# How to introduce item descriptions

One of the things that I dislike when running a session is how a great majority of the items are bland - a short sword is a short sword, a bow is a bow, an arrow is an arrow.

After sitting on it for some time, I decided that the problem doesn't lie in my inability to come up with items with interesting characteristics, but with the fact that the more sophisticated the item ,the longer it takes for players to write it down and the more of a problem it poses later. Sure, I can say:

You find a beautifully crafted sword. The pommel was crafted from a single raw turquoise; the golden hilt is inscribed with letters that form the word "FATE" on one side and "NIGHT" on the other. When you hold it in your hands, the slightly curved blade with irregular fuller slightly glows with a blue light, which gets brighter as you move the sword. Now, write it down!

A smart player would most likely just write Sabre, turq gem pommel, FATE & NIGHT on hilt, blade glow blue in hand, but it still is half a minute (or more) wasted for writing the description of an item which, quite likely, will be sold in a few hours. This would work if it was only employed rarely, but every item you find has its own unique characteristics and I would like to use it more often: this plate mail has lots of dents and has blood on the inside, that knife has a rabbit paw hanging from the hilt, those swords have a cross-guard shaped like wolves chasing each other.

Actually, players writing the descriptions by themselves also creates a problem - more than once, they neither could decipher their own writing nor interpret it correctly, and we had to spend time trying to understand what exactly a given item does.

One solution for this problem I had in mind was to prepare items on small, rectangular pieces of paper (kind of like cards, but not made of cardboard or rigid paper) with the item name and a short description. My players deemed it a bad idea, because such cards are hard to manage.

Lately, I am using a different tactic - I write down on a piece of paper all the items I know the players are going to get at any given moment and then give this piece of paper to them, though I haven't yet used it for items with descriptions. They can keep these pieces of paper for the session and later copy what is left to their character sheets.

Do you know any good ways or tricks on how to introduce more depth to items to the campaign in such a way that they would be quick to record and, easy to decipher? By quick to record I mean the players don't have to write down anything beside the name during the session, and by easy to decipher that players after few sessions won't look at the item and think "Is this dm+1, or olmit, or what the funk does it mean?"

In case of doubt: Not where to get inspiration for descriptions, but how to make them a part of the whole campaign, so they are written down somewhere and players can reference them in the inventory.

• Why would the sword in your example (the fate/night saber) likely be sold in a few hours? – Joe Oct 31 '11 at 23:26
• Taking example of DnD, only better or plot-specific items don't end up being sold, at least by my players. This example was kind inspired by DnD so that's why. – Maurycy Oct 31 '11 at 23:36
• Do people usually sell off items in D&D? That's not something we've ever really done in the gaming group I'm with, but I don't know if that's common or not. – Joe Oct 31 '11 at 23:38
• It is kind of popular in my group... I mean it was when we were still playing DnD, as we are off to different shores now. – Maurycy Oct 31 '11 at 23:54

Handing out a card with the item details at the moment of discovery during play is a great start.

If the players end up keeping the item, email the description to the player and add the item to the wiki. If they need to look it up, all my players have smartphones at this point and can retrieve it quickly enough.

Aside: One issue with a wiki is getting the players to use it. If you aren't convinced that the other players will touch it, at least put your own notes on it.

• If the players just don't want to keep track of items no matter what you try, you've got a couple options: 1. Stop giving them special items, 2. If the players can't keep track of it, have the characters lose it. – okeefe Oct 29 '11 at 14:42
• I actually thought about writing the description on the card, which would be more in harmony with us. Also I don't think a wiki would work with us, most likely I'd be the only one visiting and updating it. – Maurycy Oct 29 '11 at 15:35
• In Icar (free Sci Fi RPG), all items that are complex (weapons, space craft, vehicles) get a hand out. Then the player only has to annotate the things that are slightly different. I find this a great way for players to get attached to items because they have a physical presence at the table. Get a free copy of the index here: docs.google.com/… – Dr Rob Lang Oct 30 '11 at 11:51
1. details on cards. This means having the card is having the item.
2. play a system which makes various versions relevant. Tunnels and Trolls comes to mind... there are a dozen kinds of distinct short swords.
3. make cultural variations unsaleable. That Orc Shortsword should be sold as scrap value, not shortsword value. The elven longsword with the song inscribed should be worth more as it's a work of art.
This encourages players to note the origins, at least, a small step. If every elven sword has a poem, they need only note "elven, song of Bala" or "elven, tale of Elrond"
• Regarding #2 - not necessarily need to play such system, as it wouldn't be difficult to make it work in, for example, DnD 3.5 or any other system where a short sword is nothing more than a short sword... yet! I especially like point #3, as it is again something I didn't think of and a very nice touch. – Maurycy Oct 29 '11 at 22:04
• In D&D, there is little room to differentiate a gladius from a townsword, let alone the 12 various shortswords in T&T. Burning Wheel has even LESS mechanical room. Meanwhile, T&T players brag about optimizing their swords for their characters... – aramis Oct 29 '11 at 23:31
• Well obviously some systems will be more fledged in this situation than others. Nevertheless DnD has some fancy rules for item damaging and material from which items are made - this alone allows you to throw around some numbers, damage and attack modifiers, critical hit range modifiers, weapon resistance to being damaged. You can let weapons have some visible flaws, because of which the weapon has 10% of breaking in half on attack attempt. I don't know T&T battle system so I can't compare, but that doesn't change the fact that the possibilities exist, you just need to see them. – Maurycy Oct 29 '11 at 23:41
• @MaurycyZarzycki DriveThruRPG.com has the T&T free rulebook available. It will teach you all you need to know about T&T's battle system. – aramis Oct 30 '11 at 7:41
• Thanks, I will gladly look at it, nevertheless I am not planning on changing systems. My players and I are so far addicted of the gritty realism from The Riddle of Steel. – Maurycy Oct 30 '11 at 7:48

