What’s in their Pockets? Part 2

I wanted to continue my article on “What’s in their Pockets?” based on some discussions and feedback from readers of my blog.  Here are some more thoughts:

  1. It’s Not For Everyone: If your heroes wade deep into battle and slay a troop of twenty orcs, you wouldn’t want to put different significant things on each of the dead.  Consider the dead to be an entity and they find much the same sort of thing on them all, be it the same unholy symbol, the same tattoos from the Spice Islands, or the same scarring from a specific plague that ravaged the orc tribes ten years before.  And sometimes minions are nothing more than faceless ‘stormtroopers’.  That’s okay as long as not every enemy is faceless.
  2. The Plot Clue Bat: One of the most important ways to use Pocket Items is to give our heroes an important clue.  Were the soldiers carrying elven gifts betraying an alliance with the elves?  Did one of them have a tactical map of what their group was assigned to do?  Perhaps not all of them were soldiers and you find evidence of other professions on some of the less well armed and trained: papers and books on a scribe or pleader, maps on a scout, etc.  It is an efficient and effective way to hit your players upside the head with the Plot Clue Bat.
  3. Red Herrings and Bad Fish: Sometimes the lead you plant in their personal effects is a distraction or actual false lead planted by the enemy.  Be very careful with this one.  If your group is very attentive and engaged in the campaign, a false trail once in awhile makes them more cautious about the clues they do get.  But if your group is more distracted, you may not want to confuse things with false information.  Sometimes it’s hard enough to get them to grasp the straight-forward clues.
  4. Filling in the Story: D&D is a game where advancement, acquisition of wealth and magic are core parts of the game part of it.  Other genres and other systems aren’t focused like that and either focus on characters (like Serenity RPG/Cortex Engine) or stories more than the mechanics of the Heroic Path.  Minor Pocket Items will have more significance in those latter games.  In D&D, if it isn’t money or magic, it had better clearly be a clue or it will be dismissed as dungeon dressing.  Of course, this is a generalization, but the point is valid.  What is the heart of the game you’re playing and are little clues given importance.
  5. Wink, Wink, Nudge, Nudge: When you start trying to add more Pocket Items, be pretty clear about what is important in what they find.  Help your players learn your style with this new information.  It’s fairly easy to breeze through descriptions of minor things but then pay more ‘screen time’ to the item that is the clue.  Think about it in a movie: the hero would spot the clue right away.
  6. Run With It: If the Pocket Items that you use are too interesting, your players might go off on a tangent trying to figure out the mystery of why an orc commander had a tattoo from the Angel Guard on his neck.  If you have a pretty open-ended game, run with it.  If you’re trying to keep them in a particular adventure that has a distinct direction (if not openly linear), then make sure your Pocket Items aren’t too juicy or you de-emphasize them in the descriptions.
  7. Not Just Items: To be clear, not all things in this category are actually items that fit in pockets or pouches.  They can be tattoos, missing digits or ears, brands, disease-scarring, and minor variances on racial telltales.  These can telegraph where the dead came from, who they swore allegiance to, or what their life experiences were.

Kudos to Jeff Rees and Jim Dugger for contributing to these suggestions.

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