by Kevin Turner
Players are a strange lot. They like things imagined in as much detail as possible. This begins to take its toll rapidly on the poor DM. It becomes difficult quickly to keep the level of detail to where your players like it. One thing helps both focus your attention to detail and gets the players excited: a hands-on item, also known as a prop.
A prop can be one of many things. It could be a scroll found in a treasure hoard. Perhaps a wanted poster or a stone with strange carvings on it. Note that most of the ideas presented herein are writing-oriented. That's just my personal bias. Props can be almost anything imaginable, anything that players can hold in their hands to sharpen their awareness of what is going on in the game, or to give them something to pore over looking for clues.
One of the best props I've ever made was also one of the easiest. I conceived an idea of religious items for my campaign. These items would be clues leading from one place to another, ultimately leading to a confrontation or discovery of a cult and their powerful magic item. It then became consecutive pages of a religious text, secreted away in various places, unable to be destroyed or tampered with.
I have no artistic ability. I mean none. My stick figures look sick. Thank goodness for computers. I printed out on a sheet of cheap parchment the pages of this relic, using an archaic-looking font and a few tricks with the word processor. Then, in a moment of artistic license, I "illuminated" the page with colored pens. I then curled the parchment into a tube and tied it down with bread bag twists. As a crowning touch, I decided the first one would show the scars of attempted destruction: it was partially burned. A quick trip to the stove set it alight on one end, and my shoe ended the burning before more than half was consumed.
After two days rolled up, my prop was ready. The heat of the flames had "aged" the parchment, and the burning had obscured quite a lot of the writing, making the scroll look mysterious. My players loved it. They pored over it long after it was clear that the thing had served its purpose. They made it to the location of the next clue, and were still looking at it. What a feeling of accomplishment!
Anything can be a prop. A quick, brown-paper-bag cover on a book can transform a textbook into a lost spellbook. An old necklace with a funny pendant can be a holy symbol stripped off a mouldering corpse. Your old walking stick can become, with a few quick strokes of a pocket knife, a wizard's staff.
Props should be something of relative importance, though. Why go to the trouble of making something really cool and fixating the players' attentions on an item if it really has no meaning in the game? It can provide a lot of needless frustration for you if the players keep getting the wrong idea about the thing you brought if you only meant it for flavor and not as an important part of the session.
A usually overlooked bonus of using props is in the generation of adventures. A clever DM can spot a prop in the making, and center an adventure around it. Old props can be looked at in new ways, opening new paths in a sputtering imagination.
As with anything else in the game, use and design of a prop should follow a couple of rules. First, it shouldn't be the point of the session. This is D&D, not Art Appreciation 101. Your players are there to get down to some serious gaming. Sure, your piece can be a work of art, but as long as it's functional and doesn't completely override the game, then it's more practical than ornamental. Second, it should be fun. If you're more interested in the players admiring your handiwork, they're not having fun. Last, don't let the fact that you may not be able to come up with a consistent line of props deter your creativity in designing and running games. See above. The play's the thing. The prop should be helpful and fun to all parties.
Another source of ideas can be found in the now out-of-print Catacomb Guide and Campaign Sourcebook, one of the first DMGR books TSR produced for AD&D second edition. They don't have to be anything spectacular; rocks and charred bits of wood could conceivably be good props.
One word of caution, though: once you start using props, your players may come to expect them, and that's one more thing you have to remember to make up. The high cost of excellence, eh?
Copyright (c) 2000, Kevin R. Turner. Used by permission. All rights reserved.