Last week, I wrote about asking “Why is this here?” as you develop an adventure or campaign. Asking “why” can often lead us to “What’s it for?” Understanding, “what” can often help us to answer “why.”
People rarely expend resources to make something for its own sake. Even in such a case, the act of creation and the emotional experience of doing so provides the purpose of the thing.
As many others before me have noted, “sword +1” isn’t a very interesting object. To a first level adventurer who anticipates fighting a wight, such an item will hold great value. A “sword +1” doesn’t get the blood up for us jaded old timers. What we want is something unique; something curious.
Something I wrote about a while ago but haven’t mentioned in some time is the concept of embedded story. I use this term to describe the stories that sit in the background of my campaign or adventure scenario. Instead of telling a long background story or having a hyperlinked wiki page my players are expected to read through, I give them micro-exposition.
A magic sword can tell a story about the setting or the adventure location where the players find it.
What makes sword+1 boring is that it has no obvious story. It is a modifier to a die roll. It doesn’t inspire any emotional response.
A Sword is an Investment
A sword is a handmade object. In the pre-industrial world, a single sword was a major undertaking.
Most soldiers and warriors in the olden days carried a spear or an axe. These were much easier to make and did not require near the quantity of material or skill to produce. We ignore the fact that having even the most simple sword was a status item in the ancient and medieval world.
It took hundreds of labor hours to collect the ore, mine the coal or make the charcoal needed for the carbon to infuse into the steel. It took hundreds of hours of labor to smelt the the ore. It took hundreds of hours of labor for a highly skilled weaponsmith with years of training and experience to make the sword.
Each sword has many stories embedded in its making. The story of where the iron came from. The stories of the people who were involved in it’s making.
Consider that a magic sword will require special material components, weeks or months of incantations and effort of a skilled wizard with a lab and ritual space. A magic sword should be something very special indeed.
What problem was the creator trying to solve?
If I’m going to commit to the idea that a magic sword ought to be something special that requires rare materials, rare skills, and incredible amounts of effort to make; then I need to consider that nobody is going to make it for shits and giggles. No one is going to put that kind of effort into it without a real problem to solve.
What problem was the wizard trying to address?
Orcist, one of the swords found in the troll hoard of The Hobbit, was made by elven smiths of the first age for killing orcs. It has the same property as Sting, it glows when orcs are nearby. It’s legend strikes fear into the goblins of the Misty Mountains.
In the first age when Orcrist was made, orcs were a big problem. The smiths made it specifically for the royalty of Gondolin to fight orcs. Here we have a bit of story expressed in a tiny bit of exposition.
Why Leads to What and Back Again
Why and What work as part of a loop.
Why did they make this thing?
If I know why they did it, then I can start to brainstorm about what they did to solve the problem and give the items interesting properties.
My definition of magic: A force that alters reality in ways that can’t be achieved by normal means.
I need to know when orcs are around? How about a sword that glows.
I want to avoid death. I can split my soul into parts, embed the pieces of my soul into objects, hide them in dangerous places and place terrible guardians and traps to protect the soul bits.
Sometimes I’ll get an idea for something but haven’t come up with the “why?” of it. A little thought about the “what” usually leads me back to the “why” and then I can start putting things into context.
What’s It For? Works for Everything
Anytime you are creating an object or place for your campaign or adventure and get stuck, ask “What’s it for?”
We need to warn people there is a mighty falls up ahead so they know to get off the river. I know, let’s build some giant statues of ancient kings holding their hands out as if to say “Stop!”
It is important for the continuity of the kingdom that we sacrifice war prisoners to the gods. I know, let’s build a step pyramid with a temple at the top where we decapitate our prisoners so the gods know how much we love them.
Humans have built some incredible architectural structures for a variety of reasons. Appealing to the gods for aid, moving vast armies, providing a place for the king to reside in the afterlife, proclaiming the power of the empire, entertaining the masses, hiding from enemies, preserving food are just some of the reasons these things have been built. You can use some of these concepts when deciding on how to make a unique adventure location.
What’s it for?