All too often, treasures in a game – be they gadgets in a high-tech setting, high-powered sports cars in a modern campaign, or arcane thingies in a fantasy campaign – are about as interesting as the cardboard cut-outs sometimes used to represent them in play or on a battlemap.
While it’s always possible to overdo such things, I want to propose that you consider putting as much care into giving a personality to some of the inanimate objects that surround your PCs as you would in defining an NPC.
It’s not all that difficult.
What do the coins have stamped on them? Do the faces seem to be frowning, or smiling, or winking rogueishly, or smirking? Are they a little off-center, or stained and dirty? Take some of the terminology that you would otherwise have used to describe the surroundings where the coins were found, and apply them instead to the coins themselves.
This is one of the easiest types of equipment to give a personality. The horse that’s always willing, or always throwing a shoe; the car which develops a squeek anytime a repairman is more than 100 feet away; the wagon whose wheels behave like those of a shopping trolley as soon as they have to carry a light load. Loose floorboards, carpets that like to move, gearboxes that like to jump out of gear, cars that are always whispering “just a little faster” in your ear…
Chests & Furniture
Probably something of an anticlimax after that last section, but nevertheless, here we go. While this section will discuss Chests specifically, many of the options can be applied to furniture in general.
Chests are often considered less interesting than their contents. Why not do something sneaky the next time the PCs find a treasure map – put a false map in the chest and the real one hidden amongst the fancy scrollwork of the chest itself? Then let the PCs recieve a slightly-too-generous offer on the chest en route to their wild-goose chase and ride out into the sunset congratulating each other!
Hinges that squeek no matter how often they’re oiled. Doors and Lids whose latches catch, or with a splinter that always catches a sleeve when someone puts something in or takes something out. Chests that never quite hold as much as they look like they should (and let the PCs have fun looking for non-existant false bottoms). Chests or Mirrors with rude or disturbing motifs carved into them.
Chests that always make anything stored in them dusty or impart a musty odour, that wobble on their feet as though drunk, that groan and creak alarmingly. Chests that are greedy, always fitting in slightly more than will permit the lid to close. Chests that like to share with the world, popping open at the slightest bump when in the back of a wagon or cart, but which lock tight at all other times.
Food creates strong links with people’s pasts. The right flavours and odours can transport you back to your childhood with greater immediacy than any photograph, can create a mood more tangibly than the most florid poetry. Consider the paranoia that can be wrought by an innkeeper who always happens to have a serving or two of a character’s favorite food on hand – even if he’s never met them.
Food can be a weapon to the GM – use it!
Weapons & Hilts
And, speaking of weapons – hilts that are more reassuring than usual in the grip they offer, or get slippery when a character sweats, or that are vain and demand constant polishing.
The clothes maketh the man, according to an old saw. But what of the personality of the clothing itself? Brash, or always riding up in the back, or can never seem to keep the rain out. Buttons that will NOT stay sewn on, zippers that always catch, boots that are too worn on one heel to be quite stable, shoes that tend to trip, or that have excessively slippery soles, or that pinch the toes. We’ve all worn lots of clothing and have experienced all of these or something very much like them. I have one shirt that refuses to stay buttoned up, and another that will not permit itself to stay tucked in, and a pair of jeans that seems to change size at will, and a jacket that makes me sweat no matter how cold the room – or I – am.
One mistake that I frequently make is making the artworks too fancy, too poetic if you will. Surely, some art by brilliant painters is of puppies, or the breakfast table, or his mistress. Some will be lewd, some will deliberately provoke, some will be intentionally anti-social. Some will be gauche, and some cliched, and some will simply look cheap. Just because it’s by a famous artist, and incredibly valuable, it doesn’t have to be beautiful!
Quills & Pens
Quills and pens that are miserly, holding onto their ink for far longer than they should, or that are practical jokers who like to drip or leak, or that somehow twist to make a word look like something it shouldn’t. I’ve had pens that liked soft surfaces, and others that liked firm surfaces, or that refused to work unless the surface was perfectly flat, or refused to write on the bottom of pages, or at the start of a page, or that always managed to rip or mark or scratch the paper. And I’ve had pens that kept on and on and on, long after the ink was seemingly exhausted.
The brooch that is always getting lost, or that has a pin that likes to stab the owner when it is being put on. The chain that is always getting itself tangled and knotted, or that always seems just a little too short. The ring that is firm on the finger until we’re not looking and then likes to make a wild bid for freedom – Gollum would sympathise!
The most rewarding experience
There are so many of these everyday ordinary experiences that are ubiquitously part of the shared human experience, that we will all recognise. It’s hard enough, making a campaign feel realistic, without taking advantage of a touchstone that we can all identify with.
When you mention a small and dingy alleyway in a modern city, you don’t have to mention the dumpsters and garbage cans – these can pretty much be taken for granted. So take the sights and smells, the grime and mildew, and apply it to the treasures and any NPCs that are present. You’ll not only find yourself running out of adjectives less frequently, you’ll make everything else more colourful and more tangible.
Make your objects seem more real, and the characters will seem more real as well. And that’s the best reward you can give your players, and your campaign, and yourself.