Walking down the long corridors of the underground dungeon, the party comes across a curious device. A tall, rectangular box stands before them with a wall of force on its front face, separating the group from its contents. On the right of the force wall there are a variety of runic tiles that look like they can be pressed. These runes seem to be some sort of code that corresponds to the box’s contents.
Next to the runes there seems to be a space for inserting something small. The display chamber behind the wall of force shows rows and rows of various potions, types of rations, and other various small objects. At the bottom of the box there is a small, swinging door that can be pushed open, but it’s too low to reach any of the objects.
After fiddling around with the device, the group’s wizard finally deciphers the code and realizes that the runes correspond to the contents of the box in pairs. Additionally, they note that the side slot has the elemental symbol for gold on it. After dropping in a coin the runes on the front light up.
Your DnD party has just discovered a dungeon vending machine.
Real World Items in DnD
The vending machine is a fun idea on its own. It’s a way for your players to decide if they’re going to trade any of their hard-earned gold for healing items or food they may be in need of. This is just the start of what you can do with real world items that you bring into DnD. The real world is littered with conveniences that use modern technology to make our lives better and they’re perfect examples of things that could be unique and cool items for your adventure.
So what other items might be a good fit? There’s tons to look at! Take video cameras for instance. A good DnD parallel is the Arcane eye; you can rig them up in your world like a security camera system that can be implemented in a heist session. Other items that are mundane to us can easily be converted too, like a printer, chainsaws, tape recorders, and e-readers. While we might take them for granted, these are amazing devices in a fantasy setting.
Make the Mundane Magical
So how do we make a real world item usable in DnD? Typically with magic. If any device in our world would use electricity or computers, replace it with magic and complex spells. It may sound obvious now, but a printer converted into a magical item is different from a fantasy world version of the printing press. The levels of technology and ease of use are on totally different scales.
So what about other items? The e-reader is simply a book that contains more pages than it should. That’s a magic item. But a chainsaw is a fairly simple machine. It could be something that dwarves invented to clear land and access resources. Seems up their alley for sure, but we’re missing a piece here and that piece is power. In DnD and most fantasy settings the people of these worlds have not figured out how to harness combustion yet (the Fireball spell notwithstanding).
Combustion is a crazy way to get power. Meter out a small amount of explosive and use that to push a mechanism at high speeds. Total insanity. Instead of combustion power, technology in fantasy worlds likely relies on either magic, which is a good substitute for electricity, or clockwork mechanisms that are generally unrealistic.
A clockwork chainsaw would be sufficiently scary, but it would not be common or cheap to construct. The spring alone would need to be made out of something incredibly strong and likely impractical to our real world in the first place.
To put this in perspective, the energy density of gasoline is about 44MJ/Kg, and the strongest, lightest material we know of on earth (carbon nanotubes) can hypothetically store around 2MJ/Kg when wound as a spring. So the fantasy material that can harness that kind of power would need to be impossibly strong and ridiculously light, which is no problem for something that’s made up anyway.
Why Put Real World Items into DnD?
There are two main reasons to use real world items. The first is discovery. Players can puzzle apart something they are familiar with when it is cloaked in a cryptic description as a fun part of your session. Players get a description that sounds foreign to them at first, but as they interact with the item, decipher its labels or text, and get a better mental image it will eventually click.
This puzzle is something that players solve with their imagination and you make better by being more detailed with your description. There are a million ways you can describe a familiar thing differently for great effect. But the clearest example of this is in the American Anthropologist paper Body Ritual Among the Nacirema by Horace Miner.
The second reason to use these items is functionality. The reason these items work great is because they’re modern wonders we take for granted. Players get to appreciate an everyday object as something more novel by playing with it in a world where it would be amazing and possibly anachronistic.
Back to the vending machine example. This item is weird. It should feel weird in our fantasy world too, as it was the first autonomous store your players’ characters have seen. We know them to classically hold cheap and convenient items, but they have all sorts of things in vending machines now.
In DnD these could function as a way to balance out party rewards. Sacrifice some gold to get something to help you through a dungeon. It doesn’t even need to require gold to function. What if it demanded blood? What if it was a give an item, get an item? Since it’s all dealt with through magic it’s easy to take common, real world items and tweak them to be functional for your campaign.
What Items Would You Use?
As long as you remember the implementation of these real world items is all about the careful description of familiar things, you’ll be able to insert something useful and fun into your games. You can easily convert technology into magic and clockwork and cloak text in cryptic languages already in DnD. While we’ve provided several interesting examples of items you could use in your game, we’d like to know what kind of thing you’d consider making. Tweet us your ideas or drop us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org