How To Use Props In Your Games – 8 Tips

From Johnn Four

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0419

A Brief Word From Johnn

Props Ideas Contest Begins – Enter Today

It’s time for another fun contest, this time themed on props. To enter, write in with your game props ideas and experiences. Each prop tip or idea is worth one entry, multiple entries are encouraged. You can find entry examples in tip #8 of this issue – 10 Props Ideas.

I’ll post entries back in this e-zine, as always, so we can all discover new and fun ways to enhance our games and entertain our players.

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

Witches Closet is a great place to find quality, hand- crafted game props and garments. Pictures of the prizes they’re supplying above will soon be available on their web site.

When Laura from Witches Closet first contacted me about sponsoring a contest I knew I had to run a props contest just because the prizes are so neat and the theme is a natural fit. I might enter a dozen times just to try to win the Scroll Case, Bag of Holding, and Message Pouch!

Please find time to get some gaming done this week.


How To Use Props In Your Games – 8 Tips

Use Me-Props

Avoid the trap of using props that are all about you the game master, and that have little to do with your players and their characters. It’s easy to get wrapped up in handouts, charts, and pictures that show off your ideas and game world.

While GM-focused props are interesting, and definitely better than nothing, you have an opportunity to wow your players by making your props all about them and their characters.

Use props with consequences.

One technique for this is to use props that have consequences and impact. For example, showing your group a map of your world helps your players conceptualize their characters’ travels and the PCs’ relative position within the land. This provides a bit of structure many gamers appreciate who would otherwise feel a bit lost when everyone talks about places and destinations.

However, applying the me-props principle, how about making your world map more about your group’s interests:

  • Place warnings. Add graphics of sea serpents and other monsters that actually indicate lairs and threats.
  • Issue challenges. Add text that dares the PCs to cross these lands or wander near those caves.
  • Useful reference. A map with a thousand dots and place names is useful, but mostly to you unless you are GMing a travel campaign. Instead, give your group a map dotted with

ally locations, trading posts, training locations, information and contact points, secret routes and shortcuts, and hints and clues.Exploration. What makes one place more interesting to explore than other? Communicate this on your map. The cliché map of just a few lines and an X works because it generates a sense of wonder, mystery, and excitement. How could you label and frame your map information to recreate mystery, wonder, and desire to explore (especially the locations for which you have adventures in mind).Create blank versions of your maps, sparsely labeled, so players can log their travels or make notes important to them.

Here’s a test next time you plan a prop to see if it’s a me- prop for your players. Ask yourself this:

“Is this prop something each player is going to look at or pick-up once, and then put it down and not touch it again for the rest of the campaign?”

Use Visceral Props

Visceral: affecting emotions.

Use props that will get a reaction out of your players.

Perhaps you have a gargantuan dragon mini ready to scare your group with when the PCs enter the massive cavern. One option is to have it sitting by the table, ready for the battle map. Another option is to hide it, and to think of a cool entrance plan for maximum surprise and effect.

Perhaps it’s hiding in an innocent looking box, and just before you unleash the creature you call a break, clear the room, and set things up so when the players sit down again you punch away the box and play a loud thunder crack sound effect.

Another technique is using memorabilia. Find something from yesteryear, such as an old toy or game, and give it a place in your adventure. Players will reminisce a bit, or have a surge of great memories, or just get excited. Soon, the real-life aspect of the prop will fade into the background and gaming can come into focus again, but for the rest of the campaign that prop will be treasured, and remembered.

Look for props that invoke emotion:

  • Clothing and costumes. Not only to get into character better, but to stir each other up, get imaginations activated, and to feel different for a while.
  • Mock weapons. Nothing dangerous please. 🙂 Imagine the excitement generated after you or a player performs a representation of their critical strike and a loud, “hiiiiyah!”
  • Clues left behind by the villain that contain truly funny jokes.

Find Props You Can Touch

Photos, art, projected/computer maps and pics, and items from books and magazines make great props, but a prop that each player can touch, play with, experiment with, our use to accentuate their descriptions and roleplaying are wonderful. Use props everyone can touch, pass around the table, and pick up at any time.

For example, one reader writes: “I use things to help my players feel what it is to be in a particular situation (one that cannot happen in the real world). For example, to make them feel what it is to be in a purple worm belly, I use those non-toxic slimes they sell in stores. Or I can make them put their hands into a bowl full of baked macaroni to make them feel what it is to fall face first in a pool full of worms…YYEEEWWW! Disgusting.”

Get Props That Make Players Think

The line between character knowledge and player knowledge is based on your GMing style and the preferences of your players, but if permitted, use props such as puzzles to engage players’ minds and imaginations that also have impact on the PCs and the game.

