Can a Sword Smile? Creating a Storied Item

Characters begin to loot the dusty old room after slaying their foe, some monstrous undead thing. They find the typical loot, some coins, a few gems, and a couple of items. Their first impulse is to appraise the monetary value of the loot and calculate what the split will be. Then they find an old sword hanging on the cobweb-tangled rear wall of the room. When they reach it the Gamesmaster does something that they only half expected. The GM gives the item details that distinguish it from the rest of the loot piquing their collective curiosity.

Giving items a level of detail and a backstory much like a non-player character (NPC) increases that item’s role. The storied item will have a higher position as opposed to other items in the gaming narrative. This technique takes items beyond the role of simple spoils of adventure or a material reward. Note that gaming narrative is different from narratives in the traditional sense. The ‘beats’ of the game tend to follow a perpetual Sine-wave type pattern. High points on the wave being action/drama then dropping back to normalcy. Alternately, they can sink to a low point before the next rise.

Adding details and a history to any item meant for a PC to acquire helps keep certain players on track. This is especially true if the GM hints at the right clues and incidents relating to the item regularly. This can add flavor and detail to the game setting and add some complication to fairly straight forward campaigns. These specially designed items are not just treasure they double as tiny bits of the game world custom packaged for the players to explore.

More than a MacGuffin

To be clear, these are not exclusively MacGuffins. These specially designed items better serve to enrich a campaign. Storied items are not meant to serve as the central focus of a campaign. Nor are they to provide motivation for the group to go on a specific quest. However, they are meant to run the length of the campaign alongside their owners hopefully adding a richness of detail. In a way, storied items ornament a long-term campaign and provide the GM with adventure fodder.

Specially detailed items with a backstory can lead to more adventure hooks. These hooks occurring at the low points of the curve leading to the highs. These items possibly leading to an adventure within an adventure. Similarly, they can lead to side-quests galore branching off or intertwining with the primary campaign focus. It is another thread to weave into the fabric of the game-world. For instance, take a quite common but also much-desired item found in any fantasy campaign, a sword.

A Sword, Any Sword

Any sword, after a morbid fashion, can give (or rather carve) somebody a red smile. However, the true value of unique items with compelling histories and as-of-yet unfulfilled destiny is to Gamesmasters. It is a boon. GMs should try to write up specially designed items. These the players can discover, quest for, win, or loot in the normal course of a campaign. It does not have to be magical or have special powers. However, if that is the carrot onto which your players will bite then by all means.

However, the item needs to be immediately visually (meaning descriptively) interesting. At least to one of the players. This serving as the initial hook. It also does not hurt to try and tailor the item to specific characters. However, always remember to try to attract the players’ attention to it. For an example, let us use a Chinese Dao. It has a long tassel at the pommel and broad, heavy machete-like blade.

There is a sword hanging on the far wall all covered in the same dusty sheet of cobwebs. It appears to be a Dao of a particularly high quality. You can make out the glint of gold, silver, and the glitter of gems. As you look closer, there is a strange faint flickering as of flame. Even from underneath the webs and centuries of sedimentary filth you can see its strange light.

A Hook by Any Other Name

There are a few methods to snag the players using these characterized items. They are very much like those used in writing adventure hooks. You must ask yourself two questions. What type of weapon/item is it and what have the characters been looking for? Additionally, is it something they can pick up and use? However, can the characters also explore its uses (immediate bait). A brief example being a weapon with special features. However, those abilities only make it a more formidable weapon when one learns how to use those features. Of course, this last aspect would rest almost entirely on the system within which you are working.

This brings us to the “Bling.” Bling being the visual details that mark the item as one-of-a-kind. The flashy part of the description. The sole purpose of bling is in attracting the attention of the player(s). Basically, the visual details that tempt them. Start with the main details such as what material(s) make it up. Is this material out-of-the-ordinary or exotic in some way? Are there gems and what kinds, and how are they cut? Are there engravings or inlays? Is the engraving a message of some sort? Can the players read it, or do they need an interpreter? What language is it in? Is it magical script or Elvish? What is the handle wrapping made of? Do the materials, design, or make give hints as to its regional/historical origin?

