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Mad Props and the Character Box

Do your players dig props? Do you want more props, but don’t want the expense (of both time and money)? Are you worried about what to do with the props? Do your players ever disagree as to exactly who had that potion? Here’s an inexpensive and effective idea that I’ve used.

Caveat: I borrowed this concept from the GM who brought me back into the RPG fold. Cool ideas like this drew me back in. The pics and execution are all mine.

The Character Box

Start with enough stackable storage boxes for each of the PCs and any base or large vehicle. Tupperware is great, but cheap disposable ones work fine, too. A good size is about 5” square, and 2” high. Use these for the character’s props, notes, backup character sheets, dice, minis, props, etc. An important aspect of the box is that anything in the box is on the character (or base or vehicle). There’s no confusion over who has what potion or scroll: If it’s not in your box, you don’t have it.

The GM keeps the character boxes, and can add or remove things as needed. The players have a place to keep extra character sheets and such, and the GM has the opportunity to check out character sheets as needed.

Note: In the pictures, the quarter is there for size comparison, as it is almost exactly one inch across.



These potion vials were found on eBay as a “lot” of glass vials, about 2 ml in size (approx 2/3” x 1.25”), with rubber corks. Heavy paper was numbered and cut to fit. Blue ink signifies larger ‘flasks’ and red is for smaller ‘vials’; a colored dot on the top of the bottle also indicates which is which. The GM keeps a log of potions and flasks, and (hopefully) so do the players.

In game, the cryptically numbered vials recreate the uncertainty over which potion is which. When they’re used, the question of “Did I get that right?” lingers. When a random potion is stolen or broken, the GM can just grab one out of the box. Some groups really like this; others find it an endless source of (unfun) frustration.

They are glass; despite many of them being dropped onto a tile floor, only one has broken. I was ‘filling’ them, and must have rolled a natural 1 on the Craft (alchemy) die, because I stepped on it…



Flat plastic sewing bobbins represent scrolls, because they kinda-sorta look like scrolls if you squint and turn your head a bit. Different-color ink can designate “Arcane” and “Divine”, if you’re into that. I allow players to pencil in which spells are on which scroll, if they choose to.

Gems and Stones


Gems make for great magic items. Break one for a potion; throw one for a grenade; mount one on a sword for an additional enchantment. They can be difficult to mark; glass marker eventually wears off, and the ‘stick-on’ gems have wax paper backing. Unmarked, gems and stones make excellent tokens for spell points, ammo, etc.

Index Cards

While not as tactile or visual, index cards are good for tracking special items. Hand the card over when something is found or purchased, and add to the description as necessary. Again, no confusion over who has that Sword of Ogre Decapitation, and Joe Player knows exactly what it does, because it’s all right there on the card.

Index cards give the player a place to keep notes, in case Brazen the Bronze wants to note where he found his armor, and what customization he’s had done to it.

Your Turn

There’s much more you can do for props, but these inexpensive options may add something to your game. Got any ideas of your own that you’d like to share? Sound off in the comments and let us know!

11 Comments (Open | Close)

11 Comments To "Mad Props and the Character Box"

#1 Comment By Hawkesong On April 6, 2010 @ 6:35 am

I’ve used heavy paper – card stock and also scrapbook paper – for monster minis. I have a little box like you describe that is full of them. In point of fact, I drew on the tokens, too: on one side is a monster like face, and on the reverse is a dead monster face (with X’s for eyes). My players were pleased with this, because it allowed them to get a chuckle out of killing each opponent, and because they also then had to avoid tripping over those dead bodies. Using the card pieces actually worked better for some of those fights than having minis would have. And, because the scrap booking paper is about a quarter a sheet depending on what kind you get, it’s pretty cheap. You can get a LOT of one-square tokens out of a 12″ by 12″ sheet of paper after all! (about 144 if my math isn’t wrong.)

#2 Comment By Razjah On April 6, 2010 @ 7:36 am

I have one player who very strongly opposes props. He thinks that it will lead to everyone LARPing and doesn’t want to go down that road. I have to use props in less obvious ways (although when I’m done with college I am definitely doing the scroll and vial prop). Another problem for me is college- I have very limited transportation space and storage space so having more stuff will be really bad.

My use of props tends to be something very important to the plot, or character- in an Iron Heroes game the PCs were destroying dark towers that summoned waves of monsters to crush the few remaining sections of human controlled Egypt. The PCs found a crystal key (a chandelier piece but it looked like a key) and a gem. Those were used to destroy the towers when placed into special features of the tower. Or a map given to the PCs so they can find out and mark off locations of towns and towers.