For example, cra2 writes, “I have a book of knots and I’ll tie up some doozies of varying degrees of complexity. When a player tries to use his rope use skill or escape artist skill, I’ll toss him a rope knot and say, ‘undo it.'”

Here is a web site that shows you how to tie cra2’s doozies: Animated Knots

Over the years I’ve collected books on puzzles, logic problems, and lateral thinking problems. Find ways to insert these into your campaigns.

Another idea is word games. Not all players will enjoy word puzzles, but for those who do, this type of prop is a huge amount of fun. For example, you might make a crossword using in-game clues, and the password to get by a magic gate is one of the words from the crossword. A hint is that the word does not have a clue in the numbered entries.

“Hey, there’s no clue for word #13.”

“Oh really? Weird. Maybe that’s significant?”

Such props are a great way to keep idle players busy, or to have a small part of your group who are working together on the answers feel like they’re still contributing to the campaign during a split group situation.

I remember the fun I had with the code wheel from the old Gold Box D&D computer games. On game start you’d be presented with a code, and you’d need to use a cardboard wheel to get the reciprocal code to activate the game for play. The codes were all in Forgotten Realms languages, so it was a neat prop.

Introduce Props At The Right Moment – They Are Distracting

When you reveal your prop, gameplay will stop as the players check it out. If it’s something small that can be handled, then expect a delay as players pass the prop around and take a few moments to examine it, make comments or jokes, and hand it on. If your prop has detail, expect several player questions and players spending time examining things closely. If the prop is a puzzle, your players will likely stop everything and try to solve it. If your prop requires assembly or set-up, expect more game delays.

Think ahead and imagine how your group will react to your prop. If it’s likely gameplay will come to a halt, then be strategic about its reveal.

For example, if you have the option, introduce your prop toward the end of the session when energy typically flags. If it’s a puzzle, wait until the very end of the game so players can work on it between sessions (unless you want to keep players busy with it in-game).

If the prop is noisy or smelly, be aware of the real world timing. Late night noise doesn’t go well with anyone trying to sleep upstairs.

It might be appropriate to have a planned break just as the prop is introduced so the players can explore it without guilt or conflict. You want to avoid the situation of some players wanting to keep playing while some want to investigate the prop. An official, short break settles this issue nicely.

If your prop is to generate a certain emotion, be aware of potential clashes with game mood and atmosphere. For example, if you hand out “magic” plastic clown masks to be used as weapons against the villain, but you had intended the villain battle to be dark and gritty, you are setting your tactics up for failure.

Make Prop Copies To Allow Multiplayer Play

It’s frustrating as a player to not have access to an important prop. If possible, have copies of your prop handy so players don’t have to wait for access, or if one player tends to hog things.

Photocopy – or print out – multiple copies of puzzles and paper-based props. Try to find multiple versions for other types of props.

Keep props in front of your GM screen so players don’t lose them or set them out of reach of the other players.

Consider putting props on display away from the game table so anyone can get up and look without disturbing others or finding the prop is inaccessible.

Beware of props that require just one brain or set of hands to deal with. These become exclusionary. If you have the option, employ these props to single, isolated, or split-off PCs. While all players will want to check the prop out, they’ll acknowledge that just the one PC has in-game access to the prop and they should leave the player alone with the prop in peace to solve or deal with.

For example, you can use a dream or vision to strategically introduce the prop to a single PC. If you can make the prop setting neutral, then you can place it when the time is right for just one PC to find. An NPC might take a PC aside and give the prop just to them for safekeeping. And, fudging skill checks let you open a secret area to give the prop to a PC at your chosen moment.

Avoid Fragile Props

Props will be manhandled, dropped, dunked in pop and pizza, and otherwise abused, especially if they recur in multiple sessions. Is it ok if your prop gets damaged? If not, then take action to protect it.

Warning your players to be careful with it is possible, but not fair to them. If a real, unavoidable accident does occur, then you end up with an upset player and a broken prop.

Your best bet is to avoid fragile props. If that’s not possible, then it’s your responsibility to protect the prop:

  • Use a protective container
  • Have a do not touch policy
  • Only handle the prop yourself
  • Do not make it interactive in-game (if the PCs aren’t supposed to touch it, then there’s less pressure for the players to handle it)
  • Take a picture of it instead and bring the photo to the game

10 Props Ideas

1) A Rubik’s cube and a solutions book. Several solutions books give you patterns in addition to solutions to the original goal of getting all colors the same on all faces. You can use the alternate patterns as player challenges, with the book providing solutions for stuck players.

Patterns might be used as keys to magical locks. The cube could be a magic item and each pattern generates a different effect. A pattern might be shown to a secret cult to gain admittance.

