27 Great Prop Ideas To Enhance Your Games

From cra2

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0420

A Brief Word From Johnn

Props Contest Continues – There Is Still Time To Enter

Hopefully, this week’s issue full of great props ideas inspires you to enter the props contest with suggestions of your own. Entry is easy – just write in with your RPG props ideas and experiences. Each prop tip or idea is worth one entry; multiple entries are welcome.

I’ll post entries back in this e-zine, as always.

The prizes are several great props from Witches Closet:

  • Cloak
  • Scroll Case
  • Bag of Holding
  • Healer’s Kit
  • Bracer of Magic
  • Bracer of Strength
  • Message Pouch
  • 3 x $10 Gift Certificates

You can see pictures of all the prizes online:


Kobold Quarterly A Great Magazine

I just wanted to quickly call out that Kobold Quarterly by Wolfgang Baur has picked things up where Dragon left off. I’m a subscriber, have issue #6 in front of me, and it’s great to have a D&D RPG magazine in my hands again.

You can also get articles at the KQ website, such as Game Design the Collaborative Way, 7 DM Habits, interviews, and more.

Thanks for the great zine, Wolfgang!

Kobold Quarterly

Have a great week.

27 Great Prop Ideas To Enhance Your Games

Disentanglement Puzzles

Example: Old Shackels

I have several of these of varying difficulty, and I’ll use them to represent some puzzling situation the PCs are trying to get out of. More specifically, I’ve used them in two ways:

  • The first was when a PC got shackled. He had the escape artist skill. So I let him make his skill roll, and then based on the success of that roll, I gave him the easier or harder puzzle.

I gave him the puzzle and told him when he could solve it (usually separating the pieces), his PC had escaped.

  • The second was when I had an evil wizard throw (cast) them upon a PC. I tossed them across the table at him and he snatched the puzzle out of the air.

I then told him his PC had done the same thing and that his PC’s hands were now stuck (magically) to the puzzle pieces. He (the player and the PC) couldn’t remove his hands from the puzzle until it was solved.

This was good because it allowed him to focus on the puzzle while still being able to communicate with the group. And, as a PC, he could still participate by running, kicking, or even grappling (in shackles).

Note: If you don’t want the “blacksmith” theme, there are physical puzzles like this in many forms:

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Old Pub Games

Example: http://www.areyougame.com/interact/item.asp?itemno=FP11

I have collected several old English Pub style games that are both beautiful to look at and fun to play. In game, I’ll use them for a round of gambling whenever the PCs go into a suitable pub and want to get a quick game in.

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Chess Set

Example: http://www.chesssets.com/chess-sets/collector-sets/medievaltimeschessset.cfm

Chess sets come in styles to suit any game setting –medieval to futuristic. And you can get them for any budget – from $10 on up to thousands of dollars.

I had a player who actually took chess as a skill for their PC. So, I lured them into a chess match with a nobleman during a festival. I pulled out an actual chess set and set it in front of the player. Based on the player’s chess skill roll, I would choose either a basic, intermediate, or advanced chess puzzle and set the board up appropriately.

Here’s a table full of chess puzzles: http://homepage.ntlworld.com/adam.bozon/ChessPuzzles.htm

The idea behind these puzzles is the game is already underway and you’re now within just a few moves (usually 2-5) of finishing off your opponent.

So, I gave the player a few minutes to study the board and come up with his solution (or surrender). Where appropriate, I let the entire group put their brains together and work on the solution as a team.

However, even just having a stylistic chess set nearby is a great prop if all you do is act out your evil army’s NPC General as he moves one of the pawns around while plotting a strategy as the party approaches for dialogue.


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Example: http://modelshipsonline.com/

I ran an Age of Sail campaign full of swashbuckling pirates, and I used a few model ships as playing aids during the game. It was great to be able to point at the various parts and locations as the players decided where to move during fights and chases around the ship.

You don’t have to spend hundreds of dollars (or hours) building one of those intricate ones either. There are plenty of less expensive plastic kits out there – some of them even come pre-built.

