Impress Me With Your Shinies

Yesterday, in response to the RPG Blog Carnival on making loot part of the plot, I talked about the kinds of plots that a piece of loot could be used to create, whether it’s in the hand, or still out there in the bush somewhere. But the thing about item-based plots, particularly if the plot is around getting or maintaining possession of the item, is that they work a lot better when the item itself is interesting enough to keep the attention of the people who have to deal with it.

So what makes a sufficiently fascinating piece of loot? Your audience may vary, but here’s what works for me.

Give it a backstory. That doesn’t necessarily mean making it a world-breaking object of great power once used in a battle that decided the fate of the world and so on and so forth. They’re nice, but they’re a crutch, and not near so much fun to find out about later. What matters is that this is an item with a definite history—its properties, its condition, its tendency to cause random bards or setting equivalents thereof to start engaging in fannish behavior the first time it comes in line of sight (come to think of it, that would make an interesting power), or whatever its major backstory tie-in schtick is point me in the direction of a good story.

Connect it to my backstory. It’s the fastest way to gain a sense of attachment—after all, not only does it give the character warm fuzzies (or an urge to destroy, or whatever), but it also tells me that, well, you read my backstory and remembered at least one of the little detaily-bits I was hoping you’d pick up on. Connection to in-game events works as well, though it’s likelier to evoke pride than player warm-fuzzies, at least from me. (Sometimes it goes both ways; one of my characters at one point lucked into a peculiarly posthumous gift from a head of household she’d both idolized and had to help destroy.)

Make it quirky, mechanics-wise—it doesn’t have to be unique, just interesting, maybe something that I can try to find applications for that weren’t in the mechanics, maybe something unusual (either in general or relative to the type of item that it is), or if you’re feeling ambitious and it’s the right kind of world, you might consider sentience. One of my favorite D&D item designs, for my second character in a rather short-lived game, was one such, based on an existing DMG item—only instead of the sword of subtlety, we had the warmace of subtlety. (Trust me, it made sense on the character.)

Make it take additional work to master. I had two characters who, early on in their respective games, acquired rather unique items—one was a book written in half a dozen layers of code by one of the most paranoid spymasters known to the world, the other a puzzle-weapon that added powers as its owner located its components—and I loved those things to bits. Making the character earn the mastery of the item—whether that’s decoding, hunting down lost pieces, making friends with an intelligent magic object, learning the rituals to coax another one’s spirit into materializing, whatever—gives them something to be curious about, which keeps their interest.

Make it, well, shiny. A sufficiently spectacular design, particularly if you can make sure I can tell exactly how spectacular it is, can make up for a multitude of failings—it’s not as cool as the other categories, but at least I can tell you put some work into it.

Failing all that, let me—or at the very least, one of my fellow players—design it. In my experience, the pride in ownership that comes from having created one’s own swag, at least to some degree, can give a player a tight connection to an item. If it’s one of the other players—okay, that might not influence me quite as much, but it’ll certainly give them an attachment: probably a good idea if the plot the item is dragging us into is mine. If you’ve got someone in the group hooked on item design, take advantage of it!

You don’t need to do everything on the list, fortunately. But incorporating one or two of the above suggestions can give your loot a real edge.


  1. UZ says:

    Not my own invention, but I remember something from Grimtooth’s Traps that I always liked – hivemind money.

    It looked like regular money, gold coins with a denomination on one side and a picture of a brain on the other. Individual coins were not intelligent on their own, but the more you brought together the smarter they were, until they started exerting an influence on whoever carried them.

    The nice thing about this as a weird loot is that it has many possibilities, for the following reasons:
    - PCs usually want money, and the few who don’t want to keep it usually donate it to a church or a charity which is just as effective
    - Even if the influence of the money is very obvious, it may take ages for the players to figure out what’s going on unless they’re in the habit of examining individual coins
    - You can decide the agenda of the hivemind, good or bad or frivolous or completely alien
    - The allegorical possibilities are nearly endless

    So think about it! Brain money. Imagine an economy controlled by the stuff, where poor people have free will but no purchasing power and rich people have the illusion of power but are more or less beasts of burden.

  2. Ravyn says:

    This I like!

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