A couple weeks ago, I gave the players in my D&D game a mystery that involved some Tressym fleeing the Feywild and the bad things hunting them. Just to be clear for those that may not know, Tressym are essentially flying fairy cats. By the end of the session, they were less concerned with the bad things they’d just defeated than they were with trying to figure out how to convince a Tressym kitten to stay with them.
When you show your players a flying cat… they’re gonna want to keep it.
Let’s be honest and a little more helpfully broad here. When you put something cool in front of your players, if there is any way possible to do it, they are going to try and hang onto it. This seems like a fairly obvious thing to state, but many an inexperienced GM has dropped a cool thing in their game and then had to scramble to figure out how to handle the PCs wanting to keep the cool thing. I say this from experience, because I was once that inexperienced GM.
About thirteen years ago, during the first campaign I’d ever GM’d, I was running a Mutants & Masterminds supers campaign. During the previous session, the PCs had gone to Las Vegas to stop some bad guys from kidnapping some unsuspecting innocent people. For the next session, I decided to have a hero-obsessed casino mogul invite them to a gala event where they’d be honored for doing good deeds. It was more or less an opportunity to do some fun RP scenes with the PCs mixing it up with high society in glamour and glitz obsessed Vegas.
The action portion of the session came when a pirate themed villain, complete with pirate airship, attacked the event like it was some high seas treasure ship in the middle of the neon desert. All things told, it was a fun encounter, with plenty of super-heroics and swashbuckling. As with many times during those early days as a GM, I underestimated my players and the bad guy wasn’t able to get away. This, of course, left one really cool airship flying a skull and crossbones flag at their fingertips.
Today, I would probably have had the LVPD impound the airship since they were hauling off the would-be thieves anyway, but back then, I wasn’t able to think as fast on my feet. At the time, I was learning how to roll with the curve balls my players threw me, but I was still pretty squeaky new back then. I couldn’t think of any reason to not let them take the airship, so the super team got a unique vehicle of their own.
It’s crucial to remember that your players are going to try and keep any of the nifty and shiny things you drop into your games. When you’re inclined to put something shiny in your game, or are unexpectedly faced with your players trying to keep a nifty thing, ask yourself a few questions:
Is this going to unbalance the game? If you’re playing a fantasy game, this can often happen with magical items. You throw some cool MacGuffin into the game for plot purposes, but then have to scramble when your players don’t want to turn it over to the random quest giver. If it’s a particularly powerful magical item, this can really mess with the balance of your game. If you absolutely need to put a powerful MacGuffin in your game, make sure you have a contingency plan in place. Maybe they get branded as thieves for keeping the item. Maybe the item has some magical property that can influence someone else to take it.
Is it going to change the tone of the game? For some folks, that pirate ship could have been a bit too ridiculous for a standard supers game. I’m not sure I would allow it today, but I was also experimenting with tone back then. Whatever the item is, if it has the potential to change the tone of your game, you’re going to want to be careful letting your players keep it. I’m sure there were plenty of GMs in the days of yore who let some bit of tech into their fantasy game because it seemed cool and then ended up regretting it.
Is it going to damage their trust in you if you take it away? Players get very annoyed at GMs that dangle interesting things in front of them, but then yank them out of reach. Be very sure that there is harm in leaving the item with the players before you take it away from them, especially if you don’t have a smooth plan in place to make the thing disappear. Worse comes to worst, be honest with your players if you’re feeling like you’re struggling with that item remaining in the game. Sure, it can break the mystique of GMing a bit, but if the item is really going to break the game, they’d probably rather work with you to save it than have the once shiny item ruin an otherwise fun game.
Ultimately, if there’s no real harm in letting it stay in the game, let them keep it. Getting to hang onto that shiny thing invests the players in the world they’re building with their characters. Sometimes it’s just worth it to see the gleeful smiles on their faces. Just as they say to never put a bad guy in front of the players you’re not prepared for them to slaughter, don’t put a cool thing in front of them that you don’t expect them to try and keep.
As of writing this, my players currently have a gangly Tressym kitten bonding with the ghost in their tavern while the neighboring elf herbalist is helping the rest of the fairy cat colony get set up safely in their neighborhood. They not only got to keep their flying cat, they brought its family along, too.
Always consider this before trying to run White Plume Mountain! 😉
The items in WPM used have some pretty nasty drawbacks.
But its still a good point.
Same thing with Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth, Barrier Peaks, and Ghost Tower of Inverness.
My group actually played through the updated version for 5e and there was really only one weapon worth keeping for our party. The other two weapons were just too evil and/or specialized.
