Artifacts of Anticlimax

It might have been played up just a bit too much in order to provide motivation. Or maybe it’s to justify the fact that everybody with a name, a backstory and/or an even remotely solid set of stats seems to want to get their hands on it. Whatever the reason, it’s clear that the item at the end of the quest/plotline is beyond desirable. This is the kind of thing that turns children against their parents, that needs to be scrubbed from history so that nobody will find it and misuse it. It’s broken, and fixing it required running around several different dungeons, fighting three ridiculously broken enemies twice each, and reforging it somewhere you’d never heard of. Statting it isn’t near as important as making sure it’s clear why this thing is so important.

Then the characters find out what the item does—and it really doesn’t match up with all the hype. Congratulations: you’ve just introduced an Artifact of Anticlimax.

The reasons are perfectly good, mind you. The item may have sounded like it was going to be a game-breaker, but putting a game-breaker into the hands of much of anyone, well, runs a high risk of breaking the game. If you’re dealing with PCs, and it’s a one-holder item, you’re likely to have party balance issues—and even if you don’t, you’re probably going to have spotlight balance issues. (Trust me, if you’ve got a spotlight hound, they will notice. And they will say something.)

So what, aside from not overhyping the item in the first place, can you do to avoid this?

Give them the power, but make it specialized. This is easier if the item was created For a Purpose, but as long as you haven’t already established that it makes people all-around awesome, it’s still doable. What this means is that you can make this thing ridiculous, but limit the situations in which the ridiculousness is actually useful, that way both providing the power and mitigating the impact on the plot.

Give them the power, but give it a drawback even the most overenthusiastic character would take seriously. That doesn’t mean “something nobody would ever use, ever,” mind, but something that the intended wielder (and the intended wielder’s teammates) would think twice about. Hitting them where it hurts is always useful, but so is just creating large-scale consequences; one of my best game-breaker artifacts is limited partly because the group doesn’t want the rest of the world knowing it exists and coming after it, and partly because its wielder knows there’s a secondary consequence but still isn’t quite sure who he can ask about how to make it go away.

Make the power something other than sheer oomph. If you’ve got something that nothing else in the system does, that’s still exceedingly awesome—even if that something is on a game-effect level only slightly more effective than the recommended swag. If this thing was part of a four-search-party-pileup, you’ll probably need to make sure the effect is something all these people would actually want (but not necessarily; see below!), but for most people, unique is at least as awesome as game-breaking.

Don’t make it a matter of power. Just because everyone is looking for something doesn’t mean that it really would break the world if it were found; there are other reasons why everyone might want it so much. It could be new and different, it could be vital for research, it could have sentimental or symbolic value; heck, it could even just have been overhyped or the beneficiary of the kind of exaggeration that only comes from a century’s legends’ worth of Telephone (but if you do this, I strongly recommend foreshadowing it at least a little.)

Whatever you do, though, make sure there’s something about the item that matches the hype, particularly if finding it was a story-long plot. People like an appropriate return for their investments.


  1. UZ says:

    Had a thing like that once for a roleplaying game, the anticlimax was intentional. The thing itself was a sword called Anthem, had runes on it that said something like “My true strength stands beside me.” It gave wondrous benefits to anyone who placed it in the hands of a trusted friend.

    The story was basically about several people’s pursuit of said artifact. Several people were after the thing, but the best contender was to be a pragmatically “good” priest who had alienated everyone he had ever known in the pursuit of the thing. Imagine his surprise when he found out what the thing was! He didn’t have any friends at that point, so the joke was on him.

    Actually the joke was meant to be on the main character, this was a fun way to find out if they had any real friends at that point. Ah, but that was the RPG, I was willing to write a whole short campaign for the sake of a gag in those days.

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