This article originally appeared in the November/December 2016 issue.
Editor’s note: Footnote in the original submitted article have been converted to end notes, and duplicate references eliminated.
Role-playing games are primarily imaginative. As they say about radio vs television, “the pictures are better in your head”. Computer games have yet to equal the high resolution, surround sound, smell-o-vision of what’s going in our creative minds. But physical accompaniments have often been present in RPGs – from dice to help arbitrate rules, through character sheets, pencil and erasers to act as aide memoires, to miniatures to help track combat movement. And who doesn’t love a good handout – whether it’s a lovingly crafted world map or a detailed deck plan?
However, there is also the possibility of going a step further and creating some form of prop to use within a game. Most often this will be an artefact from within the game world. They can be a great aid to visualizing what’s going on, they can be engaging objects in their own right, and they may even be a memento of the game afterwards. Oh, and they’re often great fun for the referee to make!
Asked to describe some of the props I’ve made for various adventures: what they were, why I made them and how I went about it, has given me some pause for thought about the whole enterprise. I actually hadn’t considered this as much of a feature of what I do – most usually at TravCon. I think for the most part I’ve done it because it’s fun and, if well done, can surprise and really involve players along with their characters. Sometimes it’s been because it seemed like a good idea at the time and at least once it was almost by accident.
The following takes a look at a few of my attempts – I don’t claim any expertise – in the hope that it might inspire other referees to give this a go if they’ve not considered it before. I’m not going to consider the usual paper handouts that most referees produce – whether it’s a gorgeous poster sized starport plan as auctioned at TravCon16a or the hastily scribbled layout of an Automated Packet Switched Low Berth Network recovery room in TravCon12b. One thing I would say is that advice I’ve seen about props is along the lines of minimum effort for maximum effect. I’m definitely not one to advise on that as I sometimes suspect I go for maximum effort and minimum effect. Or at the very least a major effort but that the players at least vaguely appreciate.
At TravCon12 I ran my very first Traveller adventure. Then called ‘Portents and Signs’ it was eventually published as ‘Into the Unknown’ (Mongoose, 2015) so you can read the full text of the diary there. All ten thousand words. The Diary became a big feature of that game and had been in my mind from the earliest stages of sketching out ideas – although my initial conception was nothing like as big as it became.
The idea was hardly original. Found diaries are a common staple of both fantasy and science fiction stories and I dare say role playing as well. Indeed, masters like Tolkien used the idea to good effect when the Fellowship arrive at Balin’s tomb and find the record of what happened to the dwarves in Moria. Usually however, you just get extracts of diaries and I thought perhaps I could do a little more. However as I wrote in the convention write upb, time became pressing towards the end and my then teenager daughter loved writing in notebooks and diaries so the obvious thought came to me to see if she was interested in an exercise. I gave her a page and a half of notes – essentially what you can see on pages 39-40 of ‘Into the Unknown’, a month to write at whatever length she liked, and a free hand on names. Just a few days before the convention she came to me with 10,000 words of handwritten notes. I was tempted just to reproduce them as they were but it wouldn’t quite have worked so I had just one evening to type the whole lot out. Exhausting, but surprisingly moving as I read what Emma had written. What had I done to these poor people!? I really hadn’t considered the human element.
In any case, with the text turned into a PDF with a tidy handwriting-style font, I took it to a local printshop and got three copies of the diary made up (one for the convention and the auctioned off adventure notes, one for myself and one for Emma). I carefully included some blank pages at the end as a real diary might have when cast aside. This detail was quite effective in giving a sense of a lost future.
I ran the game twice at the convention and twice elsewhere, and from the moment the diary was ‘found’ by the PCs it was never out of the players’ hands. Indeed, the only complaint I’ve had about the adventure is that there wasn’t enough time to read the whole diary. Some players were as moved as I was reading it. I can only thank my daughter.
And that’s the one sadness of this prop. In the original adventure text, I carefully credited Emma and my colleague from work, Patrick Galway (http://patrickgalway.weebly.com), who produced the sign language artwork, but both credits went missing in the PDF publication. I immediately sent in the correction although it was never adopted in a revision and I sent it again before the print book came out. Sadly, it’s still not there.
