Every now and then it’s nice to hand out something a little fun and special to the player characters (PCs). The trouble is, you don’t want to hand out too many really powerful things because you could unbalance your game – the PCs become too powerful and they run roughshod over your world. You could find a way to take their advantage away from them, but you’re often better off just not giving it to them in the first place.
This leaves us with a quandary: how do you give your group the occasional cool, neat, or interesting thing without making the PCs way too powerful? The secret is in how you define “cool stuff.” Many people just think of interesting items as falling into one of two categories: worth a whole lot of money, or having great powers. Instead, we’re going to define a few other sorts of neat and interesting items that you can play with. You can make them worth some (but not too much) money, or you can make them mildly magical or powerful, or they could be completely mundane – their only value the context in which they’re placed.
The plot-relevant item
Whenever you’re in the middle of a complex, convoluted, wild, or just plain cool plot that has your players saying “wow!”, consider throwing a plot-relevant item into the mix. The party might be excited to get a trophy to represent the amount of work they put into a plot. Or they might find an item fascinating simply because the plot surrounding it was similarly fascinating. You can use the dramatic build-up to your plot as a dramatic build-up to the item as well.
Think about the plot for a bit. Is there a particular item that you would consider representative of the plot? This might be the disputed item that started the first argument that led to the war, or the signet ring of the sorcerer who was behind the dastardly plot that the PCs foiled. Find a way to work that item into the unveiling of your plot. Try to make its discovery a bit exciting, dramatic or interesting.
The item once owned by someone amazing
Pepper the background of your world with interesting people; let your non-player characters (NPCs) have their heroes and their villains as well. Don’t make the PCs the only amazing people to have sprung up in your world. Then allow the occasional item once owned by an ancient hero or someone’s idol to make it into your game.
After all, in real life people go to ridiculous lengths just to get their hands on items once owned by their favorite celebrities. Seed your world with its own celebrities. Wait and see whether your PCs become fascinated by any of them (try to make some them relevant to the hopes and dreams of the PCs). Then introduce an item once owned by such a celebrity. Perhaps it’s a weapon – not incredibly powerful, but at least a little spiffy. Maybe it’s a trinket or amulet of some kind. Perhaps it’s a book or journal, or something else relevant to the person’s life, hobbies, interests, or family.
Add in another little bonus – having such an item might make certain people more favorably disposed toward the PCs. (“You wield the Axe of Kartan? He was a great hero to my people! Sit down and let me tell you some stories…”) If the celebrity in question is still alive, he might be willing to give the PCs an audience and perhaps even do them a small favor if they return his belongings to him.
The historically relevant item
If your world has an interesting history, with plenty of historical events (wars, famines, dragon-slayings, revolutions, magical cataclysms), then you could introduce an item relevant to the history. What about the magic item once used to end the war – now useless and cracked, but an object of awe nonetheless? What about the sword used to kill the dragon, with traces of its dried blood still caked in the corners about the handle?
Wait to introduce this item until the relevant bits of history have come out during the course of the game – otherwise it’ll be just another sword or amulet. Try to pay attention to which bits of history interest your players and their characters, and play off of those.
The personally relevant item
Another alternative is the item that is personally relevant to one of the PCs. This could be a family heirloom. It could be something once owned by the PC’s mentor, or some hero of the PC’s profession or tribe. It could be a gift from a beloved family member, or an item the PC once owned years ago that was stolen from him. It could be a symbol of some sort of rank he has attained or a trial he has passed. It could be a trophy representing something amazing he’s done, or a birthday present from a friend.
It helps to wait until the PC has built up some personal relationships before you try to work this one in. These items are much more personal if there’s a close relationship to make them important.
The unusual or unique item
This item may not be very powerful or worth a lot of money, but it’s probably one-of-a-kind, or close to it! This is the weapon forged from a meteor that fell to earth, or the item from another dimension made of a material that cannot be found on the PC’s world (or made using technologies or skills unavailable on his world). This is the hide of an albino dragon, born only once every 10,000 years.
This item is often best handed out as a part of some epic quest or struggle. Unique items are made all the more unique by the unusual plots and circumstances in which they’re found.
Of course, in many of these cases it’s appropriate that the item have some sort of interesting power to it, or be worth some amount of money – which is just fine as long as the amount of money isn’t too ridiculous and the power isn’t too broad and unbalancing. So how do you go about choosing or determining such a value or power?
