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#RPGaDay 2014: Day Five – Subject, Verb, OBJECT

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Mmmm, pristine. I almost feel bad for breaking the seal. Almost.

I considered calling this post ‘Fetishising Games’, but I thought that would give the wrong impression. What I am actually talking about is sort of a follow-on from yesterday’s post on currency and trade items, and the idea that concrete objects and phys-reps can make a lot of difference. My choice for ‘Most oldschool RPG’ is the boxed set of The Masque of the Red Death from the Ravenloft 2nd Edition D&D setting. The reason I chose this is because, as well as being the oldest RPG I own, it is also a rare and magical item for me because it is a boxed RPG. I know that a lot of people have been talking about their old boxed RPGs, but because I started gaming much later than many people (in 2005), I haven’t experienced anything earlier than 3rd Edition D&D in tabletop. Boxed games have a certain allure to me because they speak of a time when a game came with extras, potentially a magical box of tricks that gave a physicality to opening it up for the first time and every time you got it out thereafter. The games themselves are (especially now) objects of reverence, for their history and their manufacture. Apart from that, they often included in game resources like maps or documents. I particularly like Robin’s Dark Sun boxed set because of the cloth map. Having used that in a game, it adds so much. This is a roundabout way of saying that physical objects add a hell of a lot to a game. Props, phys-reps, maps, food and drink…they’re great. They add to livegames, larps or tabletop games in different ways. In larps and livegames, they come with the territory, but little details that go beyond the basic make a massive difference. Even if you’re playing someone who wears a boiler suit and works in a clean white room, having an engagement ring on a chain round your neck is instantly a key into your character and a physical object to aid immersion.

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The Red Death Unmasked…well, Unboxed, anyway…

For a GM, ST, ref or whatever, throwing in a few physical objects really helps. For tabletop, physical cards with things like magic item details on are really cool, or a phys-rep for the magic object the players were sent to retrieve can give more of a sense of accomplishment and wonder. It doesn’t matter that it’s actually a £2 necklace from Primark – the players will fill in the magic themselves. Even better are physical maps or scrawled notes. I have loads of stories of really effective use of objects in games I’ve been in or heard of, but I’ll try and pick a few choice anecdotes. In a Silent Hill tabletop game I am very sad I missed, the players were given cheap torches and no spare batteries at the start of the game. The game took place in the dark and when the light ran out, it ran out. It happened perfectly, as the lights went out when the players had just realised the escalator they were standing on was covered in blood, and thus a game became a legend. My most triumphant uses of props in the Shades of Norwich live game I help run were related to making things from scratch (and allowing players to keep them as mementoes). We’ve always made sure that when trade or auction is happening in the game, we have physical objects to hand over or display. Even for abstract things like favours or boons, we have deeds of sale. My favourite instance of this was when I made, on a whim, a fairly poorly-sculpted pilgrim medal of a Longinian saint (I am enthusiastic about making occult props, but not very good!). A character bought it and the player made a chain so he could wear it as a pendant. When the character died, another character picked it up and wore it as a memento, because it had become so iconic of the other character. That gave me a real sense of achievement. Larping, on the other hand, demands an awful lot of phys-reps and set dress just as the bar for entry. Empire has a very high standard of costuming and set dress, but even so I’ve seen plenty of above and beyond. Physical resources for crafting materials, barbarian coins you can loot off enemies and once a sheaf of gold paper sent from a magical realm where everything was made of metal, all provided by the Profound Decisions team who run it. Totally awesome. It makes everyone want to do better, to make more props, to improve their costume. There is a reason Profound Decisions insists on people bringing phys-reps for potions, items and herbs – it creates a culture in which you can look around and physically touch as much of the game as possible. People are tactile. We like to play with objects, to feel their weight and texture. In touching the physical items of a world, we engage with it in a new way. While you can try and set the mood with music or sounds, give people food that tastes right or even burn incense to create the right smell, it’ll never have quite the compelling power of holding that legendary gem in your hands, leafing through the mad scribblings of a cultist or clutching a memento of a character or an NPC in times of difficulty. In fact, if possible appeal to multiple senses. I’ve had maps, costumes and stacks of candy (it was a Hallowe’en game based on the computer game Costume Quest) at a table lit by pretend jack o’lanterns. You don’t need to go overboard, but drop in an object now and then, or plan a single session with a really atmospheric setup, and see how much it adds. Links: A set of miscellaneous tips on bringing physicality into tabletop games, ranging from the interesting (pub games? Cool!) to the rather obvious or the overly elaborate.