The Dao blade is of silver and the guard and pommel gold with the engraving of patterns resembling flames. There are characters along the blade inlaid with platinum. They appear to be in an archaic northern dialect. Alternating jade gems, rubies, and deep blue sapphires all cut en cabochon along the guard’s edge sparkle. The tassel that extends from the golden pommel is fire silk and there is a large dark red carbuncle at the base of the blade. This glows with its own flickering flame light. The grip is wrapped in the smooth skin of a metallic blue sea serpent.

Details, Details, Details!

Details construct this special item within the minds of your players. As with the initial appearance of an NPC, the initial description of the item’s general shape and condition affects its perception. Its appearance provides fuel for any perceived or applied “personality”. When in doubt use an engraving bearing a name or saying for an easy addition and telling detail.

The details you use can be battle scars, personal/familial heraldry, makers’ marks, or decorations. These can have attached stories and may play to a certain theme. Visible imperfections will mark the item as unique and may contribute to the backstory. These can be from the original artisan’s hand or even a defect in the base material itself.

The important thing to remember is that these details should mark it out from the rest of the swag. It should be unique compared to that the characters may have come upon up to this point of the game. It should remain at least somewhat unique throughout the campaign. After adding details with at least one marking it unique, a brief history or backstory is necessary to finish it. Certain details should be invented exclusively for the item based on its history.

The blade of the sword shows a deep nick. Apparently, an old battle-wound from an especially powerful blow. Additionally, there is a patch of very pale scales among soft deep-blue scales on the grip. The angler you have asked about the skin on the handle mentions off-handedly an old fisherman’s yarn. It is about a vicious sea-serpent nicknamed ‘Old Scar’ due to the patches here and there on its hide earned from the harpoons of defending sailors.

Backstory is Essential

When writing the backstory keep in mind the group resources. You should know what abilities or resources the group possesses to let them probe the backstory of the item. Psychics and spell-casters with certain augury or ESP-effect spells/powers can help by catching tempting glimpses. They can even catch bits of dialogue and other certain clues. Like about who made it, owned it, where it has been, and its unique history. Alternately, if you are trying to hold back certain details these types of abilities may ruin the clue chasing. They may even spill the whole story out all at once. This is when it pays to be subtle. Hone the GM fudging skills using the rules governing these powers to your advantage.

Investigative abilities are certainly suited to engage this type of GM-device. Using science and/or lab skills to gather information in a CSI-like mode is yet another dimension to keep abreast of. In fantasy settings such skills as alchemy would qualify for this mode. However, this is especially so in a modern setting. Do not discount library research either. This allows the GM to create accessories to the item like works that collect lore or document legends. Even antiquarian guides not to mention antiquarian-type characters become more important. These character archetypes are probably the most equipped (besides certain psychics) to delve into such campaign aspects. These types of characters and skills are already, or should be anyway, motivated to participate. They will make it easier for the players to dig into the backstory.

The backstory will consist of a few basic points. Where was it made, who made it, and who was the last owner? Alternately to the latter, who was the most significant character in the item’s history? Pick out the individuals in the backstory that matter the most in-game terms. This can be the craftsman, the original owner, the last owner, or the one who stole it. Only one to two points are necessary to create a rough character outline. Other details can be filled in on the fly. NPCs in the backstory do not require full game stats but need only to communicate impressions to the players. Note that the main characters from the backstory will have names and those names may be recognizable as connected to other legends and stories etc.

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NPC Q&A

When conceiving these special items, the GM must ask themselves a few questions to get the creative juices flowing. How recognizable is the item itself? Does it have a reputation? Did the maker/owner of the item have a reputation? Or is there a folktale or story circulating around them and thus the item? Does the item have a name itself? Players and their characters may be asking these questions themselves. Therefore, the GM should have answers ready typically through the mouth of NPCs.

The blade could have been forged somewhere to the south. Where the high-grade silver used for the blade is refined from lead. This is also where the skills necessary to craft such a blade are not rare. There is a village in a remote area of that region rumored to raise the dragon-worms that produce the extremely rare fire-silk, but no one has seen newly spun fire-silk in an age.

A Brief History of Bling

The next step is making the “bling” jive with the history you have written. Turn the details into clues. First, make sure the attached background NPCs, important details, base materials, and general craftwork go together. Make sure that they collectively put the story of the item forward. This does not mean, however, that all the details need to match or correspond in some way. You can also use bling to put forward a telling contradiction between details. Alternately, you can use details as a device putting to the players a puzzle, a paradox to be deciphered. Using the details in this manner can serve to perk up the players’ curiosity. Or help to coax them along the path the item reveals to them.

