I am currently working in my first D&D 5e campaign and I feel confident enough to the point where I will make a custom world with lore written by me. The idea is basically a world that is supposedly in the medieval era when it comes to technology, but in reality, when the players start exploring the world and the like, they will start finding clues that... perhaps there were some more advanced civilizations before them (Basically, a civilization that had proper guns between others)

Here's the thing and the point of my question, I want to be able to describe items that people wouldn't know that they are what they are, but without giving away what the item is, say, describing a broken syringe as a "Strange glass tube with a needle" kind of gives the item away, you know, keep the mystery of items, make even the most common items like a broken syringe as exciting as finding a gun, having it the entire time without knowing what it is and only to then find out it's an actual gun and using it in a peaking and exciting manner.

Does anyone happen to have dealt with this? How can I describe these objects without totally giving away what those are?


5 Answers 5


Describe the items cryptically

I agree with @NathanS' solution, which is to rely on the players' ability to have their player recognise the item without their character sharing that knowledge. If you describe an item accurately, this is an outcome you have to assume will eventually happen.

The only alternative to that is to describe it in such a way that is accurate, but which still prevents the player from recognising the item. (You can't outright lie or refuse to answer player questions about the item, not fairly anyway.)

Essentially, what you want is to make the description a puzzle, a riddle. You want to leave out information now, then provide the key to the mystery later on when the player should recognise the item.

  • Part of the item is missing. (A glass tube with a hole in the end.)
  • The item is disassembled. (A bunch of metal parts. Must be from some old tools, collected for scrap.)
  • The item is in an unusual orientation. (A metal pipe, presumably for tobacco. It has a wooden handle at the top end and a hook to hang it on a shelf.)
  • Part of the item is obscured. (It's large and buried partially underground.)
  • The item is described in unfamiliar mediaeval terms, or using incorrect assumptions common to the people of that world. (This cloth is waterproof. I got it from an elf trader who thinks it's some kind of linen treated with wax or oil.)
  • The item is described in a cryptic way that nobody in the real world thinks of it, but which will make sense once you know what the item is. (A black five-inch ornamental rectangle of layered obsidian and fine steel. You can see your face reflected in it.)
  • The item is easily mistaken for a mediaeval thing. (This rowboat has a sealed box on the back with a peculiar ornamental rotating rudder attached. Presumably, the box is a counterweight to balance the boat.)
  • The item has been modified since. (Someone has put cartweels on a motor car and turned it into a horse-drawn carriage.)

If the player still recognises the item ahead of time, then good for them, they solved the puzzle. This is even more likely in an RPG because the player can inspect the item closely, ask questions, ask for more detail. Ultimately, you can't guarantee the player won't recognise an item, in which case you must fall back on @NathanS' answer to trust the players not to act on information their characters couldn't possibly known.

  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ The other answers on this question are all very good too. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jun 29, 2018 at 23:07

I've run into this a few times, and my favorite method is to misdescribe the item. Instead of either telling them exactly what it is ("It's a hypodermic needle"), or describing it fully ("This is a glass tube with a sharp, hollow needle on one end, and some sort of stopper in the other"), give it a mystical, magical description: "This is a masterfully built item, with intricate craftsmanship: a curved glass vial, with an almost ethereally thin (yet strong!) metal tube affixed to one end. Even in these conditions, the metal has not rusted; you can only imagine what alchemical use it is for."

In one campaign I ran, a bunch of cavemen stepped out of their time into modern United States - into a Walmart parking lot, in fact. Of course, cavemen would have no concept of buildings, cars, or parking lots, so instead, I said, "You see a flat, volcanic plain, hot in the early morning sunlight. You can see heaps of colorful rocks, sparkling in the light, and tall, thin trees with only a few leaves at the top. A few people are entering and leaving a large, flat hill in the distance. Their clothes are brightly colored, and all of them seem to be well-fed; the tribe that lives here is surely well-off. You wonder, briefly, if this is a holy place."

It took a while for my players to ask the right questions to realize the heaps of colorful rocks were cars and trucks, and that the large, flat hill was a building; it wasn't until they went in that they realized what, exactly it was.

The trick is giving technically correct information, as long as that information is viewed through the eyes of someone in the Middle Ages. Stainless steel becomes magical metal; modern glass becomes masterwork material; mechanical items become fairy-work, or deep dwarven knowledge, or simply magical - what is a shotgun, but a staff of blasting with only a few charges in it? What is a flashlight, but a wand of light?

