Treasure, magic items, technology — the sorts of things that player characters usually acquire by facing challenges or spending resources. That is the typical formula for most games. The players must have their characters accomplish something in order to gain the reward of an item.
Why not just give these things to the PCs though?
Some readers might be laughing at this idea right now, and others might be screaming “Blasphemy!” To give the PCs items of great wealth, value, or usefulness just does not make sense to some. PCs having to earn those resources is certainly one approach to GMing that has been used for years, but it is not the only way.
There is nothing wrong with just giving the PCs powerful items even if they have not completed a quest or defeated some villain. A GM is not violating any rules by doing this, and might actually be enabling the PCs to face greater challenges.
In the original Clash of the Titans film the character Perseus is given gifts (a sword that can cut through solid marble with ease, a shield polished to a mirror-like shine, and a helmet that renders him invisible) at the very beginning of the film before doing anything at all. Yeah, his pops was Zeus, but the point is that Perseus was just given the gear needed to fulfill his destiny with.
This did not make Perseus’s adventures any less dangerous. Perseus still had to acquire Pegasus on his own, faced dangerous foes at every turn, and had to face off against both Medusa and the Kraken. Perseus actually lost the gifts that he started out with as he faced these challenges. The items helped Perseus, but the items did not make him a hero outright.
The same can be done in a game with PCs. Such gifts might even be the reason why the PCs start adventuring to begin with. Imagine a sci-fi game where some poor kids on some forgotten planet uncover an abandoned spacecraft with alien technology that rivals the best gear that the modern game world has to offer. Suddenly they can leave the planet and go anywhere that they fancy seeing, and all because they just stumbled across this ship. Personally, as a player that is the kind of pitch that would make me want to jump into the game.
Should this tactic be used sparingly? That depends upon your group and your game. For an espionage game handing out cool gadgets at the start of every mission may be fine, but with a fantasy game based upon the medieval ages perhaps it is too much. For some settings just letting the PCs start with a powerful item that is a family heirloom might be all that is needed.
Consider this the next time you are planning an adventure for your group. Would giving items with no strings attached help move your game along? Might it encourage your players to take more risks with their PCs? Or might it lessen the fun of the session? Share your ideas on the matter in the comments section below, and if you have used this tactic before in your games tell us about the results.
I’ve used this tactic before, to great effect. I’m currently running a D&D 4e campaign in which one character is the son of a (now deceased) famous and powerful paladin, and I’m gradually letting him inherit a lot of his mother’s gear. To keep things balanced, another character has a family heirloom weapon that (at first level) was just a normal weapon, but once the paladin inherited his mother’s level 14 plate armor, I revealed that with the right keyword, his “normal” family heirloom roared to life with magic of its own.
That character’s brother (another PC) has discovered through research that his brother’s magic weapon has a long-lost companion weapon, which will be an upcoming adventure to track down and recover.
Whenever I do just drop a magic item on one PC, I always try to find a way to drop a similarly powerful item on the others, just to keep things balanced and to keep the players from feeling cheated.
Handing out free stuff is a well known (And worn 😉 ) technique.
Either, the stuff in question helps in overcoming the challenge, then it is Checkov’s Gun (Perseus’ items, for example). If the item enables the plot, it’s a MacGuffin (The AllSpark in the Transformers movie, for example).
While there are no *overt* strings attached, the items should still serve a purpose in the game’s arc.
I would probably limit just giving out something for free to small items, unless said item is somehow affiliated with the story, like a plothook. Something like the cursed dagger that overtook one of my PC’s persona over time in a DnD.
Now in a scifi time travel campaign (Dr. Who), I am going to bring back that item as an artifact that PCs can steal. There will be clues to what it is, but nothing overt. I am looking forward to seeing their faces if one of them takes it and the group begins seeing the same thing happening over again. 🙂
@Clawfoot – Nice examples of how to keep the gifts from favoring a single PC.
