Seven Steps for Legendary Item Creation

From Scott J. Compton

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0460

A Brief Word from Johnn

Got any Dark Heresy tips?

Roleplaying Tips reader James sent me this request. I’m afraid I haven’t played Dark Heresy before. If you have, maybe you have some advice to share?

I’m thinking of starting up a campaign of Dark Heresy – the game based on Games Workshop’s Warhammer 40,000 Universe.

I’d be really grateful if you could put out a request for any Dark Heresy specific tips please.


Editing help needed for hazards contest entries

I looked at my September and October schedule, and editing the contest entries is gonna be tricky. I could use some help as everyone’s been waiting for the entries long enough.

If you have some smooth editing moves and a bit of time in the next two weeks, please drop me a note and I’ll hook you up with a few entries to edit. Much thanks!

Tip credit correction

Issue #459 I incorrectly credited the great tips about scaring your players. The tips were written by Elay. I blame insanity for my error.

Have a great week full of gaming!

Seven Steps for Legendary Item Creation

Over the past decade, I have hosted several games with legendary items that were the heart of my campaigns. Here is what I discovered worked well for me and the interactions of the PCs that wielded the items.

Get the Big Picture

Define the overall purpose the characters have in the role- playing setting. Look into the potential future of your campaign and determine what type of path they could take based on their current character choices.

Create the Item as an NPC

Establish each legendary item as a real character and see how that item fits into the context of the world. Moreover, treat each item as an NPC with a history, future goals, and the ability to level up.

Make the legendary item interesting by basing the item’s current abilities on the wielder’s level or power. This way, at each new level, it not only feels like the item is getting more powerful, it feels as if the item is adapting to the specific character wielding it.

Too often I see items designed with all abilities already created and activated. This puts instant limits on the legendary item and takes away the mystery once all the powers are known.

By leveling the item, the game master has the ability to change what powers or abilities the legendary item could have. Think of how it can best be integrated in a symbiotic relationship with the wielder.

Give the Item a Theme

Determine one or more themes for your one legendary item: intellect, flame, speed, poison, and so forth.

This gives the legendary item personality. Also, there is some expectation of what happens at each new level when the item gains new powers.

Give the Powers Triggers

Determine the means by which powers can be released. Think along the lines of triggers, components needed, gestures, and similar things a wizard might need.

This becomes a fun lock-and-key situation where the character might know a new power exists in the legendary item, but might not know how to activate it yet.

The need to search out a special book or person in another town far away gives more potential for additional subplots mixed into the main campaign story.

Create the Item’s Stats

Make an initial level chart for the item up to the level you desire. This level chart is directly tied to the wielder’s level. Provide a power, spell, ability, feat or anything else you believe to be balanced for the particular level of the character.

Feel free to add minor penalties as well, but be sure the new power is more advantageous than the penalty else the player may choose to abandon the item.

Negative changes could simply be cosmetic, or could be time-based; only when the moon is full or only when there is full cloud cover, for example.

This helps boost the legendary item’s persona. The extra powers should always be less than what the PC could attain at that particular level if playing any other class.

However, try to cross over into powers that might lead to significant outcomes for situations you foresee in your campaign down the road. If the PC thinks “darn it, I really don’t need extra strength because I’m a wizard,” then you’ve probably worked something into a future event such that having the extra strength will be the key to success.

Create Secondary Powers

Create a bonus secondary chart of minor powers that can be given to the character as a means to sink earned Experience Points into. If the character desires to put their own XP into the item for additional qualities, a greater attachment to the item will be formed between player and item.

If the character does this, come up with ramifications or consequences for investing XP into the item, such as emotional ties, fear of losing the item, etc. Or go even farther – if the item is more than 100 feet from the character, the character loses hit points, abilities, etc.

Drop Hints About the Item

Work the item into the context of your campaign by making it significant to past events, but also mysterious as to why it still exists. For example: because it was thought to have been lost or destroyed.

Come up with legends about it and have the characters discover pictorial images of it in murals in a dungeon defeating a dragon, or have them find a scroll about how an NPC used it and it was lost, etc.

The more you develop about it, the more it will intrigue the PCs, and the more questions will be generated. The ultimate goal is to answer enough about the legendary item that it satisfies the PCs for the moment, but opens up new questions because of that answer.

It is important the game master not reveal too much about it initially, because this is an evolving item at each level. The game master might change what powers or abilities are given at a later time, so be sure to keep that as vague as possible until you lock in that power or ability when the level is achieved.