It's up to you as to how crafty you are with explanations; personally, I'd pick out a bunch of items to describe, then pick a few that are especially hard to guess/easy to misidentify, and bring in the easy-to-guess items later.


First figure out what effect you want to have on your Players.

The Players have a distinct advantage over the characters when it comes to identifying this stuff, and figuring out how to use it. If you give them information that their OOC selves can use, they'll probably pick up on it.

  • If you want them to figure out what it is via OOC information, then describe it normally. If you want to make it a bit challenging, then use some obscurity.
  • If you don't want them to figure out what it is via OOC information, don't give them that info. Give them the stuff that their characters can conclude, rather than the information they'd use to figure it out. Don't say "a tube of glass with a needle", say "weird-looking stuff. Some of it's glass. Alchemist's gear, maybe?"
  • If you want to let them figure it out over time, then slowly drip them the information over time - start with the wide, IC-analysis view, and drip further information in slowly. "There's someone in thin cloth, and their wielding one of those pieces of alchemist gear like a dagger." "It does have a sharp end, but it'd break almost immediately in any sort of real fight, and then you'd have glass in your hands."
  • If you want to give them a whole bunch of information at the beginning, but have them still not get it until they somehow have an "a-ha!" moment at the end of the adventure and feel a little dumb for not getting it earlier... well, then you're going to have to be smart enough and know your players well enough that you can actually out-think them to that degree. Given that you don't already know how to do that, I'd say that this is not an achievable objective.
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    \$\begingroup\$ I think the opening line is the best part of this answer. Approaching the problem this way might actually give him the inspiration to pull it off. As well as the idea of describing it via in-universe comparison, More potent and harder to fumble than going for a detailed description. \$\endgroup\$
    – 3C273
    Commented Jun 29, 2018 at 21:58

In-character knowledge vs. player knowledge

In this case, I'd say that it's alright for the players to know what the thing is even though the characters wouldn't, so long as they would be able to play their characeter's ignorance.

The trouble with making items obscure is that the players could conclude that it's just junk and forget about it, or it could create frustration if they start thinking that it's something else, especially if the item turns out to be something that, in modern real life, we would consider quite mundane.

Saying that, this depends on how you view meta-gaming and how you and your players usually combat that (often in the group I'm currently playing in, I'll hear "Yeah, I know that, but [character-name] doesn't"...)

  • \$\begingroup\$ It's not necessarily about the problem with metagaming, I am confident that my group wouldn't metagame as we've played before, but I'd like to keep a sensation of awe and mystery when it comes to items. My concern comes more from the narrative and sensational point than anything else, if, that clarifies what I ask? \$\endgroup\$
    – Ghiojo
    Commented Jun 29, 2018 at 17:56
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Ghiojo So this is more about how to describe something accurately, but not too accurately? \$\endgroup\$
    – NathanS
    Commented Jun 29, 2018 at 18:30
  • \$\begingroup\$ Eyyup, Sorry if I didn't make the point clear, I am not a native English speaker, so I'm trying my best at this ;w; \$\endgroup\$
    – Ghiojo
    Commented Jun 29, 2018 at 18:32
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Ghiojo No worries, I don't think this is a language thing, just that I was looking at it from a different angle. By the looks of things, Quadratic Wizard's answers seems to have picked up the other angle, hopefully that's closer to what you're looking for (I'll leave my answer as-is though since Quadratic Wizard references it as being a valid though different angle to the one they took) \$\endgroup\$
    – NathanS
    Commented Jun 29, 2018 at 18:52

Another approach would be to redesign the items.

It's quite easy to recognise a gun if you see it, so make it not look like a gun.

It's a wooden tube with an opening on one side. You cannot see anything inside, but the opening seems to extend almost through the whole tube and it reflects light in a metallic fashion from the inside. There are some ornamentals on the side, many of them can be moved aside or pushed in (like a button) but nothing happens if you that. Maybe it's an elven riddle or toy.

Maybe the right combination of button pressings gets you a handle, maybe the tube is curved like a boomerang with the barrel extending through one side. Or maybe it doesn't need a handle. However without removing the safety or having a cartridge, nothing happens. It doesn't use a trigger but a button.

You can do that for any item. A car becomes a large piece of metal which only opens the door if you have the key and then wheels come out on the top. Now figure how to turn it upside down.

This way you don't need to obscure anything about the looks of the item, because you have effectively removed the ooc knowledge about how it looks and the function remains hidden.


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