And you don’t have to run a 17th century pirate campaign only to use such models. Your D&D party could be on a Spelljammer in space, or even just temporarily on a ship crossing the Sea of Fallen Stars.

There are also model planes, trains, and automobiles for whatever genre you’re playing.

And you can even make them out of paper: http://www.azzixx.freehosting.net/cgi/wp/

…using a cool tool like Pepakura: Pepakura Designer

Though, I know some prefer making their props out of Legos:

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Board Games

Example: Harmony Games – Batalo

If you don’t think a traditional chess set matches your setting, that’s ok – there are plenty of other abstract strategy games your NPCs could be playing as the party enters. Or, perhaps the NPCs even invite the party to play a round or two. As with the chess puzzles, I always make sure the situation represented on the board can be resolved within a few minutes so it doesn’t slow the game down too much.

Here’s a series of them in many shapes and styles: Kadon Enterprises – Abstract Strategy Games

You could even go futuristic if your setting demanded it: Laser Battle

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Example: http://www.c3.lanl.gov/mega-math/workbk/knot/knot8.gif

As mentioned in a recent newsletter, I will also tie up some knots before a game and use those to represent challenges. I might have a devious entanglement ready and pass that to the first person who tries an “escape artist” type of roll.

I might also have a series of knots described visually, and then, when the climber in the party tries to use his “rope use” skill, I’ll see if he can manage to create the knots in the diagrams I’ve handed him, representing his ability to faithfully tie the climbing knots he was taught during training.

Sailors Knotboard

As always, the difficulty of the challenge I hand him is modified by the PC’s skill rolls.

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Tarot Cards

Example: Tarot

I’ll use tarot cards for a gypsy predicting a PC’s future. There are a million sites (including video sites like YouTube) that will teach you quick ways to read tarot cards.

You could also just act out the NPC ominously flipping the cards over as the PCs enter.

Alternatively, there are many tarot card systems out there you can use to determine the various dimensions of an NPC’s personality. There is even one set of guidelines that converts tarot cards into the Deck of Many Things.


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Puzzle Boxes

Example: http://pwdbp.com/?action=5386.showDesign

Puzzle boxes are the _best_ way to give out treasure or secret notes. Who needs traps and locks? Just hand your “thief” one of these and let it drive him nuts.

The players’ eyes light up when you actually hand them something cool, instead of just saying, “you found X.”

Puzzle boxes come in many forms and different materials, so you can always find something to suit your setting.

From horror: http://momgadget.com/wp-content/uploads/2007/10/hellraiser-puzzle-box.jpg

To historically accurate: Puzzle Box World

Some puzzle boxes are made out of practical looking items, like little jewelry boxes, so they’re a perfect way to “hide” treasure and scrolls right there in front of your players.

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Scrolls And Map Cases

Example: http://www.parrishrelics.com/scrollcase.html

There are many companies from which you can purchase exotic looking scroll cases and parchment. You can use these as props and have your NPC be unrolling and reading them over when you make official announcements to the party.

You can also make up real maps and letters, roll them up, and then hand them over to the party in scroll cases like these:


For a less expensive option, make one yourself using a PVC tube covered in leather, hide, fur, or whatever you want.


—- Comment from Johnn —-

And don’t forget the scroll case prize up for grabs in the props contest:


—- Comment from Johnn —-

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Buzzer Wire Game

Example: http://www.worsleyschool.net/science/files/steady/hand.html

I bought about $10 worth of goods from Radio Shack and made this buzzer dexterity game. The goal is to move the wire loop through the course without letting any of the wires touch each other. It’s much easier to understand if you see it in action.

The point is that it’s a dexterity challenge I sometimes spring on a player when his thief requires a steady hand to disable the trap without setting off the alarm.

To vary the difficulty based on the PC’s skill roll, I’ll either raise/lower the distance the player has to go, or I’ll give him more/less chances, etc.

