Props Contest Entries – Part 4

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0429

A Brief Word From Johnn

Happy New Year

It’s 2009. Already. Time flies when you are the GM. I’m looking forward to another year of receiving and publishing game master tips and advice. It looks like 2009 will also be full of great gaming and new projects.

One project already launched is a new blog for GMs. Frequent e-zine contributor Mike Bourke and I started it up in December and it’s called Campaign Mastery.

My most recent post talks about my RPG plans for 2009. Check it out if you are interested and want to comment:

Johnn’s 2009 RPG Goals

Many e-zine subscribers have let me know they don’t have convenient Internet access. Work firewalls them, they are in the field with e-mail only access, or some other reason. If no one minds, I’ll be putting hand-picked blog posts and comments in e-zine issues.

Feedback about the e-zine content and layout is always welcome.

Anyone Played the Outlaws of the Water Magin RPG?

A new subscriber this week mentioned his favorite RPG was Outlaws of the Water Magin RPG. Has anyone else tried it?

Back Issues Text Format

Some e-mails came in over the holiday break asking if text format archives of the e-zine are available. You bet! Fill your boots:


Props Contest Entries – Part 4

Last but most definitely not least, here is the final installment of the props contest entries compilation. Set the mood with lighting and music, make magic happen, spice up combat, and puzzle your players with these great tips.


Candles and lanterns are classic choices that light your gaming table and set the mood. They’re especially useful for dark and mysterious encounters with vampires, seers, and stormy castles.

One problem with candles is they often don’t provide quite enough light for players to read their character sheets. If you want to maintain the mood that candles provide, without giving your group eyestrain, consider book lights.

These small lights allow everyone to see their character sheets and dice rolls without illuminating the room – and there’s nothing quite like the look on a player’s face when you reach over and turn their book light off with the words, “Your torch just went out. There is no wind.”

For more exotic lighting, a glowing LED cube can be custom- made in any style and color you like. It could easily be some sort of artifact in a fantasy game, or a technical gadget in a futuristic game.


Instructions for making one are very simple: Awesome Led Cube

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Music and Mood

From Nayamek, Brett O’Reilly, Giorgio Vezzini

Music is a great, often overlooked, prop. Different songs for different settings immerse the players, giving them additional cues to associate with a specific tavern or city. Songs, especially instrumental ones, are also good for setting the mood.

Nox Arcana and Midnight Syndicate are low on vocals but high on ambience. Nox Arcana even has an album called “Blood of the Dragon” that is pretty good for dungeon quests. Their other albums are good for expressing a dark mood.

Midnight Syndicate:
DriveThru RPG – Midnight Syndicate
Amazon – Midnight Syndicate

Nox Arcana

If you’re going to all the trouble to add music to your game, what about spicing up the room with a few extra touches of style? Just hang that world map of your campaign on the wall before your players arrive for the session.

Banners can also be used as heraldry of your player’s family crest, or perhaps the shield for their estate or kingdom.

Campaign-themed drinking glasses and cups are also a nice touch. Find some cheap glasses and inscribe them with character names and some events that happened in the campaign.

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Magic Artifacts and Spell Components

From Kate Manchester, Giorgio Vezzini, Nayamek

Dollar stores are excellent places to pick up small knick- knacks that only need a few touches of paint and a little imagination to become magical artifacts of world-shaking power.

Paperweights of different varieties make great artifacts. For example, a green glass globe with some air bubbles in it is perfect for an evil wizard’s orb. Small wooden statues can represent magical totems or ancient idols.

Tarot decks are ready-made magical props. They’re a fantastic stand-in for the classic “Deck of Many Things.” You can also give the players a tarot reading, providing mysterious clues as to their next adventure. Of course, this works much better if you stack the deck beforehand.

Tarot decks aren’t the only fortune-telling tools that make good props. Ouija Boards can be used by the characters to receive messages from the beyond. Players will get a thrill from using the planchette to spell out whatever message the GM has to relay through the board.

