I am currently running a game of Stars Without Number Revised and pilfering liberally from various Traveller modules and materials along the way. Most notably, the premise of the game revolves around the players being granted a ship and a letter of marque by a space-duke in a kickoff stolen from the magnificent Pirates of Drinax sandbox campaign from Mongoose. Obviously, they needed a sheet for their ship and their cargo, and obviously they needed to sign the letter of marque. Because of deliberately retrograde technology in certain areas of the campaign setting, letters of marque are still written and signed in ink by hand. I figured it’d make a fun opening scene to have them physically sign this scrap of paper containing the promise of riches and glory. Thus I made a mock-up of the letter, complete with the ducal coat of arms and lingo purloined from a historical source, and after the players had negotiated with the duke, I plopped it in front of them.
The actual signing of the letter took mere minutes, and purely functionally, we never strictly needed that piece of paper again. The text had been copied, and we all knew what had taken place in the fiction, after all. But they kept it, and ever since, the Letter of Marque has been sitting on the table, displaying the duke’s heraldry and the terms of his patronage. It’s become a part of the table setup, treated with the same respect and carefulness as a finely scribbled character sheet or map poster.
It’s easy, far too easy, to overburden players with physical handouts. I’ve learned this lesson bitterly. Props, including pieces of paper, tend to lose their efficacy when the table’s oversaturated with them, or when they genuinely superfluous or, at worst, distracting. So economize. If you want a prop, particularly if it’s a physical prop, make it just one, and make it count. ‘Adventurers Wanted’ notices from the local billboards are a dime a dozen and likely obsolete a few sessions later.
Letters of marque. The deed to a castle that’s the catalyst for the story. The bestiary they’re tasked to expand and revise. A blank hex map, begging to be filled. Something that’s tactile without constantly intruding. Something that can be glanced at for an immediate reminder of the campaign’s premise, something the player characters have a relationship with. My players might continue to serve their ducal patron – or they may join a court intrigue against him. Or they might defect. Or seek legal release from the agreement. I don’t know yet, which feels awesome.
But whatever the players choose to do, it’ll inform their relationship with and perception of that humble scrap of paper.