Simply put, treat the legendary item as a dangling carrot they might want to investigate more in the future, and you will have gamers arriving at your doorstep on-time and with plenty of cash for pizza.

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Scott has been a video game and RPG designer for the past 14 years. His profile can be found here at IMDB: Scott J. Compton

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GM Mastery: NPC Essentials

Critically acclaimed and multiple award-winning guide to crafting, roleplaying, and GMing three dimensional NPCs for any game system and genre. This book will make a difference to your GMing.

GM Mastery: NPC Essentials

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Chaotic Shiny’s Monster Contest

Make a monster with the Monster Generator, write up some fluff for it, and stat it up 4e D&D style for a chance to win some awesome prizes.

Prizes include a year’s premium subscription to Dungeon Mastering’s DM tools, GM Mastery: Inn Essentials or GM Mastery: Holiday Essentials, The Night Wyrm from, and Chaotic Shiny Productions’ Martial Flavor.

Contest runs until 9/26. For more details, (like how to win!):

Monster Contest Rules and FAQ

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The Game Master’s Arsenal

Shifting Paradigms Part 1

From John Lewis

Last month in The Game Master’s Arsenal I discussed hints and techniques for reducing GM stress. This month we’ll build on those with how to change your focus to make the GM’s job easier.

Paradigm Shift: Change Your Design Focus

Many GM’s follow a similar pattern when it comes to story and adventure design; they come up with an idea and the immediately think about how the PC’s are going to interact with that idea. New GMs usually start thinking about how they are going get the PCs to the adventure and how to reward the characters. Experienced GMs often look for ways to hook the characters into the story and how they are going to keep the players on track. Advanced GMs might go so far as to think of a few possible ways to manage unexpected PC actions.

All of these techniques are important and serve their purpose but each share a similar GM paradigm; they are all design methods that are player character focused.

In many ways the PCs are the most important elements of the game, but when a GM focuses on the PCs while designing the campaign he forces himself into anticipation mode. Trying to predict everything the players can do, or might do, inevitably adds stress to the GM’s job.

It also leads to a lot of wasted effort because I’ve found that no matter how many options I imagine, my players will always come up with a couple I never saw coming.

When it comes to designing adventures and laying out my campaign, I’ve changed my focus. Instead of trying to guess what the PCs may or may not do, I put my creative energy into the setting and what the antagonists do. By shifting the focus, I don’t have to worry about the hundreds of things the PCs might do, instead I simply decide how the NPCs will react to what the PCs actually do. I now longer need to scratch my head in frustration trying to be PC psychic.

How do you actually put this into practice? Changing your focus begins early in the design process, but remember, the more up front work you do the easier it is.

First you need know your setting. It’s not enough to just know the facts and mechanics; you need to understand the setting the way the NPCs understand it. This let you better roleplay the antagonists and supporting NPCs.

Roleplaying the antagonists lets you begin reacting to the PCs’ actions instead of perpetually trying to anticipate them. Once you begin reacting you’ll find the story begins to write itself and your players are doing a lot of the work for you. And that will take a lot of the stress out of your game.

Know the Setting, Understand the NPCs

Whether using a published or home-brew setting, you need to have a solid grasp of the world in which the game takes place. As GM you will be portraying every inhabitant of the entire world, so you need to understand the world at least as well as the NPCs understand it.

Although any given NPC probably won’t understand the grand workings of the cosmos, or be able to view the world as an omnipotent GM, they will have at least a basic functional knowledge of three important things:

Their role in the universe

They may be predator or prey, free-willed or not. For an intelligent humanoid this could manifest as knowing his place in society, be it a member of a tribe or the leader of a nation. Their role may be racial, professional, or even political. Animals also have a sense of their role, whether lone hunter, scavenger, or as a member of a pack. Even creatures lacking free-will, such as constructs or robots, have programming and instructions that define their role in the world.

Some sort of survival instinct

A method to acquire the resources it needs to exist (such as hunting for food, or simply crying until fed), and a way to keep from being harmed (fight or flight). Again, even creatures lacking free-will or simply possessing animal-level intelligence will still have some level of self-preservation instinct.

A need for “something”

All creatures will probably need something. This “something” however may not be an actual item or physical thing. It could be as simple as mere survival. It may be a need for emotional fulfillment, like looking for love or belonging. It could be a desire for power, revenge, control, or even justice. Regardless of what “it” is, someone’s desire for something will drive both an adventure and the campaign as a whole.