There's nothing you can do to avoid item descriptions taking game time except by making items unimportant. The time you take is a trade-off: either items are interesting and are an exciting part of the game and therefore deserve (and require) that you devote appropriate time to them during play, or you can make items uninteresting and avoid spending much time on them.

After all, what you spend time on during the game makes the game what it is.

I'm going to assume that, since you're putting this much energy into items, you want items to be important to players. I'll tackle making them important first, and second I'll get into the matching techniques for conveying their descriptions and making players' notes useful.

If you want players to take items seriously and invest their own roleplaying energy in them, give items enough screen time and use that screen time well:

1. Make their descriptions interesting, detailed, and varied. Nobody is interested in repetition.
2. Make sure that there are not so many items that they become commonplace. There are only so many things that can hold a player's attention during play, and sixteen different items with detailed descriptions will make them stop paying attention to items – when you have a wealth of intricate items, a new item means a lot less when you only have two interesting items already. (If you are playing a game that requires lots of "special" items, you may have to accept that they will be treated as commonplace by your players – which they are.)
3. Keep employing your craft as GM while describing the item. Your job as GM is not just turning the crank on the rules, but also stagecraft and drama. Just because you're describing an small brass ever-burning lantern doesn't mean you should take a break from using pacing and audience-management skills. Put as much work into creating an engaging moment when introducing the lantern as you would when describing the group's first sight of the hellish fumes and gouts of flame issuing from the cratered lands around the dragon's lair. Make the time spent on describing the item count.
4. Don't rely on the players to record the item accurately. Either your description will engage them or it won't. Good note-taking won't do anyone any good unless the player already cares about the item – and if they do care, their notes aren't going to be necessary for them to remember what it is. (This goes hand-in-hand with (2) above: if there are few enough items, and they're engaged already from (3), players will know what awesome things they have as well as they know their characters' names.)

(1) means that the items will be interesting as an object in the world, more than just a line on a character sheet. (2) means that the bookkeeping for items will be minimised because there just won't be many to track, and players will be interested enough that it won't go straight though their heads and onto into their notes without them paying attention. (3) is necessary to make the time you spend on item descriptions a worthwhile use of game time.

Finally, (4) is the whole point of (1)-(3). By treating items this way, you no longer have to worry about players' notes being indecipherable or incomplete, because much of the important knowledge about the items will be in their heads. They will know exactly what dm+1 means, because the notes will only be an (possibly completely unnecessary) aide to memory instead of a dumping ground for "yet another magic sword" that they don't care about.

While employing this treatment of items, the easiest way to handle them logistically is:

• Maintain a detailed entry on the item in your notes. Include the item's physical description, everything it can do, history (if applicable), and most importantly your added notes during play about where the PCs found it, what they did with it, and who has it now. If your players ever can't read their own notes, you can help them out with this. And because of the techniques above they shouldn't ever completely forget what it is, just a few details. Whether on paper or note cards, make them organised and give yourself lots of room to add to the notes as the item gains history or changes hands during the game.
• Encourage your players to keep item notes on a separate sheet. Character sheets are cramped and leave little room for good notes. Avoid illegible notes for items by making sure players have the space as well as time to make their notes useful. It's not much more effort for the players to do, but unless you provide this guidance the players are likely to choose expediency when taking notes (i.e., quick scribbles in the margins of their character sheet) at the sacrifice of making them useful for the future. Make sure there is lots of blank paper for them, and remind them to take the time to use it.
• Optionally, create a key that can link your notes and the players' notes. Adding a serial number to an item in your notes allows you to give that to your player when they've finished making their notes during the game, ensuring that no matter how much time passes and no matter how much is forgotten, you'll be able to remind players that item B31 is a pair of well-worn but sturdy boots worked in richly-dyed red leather and stamped with the sigil for "flame soul" (which your notes indicates are a pair of boots that protect the wearer from flames).

