Evil GM Trick #28: Sure You Can Have That +12 Hackmaster
If there's one immutable law all GMs know, it’s that players love loot. Wizards love that uber wand of disintegration. Fighters want the +12 hackmaster. Street samurai want that move by wire 4. How do you give them what they want without losing game balance? Simple. Present it like an Evil GM.
Successful tricks harness your player's imagination converting it into your greatest weapon. The possibilities they conjure frighten them more than anything you come up with. They know what they'd hate and worry that's what you'll do. Trick #28 teaches you to tap into the power of anticipation. Your players will scare themselves into maintaining game balance.
Using this trick you can give your player the +5 sword and get away with it. All you have to do is taint that item. By taint I don't mean curse, because players hate curses. They find them restricting, annoying and frustrating. Taint is something they'll find more acceptable. Tainting an item makes them reluctant to use it, even though there is no obvious curse.
Taint is a mental aversion brought about by uncertainty.
So what's the difference between taint and a curse? Taint is a mental aversion brought about by uncertainty. Will this sword corrupt my character? A curse is an arbitrary rule or restriction placed on the item. If I pick up this sword I can't use any other until the curse is broken. Curses are generally obvious whereas taint, if done right, remains nebulous and mysterious. Now that we understand the difference how can we use this in a game?
Presentation, presentation, presentation. If you just give your warrior a +5 sword after he kills some goblins he'll neither value it, nor believe he's earned it. Players should work for loot that really matters. Below I describe the method I used to insert a powerful sword into a game. It was a +4 weapon given to a level 3 character. Crazy right? Not if you do it the right way.
Tell your players to create high-level versions of their characters. If Joe is playing a level 3 fighter tell him to make a 20th level fighter using his existing character as a template. Give them time to create these characters, but don't to tell them why. Their curiosity is the greatest tool in your arsenal, and they'll spend hours wondering why you asked them to do this. I gave my players two weeks, which gave me that long to heighten their anticipation.
They crafted endless theories on how the more powerful characters would be used. It’s important that you listen to these ideas, because some may be better than whatever you come up with. If one is better, steal it. Not only will the game be cooler, but the player who 'figured it out' will be pleased with himself because he was right. He never has to know you shaped the adventure to fit his idea.
Now you need to craft your adventure. Mine took place in a D&D 4th edition game when the players were 3rd level. They'd been contracted to clear out a mine infested by goblins, but the party's priest knew there was an ancient temple in or near the mine. They also knew at least one party of undead had been sighted in the area, but not how it connected to the mine or the temple.
Through some investigation they learned that the temple was run by a necromancer bent on raising an army of undead. He'd enslaved the goblins to mine steel so he could arm and equip his new troops. They also served as cover so the village remained unaware of the undead, because they'd assume anyone missing had been killed by the goblins.
After several battles the party freed the goblins who revealed the temple's location deep within the mine. They related harrowing tales of the necromancer and his seemingly endless army of undead. This was my second use of anticipation and I milked it for all it was worth. Was the necromancer powerful? How powerful? 5th level? 10th? Even if he wasn't there how were they going to deal with three hundred skeletons and zombies?
The more time passed without incident the thicker the tension became.
The trek into the depths of the mine was dark, spooky and filled with tension. By the time the players found the temple they'd terrified themselves, expecting something to jump out of every shadow. The more time passed without incident the thicker the tension became.
Eventually they made it down into the temple itself. Instead of finding the undead they stumbled into an empty chamber meant to house an army. The undead were gone. Where? Why? How had they gotten past the party without the party seeing them? These questions prompted a lengthy discussion. I sat by quietly while they freaked themselves out even more.
I left enough clues for the players to figure out what was going on. The only place the army could have gone was the village that had hired the party. The place knew nothing of the undead and would be slaughtered without help. Still, how did the undead leave the temple? The party had to explore the temple to find the answer.
During their exploration they discovered a large chamber with a magical circle covering the floor. A vivid portrait the party assumed must be the necromancer hung above the circle. On the far side of the room was a doorway leading to the necromancer's study. To reach the study they had to step inside the circle. They strongly suspected a trap, and they were right. When they crossed the threshold there was blinding flash and suddenly they were elsewhere.