It was probably the most memorable and tense moment for the thief during our last game. He was literally sweating as he knew if the buzzer went off, his PC would have sprung the alarm and alerted the dragon. The whole table of players were gathered around him, holding their breath and watching his every move. It really brought them together in a way no quick d20 roll would have.

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Food And Herbs

Example: http://www.westcountryorganicherbs.co.uk/

I have an organic garden with herbs in it, but you could get away with simply buying dried herbs and spices in jars. I’ve used these to let the player with herbalism experience a bit of what his PC gets to do.

For example, I’ve brought in some herbs for a blind taste test and asked the player to pick out the rosemary, or the mint, or the basil. If he succeeds, his PC has located the right herb he needed to complete his task.

You could do this sort of blind taste-testing with almost any food – it doesn’t just have to be herbs.

And speaking of food, we’ll use trail mix at the table just so we’re not always eating junk food and soda, which will wear you down fast. The trail mix and jerky symbolizes well the dried rations our PCs were eating on the road.

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Tankards, Mugs, Goblets

Example: http://www.piratemerch.com/pirate-goblets-tankards-c-90.html

You could use an empty goblet of wine or tankard of ale as a prop that your PC/NPC is holding. Or, you could actually use them to pour drinks for your players during the game.

There are many companies that make cool, themed mugs, and you could use them to hold candies, jewels (beads), or even dry ice.


Dice (Gambling Or Fortune Telling)

Bone dice as props are perfect for fortune telling.


And there are plenty of simple dice games you can find online for free to use in gambling scenes. http://www.renstore.com/Itemdesc.asp?ic=ROP1003

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Musical Instruments

Example: Bamboo Wooden Flute Great Favors

Musical instruments make great bard props – duh! 🙂

No matter the setting, if your PC has musical talent, you can keep a flute or harmonica or some other unobtrusive musical instrument nearby. And if you don’t wanna buy one, you can use your old recorder from elementary school. And if you don’t still have yours – then make one: Making a PVC Flute

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Candles are a great prop. You can also use them to mark time. Some candles are marked such that you’ll know when it’s been 30 minutes or an hour just by glancing at how much of it has burned. Best of all, though, is to use candles for mood lighting.

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Fake weapons



Rubber guns, foam knives, wooden axes. They can be a distraction for a group of players who want to swing them around too much. But, for the right, mature group, they’re perfect little props they can whip out once in a while to menacingly emphasize a threat.

And, on at least one occasion, we’ve even used them to physically demonstrate (in slow-mo) a cool finishing move the PC performed. I don’t recommend real or steel weapons. Too much risk.

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In a cyberpunk setting, I’ll create and print “screamsheets” for the players. In modern settings, you can pull together a faux newspaper using a program like Microsoft Publisher pretty easily. For a horror/X Files type of game, you can even pull your headlines directly from the seedier tabloids that run stories about Hitler being alive, Martian abductions, 6-headed baby vampire, and such.

Depending on your time period, newspapers may not be appropriate. But, even if I’m playing a fantasy RPG and the situation calls for some “rumors” or “news from around the realms,” I’ll often generate a handout that resembles a list of headlines.

Even if the PCs actually got all their information word-of- mouth, unless we’re roleplaying each conversation (which is usually impractical), I’ll still use a newspaper (1 or 2 pages) to collate all the rumors into a single handout player can read aloud or study at their leisure. Often, later in a game, this will allow them to glance back over the tidbits and start to put connections together they would’ve missed otherwise.

If you’re ever hurting for stories to write about, just Google other people’s campaign notes. You’ll find thousands of journal entries and session summaries for whichever game setting you’re in. It only takes a few minutes to copy and paste some of these “headlines” and alter the locations to suit your needs.

Even if your players will never actually encounter these other subjects, it makes them feel like your world is a huge, living, breathing place with tons of stuff going on in it.

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Maps And Notes

Example: Old Pergament Paper

I use my computer to make old parchment and put letters or maps on it, then print it out to hand out to players. If you don’t have PC skills, you can make it yourself.

