Bride of Instant Plot Hook: Items II

In the last article, we started out on our item-quest – lots of weird items you can drop into your games that won’t unbalance them. We covered plot-relevant items, historically relevant items, items once owned by celebrities, and personally relevant items. This time we’re going to get more into the mechanics of items that are unique, flawed, restricted, and so on.

Unusual and unique items

As so many movies and books have told us, “unique is always valuable.” You might not be able to get a lot of money for a unique item, and it might not give you world-altering powers. But it’s bound to get attention in some way.

Unique items make great candidates for symbols of office – royal scepters, mayoral seals, and so on. They’re also good candidates for prophecies. After all, how better to identify the subject of a prophecy than by identifying a unique item that he bears? They also make great subjects for theft and other sorts of unwanted attention, and perfect plot hooks in general.

#1. Cuts Like Glass: The party finds a melee weapon that appears to be made of glass, with an edge every bit as sharp as that implies – except that it cannot break or be shattered. No one can determine what it’s actually made of.

#2. Chameleon-Gem: The party finds a gem that shifts colors over time. It looks like a totally different gemstone at different times of day, or in different seasons or months, or even different years or decades. Perhaps the change is tied to some cycle in your world that isn’t so clearly defined. (Hint: if you want your players to catch on to the gemstone’s nature, have them get their hands on it right before a point of change in the cycle.) The gemstone is set in something beautiful and a little alien-looking, perhaps a ring, circlet, pendant, or scepter of unusual design.

It has certain powers that depend on the phase it’s in. They’re related to the color, or to the type of gemstone (you can find books that will tell you what qualities are associated with different gemstones), or perhaps to the cycle the stone is tied to. If the stone is tied to the seasons, then the effects might be climate or weather-related.

#3. Stone Servant: The party finds a remarkably lifelike statue of a beastly little gargoyle-like creature (or a dainty, pixie-like thing) – clearly something out of fantasy, because nothing like it exists on your world! When the statue is spoken to directly, it comes to life and does as its “master” bids. How does it determine who its master is? Well, that’s the tricky part, now isn’t it? Perhaps it’s whoever speaks to it first, feeds it, keeps it for a certain period of time, speaks a command phrase, wears a certain ring, performs a certain ritual or spell, or some other requirement that suits your needs.

You have three choices for keeping this particular “item” from being too powerful. Either the little beast has low stats and no particular special powers – it can only do simple things for its master. Or it has strict limitations and weaknesses – sunlight will kill it, or if your game has an alignment system it can only harm, steal from, or otherwise negatively affect creatures of a certain alignment.

April Fool’s: Or it’s a mischievous little imp, and doesn’t have to strictly obey it’s master. Perhaps it tends to get distracted from its duties by opportunities to make trouble! It pulls practical jokes, tries to make dignified or important people look silly, and otherwise gets itself and its “master” into all sorts of trouble. (As always, try to make sure it’s useful enough to keep its PC master from feeling too screwed over by this.)

Items with drawbacks and flaws

The trick with flawed items is to try to balance the positive with the negative – the item should be somewhat more useful than not. You need the item to be useful enough that it’s worth keeping around (and seen by the PCs as valuable). You want it to be dangerous enough that it will only rarely be used (the more powerful it is, the less often you want it to be used). Balancing these two things can be difficult.

Remember that the less powerful the item is, the less you have to convince your players not to use it too often. The more familiar you are with your players, the more you know what they value and what they consider an unacceptable risk, the easier a time you’ll have with this.

#1. Drawing Blood: One of the traditional flawed weapons of the fantasy genre is the blade that must draw blood before it can be sheathed. It does extra damage when it hits, but if the PC draws it from its sheath and doesn’t end up drawing someone else’s blood with it, he must draw some of his own (do some damage to himself) before he can sheath it again. Variations include the blade that must take a life (for particularly powerful weapons), or the blade that causes misfortune (or presages disaster) whenever it is drawn.

The April Fool’s version of this: the blade that wants something totally off-the-wall, gratuitous, or silly before it’s put back in its sheath. It wants to be sung to; it wants its bearer to compose a poem about how lovely the blade is; it wants to be flattered and told how beautiful it is; it wants to be cleaned, sharpened, and polished (even if it’s still clean and sharp).

#2. Soul-Rot: Another traditional flawed item is the item that gives the wielder power over something or someone but eats away at his mind or soul. This is a ring that allows the wearer to charm people, but each use causes him to lose a little more touch with reality, or makes his nightmares that much worse, or twists and warps his thinking (gradually making him evil). Reserve this one for a really good character-player – madness, nightmares and soul-twisting evil don’t have a lot of effect on characters whose players aren’t into that aspect of roleplaying.

