Let’s talk about props. In this article I use ”props” to mean not just funny hats, but music, pictures, maps and even food. Something outside the game mechanics that adds to the content or mood of the game.
Why use props?
Have you ever tasted something and suddenly half-forgotten memories flooded your mind? Listened to a song that made your chest swell with feelings? Has a picture ever told you more than a thousand words? Does something you can see or touch and feel make things feel more real? Feelings, memories and ideas are often tangled up into what we perceive with our senses. Most of tabletop role-playing takes place in our heads, and using props is way to involve our senses in the story.
Props can also be a way to invest in the story. When I game master a campaign I often ask my players to pick a picture and a theme song for their character. Not just because the picture and song by itself will help the game, but because emotional investment that goes into choosing them. People will dig through their entire music collection to find the perfect song. They turn the internet upside down looking for a perfect picture. It makes them care, feel and think very hard about their character and the campaign. Yet, whatever they chose it will be easily accessible for the other players. It takes a few second to view a picture, and a few minutes to hear a song.
In addition, you should use props because props are fun.
Chose props you can agree on
Not all props work for every group. What work differs from group to group, from game to game. Something that would be great aid for someone, would ruin the game for someone else. Some people feels that music is distracting. Others that using images get in the way of their imagination. There are even some who don’t like funny hats.
Even when you chose to use a type of props, like pictures, there might still be disagreements. One time we were going to play a Noir campaign and the GM had picked jazz for the background music. But one of the players hated jazz. She hated it with a passion. She would go insane or drop out of the group if we were going to play jazz in the background during the gaming meetings. So we had to pick some other music.
Another time I had a disagreement in the group about using anime style character portraits. Some of players like them but some of the other players couldn’t stand them. It didn’t work for them because anime aesthetics just didn’t fit their image of the gaming world. There was some grumbling and discussion but we sorted it out.
Props are supposed to add to the gaming experience, not subtract from it. Chose props you can agree on.
Different types of props
My favorite way to handle pictures is to get a big pile of portrait photos. Download a big bunch of them. Get as a diverse bunch of photos as possible. Men and women, old and young, light skin and dark, beautiful and ugly, soft and hard looking, and everything in between. Then use them for PC and NPCs. That will help you with making your casting diverse and interesting. Get portraits with attitude, that say something, that inspires you. If you want to print them chose the print option 3*3 pictures per page gives. Easy to handle, give you playing card sized photos and saves trees.
The good thing about portrait pictures is that people faces looked pretty much the same throughout human history. Sure, hair and makeup can vary, but not all that much. The bad things about portrait photos is, well… They are photos are of humans. They are of little help when you need pictures of orchs. For non-humans you need other forms of art, but then you need to be careful which style of art you chose. You need to get a collection of images which look like they describes the same world and story. That might not be all that easy. There is a lot of differences in aesthetic between a World of Warcraft orch , anime orch and a Lord of the Rings orch.
You can also get a big pile of pictures of stuff and locations and use it the same way.
Maps can be really vague and sketchy, or very accurate and information rich. Be careful what you chose. If you give them a big tactical map, they will want to use it for tactical stuff and keeping track of their movements in detail. If you give them vague and sketchy map, they will have a more relaxed approach.
But one of the dangers of maps is that for good or bad everyone feels that they have to stick to them and follow them, which can be intimidating to some people, and in some gaming styles draw attention away from what is really important.
Music and sound effects
Sound is different from sight. A picture you either look at, or you don’t look at it any given moment. Sound effects and music is often something you leave playing in the background. You hear it all the time, even when you don’t actively listen to it. It will be there affecting the game in subtle ways.
There are two ways I handle soundtracks, passively or actively. If you use music and sound effects in a passive way, you just pick together some soundtrack and let it play in the background. It can be playlist of jazz to play in the background when you play a Noir game, or some music you enjoy and put you in the right mood.
If you use music passively, and just leave it playing in the background you need music that is so general that it don’t disturb the mood of the game. It needs to be “even” so if the song changes it wont disrupt the mood of the scene. You need at least fifteen different songs. Hearing the same few song over and over for hours drive people nuts.
If you use music and sound effects in an active way, you are going actively chose what to play and when. Like the soundtrack of a movie you change tracks between scenes to fit the mood of the story. This takes work, possibly a lot of it, if you going to use the soundtrack all the time. Usually when I design a soundtrack I pick one or two TV-series or computer game soundtrack to use as a base. Movie soundtrack is often too specific, you can hear when someone suppose to land a punch in the music. TV-series and computer game soundtracks is designed so that the songs can be reused in different but similar situations. Which works well for role-playing games. The downside is that the soundtracks are very strongly associated with the source they come from. But you can usually hide this by mixing up two or three different ones. I usually mix in some extra songs I want to use to give the game a certain flavor. For example the theme songs for the character that players picked. And a few more songs for flavor.
It is a lot of work switching song between scenes the whole gaming meeting. You can get much of the effect but with a lot less work by just using music for a few of the scenes. Play an “intro song” in the beginning of the gaming meeting to set the mood, and then turn off the music. Then use music only occasionally during the gaming meeting to highlight some of the scenes.
I usually use a MP3 player and some small cheap loudspeaker I place on the table. No matter how you handle music be sure to find a sound volume that works for everyone.
Physical props – The funny hat kind
This is what people most often think of when you say props. In my opinion they are often the one hardest to use in a non LARP setting. Because we are all just big kids. Put toys on the table and we will play with them. No matter if it a poker marker, a scary artifact necklace, or a funny hat. We will play and fiddle with them if they are there. Use props with care and intention. Don’t just add props to add props. Include it if it has a purpose. Leave it out if you don’t. But don’t be afraid to use them occasionally. They can be awesome.
For a Warhammer 40k campaign I made a 5 foot long scroll of text, decorated with blood splatters, a black ribbon, a skull stamp and a Inquisitorial seal. The scroll was important, and making it physical highlighted it’s importance. It also made awesome scenes when the players took out and showed it off. Yet it was so important they didn’t play around with it. Another time we where meant to play around with out props. It was a Harry Potter campaign and we had chopsticks as wands, so we could act out the gestures of using spells and fiddle with them in character.
Props can also be used a way to connect to a character. Real things you can touch, see and feel makes thing feel more real. Once as a player I played in convention game where we were handed small items. A wedding ring. A gun. A baby sock. A postcard from France with the word “Goodbye, my friend.” written on it. Small things that invokes feelings, and hints about a story or relationship. We were told the things belong to our character and was important to them. We were asked “Why?” I think it was an awesome technique. You could even made the questions more pointed. Like “Why does that item make you feel angry?”
Food and drink
Don’t forget sense of taste and smell. Food and drink can be use as props as well. You don’t have to go overboard and make something extravagant. A little goes a long way.
During a game set in 1920 Egypt we where served small cups of spicy mint tea when the characters were served the same thing. It was a new taste to us, and a new taste to our characters. When playing 1001 Nights the host brought some dates, sweet and decadent to munch on while we listed to the stories. During one LARP I made a huge impression when I was snacking on a smoked reindeer heart, the same size as a human heart. Small things, but they made the gaming experience more memorable for everyone.
Cooking is great fun. It is awesome to do something big and impressive. An ambitious in character meal or brewing you own mead is the sort of thing people talk about for ages. But that is a lot of work.
It not just about what you eat, how you eat it can be the important thing. Drinking from wineglasses works just fine to invoke a feeling of setting even it it just water or coke in the glasses. Breaking bread with your enemy is something special even if the breads is normal.
You can also use food and drinks to get the players into the right mood or mindset, even if it not technically a prop. Serving something that used to eat as teenagers before playing a game about teenagers can bring back feelings and memories even if it a story about space teenagers.
Eating and sharing food is very powerful socially outside of the game as well. It is a universal act of bonding, and is great way to build trust and get to know each other as well.
There are downsides to use food as props. Food stains and knocked over glasses creates a mess and ruin gaming books. Stuffed layers tend to be sleepy and lazy players. Allergies and other food restrictions can be super tricky to handle. Not everyone likes and enjoys kinds of food. The act of eating itself disrupts the game, because it is hard to roll dice or talk while eating, and snacking can be distracting and disruptive as well.
Props rock, but use them with caution. You don’t want them to disrupt, dominate or distract from the game. They are meant to add to the game. Get everyone to agree on what props to use, and experiment and explore what works for you and for your gaming group.
Thanks to Brianna Sheldon for help with editing.