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Miniatures, props and other visual aids

Started by Matt Gwinn, February 26, 2003, 11:36:07 AM

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Matt Gwinn

Over the years I've found that I've used a variety of visual aids in my roleplaying.  Maps and miniatures are the most common, but I've gone as far as taking pictures, handing out newspaper clipings, drawing diagrams, and have even gone as far as aging paper by soaking it in coffee or burning the edges then using it for notes.

I'm curious to the different kinds of viual aids you have used in the past and whether or not you feel it adds to the experience.

,Matt G.
Kayfabe: The Inside Wrestling Game
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When I have run my Jack the Ripper game, now being extensively revised to become Shadows in the Fog (see threads" target="blank">here and" target="blank">here), I have used lots of photographs from the period.  I don't know that it always helped a great deal in an obvious sense, but I do think players had a better conception of what the East End looked like at the time.  I also used photographs, taken by me on a trip to London, of Nicholas Hawksmoor's churches, which weirdly overshadow the East End (cf. Ian Sinclair, Lud Heat, and Peter Ackroyd, Hawksmoor).

I also used maps quite extensively, which I think helped a lot.  Players started to get a "feel" for London, in terms of geography, and could begin to relate events to each other that way.  Particularly helpful here was Booth's Map of London Poverty, which color-codes areas by wealth; a similar sort of map would be very nice for a fantasy city, because for example in Lankhmar you might suddenly see that a black (abject poverty, the underworld) area is adjacent to a yellow (wealthy) area, with no middle ground.
Chris Lehrich

Jack Spencer Jr

This sounds very much like a YMMV issue. I can't recall if props or other visual aides were ever used in any game I had played, much less if it enhanced the experience in any way. Nothing outside of "You're attacked by a thangorean snare beast." "What the hell is a thangorean snare beast?" *Flips to the page in the Monster Manual* "That's a thangorean snare beast." "Oh." My GM tried some kind of homemade puzzle for the game before I joined. The other guys were either too dumb or just unwilling to find puzzle pieces and then having to put them together. So I guess we never used visual aides.

Kester Pelagius

Greetings Matt,

Quote from: Matt GwinnI'm curious to the different kinds of viual aids you have used in the past and whether or not you feel it adds to the experience.

Let's see, where to begin...

For one traditional 'dungeon crawl' adventure I created a series of journal entries, using parchment paper, smeared some of the entries, dripped the paper with fake blood, tore a few pages (hey when you run out of things to write it works, adds realism too!), some pages got walked on (by what I thought was a fair looking clawwed foot) and distributed randomly to the players as they discovered them.

That was fun.

While not in the above mentioned game I've also done something similar to the coffee staining trope, only I yellowed the pages, stiffened them by lightly sprinkling them with glue or starch (can't remember which), and had the players discover them in the boot of a rotting corpse.

Gotta love players with thieves who insist on searching every inch of wall space for secret doors!

I've also faked up bills, cheques, used drawings as visual aides, made sound effects with various things to add atmosphere, all the usual devices familiar to old time gamers.  Save for the one time I used apples and oranges to explain the differnce between worlds and realities.  (I wouldn't remember that incident at all save for the fact another GM who was leaving at the time stopped to comment on what I said.  Now, if I only actually had a way back machine to hear what in the world I said that made him stop to comment!)

Of course I doubt if I would have done half of that if not for the sort of goodies packed into games like Star Frontiers, James Bond, and Top Secret.  Playing in those games, IMO, set a standard for visual aides that carried over to my own games once I began GMing.

Anyone else?

Kind Regards,

Kester Pelagius
"The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis." -Dante Alighieri

Walt Freitag

My LARP games were generally less representational than most LARP styles, but occasional documents and props were used. We used a lot of "found objects" and recycled manufacturing by-products from creative-toy stores and garage sales. The design of several games included, to varying degrees, looking at odd stuff and saying, hmm, what could this be used for in the scenario?