Were I to do one thing differently – aside from allowing more time for the typing – it might be to produce one copy for each of the players. Maybe not give them out until the end to maintain the fiction of the found object, but it would make a nice memento.
Just about qualifying as a physical prop was the Logbook of the Spinward Charter. This was inspired by my real world time as crew on a merchant ship. The logbook is immensely important and strictly kept by the officers. I was also aware that yacht masters keep similar records. And of course Star Trek has forever immortalized the Captain’s Log. It didn’t take a moment to find some examples of real life logbooks to see what kind of information they might include and then adapt such books for Traveller ship purposes. My suspicion is that a real log in the Third Imperium would have much more detail, but the result you can see in ‘Into the Unknown’ was sufficient to give the feeling of a found log. It had the added advantage that it could be given to a second player as the diary could only be in one pair of hands at a time and it also had the advantage of being much shorter so that the relevant back story could be summarized from it much more quickly. I left that to the players rather than giving them the backstory myself which definitely made it a better moment for the characters.
I immediately discarded the idea of producing a printed version as too ‘samey’, and with my newish iPad to hand could immediately see that the best way to introduce it was to simply have a PDF on screen, ready to go and hand the tablet over to the player whose PC had accessed the ship’s computer.
Again, this seemed to work really well with the players. So much so that if I ever get around to running a more ‘normal’ merchant type game, I might encourage the players to have their PCs keep such a logbook for real.
For anyone who would like the simple outline for their own use, it’s here:
And an example of a filled in entry:
|Dep/Arr/J||Dep: Zavazadlo [Foreven 0101] 1800|
|PP||24 standard hours|
|M/Drive||6:45 standard hours|
|Crew||Captain (Pilot): Stock Engerson, Navigator: Saim Hussein, Chief Engineer: Drem Marzon, Engineer: Olga Inson, Medic: Linn Sy, Steward: Ponase Marten|
|Narrative||Chartered by the Almarga Academy for Jump to Kushti, one parsec. Interesting charter with the Academy pupils all deaf and using sign language. Could be a quiet trip.|
(Note that for entries after the first, the crew entry might well be ‘ditto’ unless something changes. The idea of the drive entries is to track the number of hours they’ve been running – with obvious maintenance implications.)
After pretty much writing ‘Into the Unknown’ in a month, I was determined not to repeat the mistake and essentially spent the entire year writing ‘The Second Scions’ Society’ for TravCon13c. The banquet scene at the beginning was long in my mind and it seemed obvious that I could perhaps produce a menu as a handout. However, as the idea of Vargr Merd took shape in my mind (see “Vargr Merd on the Menu”), I increasingly thought it might be fun to actually serve it up. I had some white gloves that with some body language, speech patterns and a bottle of wine would turn me into a waiter. Why not also produce a chopping board with the final course on it? It was also nicely heralded by the player who bothered to read the French menu items and saw the humour but all thought that that was it; just a one line joke. When I actually produced the chopping board from a box to one side where I’d hidden it, their jaws dropped and I was amply repaid for the work. With suitable warnings to the one player with a nut allergy (best not touch it with a bargepole – but that could immediately be worked into his character), the others were willing to give it a go – despite what it looks like and is being ‘sold’ as – and along with the story telling really made that section of the adventure. Well worth doing. Photos, and more on the story telling, can be found in the write up referenced above.
Perhaps the biggest and most animated ‘prop’ I’ve included in a game was also in ‘The Second Scions’ Society’. The PCs – as very wealthy nobles – must traverse a rundown bit of starport and I thought it would be fun to have them encounter a beggar and test their generosity. The idea was that later in the game, if they encountered some low-lifes or the downtrodden, they might receive some benefit from how generous they were or weren’t. From there it was but a moment to wonder if I could somehow engineer such an encounter for real. Perhaps have each of the players walk down the corridor of the hotel on some pretext and encounter someone sitting in the corridor who would plead for a handout.