The characters on the blade say, “Death to the Usurper of the South!” The sea-serpent skin is from an extinct variety of sea serpent. It was known as the Sapphire of the North Seas fished by enterprising fishermen. Additionally, there are characters engraved around the edge of the pommel that are hard to read and badly worn. They mention a name — Master Snake Commander of the… — but the last few characters have worn away.

Backstories & Side-Quests

The backstory the GM creates can lead to a side quest (i.e., away from the main thrust of the campaign). It can run a parallel course, intertwine with the main story usually joining at a certain point. Or can be any combination of the three. Intertwining the backstory of the item with the current campaign direction can keep a wayward player engaged. Doing this by merging their character’s story with it and thus the campaign dragging them along by their curiosity. It can also help to engage players in a concurrent story if the current main plot is not keeping them hooked. At a certain point it can serve to lead them back to the main story at a certain point.

Intersecting points in the main thread with the story of the item can be multiple. Giving a little tidbit of information to the players each time they reach such a story point. Such as while traveling south from a northern frontier the PCs get the related odd tale or a small bit of conversation. Each of these shedding light on specific aspects of the item(s). As the PCs chase down their main goal they will run into the points of the game where the special item figures in.

On your stop-over in the village, the town-drunk regales you with an old story. Its widely known in this region. It is about the young son of a wealthy merchant. The merchant’s riches were said to be held in uncounted smooth-cut gems. Some of which glowed with an inner fire of their very own. A barbaric warlord descended from the mountains with his horsemen and conquered the whole of this region. The merchant’s family slaughtered; their riches pilfered. The son ran to the provinces of the north vowing vengeance upon his return…

A World unto Itself (Sort of)

The backstory of the item can expand upon or add to the campaign world. Just as would a well-constructed NPC but unlike an NPC its details are passive. It requires the players and their characters to investigate them actively. Or have an NPC recognize and communicate what they know about it to the player characters (PCs). Its added flavor if nothing else but it requires the participants to actively engage it. To taste it as it were. This is of course barring any supernatural abilities that may grant the item agency.

These types of specially designed items will add to the game-text for the group. Especially so for the specific player whose character owns it. However, the latter choice may alienate others in the group. Unless you are trying to pit them against each it is probably not the best idea. In this case, tailoring the item to a single character is best. Add in storied items for the rest of the group gradually not all at once.

In fact, it might be useful for the first item to lead to the next and that to another. This lets the GM bait the entire group with each item. Each providing a single piece to a puzzle that begs players to solve it. Or a story that they cannot help but want the conclusion to. Not to mention the items should be useful for the characters in-game. This is outside of the clues and backstory. It is particularly important to never forget this. If it is useless in-game, why would they keep it? Always play to the players’ practical side. However, at the same time use their greed to hook them and their curiosity to propel them.

Players and thus their characters tend to become attached to specially detailed items. Much the same as favorite NPC’s if the backstory and details are just right. The players may even face a hard decision later on in keeping a beloved but mundane item over an upgrade. A rare case of emotional value triumphing over practicality. A well-crafted item can contribute to the overall quality of the game that is if your players are willing to bite.

In Conclusion

Designing a non-MacGuffin item as you would a full-blown NPC has its rewards during gameplay. The item can become a worldbuilding aid as well as evolving into a story point in and of itself. It deepens the game world and can help to engage curious even greedy PCs rewarding them not just materially but with emotional payoff as well.

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The Cabal of Eight II Pt.21: Three times Paranoia

A ghostly blue layer of spiced smog hovered high above the heads of the flowing crowd as they chattered, haggled with merchants, and carried their burdens of purchased goods in baskets, sacks, and small wagons along packed and narrow central pathways in each wing. From the oculi in the massive central dome shafts of smoky sunlight cut through the dim oil-lit atmosphere of the Great Bazaar. As a result, the multi-colored glass bottles of the perfume and potion sellers below glittered with cobalt blue, blood red, glistening green, and brilliant yellow.

Not far from the central dome around a corner in the short southern wing, one of many, many merchants’ booths lay two green banners sporting golden dragonflies hanging over the counter from the high peaked ceiling. Behind the rear drapery of this booth in a small pillowed-lounge, Fauna (played by Jenn) sat with Vor Jetl, his dragonfly brooch sparkling in the foggy lamplight.

