Even a Regular Item Can Become an Adventure Hook

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on September 7, 2011

Sometimes the most interesting and memorable part of a D&D adventure is the stuff that happens between the structured encounters. These are often instances when the players do something unexpected and the DM is forced to fly by the seat of his pants. If the DM pulls it off successfully the result can be a scenario that is talked about for a long time. If only there was a way to scrip this kind of strange happenstance?

Spontaneity cannot be scripted by its very nature; however there are ways to still get the effect you’re looking for by giving the PCs a nudge in the right direction. And you don’t have to look any further than their equipment list. When it comes to inventory on a character sheet, most players are really only concerned with magical items and money. The other regular stuff is usually added to the list as an afterthought. So why not have so fun with the regular stuff.

Illicit Property

Most PCs are proud of who they are regardless of their class and race, the only obvious exception being the Rogue. Rogues generally earn their place in the party because of their unique skill-set. In combat they are deadly strikers but it’s their other talents that make them incredibly useful to adventuring parties. Their ability to find and disarm traps, open locked door or treasure chest without keys, and sneak into places they shouldn’t be are all staples of any Rogue worth his salt. While these are admirable skills for an adventurer, in normal life these talents are usually associated with unlawful activity. Just think about how the Rogue got so good at these things in the first place.

It stands to reason that most Rogues would take pains to hide their class when they interact with regular people. However, this is not something that I’ve seen happen very often at my gaming table. So why not have a bit of fun at the Rogues expense by reminding the player how the rest of the world views Rogues?

The next time the party visits a large city have them go through an inspection checkpoint at the city gates. During the inspection the guards ask a couple of “random” PCs if they can look through their gear. They are completely above-board and assure everyone it’s just routine.

What do you think will happen when the guards discover Thieves Tools in the Rogues possession? An honest man has no need for such things. Is this man a criminal? Is there a warrant out for his arrest? Or if this is his first time here is he planning to rob the town’s populace? Suddenly the Rogue and his companions find themselves fast-talking their way out of trouble. Depending on what’s supposed to happen once they get into the city a short skill challenge might even be in order. Getting the Rogue out of jail may be a necessary side-quest before continuing on with the primary adventure.

More Than Meets The Eye

When a party loots a monster’s treasure horde they only ever ask about the magic and the coins. An experienced party may also ask if there are any gems, jewels or art objects, but no one asks or even cares about anything else. However, a creative DM can use this to his advantage by adding a few choice and seemingly inconsequential details.

Low-level parties without a Bag of Holding must be mindful of exactly how they’re transporting all that loot. If the DM makes a stink about it, the players will no doubt look for anything they can find in the vicinity to carry their spoils. Among the corpses of the monster’s previous victims where the PCs found the magical items the DM already described, they find a few ratty backpacks and large sacks. Problem solved. For now.

This is where the DM can have a little fun. In a future adventure the PCs end up getting wet. Maybe they swim across a shallow river or get caught in the rain. When this happens one of the backpacks reveals a secret. This can be something beneficial like a previously undiscovered magical property or something nasty like an extra-dimensional space in which lived a nasty little creature from another plane.

The idea isn’t to kill the heroes, but to have fun and inject something unexpected into the game, preferably at a time when they think they’re just going through the motions. I guarantee that they’ll pay more attention to the regular, mundane stuff in future treasure hordes.

When Clothes Speak

Anonymity can be very useful to an adventuring party. If they can keep a low profile and don’t draw unnecessary attention to themselves then there’s no reason anyone will suspect who they really are. Some adventurers will even go a step further and actively hide anything they possess that could broadcast their true identity. PCs will hide magic weapons or try to disguise their ornamental armor, but rarely does anyone worry about the regular clothes.

PCs that wear cloth armor (usually arcane characters) are really just wearing regular clothes during combat. I’ve got to believe that during combat these regular clothes get damaged and sometimes destroyed. The PCs must constantly purchase new clothes to replace the damaged ones. This is not something that’s usually addressed in most games, but it is something that certainly happens behind the scenes.

Every artesian, seamstress and garment-maker will have their own style and use materials they can obtain locally and easily. This can be a pretty obvious statement of where the party has been and can also indicate their wealth. A party trying to pass themselves as travelers recently arriving from the Northern Province yet dressed in clothes clearly indicative styles and materials of the Southern Province could find themselves under increased suspicion.

It’s this kind of detail, something that the players likely overlooked or deemed insignificant, that can turn a regular exchange between a few PCs and NPCs into something a lot more exciting. This could even be a good time to plant a red herring.