It’s important to note that just because a creature has a functional knowledge of something it doesn’t necessarily mean they understand it, or are even capable of understanding it. Some creatures may simply be acting out of instinct, habit, or even programming.

Once you begin to understand the NPCs you can begin thinking like the NPCs, and that brings us to the second point.

Roleplay the Antagonists, React to the PCs

Players are lucky, they only have to play one single role within the campaign, where you as GM must portray everyone else in the world.

As if that weren’t enough, you are also responsible for portraying the world itself. However, it’s sometimes easy to forget that, just like the players, you too are portraying characters in a story.

As GM the characters you play run a much broader spectrum than the ones the players portray. While each player takes on the role a single being of some sort, you need to portray not just individuals, but groups and organizations, animals and beasts, maybe even entire armies or countries. Regardless of the scale or scope of the role, it is still a role to be played like any other.

When you sit down and design your plot arcs and adventures don’t initially worry about the PCs. Don’t waste time thinking about what they will do, or how they will get to the adventure (at least not at this point). Instead, focus on the NPCs, in particular the story’s antagonist(s).

Remember, from the GM’s perspective it is the antagonist that is the story’s catalyst. It is the antagonist who sets things into motion and creates the need for adventures to do adventurer stuff.

Ask yourself a few questions about the antagonist:

  • What does he want?
  • How will he get it?
  • What are the resources at his disposal?
  • What’s he willing to do to get it?

As you begin answering these questions think about the three points listed earlier regarding the antagonist’s role, survival instinct, and desire. Answer these questions to get an excellent idea of how to portray the antagonist.

It doesn’t matter if you are dealing with an individual or an organization; these questions will give you insight about what the antagonist will do and how the antagonist will act and react.

This is where you knowledge of NPCs comes into play. Look at things through the antagonist’s eyes. At this point in your design assume the antagonist will be successful in achieving the objective. After all, the antagonist assumes he will be successful otherwise he wouldn’t be doing whatever it is he’s planning on doing. No one aims for failure.

In your mind play out the antagonist’s entire story; what he will plan, what obstacles he will overcome, what goals he will achieve, and even what he will do once he succeeds.

By now you should know who the antagonist is, what they want, how they are going to get it, and what the consequences of their success will be. You (the GM) understand the antagonist’s entire story from start to finish.

Understanding is easy because at this point you are the only one telling the story; there are no random factors or unknown variables. There is nothing for you to anticipate, assume, or guess at. Most importantly, you haven’t wasted any time trying to predict things beyond your control, like what the PC’s will do.

All of this information is exactly what makes roleplaying the antagonist easy and running your game stress-free. Instead of constantly trying to predict what the PCs are going to do, how to account for their actions, and what you are going to do to keep things on track, you just need to let the antagonist react to “whatever” the PCs do.

Since you’ve already done the aforementioned work, you know how the antagonist will react. Once you have shifted your paradigm you’ll discover that you are running your game in reaction mode instead of anticipation mode. Not only is reaction mode less stressful, it’s also more fun.

Putting it all Together

You may be asking yourself; how does this all play out? Let me illustrate this concept in action with an example from my current Dungeons & Dragons campaign, Dark Legacy.

Dark Legacy is divided into three parts, following the classic fantasy trilogy model. Part one (heroic tier for you D&D players) focuses around the plans and plots of an organization known as The Dragon’s Eye and is set in a region called the Seven Bridges Valley.

I began designing the campaign by laying out the valley, making a few notes about the settlements there, and outlining some broad geographical details. I jotted down some ideas about the five settlements’ size, population, and organization. Having a rough idea of what the valley is like currently helped me create a broad overview of the region’s history. A handful of historical notes lead me to several obvious conclusions about the people, politics, and important events in the valley.

At this point I had only created a name for the antagonists’ organization “The Dragon’s Eye”. However, once I began to create and understand the world it became obvious to me that the eye was made up of goblinoids who once ruled the valley and were looking to reestablish their dominance over the region.

So now, looking at the world from the viewpoint of the Dragon’s Eye and knowing what they want, I ask myself: how are these creatures going to succeed at their plan?

Knowing the antagonists and understanding the setting allows me to quickly realize how they will go about their plan. Now I’m at the point, before the first character is even rolled up, where I can see the sequence of events leading to the Dragon’s Eye conquering the Seven Bridges Valley. If only there were heroes to stop their foul plans.

