The other day my charge and I were at the park, and he found a feather. Fascinated with its softness and delicacy, he took it home and played with it for hours. Despite having lots of toys and movies available, the feather was his treasure. He asked me all kinds of questions about it. Why was it structured the way it was? How did it help birds fly? What kind of bird was it from? Some I had answers for, and some I didn’t. But it got me thinking about treasure. Treasure’s a component of most rpgs, but with leveling and the quest for ever better gear, it can be hard to make treasure meaningful. There’s a point where it loses its wonder and becomes a pile of shiny numbers with which to destroy one’s enemies. Today I want to look at some ways to recapture that wonder.
The obvious way to do get your players to pay attention to the treasure is to tell a story about it, but that’s not good advice. There are a lot of stories you can tell, and lots of ways to do it. The first thing to figure out is what you want the treasure to do. How should it affect the players, and their characters? Find a feeling that you want to associate with it, whether that’s wonder, pride, horror, sadness, etc. That’s where the story can start. Having the last Hattori Hanzo sword invokes feelings of humility and pride, while the icy grip of Frostmourne fills one with dread. When you make treasure meaningful, you’re not just giving them an item, but that feeling. That’s where your story starts.
Give the object a name, one that reflects the feeling you’re trying to get, but isn’t too on the nose. Preserve some of that mystery. The Sword of Sadness is boring, but Mercy’s Edge can say the same thing when the player learns that it weeps when it kills. Giving players something to call it by encourages them to refer to it as something other than “My sword”. Make sure you use it too, in descriptions of actions or what have you, because your use of the name lends legitimacy to it. It says “This is not an ordinary sword. This is the Three-Hooked Giant Slayer.” The real trick to it is that this works just fine with ordinary swords and items. Add a few elements to the item that fit the theme, and suddenly it stands out.
Once it has a name, give it an origin. This is straightforward, but the challenge lies in how to use the origin. If it’s an info dump of exposition, it will all be forgotten in due course. On the other hand, if it’s a single mysterious mark, it’ll also be forgotten. You have to get them to care about the history of the item, or its creator, without necessarily relying on them doing it automatically or trying to force caring through exposition. the best way I’ve found of doing this is by having other characters take an interest in it. When you buy a new car or guitar, or pair of shoes, and someone comments on them, how do you feel? Maybe they talk about the designer, or have a little piece of trivia about it. That’s the feeling you want your players to have. It pulls the object into the foreground again, and says “This is a thing that matters.”
Because that’s the real trick to it. In order for the items to be meaningful, you have to give them meaning. You have to make them a part of the setting, in the same way that the NPCs are. You want the players to develop a relationship with them, because if they have that relationship it’s not just an item, it’s an adventure. These are the things they’re finding anyway, so why not make them special, and develop the fascination with them, whether it’s a sword or a feather?
With all of that said, be prepared for some items to get left behind, and avoid trying too tie every one of them into a world-spanning story. There’s only so much your players can handle and, at the end of the day, it’s just a feather. Eventually it goes on a shelf, and is forgotten until someone digs it up. But each feather, stone, and sword is an opportunity to connect the players and the PCs with the setting, and create relationships that might never have existed. Once they realize that every item is an opportunity, they’ll be the ones asking the questions, and you can recapture that sense of wonder. Post your item stories in the comments!