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GMs and players who have experience with props in their games, what do you think about when considering props to use and how to use them?

  • How might props be used to further the game, instead of distracting from it?
  • What practical physical considerations should I be aware of when using props?
  • How can I customize my prop use to the group I'm playing with? (What kind of reactions and feedback should I be looking for or soliciting, and how do I respond to it?)
  • What implications would there be if I allow or encourage my players to also bring in props?

If your answer includes examples of props you've had successful experiences with, that'd be great.

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3 Answers 3

As a GM, I love handing out props but I don't have a lot of time to build them. And as Melon points out (I've run some of his campaigns) portability and storage can be an issue. I've organically developed some question over the years, to help me analyse my props and make the most of the few times I use them.

Why am I adding this prop?

This is the big one. If I can't answer it, I forget the idea immediately (but see below for a variety of possible answers). A prop calls attention to itself, and thus calls attention to the story element it represents. It needs a reason to exist, or it's a red herring that will send the players running merrily after nothing.

Not that there's anything wrong with that, if that's the campaign style your group enjoys.

Will the group gather around it?

I love it when the players (not the characters, but the guys at the table) huddle around a prop to examine it. This usually means they'll pull it out again later, and cries of "Pass me the [prop], please," will resound for the rest of the session.

To this end, letters are my go-to props. They're easy to make (see below) but they also beg to be paid attention to, a series of letters even more so.

Does it further the story?

Very similar to my first question, but more specific. For example: Burying plot in the implications of the correspondence between two people, or even just using it to provide information about the relationship between two NPCs without having to talk to yourself (simulating their dialogue) is great, and rewards the players for careful thinking.

If a prop doesn't further the story, the next question becomes all-important.

Is it cool?

The Rule of Cool can forgive many sins of storytelling, and this is true of props as well. The cooler a prop is, the less any of the other questions here matter to me.

Can I make it (easily)?

Many GMs, myself included, don't have the time, resources, or skill to craft elaborate props from scratch. Found objects (things you pick up off the ground, get in junk stores, find moldering in a corner of your room) are often the way to go; I have an old-fashioned silver key that does regular duty as The Important Key You Found.

This is one reason I use letters so much: a fancy font, some judicious crumpling and ripping, and you've got a passable flavor item that the group will gather around to study. Writing them is the part you want to put your effort into, because that's the bit that is important to the story... though if you're clever you can use the wear and tear on the letter to say something also: blood? waterstains? ripped to pieces and stapled back together? These all say something about the content and the person who carried it. (Frankenletter was a big hit.)

What happens to it at the end of the session?

I have two categories of prop: single-session and adventure-long. A single-session prop might be a key that the party picks up, and then uses quickly. An adventure-long prop might be a series of correspondence that the party gathers as they explore, and which gets referred to over and over again as the story advances.

We have a PC Binder to keep our characters sheets in, and I design props to be able to fit in the binder's pockets so they're easy to keep track of over weeks and months. If a prop can't fit in the PC Binder, it's got to be a single-session thing.

How many props have I already introduced?

It's also important to think about how many props you're using. A deluge of props makes them all less important, and harder to track. I'd suggest an average of one prop per level is a prop-heavy game, assuming each prop is Significant and you expect the party to take time to examine it. If you're just using them as visuals and not expecting time to be spent in studying them, a prop each session could be fun.

Another reason I use letters is that they can tie into each other, making a series of five letters spread across five sessions feel more like a single prop being slowly unearthed.

Player reactions and bringing their own props

Some groups don't like props. They're fiddly, or they smack of LARP, or they take you out of the game immersion, or they slow down the party's door-kicking, whatever the party's pet peeves are. If the players don't bite, don't force the issue. If they huddle around the prop or pass it down the table, that's good. If they get it back out later, you're golden. Otherwise... maybe re-think the prop thing for this group in this campaign.

As for bringing their own props... this is tricky. Weapons are right out, even play ones, because it's really easy for someone to think a thing is safe when it isn't. I've had success with hats, though, especially in a game where players are running multiple characters: a hat for each PC helps everyone keep things straight. Hats stay on your head (and off the table), tend to be soft and harmless, and serve a purpose that advances the game experience.

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I've played through my fair share of D&D campaigns, some with pretty heavy prop usage, some with slim to no prop usage (in some cases, we didn't even have room for a battle mat!) Generally in my experience, props that will actively help the PC's keep track of things (maps, notes/letters discovered, riddles and the like) are extremely useful. They give us something to mull over as a group, refer to if we've forgotten a plot point or why we're doing something, etc. However, you do need to be careful that the props have some purpose. Are your players likely to forget they found that mysterious key if it's only kept track of in their inventory, or is a prop of it just taking up table space? Are you giving your players small notes to keep track of, or sheets and sheets of paper that they will find little to no use for?