This is where I finally inserted the higher-level characters. The party appeared in a swamp as older, stronger versions of themselves. They spent time meeting NPCs and figuring out both not just where but when they were. It turned out they were two decades in the future and had come to stop a dark god from being summoned through The Rent.
The players knew my game world well enough to recognize The Rent. Formed during the godswar it was a tear in reality leading to the hellish void outside the mortal plane. A peace loving race called the Vithee grew three magical groves to seal The Rent. The players had to protect the groves at all costs, because any god who escaped through The Rent would subjugate or destroy their world.
They'd failed and now the world was doomed.
One of the groves was under assault by an elder black dragon. Behind the dragon was a familiar figure, the necromancer from the painting in the temple. He wielded a powerful artifact blade which the party wizard identified as a focus needed to unravel the magical protection around the grove. After a titanic struggle the party killed the dragon, but they were too late. The necromancer breached the grove and destroyed the delicate magic sealing The Rent. They'd failed and now the world was doomed.
The evil god forced his way through The Rent alongside an army of demons. The party fought a running retreat against the demons saving as many people as they could. All sorts of fun details came to light from the people they saved. One PC was greeted by his children who'd come to fight along side him. Another was married to a woman he hated. Still another had a scar down the right side of his face, and was called teacher by many young swordsmen.
I gave them all sorts of fun tidbits to fuel their imagination. Could they prevent the future they'd seen? Who was the necromancer? Who was the dark god? How did the temple figure into things? How did one PC get married? How did another get that scar? When did the last have three children and with whom? These questions heightened their anticipation for the rest of the campaign.
I gained a whole slew of connections I could use later. For months I was able to include NPCs they'd met in the vision, and drop clues about how they could eventually stop the dark god destined to emerge in twenty years. This sort of involvement kept the characters at the edge of their seats, and brought them back every week for more.
All of this is well and good, but what does it have to do with giving my players powerful magic items? Don't worry I'm getting there. This is where I earned my pay as an evil GM.
When they returned to the magic circle I had one more bomb to drop. In the necromancer's study they discovered a journal detailing his plans for the village, several useful magic items and a very familiar sword. The artifact weapon the necromancer had been wielded to destroy the grove was propped up against one wall. It was a +4 sword with unknown powers. They used an Identify spell, but the blade revealed no obvious curse or down side.
The discussion that ensued was the stuff GMs pray for.
The discussion that ensued was the stuff GMs pray for. Should they use this sword? Bury it? Turn it over to a higher authority? Instead of the fighter gleefully snatching up a replacement for his +1 long sword he was leery about using it at all. That is what it means to taint an item. It takes the item from a dull prop to a vibrant part of your story. Every time the fighter drew his sword he expected something bad to happen, but it never did.
Through the course of my campaign the players had to answer many questions about the sword. How did the necromancer get it away from them? Was the sword cursed in some way? Could it corrupt the fighter? This provided dramatic tension and charged many of my adventures with excitement. Those same scenes would have been boring and flat without the tainted sword.
Nor is a sword the only object you can use this trick for. If you are playing Shadowrun maybe a PC finds a mysterious piece of experimental cyberware created by a nemesis. The cyberware will make him incredibly powerful but at what cost? Perhaps a wizard finds an ancient spell book written on human flesh and inked in blood. The spells it contains are highly useful and ones he wants to learn. Again, at what cost?
Introducing tainted items to your game can shift the power level, but that's ok. What you gain more than makes up for it. Giving your players powerful items or spells will make them succeed more often. Most players enjoy being powerful, and this is one way you satisfy craving. You've also created a vibrant backdrop in which to tell your stories. Players appreciate attention to detail, and six sessions from now when you finally answer a question about the magic sword they'll love you for it.
So there you have it. With the right presentation you can give your player characters just about any item regardless of power level. Just make sure you weave that item into the story. Instead of a magic sword give them a weapon prophesied to stop the dark lord, but one that may be just as dangerous to its wielder. Bring that weapon or spell book or cyberware to life! If you do it right your players will talk about your game for years.