So, we've spoken a lot about being a good player, or things players can do to be involved in the game. Today, lets go back to the GM side of the screen and talk about something, that can be small or large, you can give the characters in your game as a reward. These items don't have to be huge, or particularly powerful, if you do it right. However, put a bit more work into it and you can make a player fall in love with an item, and then use it to drag them through and into other plot elements.
The first kind of object of this sort I want to talk about is the souvenir. The souvenir doesn't have to be large and powerful, it just has to come from some significant event. A medallion given to the character by a major NPC as congratulations for winning a tournament. A small trophy found in a dragon's cave after killing the dragon. Give them something, and if they sell it oh well, that is on them. However, if you give it to them, bring it up once or twice, you can start seeing the player caring for it.
In an L5R game I ran, a few players went through a quest in the realm of dreams where they saved the lady Amaterasu (the sun) from being corrupted and devoured by an ancient evil. Their reward for this long adventure that had almost killed them on several occasions? A simple thank you, and a medallion with the kanji for their favorite tenet of Bushido on it. The medallions didn't do anything, aside from be pretty and keep a warmth about them as if they'd been out in the sun on a pleasant spring day. A few sessions later with one of these players I had an NPC ask about it. A few sessions after that I had someone steal it. The reaction was rather intense, as the PC hunted the thief down across the city to get the item back.
Why though? The item did nothing, it had no mechanical benefits whatsoever attached to it. However, it was important to the character, it was a tribute of thanks from the sun goddess. It was a token earned through a hard quest. In short, it was a souvenir, a memento of something the character had done.
Heirlooms are much like souvenirs, only they come from someone else to the character. Something a person is entrusted with. These are, generally, more likely to have some effect in the story or mechanical benefit to them. The most common examples that come to me off the top of my head are generally weapons, particularly "my father's sword". Luke with Anakin's Lightsaber from Star Wars. Robin of Loxley's Father's sword in the end of Robin Hood Prince of Thieves. Other common heir looms, generally found on female characters, are jewelery from their mother or other members of their family.
Heirlooms work a lot like souvenirs too, only they ground the character in their history. A family member has given them something, and that has meaning to them. They are usually given to the player by the player, taken at creation, however giving a player one over the course of the adventure can have an even more potent effect on the character.
Give it a try, partway through an adventure, after some notable event in the story, give a character an item that was used by their family. A knife their dad used, a ring from their mother. Their brother's polearm. With the item give the story, and watch how the item becomes important to the character. If you played up the family member (or friend) before hand, the item can be even more meaningful. Hell, at that point if you've done it right you don't even have to give it to them, the Players will go looking for it when the person falls, wanting the item treated right and not just left to rot on the ground.
Items of Plot
Items of Plot are not souvenirs, though they can be heirlooms depending on how you do it. They should have some mechanical use or benefit as well. The reason they should have this, is because the item is a plot point. Owning it is going to make things harder, more interesting, for the character. It is going to get them in trouble, drag them into fights, possibly be stolen by someone who wants to use it to rule the world.
Items of plot generally come in two flavors, normal and key. Normal items of plot are items that have a story, and have an effect, but aren't vital to the story going on. Key items are exactly that, key to the plot. You generally shouldn't have players start off with the Key items. Not that you can't, just they are better to be earned so that their power can be truly appreciated when it is seen suddenly. Smaller items of plot however are great things to start players off with. Even better if they are tied to a character specific plot.
Items of plot are the strangest of this trio, because their existence is needed for the plot. Generally speaking I'd recommend gifting them as a general reward, and then revealing later their significance to the plot. Alternatively, acquiring them can be the first part of the plot, a quest to get a key item. (Link's opening quest for the Master Sword in Ocarina of Time for example).
Name The Item
If you make the item a weapon, or something else with a mechanical effect, name it. Naming an item can be the difference between someone caring or not. Think about it, which would you rather have? Excalibur or a magical sword that makes it harder for you to lose? They both do the exact same thing, but Excalibur, by being named, has more of a personality. Granted, in this case Excalibur is a well known item, but the fact is you can give a history to a named sword easier than to an unnamed one. This is true for any item. Sometimes a name can be simple "My Father's Sword" is simple and works, however that also shows a connection. For souvenirs and items of plot, more unique names are needed.
I guess the point to this one is that not all rewards need to come from the mechanics side of the game, and some of the better ones can be items that you give to the players over the course of the adventure. If you set it up right, make them earn it, they'll value it and treasure it in the game.
These items also have the potential to make the stories more dramatic, epic, or true feeling. Look at the items that characters risk themselves for in movies and television. Using the items in small ways can help bring players through things.