20 Things

There’s a little collection of random tables called “20 Things in an Orc’s Pocket” which contains all sorts of fun and simple randomizers to add details to your castle corridors and gloomy goblin lairs. When I found it, I started thinking about how potent the practice of using minutiae in games can be, and how GM’s who pepper their worlds with the spice of small specifics are really breathing a subtle-but-important kind of life into their creations.

20 Things in an Orc’s Pocket is managed by a friendly gentleman named Jon, who aims to collect about a hundred such suitable lists from contributors and then publish a little book.

They have the practical:

  • 20 Unfounded Rumors
  • 20 Things Found in a Thieves’ Den
  • 20 Dying Words

And they have the humorous:

  • 20 Spells for a Useless Cleric
  • 20 Unusual Books
  • 20 Meals from This Year’s Monster Chef Competition

If you would like to drop into the group and offer your support or your own clever contribution to the catalogue, I am certain they would appreciate it (and so would all the GM’s who use their tables).

Empty Rooms are Boring

Simply put, the inhabitants of any world tend to junk it up with stuff – that’s how we learn about who they are when we aren’t able to talk to them. A GM can get by with a fast-paced plot that moves players through immaculately clean corridors and onto the next checkpoint, but when a room in an adventure is empty, we wonder why.

Films, shows, and books answer this question by filling up whatever space they have with the flotsam and jetsam of the everyday. Things that an audience can briefly observe before moving on to the MacGuffins needed to complete the story. Game designers must be slightly more cautious because their medium is interactive – if you put it in your game, the player might want to use it (or at least know it’s stats).

Plain Jane or Plot Hook?

When designing your own random tables of filler or looking some to use, you should think about what you want – everyday items that just add flavor or goodies that might turn into plot devices if the players show some interest. I tend to combine the two and do a little improv when needed, but this may not be your style.

Your mundane items should be common enough to be believable, but be ready for the players who want to collect every wheel of cheese and then come up with a clever use for it later (rolling them down hallways to check for traps was the best idea I read about). Temper your descriptions of basic goods so you don’t accidentally derail your own story while they contemplate the significance of the chair with the broken leg and what mystery lingers around it. And be ready with prices if your group likes to sell every goblin tooth.


Sphere of Atmos

The other wonderful thing about the “20 Things” concept is that they don’t have to be things at all. You can do weather effects, songs, sayings, overheard conversations, events, and so on – anything to add atmosphere during a brief lull in the action. Having a table for situations that occur while your group sets up camp for the night could become a nice transition moment to delineate the “traveling” scene from the “camping” scene. Your players may even enjoy seeing if the brave cavalier’s tent collapses on his sleeping head again.

Below, I present a few examples of a variety of tables and genres. I’m going to add a few to Jon’s list and I encourage you to do the same.

20 Things in a Pirate’s Footlocker

  1. A barnacle-encrusted, silver uniform button.
  2. A folded, faded love letter with a pressed flower inside.
  3. A partial set of game pieces hand-sculpted from dried pitch.
  4. An ivory cameo with a girl’s silhouette.
  5. A twice-repaired pipe with a scrimshaw mouthpiece.
  6. A patchwork cap made from scraps of ballgowns.
  7. A brass religious token, half-melted and scorched.
  8. A length of cannon fuses braided into a sturdy belt.
  9. An exceptionally sharp pen knife honed to almost nothing.
  10. A tiny clay jar filled with dried wads of sweet-smelling tree sap.
  11. A conch shell carefully carved with strange, tribal symbols.
  12. A spherical device covered in springs and flints that sparks when rolled.
  13. A brass spyglass that fits neatly in the palm of a hand.
  14. A pair of oiled boots made from some creature with very large scales.
  15. An intricately-made basket-hilt and grip of a sword with no blade.
  16. A folded, canvas sailcloth painted on one side by a master artist.
  17. A glass sphere, full of what looks like rum, with no opening to get it out.
  18. A tiny, clockwork pirate ship music-box that plays sea shanties.
  19. Half of a coconut husk that has been carved with a crude map.
  20. A concertina-style accordion covered in gilt and ivory decorations.

