I scribbled just recently on props and my personal experience with them along with what to look for, where and a little on how to incorporate them into your games. All the props do share a certain focus though, they were all visual or tactile in nature. Sure that’s great, it’s what we generally think of when it comes to clues and what we know as game pieces.
Now take a step beyond, use the other senses. Before we think about physical props remember to describe multiple senses when describing locations, people, and monsters. It makes a large difference, take the short description below.
“Your torches cast a wan, flickering light over the uneven surfaces. Beyond the ring of light the cave’s tunnel disappears into blackness.”
Sprinkle in some of the other senses.
“The cave is damp, the walls glisten with condensation and the pungent smell of mildew. The smooth, uneven rock underfoot threatens your steps. Between the guttering of torches is the soft echoes of your own breathing disappearing into the cave’s black maw before you.”
It’s more immersive, even in the case of this boring, non-descript cave. Remember you can always describe the adventuring party without kicking them around like rag dolls. Just about everyone in the party is guaranteed to be breathing and likely using torches or lanterns for light. Maybe they’re using a light spell instead, no problem. On the fly you can change the description to reflect the harsh, cold light (fluorescent style). If you want to really draw the players in describe the light spell as making sound, nothing says it doesn’t, maybe it hums softly, the sound is reassuring in a hollow way as it floods the otherwise silent scene. I imagine sunrods have a deep bellowing hum, like the sound of a muted ship’s horn with a stuck button that despite being a quiet sound carries for long distances.
Remember you will need to use clues to describe things that will be coming up. If the aforementioned cave is occupied by child-eating trolls the description is going to change. Not only does ambient light carry down corridors and wash over corners but sound travels for long distances and smells can tell you a lot. If you have child-eating trolls the party should be smelling decomposing viscera and nasty troll poo long before stumbling into the trolls’ main chamber.
Returning to game aids and props. Get inventive, there are plenty of props you can use beyond things the group can see and touch.
Taste: Heaps of Tomato and Lashings of Ginger Beer!
Your players probably don’t want to taste bottles of unlabeled liquids so having people taste ‘potions’ is probably out of the question. But people do enjoy food and a game night can give you all the opportunity to have something a little more highbrow than Cheetos and Mountain Dew.
Assuming you have a home game at someone’s domicile you can even have a themed meal. Cottage pie, bread & cheese tray, stew, braised lamb with root vegetables, bakewell tart, baked fish. Wash it all down with stouts, ales, ports, hearty wines, and for those young or non-alcoholics try ginger beer, hot/iced teas, sage lemonade, chai, all assortments of ciders. The nice thing about tabletop RPGs is people are usually committed to sitting around a table for a few hours which is perfect for serving a meal in individual courses.
I was also surprised and delighted by the sheer amount of recipes around for fictional food: LoTR Lembas, Skyrim Sweetrolls, Hunger Games Cheesey Buns, Zelda:Windwaker Elixir Soup, The Hobbit Beorn’s Honey Cake, Game of Thrones Lemon Cakes, etc. etc. You have Google and fingers, figure out the rest.
Smell: Hey, Smell This!
The answer is no, it’s always no. Honestly smell is better left to the imagination and description than an aid at the table. That being said there are a few, non-obtrusive things you can add to your game to enhance the smell category. Scented candles and incense. I personally dislike incense, it’s thick and cloying and stings my nostrils. But even I am loathe to admit the stuff lends itself to thoughts of crowded marketplaces, gypsies, soothsayers, witch dens and other occult themes.
Scented candles are nice as they’re cheap and can easily last through a number of sessions. As a bonus they come in all sorts of varied scents. Harvest festival, light up the Pumpkin Spice candle. There are plenty thematic choices for forests, meadows, and even the sea if you’re planning a maritime adventure. I suggest using only 1 or maybe 2 per session or you’ll be spending way too much time fiddling with candles and incense and muddling the smells together and making the room just smell weird instead.
Hear: Hey, Listen! (Heh, Navi)
Scouring the web for sound effects is an often tedious and expensive task. You can do it but don’t be surprised that you will have to spend some cash to get decent sfx sound bytes. Music however, you can find just about anywhere online and for cheap or free.
The nice thing about background music for your RPG session is someone has already done all the work. Video games, movies, and television have already birthed an excess of music that will fit perfectly into your game. All you need to do is cobble together the pieces.
The power of music. Needless to say music can be a very powerful, evocative, and emotional media. Those who follow the blog likely know I am also a Play By Post role player. Nothing gets me in the mood and mindset of my character like music. To that end I have a running playlist in Youtube for the character. Any time I need to post and feeling a bit sluggish or unmotivated I open up the playlist and let it run for a bit. With 50+ songs and ever growing something is bound to motivate me.
Where to look for music for your game, my first recommendation is Youtube so check it out. In my experience the best places to look is for VGM and Theme playlists. Need something to really spice up Generic Hamlet #3? Search Town Themes, sort by playlist and Blammo! A list of Top 50/100/X video game town themes. Also check out the OSTs (Official Soundtracks) of specific anime, movies, and television series you enjoy. Generally the less lyrics the better in my experience, though lyrics in a different language can sound just like using the voice as an instrument so those work well too.
While snuffling around on the internet as I am wont to do I stumbled across someone speaking about how he uses music in his game. On top of a normal playlist set to shuffle he had all the players choose character theme songs. He then added the theme songs to the playlist on shuffle. If the PC’s theme comes on during the course of play he/she gains a mechanical bonus while it is playing. It could be an extra action point, advantage, a free save or whatever. I really dig this idea for two reasons. The first is hearing the song immediately gets the juices flowing for the PCs, random power boost and they will be chomping at the bit to exploit it before the song ends. The second is a theme song says a lot about who a character is, that means your players are going to actually think about WHO the character is and what’s important to them.
I would take it even a step further by adding theme music for the baddies, especially BBEGs. And of course pick something suitably sinister, something operatic like O Fortuna, or organ arrangements like J.S. Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor. Something menacing that really reinforces just how much shit has hit the fan for the PCs.
***Keep in mind the song length for theme music. You’re probably not going to want anyone to have music longer than 7 minutes.
Well that should do it for props for a while. Short of making your garage a medieval dungeon you should have an overflowing war chest of immersion techniques all without LARPing, dressing up in tights, or using silly accents.