The Analog Gamer: A Cunning Use of Props
Action figures, miniatures, battle maps, water damaged paper – I’ve used all of these things to make my games more real, more visual experiences for players but there is nothing quite as powerful as evocative language and suggestive imagery to trigger a player’s imagination.
Unfortunately, the process of running an RPG often drivels down to mechanical conversations concerning target numbers, attack modifiers and range values. This process creeps up on even the best storytellers as the math of the game can take over scenes of conflict though each group is likely to handle this immersion breaking in different ways.
Stepping back from the mechanics a bit I’ve seen that one of the best ways to get a player excited about their characters is to help them visualize them. Not everyone is a great fantasy artist, though if you’re lucky enough to have an artist in the group it is certainly a cool idea to get character or team portraits done, but the Internet is a great resource as well.
Thank the Google engineers for the unending repository of photos in their indexes or troll art sites like Deviant Art or Elfwood to find a drawing that matches your mind’s eye view of your hero. While having an image might shortchange the “my character is wearing…” introductory discussion during the initial roleplaying scene a bit, it can help reinforce the reality of the game or help you describe your character even if flowery writing and description are not your personal forte.
Complementing the character image, there is something powerful about selecting your own representative miniature as well. Often players have a very exact concept in mind and these can be hard to match with the selection of characters included in RPG miniature sets but it might also be an interesting exercise to start the other way around. Browse the images of the miniature catalog, find one that catches your eye and then develop your character from there.
Many of the miniature makers offer online images so you can scour their catalogs at leisure before ordering online or venturing to the local hobby store to find just the right look. Once you’ve found that mini I always encourage the players to customize them, change the weapon or repaint them to match – make them personalized to cement the sense of connection.
Wizard’s of the Coast recently revamped its miniature line away from the random skirmish game into tools that more closely support the RPG aspects of D&D 4E. These plastic, pre-painted miniatures were previously more useful to DMs looking to popular their dungeons with plastic foes but the new D&D Player’s Handbook Heroes sets are aimed firmly at delivering character-oriented miniatures of the iconic races and classes of the D&D 4E universe. Like most of the plastic miniatures the paint jobs vary from passable to good. Also included in the new 3 character box sets are exclusive power cards but subscribers to D&DI need not rush out just for these cards as they are included in the Character Builder updates as well.
Aside from helping players to connect with characters, props can also serve as tactile or auditory clues to help propel your tales. A tattered note containing a cryptic message from the leader of the Orc invaders has a greater impact on players if you can hand them a copy of it in person. While the description alone and text of the note is all that is needed, the use of a prop makes the item feel real, and important.
Using props does sometimes require an extra amount of preparation on the part of the DM but it usually pays off. I’ve seen games where I decided not to use a prop for an important discovery or communication and because it was little more than my reading it or a description two weeks later the players had forgotten it, much to my and their frustration. Props should be used to cement the importance of some things and the use of handouts is a good way to keep your players focused on an item or situation as well.
The latest edition of Dungeons & Dragons advocates the use of miniatures and a battle map far more than any previous version. While initial purists railed against this integration and change from the more freeform “suggested” format after playing 4E for awhile I’ve found the miniatures and battle map invaluable. So many character abilities in 4E rely on players thinking tactically that mere description can often sell a players’ options short. I’ve used minis for many of my games over the years and always found they helped players understand the foes and environment about them much better but nothing say you have to use them for every game – after all they can be expensive and hard to cart around if you’re not playing in the same location week after week or game after game.
There is one last area where props can really benefit storytelling and that is setting a mood for a game. Using candles during a game of Vampire may seem a bit silly and macabre but if it aids players and storytellers in setting the right mood then who should complain? Music and soundtracks can also punch up the emotions of a deadly encounter or long uneventful journey. Use the tools of the movie director to bolster your story, most of us don’t even realize the power a good soundtrack has upon us during a movie until we watch the same scenes without it.
There are some great pre-made or pre-developed tools and props out there to help you play and run your games. Below are just a few links to publishers and retailers I personally use for my games. Next time you’re sidling up to the table to become someone else think about how props can enhance your experience a bit.