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Before anything else, I do not aim to just make the PCs want to keep the weapon. I have rather specific criteria, and not following them will earn your question an avalanche of downvotes. Please read the question in its entirety before answering, as your schoolteachers told you to.

In a campaign I'm planning, one of the first quests is a simple gopher mission given by a farmer (we'll call him Chekhov). As a reward for this, they get Chekhov's Sword, which is more a rusty heirloom mantlepiece than Ultra Doomsmiting Stabby-Slicer Of Orc-Shredding. Still, it'll have use later, so I want to make sure the PCs don't hock it off at the Local Loot-Pawning Shop™ or chuck it into a lake or something.

There are four main obstacles:

  • The sword can't be too powerful or valuable, or either the impoverished farmer would've sold it himself ages ago (not to mention the PCs would want to liquidate it themselves that much more quickly) or some PC would use it for themselves.
  • I don't want to be too blunt or obvious, because I do not want to railroad the PCs into keeping it and I want to see at least a modicum of deductive reasoning be used later. (This is also why I don't want the PCs using it under normal circumstances.)
  • The PCs aren't particularly sentimental, aesthetic, or trustworthy (so they wouldn't keep it for memories, decor, or to honor a request -- dangerously pragmatic for writing a Chekhov's MacGuffin in). In fact, they're pretty much psychopathic murderhobos.
  • The sword's main value is its sentimentality to the farmer. IT HAS ABSOLUTELY ZERO INHERENT VALUE OTHERWISE. The party cannot know why this is so valuable, though.

The idea is that it'll be useful later for a "I Know You're In There" battle with the farmer. Right now, though, there would be no reason for the party to ever think said battle would happen.

So, how can I make sure they hang on to the sword despite all that?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Reminder: comments aren't for chat or answers, even incomplete or small ones. (Comments with chat and answers have been removed.) \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Dec 27 '16 at 16:19
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    \$\begingroup\$ As a piece of advice to answerers, this sort of question tends to attract two kinds of answers: 1) answers that explain a fundamental technique and provide examples of using it (teaching to fish), and 2) answers that provide one or more ideas but no technique that can be learned (giving fish). The giving-fish type of answer tends to be considered low quality and often attracts downvotes. The teaching-a-method type tends to be considered more useful and be upvoted. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Dec 29 '16 at 8:44
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    \$\begingroup\$ Yeah this question is starting to expand into a list question because people are just throwing out random ideas why someone wouldn't want to/be able to sell a sword, not engaging with the problem. Hence the 3 close votes. Please answer in the "teaching to fish" manner to save this question. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk says reinstate Monica Dec 29 '16 at 18:23
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    \$\begingroup\$ @THiebert they don't change the question, but they can change the answer to "is this question causing a problem?" \$\endgroup\$ – nitsua60 Dec 31 '16 at 15:23
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    \$\begingroup\$ Exactly. It's unfortunate when "it's not the question's fault" completely, but that's not really relevant. The question could also be better scoped and say "don't just give me point ideas," to be honest, it's not blameless in this. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk says reinstate Monica Jan 1 '17 at 4:21

19 Answers 19

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Let them sell it. Later, when they realize they needed it, let them troop back and buy it again. It can be a little mini quest: "figure out what happened to that sword we vendored".

I think your more general problem is that "the sword you need was coincidentally given to you as a reward for a fetch quest when you were low level" is already pretty hokey. So, if you really want something realistic, you might need to rethink your basic premise.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I concur with the let them sell it idea. You might have strong hints later that suggest the sword has additional purpose or that it; depending on it's powers perhaps it's out there making Joe the Merchant into a master swordsman that's tearing it up at tournaments and whose name is sung louder than the players'. \$\endgroup\$ – Pyrotechnical Dec 26 '16 at 2:28
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    \$\begingroup\$ I love this answer. A quest to go and find this mysterious old sword could be great fun. A big chain of sales and 'I sold it to a travelling salesman, he should be in X by now I expect'. \$\endgroup\$ – Miles Rout Dec 26 '16 at 5:34
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    \$\begingroup\$ Welp, the campaign went on so far... they got the sword, and they tried to sell it, and upon hearing they'd only get about 20cp, they decided to shove it in a container of explosive powder. The Cleric has a brand new scar and the sword flew off into a mountain range. It's gonna be fun writing the adventure to get it back. \$\endgroup\$ – Papayaman1000 Jan 1 '17 at 17:37
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Refuse to buy it from them

The first shopkeeper they encounter might recognize it as an invaluable family heirloom, and refuse to buy it in those grounds. On the other hand, he might also recognize it as worthless, and offer only 2 copper for it. This might key players in to believing that they're meant to hold on to it, without giving away any of its power or true future value.