Not all magic items are legendary artifacts – some are small consumables, either enchanted projectiles or spell components. For other items that are used up, like magic arrows, try a small quiver made up from a 3×5 card and filled with toothpicks.

You can also use the concept also for things like potions, giving players a small bottle or vial filled with liquid, or written scrolls where the spell is crossed off when used.

To store all these, what better than a magic box? Get a plain but sturdy cardboard gift box from the cheap store. Trace something vaguely eldritch on the top with a hot glue gun for a 3D effect, then spray paint it. Use a base color and an overspray for the best effect.

You can even add a secret compartment for a message by cutting out a piece of card the same size as the interior of the lid of the box. Place the secret message underneath, and push the card into place over the top.

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Combat Props

From Brothertuck, Tim V E, Gabe, Mike, Brett O’Reilly, Amy

Miniatures and battle mats are a staple of many games, but it doesn’t have to stop there. Try building a diorama of especially elaborate traps or showy settings. Here’s one example from a reader:

“Once I custom built a diorama for the final encounter in some ancient tombs. The main pieces were the hanging banners (literally hung down from our actual ceiling over the model) and the tomb slabs with inscriptions on them, in two rows around the room. When the PCs jumped on the top of the slabs, they started to fall with the PCs running along the top as fast as they could go.”

If dioramas seem like too much effort, there are still other ways you can spice up your battle mat. Use colored see-through plastic sheets to represent various terrain and effects: blue (water), green (slime or slippery areas), red (Fire/heat), or yellow (gas/poison).

Since they are see-through and flat, they work well with the battle mat and minis. The GM can even draw in additional details below the clear sheet, if needed. You’ll find the sheets in most office supply stores.

If you don’t have a battle mat, or want a break, consider using boards from other games. For example, the Labyrinth series of games provide an endless set of possible mazes, with pieces that can move between adventures, or even between rounds in a combat.

Amazing Labyrinth

HeroQuest is another good choice. Designed to simulate Dungeons and Dragons as a board game, it comes with a wealth of props and ideas.


Combat involves not just mats and boards, of course, but also miniatures. A variety of homemade minis can add flair while cut down on costs.

For example, to make a whisp, twist cotton into a flame shape, and attach it to a base.

To represent horses, go to the local dollar store and pick up a few chess sets and a set of dominoes. Using clay or glue, attach the knights to the back of dominoes. You now have instant mounts.

Use air-hardening clay or a caulking compound to create fire. It’s easy to sculpt with hands or tools. Just slop some material to the flat side of a domino and pinch as you pull up. Keep at it until you get the look of fire you want. Let it dry and paint it red, orange, and yellow. Easy 1×2 inch flame counters.

You can use similar techniques to create fire, air, and water elementals. For fire, follow the fire marker template – just work it up higher and with a couple arm-like extensions on the side. For air, create swirls like a dust devil. For water, create a wave-like form, adding eyes, if desired.

If all these still seem too complicated, here is one final tip: Big Hairy Rubber Spiders. Need I say more?

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Keys and Puzzles

From Tim V E, Martin, Sébastien Boily, Giorgio Vezzini, Brett O’Reilly

Keys are a popular prop. If you have spare keys from previous locks, or unused padlocks, consider putting them to use in your game as a prop or a puzzle.

An antique lock and key is great for a historical or fantasy game. It can just sit there and set the mood when the PCs inevitably get jailed.

For more fun, gather together all your old keys and create an overflowing key ring. The next time your thief or private detective says they’re going to pick a lock in a situation where they have to hurry, hand them a padlock and the heavy key ring and give them a player challenge. Tell them only one of the keys opens the lock, and then start a timer. Now it’s a race against time before the guards return, simulating their PC having to work fast and steady under pressure.

Any scene can be turned into a terrifying puzzle with the addition of one small prop: an hourglass. The damsel in distress needs to be rescued before the candle burns through the rope holding her above the flaming pit, or the tomb holding the sacred artifact is closing and you need to reach it in time while fighting a series of lesser minions.

