One of the things that I love to do at the gaming table is to create a sensory experience for the players. I like to use music to set the mood, handouts and props to give a tactile feel, and unique pieces of scenery on the gaming space to create a sense of perspective. I love to get the players mentally involved in the game with outside props like this.
I often fail.
I start out with the best intentions. I prepare a bunch of unique props to bring into play. I lay out play lists of songs that fit the moments I want to make perfectly. I spend time and money getting miniatures and making battlemat pieces. Then the game goes a whole different way than I had intended.
Think of it like this: There is a metaphorical bucket that holds all the gameplay elements that I prep beforehand. My NPCs, maps, written out descriptions, props, music, plotlines, encounters, etc. As we game I pull out elements at the appropriate times. However, about an hour in I notice the bucket is overflowing with new gameplay elements. The players keep giving me new hooks for cool instances that could happen in this session, and I drop them in the bucket. I haven’t prepared any props to back these new elements, so I’ve got to improvise something to keep them on the same level as the elements that I have prepared for. So how do you still create a sensory experience for new elements without any preparation?
The prime instrument in the storyteller GM’s toolbox. Giving a vivid description of a gameplay element can make it stand toe to toe with an element that has outside props supporting it. Find a visual element of the element, close your eyes, and describe the most evocative thing about it. “The crudely sewn up scar, a reminder of her defeat at your hands in your last meeting, still drips ichor and pus.” From there move to something nearby and describe the most evocative thing about it: “Her crystal blue eyes gleam with an unquenchable hatred, through the dingy strands of her rain drenched red hair.” Then finish with a description of something that brings the element into the action. Makes it less of a passive set piece and more of an element that the players can interact with: “Heaving breathes pull her frame into agitated motion as she lunges forward, a gun drawn from her stitched leather coat.”
Organize Many Buckets Of Usable Props
You can avoid a lack of appropriate props by having lots of props that fit more than one instance. I tend to take a lot of time to divide my gaming music up into folders that fit a specific mood. I leave my Winamp on shuffle, and then just play that folder. It usually has two or three songs that evoke the same mood and have similar sounds or rhythms. That gives me some leeway to just leave it playing and focus on more important elements of the game. Then there is always the big box of miniatures. A couple of minutes (it’s a big box) of digging and I can find something that fits the scene. The key to this approach is organization. Keep props so that you can narrow in on the right one at the right time.
Love The Dry Erase Board/Scrap Paper
When I want the players to focus in on something that I hadn’t prepared for, I often make a quick sketch drawing of it. While I’m no artist, the sketch usually suffices to give a visual element for the players to glomp onto. It is crude, but it draws their attention to the odd symbols on the door or the strange shape of the broken stone that I want to stand out.
Use The Players, Luke
If you are working off of a gameplay element that is provided or inspired by the players, use them to support it. Get some shared narrative into the game. If a player says she would love to get a new sword, or switch to a different type of weapon, then ask her to describe the sword that she finds at the bazaar or draw out a rough picture of it. Give her some free reign to do it, and you will get the other players listening with apt attention, and probably wanting to describe their own cool elements.
So what do you do to support unexpected gameplay elements? How do you keep them on par with prepared elements that you have support for?