Today’s guest article is the second one we’ve featured by Robert A. Neri Jr. of Ranger Games Publishing. His first, Can an Onion Bleed?, looked at engaging NPCs. This one’s about items with backstories. Thanks, Robert! — Martin
Items can be given a backstory and a level of detail much like a non-player character (NPC), increasing their role within the gaming narrative (which is different from narratives in the traditional sense as the ‘beats’ of the story tend to follow a Sine-wave type pattern, high points of action/drama then dropping back to normalcy or sinking to a low point before the next rise) and taking them beyond their roles as simple spoils of adventure or a material reward.
Adding details and a history to any item especially one meant for a PC to pick up can help keep certain players on track if the right clues and incidents are dropped relating to the item, add flavor and detail to the game setting, and add some complication to fairly straight forward campaigns. These specially designed items are not only treasure but tiny bits of the game world custom packaged for the players to explore.
To be clear, these are not MacGuffins. These specially designed items should serve to enrich a campaign. They are not meant to serve as the central focus of a campaign or provide motivation for the group to go on a specific quest that will comprise the main body of the campaign. They are meant however, to run the length of the campaign alongside their owners/wielders hopefully adding a richness of detail to a game. In a way they ornament a long-term campaign and provide the GM with fodder.
Specially detailed items, those with backstory can lead to more adventure hooks (which happen at the low points of the curve and lead to the highs) or an adventure within an adventure or side-quests galore that branch off of the main focus of the campaign and/or be intertwined within it. It is another thread to weave into the fabric of the game-world. For instance take a very common but also much desired item found in any fantasy campaign, a sword.
Any sword, after a morbid fashion, can give (or rather carve) somebody a red smile pretty much anywhere on their body but the true value of a unique item with a compelling history and an as-of-yet unfulfilled destiny is a boon to the GM. GMs should make an effort to write up specially designed items which 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 but 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 to at least one of the players serving as the initial hook. It also doesn’t hurt to try and tailor the item for specific characters of a group to pick up and use as well trying to attract the player’s attention. For an example let’s use a Chinese Dao with its long tassel at the pommel and broad, heavy machete-like blade.
The sword hanging on the far wall that was covered in a dusty sheet of cobwebs is a Dao of a particularly high quality. You can make out the glint of gold, silver, and the glitter of gems as well as a strange faint flickering as of flame from underneath the webs and at least century of filth.
There are a few methods to snag the players which are similar to those used in writing adventure hooks. Basically you have to ask yourself these two questions: what type of weapon/item are they or have been looking for, is it something they can pick up and use but can also explore its uses (immediate bait), such as a weapon with certain special features that make it a more formidable weapon in combat when one learns to use those features? Of course this last aspect would rest almost entirely on the system within which you’re working and its flexibility.
This brings us to the “Bling.” The bling being the visual details which not only mark the item as one-of-a-kind, but are the flashy part of the description with the sole purpose in attracting the attention of the player(s) basically the visual details which will tempt them. Start with the main details such as what material(s) is it made of? 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’s the handle wrapping made of? Do the materials, design, or make give hints as to its regional/historical origin?
The Dao blade is made of silver and the guard and pommel gold with the engraving of patterns resembling flames. There are characters, they appear to be in an archaic northern dialect, along the blade are inlaid with platinum and there are alternating jade gems, rubies, and deep blue sapphires all cut en cabochon. 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 which glows with its own flickering flame-light. The grip is wrapped in the smooth skin of a metallic blue sea-serpent.
These details should mark it out from the rest of the swag the characters may have come upon up to this point of the game and remain at least somewhat unique throughout a campaign. Certain details should be invented exclusively for the item based on its history or course when in doubt use an engraving bearing a name or saying. After adding the details with at least one marking it unique, a brief history or backstory is required to finish the item.
These exclusive details can comprise of battle scars that have attached story, personal arms, makers’ marks, or decorations that play to a certain theme. As with the initial appearance of an NPC the initial description of the item’s general shape and condition affects the perception of any perceived or applied “personality”. Visible imperfections in the item leftover from the craftsman’s hand or a defect in the base material itself will mark the item as unique and may, and hopefully will, contribute to the backstory.
The blade of the sword shows a deep knick, an old battle-wound from an especially powerful blow. There is a patch of very pale scales among soft deep-blue scales on the grip. The fisherman you’ve asked about the skin on the handle mentions off-handedly an old fisherman’s yarn about a vicious sea-serpent nicknamed ‘Old Scar’ due to the patches here and there on its hide from the harpoons of defending sailors.
