The party is drinking in a tavern, summoned by the king, appealed to by orphans, or is plopped smack in front of the dungeon to explore. The stage is set, the party is ready and raring to go, it’s “lights, camera…Action!” Or so you think. One player decides they want to hit on the waitress rather than adventure, or they insult the king by not showing up, or they simply groan their disappointment and complain “Another tavern?” You’ve had the bubble of willing suspense of disbelief popped by the bored player. And you’ve run into a decades-old problem confounding DMs for forty years; How do you sustain players’ interest in a long-running campaign without reverting to cliches? One way is through the humble trinket. Laced into the game without anyone noticing is the plot hook that breaks the mold.
Trinkets, as outlined in the PHB on pages 160 to 161, are tiny, innocuous items that seem like they’ve been rooted out of Elminster’s junk drawer; little things with no outward value or powerful magical aura. But what they don’t know is that that little piece of detritus they found in the goblin camp three or four sessions ago was the first piece in a larger puzzle put in place by you, the DM.
It takes a little bit of practice to weave the trinket into the narrative, especially if the players are so focused on loot that you feel compelled to make every treasure worthy of such lofty expectations. Reading the campaign and thinking ahead to the places where the characters might opt for something disastrous, or might be confused as to how to proceed, is important to the proper use of the trinket as plot mover. Sometimes, the players will get it right (or right-ish) and that’s okay; you don’t need to activate the trinket’s “hidden power” or higher purpose yet. Most of the time, however, players might bog down in debate over how to proceed and you feel the need to nudge the players into making a decision; in comes the trinket.
Maybe the bone finger twitches in someone’s pocket, or the cube of unknown material changes temperature drastically, or the music box plays a tune suddenly then stops, or maybe the handkerchief’s twin is seen hanging out of the pocket of a stranger who quickly leaves the tavern. Regardless of what happens, it should not directly answer any questions put to it by the player and should definitely NOT be a result of the way you think the players should act or decide. Like prophecy, the responsiveness or value of the trinket’s input should remain vague, yet prompt the players to action.
For example; players are arguing over a map in their room at the inn. Some want to go to the swamp, others want to go to the hills, and some others want to move on to the city. All are perfectly fine decisions, but the party is bickering and this is getting nowhere. The wind of the storm outside blows open the window to the room, causing a stack of papers to fall to the floor, including the map the players are arguing over. When retrieved, have only one or two players (those picking up the papers, most likely) roll perceptions checks. Now, you have their attention and they’re going to check the room, the papers, anything for the thing to be perceived. It’s a map of a partial floorplan of a keep or manor house that the players found many days before. Do any of those destinations have ruined castles or manor houses? Maybe none of those places have any such structure. Regardless, congratulations because your party is out of the rut and making decisions again, thus moving the plot along.
So how do these trinkets wind up in the possession of the characters in the first place? The obvious answer is in the horde of some defeated foe, but there are other ways to acquire such trinkets. Perhaps as part of the starting package to tie in their character traits (background, flaws, ties, etc.), or maybe as part of a larger quest a character has (the Bard seeks forgotten lore, or the Cleric seeks a sign from her god), or maybe completely by accident (a toy soldier found in the pocket of a disguise used to get into the cult’s temple). Be creative and be flexible.
Whatever the source, don’t feel obliged to give trinkets to every character, or at least to make those trinkets worthwhile. When all is said and done, trinkets are there to help add story, nuance, and flavor to the game; if your characters are fine without them, then by all means, don’t ‘activate’ these items or even have them found. It would not be a bad idea, however, to drop one or two into the mix, just to be sure. You never know when the party needs a little shove to keep the story going.
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