You might also cut up the solutions book and have players quest for individual pages / solutions.

2) Create potions with cheap, clear glass and plastic containers. Baby food jars, dice holders, and containers from all the stuff you buy. Go to dollar stores and yard sales to find more containers.

With a small collection, you can get colored, crystallized juice (i.e. Tang or Cool-Aid) to fill the containers up to craft nifty potions. You can also get colored sand or crystals from craft stores for this purpose.

3) Fake cigarettes. Wooden dowel is great for these. Cut the dowel into cigarette lengths. Paint 3/4 of each length white. Leave 1/4 brown. Roleplaying while holding one between your lips or in your hands.


4) Hidden pictures. Find the children’s books where an artist has hidden animals and other shapes into the art. Give players a page and ask them to find what’s hidden.

Perhaps turn the request into a riddle or puzzle to add another fun element. Give them a page with the following animal hidden on it, along with the riddle:

I have wings but I’m not a bird.

I am small and colorful.

I live in gardens and fields and forests.

Another great book of hidden pictures is The Tasks of Tantalon by Steve Jackson.

Puzzle Island

Tasks of Tantalon: A Puzzle Quest Book

In Search of King Tut’s Tomb – A Hide and Seek Puzzle Book

5) Halloween soon approaches. Get all the plastic swords, monster masks, pirate hats, and other props you can while they’re in season!

6) Candles, especially floating candles in tinted water, can create a great mood for a nighttime setting, in dingy castles or dungeons, or just a fantasy/medieval setting. Just remember to have adequate ventilation, or you’ll put everyone to sleep as the oxygen levels drop, and the walls will get stained with soot. Also, be wary of potential fire hazards, such as curtains, posters, flammable pets and clumsy players! (From: Gareth)

7) Headpieces. Hoods are a great way to convey mystery, or at least a different personality. Other headpieces, such as caps, crowns, scarves, (even tea towels for that middle eastern feel) are easy to get hold of. They are easy to put on and take off, and are immediately obvious to the group. (Plus, they don’t usually get in the way of your notes, GM screen or dice rolling). An interesting option is to take a necklace with a large setting on it and wear it across your forehead…gives a real impression of something arcane and different. (From: Gareth)

8) Bottles. Trying to impersonate a drunk, an apothecary, a healer or a shadowy figure selling mysterious potions? Get a bottle (preferably glass), remove the label with warm water, and fill it with different colored water, coffee (with or without milk), or any other liquid you want.

With a bit of glue and paper, you can make your own labels, and there are a stunning variety of shapes and colors of bottles if you look hard enough. Antique shops and junk shops often have old bottles.

You can even have PCs drink the contents when they quaff that unknown potion, but make sure it’s safe to do so…if you use dishwashing liquid, make sure everyone knows! Also, your thirsty player will not appreciate it if the bottle they just drank had milk in it, and it was filled three sessions ago. (The look on their face is priceless, but it’s not good for their health). (From: Gareth)

9) Need some treasure? Go through all those junk mail catalogs and antique auction brochures. Cut out the interesting pictures of “antique” items, jewelry, fancy rugs, furniture, and art. Use them as treasure for your party. When they rake in a big haul, or find something unusual, you can show them this picture, or simply hand it out and let them try to guess what the item is worth or what it is. (From: Chris Tutty)

10) As I am going through old travel magazines or National Geographic, I often see pictures of places and I try to think where that would be in my campaign world. So why not cut out those pictures and put them in a file for use when the PCs are in that area? (From: Chris Tutty)

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Hopefully these prop tips and ideas get your imagination going. Don’t forget to enter the props contest for a chance to win some fun prizes.

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

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

Use A Fractal Planning Approach

From Aki Halme


Another approach in seat-of-the-pants style gaming might be the fractal principle. That is, each detail is as complex as the whole it is a part of. Adapting this to the Trivial Pursuit approach you mentioned last issue:

  • The town has six distinct areas or themes (city -> cultural, historical; or city -> gate area, castle, north, east, south, west)
  • Each area or theme has six distinct features (park, theater, etc.)
  • Each feature has six distinct spots (park -> lake, forest, bushes, paths)

And so on. That way, there is no way to really run out of detail, as wherever you look, there will be detail – and only there, which saves preparation work. Doing this in four steps, giving players essentially four choices of one-out-of-six, requires preparing 24 things while giving the impression of 1,296.