Enter the heroes. Now I’m in Reaction Mode. The only non- reactionary thing I do is kick things off by having the local city council send the able-bodied adventures to investigate some mysterious attacks along an old road. That is the catalyst that sets the campaign into motion, at least as far as the PCs are concerned.

What follows are several examples from different parts of the campaign illustrating reaction mode in play:

PC Action: PCs travel along Old North Road.

DM Reaction: Goblins ambush the PCs. I know the goblins are patrolling the roads to keep people away from the village of Cinder hill, which in a few weeks they will take over and occupy. PC Action (in this case inaction): They allow one goblin to escape.

DM Reaction: Thinking in terms of the antagonist I react by having the goblin report to his superiors. Now the Dragon’s Eye knows about the heroes and will begin making a plan on dealing with this unexpected threat to their plans.

PC Action: Heroes foil the plan to release a cyclops war band from another plane.  DM Reaction: Tired of the heroes’ interference, The Dragon’s Eye decides to send an elite group of assassins to strike at the PCs directly. The enemy knows where to strike the heroes because the PCs have made no effort to be discreet about where they go or when.

PC Action: The PCs decided to strike directly at The Dragon’s Eye in the dwarven ruins of Khzahd-Nar. They think the best strategy is to take the fight to the hobgoblins and their allies. The heroes are successful in killing several important members of the eye.

DM Reaction: Realizing that the heroes have dealt a serious, but not fatal, blow to the enemy I put myself in the position of the Dragon’s Eye. They still have a goal. They still have resources at their disposal. They decided they’ve had enough. The Dragon’s Eye tricks an old ally of one of the heroes into luring the PCs away on an errand (the ally was someone a player mentioned in his character’s background). The errand keeps the heroes away from Cinder hill long enough for the Dragon’s Eye to put their next plan into action.

Basically throughout the campaign I continually repeat this process; PCs take an action, bad guys react, PCs react to the bad guys’ reaction and so on and so forth.

Regardless of the actions my PCs choose to take, I simply apply my knowledge of the Dragon’s Eye and their resources, intelligence, and abilities, to the situation. It almost always becomes immediately clear what their next action would be.

Throughout the process I modify my vision of how the antagonists are going to succeed at their plans. But that is where the game moves from someone (the GM) simply telling a story, to a group of people creating a story through an interactive experience.


Although shifting your paradigm and changing your GM style can be tough it can also be very rewarding. In the case of changing your design focus three benefits tend to emerge:

  • You reduce the stress of trying to anticipate PC actions.
  • You strengthen verisimilitude by having antagonists behave in a logical and consistent, although perhaps not predictable, manner.
  • You as the GM can have some fun “playing a role.”

The last point is important to remember. These days I have much more fun plotting and planning ways for The Dragon’s Eye to “take care of those meddlesome heroes”, then I ever had trying to guess what the PCs were going to do and try and plan around it.

The change in design focus has made the game more fun for me because now I feel as though the future is uncertain. I no longer feel like I’ve read the last chapter of the book and the players are just along for the ride.

Instead, I feel as though my friends and I are telling an epic story together. And to me that’s what roleplaying is all about.

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About the Author

John Lewis has been a gamemaster of numerous RPGs since the early ’80’s, back when the rules were obscure, dice were poorly made, and hair was big. These days between a career and raising three teenagers, he still finds time to run a weekly Dungeons & Dragons game, a periodic Dark Heresy game, and write articles about gaming over at

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Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

Free Voice-Changing Software

From James A

I’ve been looking for free software like this for years. Google searches never came up with anything, until today!

MorphVOX Jr (Free)

I haven’t used it in game yet, but I’m looking forward to doing the voice of a goblin that will be joining the party during the next session.

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Another Voice-Changer

From Johnn Four

Funny Voice is a free program that can change the pitch of your voice.

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More Audio Fun

From mrmike65

There is software you can use to record anything that goes through your sound card. MP3myMP3 is the one I use. You could record your sound bites to MP3 and play them when you need them.

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Another Audio Program

From Hannah L.

With all these audio suggestions, I thought I’d throw my own choice into the mix: Audacity. It’s free, takes a little while to learn how to use, and is fairly powerful.

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Do you have a game mastering tip to share? Perhaps related to something you read in this issue?

E-mail your tips to [email protected] – thanks for sharing!