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Digging Deep: Realia in Role-Playing Games

Updated on February 1, 2015

What do you know about realia?

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In a previous article, we discussed the various advanced or specialty tools and techniques that you could use to add to your role-playing gaming experience. Now, let’s take a more in-depth look into one of those particular tools: realia.

The Inevitable Reminder

As a reminder, the point of realia (or props) as with many other ‘specialty tools and techniques’ in role-playing gaming is to aid in immersing the players further in the story being told. By having a physical object for the players to interact with, it helps them to more personally and directly connect with the story; leaving the players with a much stronger impression in their minds and imagination. By accessing more senses, the story becomes ‘more real’ to the participants. This is not to say that they begin believing that the fictional setting they are playing in becomes more real for them, but the experience itself; the point is for the session and story to be more memorable, not to supplant reality.

Setting the Mood

One of the ways to utilize props in gaming (as an immersion tool) is to help establish an atmosphere for the game. As powerful as the descriptive words and images that the gamemaster can be, a few specially placed objects can help set the right mood for the group as well. For example, with a dimming of the lights and a few strategically placed (read: safely) lit-candles you thrust your players from your dining room and into a foreboding world of dread and mystic; fitting for any gothic mystery or horror story. Going for an oriental adventure? Light some incense to calm the mind and bring the players into a fantastical realm of samurai duels and ninja battles. For the gamemasters who want to impose a sense of majesty and authority upon their players, set your chair a bit higher up and grab a fancy chalice to drink out of; hell (please pardon my language), you could even craft or buy a throne to sit on to really show-off to your players! This latter sample would be ideal for when the players are meeting a character of authority in the story, such as a king or chieftain.

Yeah, that'll do . . .
Yeah, that'll do . . .

Let's See What's Behind Door Number Two!

Beyond atmosphere and mood, GMs can utilize props as ‘rewards’ for players. After all, it is one thing for a player to rejoice as their character claims a prized sword as treasure from a successful quest; it is another when you have a replica sword for them to hold aloft in triumph over their victory. Not every prize needs to be a hefty investment as such. Speaking of treasures, think of how much fun it could be for players to actually sift through a pile of ‘gold’ coins after vanquishing a great evil and claiming their hoard as a reward. Again, the artifice of a pile of gold needn’t be expensive; just a trip down to a prop shop or party store where they sell prop coins should suffice. For one group which likes to give bonuses to players for creative thinking or exceptional role-playing, you as the GM could divvy out special tokens to represent those benefits. Again, cheap poker chips with a cool image glued on can help sell the notion of a reward without breaking the bank.

Kinda like that, except maybe with more gold-leaf
Kinda like that, except maybe with more gold-leaf

Another grand gesture of appreciation and commemoration for players would be the implementation of plaques. If players, individually or collectively, accomplish something particularly memorable in the game, then you can always invest a little in a trophy or plaque to help show just how awesome the feat was for the story or group. And, again, you do not need to go too overboard on the expense; there was a group that would frame and then hang up character sheets for players when their characters died heroically (or memorably).

Puzzle Me This:

Aside from making the story and events of the game more tangible for the players, the most common usage of props in role-playing games is to simulate challenges, specifically puzzles. The most accessible, and yet daunting, of physical puzzles are slider-puzzles and Rubik’s cube. Both offer an imaginative challenge to the players and both provide a reasonable quasi-realistic embody of a story element; one can see these type of puzzle-keys being used in fantastical dungeons and lairs. Also, both kinds of puzzles are readily available (and inexpensive) for GMs to acquire. However, both puzzles have a relatively steep difficulty curve and can be difficult to adequately moderate in terms of guidelines or limitations (e.g. solve in X-number of moves).

Or nails, cause I don't always look things up like I should.
Or nails, cause I don't always look things up like I should.

Outside-the-Box Challenges

Sticking to the ideas of challenging your players with real-world objects or puzzles, be creative! You can present obstacles to your players in any number of imaginative ways, it may be fruitless to try to list every possible iteration. Many puzzles can be created with simple house-hold items on-hand. As an example, challenge a player to raise several pencils off the table by only using one of the pencils as the lever. Not only is such a task possible, but players are resourceful enough that they will figure out ways to solve the challenge; ways you may not have even considered. Likewise, these are inexpensive means to present interesting and abstract challenges to your players; yes, these sorts of puzzles may be difficult to achieve the appropriate kind of immersion you may want, but you get to have greater control over how they are presented and how they are solved.

How much for that Cthulhu in the window?

So, you’ve got your diabolical traps in mind for your group; you have a spot on the shelf picked out for your group’s Most Awesomest Adventuring Party trophy all picked out. Now, where do you get such wonderful things? Depending on the piece of realia, the easiest solution is to simply buy what you want/need. Going online offers a number of possible sources for purchasing items for your group: eBay, Craigslist, Amazon and so on. Even a Google search can be productive because it can provide you with local shops that may have what you need to get the right band for your buck. Businesses like magic shops, party stores, and prop shops are around the corner (relatively speaking) where you can find what you need. If you are having a difficult time finding exactly what you had in mind, then you can use your imagination in one of two distinct ways. Firstly, instead of going for as literal/realistic depiction as you want, you can abstract what you need. For a puzzle or other ‘physical’ challenge, use what is available rather than get stuck scrambling for what you think will be ideal. Remember: while a picture is worth a thousand words, doesn’t mean that we have to start talking in pictogram.

Hey ma! Look what I made!!
Hey ma! Look what I made!!

If you built it . . .

The other major flexing of your creative muscles is to build your own props. Arts and crafts stores will be your friend in finding raw materials to fashion your very own replica of a Lance of Strong-iness. Those same stores may also provide classes and/or tutors in crafting any number of art pieces. Designing and executing such projects will take time, patience, and money to implement. However, you will be able to have as precisely what you want for props as you are able to create; you are will be your only limitation on fabrication because of your skill and just how much you will want in your games.

The Unavoidable Disclaimer

As it is pertinent to note that just because you can do something, doesn’t mean that you have to do that something; similarly, just because you decide to do something, doesn’t mean you have to go overboard either. Onto the main point, using realia can add to your games and really help make it more memorable, but you want to strike a balance between effective use and taking away from your story/game. If you push too hard for realia you may lose some of your players. Some groups will want more props in their games, while others can do just fine without any; so take your time to suss-out your group and then use your best judgment on how much realia to incorporate into your game. And remember: have fun and keep the balance.

Do you think you will start using realia in your games?

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