Something recently came up in my Dungeons and Dragons game, where I allowed one player to acquire a magical item and another I decided couldn’t find one. Initially put in this straightforward manner, it sounds awfully unfair doesn’t it? Well, in reality I actually had given quite a lot of thought to this kind of decision and why I chose to do so. Firstly, it wasn’t simply out of some kind of spite to reward one player while penalizing another. Secondly and most importantly, it was because one of the items I felt could have an interesting origin, purpose and implementation in the game as a whole.
So firstly, let me describe the situation as it happened and why the two players got a different result. After finishing the chase for the Pearl in Regalport and having some time to wander around doing other non-adventuring related things, my players asked to do various things in town. One of the things that Rowan wanted to do was find a magical flying carpet and my initial response was “Not at this port”. Part of this is because reflexively, I don’t like magic items being easily found and purchased for various reasons – one of them being that magic items can severely affect encounter balance and design. Of course that was my initial answer and then very shortly after I immediately changed my mind. That’s because inspiration had hit me: What if I made it interesting?
The magic carpet was an interesting request and encouraged me to rapidly change my mind, because such an item adds a lot of utility to the whole party. Everyone benefits from having the carpet and while it does mean I had to reconsider how to design some encounters, ultimately it also added to some of the battles I subsequently could run. For example in the Heist at the Museum of Natural and Magical Antiquities in Sharn, the magic carpet allowed the players to have more tactical options in combat and expand out the area of an encounter they could use. At the time when I allowed the player to buy the carpet, I had this visit to Sharn and other high places in mind.
But really the decision changed because I thought about something that many DMs overlook: Where did the carpet come from in the first place? Here is where I had an interesting idea to make the carpet something that I could use in an interesting manner later in the game. When I described the merchant initially, I visualized him as an unusually robed man whose features were hidden beneath the folds of his cloak and the shade of the stall. When Rowan purchased the carpet from him, which he assured her had no previous owners and could go a “long” way they saw his hand: Gnarled, blackened (like it had been burned) and adorned with gold rings.
In reality, despite the successful purchase, I actually really had a story point and use for this in mind. The carpet had actually been stolen by this shady character, who was an escaped djinn from the city of brass and he was looking to offload it to some silly mortal ASAP. Rowan happened along and the convenient meeting allowed the djinn to get rid of it. Of course, the actual owner of the carpet would not have been happy about this and was trying to get back his property – leading to subsequent encounters with the murderously angry djinn owner of the carpet. This added some intrigue to the game, showed that magic items were significant in the world and were important enough to whoever owned them to get them back.
Naturally after this, the player of Calliara wanted to see if there was a magical shield in the city for similar purchase. Here I had a think about things and decided that in this case “No, this particular item isn’t readily available in the city at this time”. The immediate – and understandable – reaction at this point is to think that I am being unfair to this player. After all, I let Rowan have her magical carpet but I didn’t let this player have the magical shield. In this case though, there was some logic behind my decision and the most notable one was that the +1 Shield represents an extremely strong mechanical increase for a character in 5th Edition.
As the AC in the game is so “Flat” and creatures of low CR are expected to have a long life span against higher level PCs, increasing AC of front line characters can basically make them impossible to hit. In addition, such an item that is as flat and basic as a +1 shield/armor doesn’t offer as many opportunities for an interesting history as say the carpet did (that is right off the top of my head with roughly a minute to think about it). You can’t go with the “Ancient heirloom, stolen item” etc kind of plot every single time! Additionally, unlike the carpet the shield only really offered any benefit to the one character and didn’t add utility that could be used by anyone in the entire party.
Ultimately though, the fact I couldn’t think of an easy way to make the acquisition of the shield more interesting and the carpet offered overall party utility, with an excellent kind of hook to further story based adventures down the line was the deciding factor. It was certainly not a consistent decision by any means and while it wasn’t inherently fair, I think the basic reasoning was sound. Plus I had already decided to put such a +1 shield in as treasure in a subsequent adventure anyway – so I felt that the overall party balance and decisions would balance out in the end. Especially because I wanted to give an idea of magic items being a bit rare and precious, especially due to the arming of most navies in Regalport with everything magical they could get their hands on by order of Lord Rygar.
This does give me an important launching point on an overall discussion: How should you value the stuff that your players can find? This is actually something worth considering well beyond the confines of Dungeons and Dragons above, but on any roleplaying game where special equipment, magical items or tomes could be important. Above I made my decisions largely on an overall interest factor, as 5E tends to work assuming players have a very hard time acquiring magic items. This means outside of an expectation you will have magic weapons (at some point), everything tends to be a luxury and some items (like shields) tend to have bigger “snowball” effects on individual character balance than others. While something like the carpet changes the utility of the entire party in a fairly predicable manner.
Consider another system like Shadowrun, where you can have some really funky equipment including some very efficient weapons like automatic shotgun, high powered silenced sniper rifles, monofilament claymores (Vibroswords) and things that are basically railguns. Some of these items if you allow players to easily buy them can be very game breaking, because they either penetrate armor like paper or they can easily destroy things you didn’t intend for (like powerful barriers or vehicles). In these cases, Shadowrun allows you to easily restrict access by simply saying they are so impossible to find – even on the black market – they can’t be acquired.