The most memorable is the Holy Object. The Holy Object was used as the most venerated relic of one of the major religions in a kitchen-sink fantasy setting, carried in a closed ark, said to be so beautiful that anyone looking at it without the proper spiritual training and preparation would instantly go mad.

The Holy Object was (and, come to think of it still is, somehwere in a box in my attic) a wax figure about fourteen inches high, of a squatting cartoonish donkey with an exaggerated head and sporting a rather disturbing grin (think of the donkey caricature from the old "Hee Haw" TV show, and you're not far off). It's bright orange -- not ruddy or earthy orange, but flaming Crayola orange. It has a candle wick that originally emerged from the top of the head, but the thing had been lit and burned for several hours, excavating most of the head while leaving the leering eyes and disturbing grin intact among the drips of orange head-melt ichor. It came from my parents' basement. They bought it at a garage sale. (Most likely, to be recycled for candle-making; my folks aren't completely off the wall.)

Its use as the Holy Object in the game was inspired by my offhand comment to a co-author, upon looking at the thing: "You know, that might very well be the ugliest single object in existence."

(There's plenty of very ugly stuff that arises from the chaos of nature, in the maggots and rotting carcasses vein, but that kind of thing has a random and accidental quality to it. This item was created to be what it is. It was intended to be looked at. That puts the Holy Object over the top for me.)

Naturally, I anticipated a big and amusing reaction from players who, in the course of play, managed to get a look at the vaunted Holy Object. With the accrued wisdom of many subsequent years, I doubt anyone here will be surprised that there was very little reaction from anyone. People knew perfectly well that we couldn't really have a supernaturally beautiful object in the box nor anything that could really drive someone mad, so they expected to see some damn thing or another, and that's just what they saw.

The moral: if you can't make spirits fly out of the box and melt all the Nazis' heads, then keep the damn box closed. In other words: it's the imagination, stupid.(1) And that's pretty much how I feel now about most uses of representational props in tabletop play.

- Walt

(1) Addressing my earlier self, not anyone else here.
Wandering in the diasporosphere

Jason Lee

I'm kind of a prop freak.  The list of props used in our current game, by each GM, is pretty enourmous.  For about half of us most of our prep time for a game is spent making props.

For the couple of us who can draw, NPC and terrain sketches come with pretty much every session.  For those of us who can't draw, stolen artwork is often used (though not with as much frequency).  There are still some of us who don't bother.  (It's actually an even division 2 of each approach).

A map is almost reaching the commonality of the dice, whether it be a photoshop'ed map or a simple hand drawn one.

Probably the most extravagent props used:
A 3D model of an entire alien city, animated like a heliocopter was flying through it, shoved onto the TV via laptop.
A bunch of small photos of historical places in china, photoshop'ed so the plants were purple, laid out on a map built to cover the coffee table.
A big, framed, color, plotter printed, backlit 3D model of a world's terrain.
A stack of fake blueprints.
A bunch of soundtracks and various items for different runs.

I think for my next run I'm going to drag out my big bag of childhood Legos and create a bunch of buildings.  When the PC's start exploding the buildings I can remove chunks.  Heh heh.

Anyway, I love props.  Now to de-freak a little.

A map is really the only prop I think you need to improve play.  I find it shortens the time you have to spend re-describing where everybody is (for your lack-of-ability-to-pay-attention players).

I've heard one player complain that pictures of NPCs or locations detract from his ability to imagine them.
- Cruciel


The only props i've really used are the ones from the CoC game, though it inspired me to make a few of my own. All paper, of course, representing parchment or scrolls, since i don't have the time or energy to make 3-d models of cities (though that does sound exceptionally cool!).

Maps are the one i use the most, with pencil marks for characters and their opponents, and furniture drawn in. Makes combat much nicer to organize.

M. J. Young

Decades ago now, for some long-forgotten reason, I started writing up all the scrolls that were in all the treasures in the dungeon in which my player characters were exploring. I think really it was that I had these oddly shaped long slices of paper, and I thought, wouldn't it be neat to make these into scrolls to use as props? So I would write at the top whether a Read Magic was required to read it, or whether it was limited to some particular class or type of character, then below that I'd write what it was and what it did. Then I rolled it up, jotted some cryptic letters (where it would be found) on the outer edge, secured it (can't remember whether they were tied or taped now), and stuck them in a Dr. Scholl's box that was just the right size.

