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Power of the Set Bonus

One popular thing in digital games, particularly in RPGs where items abound, are set bonuses. I have fond memories of playing Heroes of Might and Magic II as the undead, seeking out the Amulet of the Undertaker, Dead Man’s Boots, and Vampire’s Cowl to form them all together into the Cloak of the Undead King. My armies may fall, but now 30% would rise as skeletons to do my bidding! Who would rise to stop me?!?!? The power of the set bonuses isn’t strictly limited to fantasy games either. You’ll see set bonuses in games like Mega Man and Ratchet & Clank. As long as you’re including equipable items (or even just items) in your games, set bonuses can be included, no matter the genre. Why don’t we see that same thing in our tabletop games very often? This week, let's ponder that question and discuss the good, the bad, and the stupid of Set Bonuses.


It's no secret that a lot of what has to do with tabletop games today is rooted in the history of strategy games. Incorporating set bonuses just adds another level of strategy to your existing tabletop game. Just like in video games, players would need to consider not only the bonuses given by individual pieces of equipment, but bonuses that come from making complete sets. Sure, those Boots of Expeditious Retreat sound great, but are they going to take away a poison immunity from wearing three of the poison reduction items? That same set may be important to a character's theme as well. Wizards that focus on fire magic may want to compliment their specialty with a set of items that provides a bonus to that damage type when they're all included. Sneakier folks like rogues and rangers might go for building a set to assist them in stealth. A Jedi might focus on equipment that provides a set bonus to Mind Trick. Focuses could rely on social skills, combat, or any other mechanic featured in your tabletop game. This provides depth and focus to those characters might not otherwise be available. There are some downsides though…

To the Max!

On the other hand, there's a potential dreaded drawback when it comes to including this concept in your games: set bonuses offer a boon to Min-Maxers, those players focused completely on maximizing specific status. If you want to play that way, there really isn’t anything wrong with that. However, it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea and could be off-putting to some of their fellow players. It's good to keep that kind of play in check if not everyone in your game is into min-maxing. If you’re all into it, though, have at! Another limitation of adding set bonuses to your games are the limits it provides on customization and choice. A wizard might be reluctant to give up the wand focus that adds a set bonus to Magic Missile, even if that would give them a shiny new bonus to all of their spell attacks. While that's a decision strategists might enjoy, it can be very limiting for some players. They could end up feeling pigeonholed or forced to stick with the equipment they have rather than branching out. We don't want to see this kind of discouragement in our games. If you're going to include set bonuses, make sure to provide ample opportunity to try new things without too many repercussions.

Alternative set

Trying to find a balance between strategic item set bonuses provide and the issues of min-maxing and forced decision making is difficult. You might consider allowing the sets to be upgradable to curtail some of those issues, though min-maxing would still be a concern. Another way to implement sets  might be to distribute them throughout your gaming party. Earth, Fire, Wind, Water, Heart…anyone? Having sets split among players, but still providing some sort of bonus (perhaps limited by proximity or reduced by being split between allies) is another way to include the concept while reducing the pitfalls. Again, make sure players aren’t feeling to pigeonholed, though, or they might be afraid of handicapping their allies if they want to choose a different direction. Maybe keep sets split between only 2-3 players, so there's some opportunity to change out which team members are involved.

Should set bonuses be included in our table-top games? It's absolutely something worth pondering. They certainly seem to work well within the confines of video games. For a certain type of player/game, it might be a great mechanic to involve. After all, you get to add some great strategy and deep focus to these characters. While min-maxing may occur, it may be just fine... depending upon the kind of game you’re playing. However, if those at your table have trouble making decisions, or get discouraged when they are unable to approach their character the way they want to, it might be best to leave sets to the digital world and play your analog games with more standard equipment bonuses. Like with so many other things we can attempt to port from tabletop’s distant cousins, your mileage may vary. Until next week folks, enjoy your tables and your matching dice sets that give a bonus to rolling through dice towers made by LittlEmpire dice.  

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