Adventure Design

An archive of my adventure design notes.
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Adventure Design - Better Treasure

Bryce Lynch
United States
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Welcome to the PLEASUREDOME
Better Treasure

“Each player receives a treasure parcel worth 250gp.”
“Place the treasure you wish in the adventure.”
“Treasure worth 2,500gp is present.”
“6 gems forth 50gp each.”
“Jewelry worth 1,000gp.”
“a +1 sword.”
“a broach of shielding.”
“a potion of flying.”

The above, in similar or one form, Is the usual part and parcel of the published adventure. Those treasures suck. No one is excited about finding one of those. “Ohhhhh! A +1 sword! I’m a bad ass now!” That’s not D&D. That’s some generic nonsense masquerading as D&D. Let’s not forget: the job of the designer is to communicate imagination and wonder to the DM. That’s what we’re paying for, the designers imagination. Those treasures don’t do it. There’s nothing in those. Let’s compare those items to an excellent example, from the 1E DMG:

“Seldom is the name of Vecna spoken except in hushed voice, and never within hearing of strangers, for legends say that the phantom of the once supreme lick still roamed the Material Plane. It is certain that when Vecna finally met his doom, one eye and one hand survived. The Eye of Vecna is said to glow in the same manner as that of a feral creature. It appears to be an agate until it is placed in an empty eye socket of a living creature. Once pressed in, it instantly and irrevocably grafts itself in to the head, and it cannot be removed or harmed without slaying the character. The alignment of the character immediately becomes neutral evil and may never change. The Eye bestows both infra vision and ultra vision to its host, and give the following additional powers/effects. The minor or major powers may be used without fear of harm, but the use of the primary power causes a malevolent effect upon the host character.”

Now THAT’S a magic item! If I found an agate I’d immediately pluck out my own eye and shove it in the socket. “DM: You find an agate. ME: I rip out my eye and shove the agate in the socket! Do I have infravision?!?! DM: No you moron, you do not. ME: Crap! Are there any other agates around in the hoard?” That’s the kind of behavior you are looking for. You want your PLAYERS excited about what they find.

You don’t have to go all super-backstory on things either. It’s pretty easy to reskin something. A bag of holding? Lame. How about … A Maggot! It's actually a Maggot of Opening. A couple of inches long, squirmy, pale .. ie: looks like a maggot. Except it can open it's mouth REALLY wide, let's say the size of a fist. It has an extra dimensional stomach so it otherwise acts like a bag of holding and it never digests anything. Ya gotta reach in to pull stuff out. Who knows what else it's swallowed? It tries to digest, so reaching in is a bit slimy & gross. A horn of blasting? The horn is either a tuba or a stork like bird that you squeeze like bagpipes. A potion of flying? How about the potion is full of flies? And the user grows fly wings? Or a scroll of flying that is actually magical window cling film that is used like a tattoo? If you use it on a pig you have a pig balloon … and then what happens when you eat the pig? All sort of weird and wonderful things happen when effort is added to a magic item. None of that shit happens with “sword, +1”.

A +1 sword? Nope. How about AIDRU - SLAYER OF MEN. A longsword engraved the full length with arcane runes. The hilt is bare and will need to be recovered. Created by the death-priests of Ghoekra and wielded during their bloody crusade to rid the earth of all life. Moderately well know; feared and coveted. Drips blood, not because of the creation but through the sympathetic magic caused by all of the bodies it has been soaked in while killing them. Disturbing dreams while possessing; slaughter, etc. +1 hit, causes immediate morale check for any creature/group that recognizes it. (Who then inevitably yell "Aidru – Slayer of Men!!!") Glows with a pale red light and gives the wielder a +1 CHR bump when wielded BECAUE OF FEAR! Aidru is a kick ass magic item. If I was playing I would use Aidru long after I found a +2 sword, or even a +3 sword. Fuck those things; they don’t cause monsters to yell “AIDRU! Slayer of men?!?!!” A broach of shielding? How about a snake circlet that comes alive and eats magic missiles? See, it’s not hard at all! So why the fuck are you putting a +1 sword in your adventure? I’m paying for your imagination … so IMAGINE!

You can see an excellent example of this in Fight On! Magazine, issue #3, in the Spawning Grounds of the Crab-Men, by Dave Bowman. In one of the rooms you meet a crazy crab-man who has picked up something he shouldn’t have ...
"Grog the Gladius is a finely crafted short bronze stabbing sword. Grog glows a dim violet when held by a living being. Grog is a Lawful Sword +1, +3 vs. Dragons. Intellect 7, Egoism 12, with the power to See Invisible. Grog will communicate the presence of such things via Empathy.” It’s going to be hard to argue that this represents a wall of text, and yet the magic item is flavorful and is found in an environment (wielded by the crab-man, accidentally) that heightens its interest. Similarly, I just reviewed They Came from the Stars from the … and the sky full of dust blog. The aliens have death ray guns and force field belts. These are nothing more than the same effects of a wand of magic missiles and a broach of shielding. Flavor. Reskin. Repeat. Ambiguity is ok, and even in some sense desired. Boring is not ok.

Further, don’t focus on the mechanics. Focus instead on the effects. Too often items gets bogged down in game mechanics. The designer attempts to divine all the ways the item can be misused by the players, or attempts to make the item “make sense.” You don’t need to do that. Over explaining kills mystery and the DM is present to arbitrate rules. Again, the role of the designer is to inspire, not explain. Kas and Vecna are much more interesting when left as throw-ft references in a magic item description. Your magic item is much more interesting when it turns something to concord jam once a day. No volume reference. No details like “save for apricot”, no boring shit to weigh the world down. If you are taking a paragraph to describe the game mechanics bend the device then you have failed. Magic, Mystery, Wonder, Whimsy, and THE FANTASTIC are the enemies of Aristotle. If you tell me the bumble helmet lets me shoot poison bumblebees from its mouth once a day then I’m cool.

Mundane treasure is similar. Your PLAYERS should want to keep it for their characters, not melt it down in to slag. The treasure in room 46, level 1 of Dwimmermount is boring. A jeweled pin. A gold necklace. A comb. Lame. The jeweled pin (800gp) will be adjusted to a jeweled CLOAK pin worth 800gp that is in the shape of scantily clad female elf beheading an orc. The splattering blood is shown in small rubies. [Someone is gonna keep that one and wear it, for sure!] The gold necklace is a locket and shows the face of a loved one back and a family name that still exists in Marburg today. They would love to have it back (sentimental value) but they are also poor and selling it would make a world of difference in their lifestyle. The comb is part of a 3-piece set. Finding the other two (mentioned previously) brings the value of the set to 200gp. Taking any of the coin treasure will result in wandering monsters being checked for every turn, and they will always be Lab Rats, as long as the coins are carried in the dungeon. That is all SO much more interesting. The PLAYERS are now interested in the treasure. Those items have some backstory, but you don’t even need that. A jar of saffron, or ANYTHING with an adjective attached is going to be much better than “gold necklace."

Home Fix
For my own home game, I keep an entire page of custom gemstones, jewelry, and art objects printed out and handy. I have another full of magic items. When I run across something boring in my DungeonWorld game I consult my chart and substitute. Much more interesting play then ensues.

I really like the Chaotic Shiny magic weapon generator. It generates lots of ideas for you to build something off of. Aidru came from there. Just hit the button enough times and something interesting will come out:

The same site has a nice Art Object generator.

Abufalia has generators for gemstones, jewelry, magic items, and just about everything else. If you can’t find some inspiration there then maybe you should be in a different profession?
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