#3. Augury:A device of augury (tarot cards? Crystal ball? Reflective pool? Rune-stones?) could give results entirely in metaphors and symbols. In the case of tarot cards and rune-stones this should be inherent to the item anyway. In the case of crystal balls or reflective pools, this might surprise your players a little more than usual. Every portent of the future becomes a puzzle that needs to be solved. This prevents such devices from being instant plot-busters, while still allowing the PCs to make use of them.

The April Fool’s version: the device of augury that gives results entirely in the form of nursery rhymes, psychedelic visions, gratuitously silly riddles, or something equally wacky.

Items with restrictions, control issues, or unknown aspects

One of the best ways to figure out appropriate restrictions is to think about the history of the item. What would the creator have wanted? What would have been useful to her?

#1. Weather Control: Weather-control items can easily have restrictions that make sense. An item that brings rain might only operate during high heat or a drought (the creator wanted to make sure it could only help, not harm). An item that causes tornadoes might only operate in certain specific climates (the creator wanted to make sure it could only be used on his enemies’ kingdom, not his).

#2. Protection: What about a protective item that decides for itself when it’s needed? It could be some sort of force field that protects the wearer from weapons. But the device itself decides when it’s needed, and the creator’s idea of when it would be needed might not be the same as a PC’s. In a well-balanced game you’ll often find that the narrower such an item’s effects are the easier it is to create. So the creator had plenty of reason to make an item that did only what he needed it to and no more.

Perhaps his enemies only used one particular weapon (or type of weapon), and the force field will only kick in when such an item appears to be nearby (whether or not it’s in the hands of an enemy!). Perhaps the creator only considered one (or several) races of creature to be enemies, and the field will only kick in when members of those races are within combat range (whether or not they’re the wearer’s enemies).

#3. The Device: Perhaps the PCs found a device with many buttons, labeled in an unknown language. Figure out what the creators would have used it for and make a list of the functions. The PCs can, of course, try pushing buttons and playing with the item. They can also try to find a way to translate the language (particularly if they have other samples of it).

Make sure that some of the functions depend on what’s going on around the PCs at the time or what they’ve done first. For instance, say the device has to do with food – its preparation, storage, and eating. Whether a particular button appears to do anything or not (it slices! It dices! It juliennes fries!) depends on whether a potato is fed into the tube first, or the device is placed overtop of a food item, or a separate button (which releases the blades) was pressed first. (All right, so that’s a particularly April Fool’s example. I’m sure you can come up with something much less silly than a food-prep device.)

Putting in contingencies and context-dependent relationships like this turns the exploration of the device’s effects into a longer-term endeavor that requires puzzle-solving, or quests to find out more about the people who created it, or bits of research here and there during down-time. A good rule of thumb, however, is that the more effort the PCs have to put into figuring out what the device does and how it does it, the more useful the device should be to them – which of course makes our potato slicer a bad example unless you have players that enjoy a good joke now and then.

If possible, turn such a device into a puzzle that requires some thinking and some in-game quests and research, rather than simple random button-pressing. The former can be an interesting plot; the latter is boring.

One-use-only items

I’m going to throw one more category in that wasn’t in the original article on creating balanced items: items that can only be used once, or items that can effectively only be used once or twice. This category comes with one, very important caveat: keep in mind that players and their characters can be very creative and clever! Think hard about whether any of the characters might be able to think their way around any of the things you’ve done to guarantee that an item won’t be useful for long. If possible, have a back-up plan in case they think of something that you didn’t!

Perhaps the party gets their hands on a huge, futuristic cannon-type device that can take out a building with ease. Sounds insanely overpowered, right? There are any number of ways to keep it from being so:

  • Lack of consumable components – the cannon can only be used with a certain type of ammunition which cannot be made in the party’s society and world. Or, if the cannon uses (and uses up) a particular kind of gemstone not found on the party’s world, then they won’t be able to keep it operating.
  • Lack of fuel – the power-pack has enough energy for one or two shots, and it cannot be recharged given the party’s tech level.
  • Lack of repairs – the cannon breaks down easily. This isn’t a problem for its makers, who can just as easily repair it. But the party’s world lacks the technology to make the repairs.
  • Lack of understanding – the party doesn’t know that if they don’t press the odd buttons in a certain order, then the cannon will overheat and melt down after one use.
  • Lack of context – the cannon is designed to be used on a special set-up designed to support its weight and the recoil generated by its use. Without that, it can do a lot of damage to itself and the area around it when used.

These ideas can be generalized to other items to create one-use-only or short-term-use items. These things can seem pretty amazing to the players and their characters and allow them to accomplish one or two amazing feats, but they won’t unbalance the game long-term.

Hopefully these articles have given you a few ideas for ways in which you can hand out neat things in your game. Too many people feel that there is only a choice between handing out neat things and unbalancing the game, or not handing things out at all and keeping things under control. Luckily that isn’t the case – you can keep the game fun while still giving the PCs some toys to play with. Enjoy!

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