Friday Favourite: Even a Regular Item Can Become an Adventure Hook

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on June 21, 2013

On Friday we comb through our extensive archives to find an older article that we feel deserves another look. From September 7, 2011, Dungeon’s Master once again presents: Even a Regular Item Can Become an Adventure Hook.

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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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Joe June 21, 2013 at 10:17 am

My favorite thing is to give token nonmagical thank-you items to the PCs from random villagers they rescue (works especially well when they rescue kids). They feel connected to the mundane items because they know their history, and (if the system allows it) may even try to transfer enchantments onto those items in the future. You can also make interesting roleplaying experiences if the item is treasured by the giver, but not particularly pretty to look at (a garish pink hat, or a moldy scarf that was all the peasant had to give). Other NPCs can alter their reactions based on the odd items, forcing the PCs to either ditch the items (and face a disappointed hero worshipper later) or defend their fashion choices.

A DM once gave me a throwaway item that turned into something big. I was a druid who had helped a small army of poorly equipped soldiers get fresh food & clean water (with my naturey ways) as they marched to the front. A random foot soldier named Thomas gave me his dad’s dagger in thanks, and it was a perfectly normal dagger that I nonetheless treasured and had written on my sheet as “dagger of Thomas”. Later, when a thief picked my pocket and the dagger went missing, it became the plot element that I needed to pursue, because that dagger meant a lot to me.

2 Arcanist Supreme June 21, 2013 at 10:47 am

Even minor magical items can play a fun role. I randomly had my part find a magic chamberpot once (i rolled on a mundane item table and it was pottery so I just thought on the fly a magic chamberpot instead). This could lead to interesting adventures I thought after a while (where does it all get teleported to). They also used it to defeat a water elemental in the dungeon (by charging at it with the chamberpot). This in turn could lead to another fun adventure, based on action where we had a lot of fun and none of it was planned, with a random minor magic item.

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