20 Popular Songs Every Bard Should Know

  1. “I Would Do Anything for Gold (But I Won’t Do That)”
  2. “Behemothian Rhapsody”
  3. “(Take Me Down to the) Paladin City”
  4. “The Day the Mimic Died”
  5. “Ale House Rock”
  6. “(Like a) Ranger in the Dark”
  7. “Stairway to Elysium”
  8. “Bridge Over Troubled Water Elementals”
  9. “No Woman No Scry”
  10. “Lose Your Elf”
  11. “Sauron Ladies (Put a Ring on It)”
  12. “You’ve Lost that Dungeon Feeling”
  13. “Come on Thri-kreen”
  14. “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag of Holding”
  15. “Hungry Like the Dire Wolf”
  16. “Party Wipe Anthem”
  17. “(Irresistible) Dancing in the Street”
  18. “Dazed and Confused (for 1d4 Rounds)”
  19. “Sympathy for the Pit Fiend”
  20. “Loot Box Hero”

20 Things in a Post-Apocalyptic Road-Warrior’s Car

  1. A mannequin wearing makeup and a flak jacket.
  2. A landmine that has been hollowed out and half-filled with water.
  3. A live bug collection inside a faded, child’s lunchbox.
  4. An old toilet bowl seat and a stack of now-worthless paper money.
  5. A spare tire with long, rusty saw-blades welded to the hub.
  6. Well-preserved, red meat wrapped in plastic and labelled “Jeremy.”
  7. An empty gas-can fitted with a bicycle pump and a kid’s water pistol.
  8. The rocket-propulsion end of a fighter-jet missile.
  9. A tiny refrigerator running on a strange battery pack with government markings.
  10. A distilling-contraption jury-rigged from what may have been an espresso machine.
  11. A grocery bag full of four-dozen good shotgun shells, each filled with used staples.
  12. A small cage containing a sleeping lizard with a grenade taped to it.
  13. Half of a bicycle rigged to a crude generator.
  14. An unlabelled medical vial containing what appears to be blood.
  15. An ancient children’s menu with an intricate map drawn on the blank side.
  16. A wad of old bubble wrap fastened around a tiny, paper packet of seeds.
  17. Binoculars with extra lenses bolted on that improve the range remarkably.
  18. A flip-top cigarette lighter that shoots flames several meters for three seconds.
  19. A working Geiger counter/poison detector rigged to the end of a shaman’s staff.
  20. A shirt of armor made out of bullet casings.

20 Things in the Cargo Hold of a Derelict Spaceship

  1. Hundreds of empty stasis pods that have been torn open with savage force.
  2. A dozen, child-sized space suits and colorful, cartoonish posters on how to use them.
  3. Crates of nearly-dead batteries destined for a recycling facility.
  4. A tank and spray-nozzle containing sealant for the repair of small hull-breeches.
  5. Slowly melting blocks of ice that weigh several tons each.
  6. A cracked data-pad stuck on a looping video image of a silent scene.
  7. A security access card marked only with a string of numbers.
  8. Containment units for fuel that have been brightly marked “UNSTABLE.”
  9. A micro-gravity jetpack with a smashed fuel gauge.
  10. An old cutting laser that occasionally glitches out or doesn’t warm up quickly.
  11. Flavorless nutrient packs that are well past their expiration date.
  12. A holographic movie device with several “unplayable” files stored on it.
  13. Standard medical supplies that have their anti-tampering seals broken.
  14. A powerful, electromagnetic rivet gun with 1d6 bolts remaining.
  15. A large, golden cube absolutely covered in alien symbols.
  16. An armored space helmet with chrome horns welded onto it, covered in graffiti.
  17. A strange device surrounding a pitch-black square from which a warm breeze issues.
  18. A recording device containing multiple audio records stacked on top of one another.
  19. An ancient computer that lights up and plays pleasant music as you approach.
  20. Three decayed bodies, an array of tools, and a half-assembled device of unknown make.
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