For example, a local woman could approach the party and compliment them on the latest fashions from the Southern Province. Suddenly the PCs realize that their cover is in jeopardy and they must take steps to correct the problem. In reality there may be no danger of exposure but the players don’t know that so they spend time interacting with local merchants to get new clothes and offer the person who spotted them in the first place a considerable bribe to keep quite.

These are just a few examples of how to turn a regular item already on the PCs’ equipment inventory into an adventure hook or at least into more than just a line item on a character sheet. If the DM pays more attention to the little details there’s a good chance that the players will begin doing so as well. Don’t let the game get drowned in minutia but remind the players every now and again that there is a great potential for fun outside of combat and skill challenges.

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Megan September 7, 2011 at 10:09 am

Our DM is good about this sort of thing. The first NPC our party encountered fresh out of character creation was a shady junkie who sold us a pile of assorted items. One of these items was a scratched up prayer bowl, and I make sure to keep it in my character’s inventory because I know our DM is the type to bring that back 15 levels later. We’ve also picked up a rather distinct magic sword that we’re careful to keep concealed to avoid drawing undue attention to ourselves.

In the best example, we’re currently adventuring our way through a population center, and all of the religious sects wear subtle variations on Blue robes. Our Wizard has at times either drawn extra attention or slipped by unnoticed because of her robes. We also had to go on a slight detour to get sets of appropriate robes to deal with an encounter that the DM designed before our Rogue moved away.

Great article, this sort of thing definitely helps make campaigns feel more real and less like a video game.

2 DungeonMaster Johnny (on Facebook) September 7, 2011 at 11:21 am

better clothing should also influence diplomacy and intimidate checks…hmmm

3 Thorynn September 7, 2011 at 12:27 pm

Great article! It seems like a lot of the focus on 4e can be filling every magic item slot. I’ve always been a big fan of mundane equipment. I was DMing a game a few months ago and the PCs encountered a river with no bridge. Nobody had bothered to buy a climbing kit, or spikes and a hammer! Luckily they did have adventures kits and the fighter was able to leap across and secure it to a rock.

4 Thorynn September 7, 2011 at 12:28 pm

adventurer’s kits having ropes and all.

5 Welbes September 7, 2011 at 1:38 pm

This article gave me lots of ideas for my home campaign, thanks! My players are rather new to D&D, the one with most experience played only a couple of years of 3.5, and the rest of them are all inexperienced in RPGs in general. I really enjoy using mundane itens in my games and I’m constantly giving treasure in form of jewelry, gems and other valueable itens. Maybe one of those itens wich my PCs still have in their possession will do something awesome in the future? Yeah, that could tottally happen now.

6 Sunyaku September 7, 2011 at 11:27 pm

Lol, I attended a DnD panel discussion at a small local convention on dungeons and traps, and one of the panelists said his favorite trap ever was a Lich trapped inside a bag of holding. Lolz.

I have every intention of doing something similar to this to my players… there will be a mephit covertly living in their bag of holding… and when they place magic items in the bag, the mephit will use a magical touchstone sewn into the bag to travel to the city of brass, where the mephit will hock the item, party a bit, and then return to wait for more valuables to sell.
Sunyaku´s last blog post ..Lair Assault: Forge of the Dawn Titan

7 curtis July 6, 2012 at 7:07 am

I completely agree with the opening of this. I’m running a game with a lot of inspiration from Dr. Who and Mass Effect, involving elves that have adopted the “best” mentality from other races (primarily humans) and have rapidly advanced militarily and magically. With the increas in power, so too was their increase in looking down on other races. skipping a lot of other detail, they basically bread half-elves to act as cannon fodder and act as auxiliary forces to occupy conquered territory. the party was fighting about 6 of these guys, and the last one after watching these guys walk through his companions saw the futility of fighting and lowered his head to receive a quick death, the paladin coupe de graces and the half elf gets a natural 20 on his fort save and survived the damage (being reduced to exactly zero). he is now my DM PC in that party.

I also had a situation involving killing a randomly chosen monster that happened to effect a nearby village, that village had hunters who started hostile. my character spotted them hunting the party, we passed the diplomacy check to keep them from attacking, and when presented to the village elders I presented a claw from the slain wyvern. the village ended up giving us bonus loot, information on the ruins we were traveling to, and threw a party in our honor. if any one of those things had happened differently, we would have had to kill an entire village of lizard folk.

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