Fauna (taking the long-stemmed pipe Vor Jetl offered her): “So, um, me and my friends need a place to “chill” if you know what I mean.” She takes a deep pull on the pipe.

Vor Jetl: “Well…” he exhales a torrent of acrid smoke, “a safe place perhaps?”

Fauna (passing the pipe back): “Yeah…” she blows a cloud from her lungs, “um, it’s getting tense on the streets and we need a safe place to hide out for a while.”

Vor Jetl (after taking another toke and blowing out yet another smoke cloud): “Sure, sure. Least I can do for the high priestess eh? Eh? Okay, you will owe me a favor to be paid later, not by you, by your associates. Let’s sit and smoke for a little and I’ll have my man take you to the place.”

She continued to watch her tail nonchalantly browse Vor Jetl’s wares from between the curtains. Eventually, a clerk shooed the dirty-faced beggar away. Consequently, Fauna breathed a sigh of relief and leaned back into the cover of the curtained lounge. She was not sure but Fauna did have a decent idea for whom the street urchin was working eyes.

Fauna (feeling a little light-headed): “Thanks! Hey what is in the pipe anyway?”

Vor Jetl: “Oh nothing just some above-average pipeweed… with a little Night Leaf mixed in.”

Elsewhere, in the Old Market District not that far from the Old Bazaar, Excor (played by Cris) purchased a Wand of Spell Penetration (+8) from the Sapphire guild Alchemist Shop. He handed over 8,000 gold pieces and 7 sapphires in exchange. As he packed it away, he watched as Szoo (played by Isis) slithered up to the counter after intent on selling his dragon’s eye set in a crystal ball. The blue-clad clerk was almost giddy as she was about to hand over a pouch filled with 1,000 gp. As a result of the clerk’s wild expression, Excor stepped in and publicly appraised the item for his compatriot.

Excor (to Szoo and scowling at the clerk): “Don’t accept less than 4,000 gold for this.”

Szoo: “Woohoo!”

Excor left before Szoo got his cash. He made sure to look out for a tail. He saw no one. Consequently, Szoo hastily accepted 3,500 gp for his item and hurried out the door sending its bell into a flurry. Subsequently, he spotted his friend a fairway to the north on the street amongst the light foot traffic. Someone was trailing suspiciously behind him. Szoo shouted for Excor to “wait up!” The mysterious cloaked figure that had been following Excor stopped, pivoted south, then hurried in the opposite direction. So, the pair decided to ignore the retreating spy and hurried onward.

Eventually, the pair found their selves in Baba’s Apothecary shop. The tiny shop’s atmosphere was heavy with assorted spices and pungent herbs wafting from the rafters that were crowded with an upside-down forest of drying leaves, fronds, and flowers. Here and there, a draft of an exotic scent would glide into their noses only to be overwhelmed by the general dense herbal ambiance a moment later. Meanwhile, Baba, the naga proprietor, sat coiled on a large purple pillow in a far corner smoking her long-stemmed pipe. Excor noticed the peppery scent that her pipe smoke carried.

Excor: “Got any uh, yellow lotus in?”

Baba (thick white smoke escaping as she spoke): “Yup, but yer too late. The same guy came by and bought it up again. Got some night leaf left over though.”

Excor declined the night leaf, as it was a strong narcotic.

Excor: “What about the stuff you’re smokin’?”

A few minutes later, the pair was on their way to meet Fauna at the White Prong over lunch. Excor purchased a small bag of the spicy mix that Baba had been smoking. Szoo was smoking his new short-stemmed carved bone pipe packed with a bowl load of the same spicy smoke mix. It was not long until Excor noticed that they were being followed. It took almost an hour to shake the tail but they finally made it to the prong and into a private booth across from Fauna.

After all three settled in, Szoo and Fauna had a weird and overlong argument over fire walking. In the meantime, Excor pulled out and set a silver ring set with turquoise and a silver bracelet with a large gem of turquoise on the table. These he had lifted from the blue-cloaked dragon shaman’s corpse (see The Cabal of Eight II – Pt.19: The Dragon & the Wasp).  After casting Identify on them, he found that the ring was a level 10 ring of Protection from Water with constant effect. The bracelet was also a level 10 item with the Heal Self spell (healing 10D4 HP triggered automatically at zero hit-points once per day).

