Roleplaying is largely an imaginative experience. Players have a sheet that describes their imaginary character in game terms. The Game Master has a script for the adventure based on fictional people, events and monsters. Most of the game takes place in everyone’s mind, sometimes with the aid of a map and miniatures to make combat easier. Often the only one of the senses engaged is hearing, as the GM describes the action and the players try to imagine it. That’s why props are a GM’s best friend for engaging players and immersing them in the game more deeply. Here’s a few ideas that I’ve used over the years to give the players more engagement in the game besides a few minis on a dry erase mat.
Of course every adventure has a map, right? At least the GM needs to know what the area looks like so he can describe rooms, hallways, alleys and taverns. They aren’t always something you give to the players though. You don’t exactly want to hand over the plans to the entire adventure with all the notes and room markings. Giving the players ‘found’ maps can add a lot to a game however. Partial drawings of a dungeon left over from a failed expedition, inaccurate maps of a region they’re about to enter, or ancient sketches of lost islands that may or may not be real can all immerse the players in the game. These can be your own hand-drawn crude sketches, or super-detailed maps you’ve downloaded and printed. Just handing them something to hold and refer back to can create a great atmosphere.
Don’t be afraid to make the maps inaccurate, or give them something that won’t be important for a long time. Portions of a map hinting at a treasure could lead the players on a side-trek and extend the current story. I don’t know about you all but sometimes the game can seem too linear if the players are just hoping from plot point A to B, then to C without anything leading them off in another direction for a couple hours. Whatever you choose to do remember the best props engage more than one sense. Throwing a map up on a screen for them to look at is okay, but handing them something you drew on an old piece of brown paper is better.
Probably the most common props, that don’t get used as well as they could, are player handouts. Years ago, when I was just a young gamer, adventure boxed sets came with separate sheets, often of various sizes and on colored paper, that you could hand to the players. Notes they’d find, journal entries, clues, drawings and so on. Over the years these have gone away and handouts are printed right in the book, leaving it up to the GM to either make photo copies, or just read the information aloud to the players.
I my current campaign I’ve taken it one step further. If your printed adventure doesn’t offer separate handouts, write them yourself. Go down to Staples and pick up some resume paper, or parchment colored paper, and just write it out. If your handwriting isn’t that great get someone to help, or fall back on your PC and choose a cool font. Even better if it’s not a published adventure. If you’re writing your own content for game night, throw in those journal entries and clues, notes, letters, and sketches, and hand them out. Let the players read the documents to each other, and let them discuss. I let my players take a set of journal entries and go off on random tangents for awhile. They may or may not have solved part of the mystery, but they certainly added to the story, and the immersion by going over the handouts as a group. That’s not something that would have happened naturally had I just read the text to them.
It may seem corny to use physical money at the table, but there’s a special light that springs up in a player’s eyes when you hand them a bag of money. Make it unique or strange coins and that spark is even better. Pick up some coins from a foreign country, or one of the many fantasy coin companies springing up.
I personally use Campaign Coins, which are on the higher end of the cost range for this type of prop. There are a lot of others out there creating wonderfully detailed fantasy currency. I can tell you, the more it looks and feels like metal, and the less it looks like real-world money the better. Give it to them when they find treasure in the game, and take it from them when they buy stuff. Some even have denominations stamped on them which makes it easier to manage. When the players jingle a pouch of actual coins it makes the adventure all the more fun for the them.
The props I’ve already covered are easy and obvious. Some require some money, but mostly just a little creativity and time. Fleshing out your prop kit can take a little more thinking out of the box, however. Old keys aren’t too hard. Check your local antique malls and vintage stores. Cheap costume jewelry for special magical items are great. Does your adventure have a special stone that unlocks the secret vault? Find a pretty rock, or piece of colored glass to fit the bill. The options are pretty unlimited if you set your mind to it.
The important thing is you find a way to engage the players through more than just words. Find things for them to hold, touch, and look at when they play. You’ll find they’re more invested in your story, and they’ll have more fun. The props will spark conversation, speculation, and engage the players more with each other as well. You’ll find them sharing information, trading items and making the story more of their own. Give it a shot, get creative, and have fun. That’s what it’s all about.