Everyday Items for the Gaming Table

TV cooking show host Alton Brown once asked “Is there a word for a tool that is really bad at the job that it’s designed for, but really good for other things?”  I’ve never learned the answer to that question, but it has vexed me for ages.  It was also going to be the title for this post as well.  There are a lot of things that are insanely useful at a gaming table, but are of little use to the average everyday person outside of a roleplaying game.  Sure, many of them had great uses once upon a time, but they’ve been rendered obsolete by the advancing technologies of the day.  Some of them are great for other uses, but even better for gaming.  And some are just good things to have around.  Here’s my list of the best non-gaming items you can have at your gaming table.

Wooden Clipboard – Cheap and frees up table space.  I play around my massive coffee table, but that requires everyone to lean forward constantly which can kill your lower back after a marathon session.  A clipboard with a character sheet attached allows players to sit back for most of the game and relax more.  It also allows me to keep the game going even if I need to step on the patio for a cigarette or go get a refill on my drink by taking the adventure with me.

Pipe Cleaners – Bend these into squares and you have the perfect marker for a zone.  Red for fire, green for acid, blue for cold, black for shadow/necrotic, white for healing, and yellow for psychic/illusion.  Drop them on the board when you need them, pick them up when they’re gone.  Also great for blasts/bursts for new players to help them grasp the concept quickly.

Yarn – I’ve seen a lot of solutions out there for the different conditions/marks that can get put on a character or monster during combat.  Soda rings, stickers, poker chips…none of them worked that well or were too distracting for me.  However, small snips of yarn are great.  Black for an Assassin’s shroud, green for a Ranger’s Hunter’s Quarry, white for an Avenger’s Oath of Enmity, red for a Warlock’s Curse, blue for a Fighter’s Mark, etc.  They hang on most minis easily and they can be easily added/removed without knocking anything over.  And since you only need an inch or so, you can probably get them for free if you have a friend or relative who knits and you might be able to ask for samples online or through the mail to get what you need.

Popsicle Sticks, Toothpicks, and Cardboard – With these, some garden sheers or a utility knife, and some glue; you can create some amazing 3D terrain for your game.  So far, I’ve made scaffolding, wagons, crates, ladders, and a banner using just the above and a little paint.  I got all the materials for under $10 and the most time consuming part of the whole thing was waiting for the glue and paint to dry (and keeping my kitties from demolishing them).  Helpful Tip: Don’t use the same bookshelf to store said homemade minis as you use to hold your Player’s Handbook and other hardbacks.  One bump and all my work was reduced to splinters.

Styrofoam – You want a very specific type for this, the kind they sell in the crafts section or the garden section for making flower arrangements with fake flowers.  Take a utility knife (or a steak knife you don’t like) and some paint and you can create whatever sort of terrain you need.  I have a two foot tall cliffside I made sitting in my room just waiting for an opportunity to bring it out again for my new campaign.  You can still get uses out of other types, though.  Next time you get a package, break up the styrofoam and paint it grey or brown and use for rubble or boulders.

Tailor’s Tape Measure – The downside to creating all these cool terrains (or even buying terrain originally designed for wargaming or model railroading) is that it typically won’t have a grid on it.  If you don’t want to take the time or ruin your work by painting a massive grid, use a tailor’s tape measure.  It’s floppy so it can be folded up to stay out of the way, and you can use it to measure any distance in the game.  Use with the pipe cleaners above for zones/blasts/bursts and you’re set.

Sticky Tack – This is the sticky blue or yellow putty stuff used for hanging posters.  I’ve never had luck keeping a poster up with the stuff, but it’s great for those minis that keep wanting to fall over.  Non-Wizards of the Coast items like the Bag o’ Zombies zombies, Bendy Walls, and model railroad trees (all of which I’m a huge fan of) are notorious for this as are many of my homemade creations.  A little sticky tack on the bottom and they’ll stay upright without any problems.

Color Laser Printer – Okay, this one’s cheating a bit, but if you have access to one (and please make sure it won’t get you fired if you use the one at work – trust me, IT does monitor that stuff…they just log it up until you annoy them enough to turn you in), your character sheets and Dungeon adventures will not look any better.  If you can afford the outlay, pick one up for yourself.  They’re not nearly as expensive as they used to be, and you can usually find used ones from companies who are moving/upgrading/closing.  Sure, the toner’s expensive, but that’s not even going to be an annual expense to replace them.