@CynicalRyan – True, in literature those techniques have been used quite a bit. But by definition both Checkov’s Gun and the MacGuffin are items directly tied to the plot in some way. That means that the item has a string attached to it, and I did say that the item should have no strings attached. That is the key difference here. Just give it to them. There is no law that the items must be a part of the game’s story arc.
@lomythica – Cursed items are definitely not what I was thinking of, because those come with whole boatload of strings attached! 🙂 But that is a good example of how an item can influence the story.
Patrick, I absolutely agree with you, with the cave at that the players expect a gift to come with strings attached (that’s why those techniques have ginormous TVTropes entries). So, attach a string. It doesn’t have to be something major, like the One True Item to Finally Rid The World Of Evil, but something that gives a little more depth to the characters (and/or NPCs).
That’s what I mean with purpose. It doesn’t have to be an effect described by the rules.
I’m running a D&D 3.5e campaign now. One of my players will be leaving shortly (we have about five sessions left) and we all want to get through the story arc that I have prepared, so we’re advancing the characters much faster than normal — a level or two each session. This is not ideal, but given the circumstances, it was the best solution I could think of. That said, I’m giving the characters a ton of loot between sessions, no strings attached.
@SchildConstruct – Yes, but I am saying ignore that expectation for a string to be attached. The PCs just get something, maybe purely out of luck, with no strings attached. Think of it as an experiment.
I did this in my last game, and it worked out surprisingly well after the first 15 minutes of “What do you mean we just get it?” from one of the players (the others just said “Cool!”). Once that player accepted that the item had no strings attached that game moved forward.
@cinereaste – Excellent approach! Make the most of the game sessions that you have left, and don’t sweat the small stuff!
Well, I tend to provide players with utility as a rule. That doesn’t mean it comes back to bite them, either, though.
As with any trope/technique, it should be used sparingly, and in the right circumstances (a breather after a particularly hard and or long quest/adventure, for example).
Great article. I am just starting up a new campaign of Corporation, and decided to give each player a gift, something cool, that they likely cannot afford, but would make them that much cooler for having.
I plan on gifting my NPC’s as well, to keep the balance.
I have in the past been pretty tight fisted with treasure and items, so I am trying to be a lot more liberal with them. After all, if having the items will make for more exciting sessions, then why should I be a roadblock to that.
Balance-wise, there is little difference in getting an item out of the gnoll’s camp after a fight, or being given that same item by a patron when they get back to town.
Story wise however, the difference can be great. An Item found, or wrested from the hands of a villain, may be a treasured possession, depending on how much work was done to gain it, or it may be just another item. However, the PC will likely not question who owns and/or deserves to keep the item now.
An item given to the PCs by an individual or organization carry social weight. They may immediately like these people more, or perhaps be suspicious of there motives, or feel in some way in their debt.
Either can lead to further situations or interest. Consider for example the party learns that the fighter’s sword is being sought after by a well known Paladin, claiming it as his own. How they acquired that item may drastically change how they react.
@DNAphil – Thanks for the kind words, Phil. I found myself thinking about this tactic when I realized that the treasure parcel system in 4th Edition D&D was not really working with my style of GMing. The tactic has worked well for me so far, but every genre seems to need a different size dose for it to work.
@BrianLiberge – Yes, story wise this can have an impact. Yet why can we not tie in the item found with no strings attached to the story? Remember that scene in Conan the Barbarian where Conan finds the sword of the ancient king and says “Crom!” In the books (if I remember correctly) Conan had to fight the undead king to get the sword. Oliver Stone realized that he could not put in all of the details of Howard’s story into his screenplay, but crafted that scene to move things along with a subtle suggestion to an unseen presence being in the cave. Conan just gets the sword, but there is a tie-in to his personal story.
As for the example of the Paladin and the sword I would say that it does not apply well to this situation, because the sword obviously has a string attached to it (and it is woven into the plot).