Having recently run a Mouse Guard game I had a blast with props. I “dressed” up every NPC I could with props. Old mouse- cane, scientist mouse- bathrobe to be a lab coat, dock mouse in charge of the boats-big books, pirate mouse- leather wide brimmed hat and a “sword” (it was a light saber, still it works), etc.

Currently I’m using just one prop- the newish Nerf ax. The goblin barbarian has a flaming ax, well at least I have an ax to swing when I use leap attack.

#3 Comment By Noumenon On April 6, 2010 @ 8:23 am

You can get a LOT of one-square tokens out of a 12″ by 12″ sheet of paper after all! (about 144 if my math isn’t wrong.)

I just print on 3×5 cards (4×6 for Huge size) because you tend to not need 144 monsters for an adventure. It happens more often to me that I print out some monks, then I get the idea for another encounter and go print an owlbear skeleton, and I have to actually look ahead in the adventure for something else that needs tokens or waste space.

I should really get my token printing documents online. Once you start printing standup tokens with the picture on each side, like an easel, the flat ones just aren’t as cool any more.

#4 Comment By Don Mappin On April 6, 2010 @ 8:58 am

I found some real “fake gems” when I was at Disneyland in the Disney Store. Something like fill an entire felt pouch for $4. They’re pretty cool. I gave them to Martin but he never brings them to our games. Guess he just plays with them at home on his own.

#5 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On April 6, 2010 @ 1:29 pm

Thanks for the comments. Keep ’em coming!

Part of this article was excised and turned into its own article. Stay tuned for “Fauxnts”.

[4]Anything that increases immersion and/or interest in the game is a Good Thing.

[5] – This article started as “here are some props I’ve used”, but it came across as braggadocio, so I switched to something simpler and more universal.

[6] – Yes, you should get your critter-printer online. One of my favorite parts of the James Bond 007 game was the stand-up minis.

[7] – Thanks! Another reason to visit Disneyland! (As if an almost-two-year-old daughter isn’t enough.)

#6 Comment By Zig On April 6, 2010 @ 4:13 pm

Thanks for the great article and all the cool ideas. I like to use props in my games and some of these suggestions will work really well with my usual gaming group.

#7 Comment By pseudodragon On April 7, 2010 @ 11:12 am

I rarely use minis, but I do incorporate props from time to time, generally using items at hand. Some of the items I’ve used include little Fisher Price medieval and pirate figures, happy meal toys, and model railroading scenery bits. Index cards are great for keeping track of monsters, familiars, NPCs, and magic items. Boardgame pieces from HeroQuest, BattleQuest, Clue, or Electronic Mystery Mansion work great, too. One of my favorites is to use the bases from boardgames that hold little cardboard characters. Pull out Uncle Wiggily or Madeline and you can stick some of the old SJ cardboard heroes in there or recycle old CCGs to create very will illustrated character and monster standees!

#8 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On April 7, 2010 @ 12:38 pm

[8] – Check here for the ‘game stands’ that hold up little cardboard characters: [9]

Or here for ‘cartouches’ (scroll down a bit): [10]

Great place for fiddly bits…

#9 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On April 8, 2010 @ 8:44 am

I love this stuff. Especially the scrolls. Very cool.

#10 Comment By Acts of Random On April 9, 2010 @ 12:05 am

I don’t use minis, but I am a fan of props, and I’ve used them whenever I could during my D&D games. I really like the character box concept, and I’ll definitely be borrowing the scroll idea. Tracking those on paper has been a real pain at times.

I’m particularly fond of having physical counters for things like plot points in Cortex. (They’re a little like bennies in Savage Worlds, for those unfamiliar with Cortex.) It’s fun to be able to see the back-and-forth exchange between the players and the GM, and it’s more dramatic for players to watch their piles dwindle during stressful scenes than to just check off another box on a sheet of paper.

Right now I’m gearing up for my first Supernatural campaign, so I’m working to come up with new props for almost everything. I’ve decided on using spent shotgun shells as counters for the plot points, given the monster-hunting nature of the game. They’re also big enough that they’ll be hard to lose, but small enough that they won’t take over the table. I haven’t tested them out yet, but I think they’ll work well.

#11 Comment By Scott Martin On April 9, 2010 @ 10:07 am

I never do props, but I should. The bits you’ve listed add a lot to the game for small expense and not too much time spent hunting. I really like your scroll idea!

That greathallgames link is going to be dangerous to me– I like bits like those a little too much.

Jennifer is trying out something interesting in her new game: the GameMaster item cards. They seem a little steep, but might help a lot with “who’s carrying that again?”– much like your player boxes.