How to ruin things
A great many things weigh down our games. We have oceans of lore leaning over us, a blurry session recap with all-too-important events and far-too-cloudy details. We have crowds of NPCs chasing our heroes around, hoping to reveal their critical clues. Vast, complex boss monsters strain our brains with synergistic lair actions and frenzy states. Barely-relevant love interests, red herring treasure maps, and idea-packed advice videos haunt our dreams. Did I mention our heroes? Sheets of scrawled notes and Pepe Silvi yarn-maps, beer-stained spell cards, forgotten miniatures, huge caches of feats, skills, and long-forgotten McGuffins to outwit, outlast, and out-clown every possible foe!
Of all these you may have noticed one thing unmentioned, my astute reader... one great and terrible force bloating our games, overflowing our character sheets, and straining the detail of months-old GM notes... GEAR.
'Humping Gear' photo by Tim Kirkpatrick
No one thing weighs down play (literally!) more than equipment, loot, treasure, magic items, backpacks of tools and mementos, baubles and keys and secret decoder rings. Thousands of gold pieces, moot gems, weird scepters, silver idols, and talking swords. Gods and devils the stuff is everywhere! And the players' 'home base?' Don't get me started! enchanted pillows, shelves of magical tomes, flying lamps, lutes, drums and conch horns, enchanted horses, cooking pots of constitution! No matter where your game falls on this spectrum, D&D is like an episode of Pawn Stars where nothing ever gets sold. It just piles and piles! When asked why all this storage and heaping of things, there is always one response: "just in case!"
Ok, Hankerin, you've bloodied us with your premise, so what's the thesis here? Well, this is a how-to blog so let's get right to it: HOW TO RUIN THINGS. A half dozen ideas to get rid of stuff in your campaign. With skill, your players will only cry a little... a good, cathartic, "Let's see your fixer upper!" cry.
1: Metal Eaters
Ah, the eponymous, dreaded, feather-fronded forest fiend that destroys metal with a touch! Rather than clumsily hurling mostly-nerfed 'Rust Monsters' at heroes, introduce a 'rise of metal eaters.' World events, magic disasters or the dust of a green comet cause a metal-eating mutation in SEVERAL OR ALL of your world's foes... and it's getting worse! Don't add superfluous rolls or over-weighted chances for this ability to fail. When a metal eater does any damage to a player character, one of their metal items is dissolved instantly. Choose this item randomly, or allow players to sacrifice desired metal items to preserve others.
"It may be a youngling dragon, but the flame breath, Thomas! The breath of the thing dissolves iron, steel... all metal! What chance do we have?"
2: The Plague of Rust
Foolish wizards and their experiments! To escape an iron prison of cold-forged bars and enchanted manacles, an evil sorcerer spends decades brooding in confinement, communing with the humble lichens of his subterranean cell. Through blasphemous chants and deep-earth magic, he creates, or rather UNLEASHES a corrosive lichen that grows like speedy mold on week-old sourdough. The lichen not only sets him free, but spreads across the land, dissolving everything in its path... houses, bridges, trees and stones. Vast hoards of treasure are eaten to mush in a single night! Not only does this lichen provide a potent enemy for our heroes, but cleans the world of clutter. IF a hero comes in contact with it, it gets into everything they own, cleansed only by spell or hell fire.
"It's gone. The entire town of Gumbleburg! Gone! Even the armory, clad in lead plates! Gone in a day's time!"
"What of Zoriastorian, the talking blade?"
"Silenced at last!"
"Then there is a silver lining after all."
Not even Jack Daniels can save you from the extreme sea-salt rust in the X Files' 'Dead Calm' episode.
3: Make Fire More Burny
In real life, it takes some doing to set things on fire. We've all cursed over slightly damp firewood or dried-up tiki torches. Not so in your pulse-pounding fantasy world. Here, fire burns white-hot, igniting anything it touches.Ignited, objects burn to ashes in D4 rounds of play. If extinguished, any total 3 ignitions also destroys an item. Additionally, fire attacks always continue to burn targets for D4 rounds after impact. Using fireball in a bugbear barracks? Get ready to lose 3 or 4 items to licking flames and floating embers! For the 'burn the village' style group, this will be both blessing and curse.
"Why are you making that face? We've destroyed the bugbears completely!"
"The floor is on fire."
This is fine.
4: The Old Chomp-Chomp
Let's move on from the elemental to the animal. How often are heroes bitten by creatures? If your table is anything like mine, ALL THE DAMN TIME. Despite all these savage bites from crushing jaws, why isn't anything ever ruined? I don't know about y'all, but my laptop wouldn't make it through a nibble from a dire wolf. Kick it up a notch by including claws, but at least stick a simple threshold on bites... If inflicting 5+ damage, this bite destroys 1 piece of armor or currently equipped weapon. Want to really cook with gas? Add bite damage even when an attack is blocked. On a hit OR a miss, this attack rolls damage against its target's armor or defensive weapon.
"It's got sharp teeth!"
5: Filthy Little Thieves
In the arcade classic Golden Axe, entitled jerk-gnomes would grab your potions while you slept. Chopping them would incur no injury, but send the stolen potions flying for repossession. Do not, I repeat, do not employ these little a-holes in your GM style. Rather, add a 'sticky fingers' ability to your more clever enemies. Like the crushing effect of a bite above, this ability is only triggered on a successful attack or physical contact with a target. After such a occurrence, call for an unexplained 'notice' roll from the victim. If successful, randomly select a high-value item and describe it in the fiend's possession. If the notice roll is failed, the player only realizes his pilfered pockets after the encounter concludes. Use this mechanic with care, as it can unleash entire side-adventures of red-faced vengeance.
"There is no heaven or hell that can hide you! I will have my hat!"
Steal things, but don't be THAT guy.
6: Wizard's Recall
There's an elephant in this room: magic items. Lo, the headaches and slowing effect of an overabundance of these things! Of all the ideas above, take the most care here... players TREASURE these objects with every fiber of their being. Still, such items must've come from somewhere... someone... One day, either for retribution, an unleashed geas, or an arcane force-majeur, the prolific maker-of-magic-items issues what we in modern times refer to as a RECALL. This enchanter has revoked all of her creations! The items go from permanent effects to limited charges, turn gray, or become brittle. Flying castles and airships tumble from the clouds, iron golems fall to pieces! At first, there will be a pragmatic panic: "how do we stop it?" Then, discovering the root cause, things may take a more violent tone.
"This mage has the audacity to withdraw her gifts? Withdraw her power from all its new homes? Cripple those best equipped to defend this world? VILLAIN!"
No matter how you choose to ruin things in your game, go with certainty. Your players may currently be spoiled with heaps of loot and arsenals of enchanted swords, but they will soon treasure a precious sip of clean water, the warmth of dry clothes, and the simpler pleasures of a more perilous world. To this end, you can do no wrong.