Most importantly, make sure that if you decide to use props, the players have somewhere to put them at the end of the session. If you DM at your house, great! The props can stay there after play! But if you can't/don't want to hold onto things yourself, you need to keep props extremely lightweight. Don't expect one of the players to physically carry home the snow globe that they've been using to cast their divination spells!

A good rule of thumb here is that nobody wants to lug around anything larger than an old fashioned key.

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The first answer here is spot on. A lot of my prop experience has been trial and error. I have tried adding many props along the way in my campaigns. Some worked so well the players still mention them - others were forgettable at best. Always try to think about space, ease, and cost per use. If it is a $50 prop that you think can be used for most or all of the campaign - It could well be worth the price. If you are out and buy a $15 necklace that is going to be just perfect (for when they stumble across the dead servant girl in the sewer) and will only be used for your next game night but has no real bearing to the campaign... well, its really just throwing your time, effort, and money away.

While some would consider miniatures props - that is a whole other kettle of fish. Here are some examples of props I have used in my campaigns, and why they worked (or didn't).

I started my last campaign with a typed up scroll (on computer parchment paper) that was rolled up and wax sealed. I just happened to have a seal press as I am a big crafter, but you could easily just tip a candle on it and it would do the job. The players loved it. Seeing their faces as they cracked open the letter was a real treat and they talked about it for weeks. Paper props are always going to be the easiest and cheapest to make while being effortless to store. Maps, letters, portraits, clues, puzzles, riddles - all of it in moderation really can set the stage like no other.

I also tried a special loot system with a bunch of colored gems (fish tank glass pebbles). enter image description here

They represented rubys, sapphires, emeralds, amethyst and diamonds. I started out with the idea that each one had a set value and I would hand them out to the players as bonus loot - which they could cash in or trade at the local market. Sometimes I would present them in a little wooden chest I found for $1 at the craft store for extra pizazz. Each player had their own "coin pouch" in which they stored their hoard. I found this useful as a DM because I was not dealing out so much standard "gold" all the time. It gave variety, immersion, and they had something they actually had to hand over. I thought this a much better option than going with a coin route as I have seen done many times. It takes little to no real effort and costs less as well with the gems being only about $1.00 per color for a bag at your local Dollar Store. Some of my players really liked it while others found it unnecessary and cumbersome to deal with. It took me awhile to figure out if it was worth it or not - I paid attention to who actually used them and who left them sitting in their bag. In the end I stopped using them for anything but really rare special occasions.

The last big thing I used (and still do) some may not even call a prop. I personally consider pretty much anything that is a visual aid a prop. I started buying Pazio Item Cards. You can substitute 3 dimensional props with these cards - These are fantastic for many different reasons.

enter image description here

A.) Visual representation of items vs. something scribbled on the page. My players tend to remember more of what they actually have on hand when they can actually see it.

B.) Information space - I will always put a small post-it on the back of the card describing it or explaining any special properties it has. This not only will remind them of what they have - but also what it can do, and how to use it. I even have players who have 1 potion card that they just keep tally marks on a post-it of how many they have so they are not constantly erasing their character sheet.

C.) Divide, Sell, Trade - The players get to handle their gear. My players love the ability to hand out things to their comrades. "Here (Rogue) I found these gloves - I think you can use them more than I" or if they found a necklace that drives people crazy so they can only wear it for a few hours at a time they physically pass the torch. With the descriptions on the backs its as easy as just handing the card over.

D.) Space Saving - I purchased a stack of 3 ring binder baseball card holders for the players to store them. Its a good storage solution to keep them organized and easy to see. And at 9 cards a sheet it really does not impact them space-wise to keep them with their supplies.

E.) Pre-planning. These are a great tool for thinking out what you are going to give your players. Not to mention that when you are going through the process of getting the card ready it makes you think more about the item and how it will effect the player/game. Which has helped me not hand out overpowered items more than once.

At about $8.00 - $10.00 a Deck these cards can add up. But this is one of the props I know I will use through any campaigns I run, so cost per use is infinitesimal.

Many of the other prop failures I realize now were just Great for the game, not the campaign. Which now the standard I use to determine a props possible worth.

When it comes to encouraging the players to bring props - it can be a double edged sword. While it can be the perfect thing to get someone really into their role - it can backfire and throw the whole game if in the wrong hands. Setting ground rules at the beginning is an absolute must. I really encouraged my players when it came to props (I'll allow pretty much anything to help them stay in character!) but I made sure that I told them - if it disrupts the game, if it pulls people out of character, if it is sharp/pointy, or if it has a heartbeat - it is forbidden. If it is bigger than a shoebox - it needs DM approval to bring.

Hope these answers help you find a good prop option for your group!

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