Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Signature Gear

Bear with me on this, because I'm writing it having just come home from seeing Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. This isn't meant to be a movie review, but for those interested it's a lot better than 2 and 3 but not as good as the very first one (what is?). However, part of the movie got me to thinking about the characters in it, namely Jack Sparrow. Four movies in, we know a lot about Captain Sparrow and one of the more prominent ways we know these things is because of the gear that he carries. Long before we're told the story, the stuff that would be on his equipment list has already told us it all.

A Sense of History
Forgive me if this comes as a 90 degree turn, but the purpose of this post isn't to talk about Jack Sparrow but rather to talk about how the important pieces of gear on a character sheet - right down to the smallest detail - can give us a sense of who the character is and what they do. First, there are the obvious things. From the way that Jack is dressed, we can tell that he is some kind of outlandish rogue. The presence of the sword and pistol also tells us that he is likely competent with them both; why else would he have them? It is unusual when a character in a story randomly grabs a sword and can sword fight (hence why Orlando Bloom's character needs to be shown to be handy with the sword he made as a gift in his intro), but when that character is wearing a sword we can assume that they know how to use it.

We get more of a history from the other facts with Jack's gear though. Namely, in the first movie at least, the fact that he only has one shot for his pistol. Now, the man has bypassed numerous other weapons he could have grabbed, and isn't shy about taking whatever it is he needs/wants. So this means that this single shot is important. You get a sense that the story has already begun, and you're just meeting Jack part way through the adventure. At this point, we - as an audience - are intrigued and want to know what is going on. Sure, the commodore says he only has the one shot and is a bad pirate, but from everything that's happened we can surmise that there is more going on here, and we want to see what it is.

Now, I know what some of you are thinking. "But, the pistol isn't signature gear." To which I beg to differ. In the first movie, that pistol with its single shot is a very important aspect of Jack's character, and to his relationship with several of the characters in the movie. It is a quest and the symbol of a promise all in one, as well as a constant reminder of something of great importance to the character. Yes, it fulfills its purpose at the end of the movie and we go on from there, but in the scope of that one movie - and keep in mind, the first movie wasn't meant to have sequels when they originally made it - it serves the purpose, and serves it well.

Driving Goal/Desire
The other key aspect of Jack Sparrow we learn about is from another piece of his equipment. Or rather, a piece that in the majority of the movies was previously on his equipment list but currently isn't: namely, the Black Pearl. The Black Pearl means a lot to Jack, and he explains it in the first movie. To him, the Black Pearl represents freedom. The ability to get away from it all. It also gives him a sense of purpose and place in the world. He calls himself "Captain Jack Sparrow", and from the other movies we find out that the Pearl is likely the ship that made him a captain (Davie Jones's line "Haven't you been calling yourself captain all these years?" is what I claim implies it). Jack's fixation on the pearl shows its importance again and again. It is one of his primary goals in every movie: re-acquire the Pearl, and yet he also keeps losing it. Often he loses it because he is willing to give up on it in order to do the right thing - which tells us more about him too.

Your Character
I want you to take a moment and look over one of your character sheets. What does the equipment tell you about the character? Does anything stand out? or is it all just gear and mechanical stats to you? Does your character's pistol mean more to them than just a way to kill someone or win a fight? What about their armor? Or something else?

If not, you could be missing out on something potentially huge for your character. People form attachments to things. There is a definite difference between "my pistol" and "my pistol" when you think about it. You can tell a story with a piece of equipment, and that story can tell everyone else a lot about your character. Something as simple as a locket from a dying parent can tell worlds about a character, starting with the basic fact that the character's parents mean a lot to them. When the character than exposes themselves to more danger to get the locket back, we can learn how important that tie actually is and what it is worth to the character. All of this works to build story, and make a two dimensional character into a three dimensional person.

So, why not give it a try? And if you have a favored item - that ties to a story - by all means tell the tale in the comments below. One of my favorites for this can come from the masks of Scorpion characters in L5R. In a game I never got to play, my scorpion had a mask that looked like a Lion's head. The mask served to remind the character daily of their lost love. How did they lose the love? Why, they had to kill their true love for the clan, and to them the mask was a reminder to them of both their devotion to their clan, and the cost that duty can exact. I'm still sad I never got to play the character properly. Maybe someday.


  1. I think players tend to avoid sentimental objects because, like in your betrayal article they can be betrayed by the item in a sense when they loose it. As an example, a GM I know had a player that made a character (in a rattlin' bog, oh, sorry) that had a signature lighter. I don't know how much story the player had put behind the lighter but he made it clear that it was very important to his character. The first game, in nearly the very first scene, the GM had it pick pocketed. I encouraged him to have a way that the PC could get it back and he did but the GM had it stolen immediately again.

    That said, I think special/sentimental/story items could even be introduced in character generation. Specifically I'm thinking of a table of some functional and some non-functional items that the player can get to start with. I think it's a great opportunity for story to emerge from that item. Encourage the player to think of why this item is special to them and make a bit of story around it.

  2. In this case, I am more in disagreement with the GM's approach. Though it makes your point clear. By all means, a story should/could have come up where the character had the lighter stolen, but just nabbing it (and twice in a row) is kind of a low blow. That's like "Thanks for putting in all that extra work, yoink!" in my opinion. Though, I don't know the details.

    As far as the second point, important items can come from everywhere. Stuff generated at character gen, a specific item put there, or even stuff picked up during the course of the game. I'm generally never happier with my games than when something in game leads to a player truly valuing some item because it relates back to that adventure.