I get by with a little help from my friends – Part 2/3

April 5, 2011 § 1 Comment

“Practical Props”
By Sean Nittner

I have not yet had the opportunity to play in one of Sean’s games; I know lament that fact. The guy goes all out with his games; costumes, props, vivid character sheets and even more props. They are lavish in their apparent production and I am sure never cease to impress. You may feel a little intimidated by what he has done and fear you will never be able to replicate what he has done, let alone find the time to do so. Here is Sean’s dirty little secret he let drop at the GM seminar… he is a lazy. The reason he uses props is to make his job easier and you can to.

So what makes for a good prop? According to Sean a good prop is about being lazy. Why say when you can do? This is the axiom of props. If, as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words, then imagine how much time (not to mention your voice) you save by using a prop. Properly (pun intended) done props reinforce the theme or genre of a game, like calligraphy for L5R, shotgun shells for Apocalypse World or coinage to pay your egalitarian mercenaries in D&D. These examples also show another rule, when possible props should be artifacts that the characters could posses. Props are also evocative; they should elicit a response from your gamers from their weight, image or mere presence. They transmit this information instantly and effortlessly to your players making your job as a GM easier.

Take a look at some of what Sean has done for his previous games down below. These are the types of props that he feels are the most important and basic to improve a game. These are Character Sheets, Name Placards, Currencies and Dice. Let’s go ahead and talk about the first rule of dice; provide them. (especially for dice heavy games like Dogs in the Vineyard and Mythender) While many players enjoy using their own dice, it is always good to make them available to those that forget. When you provide the dice you can also add custom options or color coded dice for characters, mechanics and bennies.

Currencies to me are anything that the players can collect, earn and spend. Whether it is coin or credit, bullets or fate points currencies help reinforce mechanics in a tangible form. You should represent all the major resources in the game with some sort of token. These tokens could be poker chips, shotgun shells, paizo coinage, arcade tokens, glass beads or even washers. Once you have your base material go online and find some graphics to add to them, or use found materials you have laying about to tailor them to a theme. The tokens should be something with some weight and heft to it, make it heavy as a sin and your players will covet them, and lament losing them. (Especially if you make them collect and give up their tokens)

Name placards, or character tents, are some sort of visual reminder of who is playing which character. These are important as a game is much more immersive when players and GMs alike refer to players by their character names and keep the dialogue moving naturally. Placards can be as simple as folding a sheet of paper in two and writing your character name on it to beautifully framed graphics with built in character sheets. (As Sean does) There are a few requirements that all good name placards have, size, visibility and information. I have found that 5”x7” seems to be the optimal size to be seen by all players sitting around a table. This really goes along with size but they should also be visible and readable from a distance of about 5 feet when held back close to the player. Lastly is the most important feature of a name placard, the information. The three pieces of info that need to be on all placards are of course the character’s name, concept and picture.  Sean does go on to also let us know that while you should leave some room for customization, not to add much more to a name placard as it them becomes more of a character sheet than a reference.

Character sheets are the players UI (user interface) when it comes to engaging with the game. This seems to be an afterthought by many game developers as a lot of games do not even come with a character sheet! So Sean recommends rip them off. Most of the best character sheets out there are made by fans and are available for free on the internet. So what makes for a good character sheet? They should present the relevant information and hide the irrelevant. They should explain the rules and mechanics that a player needs to know to play their character. It should reinforce the mechanics that are needed to play the game along with any house rules. The appearance of the sheet should reinforce the games themes that includes; line art, pictures and fonts. You can see some great examples of these in the photos up above for a super hero and pulp noir character sheets.

After the seminar I went out and got to work on my own props for an upcoming Deathwatch game. I bought a 1 inch hole punch at a local craft store, went to the hardware store and got some 1 inch washers, found some purity seal and imperial laurel images off of Google and printed them out and then glued them to the washers to make fate and cohesion points. Next I downloaded a free graphics editor and made some 5”x7” name placards using the character art from the intro adventure. To displays these I picked up some inexpensive standing acrylic picture frames. For the character sheets I printed these out and then paper clipped them into a manila folder along with an explanation of the relevant rules for each character and a reference of actions.

This really added a lot to my game and was really appreciated by the new players that were unfamiliar with the setting. I have to agree with Sean on this, while it may have been a little work before game, it made my job soo much easier once I got to the table top that I was able to run a better game because of the props. A few things to look for with props is this though, no weapons, keep the music from becoming a distraction and keep the books closed and eyes on the table and players. Good luck and happy crafting.

(This post got a little away from me and wound up being longer than I expected. So my apologies for it being late and leaving out Ryan Macklin’s talk. He should be in my next post that is going up this Thursday now if I can.)


§ One Response to I get by with a little help from my friends – Part 2/3

  • j0nny_5 says:

    I like the use of washers for tokens, I usually use backgammon chips.

    I also like the pretty character stands, might have to do something like that in my game. I have quite a few of those acrylic stands you mentioned. Another cool props use for them as a background for your encounter setting. Kind of like an aquarium background, but for your game. Just put the stand on its side, print off a background image, slide it in and you’re set. Use more than two to create a “dome” effect.

    I agree fully with the use of props being the “lazy” way out. My most previous post on my blog had a little on the fly tip for DM’s using props. My players knew they were about to be attacked, so decided to “find a defensible position”. I gave them three rock props and one tree, to place how they wanted (pics on my blog).

    Happy crafting indeed. Thanks for the tips.

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