A while back, SlyFlourish dropped a little piece of advice on his Twitter feed. Instead of just dropping basic items, give them a name. Something fun that players can dig into and build off of.
At the time, I thought it was an interesting idea, so I tried it. I gave an old sword the name “OATH” and immediately, the players were more intrigued by it. A random loot roll turned into a story of a fallen elf who had abandoned his home in order to regain his family’s honor. All from a name.
It wasn’t until recently, that I connected the dots that I’ve already been doing that kind of thing with TAGS.
If you’re not familiar with them already, TAGS are little keywords that add narrative details to pretty much anything. LOOT, NPCs, Monsters, Places, etc… In ICRPG CORE you could see the basic weapons all had a few TAGS and that helped each stand out when most of them were all rolling WEAPON EFFORT. A few words added variety without adding a mess of mechanics. Let me give you an example.
I printed out three identical long sword cards that I could easily give to my players. “You get a sword! You get a sword! Everyone gets a sword!”
Using the WEAPON TAGS list in CORE, I chose three tags for each of them. I tried to build the narrative themes of each one, but I definitely could have rolled for them randomly. It would have made for a very odd sword, but that would have been part of the fun, right?
In the end, I ended up with the following swords:
- SWORD ONE: Expensive, Lightweight, Silver
- SWORD TWO: Alien, Piercing, Volatile
- SWORD THREE: Nasty, Smashes Armor, Sturdy
And the question becomes “What is the story behind these swords?”
Sword One: The Display Sword
From these TAGS, this sounds like a sword made for display. Not use. It’s covered in gems and the blade is coated in silver plating. It may look good, but it would never really see any battle. But then there’s that lightweight tag. You’d expect something silver and gold to be heavy. Is the craftsmanship so good that it remains light as a feather? Or could it be fake that’s only coated in these precious things to drive up the price and scam unsuspecting adventurers from their hard-earned loot?!
Sword Two: The Ecto Blade
Three very different tags paint a very different picture. Alien makes me think that sword is made of strange materials or has strange markings, unfamiliar to even the most learned scholar. I imagine that it glows green. Piercing makes me think that it isn’t made for slashing and the blade is thin like a rapier’s. Then we’ve got volatile. One of my favorite tags. On a critical fail, something has to happen. Maybe it explodes or cracks to release that internal energy. Or maybe it sends the wielder into the astral plane to face the wraiths that follow the blade around.
Sword Three: The Shredder
Almost like the antithesis to the first sword, we’ve got The Shredder. A sword of thick, strong iron. There is no crisp edge on this thing. It’s broken and tears flesh more than it cuts. Any armor that is unfortunate enough to try and withstand this blade is smashed and torn away from its wearer while it damages them, even when it doesn’t hit. That Sturdy tag probably means it can be used for more than just sword work. Maybe it’s armor unto itself? Whatever it is, you’ve got to be strong to wield this thing.
And there you go! Three identical swords turned into three unique items with a few simple TAGS. And most of that is all narrative detail. From there, you can further expand on the specific mechanics to create items I’m sure any player would love. And you’re not limited to swords. Try this out with your next set of NPCs, places, or monsters, and see what you come up with.