On Itemry and Trappery – Part 1

As my own 5e Eberron game returns to my table this week after a month on hiatus (players on travel and vacation), we’ll be getting into the dangerous world of life as the secret spies and adventurers for a growing city-state surrounded on all sides by enemy nations and vile conspiracies…

Normally, in a given week, I’d be adding to my Worrisome Trap or Better Than Nothing Item collections, but as I’ve made a whole bunch in running up to my game returning (and my players read my content all the time), I want to hold back a week before posting them up.  The sad part is you’ll have to wait a bit for a half dozen new traps (well themed for an Eberron game) and a few more flavorful magic items; the good part is they’ll be slightly more playtested and balanced than usual by the time they do post up here.

In the meantime, though, I wanted to share the first, high-level overview of how I approach the making of magic items and traps.  The first stages are the same for either, but I’ll emphasize items in this post and come around to traps later on. Now, I want to emphasize, this is just my own process for creating things.  Everyone has their own, of course, and the DMG has a few on top of that… take what you like, leave what doesn’t jive for you.

No Matter What Anyone Says, RPG Stands For “Role-Playing Game”

^ that’s a trivial point, isn’t it?  RPG means “Role-Playing Game”?  Hardly needs mentioning.  But, where I differ from some of my favorite fellow DM’s is that I don’t really care as much about the mechanics as I do the feel of the created item in question.

I start with imagining the scene.  What do I want to have play out in a game?  This is why all my items and creations have a vignette of a story to start with.  What is the scene I want to have?  Is it a tense, subtle threat calm dinner with an evil warlock?  Is it the slow trod of a man who has lost everything having to push one step farther, then another?  Is it the cruel grip of addiction and loss?  Is it the care-free leap of faith of a woman who knows the mind of god?  Do I want a scene where someone gets to be the mysterious knowing person in a room of antagonists amazed by it (and worried)?  Do I want a scene where someone chooses to spare the life of an antagonist for seemingly no reason at all?

If your’e half as big a fan of movies and cinema as I am (and don’t get me started on my collection), you’ve seen all of these scenes many times–done well and poorly.  Start with one you’d like to see happen, like “The slow trod of a man who has nearly been defeated, and in the face of certain doom, continues on to what much be his death”.  That’s the one I’ll work with.

The mechanics of D&D will help me flesh out what conditions, restrictions, and system I’ll need to produce that moment–but for now, its enough to recognize that there are a dozen different ways to make that scene happen.  Examples include:

  • The individual (don’t want to be sexist, here) might be exempt from Death Saves for some reason so long as they advance on their killer.  That would create a situation where someone, laid low and under the threat of death, would ignore being clever in favor of seeming driven and stubborn; or
  • The individual might regain 1hp for every step they take toward a threat while sprinting (full movement and Dash), 2hp for every step they take while running (full movement), and 3hp for every step while walking (half movement only).  But, only when there are no other conscious allies around—so it’d be something that happens when they’re alone, which fits that feel of “lost everything”.  It’d be something that sits in the background, save for that one combat where everyone is laid low and the power kicks in… and the individual stares down the villain and, while tore up and beaten and bleeding, starts barking social actions at it (threats, dramatic language, rage and pain) and walking… social rolls and walking… RP galore… and upon getting within close reach?  Dramatic Fight scene (with regained HP)!

And then I get that moment I wanted from the get go.  And everyone cheers at the drama of it and retells the story of that happening over and over and over for years.  That’s the hope, anyway.

I think, and you can quote me on this, a DM is going to be judged in the long-run and across the whole wealth of the games they run on two things:

  1. Were the games fun?  Did people smile and laugh and chuckle away their relief in tense moments?  Did fun happen?
  2. Were the moments memorable?  I don’t remember anything about simple encounters and don’t see players talk about half the stuff found in a given module after the fact… but well-sold dramatic and heroic and unexpected moments?  Those live on.

I don’t think either of those things are much worried (directly) about the mechanics.  Sure, the items have to fit a rule set and sure they have to avoid breaking a game… but, D&D combats are meant to be won (true) and meant to be heroic fights.  They need to be challenging and should be plausible (within the world’s limits).  But, everything else is fine.  So, when I think of the mechanics for an item like this I want it to be rarely used, rarely needed, and able to accomplish something already available to the party.

Taking my second “how it could work” example, a heal spell would give the HP back much faster… take fewer turns.  That’s available to most parties of a level.  Cure Wounds, Heals, etc.  It only comes into play when they’re the last one standing (maybe they get 1 hp per ally that is dropped, thus bringing them up from dying should they fall first–even more dramatic).  And with my NPC/Monster I get to control how well it works or doesn’t… I could kill them outright in the first round, I could let them talk and threaten and distract and let them get more rounds of healing.

Is it too powerful?  Hard to make that claim when, as the DM, you still control the vast majority of the variables.

My next part in this series will go into how to leverage mechanics (and invent new ones) to compliment your item.  Meantime, think of dramatic moments and overthink different ways of evoking them from the gameplay.  We’ll settle on some rules of thumb to avoid in Part 2.


One comment

  1. Whatever happened to part 2 :(?
    I found this to be an incredibly interesting topic. I really struggle to come up with items, and your approach of ‘story first’ item creation really appeals to me. I would love to see a follow up to this where you deal with the actual mechanics of the item!


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