About Me

Monday, June 18, 2012

"Prop Fatigue"

My recent Song of Blades and Heroes video reminded me of something. About a year and a half ago, I posted a vlog entry about miniatures. In it, I briefly mention some of the drawbacks to using minis in RPGs.

Yesterday was Father's Day, and my brothers were over with their kids. We had some of our older ones playing a Labyrinth Lord game with us (my oldest niece running). I noticed the kids getting really distracted by my minis and the Chessex mat, and it occurred to me I had seen some similar things with adults as well.

While "grown ups" are less likely to start inventing a game with the minis on the table and ignoring the actual adventure, they often become distracted from what's going on in the game by worrying about things like minor details on a piece of terrain or miniature.

Most people who use minis and terrain have run into this on occasion; the figure has the wrong weapon or armor compared to what's described, or using a generic terrain feature like a pile of rocks to represent something else (like a cairn or standing stone).

But you said the orcs had axes!

The obvious reason for this happening is, of course, that whomever is supplying the props cannot reasonably be expected to have every possible option on hand for perfect representation. But that's not the problem (other than people won't pay me obscene amounts of money to stay home and paint my minis). The trouble isn't even in the inevitable periodic confusion it can potentially cause. No, the trouble is a broader issue, which I have decided to call "Prop Fatigue." (PF)

PF is the phenomena when the props themselves are taking away from –instead of adding to– the game. When players fixate on "the board" instead of the game. It happens when GMs (and I have been guilty of this once or twice) let worrying about getting a particular mini or terrain piece ready for a particular encounter (because it's a more accurate representation) to the point where they may alter the adventure! e.g. "I can't run the fight with the dragon until I'm done painting the mini!"

In a skirmish/wargame, there can be actual rules about how the appearance of a mini can limit what it represents (i.e. "That goblin can't represent an ogre."). Of course in rules sets that are particular about this, you can often run an unpainted figure or both agree to let things slide in the name of fun.

In an RPG like B/X, the use of miniatures isn't even required, so when mental noise or table debate about counting squares on the Chessex mat, or fretting about the fact that the bugbear mini doesn't have a helmet, or that the house is supposed to be log instead of stone is on the rise, it means your game may be suffering from PF.

What's to be done? Well, it depends. Sometimes it's an isolated incident and can be safely ignored. If the condition persists among the table in general, then it may be time to put the mat and minis away and stick to abstract visualization for a while. If the "propmaster" (the one doing the painting, etc.) is getting obsessive about it, the GM can gently take the paintbrush out of his hand and tell him "It's OK. I can use these d6's for the other orcs." If the propmaster is also the GM, you have a problem. The only thing to be done is for the players to tell him his paint jobs are too awesome to subject to the rigors of play. Minis painters cannot resist praise and may be distracted long enough for you to move events along before they start rooting through their case for "Just the right mini."

Hang on! Just let me re-paint it as tundra!

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