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Situation: the campaign deals around the players lugging around a plot-important artifact that makes the user significantly more powerful than their peers (like the Rod of Seven Parts, a fragment of the Power Cosmic, the Anti-Cthulhu Amulet, a Bolter used by the Emperor himself at one point and still bears part of His essence, the Boots of Infinite Asskickings: just name something). Are there any ways I can have the other players not lag behind?

Sure, I could give them stuff that puts them on the same power level, but that might end up with negating the big deal that the artifact is. So how do I go about doing this?

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Are you concerned about the characters being mechanically mismatched, or about the players feeling left out? –  BESW Jul 13 at 0:34
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While the issue is system-agnostic in the sense that multiple systems could use the advice, the kind of system matters a great deal. No different tagging needed, I think, but if you could edit your system/edition into the body of the question it'd help ensure that you get applicable answers (I'd give a totally different answer for DFRPG, D&D 4e, or Doctor Who, and a proper Cthulhuian artefact might be something everyone else is happy not to have). –  BESW Jul 13 at 0:42

4 Answers 4

up vote 29 down vote accepted

There is a really awesome example of how to do this, right in the classic Fantasy canon: Frodo and the Ring. Frodo holds the One Ring, and it has what is - for the setting - an extremely powerful magical effect. And yet the Fellowship of the ring still feels powerful and important. I'm going to try and break down why that's the case, and hopefully this will help you in your campaign (I can't be super specific to your situation because you haven't really specified what your specific item does).

The wielder of the artifact must be protected

Frodo has the one ring, and he is in fact the only person who can bear it. But physically, he's probably the weakest member of the group. He contributes minimally in combat, and his stamina is less than legendary. Plus, every evil creature in the world wants to kill him and take his shiny. As a result, he spends a lot of time being carried and defended by other characters.

Frodo is still a potent and interesting character - a lot of the narrative is his struggle with the force within the ring - but he doesn't overshadow the other characters because the fact that he has the artifact gives them something to do, too. Without orcs and Nazgul chasing Frodo wherever he went, when would Legolas ever get to use his bow? Frodo's special trinket makes his companions more important, not less important.

To apply this to your campaign, make sure the artifact is not a magical swiss-army knife that can solve every problem. It can instantly win some conflicts, sure - Frodo gets out of a few jams with his invisibility - but it shouldn't explicitly replace any of the other roles in the party. If you haven't given the artifact to the party yet, and you still have time to design it, I suggest making it something that plays on or complements the abilities of the character holding it, rather than giving them new and unrelated abilities.

Using the artifact has consequences ... for everyone in the group

Not only does donning the One Ring sap Frodo's life force, it tells Sauron exactly where he is. And where he is, his friends are too. Suddenly a world of pain is dropping on their heads, and it's all his fault. If you implement a similar consequence in your game, it does two things: It creates story opportunities for the whole party every time the item gets used, and it gives the party an incentive to actively discourage the use of the item. This creates a really interesting dynamic which will definitely not be boring for anybody involved.

I ran a campaign a few years ago where this exact situation came up. The party had discovered a magic gem which contained an imprsoned god of chaos, and it naturally granted some crazy bonuses. They were spellcasting and concentration bonuses, so naturally the Sorcerer grabbed the gem for himself. Over the following weeks, the gem began to speak to him in his sleep, promising him greater bonuses if he were to cut out his own eye and replace it with the gem. He began to talk with the gem every night, discussing its offer and plotting to kill the rest of the party. The party got wind of this, and had to subdue him and destroy the gem, in a climactic battle atop an active volcano. Easily one of the most memorable sessions of the campaign, and it happened as a result of the introduction of a superpowered item.

TL;DR: Make sure the item has a specific effect with consequences for use, and use the item's presence to involve the rest of the party in a story where they all have roles.

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Give the item a support effect

Give the artifact a support power which doesn't make (just) the wielder more powerful, but which buffs the whole party. That way everyone becomes more powerful and the wielder doesn't stand out that much.

This can either be a passive effect, or an active effect the wielder has to activate manually. I would recommend the latter, because with passive bonuses, the group can easily forget where they come from and the item will not really feel significant.

Give the item a disadvantage

The item does something extremely overpowered, but when the wielder makes use of the item, setting-appropriate bad stuff happens to them. In a darker setting, the item could be cursed or possessed. A benevolent enchantment can also have negative side-effects: A lowly guardsman using the Emperors holy bolter might be so overwhelmed by the experience that they spend the next few hours in a meditative trance and unable to interact with their environment.

That way the wielder will only use the item when desperate and the other characters will still be able to shine in more mundane encounters.

Give the item an effect which is highly situation-dependent

The artifact does something which is extremely useful in a specific situation, but is quite useless most of the time. The Anti-Cthulhu amulet, for example, will be critical when the party faces Cthulhu, but would do nothing against his minions.

The wielder will shine when this situation occurs, but won't overshadow the rest of the party in all other situations.

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Once every X usage

"It can only be used once a year". "It can only be used once every 100 days" etc. Still gives the wielder an uber thing... but a limited uber thing. Given how limited it is, it becomes a party decision to try to figure out when to use it and for what best effect. Because the user can't just use it all the time, in every session, it allows you to look at other ways to spread the spotlight around.

"It will cost you, permanently"

Lose a level. Lose permanent stats. Etc. Again, the wielder is only going to use it if they absolutely have to. So it becomes less of a step up and more of an act of desperation.

"It will take time to use"

"It's going to take a week to set up the ritual", "This is going to take 18 hours" etc. Logistically, a giant pain the ass. Again, probably going to take the whole party just to keep the thing safe while it does what it does.

Non-simulating rules

So, why is the uber thing uber in your game? Oh, because the mechanics give it uber stats that allow a character wielding it a big bonus over everything else. But if you're playing games where the actual mechanical power isn't invested in the "power of the characters or their devices", but rather, narrative distribution, suddenly the God King with the Super Item is on the same level of story input as the Little Wee Hobbit Bumpkin, even though one can narrate doing Epic things and the other can just manage by.

Games like Primetime Adventures, Universalis, 1001 Nights, FATE, allow for stuff like this, and these mirror adventure fiction better when you do have uber macguffins but those aren't actually the determinant of the way the story goes.

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Split the Magical doodad into Multiple parts

Have each person in your group receive a piece of the Magical doodad. Each piece confers different benefits, when each person grabs it, it's locked to their character and they cannot change it for another part of the mystical doodad. Give each piece an effect that when wielded separately they don't do much ( Minor stat bonus, boost to attack rolls, etc. ) but when combined the BIG effect occurs.

Huge ridiculous explosion, beam of piercing light that blows a hole in the big bad's chest, a chilling effect which fills the entire room with ice when fighting the giant fire elemental, A shining barrier which nullifies the dragons breath in the nick of time and seals a dragons breath weapon, etc.

The effect of the doodad is dependent on your campaign and what scale you want the artifact to have. When dealing with the combination in combat make each person have to take an action in combat to combine their piece of the artifact with the others ( A knowledge check or intelligence check will suffice )

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