When writing the backstory you should know what abilities or resources the group has to probe the backstory of the item. Psychics and spell-casters with certain augury or ESP-effect spells/powers can help by catching tempting glimpses, bits of dialogue and other certain clues about who made it, owned it, where it has been, and its unique history. Alternately if you’re trying to hold back certain details these types of abilities may ruin the clue-chasing and spill the whole story out all at once. This is when it pays to be subtle and to 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 including alchemy in fantasy settings in a CSI-like mode is yet another dimension a GM needs to keep abreast of especially in a modern setting. Do not discount library research either which allows the GM to create accessories to the item when it comes to works that collect lore or document legends and even antiquarian guides not to mention antiquarian-type characters themselves who are probably the most equipped (besides certain psychics) to delve into such aspects of a campaign. These types of characters and skills are already, or should be anyway, motivated to participate and will make it easier for the players to dig into the backstory.
The backstory will consist of these few basic points: where was it made, who made it, and who last owned it or 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. Basically only one to two is necessary to really create as rough character outlines others can be filled in on-the-fly with a couple of details. NPCs in the backstory do not require full game stats but need only to communicate impressions to the players. Note that the main characters form the backstory will have names and those names may be recognizable.
When it comes to these types of special items the GM has to again ask themselves a few questions to help 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 rep or is there a folk-tale or story circulating around them and thus the item? Does the item have a name itself? These may also be questions the characters/players may be asking themselves, so you should have answers ready typically through the mouth of NPC.
The blade could have been forged somewhere to the south where the high grade silver used for the blade is refined from lead and where the skills necessary to craft such a blade are not rare. There is a rumored village in a remote area of that region where the dragon-worms that produce the extremely rare fire-silk are rumored to be raised but no one has seen newly spun fire-silk in millennia.
The next step is making the “bling” jive with the history you’ve written turning the details into clues. First, make sure the attached background NPCs, important details, base materials, and general craftwork go together to put the story of the item forward this does not mean, however, that all of the details need to match or correspond in some way you can also use them to put forward a telling contradiction between details or use them as a device putting to the players who decipher them a paradox. 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 known as the Sapphire of the North Seas fished by enterprising fishermen and there are characters engraved around the edge of the pommel and are badly worn, very hard to read. They mention a name — Master Snake Commander of the… — but the last characters are worn away.
The backstory the GM creates can lead to a side quest (i.e. away from the main thrust of the campaign), run a parallel course, intertwine with the main story usually joining at a certain point, or any combination of the three. Intertwining the backstory of the item with the current campaign direction can keep a wayward player engaged 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 and then lead them back to the main story at a certain point.
Intersecting points with the items story can be multiple with a little tidbit of information given to the players each time. An example would be while traveling south from a northern frontier the PCs get odd tale or small bit of conversation which sheds light on a specific aspect of the item(s) each time they stop or if asking for information get pointed in another direction, but somewhat near location but still off the track of the main adventure where they may (or will) find yet another clue.
Basically 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 village-drunk regales you with a very old story known widely in this region about the young son of rich merchant whose 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 young man’s family was slaughtered and their riches pilfered. He ran to the provinces of the north vowing vengeance upon his return…
The backstory of the item can expand upon or add to the campaign world as would a well-constructed NPC but unlike an NPC its details are passive in that it requires the players and their characters to investigate them or have an NPC recognize and communicate what they know about it to the players and their characters. Basically 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 and/or the specific player whose character owns it but the latter choice may alienate the others in the group which unless you’re trying to pit them against each other probably isn’t the best idea. In this case tailoring the item to the interest and use of single player and their character is best and adding in items for the rest of the group should also be done though all of them probably shouldn’t be done all at once.
In fact, it might be useful for the first item to lead to the next and that to another, letting the GM bait the entire group with each single item providing a single piece to a puzzle that begs them to solve it or a story that they can’t help but want the conclusion to. Not to mention the items should be useful for the characters in-game outside of the clues and backstory, it is very important never to forget this. Always play to the players’ practical side at the same time using 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 and they may even face a hard decision later on in keeping a beloved but fairly mundane item over an upgrade, a rare case of emotional value triumphing over practicality. A well-crafted item can contribute to overall quality of the game granted if you’re players are willing to bite that is.