I want players to have the option of spending money to increase their adventuring effectiveness. The most obvious way to do that is letting them purchase more and better equipment. Something tangible. A tool with an obvious benefit. It’s the road oft-travelled, and it’s no doubt what players would like to spend their money on, so it seems like a good place to start. And in the basic rules, the only piece of equipment a character might need to buy after burning through their starting cash is plate armor. Granted, they’ll likely make that purchase before they even hit level 2, but it’s the only purchasable equipment progression that exists in the game RAW, so yeah. Lets talk about armor.
One great possibility is to expand the system backwards. Why should the best AC in the game be achievable before level 2? There’s tons of room for interesting progress before that point. A lot of people have written piecemeal armor systems that could serve to engage players for 2-3 levels before they finally get to that glorious 18 AC. The equipment players buy at the start of play could be deficient, with penalties, and a chance to break. There’s an opportunity here to make players feel just how low down and dirty they are as first level adventurers. To make them scratch and claw their way to being competently equipped before we even start talking about how the baseline equipment could be better than it is.
I say we drop the starting money altogether. Players can roll on a murderhobo equipment table and embark on their first adventure wearing an empty barrel around their body as armor, and fighting with a broken bottle tied to the end of a stick.
But for now I want to focus on how armor can continue to be something players spend money on after they’ve already reached the baseline of AC18 plate armor. The goal should be to provide players with a limited set of interesting choices. These choices should be individually achievable, but unlikely to be fully attainable by any but high level characters. A level 2 fighters should be able to look forward to upgrading her armor every 1 or 2 sessions, but it’ll be a long hard road to getting her dream armor. She shouldn’t feel as though she’s not making any progress, but she should have something to strive for.
Improvements made to an existing suit of armor. With enough money, every modification could exist on a single suit of armor. However, the more mods there are, the more complicated it is to add a new mod without futzing up the previous mods. As such, mods have a cumulative cost. The first costs 50% of the base armor’s total cost, the second costs 100%, the third costs 150%, etcetera.*
Perfectly Fitted: All plate armor needs to be fitted to its owner. But the slapdash job done by most village blacksmiths is nothing compared to what a skilled artisan can accomplish. Perfectly fitted plate armor requires 1 less encumbrance than normal.
Carrying Frame: A structure of additional supports is built into the armor, distributing weight more evenly across the body and allowing the wearer to carry 6 encumbering items for every encumbrance point, rather than the standard 5.
Ornamented: The surface of the armor is decorated with fanciful patterns that communicate something about the wearer to those who encounter them before a single word is spoken. Ornamented armor affects reaction rolls. Only one type of ornamentation can be present on a given suit of armor.
Fearsome: Your ornamentation is filled with scenes of battle. It proclaims that you are a foe to be reckoned with. Characters with a level lower than yours are impressed and your reaction improves by 1. Those who are higher level than you see your display as petulant, and your reaction decreases by 1.
Ostentatious: Your ornamentation focuses on your wealth. Gold and gems may be included in the ornamentation. Reaction improves by 1 with any characters who are part of a culture where wealth is a sign of status and power. (ie. human society, generally). Reaction is decreased by 1 with bandits, revolutionaries, or anyone from a society where strength dictates status.
Religious: You openly display your devotion to your particular religion on your armor. Reaction with adherents of said religion is improved by 2. Reaction with foes of your religion is decreased by 2. Many creatures will be unaffected.
Barbed: A series of sharp spikes across the armor, strategically placed so as not to interfere with the character’s movement or peaceful activities, but which make it very difficult for an attacker to grab hold of the character. Characters wearing barbed armor are treated as 1 hit dice higher than normal when attempting to resist an enemy grapple.
Silvered: A latticework of silver is inlaid across the armor’s surface. While worn, the armor offers a +2 to any saves made against the powers of undead creatures, such as level drain. If no save is normally allowed, then the character is instead allowed a Save v. Magic at a -2 penalty to resist the effect.
Superbly Padded: Extremely comfortable, without being oppressive. The wearer can sleep while wearing their armor for up to 3 nights in a row without taking any penalties.
Buoyant: Through mind-boggling engineering that I lack the ability to come up with, it is possible to swim while wearing this armor as though the character were wearing no armor at all.
*Does anyone better at math than I am want to take a crack at a better price structure?
Here we come perhaps uncomfortably close to outright selling magic items. Whether you include this will depend entirely on the highness or lowness of the fantasy in your games.
Steel is an excellent metal. It’s light, it’s tough, and most importantly it’s plentiful. But if your coffers are deep enough to afford a metal that isn’t plentiful, then there are better options. These fictional metals have special properties when shaped into armor. These are completely natural physical effects, which may seem magical only due to the extreme rarity of the substance.
Only a single rare metal may be used in the construction of a set of armor. Alloys are theoretically possible, but not financially feasible.
Feathersteel: An incredibly lightweight metal. Armor made from it is treated as 1 encumbrance lower than normal. (So, perfectly fitted, feathersteel armor would be completely unencumbering.) Suit of full plate: 3,000sp.
Nightstone: Within 4″ of the surface of this metal, light is dimmed and sound is muffled. Stealth rolls are improved by 2. (Not ignoring any penalties from armor or encumbrance). Speaking requires either that the wearer shout to be heard, or remove their helmet. Suit of full plate: 4,000sp.
Cold Iron: Something about this metal, it’s completely unknown precisely what, drives creatures of the lower planes into a mad frenzy. Any polite social interaction becomes impossible. But, oddly, they also seem resistant to attack a target wearing this armor. If they must, they will do so, but the wearer’s armor class is raised by 2, due to the demon’s reticence to actually come in contact with the hated metal. Suit of full plate: 6,000sp.
Viridescent Cobalt: Something about the way light refracts off of viridescent cobalt isn’t received well by the human eye. With time and focus, the eye can adjust to get a good look at it so long as it doesn’t move. But otherwise, it’s just a green blur. Armor made from viridescent cobalt provides a +1 to armor class against humanoid foes. Suit of full plate: 12,000sp.
Azurika: A pale blue metal which is uniquely unaffected by magic. Why magic works and exists in the first place is a concept that is little understood, so why Azurika seems stubbornly resistant to it remains a mystery. But those who wear armor made of it receive a +2 bonus to saves against magical effects. Suit of full plate: 18,000sp.