Still, not all items should come without strings attached. This tactic should also not be the norm for some games. It is just another tool to have in your GM’s toolbox.
It really does depend on the players, the game, and the GM. Dropping no-strings-attached items on my players works in this instance because this particular group of adventurers aren’t motivated by treasure. They enjoy it, yes (and I think they might get a little cranky if I didn’t give them any, ever), but most of the characters’ monetary gains get donated to various temples and orphanages, after they take what they need to survive off the top. I don’t think any of them have bought any magical items for themselves at all, in fact.
If the group were more mercenary, and looked forward eagerly to every treasure parcel, squabbled amongst themselves over them and and took those items more as a reward and motivation for battling evil than as a pleasant side-effect, then I wouldn’t be dropping anything on them if they hadn’t earned it.
As always, it’s a good idea to keep things appropriate to the group and the game.
Another level of “give it to them” is power. It takes the game to a whole new level. If the PCs start out as the Lords and Ladies of the court, you’ve got a different game than the typical tomb-robber setup.
Some game systems build this in. For example, In Song of Ice and Fire, the players can be the leaders of a powerful banner house in Westeros. In Rogue Trader, the players have a starship with a crew that numbers in the tens of thousands. In fact, in Rogue Trader, the game mechanics don’t even bother to track money anymore. The players have so much to start with, money isn’t an issue.
When you play at this level, you don’t deal with the owner of an inn, you deal with a king or a planetary governor. This is great if your players like politics or just like the big stage. It also allows characters who aren’t combat monsters to be effective and fun to play.
@Clawfoot – Yes, you certainly need to understand your game before using this tactic. Great point!
@Nojo – I had not thought of that. Power always comes with strings attached IMO, but you make a great point on how just giving the PCs a level of power can influence the game right from the beginning. I’ll have to try that one out. Great idea!
Games used to always work this way. Loot hauls included stuff vital to finishing the adventure (we used to call them “keyed dungeons” back then even if there was no actual dungeon). Then the idea of dividing the loot haul based on value overcame players’ good sense and it all went stupid.
I also went through a period in my games of limiting the powerful artifacts, but I’ve mellowed with age and am now attuned more along the lines you lay out, Patrick.
I blame Savage Worlds and Delta Green for the change in my outlook.
There’s actually a downside to it though. In my Call of Cthulhu games it’s got to the stage where if a player asks for something outrageous (such as a bazooka or Gatling Gun) and I wave my hand and say “take one”, it can provoke a scream of terror and a cry of “I don’t want it any more”. The players have come to the (erroneous) consensus that the easier stuff is to get, the less useful it will ultimately be. (“If he doesn’t care about the bazooka we must be up against at least a Great Old One. Aiee!”)
The truth is that I’ve found that if I give them uber powerful weapons, the players will assume they won’t work in any given scenario and so will tend to leave the things in the trunk of the car when they go looking for monsters.
Now, if I want them to take a seemingly powerful but actually useless weapon I have to whine and overcharge them for it.
Funny old world.
@Nojo – The Amber Diceless game went one step further than Rogue Trader – the PCs had so much of everything, including intangibles like time and intelligence, there were no rules for tracking anything at all other than one’s standing relative to one’s peers in various key game concepts.
@DNAphil – I also like the idea of non-standard rewards (though I wait until the players have done something so I can justify giving it to them and so they get the feeling of having earned whatever it is. I’m recently come to the opinion that skill and feat rewards (D20) are of more worth to the players than XP if done properly.
In a recent game of Dresden Files we hit a significant milestone as defined on page 89 of “Your Story”, but the players had helped a very powerful being out of a jam so I was feeling generous. I announced that the players could have any one thing they wanted, within reason (ie It would have to be cleared).
Would you believe that the majority of the players simply could not name a reward?
One had her eye on a character tweak that would make her more awesome but couldn’t be found in the rules in so many words. “Yours” I said and looked at the others. They still couldn’t fathom what I was offering.
