A while back Ed posted an article about “gritty” campaigns and referenced one that I was running for our group. Addressing all the mechanics for such a campaign will take several articles, so I decided to start with equipment, both because I think it’s very important to a gritty campaign and because it’s on my mind for our current “regular” campaign. It’s important to keep in mind (particularly since we’re talking about equipment) that an alternate name for this type of campaign is “stingy.”
Now gritty and stingy campaigns are not exactly the same thing. The first stingy campaign I played in was based in Waterdeep, with all the fantastic things going on there, I wouldn’t really call that a gritty environment. But I can tell you that my DM made it stingy. I don’t think we saw a single magic item for at least five levels. We literally took jobs for silver, and sometimes even copper. He made us pay for everything. Finding gold in a treasure was a major event. It was a great time.
So while a stingy campaign can be run in a high fantasy world, a gritty campaign pretty much demands stinginess. That means that players should not be able to afford the heaviest armors at first level, and even getting a suit of chainmail should feel like an accomplishment (like getting magic armor is supposed to feel). But of course players like getting better “stuff” for their characters. That’s fine.
But to maintain the gritty feel, you want to ensure that the better stuff is not magical. That doesn’t mean that you won’t let them get their hands on a magic sword at some point just that the bulk of the improved stuff is mundane, probably just better manufactured than what they started with. If you go that route, gaining a magic item will be a truly special event, because their characters have never seen one before.
D&D, particularly 4e, expects certain amount of magical gear for each character at each level so that the characters are still competitive with monsters of comparable levels. Obviously this presumption doesn’t work well in gritty campaigns. In previous editions, this presumption was necessary to a certain degree because so many monsters were immune to damage from non-magical weapons, but 4e has done away with that mechanic. However, the level scaling (defenses and attack bonuses) was designed on that same presumption. The DMG 2 did offer an option for low-magic campaigns, inherent bonuses, which I recommend for a gritty campaign. That way you won’t feel you’ve thrown your party an insurmountable curve ball when the tyrannical baron confiscates their gear of war.
Even using the inherent bonuses though, you still want the characters to be able to get different (read better) equipment. But again, because you are being stingy with your equipment, you don’t necessarily want your better “stuff” to be really fantastic masterwork items. The easiest way I’ve found to handle that is to lower the starting point. For instance, make the standard for weapons in your campaign iron, rather than steel. That way your steel weapons can have a +1 enhancement bonus and not raise any eyebrows. You could also have low and high steel weapons (+1 and +2 respectively). After that you can start using the standard fantasy metals, mithril and adamantine, etc. You can also use special forging techniques to add other characteristics to weapons.
I developed this chart for my own campaign, but I haven’t really used it yet, because, well, I’m stingy. It has little application to non-metal weapons. Here, low steel has only a damage bonus, where high steel has a +1 enhancement bonus. You can add a forging technique to a material, but we’re not really interested in making alloys. Obviously this chart could be expanded considerably, but it’s a good starting point. And if you are using these items, I recommend allowing the characters to add the enhancement bonuses to the inherent bonuses, otherwise it defeats the purpose. Plus, if you’re really being stingy, your characters can use any edge they can get. Ah, puns . . .
Low Steel +1 damage +50gp
High Steel +1 enhancement +150gp
Mithril +2 enhancement +1000gp
Adamantine +3 enhancement +3000gp
Elf Forged High Crit +500gp
Dwarf Forged Brutal 1 +300gp
So for weapons you can simply say that what the characters are buying at the weapon smiths’ is iron (rather than steel) and go from there. Armor is a bit different, particularly because leather (and hide) is prevalent and conspicuously not made of metal.
I created the following changed armor list for my gritty campaign. The prices are definitely different, but the biggest change is probably damage resistance. I don’t apply this to monsters (except possibly lieutenants or leaders) so it is almost purely for players. It affects physical damage (ranged and melee) but not other damage types. The “L/H” column identifies light and heavy armors (basically a few of the chainmail types are ‘light’). A few armors (like studded leather, ring mail and brigandine) have been added (or reinstated perhaps) to the list to fill gaps mostly for particularly destitute defenders (which is hopefully all of them).
The point here is to try to make the available armor types match a bit better with the typical leather/chainmail that characters in gritty fiction and historical fiction tend to wear, while at the same time having value to the players. The damage resistance is meant to help with that. Your defenders aren’t expected to be armor plated tanks with really high AC’s, because plate is expensive. Instead, they can get by a bit better with chain or even brigandine because, though they get hit a bit more often that their ‘standard game’ counterparts, they also take a bit less damage each time.
Hopefully this is a good starting point for getting your characters down in the ‘grit.’ Happy destitution.