[RPG] do to paper to make it look aged


I want to add some props to my game, I'm thinking of ancient scrolls or maps. What methods can I do to artificially age the paper in order to make it look older?

A simple google search gives several responses to this question. The common responses all seem to contain:

  • crumple the paper
  • soak it in tea
  • tear the edges

However, having tried those methods (including Scott's answer) I've found that I end up with results that look and smell as though they've had tea spilled on them.

I am looking for answers that would give more realistic results.

Best Answer

I spent several years making document props for my D&D group on the cheap, and here's my learning: Browning paper gives the least effect for the most effort when ageing a document.

Don’t think “age,” think “history of abuse.”

Ageing a document is about mimicking the history of that piece of paper. Before you start ageing it, you need to have at least a general notion of what history you want to imply.

Start with the kind of paper. Cheap printer paper is modern and almost impossible to make look more than a few decades old, so it’s a poor choice for truly ancient documents—or even documents which you want to feel new, but in a historical or quasi-historical setting. On the other hand... it’s cheap and ubiquitous, which is often more important for the average GM on a budget.

But there’s a bigger problem with cheap printer paper: it doesn’t take liquids well. See if you can get your hands on cheap watercolour paper, or blank newsprint (ask your local newspaper if they have endrolls they can’t use; you can sometimes get those for free and one’ll keep you in prop paper for months or years).

Whatever paper you’ve got, now you have to figure out its history and replicate that. Was it mailed? Did it get dropped in the mud? Has it set on a shelf for a hundred years? Trial and error is your friend here, as different papers will respond to treatments uniquely, but here are some things you can do to your document:

  • Write it up: The first thing which usually happens to a document is that it gets written, so get that out of the way first! Don’t mechanically print the text with a “handwriting” font if you can help it; write it yourself. (You can use a handwriting font as a guide for adopting a different penmanship style, but do the actual writing by hand.) Experiment with writing implements based on the other abuses you’ll subject the document to (some ink will become illegible if you wet the document, others won’t). If more than one person wrote the thing, be sure to change up your style.
  • Make mistakes: Misspell a word and cross it out—or not. Jam in an extra word you “forgot” to write the first time through. Add a postscript or addendum.
  • Put it on a desk: That means it gets a little dogeared, maybe a coffee cup ring stain or a spill from a tipped-over inkwell. Scribble a grocery list or an unrelated reminder on the back, or just a doodle. For a sense of history and longevity, use different handwriting and different implements to show that it's passed through many hands.
  • Mail it: Fold it up, stick it in an envelope, put it on a comfy soft chair, and sit on it. Wiggle your butt vigorously if the mail was delivered by horse.
  • Put it in your pocket: Smash that thing down into your jeans pocket and leave it there for a few hours while you're going about your day wearing the pants. Remember to take it out before laundry day.
  • Drop it in the mud: No, really. Just find a puddle and drop the document in the mud. Maybe even while it’s still in the envelope! Or just get it wet and let it dry out, for a nice crinkle.
  • Rough it up: If your paper's tough enough to stand it, apply a wire brush to the document. This roughens the grain, which is especially useful to make modern papers look less modern. You may also consider using a ruler to fold and tear off the edges of the paper for a tattered/handmade look.
  • Put years on its life: A few days or a week on the dashboard of a hot car can do amazing things to newsprint. If you're in a hurry, or it's winter, or you want more control, bake it in the oven. (Be careful: papers burn at various temperatures, some surprisingly low, and you should always keep an eye on this sort of project.)
  • Tear it a bit: If, at any point, you notice a little bit of stress along the folds and creases that you'd like to hurry along, go ahead. Also consider trapping a corner of the thing under a heavy object--like a table leg--and then pulling the paper out from underneath quickly. It'll crease and/or tear interestingly, but this runs the risk of ripping into the important text. If that happens, see below:
  • Rip it up: Is it bad news, or something a person might disagree with or try to conceal? Rip the whole thing up! Not too much, of course, but three to five chunks are fun for the party to find one at a time and piece together. Or present it to them already pieced back together. Depending on the era it might be taped together, or glued onto a backing of another piece of paper (I once stapled a ripped-up document back together; Frankenletter was very popular with my group).
  • File it or forget it in a book: Leave the poor crumpled-up thing underneath a pile of textbooks or a big dictionary for a night or two; it'll flatten out without losing the history of abuse its creases imply.
  • Bury it: This is a bit risky, and depends a lot on the kind of loam available to you.
  • Rescue it from a fire: Also risky, careful application of a flame to the edges of document is a common but slightly cheesy way to give it some character. (Again, be careful when using heat!)

Notice that I've suggested nothing to artificially brown the document for the sake of browning it. It's honestly rarely worth the time. Old is just--old, while a torn, dog-eared, folded, mud-stained document is a lot more exciting than a brown one because it implies history and character.

If you do want to brown the paper, and sun/baking newsprint doesn't work, experiment with applying an ink bath (sepia ink is a good bet, but again--experiment!) as part of the sunning/baking procedure. Foodstuffs like tea and coffee can, with the right touch, look good, but getting the smell out is another story. Inks are generally a superior choice.

Just always remember that you're not making a paper look old: you're giving the paper a story to tell.

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