I came up with the excuse that I needed to know how long it would take them to traverse the distance at their normal walking speed with entourage of servants in tow and off each of them went one at a time. (This also had the excellent side effect of giving the other players a chance to prepare their after dinner story telling.) I still recall the player who stated he had a palanquin and bearers and moved out at the most sedately pace you could imagine in his imaginary box! Brilliant!
On the first occasion I ran the game I was able to find a fellow conventioneer sitting out the gaming session as he desperately tried to finish writing an adventure he was going to run (and I thought I cut it fine sometimes!). He was willing to take a few minutes out to play the indigent and I gave him a quick briefing on his backstory, his lines and the need to note how much he was ‘given’ by the PC. On the second occasion I ran the adventure there was no one around, so I nipped out before the first player, did the begging and then briefed that player on being the beggar for the rest of the group. It worked well enough although I did deliberately choose a player I knew would be comfortable with the whole thing (with LARP experience).
It’s probably not strictly a ‘prop’ but it was a fun element even if the subsequent bit of plot about the generosity of the PCs and how karma might reward them wasn’t something we got into due to lack of time.
The Auction Catalogue
Inspired by the success of the diary the previous year, I was thinking about whether I could do something similar for TravCon13. I already had any number of handouts for the adventure (some would say far too many) but this would be The Handout. Given that the Scions’ adventure climaxes in an auction house where the noble PCs are bidding for at least one particularly rare item, it seemed obvious that it might be fun to actually produce an auction catalogue. I’d worked in a library where the art and design courses meant we actually kept such things, so I knew what they looked like and how glossy and attractive they could be.
Fortunately I started this project early because it was surprisingly difficult to come up with 60 or 70 items with fairly detailed descriptions in keeping with the kind of object they were. In addition I wanted them to be firmly rooted in a history of the Third Imperium which is nowhere near detailed enough for this kind of work. (The auction was selling lots of an old explorer’s lifetime collection of valuables. The booklet also contains Sir Ranville’s biography and a list, with maps, of every world he visited on his three expeditions to various parts of Known Space.) One or two such items weren’t too hard, three or four were alright, but having to learn the styles of description and invent history/facts and so on for weapons, coins, clothes, jewels, manuscripts and so on was incredibly time consuming. On the other hand I did learn a lot – for example I’d not come across netsuke before. When, a year or so later, I went to a museum which contained tray upon tray of the things, I spent far longer looking at them than I would have done otherwise. I’d like to hope the whole adventure – with auction catalogue – will be published one day, but some sample entries are included in Appendix 1 to this article.
On this occasion a trip to the local print shop involved 14 copies (two games × 6 players, one for the (real!) auction and one for me). It cost about £20 which I did think twice about but when I considered the number of hours I’d put into creating the adventure itself, it hardly seemed worth balking at this extra cost.
Once again, the adventure would have run well enough without this prop, but the players enjoyed having them (although I did say that in game they’d quite probably be electronic) and ‘shopping’ before the auction. This had the unintended consequence of lengthening the auction scene as I had to run the bidding on the additional lots the PCs were interested in. I also invited anyone who didn’t want to keep a catalogue to leave it behind and I’d reuse it. Not a single one was left. However, this is probably my lowest effort/benefit ratio prop to date even though the finished item is perhaps one of the most desirable objects I’ve ever made. (Rereading this booklet some three years later I can’t help but be amazed I produced it in the first place and find adventure ideas in nearly every entry.)
‘Ashfall’ was an adventure I ran at TravCon14 and was the first where I deliberately took something I had not spent the vast quantity of time preparing that I had previously. It was also the first adventure I ran which I’d not written specifically for the convention. It was one I’d written for publication, hadn’t by then seen the light of day, and I dug out because I was curious to see how it might play out. I was growing in confidence – perhaps not of my refereeing ability so much as the patience and forbearance of conventioneers with a newbie.
I had enough time however to really explore the planet Spume in my mind and as I sat in the kitchen looking at our sand picture frame (sand in a liquid which forms attractive patterns when you invert it), I realized that it looked rather like a landscape. As our frame contained red and black sand it looked rather alien. Furthermore, we have a relatively bright yellow paint on our kitchen wall and when the frame was placed in front of it the whole effect was a sulphurous landscape that I could see was Spume. Using an early iPad to take pictures the resolution was poor enough to actually work in the pictures’ favour of making the whole thing look like the poor visibility found in the ashfall.
