Monday, June 13, 2005

The Propmaster at Work

I like to go that extra mile when making preparations for the weekly game. I've found that the more you put into it the more your players will get out of it. One of the things that I've noticed is that since RPG's are a very mental activity,that any sort of thing that spurs along getting into the mindset or mood of the game tends to be a good thing. One of the things that I've found that can be useful is props.
Now I know what you are thinking, your thinking,"REV! I'm not a complete doofus...I've played a game or to of Masquerade at the cons and hell...I've even painted a few lead figures in my time...I know props can be useful. What the hell?" Relax. I'm gonna cover some old ground and throw out a few tips and tricks for you to use. I'm gonna cover old ground but maybe some new ground too and maybe give you a few nasty ideas to give your players a multimedia game experience.

One of the most common types of Prop is the handout document. With a little word processing and graphics you can work serious wonders with the most mundane of prop documents and you can use web surfing, a scanner, and a few other tips to add to the fun.

Aging: in order to properly age a document there are 2 really good methods. Both require a bit of time. Leaving paper out in the sun for few days is usually good but is subject to the weather. The other method is to make a batch of tea and stain your documents with it and then allow them to dry.(I recommend a spray bottle of tea for a nice even coat.)

Government Documents:

Go to any of the many Government web pages on the web. The web page nearly always has the seal of the agency in question. Click on that seal and download it as a gif or jpeg or whatever. Make a few copies in your system. Take one the copies and de-colorize it. Take this seal and build an official,boring Government letterhead with it. Now you can make several different types of government documents. (added tip: you can go to your neighborhood office supply store and perhaps get a stamp made that says secret or Eyes only. And then stamp the living fuck out of your documents with it. Get some plain boring buff colored folders and seal them shut with tape and stamp the shit out of them too.)

Caveat: Apparently it is illegal to completely reproduce or transpose government seals. I get this from a brother gamer who was putting together some props in the coffee shop at the place he works. Somebody saw him do this and reported him for copying secret documents. You see, he works at the Customs department and was charged with violating the Secrets act and half a dozen other things until he explained in an interview what he was doing and was able to prove it. I downloaded publicly available GIF's and JPEG's and yet it would seem having them in my computer would constitute a federal offense. Be careful. They can enforce this if they are feeling froggy, so keep a weather eye out for feds when copying,Otherwise you may have to explain yourself and try to convince them that "Vampire" is not a code word.

E-mail documents:

Simplicity itself, all you need to do simulate E-mail is to copy one of the headers off of a piece of e-mail that you receive. (most of this stuff is gibberish to people who aren't career deep geeks.)

Encrypted documents and foreign documents:

You can find good Chinese,Japanese,Hebrew and Cyrillic font abroad in the net. And a few interesting dingbat fonts as well. When your resident "Computer Genius" locates something you can either pop it up on your screen or as a prepared document, (relish the look on their face...It's priceless.) then make them make a few really hard rolls against cryptography or linguistics to decode them. It might be necessary to print a few partially decoded documents. Whereas with a computer in hand, you can do things on the fly.( by the way. Most of these players will complain that they have programs that can decipher any known language but that's utter bullcrap. Asiatic languages are very tough. English has only 26 characters, but Mandarin Chinese has upwards of 3000, even literate Chinese persons don't know them all. Each character, rather than being a sound is equal to a word or concept or a set of words that changes from sentence to sentence with the context. As if this weren't bad enough. Proper names in Chinese are rendered in characters that are made of words that approximate the sounds of the name. And even I can't tell you the difficulties inherent in deciphering Japanese or Korean or Vietnamese or any of the others. Reading Asiatic languages requires to many abstract value judgments for even a trinary to make. The Chinese or Japanese characters that are used on the Web these days are, I believe an extremely truncated version. ( anybody who has more information on this topic, I would be glad to be educated.)

Naturally, somebody took me up on this. This was sent in by Jimmy Mckinney:

I believe that Unicode (the multilingual character encoding these fonts usually try to support) has room for some 65000 distinct characters.
I know that the Japanese fonts in use today encode all of the Hiragana and all of the Katakana (the two Japanese syllabaries with about 46 distinct characters each + several minor variations for some of those character), and they also include characters for several kana no longer in use. ("we" and "wi" spring to mind)

As for the kanji, there are 2000 or so "daily use" kanji listed by the ministry of education. A person that knows these can probably read 95% of the Japanese writing they encounter on a daily basis. I'm pretty sure that Japanese fonts include nearly all of them, if not actually all.

There are also quite a few kanji that are no longer used, or are extremely rare. I have heard estimates as high as 10000 kanji total, but I suspect it's probably more like 5000 or so. Of course, nearly all of the kanji are or are derived from Chinese ideographs, so they are more or less the same characters. I have no idea whether these rare or unused kanji are contained in the fonts used today.

The problems with translating Japanese programmatically center on being able to detect things from context (the Japanese use pronouns a lot less than we do, and many more homophones), untranslatable (or at least hard to explain) cultural references, and the fact that it is a sound poor language (less sounds to work with than in English, meaning that many different foreign words might be spelled the same in Japanese). There might be other problems I'm not aware of.

Sometimes programs, even have difficulty with other non Asiatic languages. Hebrew, Farsi, Aramaic and other Semitic languages are rendered right to left, rather than left to right. And some languages have grammar that fairly stymies a translator program. (Basque leaps to mind.)

Other Props:

I find that sometimes hand props can be fun and useful to play. Here's a tip. When purchasing birthday and Christmas gifts for your gamer friends. It might be good to buy hand props for their characters that they can bring to the game or possibly a costume piece that they can use. (like a nice hat and sunglasses) This year, I found a rack of pocket calculators that look like and flip open like cellular phones. For my player who plays a priest I bought a pocket bible and crucifix. For the player who plays a cop I bought a small flip notebook and a tin shield. Toy guns are good props but I don't know about the advisability of plastic melee weapons.( also don't trust water pistols.) For the Computer Genius a cheap headset with side mic will get them into the mood. For the Mad Scientist a pair of safety goggles and a penlight. Encourage them to participate too.

The Multimedia experience:

Maybe I'm belaboring the obvious but your computer is useful too. I have been collecting sounds from numerous sources for use on my computer as an added bit of business. Soundmaster or Kaboom or a dozen other programs enable you to attach a sound file to a keystroke. Thus when the characters are sneaking around the enemy base I'll reach back to my keyboard and touch one of the buttons and the computer will growl or they'll hear a guncock or something explode. It's fun and more importantly it doesn't take a lot of time to set up and it doesn't take but a moment of game time to do.

If you've got ideas along these lines I would love to hear them.Good ones will be posted here.

Sono Finito

(Postscript: God, Soundmaster. Kaboom. That shit takes me back. You might as well start calling me Grandpa right now.)


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