One of the most common new DM mistakes is gifting the players too much treasure. I’ve often seen someone bemoaning high powered low level characters after they had too much magic heaped upon them. Its an easy thing to do, as giving a character a new toy makes the player momentarily happy. It hits that instant reward trigger that many MMORPGs rely upon.
When players are running around with Vorpal swords at level 3, however, the campaign can be quickly derailed and the intangible rewards you are giving to fictional characters being to lose their appeal. When they already have the best things, where do you go from there? How do you make appropriate encounters? The characters are still comparatively weak fleshy meat puppets, but they are walking around with cannons. It is not an easy mess to get out of.
One simple way to fix this is pacing. I’m not sure that anything substitutes for practice when it comes to figuring out how much is too much and how fast is too fast. The ability to pace any story, keeping it engaging enough for players while still giving respect to the build up, is a great skill to cultivate. There are also some other fixes we can discuss, however. One of them is secrets.
There are rewards for a character other than money, magic, and experience points. These are all fine things and they can serve to move the story along in their own way, but there is another delicious option that oozes with story telling possibility: information. When there is mystery and intrigue about, secrets can be more powerful than a thousand swords. If player’s find out a king is corrupt, there is all sorts of leverage they can now apply. What if they find out where all the undead in the woods are being created? They now have more power over the situation that they didn’t before. Of course, they might still have to figure out what to do about that source. The information can be parceled out in chunks, each piece being a new find for the players.
Call of Cthulhu excels in this. Their published adventures are chalk full of player handouts. There are things like old news paper clippings, photographs, or journals. These things aren’t powerful because they give the characters heavy fire power or a means to buy a kingdom. Handouts like that instead contain information about what the current situation really is and how it might be handled.
In a more fantasy oriented campaign, some examples of secrets might look like the following:
- A treasure chest is strangely empty of any traditional valuables. Instead, there is a single piece of parchment with a single sentence scrawled upon it: “There is no one left to tell I’m sorry.”
- Killing the raiders gets the PCs a handful of silver pieces and battered old weapons. One of them had a scroll on them, however. It was a letter of commission from a neighboring duke!
- An old journal tells the story of the ruins the party currently finds themselves in.
- A captured goblin tells a story of their chieftain, who has recently been having dreams of the player characters and hearing a voice urging them to kill.
- A foiled assassin reveals their employer was a local Inn Keeper. Perhaps she wasn’t just a simple Inn Keeper after all?
There are so many ways you can play with this. Giving out information like that gives players instant engagement in the story as, in a sense, they now own part of it. They are not more powerful in the traditional sense, sure. Kingdoms have been toppled by powerful enough secrets, however. What will your players do with theirs?
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