We’ve already robbed several techniques from acting and theater in posts aimed at bolstering our role playing prowess. Today will continue in that tradition of life imitating art as we look at how adding fetish items to your campaigns can provide extra texture and focus at the gaming table.
In theater, these trinkets and treasures that populate the stage are called ‘properties,’ or more commonly just “props.” They might be everyday objects, or family heirlooms, or necessary equipment- like a drinking glass or a gun. Role playing props may count similar objects in their number, and they are just as easy to overlook.
What Can Props Do?
Like their performing arts counterparts, RPG props can be used for many purposes.
Some props establish the mood or tone of the scene that is being played out. For instance, during our desert-themed Cabin Trip epic that evoked the Arabian Nights, I burned a decorative oil lamp during our role playing sessions. Previous games have used unique candles, antique framed photos, or vintage pewter mugs.
These types of props don’t necessarily need to be interacted with to be effective; they may be brought out only for the games in order to ‘set the scene.’ Especially ambitious game masters may even add or remove props to switch scenes- just as they do in theater. A venus fly trap, around $10 from local flower shops, may sit on the table while your party of explorers is braving a lush but deadly jungle. Later, when they return to the military encampment to report to their expedition leader, the plant may be replaced by the officer’s humidor and vintage lighter.
Just as some actors have a lucky item or personal ornament that always brings their mind peace and clarity before a performance, some role players find a focal prop that suits the setting helps them stay in the mind of their character.
It may be a particular spell component favored by their wizard, or a toy replica of their fighter’s weapon. Perhaps it’s a priceless heirloom their character draws strength from, or a mystic symbol that shores up their faith. What ever form this type of prop may take, it should make role playing the character who owns it that much easier.
Focal props almost do become fetish items if they’re used in a game long enough. Holding the weathered horseshoe prop that was meant to focus my mounted Paladin was a great way to visualize his actions when combating evil. My Warlock character had a shiny silver ring that was a gift from a first love. And in preparing for our upcoming Victorian-themed campaign, I was lucky enough to secure an antique pocket memo book from the United States Depository. All of my campaign planning and game notes, character concepts, and historical trivia are getting stored in this small leather-bound book with the gilt eagle on the cover.
Finally, some props can be used as models of objects found by the party, or as thematic media to convey in-game information. Of course, one could just write down the contents of a treasure chest, or scrawl out the first couple lines of the adventurer’s orders. Maps can be composed and printed on computers, or called up on iPads. Information need not be dressed up to be useful.
At the same time, how much more excited would players be to have a gleaming gold coin placed in their hands when they discover a hoard of riches? Never mind that it’s just a game token. In the same way, a letter from a powerful patron could be written in calligraphy on brown butcher paper, or bonded resume parchment. The key that was around the murdered cleric’s neck could appear from the GM’s hand, a wrought iron extra purchased at a flea market.
The more immersed players are in their campaign world, the more fun they’ll have and the richer the story will be. By association, this increased energy that’s brought to the table by the players can feed the pace and direction of the GM’s tale.
Where Can Props Be Found?
The short answer? Everywhere! Let’s look at a few specific sources, just to be sure.
Walk into any department store, craft shop, or game den and you’re likely to run across an object or trinket that would make a great prop for your RPG. If you’re technologically inclined, you can shop online for the same items as well. The selection can be almost endless, and if you’re trying to provide matching items to a number of players the retail route will easily allow for duplicate props.
The big obstacle to finding your props in a retail setting is cost. After all the money you’re spending on books and dice, you may not be in a huge hurry to shell out more cash for a prop that will only see use once or twice. Retail items can also lack the personality or character that practically oozes from similar items found from the sources below.
This source includes a whole host of treasure-hunting opportunities: flea markets, thrift stores, antique shops, garage & estate sales, art fairs, and consignment shops. The locations of these sources tend to vary by region, but the local newspaper (or its online kin) can be a great resource for props. Classified ads will tell you who’s having what kinds of sales, and what they have to offer. My personal favorite are estate sales, because lots of the little treasures that fit so well into games get overlooked by ‘mainstream’ collectors.
When all else fails, and you can’t find the props you want, you may have to plan a little arts & crafts time and make them! Recent posts have talked about some of my efforts to make Style counters for Houses of the Blooded. While these counters (vintage French tarot cards!) serve an important mechanical purpose, they just look damn cool. They provide focus, mood, and information. What’s not to love?