But yeah, it doesn’t seem to be something considered very carefully in WPM. 🙂
I made this mistake a lot back in the 80s and 90s.
Took a while, but I found a few ways around this though.
1) One use items. (That always feels kind of cheap. But then again, maybe the BBEG’s entire plan revolved around making the item more usable)
2) Items with limited charges. (Lets the players use it once or twice for that “big scene” so they don’t feel cheated. Plus that awesome moment when they pull out their rare item and use it “confounding” the GM plans. Which is always cool as a GM….) And if they want to recharge it…that can be an adventure by itself.
3) It only works for the villain. Maybe it can only be powered by a mutant or demon or someone with the Cyborg’s DNA. Or it requires a human sacrifice or a rare power source.
All of these are variants on the same thing. My biggest thing is trying to make sure that the players don’t feel like they had no chance of ever using it.
Right now, one of my biggest problems can be the opposite. I have two players (out of 6) that actively dislike having any non-PCs in the adventuring group. So when the flying kitty shows up, one or tow of them will be trying to get it away from the party as soon as the adventure is over.
These are great suggestions, @gmgerrymander. I routinely use all of them to introduce items that are cool, weird, exciting, and/or outrageous without unbalancing the game.
I’d add one more technique to your list– call it 3a because it’s an elaboration on #3. The PCs can use the item (no crazy prereqs) but it has a nasty side effect. For example, it channels [evil] energy or its primary effect is uncontrollable and likely to create collateral damage when used– neither of which any Good-aligned PCs would want a part of except in the most dire circumstances. And even then….
Also, if you do accidentally give the players something that’s too much, do the straight up thing and talk to them about it. Most experienced players have suffered through a campaign that went off the rails because of something like this. They are likely willing to compromise if you come to them. Particularly if you can find a way to have them keep the cool factor but scale back the power. Or require additional investment from the party to keep the cool thing.
If your characters get the pirate airship, maybe the fuel to keep it going is really expensive. Not “you can’t afford to fly it ever” expensive, but maybe “nope, your character can’t afford to upgrade his utility belt” expensive.
Or maybe the airship is super distinctive, and “pirate” isn’t really the theme of your group. Have an encounter where both local LEOs and innocent bystanders assume the heroes are actually villains because of their ship. Then ask your players if they mind having some mechanics completely overhaul the body and theming of the ship. Quote Xzibit liberally. But it will be unavailable to them for a few sessions, while you work out how best to make it not break the campaign.
Or maybe the tressym hang around and look adorable between sessions, but don’t really have any useful abilities. Not even those in the Monster Manual. But they are super adorable. Give them personalities instead of power.
In the session, one of the clues leading to finding the Tressym was that there were bits of harmless, wild chaotic magic happening in the neighborhood where they had appeared. Flowers blooming early, clothing hanging out to dry changing colors, little bits of tinkling music coming from nowhere. I figure I’ll carry that stuff through into the neighborhood they’ve transplanted them and go from there. 🙂
Been there; done that.
While running a Top Secret/SI campaign sometime in the early 90s at my FLGS, I had set up the Bad Guy with a weird science machine that would give him all sorts of mental ability (telepathy, telekinesis, pyrokinesis, etc.). The party’s job was to locate and infiltrate Bad Guy’s secret lair and put a stop to his nefarious plans before he pulled things off.
When the group entered the room where the weird science gadget was at, I described all these vats of bubbling fluids, arcing electricity everywhere, crazy wires, twisting tubes, and so on to the group. It was a pretty evocative picture. The culmination of the description was a large bundle of tubes and wires attached to a helmet with a leather chin strap. The Bad Guy was about to lay down on a table and put the helmet on.
The timer started!
The party had to fight through minions and traps and other nasties (though, no sharks with lasers on their heads) to get to the Bad Guy in time to stop him. They were successful in stopping the Bad Guy (though barely), and we all had a good time.
Then I asked them how they were going to destroy the weird science contraption (which wasn’t really spelled out as a mission parameter, but I assumed they’d destroy it anyway).
Without hesitation, they all said, “We put the helmet on!”
I wasn’t quick enough on my feet to stop them from moving forward with that action. However, I did decide that if it only worked once, it would severely upset the party power balance, so it was all or none.
At the end of the session, we now had super-spies with super-abilities.
It wasn’t a total disaster, though. I ended up shifting the focus and style of the game, and we still had a rockin’ good time for the rest of the summer break before half the group moved away to college and we disbanded the campaign. I just never expected to be mixing in superhero stuff into my spies campaign. 🙂