Give it a roleplaying purpose

Perhaps an innkeeper at a nearby town spots the sword on your player's belt, and makes it into a conversation piece. Perhaps she tells a story of the sword's long history, and the battles that Checkov's family fought with it, or perhaps she implies that the fact the sword was given away means that there's been an established trust between the players and this family, and that may open doors for them later in their journey. This option may key the party in to some idea that the sword has material importance, but it may be in a way they don't expect, and with the right group, this way could lead into some great experiences and development.

Let them know what it can do

Give your player's a story about how the sword was once a great weapon of dragon slaying, but it's magic has since been lost. Let them know that only a very difficult ritual could reactivate those powers and that it might take time and several levels before it can be re-activated. This can encourage them to pursue certain objectives, or lampshade a BBEG earlier than you may want, but it certainly ensures that the party keeps the weapon.

Offer an alternative solution

If, as has been clarified through edits and comments, the sword has no value other than it's connection to and history with the farmer, it might not be a very good McGuffin, as it could easily be lost, destroyed, stolen, traded, or sold. In any of these cases, it might be a good idea to think of other possible solutions to the "ultimate problem" -- for lack of a better term.

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    \$\begingroup\$ But these are both fairly heavy-handed, not to mention they play to the sentimental side. Besides, the impoverished farmer obviously has nothing more to offer. \$\endgroup\$ – Papayaman1000 Dec 26 '16 at 0:58
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Papayaman If you've already decided what the players must do, you can't really avoid being a least a bit heavy-handed in ensuring it happens. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Dec 26 '16 at 3:20
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As a variant on the "let them sell it" answer, don't give it to them. Instead, have the farmer offer them some reward that he can supply because he's a farmer, like stabling for their horses, or other supplies that he generates on the farm.

However, make sure that the PCs know he has an old sword, with legends attached to it, and that one of those legends has unfulfilled clauses. If you play this right, the PCs will come back to the farm regularly, and the farmer will become a friend. So when they discover the sword they need is the one he has, all they have to do is ask him for it, although few other people know that it still exists, never mind where it is.

Edit: If the GM's objective is for the party to kill the farmer, making a friend of him makes that easier, and a gang of murder hobos won't have qualms about doing the deed.

Edit: OK, so the OP's players are Mad Slashers (NB: TvTropes link). That pretty much negates the importance of the sword as a way of avoiding killing the farmer, and solves the problem of why he'd give away something of no value to anyone else, but sentimental value to him. So it seems fated to become one of the many plot details that get ignored in a Mad Slasher campaign, and whose only importance is for the GM to mourn. Still, these answers may be useful to other GMs.

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Give them a clear sign that the sword is more important than it seems. Some suggestions:

  • When the magic-user of the party touches the sword, they feel something magic about it, but can't quite make out what it is.
  • The next night, have the character carrying the sword have some vague prophetic dream about it.
  • When the importance of the sword has nothing to do with magic, put some inscriptions on it which the farmer can't read (him being illiterate is not implausible) but which say something important to the more educated player characters. Have them roll every knowledge check in the rulebook. Most players will get the hint that you wouldn't bother having them roll when it wouldn't matter. The information you give them on success doesn't need to be helpful enough to be a spoiler and you can also put some information into what you say on a missed roll ("Due to your poor history knowledge you can not remember the name of the mighty hero who once used this sword or what existential threat to the universe it was which he slew with it").
  • Have some NPCs act suspiciously interested in the sword. For example, you could have an NPC approach the PCs shortly after they acquired it who offers them some outrageous amount of money for it (how does he even know the PCs have it? Another mystery to solve for your players). But have that NPC insist that the trade happens in some suspiciously convoluted manner, like through dead drops (which end up being ambushes) or middle-men (which turn up dead).
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I'd be tempted here to use one of my favorite fantasy troupes: the Weapon That Just Won't Go Away. If they sell it, it will just show back up in their pack (or perhaps fall out of the sky and lightly bonk them on the head), likely at an inconvenient time.

Probably the best example of this is the fae walking stick from Patricia Brigg's Mercy Thompson series. It is practically a recurring character, and often shows up to trip her at a critical moment when she's running for her life, but it thinks it should be used. Even if she didn't bring it, or gave it away recently.

So how do you keep the players from exploiting this for financial gain? Well, vendors do talk, particularly if they feel they got cheated. I read one story recently* where someone tried to pawn the WTJWGA, only to be refused by an angry shopkeeper, who knew that thing would just disappear in a few days.

* - Perhaps it was Apocolypse Now Now?

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Get a player in on it. This works especially well if you have experienced players and/or ones that also are a GM from time to time. A good player will be willing to help when let in on the plot, and a great player will only need the "don't ask why, but please find a way for your character to do X".

If you have a less experienced role playing crowd, but do suspect they are okay with this kind of cross-player trickery, you could help them find a reason for their character to do what you want them to do.

