The Clothes Don’t Make the Man and the Weapons Don’t Make the Woman, Part 1
By Cape Rust
Signature weapons, iconic items and trademark clothing items are a part of any RPG and many fantasy stories. These weapons, items and articles of clothing add flavor to a character. Your Bard wears a jaunty beret, with an exotic bird feather in it, your fighter wears a very lacy and feminine handkerchief around his arm to symbolize his one true love. Your Wizard is never without their wand of does-it all and never lets the party’s Cleric leave home without the holy symbol that can heal anything and is made of the bones of a fallen God. All of these things are cool and they do make characters seem more real and more fun to play, but what happens when your character becomes just another stat bag attached to an epic intelligent relic. What do you do when a player’s magic item is much, much more memorable than the character that wields it? This is a problem that authors, DMs and GMs face often. One of the many weaknesses that I have as a DM is not giving my players cool and interesting magic items. I think that I worry too much about those cool items being or becoming overpowered. Sure I think about a powerful item dominating a player’s character (not mechanically), but as I write this I think maybe that has been a bigger worry for me than I realized.
I have reviewed several books from very successful authors who have fallen into the very gear trap I’m writing about. Beyond those authors are the DMs and they players who seem to step into that trap even more willingly. Sometimes these amazing magic items are vital to a campaign’s plot, but even as a plot device should an item totally define someone’s character? The answer is no! Defining a character simply by what they wear is lazy. If the only thing that your 6 Charisma half-ogre paladin of the Goddess of Love has going for him is that he smokes a pipe when he is in deep thought, then you have missed the entire point. I’ve seen players who come up with a gem of a character concept like this only to receive an epic level shield; the Paladin went from fun and interesting to big armored guy with The Amazing Shield of Alagrand The Most Exalted and Benevolent Servant of the Fallen God Who Will Never be Forgotten. The shields name is longer than some campaigns last and when broken down into its stats and magical properties is probably still less interesting than an ugly brute who values love above all else.
In the above case we have to look at both player and GM. A good GM will know who they should or shouldn’t give powerful items to, but power tends to corrupt and even the most reliable player can lose character focus when the Deck of Many Awesome Powers, With no Drawbacks is found. So what is the answer, what can you do as a GM to avoid falling into the Epic Trap of Epic Items?
There are several solutions to this problem; some of them have been taken care of by the mechanics that are associated with an item, but many of them require careful planning by the GM. Let’s get the iconic mundane item discussion out of the way, because in my mind it is the easiest to deal with. Many of the mundane items that I have seen become iconic items for characters were accidents. Sure some players have a very focused idea on what items will help define their characters such as a specific colored armor or a good luck charm. If you as a GM use random loot charts, there is a good chance one of your players might find an item like this, that just sort of sticks around. If you are worried about one of your players abusing a mundane item like this, don’t include them on the random loot that the party finds. No matter how well you plan, players will always find a way to bypass your best laid plans. If in spite of your best efforts a player still gloms onto a mundane item and starts adjusting their character around it, here are a few things you can do. Have the item get stolen. Sure a “quest” to recover the stuffed animal that the character has taken a shine to can turn into a very interesting adventure, but in most cases you can perform enough damage control to end the issue. If the party’s rogue has no compunctions about liberating things from other party members, then have someone hire that rapscallion to steal the item for a decent profit. Is this playing with fire, sure, but it adds some excitement to the game and gets rid of the security blanket that the barbarian has been hauling around with her starting the day her parents were killed, because for some reason all adventurers and super heroes seem to have dead parents. Stay tuned for the next installment.