Making It Memorable: How to use Props in your D&D Adventures
Shared memories, that’s what roleplaying is all about. You and your friends don’t just remember sitting around a table eating snacks, D&D creates a shared memory of your characters actually experiencing surviving those incredible odds that you’ll tell stories about for years to come.
It’s not always easy to get people past the tabletop snacks and dice though, for some players getting them to live in that imaginary world can take a little extra push. This is where props come in. Bringing a little bit of that fantasy to life and making a physical thing they can see and touch can do wonders for bringing your players together for absolutely memorable adventures.
Frankly, we like how Deborah Ann Woll uses props in her show Relics and Rarities, and wanted to help Dungeon Masters do the same in their own adventures.
Props Take Work
This may seem like a no-brainer, but props are EXTRA work and aren’t meant for every single adventure. Pick up games and first-sessions where you’re still trying to get everybody settled are not the best places to invest a lot of time and effort into a prop. Generally, if you’re ever in a position where you’re choosing to make a prop instead of preparing for a session, prepare your session and forget the prop.
I find that props find their best home in long-running monthly campaigns, where there’s a reasonable certainty that your group will meet for the session and there’s enough time in between games for getting props set up.
You’ll see some absolutely incredible and elaborate props used by professional streamers, but for now we’ll focus on some simple stuff that won’t take too long or break your budget.
Item cards just that, little squares of paper or cardstock that have the details of a magic item printed on them. Do you have access to a printer? Then you have the ability to make these super cheap and easy props.
When you know there’s at least a good chance your players will find or be given a shiny new item, an item card can feel much more like actually getting the item. They add this opening a present feeling that can make it incredibly memorable and the highlight of an encounter.
If you’re using items directly out of official D&D works, there’s likely some official art for it. Simply grab that image, put the rules text next to it and print that beauty out and cut it out of the page. Bam, done, easy item. If you’ve made up something unique, you can always scour the internet for an image that looks close enough, it’s an extra step but you’ll be happy with the results.
My advice though for item cards is to always make sure you keep your own notes as well, and make sure your player notes it too. Players are prone to losing their item cards, so don’t rely on them keeping track of them for records purposes.
So giving your players a physical note can turn a simple bit of exposition into one of the most memorable parts of a campaign. A ransom note, the king’s edict, a wanted poster for the next big bad guy or even one for a player character, they can all make for great props. They can look a little odd on blank printer paper though.
Aging paper isn’t any huge trick, but I have learned less is more. Pick fonts that are flavorful but readable, and don’t wreck the paper to the point that it’s illegible. Take your text, print it out, and crumple it just enough to give it a bit of texture. Then you simply soak it in some tea. I’ve seen people use coffee but I find coffee gets it a bit too dark. After soaking the paper in tea for about an hour you just let it air-dry. You’ll end up with a nicely aged parchment, perfect for your next vital clue.
You can even go above and beyond with a wax seal! Sealing wax is simpler to use than you may think. You can get a stick of wax for around $4 online (or cheaper for just wax beads), melt the end with a low flame and let a glob come to rest on your envelope or scroll (rolled up page). You can get a wax stamp as well but I don’t feel they’re necessary, your players will be impressed enough with the wax seal without needing an expensive stamp.
This kind of prop is kind of iconic at this point and there’s a slew of methods for doing it.
The most common potion prop is for your standard healing potions you just take an interesting glass bottle from a thrift shop or a specialty liquor and just throw a few d4s in there to represent your healing potion and you get to have the theatrics of popping it open to pour out your sweet healing dice. Particularly advanced versions will paint or coat a colored layer to mimic the actual healing liquids sitting in the bottle.
My personal favorite potion prop is the “Mystery Potion”. Make a little note that outlines the effects of your potion and roll that up as into a sweet message in the bottle. Once a player opens it up and “drinks it” they can unscroll the message and learn the effects. I’ve given players mystery potions what sat unused for the entire campaign, but when I’ve used a prop their curiosity always seems to get the better of them. Just make sure you bind the notes with some rubber bands so they don’t unfurl in there, it can be annoying to fish them out once they do.
A word of caution on potion props, don’t expect your players to carry these around. A glass bottle can be burdensome in a lot of situations and there’s a risk of them breaking if they have to be shuffled around a lot. My advice, only use potion props when you have a regular play session space in which you can leave the potions. Something like this will add a ton of flare to your gaming room anyway.
Secrets, Codes, and Puzzles
Describing a puzzle can be a headache sometimes, especially when the answer is something visual or tactile. Bringing your puzzle into physical reality can make your adventuring obstacle into a legendary triumph.
You’ve probably seen at least one of these even if you didn’t know what it was called. A scytale is a simple cypher in which you take a paper strip, and write out gibberish letters, that once wound around the right diameter cylinder will line up to spell out a hidden message.
Putting a scytale together takes a bit of work but has the advantage of only requiring stuff you should already have around the house. I recommend making your paper strip first, wrapping it around your cylinder (toilet paper tube, or whatever else you have around) and writing out the message first. Then fill in the rest of the empty space with gibberish.
Be especially careful if you try aging your scytale, they’re prone to snapping or tearing if you’re not careful.
This trick is a classic, and you can create all sorts of secret messages for your players to discover. There’s two main ways to do this, each with their own merits.
The “Classic” method is by far the easiest and requires the least preparation. You may have learned this method from movies, you simply take some lemon juice (fresh is better) and write out your secret message out using a cotton swab or a brush. It’ll dry invisible but turn brown or tan once brought close to a heat source like a lightbulb.
There’s a lot of problems with this method, the “invisible” ink can still sort-of be seen in a lot of circumstances, and the tan-brown color it turns isn’t very appealing. It works in a pinch, but there’s another simple method that works better, even if it’s a bit more involved.
The “Advanced” method is to use commercial invisible ink and a blacklight. You can buy a bottle of blacklight reactive ink for around $10 to $15 dollars online and a handheld blacklight for about another $10. For this investment you get perfectly invisible ink that beautifully fluoresces when you shine the blacklight. It’s an incredibly memorable moment when you flip the lights off and reveal your hidden message.
I love putting clever puzzles and riddles in my dungeons, but there are some situations where describing is just plain inferior to showing. I find this works best for puzzles involving glyphs, arcane writing, or any situation where there’s a single door or panel that the players need to discern something about. You’ve got a lot of options here, from minesweeper style tiles to literal word puzzles. If it’s easier to show a puzzle than to describe it, why not do just that?
You can find a ton of arcane glyphs and symbols freely available online and giving your players a physical image that shows the all-important magic rune or the symbol of the murderous thieves guild. Consider finding and printing out a symbol or glyph if it’s going to be important during your next adventure, it can bring the iconography to life.
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Last updated: January 27, 2019
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