Szoosha took a break from his discussion with the woozy druid to trade his ring of Breathe without Air for the bracelet. Finally, the druid decided to “get serious”. They sat in silence for a short while trying to think of something to do. However, all the druid seemed to do was giggle. Certainly, the three needed a plan to deal with the dragon, the infamous Ocean of the Desert.

Cris (breaking the awkward silence of the table with a snap of his fingers): “I got it!”

Excor grasped the cabal medallion around his neck and sent a whisper to Jirek. “If you’re alright come to the White Prong until dusk, watch out for the Ocean of the Desert.” Jirek’s response came almost immediately, “I’ll be there!”

It took the better part of an hour before Jirek ducked into their booth. By then the table was crowded with empty cups and three pitchers all soaked in ale. As a result of Jirek’s lateness, Excor and Szoo had eaten to try to offset the effects of too much alcohol. Still eating, Excor told Jirek that the Wasp was in possession of “the item” and after getting Jirek to promise to pay them for the info Excor turned it over to Fauna. Subsequently, the druid explained about waking up in a strange extra-dimensional hideout that Xanto the Wasp was using and about the magic-key, the one that opens the portal in the mirror in the college library closet.

Immediately, the booth curtain zipped aside, and there stood the captain of the Grey Serpent Pirates to the consternation of the three mages, “WE are going to the Red Helm!”

The three mages cursed Jirek under their breaths and wordlessly allowed the swashbuckler to walk behind them all the way to the Red Helm, his hand on his hilt. Fauna had spotted two hooded men following them but said nothing to the others.

The tavern was in a sorry state the entire front quarter of the place was gone. There were several carpenters and several large wood beams holding the floor above, which was still intact, keeping it from collapsing. The three adventurers all hissed realizing for the first time the damage dealt to the place by the Wasp’s magic misfire.

 The Grey Serpent Captain strutted up to Draega Skullshine as he sat on a stool outside his partially open establishment. The large publican stood up and captain demanded his “pay” a thick finger stabbing back at the three mages.

Cris: “I knew it. Never trust a Tanglenite. Damn Poisonwood scum!”

Isis: “What? Draega’s in with the pirates?”

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Cris: “Of course they’re in it together! Skullshine’s a CRIMINAL!”

Draega (pointing at the adventurer trio): “You THREE! Your deposit on the clubroom is gone and you owe me for the damage! Until that’s paid, no more clubroom!”

Excor: *Sputter* “Uh, um, hmm.”

Cris: “Yeah,…that’s about right.”

Draega puffed out his chest and tried to intimidate the pirate as he approached for whatever reason causing the three mages and Jirek to take a step back. The pirate captain convulsed, “I will not be intimidated!” He began to pull his rapier and Draega stepped back and reached with both hands into his black cloak.

Szoo: “Oh no!”

Excor: “Aw crap!”

Fauna (narrow-eyed and grinning): “Heh, heh. This is gonna be good.”

Excor jumped in between them only to have the captain sweep him aside with one heavily muscled and hairy arm.

Excor (shrugging to his companions): “Well, I tried.”

            A few seconds later just as it seemed the pudgy publican and the pirate captain would finally come to blows Xanto the Wasp imposed himself between them unexpectedly. All stopped and glared at him wide-eyed.

Xanto: “Hey! My friends! Please, please. Calm down, the package is safe…please my dear purveyor of brew; pay the man his meager salary. As a favor to me eh?”

Szoo rushed up and greeted the Wasp who quickly brushed the fire elementalist aside as he put an arm around Draega’s shoulders. The captain was tossed a small coin bag and after jingling it a few times, weighing it by guess, and finally satisfied strode away in the direction of the harbor.

Jirek (via a whisper spell to Excor): “Let’s run while they’re distracted.” Excor acknowledged with a nod. He walked quickly but quietly over to his friends and they all rushed away at once. The Wasp and Draega never even turned around.

Fauna: “Hey! Where’re we going?”

Excor: “What!? Are you kidding me! We’re goin’ to the mirror door thing!”

Fauna: “But we need his key!”

Excor (stopping dead): “Aw crap! I forgot!”

Szoo: “Uh, guys? I used my gloves (see The Cabal of Eight Pt. 44: Betrayed At Last!) to pick the Wasp’s pockets.”

Consequently, Szoo produced a small golden key in the shape of a dragonfly. They ogled the key for a quick second and took off with even greater immediacy.

To Be Continued…