It might be as simple as a wet erase marker and a grid map or as complex as a multi level dungeon with moving parts ala Robo Rally, even if you play theater of the mind for combat – you might still use props to physically engage the players in a social encounter. I’m what gets called a tactile visual learner and it’s reflected even in the way that I game at the table. This has made me a big fan of props at the table and often using dollar store components to make things more interesting to see or touch. These are a few things I’ve been incorporating at my table for different games.
Tokens as Resources Trackers
How often has a player forgotten that they had an inspiration or a reroll handy? I am a huge fan of using poker chips and wooden cubes as a means of tracking resources with a physical representation at the table to remind players of their presence. My multi class caster has a tray of blocks to track spell slots, bardic dice, warlock slots, and sorcery points (with ‘SR’ or ‘LR’ to remind me of their recharge rate of short or long rest). I toss a bardic ‘cube’ to an ally with the dice code on it and move the used abilities to another tray to await a rest. If I was more motivated, I might have used a cribbage board to track things but this works well enough for me. I do the same for tracking Legendary Actions per round as a DM.
For my Eberron game, we used colorful wooden cubes for tracking of Action Dice that can be used to roll an additional die. I’ve since acquired metal star bracelet charms that I’m thinking of bringing in for a similar use, but the principle remains the same – a bead or cube in hand is more likely to be used than an abstract number (that has probably been erased and rewritten in pencil or erasable marker a few times).
We’ve applied this to a few common spell effects for buff and debuff reminders. The cubes were okay for some but sometimes in the heat of the moment some of the effects got forgotten. The upgrade was a poker chip with the bonuses / penalties written down and glued to it, the most common being Bless with it’s +1d4 to hit rolls and saves. It also worked for when the warlock Hexed an opponent and the player tossed me a poker chip as a reminder.
I’ve used colored paper clips a few times but some mini clothespins have been great for a visual reminder as to spell targets, conditions, and other ongoing effects. Some of the clips are big enough to write on if there are multiple effects but usually we go thematic and there is some manner of tray for players to draw from for their most common spells like Hunter’s Mark or Bless or Hex (often working in conjunction with a poker chip with the details). I’ve heard tell of some folks using the ring from a pop bottle ring to do the same and a handful of gaming companies sell custom versions, but I’m more of the Red Green school of crafting. Even if you forget what the clip represents, its presence is a reminder that there is SOMETHING going on.
Terrain That Pops
The drawing of battle maps is a long time tradition that often morphs into its war game roots with sculpted foam and miniature trees or the incredible build it your self dungeons tiles from suppliers like Dwarven Forge. But there is plenty in the dollar store that works well enough for your weekly game. I grabbed a couple of bags of wooden bits from the craft section to toss out as instant terrain (round as trees and other soft cover, squares as hard cover like rocks or debris, or defined as what the scene needs). As one who has often played rogues, I love a battle scene littered with things to be interacted with like cover from trees and rocks, a table to dive under or chandeliers to swing from, or razor sharp obstacles that impeded the path of pursuers. A fellow GM took the instant craft terrain a little further and painted these wooden shapes for a bigger visual impact (green on one side for woods and shrubs, grey on the other for rocks and debris, and a few blue for water hazards). It’s a great idea and saves so much time in creating a layout for an encounter. If you are looking for something even simpler, clumps of extra dice can work as well but then you need to sort out which belonged to who at the end of the scene.
The vertical element is common to many scenes, with cliffs and walls and trees to climb. For creatures and characters, placing it on a dice or cube with a die to mark the height is pretty simple. For the terrain itself, I used craft sticks balanced on top of dice and cubes for a while but eventually shifted over to printed grids glued to cereal box cardboard (still balanced on top of cubes, but far better for stability than the craft sticks ever where). It worked great for bridges, battlements, and cliffs. We took this even further with an encounter that had twisting towers and platforms and even dangling chains, the whole thing mounted on yogurt cups and tubs.
Landscape as more than Land
I’ve used the concept at the table and in the virtual, using a map almost more like a board game with it’s layout. Similar to a traditional hex crawl filling in the unknown land, we’ve used maps to show the changes to the land. During our Princes of the Apocalypse game, a quick map was drawn on a cheap whiteboard. As things changed, so did the map. Towns where the PCs felt that they were no longer welcome got an ‘X’ through them. When a town got wiped out by cult, a player drew a crater through it. A volcano erupted and got added to the map. Layers of details continued to build up as the campaign went on and the Apocalypse drew nearer. Our current Tyranny of Dragons game was started online and we’ve made similar marks all across the map, showing routes the party has travelled, tokens showing important places and cultist sightings, and smaller tokens of important NPCs that can be found in various towns. The Waterdeep map was broken into zones and NPCs placed according to their neighbourhood, occasionally moving around for … reasons.
Similarly for a Call of Cthulhu game (being run online but I would have printed out a map to be used the same way in person), when the Investigators decided to split up and explore the city, tokens marked where they were going so there would be no confusion by players or GM as to where they where through the their investigations.
We also used a physical / visual tracker for the abstract chase mechanic of Call of Cthulhu 7th Ed. (and similar for some D&D abstracted chases). As it was on Roll20, players only saw the ‘coins’ representing points of progress for them and their pursuers, while the GM layer already had the names of obstacles laid out and an alternate route. For a few D&D skill challenges we’ve tried out clocks like in Blades in the Dark and linear representations of progress for that same visceral thrill of a racing board game showing how close they were getting to the goal.
What else is there to say?
Game crafting is a time consuming activity, to prepare all those layouts, models, and details that eat up valuable game and prep time. Still, sometimes a little bit of that prep can engage the players in a different way through physical tokens representing abstract abilities and challenges. Raid other games for pieces and ideas (in teaching my nephews about D&D, we used bits from Talisman and a Scrabble board for a map), grab a box of dollar store craft supplies and see how players use them (we’ve all seen in games like Settlers of Catan how much time is spent stacking the little wooden pieces), hand out glass beads and poker chips for good things like inspirations and spell effects or bad things like bitten by werewolves and exhaustion levels, but most importantly find what works for the players at your table.
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