Use some colored paper and write the note by hand, then crinkle it and unfold it a bunch of times to make it look worn, and then burn the edges off (with adult supervision, of course).

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Pictures Of NPCs

Example: http://www.wizards.com/default.asp?x=dnd/pc/20010802x

I always prepare for a session by getting online and hunting down suitable imagery for the major NPCs. This always goes over well. The players love to see who they’re talking about and it helps them to remember the NPCs.

Plus, as a GM, I find seeing a picture of the NPC helps me flesh out their personality and gear choices. You can find tons of character artwork online and artists who will gladly create portraits for a fee.


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Sand Glass, Hour Glass

Example: http://www.woodlandsclocks.com/sandtimers.htm

Obviously, an hourglass makes a great prop for the table – especially for a pirate game, or when the PCs visit an alchemy lab. They come in many different time increments, so you could use one to mark the hour, the half-hour, or even the minute.

I sometimes like to time things in the game. It creates stress, which adds to the drama. Give your PCs a puzzle or a complex choice to make and then have the NPC turn over the sand timer and slam it onto the table, demonstrating how long they have to make their decision.

I’ll use timers for practical purposes too – like timing how long I’ve spent on a certain scene if I want to stick to a timetable for the night. In these cases, I’d much rather see a beautiful, thematic sand glass than a digital clock. You don’t have to spend much money either, if you just want to pull a cheap little plastic sand timer out of a board game that uses one.

Dry Ice (Fog)


Dry ice is awesome (just be careful when using it). Put it in a goblet as a cool drink for your NPC to be having while laughing maniacally.


Put it in a bowl so it floods out across the table, encircling the miniatures and pouring across the character sheets, especially if the PCs are investigating a crypt or dungeon.


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Wands And Staves

Example: http://gilded-quill.com/magic_wands

The mage in the group can wield it like a wand when firing off spells. Or as an NPC, you can aim it at the group menacingly. For an inexpensive solution – make it yourself. Here’s a cool one made with paper and hot glue.


Or, go outside, take a stroll, and find a cool (fallen) gnarled stick. Use it raw, or sand it and stain it.

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Example: http://www.origami.com/gal_trex.html

In a Cyberpunk game, there was an assassin who would leave his “calling card” next to every victim. He was Asian and he always left an origami creature behind. There was a reason he did this, which I won’t go into here. Suffice it to say, I thought it was a cool idea and have adopted variations on that theme in some of the games I’ve run.

There are a ton of websites with step-by-step instructions for making simple designs you could make in minutes.


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Journal, Spellbook

Example: http://www.celticattic.com/library/images/celtic/dragon_wars.jpg


You can use leather journal or notebook as an ancient tome your NPC is flipping through while pondering his next move or spell. I’ve used them to keep a campaign log. As a player, I’ve used them to keep a PC’s journal or spell book.

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Poker Chips


  • I give them to PCs for in-game gambling using cards.
  • I toy with them as a prop for NPCs involved in gambling.
  • I use them as counters to represent fate points, fudge points, or similar awards that we hand back and forth during play.
  • I sometimes have players hold onto as many as their PC has missile weapons or spells.

Then, during play when they say they’re firing their bow, I’ll have them toss me a chip whenever they fire an arrow. This makes an easy, dramatic, visual reminder of how much “ammo” that PC has left at any moment.

  • The best use I’ve found for poker chips is as instant boundary markers for my game mat.

Instead of drawing the specific dimensions of each room, and then having to wet- or dry-erase the lines, I’ll just grab four chips and quickly place them about where the four corners of the room/hall would be. This takes 2 seconds, and instantly the players can visualize the area their PCs are moving about in.

Note: You could just as easily use pennies or stones for any of these purposes.