I was then able to manipulate some of the pictures a tiny bit using the Brushes app – adding a plume here, or a tiny vehicle on the horizon there and even an entire volcano which I was pleased with. Back to the print shop who are now getting used to my yearly visits and along with the cards I’ll mention next, these pictures were printed out like photographs or postcards to present to the players and add to the atmosphere (perhaps literally!) of the adventure. For the little time and effort they took, these were definitely worth doing and for a non-artist such as myself were very enjoyable to produce. They can clearly be seen on the table in figures 5 and 6 of the convention write upd. They also reappeared to good effect when I ran ‘Ashfall II: Under the Dome’ and ‘Ashfall III: Into the Crust’ at TravCon16.
I suppose these could be considered as 50 very small, business card sized ‘handouts’ but I’m going to include them as a prop because they were a bit more physical and they had an in-game purpose. The Darrian scientists of ‘Ashfall’ would be able to select what equipment they wanted to take with them on their expedition but also at one stage in the adventure have to make very quick, snap judgements on what to grab in the event of a landslip destroying their base. I’d written into the characters varying degrees of tidiness and personal organization – perhaps inspired by my visits to academic offices at a university which could on occasion be astonishing piles of paperwork, books, journals and other paraphernalia. The aim was to get the players thinking about their gear, to represent each piece with a separate card, and then for them to have to grab a card or three in a very limited time frame. If they’d kept them tidy it would be easy to grab what they wanted, if they had left them scattered over the table as gamers are wont to do with handouts, it would be harder. Their characters would then be surviving with whatever had been grabbed. Including the fur-lined handcuffs that a previous expedition had left in the kitbag for some unknown reason. (I did have an NPC to hand to grab the one bit of kit they really needed!) Again, the cards can just about be seen, stacked up and ready to hand out in figures 5 & 6 of the convention write upd.
This was probably an idea that worked better in theory than practice but only because I gave the players so many other things to think about. It’s probably just as easy to role play this kind of thing without anything physical as long as the players aren’t ones to abuse the freedom. Perhaps this was a sign of my inexperience. Had I focussed more on this, it would probably have worked as intended. As it was, the cards were no trouble to produce, cost very little to print and can easily be used in other Traveller games where similar equipment might be used. So I’d probably try this again if circumstances warranted.
The Starport Plan
This was a handout for ‘Three Blind Mice’ – a second game I ran at TravCon14 – rather than a prop but I’m going to include here as a point on logistics. I wrote in the After Action Report about winning the PFI award for the moment I handed out the referee version of the map. It can be seen in the free to download adventuree. As you can see the map clearly marks the ‘INI agent hideout’ – which the PCs are supposed to be locating so they can rescue the kidnapped orphan. That was unintended and I should have had a version without that note on the key. Although the players were very gentle with me, and in fact we probably didn’t have time to play out the search and the rescue in the convention slot so it was a good job we moved on, the incident has seared itself into my memory as to the importance of keeping my different notes, handouts, props etc clearly labelled or stored for prompt access. In the stress of a game, there’s never enough time to double check everything so it’s worth doing such checks well before sitting down at the table.
A Verbal ‘Prop’
Again, not perhaps strictly a prop, unless you take the loosest sense of a ‘support’. This was the language I introduced to the ‘Generation X’ adventure at TravCon15. I’d just read the marvellous Dark Eden by Chris Beckett and was very taken with his use of language. It occurred to me that the way the Edenites doubled words for emphasis, e.g. something might be “cold cold” rather than just “cold”) would be perfect for the regressed technology stage of the adventure with a bunch of essentially barbarians running around on their generation ship. I didn’t instruct the players to use such language, but whenever I was in character as an NPC – or perhaps just as referee as well – I would introduce such usage. The players weren’t slow to pick up on the language such that their PCs began to use it and some of the words I’d thrown in (such as ‘wombtime’ for 9 months instead of a ‘year’) whenever appropriate and it really gave an alien flavour to their society when the ‘Rendezvous with Karma’ Imperial players finally got into the shipf. You could actually see the cogs in the Imperials’ minds ticking over as they tried to work out what was really being said.
