Storyboard: Just the artifacts

There are a lot of powerful items in our everyday life.  Smartphones, for instance.
There's something inherently alluring about objects of power. That much is obvious; games are already fairly littered with them, ranging from weapons to vehicles to various items whose powers are invariably decided by needs of the plot. It's inevitable that as a roleplayer you would want to create something of power for your own purposes, something that has a purpose that only you know, hopefully a purpose with more careful thought than "being the most scary thing ever."

Items like this are what I'm calling artifacts. In some settings they're actual artifacts; in others they're just exceptionally well-programmed computers or bits of otherwise lost technology or whatever. They're useful for extended roleplaying, they create an additional element of your characters, and they're also really problematic in a variety of ways. Still, the drawbacks aren't significant enough to make them useless, just significant enough that you'll want to use a careful hand when adding in your own hidden wonders.

Miqo'te still search for the legendary Omega Yarn Ball.Do you have the book?

That whole "object of power" thing is the first problem that exist with artifacts in MMOs: By the rules of most games, they don't actually exist. You can't have one sitting in your inventory, you can't hand it off or have it yanked away from you, and you certainly can't right-click to make something spectacular happen. As in much of roleplaying, you just have to accept that these items are there without any physical representation and move around it.

By itself, this isn't so bad, but it's exacerbated when it comes to understanding what the object is and what it does. Let me use an example from my own roleplaying experiences: In Final Fantasy XIV my character gave a friend of hers a book that turned out to be the origin of that character's name (it made sense in context). Outside of the title and the name of one of the characters, I knew nothing about the book's content, leaving it entirely up to the other player to determine what was inside.

The problem is that my character obviously did know what was in the book. So I had to cross-reference what someone else had decided was in the book to find out something that my character should rightfully have known anyway. It made for some great roleplaying, but it also meant keeping track of several moving parts, and this was just for a normal book.

Artifacts are frequently more significant than just a book. If someone else has the artifact, then you have to let that person know how it works, and suddenly it's not really yours any longer. It belongs to someone else, at least for a time, and your original conception may be very different than the end result.

These aren't enormous problems, but they're enough to make sure that artifacts are something best used sparingly. Never add an item to keep track of unless you're fully prepared to track the item as it winds through the chain of possession, and always make sure that it's worth the added hassle.

It is awesome if your glasses let you fire laser beams, though.Making interesting tools

The hardest part is coming up with an interesting object in the first place. Note that I said interesting, not powerful.

Making a powerful object is easy. Games do that constantly. The problem is that powerful objects are both hard to justify not using in-game and fairly boring on the whole. If you have a Sith relic in Star Wars: The Old Republic that instantly kills any living creature you wish in a 20-meter radius at will, there's no reason you wouldn't be using it at all times, and it doesn't offer any intriguing storytelling opportunities. It's just the equivalent of a really big gun.

Making an interesting object requires more work, and it needs to do something unique. Instead of an insta-death relic, what about a relic that allowed you to capture your own worst fear and trap it? You'd be safe from fear as long as the relic was safe, but anyone else who happened upon it would have power over you. And it might have interesting implications if you could literally remove your own fear, possibly even removing an entirely logical terror...

This isn't to say weapons are inherently bad but that raw power is not interesting. EverQuest II has a few million different swords that can slice things up really well. Another sword that can do that is not inherently interesting. A sword that is chilled to the touch at all times is more interesting. A sword that lets you see the dream of any person you slay is even more interesting still.

Always a story

Artifacts do not and cannot exist in a vacuum. Someone made this item. It came from somewhere. Maybe it was assembled by someone who thought this would be a particularly useful tool to have, or maybe it was an accidental byproduct of some other effort. Whatever the case, there's a story.

This, too, is part of the interest. It's useful to have a mask in Final Fantasy XIV that lets you appear to be anyone you wish for four hours, after which it induces violent illness. What's more interesting is if you can talk about how the mask was created by an Ul'dahn thaumaturge to help undermine a jealous rival, that it's been in circulation for nearly a century, and that it's rumored that if you use it for too long you'll start to forget your own face until you lose it completely.

Like any form of backstory, this works best when it works least. Rather than detailing every moment of your artifact's history from creation to the present, give it some flavorful background elements and cloak the rest in vagueness. It gives you more options, and it also ensures that if someone else has an interesting idea to add to the object later on there's space to do so.

Feedback is welcome down in the comments below or via mail to eliot@massively.com. I'm sure there's more ground to cover here, so if someone chimes up with something he or she would like to see, that'd be helpful for the future. Next week it's another dose of villainy, and after that it's time for the three-year mark!

Every Friday, Eliot Lefebvre fills a column up with excellent advice on investing money, writing award-winning novels, and being elected to public office. Then he removes all of that, and you're left with Storyboard, which focuses on roleplaying in MMOs. It won't help you get elected, but it will help you pretend you did.
This article was originally published on Massively.