One of the most basic gaming props, the chess board, has many uses. It can be used as a puzzle the characters have to solve to move forward. It can be used as a room layout where characters have to follow the movements of specific chess pieces to avoid traps or to conquer opposing constructs. It can be used to actually play a (shortened) game versus an NPC, be it an old man in a tavern who holds an important clue, or a king who has offered a character clemency if they can emerge the victor.

Puzzle rings can be an interesting take on the puzzle prop.

In the process of searching the monster’s lair, the party might come across an odd mass of interlocking twisted metal links.

It doesn’t look impressive, but put the links together properly and they form a beautiful ring. Add to that a magical effect that will only activate once the ring has been properly assembled, and you have a nice and rewarding prop.

Alternatively, the puzzle ring can add a bit of frustration to the party as they are looting the corpse of the Big Bad Wizard they just defeated. That magic ring that seemed to be the source of his power is pulled off and crumbles into a mass of nonsensical wires that the PCs have to put back together.

In addition to traditional puzzle rings, there are also puzzle bracelets, puzzle necklaces, puzzle chain rings, and even puzzle rings that come completely apart. That last one could even be three (or more) rewards for completely different quests. Part of the puzzle then is for the players to even realize that the rings go together.

Here are some examples, some affordable, some not so much:
Sterling Silver Puzzle Rings : Puzzle Rings : Jigsaw Puzzle Rings

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Modern and Cyberpunk Props

From Giorgio Vezzini, Mike, Paul, Brett O’Reilly, Joel T.

Not all campaigns are medieval fantasy, and those that aren’t deserve props, too. Jon Smejkal has some great tips for more technology-oriented games:


You know that endless stream of credit card offers that arrive in your mailbox? Take out the plastic dummy cards and shred the rest. Modify with stickers and permanent markers as needed. Next time you have to do a shady business deal in a dark alley, hand your player one of those.


Save visitor or convention badges you pick up along with their clips and badge holders. With minor modifications you can have NPC badges for the players to confiscate.

Cell Phones

Changed cell carriers? Got your hands on a cell phone display dummy? Great! Now you can play that smooth fixer who’s always on the phone with the next job or contact. Or, pass one to a player with the instructions, “call me when it’s done.”

Computer Chips

If you’re about to toss an old PC (the computer not the player), open it up and see if you can pry out a chip or two. Nothing quite like handing a player a tiny slab of silicon and saying “get this to Rosebud!” before collapsing on the gaming table from a gunshot wound.


Small glass jars and vials filled with colored liquid, sand, or crystals make great specimen or designer drug vials. I was able to go to a local eyeglass shop and ask for old contact lens vials. With their rubber stoppers, they’re perfect!


Taking the glass vial idea a step further, I went a tad crazy. One of the PCs in my game had a severe drug addiction and made frequent stops to his fixer. I wrapped a couple of contact lens vials filled with red water in a small envelope and sealed it with a red rubber band.

Every time he’d visit his fixer, I would hand it to him, and he’d surreptitiously stuff it in his planner. Eventually it came time for him to act out his addiction in game, so I mocked up an airhypo for him out of a length of copper pipe (big enough to accept one of the vials), some foam, and some rubber and metal fittings.

Loot Cards

Although this idea isn’t truly a prop in its own right, I found a use for a stack of spent game cards I had on hand. I made up a list of things you would find on my PCs’ victims’ bodies, printed them out on stickers, and stuck them to the cards. Whenever a PC would “roll” their latest victim, I’d shuffle the stack and let the player pull a few items.

More details here:

For Your Game: Holidays

Holiday: The Vigil of Love

From Andreas Rönnqvist

This traditional holiday is not celebrated in groups, but rather in a personal way.

The stories tell that, in times past, a great hero held Vigil against the darkness at the end of his loved one’s bed to defend her against evil.

The first day he was given the Kiss of Matronly Love (forehead), the second the Kiss of Friendship (cheek), and the third he was given the Kiss of True Love (lips) and won her love.

These days, at the darkest day of the year, young men in love will stand vigil at the beds of their loved ones. They must stay awake during the entire night. When morning comes, the woman chooses which kiss to give her suitor.