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Holiday Idea: Time of Uprooting

From Marcus Nichols

Time of Uprooting: Lai’ Tordor (in Wood Elven)

This is a time of awakening for trees and tree spirits. Nobody knows how long it has been happening, but the wood elves recall only 3 occasions in their written and oral history, so infrequent is it. Each time it comes with fewer years passed since the last. For a limited time, Lai’ Tordor allows trees to express themselves. But some use the time for revenge, hating all who take from the forest and never giving back. The wood elves in times past bore the brunt of the anger, because some see no difference between friend and foe!

Lai’ Tordor begins slowly with small events, such as long, dormant forest spirits awakening. They begin to rouse their brothers, sisters and the trees. Trees still rooted may speak or attack. Slowly, the forest begins to truly awaken. As days pass trees will uproot themselves. Eventually a forest will look quite bare. But not all trees and spirits awaken; some choose to sleep until next time.

  1. I could see this holiday having lots of wood elf NPCs.
  2. Maybe you need to work with the elves and “nice trees” to make a magic item of some sort.
  3. This could be the work of an ancient evil druid and you need to find his/her old lair to set things right.
  4. I feel this holiday would make a nice campaign, with players fighting the slowly awakening forest. Fighting weak monsters first, perhaps climaxing in a fight with an enormous tree monster.
  5. This campaign is ripe for players who like to do diplomatic parleys. Perhaps you need to convince the nice trees to go to full scale war.
  6. There should be a distinction between tree men and the trees that have awakened.
  7. Make sure players understand this is happening everywhere and only they can stop it. It might begin to happen often if it isn’t stopped now.
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Another Word Game Character Generation Method

From Yettimann


I love the word games idea of character creation. There’s another game I used to play as a kid that could give you interesting results. You start with two words of the same length and change one letter at a time to transform the first word into the second. Every letter change, however, needs to create a new word.


TACK (Maybe this particular rogue is a horse rider or enthusiast)

TALK (Obviously good at talking)


TAIL (Either it’s not human or it carries a lucky charm or talisman)

TOIL (This and the next indicate farming roots – background…)


SOAL (Obsolete spelling for the fish now know as “sole”)

SOAP (It does not like being dirty – maybe that’s why it left the farm)

STAP (It’s a Star Wars game…maybe it’s particularly good at piloting as well)


As you can see this game gives you a lot to work with. I’ve always loved parlor games like this. Gladstone’s Games to Go (ISBN-13 9781931686969) has a whole chapter on word games like this and variations to make things more interesting. (There’s one variation to this game where you get to add letters, which means you could conceivably get SNEAK–> ATTACK or USE –> COMPUTER, though the latter would be much more difficult). Check it out.

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Ideas For Using Trivial Pursuit In Johnn’s Campaign

From Michael Horton


“I’m using the Trivial Pursuit board game as inspiration for Carnus. The city is roughly round and districts are somewhat pie shaped. I’m using the board as a mapping of the political structure, but I haven’t found a use yet for the player pie pieces (do you have any ideas?).”

The pie pieces (and respective holders) are for voting in important, city-wide issues. Sure, you might have 6 distinct Warlords ruling their parts of the city, but sometimes they have to vote on something together.

The holders would represent a motion, law, or proposal put out by one Warlord and the others could vote for it (by putting their color wedge in) or not. Or, perhaps there are several options (holders) on the table and you place your wedge into the one you favor. Could lead to a lot of vote buying and deal making as each “wedge” vies for power while trying not to let anyone else get too strong.

Perhaps this method is carried down within each district and the councils for each area vote the same way.

Optionally, when you send your PCs around to gather McGuffins from each part of town, those playing pieces and pie slices would be a good way to keep track of it.

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From Mark of the Pixie

You could use them to show political support. If I remember correctly, each piece has space for 6 pieces of pie. If each district has a color you can use this color to represent the political support it gives to the other 5 districts (can’t support yourself). The political landscape of support and obligation can then be seen at a glance, and is easily adjusted if a district offends its neighbors.

If a district gets more than 6 pies of support, then it may be able to grow into other areas. Similarly, if a district is unsupported (has empty spaces) it risks losing ground or falling into decay.

Wealthy districts might get more pieces to give out to represent their greater financial support, and poor ones might have fewer.

PCs might get hired to help any one of the interest groups on any side to help shift the political landscape of the city. They would then be able to see the effect their actions have in the pie pieces.

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City Map Generator

From Pok

I stumbled a nice link for a city map generator:

It’s Windows only, so I can’t use it, but it looks interesting.

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Creating Maps With Photoshop/GIMP

From Wolf

I ran into a marvelous series of fantasy cartography by Butch Curry from Zombie Nirvana Games where he teaches how to create cool maps with Photoshop. His instructions are also usable to people using the GIMP (like me).

Here is the URL to the podcasts:

Butch Curry – YouTube

And this is the link to his site, where there might be some additional material relating to the podcasts: