So you’ve got a supply of teabags for aging, a lighter for edge-burning, or just a high-cotton fancy paper and you’re ready to use it. Tonight, your group is going to get a Text Prop! It’s going to look authentic, use the most obscure handwriting font you’ve got, and maybe even feature hand-drawn diagrams. But before you go to all this trouble to make your text prop look amazing, you need to ask yourself whether you need it at all.
Why Make a Text Prop?
In my experience as a GM (your mileage might vary, of course), there are three primary reasons that making a text prop is worth the time invested in it:
- As an incentive to engagement
- As an aid for recollection
- As a complex puzzle
Incentive to Engagement
One of my most hard-won secrets as a GM is the simple realization that players are more likely to believe something if it’s written down. Perhaps it has to do with the effects of a literate society in general or gamers’ reliance on rulebooks in specific, but the written word is generally valued more highly than the spoken as far as credibility goes. It’s entirely possible that a few more years on the internet will minimize this trend, but I’d hazard that the general understanding is that putting words to paper is harder than just saying something.
Consequently, if you have a fact, true or false, that you’d like the players to engage with—to seriously consider and potentially act upon—you can get way more certainty by making it a text prop. Unless they’ve been in the wrong sort of games all their gaming lives, players are entirely aware that NPCs can have just the same agendas and levels of trustworthiness as people in the real world, so facts spouted by a newly met or untrustworthy NPC may have little weight compared to allied NPCs that have earned their trust over many sessions. You’ll time and again watch them ignore the pertinent facts spouted by your plot sock puppet in favor of weird flavor details you added that are ultimately meaningless, or write the entire character off as a psychopath. But, if it’s a text prop (particularly an unsigned one), suddenly all those human barriers fade away and all the players have is, “someone thought this was important enough to write down.”
And, even if they don’t engage with it right away, they’ll likely still have the paper so they can recall it later…
Aid for Recollection
Your players presumably have lives outside of gaming. They play your game irregularly, their Monkeyspheres are full of real-world peoples’ names, and humans have bad memories anyway. The second major use of a text prop is to repair this problem by giving them an in-play cheat sheet for later use. The goal is to have a moment of, “that sounds vaguely familiar… hey! Check the text props!” Suddenly your players have gone from a muddled feeling of deja vu at hearing a proper name in your plot to a razor certainty of what’s going on and what they want to do about it.
The trick to this use is to understand why to do it this way rather than just handing out an out-of-play cheat sheet. The only thing wrong with an out-of-play cheat sheet is that it may be a challenge to keep it from feeling a little bit patronizing: you’re having to write down proper names from your setting and summaries of what you think the context of it is. You run the risk of players realizing that you don’t trust them to remember things, and inferring that you think they’re stupid. Whether or not they realize there’s a practical use for the sheet, there’s a tendency to look at it once, say “duh,” and lose it amongst all their other out-of-play handouts.
Meanwhile, text props tend to be hoarded. Chances are, there’s at least one player in your game that enjoys holding onto them, and will be able to produce them on demand. Even if not, I’ve never seen a player mind that text props got left in their group folder or just put on the table before every session.
And the beauty of the text prop is that, properly done, it’s not a summary of context, but the context itself. Letters are excellent for this: players can immediately associate names with the matters discussed in the letters, compare “handwriting” (likely fonts), and will likely even remember how they got or intercepted the letter. But letters are not the only use, as there are a world of in-play reasons someone might write down information: pages torn from in-play books, rubbings taken from monuments, or even an NPC’s personal reference notes.
Of course, for full utility, the prop should fall into the first or third category so players get some use out of it at the time, and then have reason to remember to look at it later.
Both the most powerful and most dangerous use of a text prop is to create a puzzle that’s complicated enough that simply reading it out would leave the players constantly asking you to repeat things. This could be a strange diagram, a long riddle, or even something that requires arranging smaller scraps of paper to make a whole. In order to work properly, though, it must meet two major criteria:
- It should be given out in a way that encourages the players to work together solving it.
- It must consist entirely (or at least primarily) of information that the players have access to already or know exactly how to get quickly.
The first is a best practice, and has a little give in regards to perhaps creating something interesting to do for a puzzle-loving player in a group that is otherwise not, but is still a good rule of thumb. Giving out puzzles is an excellent way to get your players to gather around the table, discuss possibilities, and give you five minutes free of GMing to go to the bathroom or get a snack. If you give it to one player in a context where it doesn’t really make sense to share (e.g., “this is a letter from your superior in your secret society”), you lose all of the benefits of getting the players roleplaying amongst themselves for a while (and, of course, risk that there won’t be enough brainpower or context to solve the puzzle at all).
The second is more important. The players should be able to solve the puzzle by putting their heads together and making use of clues they already know, or it’s not really a puzzle. Specifically, if a lot of the information in the puzzle defaults to “make a knowledge check!” when the player doesn’t recognize it, then you could have just had them make some knowledge checks to get the answer outright and never bothered with the text prop. That is, you won’t get the fun that comes from solving a puzzle, but the frustration of having to drag information that currently has no positive emotional attachment out of the GM.
Prophecy and related puzzles get a small pass. There is certainly benefit to a puzzle where some of the information makes sense now, but other information will make sense later. The trick is to start giving out new context fairly soon after giving the puzzle, convincing the players that they’re not going to have to do boring things to drag out this information. Instead, it provides the hope that, eventually, they might get enough sense of how the context is occurring that they can use unrevealed passages of the puzzle to their advantage.
Ultimately, though, if you’re making a puzzle, it should be because you want the players to put their heads together, work on it right now, and come up with an “Aha!” moment on their own. If you’re just trying to obfuscate your plot and get them to draw it out from you in an exchange that can only occur player-to-GM because they’re missing crucial information, you run a very real risk of the prop backfiring.
Text-Prop-Making Best Practices
The reasons to make a text prop are far more important than the methods. A document that really, really looks like something that comes from the game world is unlikely to be as exciting to the players as it is to you: they’re already imagining your entire world, they can do a little bit more work to imagine that a document appears more appropriately in the world. However, there is some value in production.
- Do use a nonstandard font but Do Not use an illegible font.
- Do make the paper something unusual but Do Not make it gross to handle.
Chances are, your players look at documents in Times, Arial, and Calibri all day long at their jobs or for school. A slightly fancier font sends the message that it is time for play. It can also serve to differentiate props from one another; e.g., “pages from history texts are in ‘Antique’ while letters from our enemy are in ‘Roundhand’.”
What you don’t want to do is go too far and pick a font that’s hard to read. Some fonts are hard to read on a computer monitor at full zoom, much less in small text in the dim light of a typical gaming room. As far as text props go, the message is the message, not the medium: make sure the players don’t have to squint to understand what’s being said, or they’ll be less likely to reference the document later.
A text prop that’s just a half-page of text sitting at the top of an 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper is obviously at odds with its presentation. It invites questions of why the writer didn’t make full use of the white space, or why the denizens of the campaign write on modern printer paper at all. There are lots of things you can do to remedy this situation, and the simplest involve folding the paper to present the information in an out-of-expectations format or just trimming it down to size.
You certainly can go all out and rub the paper with tea, stick it in the oven to age it, and burn the edges. However, several of these methods make the paper feel weird, make it smell weird, or otherwise make it gross to handle or keep with your other text props. You want the players to use these things, and they won’t want to use them if they don’t want to touch them. Keep the paper comfortable to handle, and you’ll get more mileage out of the prop even though it doesn’t technically look as authentic.