A kiss on the forehead means she shares none of his emotions but is grateful. A kiss on the cheek means she has feelings but she’s unsure. A kiss on the lips means she loves him. If there is enmity or hatred present, she might scorn her suitor, but this brings bad luck to both.

Holiday Encounter Ideas:

The characters are asked to disturb a vigil, either by slipping sleeping dust into a person’s wine or by physically dragging him away from the bed he defends.

This could be because someone fears bad luck (scorn), because another woman loves the man or because of jealousy.

A friend is deeply wounded and asks the characters to stand vigil for him, but the woman he loves is a vampire. When she rises, the vigil by power of tradition keeps her from leaving the room, so she will try to taunt the players into attacking her and breaking the vigil. What should they do?

Most of the men of the village stand vigil at the darkest night, and the players are some of the only ones not standing vigil. Ruthless thieves take this opportunity to steal stuff from abandoned homes and it is up to the PCs to stop them.

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

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

How to GM an Investigative or Forensics Game

From Logan

You don’t have to do this for every person who has died, but if you do it for the main victim (in the case of an investigative module) or a person or two, it will make the game more interesting.

I’d like to say that although adding in actual forensics isn’t complicated, it does require more thought than normal cases. Basically, there are three ways to handle it:

Method 1: Ask the questions the players will. This is the hardest as you will probably miss something.

My mind goes back to a podcast I heard where the players found some giant guy dead at the dungeon entrance. I’m going to use that as an example simply because I was affronted at how poorly it was handled. Being that they seemed to be fairly typical D&D players, they were more concerned about the loot the person was carrying than anything else.

Some typical questions that should be asked by anyone who has to rely on common sense rather than a magic sword would be things like ‘how did he die’, ‘where is the murder weapon’, ‘what is in his pockets of a non-loot nature’, ‘are there any witnesses around’, etc. The questions continue to stack up using this method and it is easy to see why people can get overwhelmed. Suppose someone asks about tracks? If the GM hasn’t thought of that, you had best be good at making something up on the spot.

Method 2: Figure out the last day of the victim’s life up to and including their untimely death. This doesn’t need to be in any great detail, but it does help to know things that happened before (and even after) so you know what clues should be around.

This information will never be passed in full to the players but doled out to them a piece at a time. If the GM has a good general knowledge of what happened, they won’t screw up badly with the clues. Note that putting together the last 24-48 hours of the victim’s life is standard practice for real world police.

Let’s make a brief day in the life of Mr. Body:

9:58am: Mr. Body wakes with a phone call of someone saying, “You had better have the money by noon or you’re going to die.”

10am: Mr. Body panics, jumps out of bed, and runs around the house naked, screaming.

10:15am: Mr. Body stops panicking and eats his breakfast. He knows he can’t get the money so he doesn’t bother tidying up. He starts to build some stuff to make a fire with (burn down his house – he’s always hated the bank) but gets yucky stuff on his hands and gives up.

10:30am: Mr. Body leaves his house to go buy a nice suit.

11am: Mr. Body buys a suit he can’t afford. He then goes nuts for the next two hours maxing out his credit cards and getting all the enjoyment he can.

1am: Mr. Body calls Jimmy the Slug and tells him he doesn’t have any money, sorry.

3am: Jimmy the Slug’s boys show up in a van. They hop out and grab Mr. Body….

As you can see, there will be a lot of interesting evidence the players can collect. Talking to the neighbors is standard practice, as is getting phone records. You can have some fun with a neighbor attempting to demonstrate how Mr. Body (who had always been so normal) was running around naked screaming, the confusing evidence of someone who was gathering lighter fluid and oily rags near the couch and just left them there for no apparent reason, etc.

With this method, knowing a lot about specialized skills isn’t important. Just tell the PCs what is there. Plus, you build some interesting side treks. The players might wish to fingerprint the can of lighter fluid and wonder why it tracks back to Lowes home supply store, and wonder if there is any connection. They may wonder why a certain bar (The Tool Box) is making calls to people early in the morning.

