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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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This question could be a good question, but it needs to be reworded to encourage adherence to Good Subjective, Bad Subjective. The question should probably suggest – if not require – that the rules from System Recommendation answers also are followed here: answers based on actual, real play experience, with explanations and descriptions of why props had the effect they did. –  KRyan Feb 3 '13 at 23:05
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As a rule, you should probably wait a few days before accepting an answer. This gives people enough time to think about your question, and makes sure you have some choice rather than choosing one of the first one or two that get posted. –  Phil Feb 4 '13 at 0:36
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2 Answers

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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very helpful thank you both! –  will p Feb 4 '13 at 5:10
    
+1, great answer. A tip on letters: leaving paper to soak in black tea for some time gives a nice "old paper/parchmenty" appearance. –  Angew Feb 21 at 17:14
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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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+1 player experience! –  BESW Feb 4 '13 at 0:16
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