Published on November 16th, 2015 | by Luke Turpeinen3
Using Props in RPGs
While I feel that crafting a good role playing game session is mostly about encouraging fun interactions between players, props and handouts can really help immerse players into the world you are presenting to them. Like I mentioned in my article about trying new things in your RPG sessions, props can be a fun way to help your players visualize things that their characters are interacting with.
When I started up my World of Darkness game set in Seattle, I wanted to go all in. Vampire the Masquerade 2e was my first real RPG but I hadn’t ran a World of Darkness game in several years, and I wanted to make it a memorable experience for the group and myself, which to me means a very detailed setting and the inclusion of props.
I went into the game knowing that I’d need to make some props and gather things like stock photos for NPC info packets. Because the World of Darkness is mostly based on the real world, I could lean on interesting bits of actual people, history and geography to supplement my fictional setting. Fantasy or science fiction games will take more work to craft, but it’s worth it for the excitement props bring to the game.
Props can be either physical or digital. While some people are interested in making physical works, in my opinion crafting a custom subreddit or running character Twitter accounts or making fan art would all certainly count as “props” as well. If you’re running a modern game then you could make a digital map using Google’s MyMaps tools, save the links and then post them to your social media of choice. If you’re running a more light-hearted fantasy game you could always use Playsets, an app for really great looking dungeon tiles.
I find social media incredibly helpful in managing information between sessions. Our WoD group uses a Facebook group to talk about characters during the week, and sometimes as the GM I share the results of research the characters do in-game to the group. The players don’t have to read the article or watch the movie or whatever is linked, but it’s being posted as an in-world clue to the mystery they’re solving (usually via their allies in Network Zero) so at that point it’s on them if they want to take that clue or not. I find in my group that at least the player of the character doing the research watches whatever is linked.
If you don’t want to use Facebook (or Google circles or whatever) for your RPG managing needs, there is always the Obsidian Portal service. Obsidian Portal is a social media site built around setting up RPG campaigns. It uses a wiki format that allows all players to edit their histories and backstories, lets you keep a game journal, and helps you connect with local players if you need some fresh blood in your group. There are even pretty amazing character sheet templates, made by the fan community. It’s also a great resource to see what other groups are doing with the same setting/game.
Honestly, if you’re into crafting things you could get excited about making a physical version of any number of things from your campaign. Even if it doesn’t have an impact on the story, I find that these props are a great way to release some crafting energy and fun to make for their own sake. If you can attach story elements to them though, they can become the focus of an entire campaign.
For our World of Darkness game, I decided to make a prop map. I wanted to transition away from the more railroady intro sessions into a sandbox style game. By sandbox, I mean that the characters are playing within a defined area but are free to explore and discover elements as they wish, in an “open world” fashion. I had the player characters find/steal a map of supernatural occurrences in their area, and now the players can choose which places to send their characters to explore as they see fit.
At first I was concerned with putting too much information on the map, and I was kind of stingy with the clues I was giving them. For some reason, there was a natural inclination to not tip my hand too much. After realizing that doing that left the map woefully underwhelming, I decided to dial the detail up to 11 and really sell this as the work of a madman. After seeing my players’ reactions to going over the map, I am sure this was the right choice.
Do I have a solid plot hook for every single one of the symbols on the map? No, not really. My process here was to add things that I knew the character who made the map would find important. I marked those spots with consistent symbolism, but with no legend, so the players have to guess what each of them mean. Each of the PC’s houses is marked on the map with one symbol, but there are others with that symbol as well. Now the players have a plot hook to send their characters after.
After adding story specific elements, I went through the World of Darkness books that I own and picked out some organizations that I wanted to include in my version of Seattle. These are things like vampire Bloodlines or Mage legacies, small groups are more suited for a local view of the game, as opposed to a national level (like Covenants and Orders seem to be suited for, at least in 1e). These aren’t symbols that any of the players could really recognize right off the bat, even though they are veteran WoD players.
From here I tried to add mysterious notes in and around local landmarks. There is a huge, 7-pointed star centered around the Space Needle, and a note next to a local statue that says “Exit or Entrance?” which is already perplexing my players. At this stage I also started filling in real-world gang territory info, and on top of that put in territory for local supernatural groups like the nightlife loving vampire coterie and a cabal of Jesuit mages.
Finally, to fill in all of the space where the legends are, I just put in a ton of random mystical symbols and scriptural references that made sense for the character who made the map. There are references to the Kabbalah, angelology and excepts from real world prayer books and hymnals. None of this has a direct application to the game, and most of it is just filler to make the map look more drawn in, but players can’t help but see connections there. So if one of them makes a neat observation that I didn’t plan, I can nod sagely and act like they just found a great secret while working that idea of theirs back into the campaign.
While a fantasy or sci-fi campaign might not be able to use a pre-made map like the one I bought for this game, the same principles apply. Your GM could make up a galaxy or world map and pen in details on it for the players. If you’re playing in a D&D or Pathfinder setting, chances are you can get a map of the area you’re adventuring in and running a treatment on it like the one I did could enhance your sandbox experience, if that’s your thing.
If you try this suggestion out for yourself, tell me how it goes! I’d also love to see any props you’ve made for your campaign, so please post pictures either to our Facebook or Twitter!