Many of the items described above might be valuable to collectors or historians, who won’t necessarily have huge amounts of cash to spend. So it’s easy to make them worth a decent chunk of pocket change without making them worth so much that the PCs will be able to buy something ridiculous with the profits. Alternatively, the PCs might be able to trade the items for favors or use them as the basis with which to forge new alliances. This is an even better option than giving a monetary worth, since favors and alliances are more unusual and interesting than plain old cash.
One trick to making items of small or moderate power interesting is to make the power unusual. Don’t use it to duplicate a spell effect already in game, or a common magic item. Pick something a little out of the ordinary. Try to make it relevant to the history of the item. If the item is from another dimension, perhaps it summons some weird creature unique to that dimension to act as the wielder’s familiar or helper. If it was worn while stopping a magical cataclysm, then maybe it bears traces of that wild, warping power within it.
Drawbacks and flaws
You can also balance the power of an item by including a few drawbacks: hidden flaws, trouble that the item attracts, and dangers involved with using it. Perhaps activating the item takes five years off of the user’s life, attracts monsters, or has a 1-in-20 chance of summoning a demon.
Think carefully, however, to make sure that the drawback isn’t something the PCs can shrug off. For instance, if they can magically alter their own ages, then taking five years off of their lives isn’t really a flaw. If they’re capable of killing a demon, then summoning one won’t make the item dangerous.
At the other end of things, if the flaw or drawback is particularly dangerous or possibly deadly, then make sure that the PCs know this before they use the item! The whole point of a flaw or drawback is to give the PCs incentive to not use the item too often. If they aren’t aware of the flaw and it’s capable of killing them, then your objective of giving them something neat that they can only use once in a while won’t be reached. Instead you’ll just kill them, which isn’t much fun. So make sure the PCs have reason to believe that there’s a danger to using the item.
Even better, make sure the danger isn’t something that will kill them out-of-hand. The demon, for example, might be more interested in getting them to do it a difficult favor than in ripping their hearts out, particularly the first time or two that it’s summoned. If possible, you should lead up to deadly flaws gradually and obviously – they shouldn’t happen immediately or with no warning. And don’t make the flaw so deadly that the players are too afraid of the item to ever play with it – let them enjoy it at least once or twice!
Restrictions, narrowness, lack of control and lack of information
In order to keep the item’s power from being too unbalancing, make it narrow. This means that it isn’t a broad, applies-to-everything power – it’s something that only applies to a narrow set of circumstances.
Alternatively, add in a certain lack of control. Items that only activate under certain circumstances, particularly circumstances that aren’t understood or aren’t controllable by the PCs, can keep an otherwise powerful effect under control. Perhaps the amulet they found only works on clear, starlit nights when the moon is full. Maybe it activates automatically during an earthquake. This is another area where knowing the background of the item can help you. If you know who designed it and why, you might be able to come up with restrictions that would have made sense to the creator or the circumstances he found himself in.
You can also add a degree of strategy this way – the PCs may have some powerful resources under their control, but they have to maneuver their foes very carefully to work them into position to take advantage of that. To use a mundane example, what if the PCs get their hands on a high-powered sniper’s rifle in a game where people mostly use pistols? Sure it’ll make their life easy the first time they use it, but what about after that? Their enemies are likely to spend a lot more time in difficult-to-shoot locations after the first sniper-killing. Law enforcement will watch rooftops. PCs carrying odd briefcases might be searched. People will learn to look up! The PCs will have to put some effort into getting their enemies into the right situation in order to use their advantage.
Even an extremely powerful item isn’t necessarily unbalancing if it takes the PCs years to unravel all of its abilities. (Ever seen the TV series or comic book “Witchblade”?) Entire plots can be wrapped around the gradual unveiling of powers, the restrictions that go with them, and the ways in which the PCs can’t control how they’re used. Many a classic fantasy story has had the stunningly powerful item that sits undiscovered on someone’s mantle or finger for decades. Ancient items rarely come with instruction manuals, and their original owners probably didn’t run around telling everyone what their spiffy items could do!
Load the history of the item up with plot hooks! If the item was worn while stopping a magical cataclysm and has traces of that wild power within it, then maybe it could be used by a dastardly villain to re-create some minor version of the cataclysm. If the item is from another dimension, then maybe someone could make use of it to rip a hole open to that dimension, sparking a very unusual journey.
Also remember to come up with unusual, interesting, or beautiful descriptions for such items. The items should reflect their origins. They should attract a little attention, captivate the senses, or disturb the viewer. As I’m fond of saying under many circumstances – use your details!