landicine: (tinkering)
[personal profile] landicine
One of my favorite items from a past tabletop game was the Ring of the Darkhidden. The ring made my character invisible in total darkness. It sounds silly, especially given that lighting a match cancels out the ability, but since the character specialized in fighting skulking-see-in-the-dark monsters, it was actually really useful. I remember loaning it to [livejournal.com profile] laraclara's dwarf character, and she almost destroyed a character ten levels above her. I want items in games to be like that: mechanically-relevant but also quirky and flavorful.

In Ultima Online, I enjoy using the crafting system to make odd sets of armor for my utility characters, and I spend way too much time coming up with names to engrave on my main fighter’s swords. Artifacts are my favorite card type in Magic the Gathering, and Quick Gadgeteer is my favorite advantage in GURPS. I have spent a lot of time thinking about gizmos, gadgets, magical relics, cyberware, and so on. It is probably no surprise that I wrote a lot of item cards for TBC.


In a perfect world, we would have had props for everything in TBC, but since that wasn't possible, everything had an item card. Given the setting, we were never going to have 360-degree illusion, and abstraction was necessary.

I think for one-shot larps, there are often too few items or too many items. With too few items, it is pretty clear that the only items in game are things that are plot critical, so hording becomes an issue with any thief-mechanics becoming a primary means of transfer. If there are too many items in a four-hour game, people probably won't care about minor redundant widget #7. I've had a few games where I just passed off random widgets that made no sense for my character to care about.

Campaign games are a little different. Too few items wasn't really an option, We wanted everyone to have a few things that fit their characters. The other extreme of too many items didn’t seem likely given the nature of a campaign game. The game’s items were in three categories: mechanics-driven items, information items, and flavor items.

Mechanics-driven items worked in a way similar to ability cards, though they were not always as powerful. Anything that players can exchange freely creates balance nightmares, and broken mechanics will often result in situations where mechanics trump roleplay. Still items that actually do something are interesting to me. My favorite of these items remind me of something Mark Rosewater calls "Trinket Text." Trinket Text is a mechanical effect that is rarely relevant, usually added more for flavor than for anything else. I sometimes got strange looks from the other GMs when I made such items.

Information items are love letters, secret files, and random fragments of ancient prophecies. They mostly gave us extra ways to get information out and about. I don't think I really need to go into why the movement of information is important to a larp, and having a physical text to refer to in-character can add to game. That said, it can be an imperfect system since it has the potential for thief-types to become information brokers in addition to dominating the widget and McGuffin markets. While I didn’t observe this problem with TBC, it is always good to consider the issues with thief mechanics.

Flavor items may not seem as important as the other types, but they have an role. Dean's Impala, Sisko's baseball, Artie's piano, Starbuck's stein, Data's Holmes hat, or Sheridan's piece of the Blackstar help to define those characters in their various fictions. I think flavor matters.

Of course, not all items were created equal. Some items were more likely to affect the setting and story, but I don't feel any item in TBC was essential to any storyline. There is a scene in Death: The High Cost of Living where Death loses her ankh, the symbol of her power. She replaces it with a ten-dollar copy from a street vendor. We wanted it to be possible for characters to do interesting things without worrying about having exact widgets. This also meant if something remained in the envelope of some absent player or lay forgotten by the forgetful, the game went on. I thing we avoided "The Story of the Legendary Item Card and his sidekick, some player,” though there was one issue with an extra Norn stone.
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February 2015

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