As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I’ve been involved in Live Action Role-Playing (LARP) since I was 20. I started as a player, graduated into being part of NERO’s National Plot Committee for years, and was most recently hailed as the “Spiritual Godfather” of The Isles, a LARP I’ve been shepherding and developing material for since 2001.
One thing you learn early on is that LARPing is not a tabletop RPG. While you can describe a strange object to a bunch of tabletop players, if it exists in your LARP, then you have to provide it, either by finding what you need or making it.
Once you’ve got your hands dirty making and procuring props, however, you might find that your LARPing experiences might begin to color your tabletop experiences. Sure, you could describe the glowing rift in reality to your players, but how cool would it be if you put the glowing rift on the battlemat and let the players really see what it would be like to be face-to-face with such a bizarre object?
According to pretty much every player I’ve ever DMed for, the answer is “Pretty Damned Cool!”
Props for the Battlemat
I’m a big proponent of using a battlemat and miniatures when I’m running just about any game. It’s the sort of thing that quells arguments and questions like, “I thought I was closer to the demon than that” or “Is the yacht in my line of sight?” or “What do you mean I’m within radius of the explosion?” Beyond this, I happen to think that players find miniatures to be a pretty good visual aid, establishing something of what a monster looks like, how big it is in comparison to them, and so on. “Oh, the dragon’s *that* big? I definitely want to talk, rather than fight.”
One way to really customize things is to do a little modification to an existing piece (or kit-bashing, as modelers call it.) Between eBay, online stores like Auggie’s Games, and your Friendly Local Gaming Store, a lot of places have cheap minis, both metal and plastic. If you find a great miniature for your character, but it doesn’t quite fit, a little kit-bashing can go a long way. This can be as simple as a coat of paint, or as complex as cutting pieces of different models apart and putting the parts together in a new way. My husband Steve is playing a minotaur cleric in my D&D game. He liked the Stonechild figure that Wizards of the Coast had put out, but it didn’t have a minotaur head. He took the head from a separate model, exchanged it for the Stonechild’s head, gave the figure a scythe instead of the weapon it had been holding, and then repainted it.
It’s a custom model for his character Brother Eustace. The figure even informed a background detail for his character. Since the figure had a scabbard on its back that he didn’t want to remove, and he didn’t intend to use a sword, he decided that his character carries the sword of the priest who took him in…Prior Justan, who had been an adventurer in his younger days. You can bet I’ll use that as a plot point in the future.
Not all special pieces have to be so elaborate. I was intending to use a predatory vine in my story, and I had a noticeable lack of appropriate figures. What I *did* have were some green paperclips and superglue. I bent the clips into interesting configurations, superglued them all to a circular base, and voila! It made a very visually evocative piece for the tangled vines attacking them.
The nice thing about gaming in the modern age is that there’s a whole internet out there to learn from. There are plenty of sites about kit-bashing, painting minis, and making props. The aforementioned rift in reality was a prop that was inspired by a blogger named Michael E. Shea, from SlyFlourish.com. Mr. Shea makes many excellent props, battle scenes, and more. He made a video about building a glowing crystal prop which knocked my socks off. So when I intended my players to encounter a rift to the Far Realm, I adapted his design. All it took was some of that fake spider-webbing you can buy during Halloween (or at a Halloween store…I’m fortunate to live near one that’s open year round), some color-changing tea lights (easily available through Amazon), and a clear receptacle… I used a clear box normally used for storing trading cards. If you watch his video, you’ll have an idea of how cool it looked when I put it down on the battle-mats. My players ogled a moment, then cell phones came out and videos were taken.
One place a lot of folks don’t think to look for cool props is in old boardgames. My husband Steve has an extensive collection of props from old Heroquest games. This has provided us with everything from treasure chests (or mimics) to weapon racks to furniture. Just looking through an old board game with lots of pieces can be an inspiration for props for on the battle mat or off. Odd crystals, strange shapes…give it a purpose and a meaning, and off you go.
Beyond the Battlemat
Props aren’t necessarily just for sprucing up your battlemats…although that’s a really cool use of them. You can also use them in your game for all manner of different things.
The most basic sort of prop that’s extremely easy to make is a paper handout. Don’t just tell your players about a note left on their door with a dagger…hand it to them…maybe even after pinning it to a cutting board with a chef’s knife. That will definitely add that “this had a dagger through it” look. You’d be shocked how easy it is to “age” a map or document by soaking it in strong tea or coffee. Tear along the edges first for an irregular paper look, if that suits the feel of your campaign. A quick trip to a Staples or craft store will yield all manner of interesting papers, as well as things like sealing wax (very authentic in a Medieval fantasy game). For my Call of Cthulhu games, I make all sorts of props with different fonts, from handwritten notes (with handwriting fonts) to playbills (kind of helps that my husband and our housemate are both graphic designers.)
For three-dimensional props, it can be fun to get crafty! There’s a great modeling clay called Sculpey that can be used to make just about anything. It can be molded over and over and then finally fired in an oven to harden it. It takes paint very well once fired, and you can use it to make things like strange amulets, bones, Elder Signs, body parts, and more. You can see a cool Elder Sign prop my husband made for one of my Cthulhu games here.
You don’t have to make every item that you want to give out as a prop. If you have a local branch of the Society for Creative Anachronism (and trust me…EVERYbody has a local branch), attending one of their events will usually give you the chance to find some awesome props. I have pouches, bowls, plates, jewelry, and other items purchased at SCA events. Antique stores are another favorite haunt, as are thrift stores and yard sales.
You can often find the most bizarre items for sale, and sometimes these can even inform your game. I once found a set of wooden acorns that were bound together and bought them for a dollar. These became an important item in my game, and my players were amazed that I had just the right prop for my plot.
Props for Players
It should be noted that props aren’t just for Gamemasters. It’s amazing how having a prop can really make your character live. Even a single piece of clothing or a small item can help you focus and stay in character.
When I was playing Skittle, my infamous mouse pooka in a Changeling game, I had a colorful stocking cap with a bell on the end that I’d come across somewhere. It really made the character work, especially when I’d cock my head with a grin, causing the bell to jingle. “Uh oh…Skittle’s plotting something,” the other players would say nervously.
One player in a Star Wars game I was a part of wore a pair of welder’s goggles. A player who had a cleric of Pelor in a campaign I was playing had a sun amulet she wore to stand in for her holy symbol. And my friend Jay’s Gamma World character Chimp Savoy wouldn’t be the same without the fedora Jay wears when playing him.
Prop It Up!
I hope that this article has inspired you to take a look at using props in your games. But maybe you’re already doing so! What’s a memorable prop from a game you’ve played or GMed? Has there ever been a time when a prop has really made the scene for you? Let’s hear from you, gentle readers.