Con score is included in case the food needs to make a save against some magical effect or physical destruction.
So there you have it. A whole scheme for slowly breaking everything your PCs own. Now repairs and maintenance will mean something, and your players will be relieved to finally get out of that dungeon and back into town to buy a new pair of pants.