But what happens if you really want someone to have that lightning cannon-esque gun because it’s going to be really useful? Well here is where you can make the acquisition of that item as important as doing the run itself in the first place. Instead of making it a simple “no”, you can point out that it’s in an extremely well defended Ares Macrotechnologies research building and here is an NPC interested in helping out… for a price. Within moments you are basically building an adventure or a run with your players somewhat spontaneously. This kind of sudden cooperative “World building” with your players adds immensely to any roleplaying game.
Of course this isn’t easy to do, because if you weren’t anticipating how obsessed the players would be about having this specific lightning cannon for this run, it can be difficult to come up with things on the fly. This is why even though I feel any roleplaying game works best with “Yes” or “Yes, but” as opposed to “No”, sometimes it really is okay just to say no sometimes. Of course, if you do want to say “Yes, but” an easier way than making an entire run is to ensure the players owe something or generate another kind of consequence. Like the magic carpet prompting this discussion, the most easy way to do so is that the item is red “hot” or has other people really interested in acquiring it.
So the runners easily acquire their lightning cannon of doom and bring it along on the run, where its discharge was easily noticed by a wandering drone, camera or maybe a subsequent investigation. Naturally this draws other parties looking to get the same weapon and they eventually track down the runners, leading to interesting interactions (maybe they want to buy it?) or a straight up fight over it. Perhaps the players have it stolen off them and need to find out who, leading to a new run? Whatever approach you take the main advantage here is that you can prepare it ahead of time, as opposed to the spontaneous “Let’s go raiding!” adventure from above, which not all GMs/DMs may be happy to do.
One thing you should always think about in advance and prepare for are any items that are plot important to your game. While reading the excellent Night’s Black Agents, I noticed that a proposed weakness for Vampires was meteoric iron. This is an interesting weakness, because for one thing meteors with suitable minerals in them don’t crash down to earth where they can be recovered every day. The other neat part is that when they are, it’s generally worthwhile news and people hear about. Of course some of those “people” are actually blood thirsty monstrous vampires and they would be well aware of what their own weakness is.
So naturally at some point in this game the agents will need to break into a museum, private collection or other secure place to acquire the meteoric iron. This should be an important moment in the game and naturally, due to the rareness of this particular substance the agents enemies absolutely should hear about it. Perhaps the vampires launch a little operation of their own, which is to acquire back the meteoric ore before the agents can turn it into suitable weapons/bullets? Suddenly you are turning a basic part of the game – acquiring stuff – into a meaningful way of deriving tension and controlling pace, both excellent things to do!
Of course you also have to consider what happens when players start going “Well, maybe my character can just enchant or build this stuff himself?”. In this case you have any number of options for making the process difficult or interesting, because the materials involved (like the iron above) could be the adventure in the first place. This even has the advantage of not requiring a spontaneous decision at the time, where you can say “Give me some time to think about it” and then get back to them once you’ve derived your result (given it should take some time to make these things). Again, plot important items like an anti-vampire meteoric iron stake or sword, shouldn’t have high barriers to the players getting them. Building nuclear bombs and death lasers, well there is where much more effort should be put in for the tangible reward.
So here are some ideas for what you can do to make acquiring important or powerful items more interesting, instead of saying “No” or making the process overly trivial:
A) The item can be found, but it was stolen and its original owners are definitely going to run into the players… with interesting consequences.
B) Someone does have the item, but they are in an obscure or out of the way area. They are also potentially mad/homicidal/anti-social/monstrous or whatever other complication might make them extremely unlikely to want to part with it.
C) You can find that important piece of an old french translation of the Necronomicon, but it’s stuffed in the Miskatonic University Library in a highly secure section. Getting it out will almost certainly be noticed by the local cultists you’re opposing, meaning that they are going to be actively searching for you and so you’d better get what secrets you need from it soon!
D) It’s not possible to find the old fashioned way, but a mysterious stranger turns up and says with a suitable bargain they can give you it. But what exactly will be the consequence of this “bargain”?
These are but a few ideas and there are many more possibilities, but I want to emphasize that you need to do what you’re happiest with. The vast majority of these ideas, especially if the item or piece of equipment wasn’t plot essential, are a lot of sudden extra work for you. You might need to create new NPCs spontaneously or even an entire miniature adventure within an adventure to pull it off. Especially if the request wasn’t for something plot essential or important, which is usually the ones you didn’t anticipate ahead of time (like my flying carpet example).
Of course instead of saying “No” just reflexively due to a lack of time or planning, what you can do is say “Yes, but I will need to consider how you find that for now”. Generally speaking unless the players are absolutely 100% desperately convinced that they need the item immediately, this will easily buy you time to think about how to implement the above in an interesting way. Especially if you make the result suitably compelling and add to the game positively, in which case it has the best benefit of all: Making your world feel more real, believable and that the players have a decent amount of influence over it.
So next time your player asks for something difficult to acquire or perhaps rather rare, consider letting them have a go at finding it…. for a price.