Monday, October 29, 2018

Using Item Flavor To Tell The Story Of Your World

It's almost expected that as characters go around adventuring that they're going to find and pick up all sorts of gear. Dungeons and Dragons and Pathfinder have this down to the point that people just expect a certain level of item at certain points in a game or you can feel like you're behind - or at the least that the GM is being stingy. Even in non-D&D games, it's not uncommon - at least for the groups around here - for the PCs to pretty much loot everything they can. Your PCs kill 4 goons? Expect them to take those goons weapons.

All these weapons, armor, and other items being picked up provides an opportunity for telling more about the world, but I find I leave that opportunity on the table most times. Today I want to talk about that.

Even When They Are, Magic Items Aren't Common
Even in game worlds where magic items are a regular part of the world like D&D and Pathfinder, magic items aren't common in the world. Sure, a group of adventurers can expect to have X items by level Y, but for the rest of the world mundane weapons do just fine. And even among mundane weapons there are likely several levels of quality before you even get  to magic items. D&D 3.5 had the "master craft" or "fine" quality that was required before a weapon could become magic. Which means that all those items the PCs just found lying around? Each and every one at one point had been forged by a master craftsman - after they attained the rank of master.

Think about that for a second. Your PCs at some point in the game were just casually discarding and scoffing the work of master craftsmen as being not worth it. There's nothing wrong with this. If you need a +3 longsword to have a chance, a non-magical sword just isn't going to cut it. But consider just how rare an item you're now looking for.

And more to the point, consider that any item that is a magic item was made so intentionally. And yeah, maybe that was so it could be sold at a store. But what about the ones being found in treasure hoards? Those weapons have stories.

Flavor Gives Character
Considering how rare - in world at least - magic items and other items of a quality that a PC will carry it around as their primary item, it's also worth considering that nothing gets made to that quality without having some character to it.

The quality is "master craft" but at this level we're talking about artistry not craft. And then there's also the use case of the weapon. There is a difference between a weapon with a mirror polish clean blade, nary a scratch on it, and with every single bit of it completely new, pristine, and unmarred and one that has scratches and nicks on it from use, or at least has some dirt on the handle from where it's last owner held it and sweated, or dropped it in the dust.

Then there are little details. Just with a sword you can have the length of the grip, what it's made of, the shape of the pommel, the shape of the quillons, if the blade has one or more fullers. Not to mention if it is a heavier or lighter blade, and any number of other descriptors.

One of my favorite items in a D&D game I'm running right now is a Ring of Jumping that is covered in elven script. The ring was a wedding gift, and as an added bonus allows the person attuned to it to speak Elven. It's not the most powerful item in the game, but it has a lot of character to it and sticks out.

Character Can Speak To World Building and History
When I was like 13 I played in a D&D game in a store. My Elven Ranger came into possession of a very powerful magic sword from one of the Encyclopedia Magicas that TSR released. Grithane, the +5 Elven Defender vs. Green Dragons. An intelligent weapon, a powerful one, and one I put to good use even if it caused a few heart attacks in the game when it started screaming at Green Dragons the group wasn't sure they were ready for. I never thought about it much then, but it occurred to me later that just the existence of Grithane told a story.

If nothing else it meant that somewhere was a a smith who felt the Green Dragon problem the Elves faced was so great that they needed a ridiculously powerful item to face it, and that this item should come in the shape of a 2 handed sword - which isn't exactly the kind of weapon you envision an elf fighting with. There is a story to Grithane - and there was in the Encyclopedia Magica - and that story, even if just about Grithane the weapon itself, still added to the world.

And not every weapon has to have that level of story to it. It could simply be that a +1 sword found was a weapon gifted to a Knight Errant when he/she became a full knight, but they died facing off against whatever evil the PCs have. Perhaps there is a reward for the PCs if they bring it back to the family. Perhaps the loss happened over a hundred years ago and the family has since moved on or been wiped out.

A Lived In World
Taking the bit of extra time to add this character and flavor to items and weapons adds to the world you run. It shows the existence of other people. It shows their stories. It puts the PCs in a place where - if they care - they can interact with these stories, picking them up where they came to that end and move on with them.

It's worth the effort.

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