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The lowly scarf is probably the most underrated prop there is. If I could only have ONE accessory at the game table, it would be a long scarf. It is small and light enough that you can take it with you anywhere. Yet, it can instantly become SO many things in SO many settings with just a little imagination:

  • Wear it around your face if you’re playing a bandit
  • Wear it on your head like a turban
  • Wear it like a dew rag if you’re a biker
  • Wear it around your neck like a fashionista
  • Wear it draped from your hip like the “cowboys” wore their red sash in Tombstone
  • Wear it like a shawl on a peasant
  • Wear it around your neck like a WWII flying ace
  • Use it like a handkerchief to dab away your perspiration like a nervous man being questioned
  • Simply wear it like a scholarly mage (think Harry Potter)

For inspiration, watch Robin Williams on Inside the Actors Studio improve a million different uses for a scarf he plucked from the audience.


Props Made Just for Gaming

Deck of Many Things:


3-Dragon Ante:

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Whew! Great list. Thanks cra2. Readers, if you have more props ideas, send ’em on in while the contest is running.

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have some GM advice you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

How To Make Minis Tokens For Your Game

From Hannah L.

A while back, I read on various blogs there were game- management programs that could print out tokens of monsters and NPCs for use on battlemats. Minis are expensive, and never perfect, so I thought tokens were a great idea. Paying for a program, not so much.

Luckily, such tokens are easy to make on your own. All you need are Google, a simple image editor – I use the GIMP, but even MS Paint could probably handle it – and a printer.

First, figure out what monsters you need, and what similar monsters you’d be okay with. For example, you might not be able to find pictures of wights that look exactly as you want them, but wraiths and ghouls could be close enough.

Google Image Search for that monster. Adding “D&D” or “fantasy” to the search can help, but often just the monster’s name is enough.

Once you’ve found an image or three that work, copy and paste them into your image editor. Choose the portion of the image you want – usually the face or upper torso – and delete or erase the rest. It’s easier if the area you want to keep is square-shaped, because the next step is to scale this down to a 1″x1″ square.

I usually use a 100×100 pixel square with my print settings at 100 DPI. If that’s confusing, don’t worry – just figure out what scale your program uses, and make the token an inch in size. Then copy and paste it a few times, depending on how many of that particular monster you want to print out. I typically put black borders a few pixels wide around each square, but it’s not necessary.

If you have more than one of a given monster, it’s a good idea to number them. I don’t put a number on the first token, and I start at 2 for the second. That way, if only one of them shows up in the first encounter, I don’t give away the fact that more are coming. When there is more than one of a certain monster, the numbering makes referring to them easy. “I attack goblin three,” “Creature number two bites you,” etc.

Once you have all the tokens done, print them out and cut carefully. The paper by itself doesn’t slide well on most battlemat surfaces, so you’ll probably want to attach the tokens to something. I use mini poker chips, which are about 1″ in diameter. Coins also work. You can glue to tokens to the poker chips, or use tape, but I’ve found that putty works best. Putty lets me reuse both the paper tokens and the poker chips, and has yet to come apart during a battle.

That’s it! It might take a while to make the first batch of tokens, but once you get the process down, it won’t take long at all.

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A Map Idea

From Jake

I was reading about interesting ways of handling maps and I thought I’d share one that worked well for me.

Go ahead and draw the “actual” map of your world or locale. Then, try to imagine how somebody living on that world without a GPS might see it. Draw that map and give it to the players, keeping the “true” map to yourself.

For ideas on how to mix it up, check out some old OT maps from the middle ages, or other early maps. Make the areas the players are from very detailed, and then start messing with the proportions and distances the farther from home they get.

You could also try an experiment on yourself. Take a walk around your block, or a friend’s block, or some place you haven’t seen a map of. Draw a map of the area based on your impressions. Then check out Google Earth or a road map to see how the two are different.

—- Comment from Johnn —-

Thanks for the great tip, Jake. Some of those old maps you mentioned are great inspiration. For example:

Another trick is to draw your point-of-view map in a straight line, regardless of turns and angles. For example, the mapper turns left at a tree shaped like a storm giant, so he continues to draw a straight path on his map, but adds a picture of the storm giant tree with a small label at the proper place on the line.