Be sure to test the waters with this approach with a small quest first, because I suspect less experienced- and less plot oriented players might be thrown off by one player having an "unfair" advantage.

But when it works, this approach can have extreme (positive) payoffs.


Footnote for OP...

You claim in comments many or even all members of your group are "sociopathic". A big note / disclaimer up front: if you mean this literally in even the slightest sense, it's time to drop the group and/or seek professional help.

Assuming the it was meant as a jestful overstatement, then you can still work with my suggestion but you'll have to adjust accordingly. In addition to calling your group members "sociopaths" you also imply that they are of the "rivaling" kind. In that case just get the player in on the plot and make it very clear that there will be great, social advantages to keeping the secret (as well as punishment for violating your deal). Note that this makes it a high risk - high gain operation, but something to consider nonetheless.

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Make the merchant act suspiciously every time they try to sell the sword.

One could ask for a sacred expertise of the sword. Another can call it a replica and throw the PC out of the shop, claiming that he will chop heads if he ever see them again.

Or Merchant could see the inner value of the item and try to buy it extra cheap because if the party knew about this sword they would never show it to a simple merchant like him.

Or the merchant could be willing to pay any amount of gold for the sword. When the players try to bargain for the price, say "Deal!" the second they say the 1st price. And "Deal!!!" every time they try to raise the price.

If they still manage to sell it.. Just wait till they realize that was a mistake. And profit...

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No one wants to buy it

If it isn't valuable enough for the farmer to have sold, then the amount a merchant will offer for the sword should keep the PCs from selling it... That is to say have no merchant offer a reasonable price. You still have the problem of them tossing it into a lake and starting a poorly based government, but that's inherent in trying to get the PCs to hold onto a valueless item.

Make it Barely Magical

Make it a +0 magic sword. Maybe also make it so no matter what they do, they can't resharpen or clean the sword, part of the magic of the sword keeps it in it's worn state. There are many creatures that are resistant or immune to non-magical attacks... Even if it's decrepit nature causes it to do less damage than an equivalent non-magical sword, doing "full" damage against ghosts and werewolves might be quite worthwhile.

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Hint at the Future Use

Whatever the future use will be, somehow drop a hint that it will, against all odds, be useful later on. Like, if it's going to be traded to a distant relative of Chekhov, have a young relative see them with it in town and mention that he thinks his uncle in another town might be interested in it.

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If you force the players to keep the item then you are taking the decision away from them and so it effectively becomes irrelevant to the game and you might as well just give it to them when they need it.

On the other hand if it looks like junk and they don't have any reason to keep it then why would they carry it around ? So again it's presence becomes arbitrary.

In terms of creating a good game I would suggest that firstly you give them some clue that it may be important later but don't ram it down their throats and let them make their own decision.

As the game progresses you can give more and more information that it may be important later so even if they do sell it in the first instance the sooner they realise they need it the less trouble they will have to get it back.

Indeed it may be more interesting if they are allowed to sell it like any other junk item and only later realise its value.

Obviously once they sell it what happens to it subsequently is up to you. For example if they realise pretty quickly it might just be a case of going back to the shop and tracking it down via a few inconvenient but trivial fetch quests but if someone else identifies it for what it is (eg if they are foolish enough to tell someone once they realise) they might end up in a race to get it back against some other agency.

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Find some way of showing the characters that it has hidden worth. the method will be different based on the characters skills.

Some examples:

  • A crest on the sword that a place cannot recognize but knows he's seen somewhere.
  • A unique metal (green steel or something)
  • A unique shape.

In any case, the result of looking at it should be along the lines of: "You don't remember where you've seen it or heard about it but there's something familiar about it."

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Use what TV Tropes calls Plot Device All Along. This is something that I often use when I have a twist planned in a game I'm running. Give the sword an ongoing purpose that's unrelated or barely related to its intended value.

For example: the farmer has a sword, which means he's probably a former soldier or a descendant of one. Let it be a distinctive but not rare sword: one that marks the bearer as someone acting on behalf of a former MacGuffin Guardsman. While the MacGuffin Guard is no more, they are held in high esteem, so showing people the sword to common folk tends to get you easy passage through town gates or cheap drinks at the local inn.

If you have people notice it and appreciate it, the players will keep it around long enough that they forget it's on their character sheet. If they ever ditch it, do something like have them meet someone who's a former MacGuffin guardswoman and needs to be convinced of their trustworthiness (because "no MacGuffin Guardperson would let their sword fall into a villain's hands").


An example of this tactic that I used was to have a PC's early business investment be returned as a whole lot of silver pieces in a leather sack. The players didn't know (and had no reason to check) that the sack was enchanted to let a rival group track their movements. Because the sack had a primary, mundane purpose, they kept it around (on their ship, where Detect Magic in the field wouldn't pick it up) without suspecting its nature.