Card Sleeves – Nothing will help new players figure out At-Will/Encounter/Daily powers faster than color-coding them.  Buy 3-4 sets of sleeves; one green, one red, one black, and one blue if you can.  When you print out character sheets, cut out the power cards and place them in sleeves corresponding to the frequency the power can be used (yes, utilities go in green/red/black depending on if they’re At-Will, Encounter, or Daily).  Place the “cheat sheet” character sheet cards, magic item cards, and any powers that are always on such as class features in the blue sleeves.  When the player uses a power on their turn, tell them to turn the card over.  If it’s green, leave it face-up.  If it’s red, turn it face-up after a short rest.  If it’s black, turn it up after an extended rest.  It also protects the cards so they’ll stay legible throughout the entire session.

Cotton Balls – Yeah, I know a lot of other bloggers are fans of the fake spiderweb stuff you can get in September and October.  Unfortunately, it’s only February.  Cotton balls are dirt cheap and can be stretched just like the spiderweb stuff, and it’s available year-round.  Of course if you have the chance, stock up on the spiderweb stuff on November 1st when it’s on clearance.  Smoke, clouds, mists, fog, spiderwebs…dirt cheap and looks great.

Okay, if you’re eating, skip my name for this one…but I have no idea what it’s called and I’ve never heard the stuff called by another name…but it’s Booger Glue.  It’s that glue that looks like…well…yeah…that direct mailers use to attach those pretend credit cards and membership cards to letters.  I bet you’re kicking yourself right now for the number of miniatures for oozes, jellies, and slimes you’ve just been throwing away.  You can get something similar by putting a thin layer of rubber cement on wax or parchment paper, letting it dry, then peeing it off.

Coffee and Tea – Great for the throat for those long expositionary scenes, but even better for brushing on hand-outs to give them a weathered and aged look.  I’m southern, so I go through a lot of iced tea.  I’m also an American, so I drink a lot of coffee.  Instead of pouring out that last little bit that isn’t enough for a cup or glass and tastes kinda funny because of all the sediments, pour it into a jar and save it for staining your hand-outs.

White Boards – Best initiative trackers out there if you don’t want to buy Paizo’s tracker, which is basically a white board that has a magnet in it and comes with a bunch of little magnets you can write on and slide around.

Chess Pawns – If you’re like me, you have a chess set in your house missing either a rook or a bishop (those are ALWAYS the pieces I’m missing).  Grab all the pawns from that set and use them for Action Point tokens.  My players are terrible about forgetting to use their Action Points, but I’ve found that a 3D token works wonders over anything else I’ve tried to keep them in my player’s thoughts.

Plastic Pizza Thingies – These probably have a real name as well, but I don’t know what else to call them.  It’s the little white plastic tripod things you get from some pizza companies to make sure the box isn’t smooshed onto the cheese.  Trim the legs down to about half an inch with scissors and paint it brown and you now have a great table mini.

I know there are a lot of other things I’m missing from this list, so I’ll probably come back and post more later.  However, these items can really help your game, either by helping you create more realistic terrain, by simplifying concepts, or by speeding up your game.  Look around your house and your office and I’ll bet you’re throwing away or ignoring a bunch of things that would be great at your gaming table.  Those paperclips could be bent into bars for a cage, you could fill your cast iron dutch oven with dry ice and use it as a cauldron, that clear 2″ square plastic case your electronic doodad came in could be a Gelatinous Cube mini, the silver serving tray you got as a wedding present and has been collecting dust is a perfect extraplanar surface or sheet of ice…

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Published in: on February 23, 2011 at 9:28 AM  Comments (2)  
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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Man, I don’t know exactly what it was aside from their basic utility as lapboards, but I’ve always had a strange fetish for clipboards. It’s one of the many things that marked me as a huge nerd in high school, I’m sure.

    Whiteboards have also proven their worth in my game sessions, even though I don’t usually run a miniatures-heavy game.

    • Clipboards and whiteboards are useful even in non-miniature games like World of Darkness. Would you rather play at the dining room table in hard wooden chairs or on the nice comfy couch and armchairs in the living room?


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