Players could still follow a map like this, but it makes it a bit more interesting and harder to meta-game because all references and distances are relative.

Have you seen the following tips at the website?

Online Sources of Free Maps:


—- Comment from Johnn —-

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The Best Online Name Generator

From Firefly

I am an avid roleplayer and former DnD player. I have subscribed to your articles for some time now, and find them very helpful. I do not use the DnD system anymore. Instead, I use a bit of a hybrid system (Interlock system from Cyberpunk 3.0, mixed with a few Palladium concepts) that allows me to focus almost completely on the roleplaying aspect.

I have found, after much searching online, a name generator I am finally pleased with:

Random Name Generator

It allows you to create names based on their culture and to include a surname of your choosing. I recently created an entire village using this system, gave it to the players, and it truly breathed life into my story.

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Homebrew Skill List

From Loz Newman

Here’s a list of skills in a game system I drew up to try to cover every situation:

  • Fast Talk (when you don’t have truth on your side)
  • Diplomacy (for when you DO have truth on your side)
  • Conversation (for subtly extracting information during an apparently banal chat)
  • Intimidation
  • Interrogation
  • Voice Imitation
  • Disguise
  • Dancing (yes, it’s a social skill)
  • Interrogation
  • Etiquette
  • Carousing
  • Acting
  • Musical skill (you must pick a speciality each time you buy this skill, e.g. guitar, singing, piano)
  • Hypnotism
  • Language (costs 1 skill slot per language)
  • Bargaining
  • Begging
  • Oratory (to use Diplomacy and/or Fast Talk to persuade large groups)
  • Seduction
  • Voice-Throwing
  • Corruption
  • Animal Training
  • Knowledge (Street Smarts). It’s real a mind-based skill but relevant to oft-encountered social milieu.

In my game system, you get a small level in every skill by default, about half of what you’d have if you bought the skill. XPs can be invested in each skill individually to reflect specializations or special aptitudes.

In other game systems, I’ve seen Persuasion, Streetwise, Acting, Intimidation as the basic skill set. Some GMs I’ve seen just use Persuasion. I rely on “Has the player’s argument logically swayed the NPC?” as the basis and dice rolling as secondary (to help sort out borderline cases). Role-ing, rather rolling! Often, the PC’s argument is so good (or off-base…) I decide to not even bother with a dice roll.

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A Dark And Gritty City

From Paul

I have a border town in my campaign that is always an unpleasant but necessary place to stop. It’s the NPCs in the town who make it nasty.

  • The seedy trader: will give 10% discounts (on the inflated market) but only for the character who is willing to degrade themselves for his personal pleasure.
  • Street urchins: having one’s pocket being picked is a constant risk. At least once a day (or more depending on notoriety) the character will have a pick pocket attempt on them.
  • Starving beggars: they are everywhere. You can offer particularly pitiful examples, such as a starving young girl covered with bruises.
  • No win situations:
  • If the characters don’t give the girl money or food, then a short time later they will find her dead on the street from starvation.
  • If they do give her money or food, they find her dead on the street within an hour – the victim of a robbery murder.
  • If they take her under their wing instead of offering direct assistance, then the evil step-mother gets involved. When the characters next see the girl, she is in an even more decrepit state because of what the stepmother has done to her/made her do.

Vice (I use this word to keep the content family friendly). Vice is everywhere, and it is enticing to get involved with it for the characters because it gives a fantastic morale bonus and a deceptive penalty.

Depending on the type of vice, something like:

  • First use: +5 to all skills and attack rolls, or something for 1 day followed by 5 days of -1
  • Second use: +3 to skills and attack bonuses followed by 5 days of -1
  • Third use: +0 to skills and attack bonuses followed by 30 days of -5
  • Next five uses can negate the existing penalties for 1 day but penalty returns to -5
  • The next use does not relieve the penalty and then the penalty becomes -10…

Or: +3 moral bonus but afflicted with a nasty stat depleting disease.