Eventually, as a DM, you’ll have to reward your players with some goodies – in game items the PCs can use to accomplish their goals. There are a lot of ways to do this. Most CRBs have a long list of goods, and if you’ve been playing your campaign long enough there is almost certainly a Vendor or Tradesman or Shopkeep with whom your players have a relationship.
But occasionally, you want or need to give your players some piece of gear that is strange, or unexpected. I’m a big fan of sending the party into hidden R&D facilities, deep underground and composed of dense grids of locked rooms for them to explore for as long as they please (as long as they don’t trip the security system). Inside those locked rooms, locked drawers and inside those locked drawers … THINGS. Obviously I’m not going to map out what’s in every drawer so, how do you determine what the player finds if they manage to sneak their way into the Storehouse of Stuff?
You could draw a drop table of items and combine qualities of a few premade pieces of gear – or roll a d100 a couple times on the grand item list in the back of the book, count it out, and see what inspiration strikes. The method I like the most is the 3d6 Method.
First, given the situation, you ask the player to list three adjectives that describe the kind of thing they think they’ve found. “You’re in an underground research facility; give me three words that describe what you think is being kept under lock and key here.” And then the player may say “dangerous; top secret; rare”.
Then, have the player roll 3d6, in order. The first result is how “dangerous” the item they find is. 1 is not very dangerous at all, 6 is wildly dangerous. The second result is how top secret, from rather unimportant to highest security clearance. And finally, how rare. If they roll a 6, make a big deal about how it’s the only one of its kind and even the person who made it thought it was destroyed.
Note: both the 3 and the 6 in 3d6 are mutable. I find 6 to be a good-enough range to help me generate items quickly, but maybe you like 10 or 12. Also, I find three is a good starting point for number of descriptors, but if you’re not feeling inspired you can ask your players to give you another adjective or two, roll them and add them to the stack. Find a system that works for your table!
So – if they roll 2, 5, 4 – that’s a mildly dangerous, pretty dang secret thing and there’s (lets say) a dozen of them in existence. Maybe it’s a very short range self-powered EMP? Could be an long range RFID-key copier with a short. Could be drugs that temporarily buff some stat, but if you take too many (and who knows how much ‘too many’ is) you get sick, or begin hallucinating.
This part is the hardest: once you have the trifecta of qualities determined, how do you coalesce them into an item? How do you even decide what that item is? There are a few ways to approach this. You can let the environment guide you – how large an item could possibly fit in the bin your players have just opened? What kind of thing would be squirreled into this location? What sorts of things would be in the place you are? Top secret R&D facilities probably won’t have magical items (unless…); the big bad’s secret lair will probably have a very particular assortment of things based on how they’ve been built up over the campaign, etc.
You could also tailor the item to a challenge your players are about to face, or a difficulty they frequently have. Are they out of healing methods? Give them something to regain some HP when they need it. Do they have trouble tracking enemy positions? Give them fancy heat-vision goggles – just make sure they’re the appropriate level of dangerous (maybe they were skunked because they cause migraines in the wearer), top secret (these goggles also perform facial recognition) and rare (they require a very expensive, hard to mine semiconductor to operate; they’re worth a fortune).
You could also … ask your players! What shape is the object you find? How heavy? Do you think you’ve found a weapon? Sometimes there is a thing a player needs but they have not voiced the need for it – and this is an opportunity to empower them to get something, the absence of which has been holding them back. Or maybe they’re just bored of their current kit, and want to spice up some part of it. “It’s a new piece of armor!” and then you decide how it conforms to the dice rolls.
You could also do this the other way around – describe what an object looks like by smashing random descriptors together (“round, and metal – like the cap of a mushroom made of tin, but there’s what looks like a video screen in its center, and its rung by buttons and lights. On the underside, around the rim, there’s some rubber padding that’s peeling off. The underside is all charred and marked.”) and then ask the players for three words you did not say, that they think relate to what this object does. They say “explosives, spying, defense” and roll 1, 1, 3 – not really related to explosives, not really related to spying, and medium-good at defense.
Turns out, this is a hatch door to a particular kind of mech (or tank? or car?) that connects to that vehicle’s onboard security system. When connected to the right vessel, one is able to use the electronics on the top of the dome to communicate with the pilot inside, which is difficult to do otherwise if you don’t have an open commline (now, it’s your job to find a place for them to use this, or hack it into some other system; and maybe also to find out what happened with this PARTICULAR door so that it’s inside is charred… YIKES).
This is the fun of this method of item generation: it gives you and your players things to play with that you would not otherwise pull out of the book, or come up with yourselves (why would you invent a hatch door that you have no use for?). It implies both a past and a future where these things are useful, and it is your job to find a way and a reason to work towards that future. Maybe you never do, which is fine! The other outcome is to expand the game world – even if you never use the hatch door, you know there are things out there which make it useful. The gameworld becomes slightly bigger than your experience of it, which is always a great feeling.
Either way, this approach is collaborative – it gives your players, as people in the real-world playing a game at a table, some aspect of control over what they find in the game-world, rather than being at the total mercy of the book, the DM, and pre-built tables.