Also during the ‘Generation X’ game, the PCs were at one point tribal leaders who met together to discuss, plan, argue and so on. These meetings, which for reasons described in the usual After Action Reportf were held standing up, could become a tad rambunctious. To keep things in order the players decided they needed a ‘speakstick’. No one could talk except the person holding the stick. No more shouting at the same time so no one can be heard. It had never occurred to me to provide any such thing. But we were in the games room of the convention hotel and a snooker cue was at hand. This then became the symbol of who held the floor and cut down on the shouting over each other. It worked very well but I can hardly claim it as something I did any work on, or even thought of at all. However, it does show how props need not be time consuming, cost anything or even be solely the domain of the referee. It also perhaps shows just how useful something physical can be in what, after all, is primarily a game of the imagination.
Props may not be everyone’s cup of tea. You may not have time for them, you may be on a budget that can’t afford such things, or you may not feel you have the ideas for them (or at least how they can be practically realized – wouldn’t we all love a real ‘handcomp’ – oh, wait a minute, that’s happened in my lifetime – from Star Trek fantasy to tablet reality!). But props can be a terrific way of getting players into character, be a great means of developing an atmosphere or even as mentioned earlier simply be a souvenir to take home. I don’t always use them – I’m currently running The Traveller Adventure with work colleagues as well as an ‘off the cuff’ game at lunchtimes occasionally and we’ve not had one yet, but there have been plenty of handouts and Google Keep images and documents to refer them to. (It would have been fun to have made up a howood brooch from something!) When the moment comes, I’m sure we’ll include something. I doubt I’ve made my last one and would encourage others, if perhaps you’ve shied away from them in the past, to have a go too.
Appendix 1: Excerpt from Krystalby’s Auction Catalogue, 155-1105
Carter Widowmaker ACR [Reaver’s Deep 1740], late 5th century
90cm heavy barrel, Zatz Patent Farseeing sight with fine adjustment, plasmenium frame, 3.7kg, worn, three nicks in stock.
Aslan two-handed processional taleryu, Aslan 12th century (c.-1000 Imperial) with rectangular ricasso formed with a pair of lugs, plassteel hilt of flattened bars, inner and outer ring-guards each decorated with scale ornament. Reierekh (Dark Nebula 2438).
Wine-coloured silk chiffon Karnesti evening gown worn by Dame Julli Morston-Bayward when accompanied by Duke Eli Marruthers Pilkington Basinth at the Emperor’s Ball in 763. Jacinta Karnesti is said to have instructed her design house to destroy the pattern after seeing the incomparable grace with which Dame Julli wore it.
Ivory netsuke of a shishig
Kyoto, Terra, -2600s (early 19th century Terran)
Sitting upright in a guardian position and looking forwards, tail trailing to the left. Eyes are inlaid opals. Ivory worn, but in good condition, unsigned.
References: Hindwoodson, J. (1003). Netsuke. Capital: University of Sylea.
Leeatah’ostyohwi’taihtari Atlaiyea'ear Aftailr tluakh ktoleir ihatei oukha htioteiosowao ihaikhao [Chronicles of a Mercenary Ihatei Spinward of Aftailr Sector], Manuscript ‘tala’ or scroll of epic poetry, illustrations, maps, original silk sheath, 8m x 0.4m, -654.
- TravCon16: Freelance Traveller, May/June 2016,
- TravCon12: Freelance Traveller, May/June 2012,
- TravCon13: Freelance Traveller, June 2013,
- TravCon14: Freelance Traveller, Sept 2014,
- Three Blind Mice can be downloaded from
- TravCon15: Freelance Traveller, Aug 2015
http://www.freelancetraveller.com/features/stories/aar-travcon15.html. This writeup includes a description of the ‘double game’ linking ‘Rendezvous with Karma’ and ‘Generation X’.
- shishi: Japanese stone lion