We've been talking a lot about choice and what it can show about characters in a story. Today I want to start talking about how to make your PCs care about items and, more importantly, about NPCs so that you can leverage those items and NPCs in choices for your players. I will talk about recognizing your players wants next week, as it is a bit big to fit in with the rest of this stuff. That all said, let's begin.
Anything Earned Through Hardship
As people we tend to value things we have earned and the harder it was to earn that thing the more we tend to value it. Part of this is because the item or thing is a reminder of the hardship gone through and our perseverance and ultimate victory over it, and part of it is because something earned through hardship tends to be a bit more exclusive. The combination of exclusivity and hardship can make something truly special even if the item doesn't do anything at all.
For example, when I GMed for a large online chat RPG I ran a sixteen hour scene one time. In the scene the PCs had been whisked away to a world of dreams and set on a quest by the Sun Goddess. Over the course of the scene PCs fell either as they player had to go or, more likely, because the character had failed to pass an obstacle or meet a challenge and were dropped out. In the end six PCs were successful in finishing the quest and each of them awoke back safe in their beds with a small pendant that was always pleasantly warm to the touch as the only proof of what they'd done. The players loved it. The pendants did nothing, but it was a sign of something they had accomplished and marked them as special in a way (ultimately what every player wants.) I saw PCs kill rather than surrender those necklaces, and when the game ended and the next game took place in the same world all six pendants showed up around the necks of descendants of those characters. Why? because the players cared about them.
Now this same thing can work for useful items as well. The +5 Longsword that a fighter earns by beating a super hard opponent at the end of a super hard adventure is going to be valued more than that same +5 longsword if it was just the loot for some boss the PC fought.
If Backstory Matters Then Backstory Matters
This isn't true with every player, but for some players the backstory for their character matters a whole lot. You'll know this player most likely as the "role player" in the group. They are likely invested in the story telling aspect of the game and really enjoy that part. That doesn't mean that they exclusively like htat part, just that it feature prominently for them. With these characters they will often write back stories for their character, even if only in their head. To them the backstory helps ground the character. It gives a sense of who the character is, who the character was, and who - if nothing changes - the character is likely to become.
With these players items tied into the backstory will often hold similar significance to items that were earned through hardship. The reasoning here is much the same but how it does that is different. Instead of reminding the character/player of a hard fought battle it reminds them of the backstory and thus helps ground the character in the world and in their own story. Items that are tied this way are also, by default, exclusive. After all, it's not just any katana. It's the katana that my grandfather carried and that his grandfather before him carried. It is the sword that has defended the life and honor of countless generations of my family. It's exclusive. It's unique. It makes the wielder special, if only to themself.
Combining The Two
Some of the most fun you can get with making an item important is to combine the two above features. An item that is won through great hardship that is also tied to the character's backstory. This is something I am doing with a character in a friends L5R game. My character's family has a "Sacred Blade" (clan specific weapon given out to heroes) that is currently in the hands of the person that killed my character's mother. At some point, hopefully, my character will find this person and reclaim their heritage.
You can do this other ways as well, but usually it does involve reclaiming. The fun part is though that even if the player didn't give a huge backstory you can still do this. Give a villain a connection to the hero and then boast about how they're going to slay the PC with their father's sword or something of that nature. It can be a great way to hook a PC into an adventure and to reward them with something that matters even if it isn't super powerful.
Give The Item A History
The PC doesn't have to be the only one with a back story. You can help make items stand apart with special description, a name, and giving them a backstory of their own. Which would you rather own a +5 bastard sword with defender vs. Green Dragons, or Grithane the +5 Bastard Sword/Defender vs. Green Dragons that slew the Dracolich Seshomere? Mechanically both items are the same, but one of them carries a history and that history marks it as special.
The above two (three) are just some ideas on how to make items significant to people. Generally the thing that makes an item special to a player is its exclusivity and how that helps make the PC special. A +2 longsword is a +2 longsword, but Snaptooth - the sword that slew the Ork King Balorn and marks its wielder as a friend of the elves and an enemy of orks - is so much more than a simple +2 Longsword even if mechanicaly that is all it is.
Next time I'll talk about the balancing act you need to do to make characters care about NPCs in your game. From there, well, we'll see.