I even said “pick anything from the powers in the book. Invent an item. The door is wide open. Go for it”. They still couldn’t name a reward.
Players who can’t handle a golden minmax opportunity. Now *that* is a good GM moment.
@Roxysteve – That is a downside that I was not aware of. Thank you for sharing that! 🙂
I have a system for my 4e campaign’s in witch I give the New players (or if I start my campaign at a higher level) 100xthere level in gold say a level 12 character starts with 1200 gold then I give them anywhere between 3 to 5 magic items of there choice (within level) to start with. Some of my players make a deep story around how they got there items the others don’t seam to care as much. The best reason for doing this in my case is that I keep forgetting to give them magic items or gold so this makes them feel content. I have also tried giving them exp for no reason and it seamed to work so long as it is used sparingly.
@SavageTheDM – Giving XP for no reason? Gain experience for doing nothing? There is some Zen like lesson for the universe in there! 😉
But seriously, that is awesome if it works for your group! Kudos to you for foregoing the common assumption and doing what works for your group and game.
Great article, and something I never thought about before.
Off the top of my head, the problem with the analogy you posited is that Perseus is one hero. When you’re dealing with a whole group of heroes (who expect/demand to be about balanced in power), then you’re gonna need several magic items, which might hurt verisimilitude. For example, a quest-giving NPC who gives magic items to help the PCs finish the quest would give at least 5 magic items, which might make the players think of the Wizard of Oz (And you, fighter, need a new set of armor…) rather than a patron with a quest that needs to be finished (Here, this suit of armor is all I have…).
@CynicalRyan – Rule 1: It’s only a cliché if no-one buys in.
@Roxysteve – “Ask for one of everything in this book!” “Don’t think small! Wish yourself a god!”
Maybe this a topic for another post, but I sometimes simply grant players a bonus feat/edge at the start of an adventure (or even before an arc) to give them something that I think would be necessary or even just fun/somewhat useful, because I realize the incentive isn’t there to insert that capability in the character’s progression normally.
As an example, in a Star Wars d20 game I’m running, I know that space combat will only likely come up infrequently, so there’s not much incentive to take related feats. With the three players, I gave out Force Pilot, Mechanics Training, and Heavy Weapon Proficiency. They love it and are now much more likely to want to do space battles.
Back to the original idea, though, I have just granted an item, made up on the spot, for a Shaintar Savage Worlds game, when I realized the players were in a bit over their heads. The mystery of the sword, since I initially gave it a certain power they needed, but kept it intentionally vague, only heightened the intrigue. “…and the sword!” became a common addition to combat phrases and beyond. Like you post above, it had no strings attached either.
@SirNight – Good point, but why must the party members all receive an item at the same time? Each PC may receive the item at different times from different sources for different reasons. Balance is good for most games, but perfect balance is not worth pursuing.
I think you just inspired the idea for my next article! Thanks!
@Lord Inar – Great examples! Giving away abilities for free is another use of this tactic, and I am glad that it worked out so well for you.
In my Kaidan setting, I feature something I call Ancestral Relics, which are both weapons and items that follow the Weapons of Legacy idea from 3x. That is items with multiple powers that are activated as PCs level up. Unlike Legacy Weapons, these items require no expenditure in gold pieces or experience points, rather the wielders have to be the appropriate level, plus are required to perform an event trigger – some task, like defeating a house enemy to activate the first power of a magical sword.
These items should be given out sometime during 1st level, so the players can activate them at appropriate levels.
Here’s a preview writeup on Ancestral Relics for Kaidan: http://ritepublishing.com/?s=kaidan-ancestral-relics-by-jonathan-mcanulty
@Gamerprinter – That is a great way to ensure that the PCs have level appropriate items, as well as incentive to take on challenges. It is a hybrid of just giving the item to the PC and having them earn the item. The item is there in the PC’s possession with no strings attached, but to activate the item’s full potential requires tasks to be completed by the PC. Nice blend.