The most famous example, of course, is the One Ring throughout the events of The Hobbit.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ The issue was that the players are efficient murderhobos. Even with a bit of heavy-handed foreshadowing and some tactics described here, they sold the sword. Though I will say, the cross-continental fetch quest fervor was rather entertaining, especially when they embraced their inner(ish) sociopathy and led a small inquisition to interrogate people on the sword's whereabouts (and kill anyone who didn't help... and some who did... my players need serious psychological evaluation..). \$\endgroup\$ – Papayaman1000 Mar 29 '17 at 3:16
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The sword might have huge sentimental value only to Chekhov.

Chekhov promises the adventurers to reward them when times are economically better for him, and as a prove of that he lends them his sword, which he'll rebuy, as soon as he can, for the amount you consider tempting enough for the players.

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My answer leverages your knowledge of the characters behaviors, and seeks to work with their tendencies rather than steering them toward some moral end. So play into their greed and self-serving behaviors...

An NPC with some status (some Character Level) entreats the characters to quest for a magic sword that fits the description of what they learned the farmer has. There is a reward for this enough to make it worth their while, but not enough to get rich. Make it apparent that the sum is a lot for the NPC.

The NPC has a great interest in the item not realizing how close he is to his goal (though he's been searching). You can be less contrived about how the PC's find out their info, and even better is if the sword is not offered to them, but it's only known that he has it "and I wish I could offer you something more than just my xyz..." Now the PC's are invested in obtaining it. While there are many solid answers here (and I could weave an enticing storyline based on one or several of these) I think the point is to shift the motivation from you pushing the sword onto them, vs. them desiring to pursue it. I love the let them sell it part, but having a buyer in mind who values it quite a bit may give them pause and think "Hmmm, what's so special about this sword" particularly after they obtain it and test its properties to find it's not seemingly remarkable...

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Have the farmer spin a tale about why the sword is an heirloom.

"My great grandsire was in King Quy's personal guard during the Battle of the Sunless Shore. S'posedly this was the troll king's sword, the one he'd used to kill all his brothers and unify all the trolls. Ugly thing, I always thought--the sword, that is, not the king, though I'm sure it applies to both. Never been sure what my great grandsire saw in it, but he always said he had to wrestle a half-dozen fellow footmen to take it as his pick of the loot and it was all worthwhile. Never said why. You might think it looked better back then, but it's looked just like this ever since I seen it as a lad."

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Foreshadowing

Have a few members of the party dream about a rusty sword sat on a mantelpiece the day before they get the sword. Give it some defining features such as a particular animal in the hilt.

Next day they see the sword, they'll know its important, but not why. Let the farmer have a story about how he used it to kill a wolf or something mundane, to explain its sentimental value.

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You may also put some hardly readable inscriptions on this sword, and the apparently useless reward may become some starter to another quest (the sword could be a kind of key for an antic gate, or it could be the honorific symbol of a guild which could consider some cooperation with the PCs ... or think that PCs had stolen it to a member).

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Have the players want to horde weapons.

Have a story such as meeting an army an arms dealer or blacksmith who has specifically requested they save weapons until they meet again (after the sword is needed) as they are promised a good price for it. Then alter the story so junk weapons are the standard reward to hide this tool.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ They'd still offload the sword, it's just a different way to do so. \$\endgroup\$ – Papayaman1000 Dec 30 '16 at 0:18
  • \$\begingroup\$ Papayaman1000 I thought it was clear but to clarify they do not meet the buyer until after the sword was needed. \$\endgroup\$ – PStag Dec 30 '16 at 0:38
  • \$\begingroup\$ Then we reach a much larger problem: D&D logistics are a bitch, and making the relatively low value:weight ratio weapons replace the much higher v:w currencies makes it even more so. This is why people hate encumberance mechanics in video games, and why you sell useless weapons ASAP. They'll either sell it for a slightly worse deal, or just give up and chuck it in a lake - our original problem. \$\endgroup\$ – Papayaman1000 Dec 30 '16 at 0:45
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The first thing that come into my mind: Force every character with detect magic abilities that actually touch the sword to make a roll (a very difficult one like less than 5 on D100) to know "something" about the sword. If failed (which should actually happen most of the time, at least statistically), allow to re-roll every X hours.

The idea is to force the curiosity of the PC about the object by letting them suppose there is something unknown about that item.

When the roll succeed, you can give an enigmatic answer like: "You feel no magic in the sword, but it still feel special: it neither seems to be magic nor to be non-magic, it just look like there is nothing to be detected", letting them suppose the magic in the item is so well hidden that it cannot be detected.

Afterwards, you can even justify that by "The non-magical thing which you could not detect was maybe the power of destiny, which binded the sword to your own destiny; a power that only god could understand"

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