It was a nightmare. First, I hadn't figured that once I gave them to the players I'd have to keep track of which ones they had and which ones were still hidden. I had to rummage through the box. I had to remember to bring the box if the game was at Bob's house. It was just a mess.

We use props for color, but not specifically game-related--that is, sometimes I'll wear my Kau Sin Ke or a rope garland from a Christmas shop as a magic rope, and people bring swords and bits of costume and all sorts of stuff, but they don't usually relate to the character. We made a T-shirt for a guy once that said, in stylized runish letters, Kiss Me, I'm Drowish. In game? Character papers, sometimes with character symbols or pictures on them; players make their own maps; referee has his own maps; if maps are found in treasure, these are prepared in advance and provided.

On this last point, my definition of "map found in treasure" has broadened significantly over the years. At one time, it would be an accurate representation of part of one of my maps. Today, it might be a sketch, a set of arrows, or written directions to a location. Form follows function, as every architect knows. The thing serves the function of a map, even if the players don't understand how just yet.

Once in a great while I'll use something visual for a functional purpose. A great example of this is that I ran Blake's 7 as a Multiverser world a couple times, following the script of the episodes for the events and letting the players control the outcomes. In one, there's a wonderful trick that works like a charm every time. One of the NPC's picks up a panel on which a murdered man has scrawled something in his own blood and reads aloud what he thinks it says and then hands it to the PC asking if that means anything to him. At that moment I hand the player a piece of paper on which the scrawl is written, and the player gets to see it--but since I've already told him what it says, he doesn't see that it says something else entirely, the answer to the entire mystery. I've had players tuck that in their papers, take it out and look at it periodically, and never see anything but what I told them was there. So I have used the occasional visual--but this is rare in the extreme.

I've got a copy of Expedition to the Barrier Peaks I'd always intended to run but never had opportunity. It's got a batch of drawings inside of things the characters encounter, many of which are not what they appear to be. I thought that an ingenious approach to overcoming the problem of players knowing what things are that their characters wouldn't recognize ever. Don't know how well it worked, though.

--M. J. Young

Jason Lee

M.J.'s post reminded me of a rather fun prop we used once.

A ghost knew the area the PC's were headed to.  So, I just handed a big brown piece of paper and a pen to the player who's character would draw the map and had him draw it based on the ghost's description.

It wasn't very fancy, but it was really fun for some reason.

Anyway, I'm a prop freak, but simple props can be just as fun as fancy ones.  Sort of like playing with a can full of beans as a kid.
- Cruciel


Just for the record, Stephen Mulholland, the guy behind Aurora, likes to use Cinema-4D to design and render 30 to 60-second films of starships doing things like coming into system and shooting at each other.  He generally tries to construct one of these per game session (every 2 weeks), even going so far as to buy a brand-new computer just to be able to do the rendering in a shorter time.  The quality is about like Babylon 5, visually -- i.e. pretty impressive.  But honestly, I think the seven to ten hours he spends per film would be better spent on thinking out straight roleplaying stuff, fleshing out and practicing characters, and so forth.  Besides, in order for these things to work, the scene he's thought out has to happen, so he has to railroad.  So I do think visuals can go very overboard.
Chris Lehrich

James Holloway

The Cthulhu Live community in general is props mad. I've done a lot of prop work in my time, but nothing like the guys at

I've used a lot of props in my games, since I tend to be heavy on the Sim:Color or Sim:Setting side of things, and I often find these useful in fostering the right kind of atmosphere. It's one of the things I really like about GODLIKE, actually -- the web site has tons of "in-character" documents, maps, photographs, etc.

To add an extra dimension to the question: we know that your mileage may vary with props, but does this depend on play style, or just personal preference? Do props fit better with certain GNS preferences, or maybe stances?[/url]