This method is interesting because it can lead in strange and unexpected directions, granted the person does something interesting before they die. Maybe they get into arguments, crash cars, try to kill heads of state, etc.

Method 3: I call this the short hand method. Players walk up to a body, you ask them to roll ‘the big 3’ (or specialized skills if you know them), then tell them what happened.

“A club footed guy wearing biker boots stood here and shot this guy – who is now the corpse lying there -three times with a pistol.” You don’t need to know what sort of blood splatter (high velocity) is on the wall behind the victim, you just need to know what happened.

Hope this assists with someone who is thinking about running a module with forensics in it but feels a bit daunted. I’d also like to point out that once your players are finely honed to forensics (as the players in the campaign I run are) you will always need to do at minimum method 3. Remember – everything leaves a trace (even trying to get rid of the trace) and it can all tell an interesting story. Whether it is integral to the plot or merely something that will interest the players is up to the GM.

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Make Tonight’s Game Awesome – Focus on Conflict

From James

The best advice I can give is to focus on the game at hand. Too often, we GMs have glorious plans for our campaigns and look too far ahead. You don’t need to make the campaign awesome. You need to make *tonight’s* game awesome. If you make the game tonight excellent, the players will buy into the game, you’ll have more eagerness, more focus, and less flakiness. Do this for each game and the campaign awesomeness will take care of itself.

The best way I’ve found to make this happen is to focus on conflict. Every scene in the game should be either setting up, exploring, or resolving a conflict. If it’s not doing any of those, then you’re wasting your time and dragging the pace of your game down. Cut to the next scene already if nothing is really going on.

Second, be prepared to throw your notes away. Your notes, plans, and outlines are not real in the game world. They don’t exist until the players interact with them. They are just suggestions and if something better occurs to you (or one of your players), go with it.

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Modern Maps Resource

From Loz Newman

Here’s a nice source for modern/sci-fi maps. BIG buildings and complexes, most of them clearly explained for the hard-of-thinking. A little re-labelling in a Photoshop equivalent and you’ve got a wonderful “publicity handout” to help players visualize your Big Bond Baddy’s Complex of Death. These places have websites with wonderful photos you can download as well.

Casino Property Maps

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Mini Caprese Salad Skewers

From Jason Sandeman

For eons, gamers have survived just fine on Slurpees, Doritos and other offerings. While easy to purchase, and not necessarily great for you, they do detract a little from the suspension of disbelief.

It is hard to imagine you are swinging your broadsword in bone-crushing arcs while dusting off Pringle crumbs from your leather jerkin. Perhaps your incantation for the fireball of doom is interrupted by the crinkle of the rogue’s Mars bar wrapper as he struggles to open it.

Perhaps you also have the spoils from your victorious battles! What to do with the cockatrice’s wings? Immerse yourself in the game with these easy to prepare instructions using ingredients from your adventures. (If you must, a trip to the grocery store will do you as well.) The fare will not necessarily be better for you health-wise, BUT it will taste better!

This recipe can be thrown together in a few minutes. It will be hard to find someone who does not like this item.

Makes 30 skewers

Prep time 10 minutes


  • 2 packs (500 g) cherry tomatoes
  • 1 package (250 g) mini bocconcini (or cut mozzarella into 2 cm cubes)
  • 60 mL extra virgin olive oil
  • 30 mL balsamic vinegar (or you can use red wine vinegar)
  • 5 small basil leaves (chopped fine) or 5 mL dried basil leaves
  • To taste salt and pepper
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  1. Open tomatoes into a large mixing bowl.
  2. Drain bocconcini and place into bowl with tomatoes.
  3. Add olive oil, balsamic, basil, salt and pepper.
  4. Adjust salt and pepper to taste; let stand for an hour to allow flavors to develop.
  5. Skewer onto picks starting with bocconcini.
  6. Skewer tomato just below bocconcini.
  7. Arrange on platter; whisk oil and vinegar mixture together and pour on top of skewers. 8) Serve and make some friends.