Animated objects have been around forever with the flying rugs, levitating rope tricks, swords that swing themselves and the Golem portrayed in Jewish mythology. More recently there have been the story of Frankenstein’s monster to various self-animated robots and the castle staff in Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast.” For the most part these have always been portrayed as rampaging monsters or played off for comedy. Yet they can be so much more by giving them a personality, back story, and goals.
To begin, let’s define an animated object as an artificially created object that moves on its own accord, through spiritual, magical, or mechanical means.
Animated objects lack Personality, Backstory & Goals
Portraying animated objects is difficult many times that they’re essentially traps, lying in wait until such time that as they are triggered. Unlike a humanoid or even monstrous enemy, most of the time, they’re some sort of material that has been animated to do the owner’s bidding. But there are ways of adding personality, backstory and goals to them given a little thought.
Personality is the easiest of the three to provide. Giving the mostly silent objects some quirk that helps identify them from the rest. It could be something as simple as a design feature – different stones for eyes in a golem, a rope that always ties its victims a little too tight, or a motor mouth that simply won’t stop. Maybe it’s a squeaky wheel on an animated wagon, a sword that swings itself in a certain fighting style or joints that momentarily stick on a golem. Or perhaps it has a certain odor that it leaves behind, a crawling sensation on one’s skin when it’s nearby, or movement in a rhythmic pattern like a pair of shoes tap dancing.
Background’s a bit trickier, because it has to be shown through exposition, clues laying around, or rarely, through the animated object speaking. In deciding whether or not an animated object needs to have a background, ask yourself the following questions:
1) Who made it?
- A spell-caster, cleric, or mystic of some skill.
- A musician, bard, or entertainer of some stripe.
- A highly intelligent monster with the appropriate spell.
- An ancient civilization or lost race combined their abilities to make it.
- An inventor or group of inventors.
- A person who was determined to “stay alive” by any means.
2) Under what circumstances was it made/ animated?
- It was meant to be a bodyguard/ protect an area.
- It was designed to help out with chores.
- It was at their death by the person’s will.
- It was struck by lightning or another high energy source.
- It could be the remnants of a military operation.
- It was programmed to come alive (modern robots).
- It has internal gears that make it move.
- It was made by accident: a spell gone wrong and/ or a chemical spill combined to make it.
- It was the result of many years of evil building up.
3) How does it move?
- A person’s or animal’s soul or an extra planar entity is in there. It may be there willingly or not.
- By mechanical (i.e. gears), chemical, or electrical means.
- Animating magic: i.e. a curse, military type magic, or even a world-changing event magic.
4) What are its characteristics?
- It could be a “standard model” of its type.
- It could be better made than normal (having more hit points, better immunities, armor, skills, etc.).
- They could be smaller versions of it, but many more, operating on “swarm tactics”.
- It could be new or old. Newer models may be shinier, able to move more quietly and, cleaner. Conversely the older it is, it may be in much worse condition (depending where it was before activation) with parts that are half falling off, dusty/ dirty, etc. The animated object may even look like it’s being held together by “chewing gum and wire”.
- It could be made of a solid, liquid, plasma, or gas.
5) Was the location that it was created important in some way; if so how?
- If a person falls into a pool of lava, ice, green ooze their will might be strong enough to bind it together in order to create a golem of the same type of material.
- If many people were tortured and killed in an evil temple, their remains might animate not as an undead, but as an animated object.
- If a person died by falling to death, their spirit might animate a rug in order to cause others to do the same… or allow them to fly so that they do not suffer the same fate.
6) Would it add interest to the story? If so how?
- If it would give another plot line for the characters to follow, a better chance of defeating an upcoming enemy, or a moral dilemma for them to solve, go ahead and put a few minutes of work into doing it. Even if they don’t discover the information right away, don’t throw it out; figure out how to make it relevant for them to need to use.
7) How would the players find out?
- If owned by a character, it could give them nightmares (or conversely pleasant dreams).
- Letters scattered around the location in journals, books, and records.
- A matter of history: magic, military, or of a specific enemy, and with the appropriate skill and level, the characters could find out.
- The character owning it could get a weird crawling sense and by following the sensations unwrap the mystery.
- Revelations by the animated object itself if it could speak or write.
Goals are the trickiest one of all to provide animated objects. For the most part, animated objects are seen as mindless things, or if it once did have a mind that it’s been subsumed by the process of making it into an object. Having said that, provided that the animated object has a mind, the following list is a good start to begin for potential goals.
D20 Animated Object Goals
- Escaping enslavement/ manipulation/ to have free will
- Escaping death/ dismemberment
- Equal treatment/ opportunity
- To be useful/ to know one’s purpose
- To know meaningful work vs being used menial labor or as a war machine
- Subjugation of organics or all other animated object
- Its own destruction/ death/ nonexistence
- Creation of others like it
- Destruction of X type of creatures
- To gather friends / soulmates
- To create and engage others in creating great artistic expressions
- To become original, not just a “copy” of others like it
- To be the strongest/ fastest/ smartest/ most charming possible
- Exploration /Adventure
- Creation of a homeland for others like it
- Revenge for wrong(s) done (perceived or real)
- To be near and/ or protect X person / group/ cause because of love/ loyalty.
- Bring notice to/ the plight of animated objects to the public
- To serve others in the way that they were designed
- To bring peace to the land
Putting it all together
A cursed animated sword contains the spirit of famous swordsman Phillip Cross, who owned it some centuries ago. He was betrayed and murdered by one of his friends. In the moment of his death, so strong was the desire to get revenge on his murderer, he possessed his sword in order to fulfil that task. He never did find the responsible party. Unfortunately as time went on his senses became muddied and he attacks anyone of the same race as the original murderer. Anyone who owns the sword gets nightmares about the particular race of his friend who betrayed him, and, in time, will start to have a negative reaction towards them. More on animated objects next time.
Click here for Part 2!