DM Props

by Dru Pagliassotti

In the corner of my living room is an innocuous-looking cedar chest that I snagged from my parents when I moved out of the house. During the week it sits there quietly gathering dust, holding up a snarling gargoyle and a vase of dead roses. But during the weekend the gargoyle and roses are banished to the corner, and the lid comes up to reveal my array of gaming props.

The chest is crammed to the top with six brown plastic cases of painted miniatures (some are my own, some belong to a friend who’s taken to storing his miniatures at “gaming central”—my house) and two small grey plastic cases of miniatures (belonging to yet a third friend); three large rolled-up battle mats (two hex, one square) and one smaller mat (square); several handmade balsa-wood houses; a stack of six “dice boxes”; a basket filled with water-soluble markers and a variety of dice bags; a shoe box filled with painted plaster “boulders,” several pewter monsters, and an oversized lead dragon; a straw basket filled with small square plastic chits, a bag of cut-out green paper “trees,” an egg timer, and two oversized six-sided dice; and a third straw basket filled with little rubber animals. There’s no room in the chest for our small dry-erase whiteboard and pens, which are crammed in the den closet, or my sack of children’s wooden blocks, which is under my bed….

I was taught to play AD&D as a paper-and-pencil game. In high school I never used miniatures, never used battlemats, never used anything but occasionally a picture cut from a magazine to illustrate my characters. Not until college was I indoctrinated into the idea of using DM props. Since then, my collection of props has grown. Now I don’t know how I ever played without battlemats and miniatures, at least. The ability to draw the room, to place the characters and NPCs, seems indispensible to the game. Not only does it provide a center for players’ attention, but it brings a trace of objectivity to the game—no longer do I, as DM, arbitrate whether a person is in range of a spell or not. Now the players can count the squares and decide for themselves. This never mattered in my high-school games, but since then I’ve met plenty of “games lawyers” who will challenge my every ruling. I’ve come to love using props and items that make the scene easier to visualize, but the plastic “room sets” sold at some gaming stores are just too expensive! As a result, my players and I have cobbled together quite an array of handmade odds and ends….

A balsa-wood house with a removable roof often works well as our party’s Leomund’s Secure Shelter when it comes under attack, or as a house when the group is laying siege to a place. I’ve also created balsa-wood tombstones for graveyard adventures and use big wooden buttons as tables for bar fights. Wooden blocks work well as makeshift houses for fights in city streets, providing both an outline of the streets and something to put the miniatures on when the characters are lurking on the roofs. Gauze rags wrapped with quick-drying plaster bandages, and then painted with stone-colored fleck spraypaint, make great boulders for outdoor terrain. Cut-out green paper circles in varying sizes work well as trees or bushes—because they’re flat, it’s easy to place a miniature on top of one to indicate that the character is hiding within the tree branches. Using these paper trees also makes it easy to show the existence of cover … or of what’s going to start burning when the mage starts throwing fireballs around. Little rubber animals are much cheaper than lead miniatures, and I often pull out the rubber snakes, ants, or crocodiles for monsters in my Al Qadim game.

Educational stores provide a wealth of useful knicknacks for gamers. My favorite are the clear plastic squares used to illustrate counting problems on overhead projectors. I found a great set of clear squares numbered 1 to 99 that I use for mass combat situations (watch my players wince when I empty the plastic bag of these chits over the battlefield!). We use the colored squares to indicate the presence of spells, placing them beneath the miniature. A red square under a miniature means the character has a Stoneskin spell up. Clear means Invisibility, blue means Fly, green means Polymorph … and as the spells come down, we pull the squares out and toss them back into the basket. Some of my friends use poker chips for this, which stack nicely but come in a more limited selection of colors and are considerably thicker. For our high-level campaign, we’ve discarded the use of chips and resorted to using a whiteboard to write our defensive spell array on … a couple of thirteenth-level mages can have quite a bit of magic up before entering battle. One player is typically in charge of erasing spells as their durations end or they’re lost in combat.

In addition—and I can’t recommend this for AD&D players under 18—I once found a set of “adult” dice in a shop. I purchased them and now hand them to players who declare that their characters are going to go visit a brothel. “Roll them until you’re happy,” I tell them, and let them amuse themselves while I turn to deal with the other players’ after-adventure intentions. Hey—it’s that or let them have a copy of the Netbook of Sex to read, and dice are a staple of the game….

Props can be used for metagaming purposes, as well. After losing too many dice under the couch or behind shelves, a friend and I decided to create “dice boxes” to roll our dice in. We went to a crafts supply store and bought flat, stackable plastic plant pots and covered the bottom with a layer of felt to quiet the clatter a bit. The boxes work extremely well, and now I pass them to each player before every game. I also use an egg timer when I feel the players are slowing down too much in a situation where time matters; they have three minutes to act or they lose their turn. (Having the other players all hum the “Jeopardy” tune also works.)

The two last props I’ll mention here are music and weapons. My husband and I have slowly collected an array of classical and ethnic CDs that we use as background music for our games—Arabian music for Al Qadim, Japanese for my husband’s Oriental campaign, and so forth. One of my friends collects movie soundtracks, and when he runs Birthright we’re in for a day of Conan, Xena, and Hercules. Music works well if it’s primarily instrumental and played low enough to provide background but not drown out the players. I also collect weapons—daggers, swords, tomahawks, crossbows, etc.—and every once in a while I’ll tell a player to grab one and show me what she’s talking about. Pick a lock with a dagger? Okay, grab that one over there and show me how the tip’s going to fit into a keyhole. Open a door with your sword while you stand back? Here’s a rapier—go over to the front door and show me where you’re going to be standing. More often than not, actually hoisting a real sword or dagger will make the player consider how difficult a manuever would really be, and the idea is abandoned for something more realistic.

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