This isn't the One True Way to handle special items. However, when you want players to care about individual items it's one method that goes a long way toward making special items special to the players again, instead of just to the GM. And that, more than anything else, will make the entire group enjoy the first sight of an item and make them memorable enough that they will survive in your players heads no matter how bad your notes system fails. To this day my players remember items had by their characters from several campaigns and years ago, because they had become well-loved parts of the characters and not just notes lost in a pile of notes about a pile of loot.

• Just to make sure I wasn't misunderstood in the question - I have nothing against item descriptions taking time, I only referred to the fact that after the item appears players take time to write it down which boggles down the moment a bit. Aaand players don't like to have to write too much. Nevertheless great advice (as always) which made me question my Game Mastering skills to be honest. – Maurycy Nov 1 '11 at 10:20
• The gist is that writing it down can be made part of the excitement of the game so that it doesn't count as "bogging down" anymore. One of the things I've been learning lately is that rushing past the slow parts of play to get to the good parts somehow makes the good parts work less well. There's something about rushing past slow parts that can be worse than having the game bog down, but it's not always true and I haven't figured out yet what makes it so. This advice is in large part inspired by that. Relaxing and letting the game take the time it takes is sometimes the cure. – SevenSidedDie Nov 1 '11 at 16:18
• Yea, I can't disagree with you. My main concern with them writing things down is still the fact, that they quite own just scribble some illegible or out of context notes which one, two, three, four sessions later require our whole group to unify their brain cells in order to decipher the writing. As for slowdowns making game better - for a quick I'd guess it is that players need some time to "parse" or "digest" the good moments, and so the slowdowns are useful; a constant stream of action will quickly become monotonous. – Maurycy Nov 11 '11 at 10:12
• It might help then to focus on making them use a separate sheet (so they're not cramming it into a small spot in the character sheet), and using an index tag to identify the item. Just confirm that the tag is legible, and you'll never lose its description. Alternatively, they could be more careful when writing! My old GM had a rule—if it's not on your sheet, including if you can't read it, then you lost the item sometime past. We were very careful writing down treasure. – SevenSidedDie Nov 11 '11 at 18:04

Invade player autonomy just a little and describe how the PC feels when first seeing and handling the item. Try to connect to the PC to avoid the most boring cliches.

E.g.: Your eye is drawn to the short sword. It looks Lunar army issue; it's seen battle but is fairly unremarkable except for some curious regular notches made along the blade.

And then: As a Humakti, you feel respect for this weapon as you spend some time handling it. You can see it has seen much use, and you feel it has killed many times. Though no doubt a Lunar, you hope its last wielder died with honour. You wonder why the sword of someone who seems to have been such a superior soldier would be so unremarkable in construction.

This sets up the idea that the sword is worthy of investigation, without having some random inscriptions and gems for them to memorise. The invasion of player autonomy means that you can drop unsubtle hints such as, the Humakti feels it is disrespectful to leave the sword like this.

• I am pretty sure it fits more as "How to describe" rather than "How to introduce descriptions" but nevertheless it is a great piece of advice and something I wouldn't have thought, at least not to such extent! – Maurycy Oct 29 '11 at 16:46
• @Maurycy: The last paragraph does address the quick to remember bit a little. I guess I could generalise the advice to say that I think that if descriptions are centered more in narrative than in features it makes them easier to fit in the game. And if your plot requires that the players need to remember things, the easiest thing is for you to drop hints. I know that as a player I can be incredibly obtuse sometimes. – Alticamelus Oct 29 '11 at 17:31
• true, though that's because I didn't know how to better phrase what I had in mind with few words. I changed it to Quick to Record as I think this is closer. My bad, sorry! – Maurycy Oct 29 '11 at 19:39

Play in a system without standardized magic items. When anything interesting or unusual needs to be described, the GM will get used to giving detail to everything, and the PCs have no idea what might be magical or not. In retrospect, the +1 ideal hurt this part of the game. Also, leave lots of variation in the items or such. (armor page, example)

Have multiple item and material variations. We use Asselwood, Ironwood, Blacksteel, Meteoric iron, Ambretton Brass, Ambretton Steel, Omnian steel, Dragonhide steels, Charsteel, Coldsteel, and White Iron (off the top of my head) that overturn player's idea's that a "normal" items is ignorable. (Our materials index is here).

Create lots of non-standard magic items or improved variations on standard ones. Once you include the Roasting pan of Cooking (+11% to mass cooking skill) made of meteoric iron and engraved with sigils for "pineapple" on the curlicued handles, everything becomes an item of interest.

Include links to how things look. (e.g. Gimp armor.) Better the cards, this can be reviewed by the PC at will, and provides a good visual.

There are two parts to an items description, the game affects and the narrative effects. Game effects are best dealt with using handouts as suggested above.

Narrative description will give the players a feel for the weapon. For example:

• A gleaming short sword that has never tasted Orc blood.
• A much loved short sword with nicked blade and worn handle. Someone love this sword very much.

The player will latch onto these properties for narrative effect, rather than game effect. The player may feel worse for losing a sword that was clearly loved throughout its life than something that was brand new.